Mohammad Mossadegh

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Mohammad Mossadegh in 1965
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Mohammad Mosaddegh (1880-1967) was an Iranian politician. He served as Prime Minister of Iran in the early 1950s until he was controversially ousted by the CIA in 1953, resulting in the ruling shah (king) assuming a much more authoritarian government, and this had repercussions that are still felt to this day. Similar to Gandhi, he was a highly revered leader who opposed the British and their occupation through peaceful means.[1]

Early life[edit]

He was born in 1880 in Tehran, Persia[2]'s capital and largest city. He came from a prominent family - his father was a finance minister to the shah, and his mother was closely related to the shah and his Qajar dynasty. When Mohammad was 10 years old his father died of cholera, and in recognition of his father's service, the shah gifted the family the title "Mossadegh" ("true and authentic"), which would be adopted as the family name. At age 15 he was made finance minister of Khorasan province. While this was all on-going, he also received a high class education in France and Switzerland; in 1913 he received a doctorate in law from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

He was first elected to the majlis (the Persian parliament) in 1915. He served as finance minister in 1921 and foreign minister in 1923. He showed a strong nationalist tendency and opposed a British attemptWikipedia to seize control of the Iranian economy in the aftermath of World War I. In 1921, the 11 year old Qajar shah was overthrown by the Persian military, which led to rebellions in parts of the country. By 1925, the rebellions had been suppressed, and one of the military officers who had led the initial coup and subsequently became prime minister then became the first shah of a new dynasty, the Pahlavi dynasty. Mossadegh opposed the coup and the change of dynasty, so he resigned in 1928, and did not return to politics until 1940.

So then this whole World War II thing happened. The Allied powers decided that the shah was just a little bit too "Nazi-friendly" for their liking, so in August of 1941 the British and Soviet armies invaded and occupied Iran for the remainder of the war. The shah was overthrown and replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was young, attractive, and fabulously wealthy, and he preferred flying airplanes, going to swanky European nightclubs, and having sex with movie stars over actually being any sort of a responsible leader (this is what we call "foreshadowing"). In this time, Mossadegh, who had cultivated a reputation for being a reform-minded liberal nationalist, was instrumental in forming the National FrontWikipedia, a populist-nationalist, centrist political movement that sought to unify Iran's centrist and moderate-leftist political parties into one large party. Mossadegh and the National Front strongly opposed British influence over the Iranian economy, particularly the British domination of Iran's oilfields. This issue would be Mossadegh's and the National Front's raison d'etre.

A little background: in the early 1900s, British engineers helped Persia develop a petroleum industry in what's now southern Iran, and set up a corporation to extract and export the oil - the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, or AIOC (we're just gonna call it the AIOC henceforth). The British, however, were quick to assert control over the AIOC, and ensured that the lion's share of the profits went to Britain, not Iran. With British at the helm, the AIOC quickly developed a reputation for badly mistreating its Iranian employees and denying the Iranian people any benefit from the oil they were digging up. So in early 1951, the majlis led by Mossadegh passed a law officially nationalizing the AIOC and its oilfieldsWikipedia, and expelling British employees from the oil refineries at Abadan.

Prime Minister[edit]

Iran's government at the time was similar in structure to the British government - it had a king and a popularly elected parliament; the parliament would then choose one of its members to be the Prime Minister, who would form a Cabinet and run the government in the king's name. And true to form, this is how Mossadegh became Prime Minister in April 1951, shortly after successfully passing the law nationalizing the oil fields and the port of Abadan. The British considered the nationalization of the oilfields to be literally theft, and reacted with the Abadan CrisisWikipedia, where they essentially embargoed all Iranian goods (especially oil), blockaded Iranian ports, and froze Iranian assets, while convincing other countries (including the USA and most of Europe) to also boycott Iranian goods, thereby devastating the Iranian economy. Mossadegh set about passing liberal reforms to try to stabilize the economy (as well as to prevent the popular, Soviet-aligned communist Tudeh PartyWikipedia- which he opposed and they reciprocated- from gaining more popularity). However, he had planned to use oil revenue to pay for much of these reforms, and the British ensured that oil revenues were practically non-existent.

Mossadegh's regime wasn't all sunshine and rainbows either. He had a power struggle with the shah, and leveraged his popularity with the working class to gain more power for himself. In the Si-e-tir incident of July 1952, Mossadegh demanded more direct control over the military, despite the customary allocation of that power to the shah. When the shah refused his demand, Mossadegh abruptly resigned, triggering widescale protests and strikes. After a bloody attempt to crush the protests, the shah ultimately relented, reappointed Mossadegh as prime minister, and allowed Mossadegh's request[3]. Mossadegh also received criticism for the perception that he manipulated the results of the 1952 majlis electionWikipedia by ending vote counting early; and after August 1952, Mossadegh began to increasingly rely on emergency decrees to circumvent the majlis and the shah[4]. Additionally, the Tudeh Party remained a thorn in Mossadegh's side, constantly running propaganda attacking him.

