Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Fall of Mohammad Mossadeq

Mohammad Mossadeq“If I sit silently, I have sinned.” 
– Mohammad Mossadeq

Mohammad Mossadeq (or Mosadegh) was Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister (1951 – 1953). A seasoned politician, advocating nationalism, independence, and democracy. His policies aimed to improve the lives of Iranians to the displeasure of the monarchy and foreign powers, who in turn plotted his downfall.

The Man

Mohammad Mossadeq, born on June 16, 1882, came from an aristocratic family related to the then ruling Qajar Dynasty. His fragile health made him weak, thus he conducted his business mostly in bed. Nevertheless, it did not stop him to pursue a strenuous doctorate study of law in Switzerland, which he finished, becoming the first Iranian to do so.

European ideas of nationalism, constitutionalism, and legalism influenced him and set his foundations as a politician. As he pursue that career, he earned a reputation as a clean and well-respected official despite his opponents' intrigue and allegations. He won himself a name as a fighter against foreign intervention, especially by the British, plaguing his country.

He opposed the rise of the Pahlavi Dynasty and its founder Reza Shah who received assistance from the British to ascend to power. Mossadeq’s criticism of the Shah led to his incarceration from 1940 to 1941.

Ironically, another foreign intervention during World War II released Mossadeq from his imprisonment. The British and the Russians deposed Reza Shah for his pro-German stand, resulting to his weak son Mohammad Reza Shah’s rise. Mossadeq then made a political comeback in an atmosphere advantageous to him. The weak young Shah resulted to the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, and the Majles to shine as the central governing offices of the country.
British and Russian Troops in Iranian desert
Mossadeq served as a deputy in the Majles, promoting nationalist sentiments along the way. He led the passage of a bill that limited and later banned oil concessions to foreigners. He championed in 1947 the rejection of Soviet oil demands. In 1949, he opposed a supplemental agreement between Iran and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, in hopes of getting a better deal in form of a 50-50 profit scheme being implemented by then in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. When Britain rejected a 50-50 scheme in 1951, Mossadeq led the call for nationalization. But then Prime Minister Ali Razmara viewed it as wasteful and impractical. However, faith sided with Mossadeq when Razmara fell to an assassin in March 1951, paving the way to his election as Premier and the passing of the Nine-Point Nationalization Bill.

90% of the elected deputies of the Majles voted to recommend Mossadeq as the new Prime Minister. Mohammad Reza Shah recognized the Majles' decision and on April 29, 1951, he appointed Mohammad Mossadeq as the new Premier. Few days later, on May 1, 1951, the Nine-Point Nationalization Bill passed the upper house of the Iranian Parliament, the Senate.

Mossadeq Premiership

As a Premier, Mossadeq promoted nationalism and democracy. Under a parliamentary system, Mossadeq was Iran’s democratically elected leader. He made good of his position to improve his country’s situation. His National Front, a coalition of professionals, moderates, clerics, and other nationalist party helped him in governing the country.

In 1952, he challenged the power of the Shah over the control in the military. He wanted a say in the decision in military affairs that the Shah refused. He resigned and called upon his supporters to go to the street in his support. Indeed, multitudes from clerics, communist Tudeh and moderates flocked the streets of Tehran to the fears of the Shah over a possible revolution. The Shah back down appointing Mossadeq as Minister of War as a compromise.

Mossadeq, with strong powers and mandate, then begin policies that aimed to weaken the monarchy, improve rural standard of living, eradicate corruption, and move the economy away from oil reliance. He also took reforms that moved the country to the direction of secularism and independent foreign policy. But most importantly, Mossadeq’s Premiership centered in his quest to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

Company of Contention

Iranians viewed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company as the symbol of British domination of their country. Their supposed wealth from oil went to the pockets of the oil company instead of Iran, receiving little from royalties and shares. Worse, Iranian workers suffered from abuse and little wages. Many nationalist Iranians saw the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company as finally, an assertion of national aspiration and interest against a foreign entity.

Indeed, in May 1, 1951, the Senate approved the Nine-Point Nationalization Bill that framed the transfer of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company into Iranian hands. The task fell to Mossadeq who struggled to accomplish the task.

