Mohammad Mossadegh and the 1953 Coup in Iran
In light of the screening of Shirin Neshat’s new film, “Women Without Men” that deals with the 1953 US staged coup in Iran and the lives of a few women at the time, I thought it is appropriate to write this note in memory of our great past national hero, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the Prime Minister of Iran in 1951-1952.
It is a shame that as a kid in school in Iran I never even heard of him. Past lots of math and hard sciences such as physics and chemistry, in the primary and secondary schools we were mostly being fed Shah’s “White Revolution” and we had to often write essays (ensha) about it. After the revolution, Islamic studies and Arabic language classes were the focus and we had to learn archaic Islamic laws.
Mossadegh’s work and legacy has not really been celebrated by the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) either. After all he was a nationalist who fought for true democracy in Iran. And to say the least, that is not exactly in line with the ambitions of IRI.
I first heard about Mossadegh from my mom and learned a bit more about him after the 1979 revolution. But I didn’t know the whole story till 2003 publication of Stephen Kinzer’s book “All the Shah’s Men” that details the historical background and the events that lead to the coup and fall of Mossadegh in August 1953. The Wikipedia page on Mossadegh that I have referenced above is quite comprehensive. And as referenced there, New York Times in 2000 published a detailed report about the 1953 coup based on the newly declassified CIA documents, which you can see here. If that is too much reading for you, there are several short documentaries and videos online that tell the story. Here is a good one that is a must see. However you get there, every Iranian and especially the young, 2nd/3rd generation Iranians abroad and the future generations of Iranians should all know the history.
Dr. Mossadegh who studied law (masters in law in Paris and doctorate in law in Switzerland) became the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1951 while Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was the king of Iran. Mossadegh quickly became a very popular and powerful leader. He actually convinced the Iranian parliament to grant him “emergency power” to decree any law he felt necessary. He strengthened democratic institutions and limited the unconstitutional powers of the monarchy. And he took control of the military.
Iran’s oil had been controlled by the British since 1913 through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum or BP). Mossadegh who saw through the exploits of the British, nationalized the Iranian oil industry so that Iranians themselves would control and manage Iran’s rich oil reserves and production. Dr. Mossadegh in fact declared Britain an enemy and cut all diplomatic ties with the English in 1952.
The English government was naturally not happy about this situation, but they were not able to change much on their own, except a boycott. Prime Minister Winston Churchill influenced the US government under Dwight Eisenhower’s administration by telling them that Mossadegh was moving Iran in the direction of communism, which was far from the truth. That got US’s attention which was in the midst of the Cold War with USSR. CIA then approved and launched Operation Ajax with a $1 million budget to depose Mossadegh. And they did just that.
CIA sent special agents to Iran, started propaganda against Mossadegh, hired thugs and staged protests against him. The CIA also contacted the weaken Shah who was increasingly losing his power and control to Mossadegh, and had actually left the country at the time. He succumbed to CIA’s plot and signed decrees which were actually drafted by the CIA staff, dismissing Mossadegh and replacing him with one of CIA’s choosing!
On the day of the coup, the pro-Shah tanks raided and bombarded Mossadegh’s residence in Tehran. He was then tried in a military tribunal court for high treason and sentenced to 3 years in prison. He then was exiled to his village, where he spent his remaining years. He passed away in March 1967. In January 1952 Time Magazine named Mossadegh the 1951 Man of the Year because of his fight for democracy, his defiance of Britian and his world-wide popularity.
President Obama, in a call for reconciliation with Iran’s government, publicly acknowledged and admitted US’s role in the 1953 coup in his keynote speech in Cairo in 2009 and said:
“In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”
Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright in 2000 regretted US’s involvement in the 1952 coup in Iran and said:
“The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America.”
Imagine what Iran would’ve been like had the greed of English and American governments not interfered with Iran’s fragile democracy which was just starting to take roots in early 1950s. The 1979 revolution in Iran most probably would not have happened, as there would be no reason for such a revolution. Fifty some years later, Iran, the Middle East, and in turn the rest of the world would be far better off. Stephen Kinzer argues that the 1953 CIA-engineered coup in Iran planted the roots of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism which eventually lead to terrorist acts such as 9/11. If he is right, and I think he is, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq could be in far better shape, their people could be prospering, and most probably the NYC Twin Towers would still be standing.