Painter Dispels Common Myths of Mosaddeq Coup

Painter Dispels Common Myths of Mosaddeq Coup

David Painter, author of “Struggle with Iran”

David Painter, author of “Struggle with Iran”

David Painter’s book, “Struggle with Iran,” is finally out 31 years after he first started working on it at Georgetown University. It really goes back 40 years if you count the last chapter of his dissertation where the idea all began. 

“I didn’t know it was going to take this long,” he commented.    

The book has been highly acclaimed. One review says: “A beautifully researched and definitive account of one of the Cold War’s most important crises. The scholarship is superbly presented.” (Chris Dietrich, author of “Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization”)

But there were a number of obstacles along the way that made research difficult. Painter had worked at the Department of Energy and the State Department historian’s office documenting U.S. relations with every country in the world as mandated by law before ending up at Georgetown for 31 years. At the State Department he produced background documents on many different policy issues. “It was pretty amazing.“

He says he had access to all kinds of information including classified. “But people have the misconception that we have access to information that other people don’t and while this is true, we can’t use it. I had to be careful to separate out this information from my research for the book.”

“And of course the CIA was deeply involved in the coup but they don’t want to admit it. CIA agents don’t want to tell you anything. They don’t want to admit that America is involved in the foreign policy of other countries, and they didn’t want anything that would show the U.S. was involved in a foreign coup. They get tricky.” He adds, “I interviewed a CIA agent in McLean who confirmed some things but he was very careful. I ran into him two weeks later at a medical appointment and cornered him again for another interview with not much more luck.”

To complicate things, the British don’t publish anything relating to covert action. Painter adds the U.S. said their documents with the details about organizing the coup would be out in October 2003 but they were released in 2017. “So I decided to slow things down for a time and pick up another project.” Finally in 2017 Painter says he was two-thirds finished, “and I said if I am going to do this thing I need someone who speaks Farsi.”

Painter said if you write about other countries you need the language. “I speak oil but I don’t speak Farsi. … So I got the assistance of Gregory Brew who speaks the language. I just needed to do the new part and I needed his energy.”

Writing was only part of the problem with producing the book over a long period of time. “It was keeping track of the number of documents I had and also the logistics of the move.” He says just keeping up with stuff was 50 percent of the logistics. He had 40 years of notes since his dissertation and all of the documents accumulated since then. After living in Arlington for 31 years, he moved to N. Carolina in 2021. “I gave away what I thought was an empty file cabinet to a student at Georgetown only to have him say ‘you know there is a folder still in the back of filing cabinet.’” 

The book traces the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry in the spring of 1951 and ends with the reversal following the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in August 1953. “The bottom line is really that the U.S. made a mistake backing the Shah and British and not representative government because of concern about Communism and control of oil.” 

In fact, he says the coup really changed the course of development in a country trying to have representative government with civil rights and land reform. “Mosaddeq was a liberal anti-Communist.”

He said the last chapter in the book lays out five common myths that were all put out at the time and have become conventional wisdom and points out what’s wrong with these myths. One of these myths is that the U.S. was an honest broker between the British and Iran. The issue was who would control Iran’s oil — Iran or Western oil companies? Another myth: that Iran was about to be taken over by communists and a coup was necessary to prevent Iran’s fall to communism.

“What makes this book different is we have lots and lots of U.S. and British documents. This pulls together what is already known and brings in new information about the U.S., Britain and Iran. … And it dispels a number of myths and conceptions about Anglo-American imperialism and covert intervention during the ouster of Mosaddeq in 1953.

Now that Painter has retired as associate professor of international history at Georgetown University where he specialized in global history and the history of U.S. foreign policy and the third world, he continues to lecture locally and internationally on the history and global politics of oil. He is the author of “The Cold War: An International History,” and “Oil and the American Century: The Political Economy of U.S. Foreign Oil Policy, 1941-1954.”