Mossadeq went through the nationalization and met strong British response. Negotiations for settlement ended in deadlock. The British offered a 50-50 scheme, regretting their previous decision, but this time the Iranian rejected it. His government then faced economic sanctions, diplomatic lawsuits filed in the United Nations and the International Court, and warships of the British Royal Navy patrolling Abadan, the center of the AIOC, and other ports of Iran. He only had the threat of Soviet intervention to keep the British at bay and from invading the country.

Mossadeq responded defiantly to the British in the international stage. He went to the United States and made his case in the United Nations, detailing the injustices of the AIOC. He spoke with President Harry Truman to seek his support and assistance, ending in disappointment sadly. The President sympathized but distanced himself so as not to antagonize the US’ closest ally Great Britain.
Mossadeq and Truman
Mossadeq made a stop in Egypt in November 1951, during his return journey to Iran from the United States. He met celebrating Egyptians who saw him as a champion against the imperialist powers. His name inspired nationalistic sentiments across Asia and Africa, even gracing the cover of Time Magazine as the Man of the Year, despite the publication’s criticizing article.

Mossadeq knew British plots to overthrow him and asked the Majles for emergency power, first for 6 months then for a year.

In 1952, the relations between the Iranians and the British further soured. In June, Mossadeq went to The Hague and defended the nationalization in front of the judges of the International Court. He won the respect of the judges, who in the following month decided they do not have jurisdiction over the matter between a private company and a government. Mossadeq used it to offer the British just compensation. But the British rejected the offer and Mossadeq ordered the closing of British consulates and embassy. The British recalled their ambassador and by the end of the year, diplomatic relations between the two countries ceased.

Resentment and Discontent

By 1953, Mossadeq, however, stood too strong for other Iranians as well as in the view of other countries, in particular the United States.

Mossadeq flew to close to the fire, being the communist Tudeh Party, a party known as the most well-organized political organization in the country. He tolerated the party for their support in the July 1952 incident with the Shah and for their close affiliation to Moscow, sending message to other countries he had the option to ask the Soviets for assistance when necessary. His closeness to the Tudeh worried both players at home and abroad.

The Premier worried the Americans' sense of security. He threatened the American containment of the Soviets by showing he had no qualms in asking for Moscow’s assistance. His toleration threatened to open the flow of communism from Iran to the rest of the Middle East and South Asia.

In economic sense, Mossadeq’s nationalization also endangered the oil supply and investments of the West in Asia and Africa if other countries followed his move. Thus, Mossadeq viewed by the Americans as a liability.
Prime Minister Churchill and General Eisenhower
during the end of World War II
And with the election of the anti-Communist Dwight Eisenhower as President of the United States and the return of a same Winston Churchill as Prime Minister of Great Britain, Mossadeq’s position went precarious, as the two World War II leaders decided to approve a covert operation to depose Mossadeq. And locally, the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) or MI6 had a vast network of Mossadeq’s opponents to support them.

Clerics, the Shah, and some Moderates shared discontent towards Mossadeq.

Mossadeq’s strong position in nationalization overstretched the support of many moderates and businessmen. The sanctions imposed against the Iran slumped the economy, causing discontent. Thus, some started to question Mossadeq for his overzealous stand.

The support of clerics for Mossadeq also wavered by 1953. Ayatollah Kashani supported the Premier in the July 1952 Incident. He hoped for the imposition of Sharia under Mossadeq’s tenure. However, he was disappointed by the secularism and the close affiliation of Mossadeq to his loathed enemies, the Tudehs, who promoted also secularism and even atheism. As Mossadeq continued to rely heavily on the Tudeh for support, Kashani splintered away and supported plots to depose the Prime Minister.

Most importantly, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi despised Mossadeq for the July 1952 Incident and the aftermath. His power and wealth greatly diminished by Mossadeq’s policies. Although he had the military’s devotion, he lacked the strong personality and the charisma to take on Mossadeq.

As the middle of 1953 approached, these disgruntled factions in Iranian politics turned to be critical to Mossadeq’s rule.


