Memories of Mossaddegh: Oil, empire and Islam
London - The US-British coup that toppled Mohammad Mossaddegh as Iran’s prime minister on August 19, 1953, is still pored over not just as a turning point for Iran but for the wider Middle East.
In an influential biography published in 1990, Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran, historian Homa Katouzian argued Mossaddegh, although defeated in attempting to assert national control over Iran’s oil, carried forward a democratic flame from the aborted Constitutional Revolution of 1905- 09.
This, for Katouzian, means today that “Iranians espousing democratic principles can with some plausibility point to a democratic tradition in their country, a tradition that however weak and tattered nevertheless provides foundations on which to build”.
The removal of Mossaddegh and the restoration of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as shah in 1953 certainly paved the way for the shah’s increasingly dictatorial rule. And, argues Katouzian, the role of the United States and Britain in the coup undermined the relationship — personified in Mossaddegh — between constitutionalism, if not full-blown democracy, and national self-determination.
Others, including Stephen Kinzer, in his best-selling All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, have found a causal link between the coup and not just the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but even the attacks on New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, because it empowered radical Islam.
But August 19, 1953, is not among the dates commemorated in the Islamic Republic. Mossaddegh’s ghost may have haunted all subsequent rulers of Iran but those claiming to be his successors — including Mehdi Bazargan, interim prime minister during the 1979 revolution — have been sidelined and sometimes imprisoned.
Among his innovations, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini identified the Shia clergy with an assertive nationalism fused with suspicion of the United States and its allies. National ownership of upstream oil and gas is required under the constitution of the Islamic Republic but this has not made a hero of the prime minister who first attempted oil nationalisation.
For the revolutionaries of 1979, “liberals” such as Mossaddegh had let Iran down: Islam would not. But this necessitated some revision of the tumultuous events of 1953.
While some clerics supported Mossaddegh, most senior ones did not. The leading religious figure of the day, Ayatollah Mohammad- Hossein Borujerdi, welcomed the shah back to Iran after the coup. The most politically visible cleric, Ayatollah Abdolqassem Kashani, moved from supporting Mossaddegh to a fatwa in July 1953 outlawing his proposal for a referendum and eventually to a call for Mossaddegh to be executed for treason.
Aside from the Shia establishment, Fadayan-e Islam, a militant group inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and committed to sharia rule, opposed Mossaddegh, as did Khomeini, then a mid-ranking cleric among the group’s sympathizers.
While Fadayan-e Islam differed from moderate clerics in assassinating figures it opposed — including in 1951 prime minister Ali Razmara — it agreed with establishment clerics that the main threats to Islam came from Communists, secularists and atheists, many of whom supported the partly French-educated Mossaddegh. Just as there are those who lambast Mossaddegh for alleged weakness in the face of Western imperialism, so there are those who argue that an undue emphasis on the CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) role in the 1953 coup obscures its domestic roots. In an intriguing study published in 2010, Iran and the CIA, Darioush Bayandor argued that the coup “had essentially an indigenous character and resulted from Iran’s internal dynamics”.
Such cudgels were taken up by Ray Takeyh, a US State Department official subsequently at the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank in New York, who argued in Foreign Affairs in 2014 that Mossaddegh’s “dictatorial tendencies and his unwillingness to resolve the oil dispute with the British steadily eroded his support” and led to his ouster by a coalition of “Iranian army officers, merchants and mullahs”.
Takeyh suggested that accounts exaggerating the foreign role, which portrayed “helpless, ignorant Iranians … (as) victimised by nefarious, all-knowing Westerners”, suited today’s authorities in Tehran “who exploit the image of a rapacious Great Satan to justify their tyrannical rule”. What would Mossaddegh make of it all? After the coup, he spent 14 quiet years under house arrest at his modest country estate in Ahmadabad, west of Tehran, before his death in 1967, when he was denied a public funeral and buried beneath the dining room of his house.
Possibly he would be amused and quietly pleased by the way his name and the events of 1953 reverberate. Mossaddegh would be less amused by much of politics today in Iran and the wider Middle East.
Perhaps he would recall a speech he gave in 1944 in which he said, “A dictator is just like a father who prevents his child’s normal development and, when he dies, leaves an inexperienced and underdeveloped child behind.”
Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran; Homa Katouzian; IB Tauris; revised edition 1999. Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited; Darioush Bayandor; Palgrave Macmillan; 2010.