August 19, 1953, exactly sixty years ago, the Iranian nation witnessed the toppling of their elected government led by Mohammad Mossadegh. It was done through a series of covert operations and a joint military coup by the U.S. and the British. Mossadegh had angered the British by nationalizing the Iranian oil industry and evicting most of the personnel at the British Embassy. He wanted its black gold in the hands of his nation. The British were infuriated that an old man with a bald head and a crooked nose had taken on the largest empire since the Romans.
It was a feud they had to win or let other nations follow the Iranian example.
Born into a family of nobility-the Qajars--and following his father’s death, Mossadegh entered politics at an early age. By the time he was a teenager, he had been home schooled and had acquired a keen interest in politics as well as social conditions in Iran. Raised by a mother who was a princess but enlightened and a philanthropist, he followed her ways.
While in public office, he fought against corruption and became member of the Majlis or the Parliament at the age of 24. He was one of the supporters of the Constitutional movement of 1906.
When he took on Reza Khan, he was sent to a remote prison where he became ill but remained adamant that the Iranian Constitution should be respected and implemented. His main quarrel with the Pahlavis was that the Shah must reign, not rule.
For a few years, Mossadegh left politics and went abroad, first to Paris and then to Neuchâtel in Switzerland where he studied finance and law. It was upon the advice of his teacher, a Madame Vieillard, that he was motivated to go back and help his homeland and his people, unaware that the future would only bring him into the limelight of international politics. Oil was now the issue of the day and one country controlled Iran’s oil. The Anglo Iranian Oil Company not only ran the oil industry in Abadan in southern Iran, but took most of the profits it generated.
Mossadegh, who in 1951, became Prime Minister (by a parliamentary vote of 79-12) said NO to the British. Iran had to have most of the share. The British did everything possible to undermine him: Bribing members of the Majlis, some of the clergy, military officers and hooligans. Their mantra was that Mossadegh had to be brought down.
“Mosadeq, leading the attack on British investments, had to fail, to be crushed and punished,” said the British minister for economic affairs, Sir Leslie Rowan.
Before long, the dispute became a global one, involving the Americans and leading to The Hague and finally to the United Nations. Mossadegh who knew the law, went before the United Nations and spoke on behalf of his country. He won his case. Like the statesman that he was, he visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and put a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington Cemetery. He came back home triumphantly and on the way back stopped in Cairo where he was greeted as a hero by the Egyptian people. He signed a friendship pact with Nahas Pasha.
A weak but rich nation, with a determined PM had humiliated the arrogant Empire.
He was now Time magazine’s Man of the Year.
I have a picture on my wall. It is a panoramic picture of the PM at Columbia University Men’s Faculty Club dated October 20, 1951 with hundreds of men and women present. They are nicely coiffed and are wearing elegant clothes. Next to the PM stands the late Hossein Fatemi, his young foreign minister who was later stabbed to death and executed by the Shah’s thugs.
The rest of the story reads like a spy novel. When Mossadegh returned to Tehran, the dirty process of bringing him down was already on the roll. Some shady characters were involved: Iranians, British, and American spies. All had vested interests. All were corrupt and some were just thugs.
Mossadegh was clever but he was a man of law. He let a free press criticize him and let demonstrations take place but he was also wary of the forces of right and left. The British and the Americans (who were now on board) used their propaganda to destroy him. “He is a Jew, he is a ruthless demagogue, a power hungry man, surrounded by unscrupulous advisors.”
A British scholar of Iran, Nancy Ann Lambton, an advisor to Anthony Eden, told her government that we must take the lead, the Americans do not understand the Persians. We must never compromise with Mossadegh.
It was also the time of the Cold War and the Americans were led to believe that Iran might fall into the hands of the northern neighbor, the Soviets. Mossadegh was a nationalist and no sympathizer of the communist ideology. In 1947, he was the only member of the Majlis who had forced the cancelation of the Soviet oil concession in the north of Iran. George McGhee, the chief American negotiator in the oil crisis said later, “Mossadeq was in my view first and foremost a loyal Iranian.”
The CIA and MI6 operatives planted their stories in the press and in the media, patiently and meticulously. Eleven thousand dollars per week was being channeled to various sources for bribes.
On August 15, 1953, the first coup failed but in an amazing turn of events, August 19 became the pivotal point of his demise. Kermit Roosevelt, a cold war warrior and grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, was the CIA man in Tehran. The army captured key points and arrested members and sympathizers of the National Front. It was a typical military coup.
Mossadegh refused to resort to violence to stay in power.
Mossadegh turned himself in. He was taken to a military barrack and in that frail state, went before a military tribunal and faced the charge of “treason.” Imagine, a man who had done everything in his power to uphold the rule of law was now a “traitor.”
Mossadegh was sentenced to three years of imprisonment and then exiled to his estate some 30 kilometers outside of Tehran. The Shah never allowed him any visitors including Nehru of India. He was replaced with Colonel Zahedi, a one time Nazi sympathizer who had been interned by the British. The Shah took charge and Iran took a different course, becoming the major arm purchaser of the U.S. In the Middle East.
In 1979, in May, after the Iranian Revolution toppled the Shah, over a million people went by bus and on foot to pay homage to this man. He had never been forgotten even though the Pahlavis had tried to erase his name from the pages of history.
In 2005, I went to visit his village. On the way there, I stopped to ask for directions. When a mechanic came out to assist me, he asked where I was going. When I told hm I am going to Ahmad Abad, he immediately said, “To the house of that great man?” I nodded. This is how most Iranians remember him, a man of the highest caliber.
So were most of the men and women in his entourage. One of them was my own father.
Mossadegh left the greatest legacy, belief in democracy and the rule of law. In the words of Ervand Abrahamian, a New York-based distinguished scholar of the Middle East, “He was the child of the Enlightenment.” Mossadegh believed profoundly in the separation of state from religion. He was a true secularist in the mold of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.
Now sixty years later, the Iranian nation, under an Islamic Republic, is struggling for the same ideals that he upheld so dearly. Past mistakes have led to disastrous consequences. Are we to learn from the lessons of history?
Photo of Dr. Mossadegh in Ahmad Abad, summer 2005, Fariba Amini
Inside Ahmad Abad, summer 2005, Fariba Amini
Door of the house of Dr. Mossadegh taken down by the coup conspirators and later brought to Ahmad Abad, photo by Fariba Amini