The Banality of Evil and the Ivory Tower Masterminds of the 1953 Coup d’Etat in Iran

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied -– as has been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsel -– that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani [“enemy of humanity”], commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong

~ Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York, 1963: 253.

August 19th 2016 marked the sixty-third anniversary of the 1953 (28 Mordad 1332) CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup d’etat in Iran toppling Mohammad Mossadegh’s democratic nationalist government. Revisiting that tragically momentous episode in Iran’s modern political history, which has reverberated to the present; I was recently reading one of the chapters of Ervand Abrahamian’s acclaimed book about the 1953 coup d’etat and came upon an aspect of the story which had not stood out for me this glaringly before [1]. In chapter three of his book, Abrahamian briefly details the role of a few noted Western Ivory Tower academics of the era and how from the very outset of these events they actively collaborated with MI6 and the CIA to topple Mossadegh, and how especially for twenty-five years afterwards they facilitated the narrative spin about what had happened. Abrahamian specifically names A.K.S. Lambton, R.C. Zaehner, Peter Avery and George Lenczowski, to name just four. He concludes the chapter with this observation:

These weighty analyses [in the post-coup period] managed to avoid unseemly topics such as the CIA or MI6. They even avoided the term “coup.” Instead they portrayed the overthrow [of Mossadegh] in much the same way as did the Pahlavi dynasty—as the “nation’s revolt” and “people’s revolution” [qiyam-e melli]. Some historians have argued that Edward Said’s well-known and highly controversial book Orientalism unfairly exaggerates the links between academia and the foreign-policy establishment. Fortunately for them, Edward Said was unaware of the nitty-gritty of these links in the 1953 coup. They were far greater than even he could have possibly imagined. More cautious academics wisely kept silent and pretended to be pure scholars uninterested in such unseemly subjects as politics. The whole sorry story tended to widen the gap on how Iranians and Westerners saw not only the coup but also the history of Iran’s relations with the West [2].

While the name of Kermit Roosevelt (d. 2000) has become synonymous with the events of August 1953, long before Roosevelt entered the scene as the CIA’s main operator on the ground in Iran, other hands were already busily working to that end: hands setting up the preliminary stages of what only later became Operation TPAJAX. America was only to enter this misadventure after the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower in early 1953, since Truman refused Attlee and then Churchill’s overtures to oust Mossadegh, seeing Mossadegh in 1951-2 as a nationalist bulwark against a potential communist takeover of Iran: a situation which for the period of 1951-3, in any case, is now known to have been deliberately exaggerated by the cold warriors of the era, since the Soviet Union (given its experience in 1946) was reluctant to intervene or even to shore up or to encourage its own local client, the Iranian Tudeh Party, into any kind of “revolutionary” power grab [3].

Recent historiography about the 1953 coup d’etat (especially from source documents declassified by the CIA since 2000-14) [4] suggest that the idea of overthrowing Mossadegh through covert means in its gestation had actually first come from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). However, and less than two months after he had first become premier on 28 April 1951, the responsibility for broaching the idea of specifically undertaking covert action in Iran by the British government had originated with the British Foreign Office [6] and with A.K.S. Lambton specifically on 15 June 1951 [7]. As Iranian scholar Mohammad Amini has characterized it, A.K.S. Lambton was the veritable “theoretician” of Mohammad Mossadegh’s overthrow beginning at its formative stage [8]. The timing of Lambton’s recommendation to the Foreign Office also coincided with a raid undertaken by Iranian police ordered by Mossadegh’s government of the Tehran home of the AIOC’s Iran chief, Richard Seddon, where incriminating documents were found proving how the company was directly interfering in the internal affairs of Iran: documents implicating countless Iranian politicians and public figures on the AIOC’s payroll [9].

Nearly two months before Mossadegh’s accession as prime minister, and just after the oil nationalization bill had only recently been adopted by the Iranian majlis as of 15 March 1951; on 22 March 1951 (in a piece now identified to have been penned by her) A.K.S. Lambton had anonymously published a near scurrilous op-ed in The Times of London attacking Mossadegh and his Iranian National Front coalition as “extremists” where she urged the Attlee government to action with the objective of replacing the then interim prime minister Hossein A’la (d. 1964) with someone more amenable to British interests, instancing majlis deputy Siyyid Zia’uddin Tabataba’i (d. 1969) by name as someone Britain could work with [10]. Tabataba’i was, of course, a longstanding British asset in Iran who had briefly served as prime minister in 1921 and was part of the duumvirate with Reza Shah Pahlavi in the British engineered coup d’etat of that year which brought the Pahlavis to power and in 1925 formally displaced Ahmad Shah (d. 1930) and the Qajar dynasty [11]. In 1953 Tabataba’i would again play a role for his imperial benefactors, albeit not as important as the one in 1921.

