Pro-Mossadegh demonstration in front of the parliament
on August 16, 1953. AP photo
Democracy is paramount
Lessons from the aftermath of the '53 coup
By Asghar Massombagi
June 23, 2000
A few weeks ago The New York Times printed the CIA's history
of the 1953 coup that toppled the government of Dr. Mossadegh. These papers
allegedly show the extent of the United States involvement in organizing
and leading the coupe, as well as the full co-operation of the British
Intelligence service and the royalist elements in the Iranian army.
The real revelation, according to the two reporters who broke the story,
has been the cowardice of Mohammad Reza Shah during the entire process
and the active participation of the Iranian elements themselves. The speculation
as to the timing of this "leak" aside, none of this is news.
Since the bloody coupe almost fifty years ago, it has been common knowledge
in Iran that the whole affair was cooked up by the Americans and the British,
that the Shah was a hopeless puppet in the whole affair, and that ruthless
royalists in the army and their allies amongst Tehran's lumpen class had
a significant role in destabilizing Mossadegh's government.
To this nefarious cocktail -- and lest one be accused of being a prejudiced
leftist-- one must add the Tudeh Party and its divisive policies, dictated
by its Soviet masters sealing the fate of government of the day.
What is really interesting in this whole story is a re-examination of
the legacy of the coup, which is something that has never really been discussed
in Iran. The coup ended a period of relative freedom of the press and political
Following the abdication of the throne by Reza Shah and the end of the
WWII, Iran enjoyed a sort of Prague Spring of its own with the flourishing
of political, artistic and educational journals. For the first time since
Reza Shah's rise to power, Iran was actually functioning, albeit in a muted
fashion, as a true constitutional monarchy, that is with a responsible
parliament and a burgeoning civil society.
The '53 coup ended all of that.
The infamous military court of General Zahedi, the formation of SAVAK,
the imprisonment of hundreds of intellectuals and repressive censorship,
as well as permanent suppression of political parties, in effect made any
constitutional opposition to the Shah impossible.
Iran, as well as the rest of the world was caught in the two-camp mentality
of the Cold War. The Shah was an ally of the West and a stalwart in its
attempt to curb the expansion of the Soviet Union in the oil rich and strategically
valuable Middle East.
In the absence of any legal avenue for the opposition, three groups
emerged as the alternative: The left leaning inteligencia, chiefly the
poets and the literary and critical writers; the urban guerilla organizations
both of Marxist and the Islamic bent; and the radical clergy, who were
socially deeply conservative. In spite of common opposition to the dictatorship,
they had very little in common.
The first two groups more or less represented the forces of modernism
and modernization in Iran. They were to a large extent the by products
of Iran's contact with the West, a good portion of which came as the result
of Reza Shah's reforms, and later on Mohammad Reza Shah's so-called White
The clergy, including those who joined forces with Ayatollah Khomeini
after the 15th of Khordad (May 1963) events, were by and large backward
looking and anti-modernist.
What the absolute rule of the Shah and his secret police did was to
blur these differences and muting a rigorous discussion of them. The "anybody
but Shah" mantra preached a united front against the dictatorship.
The deferral of these deep divisions naturally, as evidenced by the amount
of bloodshed in the 1980s, did not render them obsolete.
By mid-seventies, when the first serious rumblings against Shah started,
no clear alternative had emerged. The joint CIA and SAVAK's effective campaign
against urban guerrillas, coupled with these organizations' inability to
forge a strong link with anybody but radical students, had made them marginal
in Iran's political landscape. Still they had strong organized support
in the universities.
The nationalists of Hezb-e Melli were mostly in exile or under de facto
house arrests and had not been heard from for years. Ayatollah Khomeini
was mostly a mythical figure, whose hand-written decrees would once in
a while surface in religious gatherings.
However, demonstrations by the talabehs (seminary students) in Qom in
late 1976 and their subsequent suppression by the security forces had brought
the militant clergy to the forefront. The poetry reading nights in Tehran
in 1977 also put the inteligencia in the news.
By early 1977 there was the making of, in the words of Antonio Gramsci,
a crisis of hegemony; no clear-cut front-runner in the political arena
had been established and it was still anybody's ball game.
What tilted the balance in the favor of the clergy was organization.
Twenty-five years of relentless oppression had castrated the secular opposition.
But the Shah with all his might couldn't close down every mosque in Iran.
As long as there was a mosque, and people gathered for religious occasions,
the clergy had a way of getting its message heard.
Hence, armed with this massive network of pulpits and coupled with the
reality that the majority of urban Iranians were first or second-generation
and still carried rural religious roots, capturing the heart and soul of
the youth -- the real engine of the revolution -- was not that difficult.
What are the relevant lessons for today?
The anyone-but-mollas mentality should not prevail. Know your history
or you are condemned to repeat it over and over again, goes the famous
saying. All differences must be discussed vigorously. Any compromise needs
to be wide-eyed and principled.
The united front must be strictly democratic and based on freedom of
the press and multi-party parliamentary principals. There should be no
ambiguity in terms of the goals and objectives of a future democracy in
Iran. Once a comprehensive democratic platform is defined, you're either
in or out. No half-way measures, no maybes or buts. Respect for democracy