The Allied occupation of Iran in September 1941 was a rude shock to most Iranians. Facing the soldiers of the Red Army, the British Indian Army, and soon after American military personnel seemed almost a surreal reversal of two decades of Pahlavi assurances of Iran’s reclaimed sovereignty and the might of the Iran’s Imperial Armed Forces. The shock was transient, but the consequences were not. The occupation triggered one of the most eventful episodes in Iran’s modern history and revealed persistent themes in the country’s recent past: the struggle for democracy, foreign intervention, and grave tensions within the polity and between the center and the periphery. Disruption of the economy, political instability, tribal rebellions, secessionist movements, frequent imposition of martial law, and growing hatred toward foreign powers were the darker outcomes. On the other hand, a national movement for nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, the opening up of the political space, greater freedom of the press, parliamentary politics, and a nascent labor movement were promising developments. Despite many political failures, the following twelve years witnessed the resumption of a process that was first started with the Constitutional Revolution but interrupted by the rise of Reza Shah.

The opening of the public space came with new ideologies, ranging from Marxist-Leninist to ultranationalist and Islamic extremist. A dose of demagogy, covert and overt foreign influences, proxy politics, and the reemergence after a brief interlude of the royal court and the army in the political arena all led to an atmosphere of distrust and conspiracy. The new era of political openness also allowed members of the old elite and nonelite to return from the political wilderness, often clothed in a new garb. Chief among them were the Qajar aristocrat and seasoned statesman Ahmad Qavam; the journalist and partner in the 1921 coup Sayyed Zia al-Din Tabataba’i; and Mohammad Mosaddeq, the Swiss-educated lawyer from an old family of high divan officials. The younger generation of the middle-class intellectuals, professionals, and journalists were partners in the new polity motivated by Marxism or by secular nationalist vigor. The bazaar community and the urban lower middle classes, however, more often tilted toward Islamic activism.

Ironically, the new era of political pluralism facilitated under the aegis of the same occupying powers that had helped shut down Iran’s democratic process three decades earlier. Changes in the political and economic spheres too were conditioned by the geopolitical ambitions and vested interests of those powers. The Soviet Union wished to expand its sphere of influence through friendly enclaves in Iran’s northern provinces and by sponsoring pro-Soviet brand of communism. The British government held not only sway over a sector of the Iranian polity but also unyielding claims over the oil fields in the south, claims that came with some measures of intervention and intrigue. And the Cold War strategic concerns of the United States transformed its relations with Iran—as elsewhere in the Middle East, South East Asia, and Latin America—from an anti-Imperialist and a bystander of goodwill to a member of the hegemonic club.

In response to the domestic turmoil and foreign ambitions in the 1940s and early 1950s, a potent nationalist response seemed unavoidable. The rise and fall of Mohammad Mosaddeq characterized the successes and failures of the period, revealed first through legislation and parliamentary maneuvers, then through nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, and finally during Mosaddeq’s turbulent term as prime minister. Ending with the coup of August 1953, his story is an unhealed wound in the Iranian persecution narrative and a well-known chapter in the history of covert Anglo-American interventions. Iran’s return to arbitrary Pahlavi rule after 1953 put a premature end to Iran’s perilous experiment with participatory politics.


A striking feature of the Allied occupation was the breakdown of the Iranian economy, triggered by soaring inflation, scarce provisions, hoarding, and even starvation. These were indirect outcomes of a series of measures dictated by the Allies, and despite their assurances to the contrary, that Allied forces would refrain from meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. Their war aims and needs of their troops proved otherwise. The occupying armies camped out in the north and south as well as on the outskirts of the capital needed food and provisions far beyond the surplus output of the Iranian economy, which already had been disrupted by insecurity in the countryside and limited road communications.

The Allies’ decision to float Iran’s currency from the unrealistically low official rate of exchange under Reza Shah substantially increased the Allies’ purchasing power to acquire provisions at a lower cost. The new measures triggered, almost instantaneously, a rise in prices and high inflation that lasted to the end of the war and beyond. Iranian consumers, most of whom had meager incomes and fixed salaries, viewed with resentment the foreign troops’ buying power. Poverty was at the root of the riots and earliest civil unrest that broke out in larger cities and was an incentive to join the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, with its promises of greater social justice. The convulsive price increases shook public confidence in other ways. The export trade, mostly to Germany and Britain via the Persian Gulf, suffered a sharp decline as a result of the hostilities. Likewise, the import of manufactured goods such as small machinery, consumer goods, and pharmaceuticals noticeably declined. Lacking spare parts and other imported material in turn affected nascent industries such as textiles, sugar refineries, and cement factories that had been established under Reza Shah.

To serve the war effort, the Allies took control of the Iranian rail and road networks (see map 8.2). The massive logistical convoy organized by the Allies’ Middle East Supply Center hauled through the “Persian corridor” to the Soviet Union millions of tons of mostly American war matériel provided under the Lend-Lease Act passed by the US Congress in March 1941 (fig. 9.1). Military hardware, provisions, fuel, and machinery were transported from the Persian Gulf ports of Khorramshahr and Bandar Abbas across the Iranian plateau to the Caucasus or through the Caspian ports to the Russian eastern front. The supplies, amounting to at least 70 percent of Soviet military needs in the crucial years of 1941 and 1942, included 648,000 vehicles assembled in a plant set up by American personnel and manned by the local Iranians in Khuzestan province to assemble military vehicles and aircrafts (fig. 9.2). After the war Iran was praised as the “Bridge to Victory,” in recognition of its strategic location and contribution to the war efforts, and memorial stamps were issued (pl. 9.1). Yet only meager compensation was paid for the services and the hardware, and that only after many appeals by the Iranian government to the former Allies. The Americans duly paid their share, the British procrastinated for years, and the Soviets ignored the appeals altogether.

