More than Just another Overthrow: Let’s Not Forget Mossadeq in Iran

Fifty-five years ago this week, in mid-August of 1953, Dr. Mohammad Mossadeq, the prime minister of Iran, was toppled in a royalist coup code-named Operation AJAX by its US and British backers. The coup delivered a severe blow to the cause of constitutionalism, democracy, and the rule of law in Iran, and ultimately altered the path of politics there, in the region, and globally in ways that ought to be familiar to discerning readers today.
Recently, fully a third of my students in a class of thirty on the politics of the Middle East identified Dr. Mossadeq as the founder of the religion of Islam! And no, I don’t think Mossadeq’s name will resonate any better with the North American public at large. For the political managers and the mainstream media in the US have not shown any sustained inclination to inform the public of the crimes of the state they serve. They fear that an informed citizenry aroused by its sense of moral outrage may act as an unstoppable agent of humanizing change. But ignorance about Mossadeq and his fate renders a proper understanding of how and why global politics has come to its present disastrous course in the Middle East and beyond rather unlikely. So let’s break the silence on this epochal event and remind ourselves of what had taken place, why, and what it has meant for us all.
Mossadeq’s cardinal sin was that he had the audacity to nationalize British imperial property in Iran in 1951 in the form of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which had a monopoly over this most important Iranian asset for more than four decades. To punish Iran the west imposed an embargo on her sale of oil. The ensuing economic hardship created a climate of disaffection and subversion, which set the stage for the US/UK-backed Operation AJAX and the removal of Mossadeq from office by force. Mossadeq was charged with treason in a military court, sentenced to three years in jail, banned from the history books, and later exiled and kept under house arrest in a remote village of his birth until his death in 1967.
August 1953 marks the end of Iran’s only significant experiment with parliamentary democracy, which had been accompanied by great popular mobilization and struggle. The coup restored unrestrained royalist rule. The shah established martial law until 1957, meted out harsh treatment to those who had defied him and his Western masters, settled the oil question in 1954 in favor of a western consortium of oil interests, embarked on an uneven economic modernization program, introduced social reforms, build a vast army, but never allowed any degree of political development to take effect in the country. The US meanwhile dramatically increased its aid to the coup regime from $33 million between 1946 and 1952 to $501 million between 1953 and 1957.[i] In 1957 the shah, aided by the US and Israeli intelligence agencies, established Savak, a dreaded secret state police, to ensure that no other Mossadeqs would ever arise in Iran again.
As a New York Times editorial makes abundantly clear, the Anglo-US imperial planners shared the shah’s latter objective. The editorialists, articulating the interests of the ruling elite a year after the infamous coup, write:
…the affair may yet be proved worthwhile if lessons are learned from it. Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism. It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran’s experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-reaching leaders.[ii]
Unlike the shah’s parochial interest, the US planners were concerned with making an example out of Mossadeq’s insubordination to western capitalist interests in order to check forces of independent resource nationalism not just in Iran but elsewhere in western controlled domains. That is what to “prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries” means. Thus regardless of its impeccable democratic credentials, and its promise, Mossadeqism had to be crushed.
The US elite opinion makers also display their own form of parochialism associated with their imperial consciousness. They offer shortsighted analysis that fails to understand and account for the potential long-term consequences of imperialism for peoples at home and abroad. For an instance of this, note how the Times editorialists only warn of “the heavy cost” the “fanatical” nationalists must pay for their insubordination to colonial dictates. Arrogance of power prevents them from seeing a fuller range of the consequences flowing from nefarious interventions in the affairs of others.
It did not occur to the imperial mindset of the editorialists that the US had managed with a single act in 1953 to severely diminish its moral capital in Iran and the region. The sympathy the US had once shown the Iranian constitutionalists during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11 had now become a thing of the past. It did not occur to them that in due course the anger of Iranians might turn into a rage against both the increasingly authoritarian shah and his consistent western backers. It did not occur to them that undermining secular, liberal nationalism may lead to mobilization and consolidation of opposition forces by the obscurantist Islamist opponents of the regime who would alone have access to sufficient institutional resources (network of mosques) to mount a challenge against the shah and enjoy a strategic position from which to dictate the postrevolutionary agenda and conquer political power. It did not occur to them that undermining liberal constitutionalism through a foreign-backed coup would help poison the political culture of Iran by freezing the development of foundational republican virtues such as trust, honesty, courage, civility, citizenship, and respect and cultivating instead cynicism, mistrust, suspicion, servility and pretentiousness.
Further obliviousness is evident when after the victory of militant Islamists in Iran, and the boost it gave to politics of Islamic identity in the region and beyond, Washington astonishingly set out to mobilize an army of fanatical Sunni Jihadists from across the Arab world in order to bloody the former USSR’s nose in Afghanistan. Washington’s Jihadi wars did defeat the Soviets by the end of the eighties, with help from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, thereby handing militant Islamists yet another significant victory. Soon after, in the late nineties, the Taliban took control of the ruins of the destroyed state of Afghanistan and made its famous alliance with Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. The rest is history, or rather is the present as history, with even greater displays of unawareness or indifference by the state officials to the plight of victims, peoples, and regions, and the rule of law at home and abroad, as Bush II has used the cover of “war on terror” to pursue maddening dreams of empire that have produced as yet another destroyed state this time in the heart of the Arab world with consequences that are hard to imagine today.
Silence about state atrocities abroad is another hallmark of the imperial consciousness. It is instructive that despite official claims that 9-11 has changed everything, and more specifically that Washington has since 9-11 rejected the pre-9-11 foreign policy of privileging stability over liberty and democracy, in particular as it relates to the Middle East region, and at a time of a tense US/Iran standoff, no one that matters in the US notices the anniversary of the 1953 overthrow of democracy in Iran, which is arguably the first act in the narrative that leads to 9-11. Such a silence at a time like this speaks volumes about the nature of things that are far more durable than is readily admitted or acknowledged by propagandists for the state.

[i] Misagh Parsa, Social Origins of the Iranian Revolution (Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 1989), pp. 46-7.
[ii] "THE IRANIAN ACCORD," New York Times, 6 Aug 1954, p. 16.

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