Operation Ajax: A Case Study on Analyst-Policy Maker Tensions and the Challenges of Estimative Intelligence – CIA Covert Operation Coup Overthrowing Iran’s Elected Prime Minister Mossadeq

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This excellent report has been professionally converted for accurate flowing-text e-book format reproduction. This monograph analyzes Operation Ajax as a historical case study of the inherent challenges of estimative intelligence and analyst-policymaker tensions. In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) led a coup that overthrew Iran’s elected prime minister, Dr. Mohammed Mossadeq. The coup, titled Operation Ajax, coincided with the early Cold War years and the development of the nascent interagency intelligence community. Historians frequently study Operation Ajax as an example of the US government’s early attempts to employ covert action as a foreign policy tool. A less studied aspect of the coup is the intelligence estimates that informed and influenced the Truman and Eisenhower administrations’ policy decisions during the Anglo-Iranian Oil Crisis. A careful analysis of the Iranian estimates produced by the Office of National Estimates (ONE) between 1950-1953 reveals that ONE effectively informed and influenced the Truman administration, but that influence was lost during the Eisenhower administration. Structural and organizational impediments within the CIA, coupled with flawed processes and procedures introduced by the Dulles brothers, mitigated efforts by leading CIA analysts to coordinate intelligence analysis, remove bias, and accurately inform and influence policymakers.
Unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Iranian Revolution, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Operation Ajax is not commonly referred to as an example of an intelligence failure, largely because it did not involve strategic surprise.4 Historians continue to debate the merits of the operation and whether it was a clandestine success or failure. As Richard Russell argued in Sharpening Strategic Intelligence, ”the CIA’s covert action that returned the Shah of Iran to power is still heralded as a high water mark for the agency’s myth of covert action capabilities.” Others, such as historian Shiva Balaghi, have referred to the coup as a representation of the ”height of US imperial folly.” Operation Ajax is controversial because of its unintended consequences that call into question the effectiveness, utility, and morality of the use of covert action. As such, the United States’ role in the coup has been central to the historical narrative that has framed relations between the two countries since the Iranian Revolution in 1978. Kermit Roosevelt, the lead CIA operative in charge of Operation Ajax, published his personal memoir of the coup in August 1979. The book was withdrawn from publication after only 400 copies were published, and then re-released after the conclusion of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1981. Roosevelt’s Countercoup was the first open-source CIA history of the coup that described US involvement in detail. Subsequently, the Iranian hostage crisis began in November of 1979, indicating that the memoire may have fueled the narrative behind the student protests. The ongoing debate surrounding the coup has heightened in significance in 2015 as the United States is engaging Iran on a wide variety of issues, to include Iran’s nuclear program, the lifting of economic sanctions, and potential cooperation between the two countries in the effort to combat the growing threat posed by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).