Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Mendepicts events that led to the fall of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh's government in August 1953. As usual, the return of the Shah after he fled the country, has been attributed to a coup conducted by the CIA. I have to take issue with this commonly accepted thesis.
I must confess that I too believed the story for some years. Nevertheless, I changed my opinion as early as 1957 when I started to consider the impact of our ancient mythology on our society. I ended up with a totally different view: In fact, it was Mossadegh who saved the Shah's throne!
I was in Iran in the fateful days of August 1953, on home leave from UNESCO. My plane landed in Tehran on a hot summer's day, a few hours after the Shah escaped to Baghdad on his way to Rome, with his then queen Soraya.
My brother-in-law, Hassan Ali Mansour, was waiting among the crowd of greeters who were discussing with excitement and agitation the latest news. Once out of the customs area, he informed me about the latest developments. He had difficulty driving in the capital's avenues as large groups of demonstrators were marching and shouting anti-Shah and pro-Mossadegh slogans.
Near Tehan University mobs were toppling statues of the Shah and his father. Diverse political factions had taken to the streets chanting “Death to the Shah”, “Long live Mossadegh”, “Abolition of monarchy; installation of arepublic”, “Mossadegh for president”, and so on.
Mossadegh had made himself unavailable to all. He had shut himself in his house and would not answer calls, even from his cabinet members who were speaking to mobs and to the press. Mossadegh made no public appearance and refused to issue any statement. Some of his ministers spoke against the Shah and even called for the creation of a republic.
Tehran and other cities were in turmoil. The upper classes remained cautiously inside their residences in Northern Tehran. Some had their private bodyguards on alert. Everybody from the top to the bottom of society were waiting for some official anouncement from the Prime Minister. But nothing came on the state-controlled radio. Only the rumor mills were active.
The Shah, before getting away, had nominated General Zahedi to replace Mossadegh. My brother-in-law told me about the ties between the new Zahedi and the CIA. Like most of the upper class, he was worried for he had heard from his American diplomatic contacts that the CIA station chief had ordered his staff to leave Iran for Beirut. It seemed initial plans for a coup had failed.
Foreigners and many well-to-do Iranians thought a communist seizure of power would happen rapidly. Some prominent politicians were preparing to get out of Iran through Turkey or other routes. Financial capital had already fled toward Europe and the United States. The economy was in shambles and the British and Western boycott had shut down the oil industry.
Judging from what I was seeing and the discussions I had with friends from the right, and also from the center and the left, it appeared that most Iranians expected Mossadegh to come out of his seclusion at any moment and proclaim his intention to overtake responsibilities as head of state, either as a new monarch or president of a republic.
It seemed a large majority of Iranians were ready for a change of regime. However, Mossadegh did not come out and remained silent. Even his followers were stunned by his conduct. Indeed his popularity was such that the country would have elected him president or even king. Yet Mossadegh refused to act.
I was still in Tehran a few days later when a paid mob of thugs led by Shaban “Brainless” Jafari invaded the streets brandishing posters of the Shah and General Zahedi. Shots were fired around the army staff offices and police headquarters. I even saw a solitary tank near the Foreign Ministry. A few hours later, the state radio announced the installation of Zahedi as Prime Minister and the imminent return of the Shah.
Later on, after his arrest, Mossadegh could have refused to recognize the competence of the military court. Such an action would have shaken the legitimacy of the Shah and his regime, especially considering that the CIA was already boasting that it had restored the monarchy. Instead, Mossadegh elected to defend himself, meaning that he recognized the authority and legitimacy of the regime and the king!
Why did Mossadegh submit? This question kept disturbing me for a couple of years. I mulled it over and over until I thought I had found some clues about his personality.
I had met Mossadegh a few times in 1945 and 1946. But as a junior politician, I barely spoke to him and just answered his questions. He told me that he knew my father and other members of my family. On each visit, accompanying elder relatives, I noticed that younger people, including his son Gholam, observed a respectful silence in his presence. The same trend existed in all families where fathers dominated their off-springs.
In 1957, while participating in a psychiatric gathering in Paris, it dawned on me that the so-called Oedipus Complex did not apply in Iran . In fact its reverse influenced our society. This is evident in the story of the legendary Iranian superman Rostam, who inadvertently kills his son Sohrab. At that time, I coined the phrase “Rostam Syndrome” in order to explain the eminent role of authoritarian fathers, both in Iranian society and family life. [See: “The Sohrab Syndrome“]
Mossadegh too followed ancient Iranian traditions. Even though he was much older, Mossadegh would kiss the Shah's hand because he considered the monarch the “father” of the nation and himself a respectful “son”. It never occurred to him to replace the Shah.
In fact Mossadegh's insistence on the implementation of the 1906 constitution, which limited the monarch's powers, was not aimed at undermining the Shah's position. On the contrary, it was to protect the monrach during the critical period of nationalization of the oil industry and the expulsion of the British oil company that had constantly interfered in Iranian affairs. Indeed, if nationalization had failed, it would have been the responsibility of the prime minister and not the Shah.
Moreover, Mossadegh was aware of the danger represented by the Tudeh communist party and its ties to Moscow. He was trying to contain them. When the Shah, in cahoot with the CIA, named Zahedi and fled the country, Mossadegh could have easily dethroned him. But he was too respectful of the “father” of the nation and feared the possible seizure of power by the communists. He therefore deliberately refused to follow the advice of some of his cabinet members to proclaim a republic.
By the evening of August 15, the authors of the coup thought they had lost their bid to oust Mossadegh. But the prime minister's inaction and silence during the following three days allowed them to act again and prevail.
In short it was Mossadegh who saved the Shah's throne, not the CIA. Yet the monarch chose to believe in the plotters' version of events and always remained persuaded that his old prime minister wanted to topple him. Instead of enlisting Mossadegh and his nationalist followers, the Shah fantasized about far-fetched conspiracy theories.
The fact that the nationalization of the oil industry was linked to Mossadegh's name displeased him. He therefore embarked on a continuous fight against the consortium of companies that had replaced the British monopoly on Iranian oil. His aim in this struggle was to prove that Mossadegh had only “nominally” nationalized the oil industry while he, the Shah, had practically and completely wrenched oil out of the hands of foreign companies in the sole interest of Iranians.
It is true that the Shah played a determining role in the sudden rise of oil prices. It is also true that by 1977 Iran was in total charge of its oil, from extraction to distribution. But to Iranians, as well as foreigners, Mossadegh remains the nationalist politician who raised the flag of revolt against the British and nationalized Iran's oil fields!
At any rate, in my opinion, attributing the toppling of Mossadegh and the return of the Shah in 1953 to a CIA plot is rather insulting to the Iranian people themselves.