Unbeknownst to Mossadeq, Great Britain, the United States, clerics, the Shah, and some members of the military colluded to put an end in Mossadeq’s Premiership.

By July 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) or MI6, completed and received the approval for the execution of a joint covert operation. It placed Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. (Grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt) to lead the operation to support an Iranian military coup that would depose Mossadeq and replace him with someone who had “constructive policies,” who came in the form of Fazlollah Zahedi.

With $ 1 million, they plotted the military coup by General Zahedi, a notorious supporter of Germany in World War II and once sat in Mossadeq’s cabinet before turning to the opposition. It would then be supported by the clergy and most importantly the Shah. They used devious methods of bribing gangs to post as Tudeh members and attack mosques and clerics to tarnished Mossadeq’s reputation and spread opposition. In such a way, a military coup would be acceptable to the Iranian public.

Towards the Coup

On August 1953, Mossadeq sensed his losing control of the Majles and called for a referendum to dissolve the body earlier than usual, a power reserved only to the Shah. But the referendum went ahead on August 8 and by August 10, the result came as expected, 2 million approved and only a handful of hundred otherwise.

The CIA and MI6 used this to their advantage, publishing articles attacking the legality of the referendum. On the other hand, they used the situation to further their case to the Shah. 

The Shah played the role of a moral and legalizing figure in the plot. Since July 1953, Asadollah Rashidian, an influential wealthy Iranian, worked with the CIA and MI6 to convince the Shah to support the coup by signing firmans or decrees that appointed Zahedi as Chief of Staff. But with the referendum, they changed the contents of the firmans to appoint Zahedi as Premier and to remove Mossadeq from office. The Shah remained recalcitrant all the way, even flying to Razmara, the royal resort near Caspian, to stay safe and away from the plot. From there, he signed the firmans that signaled the coup to be launched on august 15.

First Coup

On the night of August 15, 1953, Mossadeq’s residence buzzed with sound of tanks and troops deploying. They were sent by the Chief of Staff General Tahi Riahi to protect the Premier from a coup that they uncovered.

Coup plotters captured several officials and made the Imperial Palace their headquarters. Riahi moved his troops to prevent the coup from succeeding. True enough, the uncovering of the coup led others to think twice over their participation. By the early morning of the 16th, it was clear the coup plot failed.


Mossadeq supporters celebrated as Tehran Radio broadcast in the morning of the 16th the failure of a coup. Mossadeq went to an emergency cabinet meeting to assess the situation. Meanwhile, crowds along with Mossadeq's officials cheered and shamed the Shah.

A sense of a republican revolution breezed in Tehran as statues of the Shah and his father tumbled down. The search for Zahedi, who hid in a CIA safe house, followed. Until the 18th this jubilation and cleaning up operations continued along with continuous sinister groups moving.

Kermit Roosevelt refused to abort the operation as his per his superiors' order. He worked to turn events around by bribing thugs to mixed with the crowd and incite violence to create an image of rowdiness of Mossadeq supporters. He also published anti-Mossadeq cartoons and articles but none as big as the publication of the firmans that removed Mossadeq from office and appointed Zahedi as the new Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, the Shah fled to Baghdad, Iraq on the 16th and then to Rome, Italy on the 18th. Before fleeing to Europe, the Shah, on the advice of the CIA and MI6, made a broadcast in Iraq condemning Mossadeq as the real man who launch a coup and calling his people to rise up.

By the 18th, the situation in the streets of Tehran, filled with celebrations and riots, created a chaotic atmosphere. Mossadeq received a warning from American Ambassador Loy Henderson to restore order or American citizens would start leaving the country for their safety. Mossadeq feared that such actions of the Americans might imply instability in Iran. Besides he was complacent the worst was over and conceded. He ordered a ban on demonstrations in the streets, whether supporters or opposition.

But little did Mossadeq knew, the ambassador’s demands made the streets of Tehran clear for another coup to commence without much opposition.

Second Coup

In the morning of August 19, Crowds holding the images of the Shah demonstrated in the Bazaar Area of Southern Tehran. Similar demonstrations occurred in other areas. Most of the crowd, however, were paid by Ayatollah Kashani 2,000 rials.

