Mossadegh Revisited

On August 19, 1953, tragedy struck Tehran, Iran’s capital city. Democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup d’état orchestrated by the American CIA and British Mi6.

For the previous two centuries, foreign powers (largely Britain and Russia) had exerted a heavy hand in Iran’s affairs, reaping the country’s resources for themselves at the expense of Iran (as noted by Iran expert Christopher de Bellaigue in his book, Patriot of Persia). Mossadegh represented a very real chance for the Iranian people to get out from under the grip of foreign control and manipulation and chart their own path. Elected in 1951, he introduced many progressive reforms during his two years as prime minister, the most notable of which was the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, under British control since 1913. The company represented for Iranians the oppression they had received at the hands of the British for centuries (de Bellaigue, 2012). By nationalizing oil and taking other steps to improve the lives of everyday Iranians, Mohammad Mossadegh became a national hero (Kinzer, 2003; de Bellaigue 2012). At last, it appeared as if the Iranian people were pushing back against the grip of foreign influence, and putting themselves in charge of their own affairs.

But the British would not let the oil affair go. And so, goading their American allies into thinking that Mossadegh’s leadership would steer Iran to Communism, the two partners successfully orchestrated a coup to depose Mossadegh. The Shah of Iran, who at the time had been largely relegated to the figure of a constitutional monarch, was given absolute authority over the country (de Bellaigue). His torturous reign lasted until 1979, when he was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution, and the “Islamic Republic” established. Under the new regime, the government has largely suppressed homages to both Mossadegh and the Shah (de Bellaigue).

Today in Iran, despite widespread name recognition, information on Mossadegh is suppressed, and most people do not know the details of his life and overthrow. The promise of Mossadegh’s governance was immense, but due to this suppression, Iranians are unable to reflect on their first experiment with democracy. It makes sense that an undemocratic regime like the Islamic Republic would censor information on Mossadegh, as his legacy has had powerful impacts throughout the region and the world; his role in the Non-Aligned Movement, the coup’s relevance to recent events in the region, and the impacts the coup had on the perpetrators themselves are testament to this. Mossadegh’s legacy continues to exert a strong presence on both Iran and the region, despite his memory being suppressed in his home country.

In Iran, the suppression of Mossadegh’s legacy is typically well enforced. But every so often, there are times when a thaw in the iron grip of authority leads people to examine Mossadegh and the 1953 coup. It happened after the Shah was overthrown (but before the Islamic Republic fully established itself), it happened in the late 90s with the election of a liberal prime minister, and it is happening now (de Bellaigue, 2012).

Currently, one of Tehran’s most popular plays focuses on Mohammad Mossadegh and the coup d’etat to oust his government. Called “Dr Mossadeq’s Nightly Reports,” it is the director Asghar Khalili’s attempt to make Mossadegh better known in a substantive, not merely superficial, way.

That superficiality is partly what makes Mossadegh’s legacy in Iran so peculiar. People know of him, but they don’t know much about him. Thus, the play seems to be feeding a curiosity in young Iranians surrounding the figure of Mossadegh and the events of 1953. One audience member said, “I came because I don’t know much about Mossadegh though we owe him a lot. They do him an injustice by overlooking him here. It’s important to get more information.”

It is therefore not a surprise that the play has generated so much interest in Tehran. But not all of the information coming out on Mossadegh in Iran is genuine in its complete historical accuracy. Although they allowed it to run, government authorities have forced changes onto the play’s script. A new television show has also debuted on the coup, but it is heavily censored, with a strong bias toward the Islamic regime.

Even Mossadegh’s place of death is well known by Iranians despite limitations on information about his life. Mossadegh passed away in 1967, after over a decade of house arrest, and is buried on his estate in the small village of Ahmad Abad. During the political thaw after the Shah fell, people came from far and wide to Ahmad Abad to pay their respects. On the twelfth anniversary of Mossadegh’s death, several hundred thousand people descended on Ahmad Abad to visit Mossadegh’s home (de Bellaigue, 2012). However, when the Islamic Republic consolidated their hold over the country, the rate of visitation slowed to a trickle. The caretaker of Mossadegh’s estate notes that “[The Islamic regime] do not want people to know he’s here to arouse nationalism again.” In spite of this, there’s a common familiarity with the town over a wide radius.

Of the few tributes to Mossadegh that remain in Iran, most are implicit: March 20th, the day oil was nationalized, is a national holiday, but it doesn’t explicitly celebrate Mossadegh’s role in that accomplishment. As Khalili, the director of the aforementioned play, notes, “school textbooks only treat Mossadeq briefly.” He believes that the image of Mossadegh is suppressed not because he was secular but because he is an advocate of democracy.

Despite the fact that the Islamic Republic distances itself from Mossadegh as much as possible, perhaps the most major event of the revolution known to Westerners, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, occurred in the shadow of Mossadegh’s legacy. Iranians correctly saw the American embassy as the “den of spies” from which the 1953 coup had been launched, and so to prevent an American attempt to put the ousted Shah back into power, they seized the embassy. Yet this parallel isn’t discussed openly in Iran, or the fact that the many of the high ranking clergy worked with the “Great Satan” to overthrow Mossadegh (de Bellaigue, 2012; Kinzer, 2003).