USA enters the chat[edit]

When Mossadegh nationalized the AIOC and subsequently became Prime Minister, the US president was Harry Truman. The British approached him to try to plan a coup d'etat to overthrow Mossadegh; while the US was concerned about Mossadegh's failure to negotiate a deal regarding the AIOC, Truman was nearing the end of his tenure and even sympathized with Mossadegh's anti-colonialism, so he refused to consider the idea. By January 1953, the presidency had fallen to Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower, who was quite willing to consider it. The British were able to convince Ike that Mossadegh was causing such instability in Iran that the Soviet-aligned Tudeh might be able to seize power[5]. With anti-communist Cold War fervor at an all time high thanks to China's then-recent conversion to communism, a guy named McCarthy doing stuff, and the stalemated Korean War nearing its anticlimactic end, Ike took the bait and authorized the CIA to come up with a plan to overthrow Mossadegh.

The plan was originally for the shah to simply fire Mossadegh and have him arrested in the middle of the night, replace him with a pro-shah army general who was willing to be a pawn, and then the British and Americans would handle damage control. However, in August 1953, Mossadegh successfully passed a referendumWikipedia (with 99.9% voting in favor, which is never suspicious...) that effectively abolished the majlis and the shah. The shah soon fled to Iraq (which was a kingdom and friendly to Iran at the time), and the CIA had to speed up its plot. What followed was Operation AjaxWikipedia.

Operation Ajax basically amounted to Theodore Roosevelt's grandson Kermit Jr.Wikipedia going around Tehran with suitcases full of money, generously paying anyone who'd listen, including crime bosses, the media, and the Shi'ite Muslim clergy, to hold anti-Mossadegh protests and strikes. The plot started on August 15 and immediately failed - but Roosevelt persisted, despite orders from Washington DC to the contrary - and by August 19th he was successful[6][7]. With economic conditions still suffering due to the British-led embargo, Mossadegh's popularity dwindling thanks to his more dictatorial streak since the summer of 1952, and Kermit paying people to riot, Mossadegh's support suddenly evaporated and he was forced to resign. Mossadegh was arrested, the shah returned from his brief exile, and the army general who was chosen earlier became the new prime minister.

Death and Legacy[edit]

Mossadegh survived the coup, was put on show trial for treason, convicted, and imprisoned in a military jail for three years. After his release in 1956, he lived the rest of his life under house arrest, finally dying in obscurity in 1967.

The coup resulted in the shah asserting more personal authority over the government. His regime became cruel and dictatorial, relying on a powerful secret police known as SAVAKWikipedia to crush dissent. The shah still acted like a wealthy playboy, and still lived the high life while he courted American and British interests. Iranian oilfields and refineries were put back under the control of the AIOC (which would be renamed British Petroleum, or BPWikipedia, in 1954) as well as American oil companies, a reward for the US's role in Operation Ajax. This turn of events, with the US and Britain propping up an authoritarian monarch who showed little regard for his subjects would come to a head in 1979 when angry students and the Shia religious establishment in Iran rose in revoltWikipedia, overthrowing the shah for good and instituting the theocratic republic that still rules Iran to this day.

Mossadegh is a polarizing, controversial figure. Some people consider him a martyr for liberal democracy, a democratically-elected leader unjustly overthrown by the greedy British and Americans who then installed the shah as the new dictator[8]. Others see him as a wannabe socialist dictator who sought to illegally overthrow and replace the shah[9][10]. Both assessments are overly simplistic and leave out a lot of nuance.

See also[edit]

  • Liberalism
  • Salvador Allende - the socialist leader of Chile who was similarly overthrown with US help in 1972; he too was replaced by a brutal dictatorial regime.


  2. Iran has basically always been the country's name, but until the 1930s, most of the world referred to it as "Persia". In 1935 the Iranian government politely requested that everyone stop doing that, and for the most part the rest of the world has complied with the request.
  3. 30 Tir Uprising - Mossadegh or Death!, The Mossadegh Project
  4. MOSSADEGH SEEKS EMERGENCY POWER, 7/14/1952, New York Times
  5. National Intelligence Estimate #142, 11/13/1952, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian
  6. How the CIA overthrew Iran's democracy in four days, NPR
  7. 64 Years Later, CIA Finally Releases Details of Iranian Coup, Foreign Policy
  8. 50 Years After the CIA’s First Overthrow of a Democratically Elected Foreign Government We Take a Look at the 1953 US Backed Coup in Iran, DemocracyNow!
  9. ‘Blame America First’ Crowd Resurrects an Old Myth, National Review
  10. The Coup Against Democracy That Wasn’t,