At 10:00, royalist attacked the pro-government newspaper Bakhtar-i-Emry. Royalist demonstrations moved to converge in Sepah Square where troops lined up and prepared to disperse the crowd. However, the troops fired their weapons over the heads of the demonstrators before joining the demonstrations. The crowds holding rifles and images of their beloved Shah shouted “Zindebah Shah” or Long Live the Shah. Soon, truckloads of royalist troops flowed in to join.

By 2:00 pm, telephone and telegraph centers fell to the royalist, along with the strategic Radio Tehran that soon afterwards broadcast to radios cheers of the royalist coming in. At 5:25, Zahedi emerged from his hiding and spoke in the radio, establishing his government and promising popular policies like free healthcare.

In the afternoon, some Mossadeq supporters, mostly Tudeh members, came out in protest of the royalist. Clashes between royalist and Mossadeq supporters reported, like in Hamadan, but minimal at the whole. Most of the streets of Tehran filled with royalist supporters, the chaos of the previous days turned most of the people against Mossadeq.

At 7:00 pm, Mossadeq hid in his bedroom as shooting began in his residence. Gunfire rattled to which the walls of his house attested as bullet holes covered it. Mossadeq escaped ironically to the home of the US aid chief William Warne. The awkward situations did not last long as Mossadeq fled again, only to surrender to the royalist after few days.

Zahedi and the Shah
On August 22, the Shah returned to Tehran, welcomed by his loyal soldiers, crowd, and Zahedi. At the end of the coup, according to the CIA, 43 killed and 85 wounded. Mossadeq faced trial for treason and found guilty. He faced 3 years of imprisonment, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Mossadeq passed away 1967 at the age of 84, a broken and disappointed man. A tragic figure for a statesman who fought for his country’s interest.

Implications of the 1953 Coup

The 1953 Coup brought an age of repression under the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. In the aftermath, the Shah purged the National Front and the Communist. He then reassert his control with the support his new allies – the American – and ruled as an autocratic monarch, destroying even a slight of opposition. Iran became one of the most highly repressive countries in the world. The only institution strong enough to defy him was the clergy.

One of Ayatollah Kashani’s apprentice later rose up in prominence against the Shah. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s words inspired the Iranian people to rise up against the Shah and his foreign backers in 1979. The Revolution of 1979 gave Iran the momentum and the courage to challenge powerful countries, especially the United States. In some ways, the 1979 Revolution achieved one of Mossadeq’s goals – independence from foreign intervention.

On the other hand, the 1953 Coup unleashed an invisible hand that dictated the world order. It illustrated the Great Powers continued to influence the politics and internal affairs of other countries in devious ways, in form of covert operations and agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA launched similar operations in other parts of the world to change governments accommodating the United States and its war against communism. Countries like Congo and Chile experienced the same, with similar results – rise of brutal rulers. Men like Mobutu Sese Seko of Congo and Augusto Pinochet of Chile rose to power much to the credit of CIA support. The 1953 Coup tarnished America’s reputation as a benevolent supporter of democracy.

Mossadeq's fight was noble, desiring the well being of his fellow Iranians. He stood his ground strong for it. He, however, failed to see the invisible hands of his foreign adversaries and his own actions antagonizing key figures in Iranian politics. All of which moved together to undermine and to bring his regime down. Mossadeq's mistake was that he pursued his ideas too quick that he failed to watch over how delicate his situation was.

The fall of Mohammad Mossadeq was a failure of Iranian nationalist progress. It shows as well that the world's imperial powers continued to hold onto their influence by using other means besides sheer military force. It opened the gates to a brutal and repressive regime. Mossadeq's demise was a failure for the Iranian people and a tragedy for nationalist movement across the world at that time. 

Abrahamian, Ervand. A History of Modern Iran. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Avery, P. et. al.(Eds.). The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 7: From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Central Intelligence Agency. The Battle for Iran. n.p., n.p.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1970's.

Wilbur, D. Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran. n.p., n.p.: Central Intelligence Agency, 1954.

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