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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
The Iranian

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 activities.

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 Revolution.

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 is paramount.

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