HMG’s Orientalist Mastermind: A.K.S. Lambton

Ann Katharine Swynford (known as A.K.S. or “Nancy”) Lambton (d. 2008) is generally considered to be one of the most eminent British academic Persianists of the twentieth century. Besides her impeccable expertise in the Persian language, she was also a specialist in the medieval to early modern history of Iran. Some of her academic publications are still held as standard texts on their subjects to this very day. Lambton had studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) under Hamilton Gibb (d. 1971) in the 1930s. During the period of her doctorate (1935-39), while researching the pre-Ottoman Seljuqs of Anatolia, she spent thirteen months in Iran also compiling information for a book on Persian dialects. In July 1939, just after completing her PhD, she returned to Iran and remained there for the duration of World War II. With the outbreak of the Second World War she was appointed press attaché to the British Embassy in Tehran, and upon the Allied (Soviet-British) invasion and occupation of Iran in August 1941 she was made head of the Victory House that was funded by the embassy [12]. According to scholar Ali Rahnema:

…The main function of this centre was the production and distribution of [war] propaganda published in Persian, Arabic and English. The Victory House was headed by A.K.S. Lambton…she inspected branches of the Victory House in the provinces, met tribal leaders and visited holy shrines wearing the chador (veil) …[13]

In 1942 Lambton was made an OBE, and in late 1945 she returned to Britain from Iran to take on her first academic position at SOAS while also becoming the British government’s top Iran policy advisor for the next several decades [14]. After years of exemplary service to HMG, Lambton died at her Kirknewton home on 19 July 2008 at the age of ninety-six following an illness. Her pivotal, mastermind role in the toppling of Mossadegh is only now becoming more widely known [15]. To quote Ervand Abrahamian:

…Professor Lambton, serving as a Foreign Office consultant, advised as early as …1951 that the British government should persevere in ‘undermining’ Mossadeq, refuse to reach an agreement with him, and reject American attempts to find a compromise solution [to the oil nationalization impasse]. “The Americans,” she insisted, “do not have the experience or the psychological insight to understand Persia…” [16]

On the advice of Clement Attlee’s Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison (d. 1965), in 1951 Lambton was particularly instrumental in initiating the Zaehner mission to Iran that laid MI6’s critical groundwork for the August 1953 coup d’etat. Through the devices of Tehran MI6 station officer, R.C. Zaehner (d. 1974), Lambton suggested “…effective lines of propaganda that the British might use to turn the Iranian public opinion against Mossadegh…” [17]

HMG’s James Bond Academic: R.C. Zaehner, his mission and his thugs

Described as a flamboyant bon vivant and a sort of Sir Richard Francis Burton (d. 1890) redivivus; a close colleague and co-worker of Lambton’s; Robert Charles (R.C. or ‘Robin’) Zaehner was simultaneously an Iranologist fluent in Persian as well as an Indologist with a mastery of the intricacies of ancient Sanskrit who from 1952 until his death in 1974 was the ‘Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics’ at Oxford University [18]. His Mysticism, Sacred and Profane: An Inquiry into Some Varieties of Praeternatural Experience (1957), Hindu and Muslim Mysticism (1960) and The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism (1961) were once considered classic studies in their fields. From 1943 until taking his academic post at Oxford in 1952, Zaehner was also the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for MI6 attached to the British Embassy in Tehran as well as the embassy’s press attaché [19]. In mid 1951 Lambton suggested to the British Foreign Secretary what was to become known as ‘the Zaehner mission’, i.e. that Zaehner make contact with those Iranians friendly to British objectives in Iran in order to create an environment favourable to a “regime change” [20].

To that end, Zaehner activated the services of a local British asset and leading Tehran underworld figure together with his crime family, Asadollah Rashidian (1980?). Until leaving Tehran for Oxford, Zaehner was the MI6 handler of the Rashidians. The Rashidian crime family were also personally known to A.K.S. Lambton from the period of the Second World War, having helped the British in Iran during that time (collaborating with Zaehner specifically) against both German and Communist agents operating there. Rahnema notes that the contacts of the Rashidian brothers “…spanned such fields as the armed forces, the Majles…, religious leaders, the press, street gangs, politicians, and other influential figures…” Due to this previous background, from “…August 1951…the Rashidiyans received £10,000 a month from the British for their anti-Mosaddeq activities…” Only in June of 1953 did MI6 finally hand over Asadollah Rashidian and his crime syndicate over to Kermit Roosevelt and the CIA for the final phase of what was to unfold as Operation TPAJAX [21]. Until that time, and before many of the pro-royalist army officers had themselves even joined the conspiracy against Mossadegh, Asadollah Rashidian and his crime family had been diligently chipping away under the aegis of MI6 and R.C. Zaehner, undermining the Mossadegh government internally from within Iran since mid 1951 onwards.

In that time the Rashidians orchestrated assorted acts of subterfuge and public sabotage against Mossadegh’s government, including organizing and financing various networks of provocateurs. They also bought off an assortment of local journalists and the press and for months planted all kinds of false, damaging stories in local newspapers against the Mossadegh government. In an already volatile national situation, and besides the negative impact on segments of the Iranian public, such acts also succeeded in driving fatal wedges within the ranks of Mossadegh’s own Iranian National Front coalition (not to mention seriously destabilizing the Iranian majlis of the time), especially following Mossadegh’s second term during those months after the 21 July 1952 uprising (30 Tir 1331). According to Zaehner, “the detaching of [Ayatollah] Kashani [the veritable driving force of the July 1952 uprising] and [Hussein] Makki [as well as Mozzafar Baqa’i] from Musaddiq were ‘due to the factors’ created and directed by the brothers Rashidiyan” [22]. The cumulative damage inflicted by these activities directed by Zaehner and executed by his Iranian mafia contacts, not to mention its far reaching implications beyond even that era, cannot be underestimated.

