In the minds of a majority of Iranians, the late Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh is a shinning icon of independence, democracy, patriotism and the rule of law. While Iranians, like most other nations, have their own differences on the ideal types and examples of social and political leaders, a solid majority of them seem to have developed a consensus on the high and meritorious standing of Mossadegh as a democratic and caring leader.
Indeed, the memory of Mossadegh, as an exemplary leader, is not only cherished by Iranians, but also by a large number of people in the Middle East and other third world countries. To Iranians, the hopes and ideals embodied by Mossadegh resemble those represented by leaders such as India's Mahatma Gandhi (Mossadegh's contemporary), South Africa's Nelson Mandela, and the United States' Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King.
While the epitome of Mossadegh's political career was his 27 months (May 1951- August 1953) of service as Iran's democratically elected prime minister, it is his lifelong struggle for independence and democracy that bestows a venerable and unique historical stature upon him.
Born into a princely family on May 20, 1882, Mossadegh held his first governmental post as the Chief of Financial Affairs of Khorrasan province at the age of fifteen. Ten years later, he was elected from the province of Isfahan to Iran's Parliament, only to be denied in serving his constituency because of his young age! In 1913, he completed his doctorate in law in Switzerland.
From 1913 to 1921, in addition to writing a few short books on various laws, he served in many governmental posts, including Governor of Fars and Azarbaijan Provinces, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Finance and Justice in the cabinets of several Prime-Ministers, and Member of Parliament elected from Iran's capital, Tehran.
From 1925 to 1945, Mossadegh engaged in, first an active and later a silent, opposition to the dictatorial rule of Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty who acceded to the throne in 1926. For his opposition activities, he was banished to his home in Ahmad-Abad village for fourteen years and was briefly imprisoned in 1940 at Birjand prison.
After the allies' invasion of Iran in 1941 and Reza Shah's forced abdication of the crown, Mossadegh's restrictions were removed. Two years later, he was elected to the Parliament from Tehran, receiving the largest number of votes. Soon after, he intensified his campaign against the foreign influence and domination of Iran's internal affairs and championed the call for free parliamentary elections.
From the mid 1940s until his premier-ship in 1953, he was particularly keen on opposing and banning any new oil drilling rights granted to foreign governments, especially the Soviet Union, who was intent on obtaining oil privileges in Northern Iran, similar to the ones already enjoyed by the British in Southern Iran since the turn of the 20th century.
Meanwhile, supported by an immense popular demand and sentiment, he was actively working with his allies, who later organized into the National Front, to nationalize Iranian oil and to end five decades of British exploitation of Iran's vast and vital oil resources and its nearly hundred fifty years of undue meddling in Iranian internal affairs.
On March 20, 1951, he succeeded in his oil nationalization campaign, and upon assuming his premier-ship, he pursued its implementation. Based on all documented accounts, on May 2nd, 1951, Mossadegh became the most popularly elected prime minister in Iran's history. In June of that same year, Mossadegh implemented the oil nationalization law and removed the control of the Abadan oil installations from the hands of the Anglo-Iranian oil company and transferred its management to Iranian nationals.
Mossadegh's determination in the pursuit of the nationalization law, which was the overwhelming demand of the Iranian public, triggered an unreasonably strong reaction and threat of force from the British government. The British government basically demanded the annulment of the nationalization law and a return to the lopsided pre-nationalization arrangements, which favored British interests, except for minimally increasing Iran's share of revenue.
Whereas the nationalization law required Iran's control and management of its own oil, the British demanded to retain both! Mossadegh, an internationally trained lawyer, and his government, abiding by Iran's and international laws, engaged in a domestic and international defense of Iran's legally sound and morally righteous position.
Some of Mossadegh's activities in this regard were: Active and ongoing consultation with the administrations of Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, as mediating parties, mainly through the United States ambassadors to Iran, Mr. Henry Grady and Mr. Loy Henderson.
A trip to the United States in the Fall of 1951 for forty five days, during which he effectively defended Iran's position at the United Nations Security Council and met with President Truman in Washington. In person defense of Iran's position at The Hauge's International Court in June 1952. In July of that same year, the Hague Court decided the case in the favor of Iran and against Great Britain, granting Iran its sovereign right to nationalize its oil.
Mossadegh's just and popular struggle brought him international fame, including his selection as
Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1951. However, the
Time article, while acknowledging some of Mossadegh's qualities of leadership, misrepresented him as a leftist, xenophobic nationalist and chaos-promoter.
Indeed, Mossadegh is as example of an unfortunate case of a democratic man who was relentlessly demonized by the British and Western media and their governments up until the military coup, which was jointly organized by the CIA and the British Secret Service and which led to his downfall on August 19, 1953.
A peaceful man, Mossadegh, while having the requisite power over certain army divisions, in order to prevent widespread bloodshed, refrained from ordering the army to his defense. A few days later, Mossadegh turned himself in to the military regime and was later tried in an unjust military court, in which he, in a moral victory, prosecuted and convicted both the domestic agents of the coup and their foreign backers and defended the right of Iranians to full sovereignty.
Mossadegh was imprisoned for three years and then was placed under strict house arrest in his hometown village of Ahmad-Abad for the rest of his life. He died on March 5th, 1967 and was buried inside his house. Since his death, his house has become a shrine for political soul searching for most Iranians.
Forty-eight years after his downfall and thirty four years after his death, Mossadegh's legacy of the right to national sovereignty and democracy is increasing and widening in Iran's public discourse and social consciousness.
In Iran today, he is undoubtedly the most popular politician. It is no exaggeration, that even as a dead man, Mossadegh would most likely receive more votes than any other living politician if there were fair elections held in Iran today! Internationally, the false propaganda against him has been significantly cast away.
The truth of his downfall by foreign forces has long been exposed by various scholars in the West. In February 2000, Ms. Madeline Albright, the United States Secretary of State, in an historic address acknowledged the strategic mistake by the United States administration in 1953 in overthrowing Mossadegh.
For most Iranians and Iranian-Americans, Mossadegh's memory and legacy remains a strong source of pride in their heritage and identity. Mossadegh embodies the best hopes and ideals of most Iranians as a principled, well educated, peaceful, law abiding, modern, patriotic and democratic man. He was and remains the honor of Iran.
Hamid Akbari is associate professor of management and organization and chair of Department of Management and Marketing at Northeastern Illinois University.