Memories of Mossaddegh: Oil, empire and Islam

Friday 14/08/2015
Mohammad Mossaddegh

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.