Many of the vagaries and nitty-gritty details around the 1953 coup d’etat are only now — sixty plus years later — starting to come to light. Officially the British MI6 continues to deny any involvement in the event, but pertinent documentation connected to the British Foreign Office is slowly beginning to see the light of day. From what we are beginning to learn only now, the role of the Anglo-American Ivory Tower was a decisively pivotal one, and without its advice and expertise one can only speculate whether the coup would have even succeeded. This is an angle to the story that requires much further scrutiny, study and fleshing out. Here the mastermind roles of A.K.S. Lambton and R.C. Zaehner have been briefly laid out in summary. It is hoped that others may soon piece together with the evidence more of the details, and especially the involvement of all those other Western Ivory Tower academics who Abrahamian names — or ones we may even yet learn about.


[1] Ervand Abrahamian The Coup, the CIA, and the Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations, New York & London, 2013.

[2] Ibid., 202.

[3] See Artemy M. Kalinovsky, “The Soviet Union and Mosaddeq: A Research Note,” Iranian Studies, 2014: Vol. 47, No. 3, 401–418.

[4] See The National Security Archive http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/index.html (retrieved 23 August 2016).

[5] See “Iran 1953: The Strange Odyssey of Kermit Roosevelt’s Countercoup,” The National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB468/ (retrieved 23 August 2016).

[6] See Scott A. Koch, “Zendeh-Bad, Shah!”: THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY AND THE FALL OF IRANIAN PRIME MINISTER MOHAMMED MOSSADEQ, AUGUST 1953, History Staff, Central Intelligence Agency, 1998: 12,   http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB435/docs/Doc%204%20-%20CIA%20-%20Zendebad%20Shah%20-%202000%20release.PDF (retrieved 23 August 2016).

[7] EP1531/674 http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB477/docs/Doc%205%20–%201951-06-15%20Lambton%20on%20Persia%20propaganda.pdf (retrieved 23 August 2016).

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSX39SEjUxM (in Persian) from 3:18 min (retrieved 23 August 2016).

[9] Edward Henniker Major, “Nationalisation: The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, 1951: Britain vs Iran,” Seven Pillars Institute, Moral Cents Vol. 2, Issue 2, Summer/Fall 2013: 30, http://sevenpillarsinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Nationalisation-of-the-AIOC-EDITED.pdf (retrieved 24 August 2015) citing Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, Hoboken, 2003: 96-7; see also Richard Seddon’s Affair in Iran http://iichs.ir/p/enContent.aspx?theme=en&id=305&title=Richard-Seddon (retrieved 24 August 2014).

[10] Mostafa Elm Oil, Power and Principle: Iran’s Oil Nationalization and its Aftermath, Syracuse, 1992: 81 and 356n11; also (ed.) Mark J. Gasiorowski and Malcolm Byrne Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran, Syracuse, 2004: 308n14.

[11] Ervand Abrahamian Iran Between Two Revolutions, Princeton, 1982: 117-18; see as well Mohammad Gholi Majd Great Britain & Reza Shah: The Plunder of Iran, 1921-1941, Gainesville, 2001.

[12] Obituary http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/professor-ann-lambton-persianist-unrivalled-in-the-breadth-of-her-scholarship-whose-association-with-882564.html (retrieved 25 August 2016); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Lambton (retrieved 25 August 2016).

[13] Ali Rahnema Behind the 1953 Coup in Iran: Thugs, Turncoats, Soldiers, and Spooks, Cambridge, 2015: 170.

[14] Mansoureh Ebrahimi, The British Role in Iranian Domestic Politics (1951-1953), Cham, 2016: 25.

[15] Fariba Amini, “Academic coup,” http://iranian.com/main/2008/academic-couppage1.html (retrieved 25 August 2016); David Shariatmadari, “Of Ivory Towers and coup d’etat,” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/aug/17/iran.languages (25 August 2016).

[16] Ervand Abrahamian Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, 1993: 188-9.

[17] Kinzer, ibid., 114.

[18] http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/zaehner-robert (retrieved 25 August 2016); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spalding_Professor_of_Eastern_Religion_and_Ethics (retrieved 25 August 2015); see also Kinzer, 114.

[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Charles_Zaehner (retrieved 25 August 2016) and Rahnema, ibid., 15.

[20] Rahnema, xv & 15.

[21] Ibid., 74.

[22] Ibid., 238, citing FO 248/1531, 15 May 1952.

Wahid Azal is an independent scholar and political commentator living in Berlin, Germany. He can be reached on his email at wahidazal66@gmail.com

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