Mossadegh is as real as Iran itself, but he remains only a distant and hazy memory.

The suppression of information on, and celebration of, Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran has been robust and near-total. The government either denies access to or alters works mentioning Mossadegh (including Stephen Kinzer’s tremendous account of the coup, All the Shah’s Men). As Kinzer notes, “Laws forbade calling for a democratic republican to replace the Islamic regime, but praising Mossadegh’s legacy was another way of doing the same thing.” People are generally in the dark about many of the details of his life, one of the reason for the aforementioned play’s success. There is a great misunderstanding amongst many people about some of the most mundane aspects of Mossadegh’s legacy, including what caused his death (Kinzer, 2003).

Yet outside Iran, Mossadegh’s legacy pervades movements around the world. Three years after Mossadegh’s ousting, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Many believe that Mossadegh inspired Nasser to nationalize the Canal, with the British once again becoming bogged down in a conflict with a strong nationalist foe. In this case, Nasser was successful, and the last vestiges of the once-mighty British Empire died in Egypt. Although Mossadegh was unable to remove foreign influence from Iran, the strength of his efforts helped Egypt to do so.

Five years after the Suez Crisis, Nasser and other nationalist leaders gathered in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to form the Non-Aligned Movement, which was founded on the principle of neutrality towards the major two Cold War power blocs. Today, the NAM has grown to 115 countries. The movement “represents the interests and priorities of developing countries” and represents a sort of anti-power bloc, where Great Powers are not permitted to engage.

Prior to the 16th NAM summit in Tehran in 2012, Iranian history expert Hamid Dabashi wrote that “had Mosaddegh been allowed to be in office, he would have been a natural ally of the Non-Aligned Movement, perhaps one of its founding figures. It is not even too far fetched to think that the treacherous coup against Mossadegh’s government was at least a factor behind the Non-Aligned Movement.” Mossadegh was a strong proponent of charting an independent course for Iran and wresting the Middle East from European intervention, while the NAM is dedicated to both the economic and governmental sovereignty of its member nations from those of the large power blocs. Thus, Mossadegh’s views on economic and legislative freedom were completely congruent with those of the Non-Aligned Movement.

It is also possible to draw parallels between the 1953 coup and subsequent events in the region and around the world. US Secretary of State John Kerry recently did just that, saying at a recent talk at the University of Chicago that “[T]he CIA was directly involved in the removal of a Prime Minister — Mossadegh, 1953. And so there was a history there. And in 1979, when they took over our embassy and took them hostages that had a profound effect on our own politics — one of the principal reasons that President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan.” The coup had consequences nearly thirty years after it was carried out, both on the country that perpetrated it and its victim. The US has since expressed remorse for their part in overthrowing Mossadegh, but bizarrely, it seems to see the episode as an isolated event, as opposed to noticing similar problems in its broad-scale intervention in the region.

More than thirty years on from the election of Reagan, and more than sixty since the coup, the effects of the overthrow of Mossadegh continue to influence events in the region. An anonymous Iranian official drew parallels between last summer’s coup in Turkey and that which deposed of Mossadegh, saying “this coup might be made up of several waves; it happened in Iran in 1953. When the first coup failed, they had another one ready — and they succeeded.”

It is clear that, on that night in Turkey, the visage of Mossadegh hung over events taking place in the streets, much as it had done in the Suez sixty years earlier. Within the region and around the world, the legacy of Mossadegh has had a positive influence on nations seeking to chart a course away from foreign influences that would disregard their sovereignty, and toward self-determination. In this modern era, with Western powers still exploiting their way through the Third World, it is clear that colonialism has not ended, but only evolved. In a myriad number of cases, Western governments and corporations are still making off with vast quantities of plundered resources from under-developed nations. “Mossadeghism” is the insistence that these foreign influences pack up, go home, and leave the running of and resources of a country to its people.

People in Iran today speak of Mossadegh “with regret and even guilt, as well as with reverence” (de Bellaigue, 2012). Yet even for those Iranians who wish to look back on Mossadegh’s life, the continue censorship of information about him forestalls any real attempt at understanding. In a testament to how powerful Mossadegh could be in Iran if he were more widely understood, Mossadegh’s legacy has had profound effects in other parts of the region — events like the Suez Crisis, the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement, and even the recent coup in Turkey all bear his fingerprints.

However, the influence of those who unjustly ousted Mossadegh lingers. As long as the US continues its behavior of Middle East intervention and support of unpopular regimes in the region, the Islamic government currently in power in Tehran has fodder to use to scare its subjects into submission, and is able to justify its continued suppression of the memory of Mossadegh and democracy. Mossadegh is as real as Iran itself, but he remains only a distant and hazy memory. It seems as if only when democracy creeps back out of the shadows in Iran will the name Mossadegh ring forth once more.