With military convoys, the Allied camps, and their personnel also came political influence and intervention in internal affairs. To its credit, the Iranian government, despite many short-lived cabinets, numerous reshufflings, and appointments and dismissals, managed to preserve a semblance of control. The agreement reached with the Allies by the Forughi government and ratified in 1942 after months of tough negotiations, guaranteed on paper Iran’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while defining the Allied presence not as an occupation but as temporary logistical access. It required the Allied forces to evacuate Iran within six months of the end of hostilities. Yet Forughi’s famous pronouncement in response to public anxiety—“They come, they go, and they don’t bother us” (Miayand va miravand; kari be kar ma nadarand)—proved a gigantic understatement.

Figure 9.1. US convoy on the Persian corridor. A village boy is putting snow chains on a truck carrying supplies to the Soviet Union.

LC-USW3–028452–E [P&P]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Figure 9.2. US military planes stand ready for pickup at Abadan airfield. As part of the Lend-Lease Program, five types of aircraft were delivered to the Soviet Union via the Persian corridor.

Courtesy of the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Although the agreement obliged the Allies to collaborate with the government in matters of internal security and to contribute to Iran’s economic recovery, it also allowed for as many troops as the Allies wished to bring in. It granted the Allies full access throughout the country to all means of communication, including railroads, roads, rivers, airports, ports, pipelines, oil installations, telephone, telegraphs, and radio. What was not mentioned in the treaty, but assumed, was Britain’s free hand to hunt German agents, collaborators, and sympathizers, which became a factor adding to anti-British and anti-Russian feelings among the Iranian public. For some pro-German elements, even as late as 1943, there was a hope that the Wehrmacht’s advances over the Soviets in the Caucasus would eventually liberate Iran from the throes of Allied occupation. The Allied propaganda in Iran targeted such Germanophile tendencies, which had persisted since World War I (pl. 9.2). A declaration issued jointly at the Tehran Conference by Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill in December 1943 thanked the Iranian government for its assistance in the war against Germany, promised to provide it with economic assistance both during and after the war, and expressed the desire for Iran to maintain independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Yet Iran’s future was not a priority for the Allies. Nor did the declaration resonate much with the Iranian public (fig. 9.3).

To the detriment of the Iranian government, a number of insurrections in the tribal regions complicated the occupation. They challenged the authority of the Iranian government first in Kurdistan, then among the Bakhtiyari and the Mamasani of central and southwest Iran, and soon thereafter among the Qashqa’is of Fars province. Tribal rebellions were in greater part a response to years of harsh treatment under Reza Shah and to his pacification campaigns. For the tribal khans who were released from government detention after Reza Shah’s departure engaging in customary infighting was a way of reasserting after many years of exile their place within the tribal hierarchy. The new climate also encouraged chief of powerful tribes, the Qashqa’i and the Bakhtiyari in particular, to take part in the political process even though they were susceptible to their own raw ambitions and at times to manipulations by foreign powers and their proxies. Confrontation with armed forces, especially after 1945, disrupted tribal economies and life in rural populations in the vicinity.

Figure 9.3. Marshal Voroshilov shows the Stalingrad sword to Franklin Roosevelt during the Tehran conference on November 28, 1943. Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin look on. No Iranian official attended the conference, held at the Soviet embassy in Tehran.

© Imperial War Museum, London.

The central government’s answer to these mounting problems was at best conciliatory, occasionally draconian, and often ineffective. The ministerial posts were given to ranking bureaucrats, landowners, and secular professionals educated in the Reza Shah era, whereas premiership often went to notable members of the old divan families. Short-lived and lacking a viable constituency, the governments in the postwar era were caught between the conflicting demands of a revitalized Majles, which soon turned into an arena of personal and ideological rivalries, the whims and wishes of the court, and the real or assumed influence of the occupying powers. In the twelve years between 1941 and 1953 there were fifteen governments in office and many more instances of reshuffling.

With economic problems looming large, the situation called for new sources of revenue beyond taxation and the meager oil income. The agrarian tax base was small, the village population impoverished, and the state endemically lacked the means of collecting taxes. In the 1943 fiscal year the deficit ran close to 90 percent of the total government revenue. By 1947 it was reduced to 45 percent, thanks in part to reform measures introduced by Arthur Millspaugh and his team of American financial advisers who had been employed for a second time between 1942 and 1945 to overhaul taxation and fiscal policies. Yet a chronic shortage of funds for development was serious enough to persuade successive governments to seek foreign aid, primarily from the United States, the only member of the Allied forces capable of helping Iran. Financial assistance, however, came with strings attached, mostly in the form of military assistance and advisory missions as a counter to growing Soviet influence. An increase in Iran’s oil revenue, with the goal of complete nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, thus seemed a viable alternative. As early as 1946 such demands were audible, even though almost from the start they ran up against the jealously guarded British interests of the shrinking British Empire.

Fragile governments, tribal insurrections, and expansion of the pro-Soviet network of sympathizers and activists in turn contributed to the growth of the armed forces as the guarantor of internal security. After the fiasco of dismantling the Iranian army in mid-1941, the armed forces were reorganized in early 1942 and after the war with the partial assistance of US advisers and the purchase of surplus US military hardware. Anxious to display its might and recoup its sinking prestige, the Iranian military command, schooled in the brutish discipline of the Reza Shah era, reacted severely to public protests. In December 1942 a Tudeh-inspired crowd attacking the Majles and looted public buildings demanding the removal of the prime minister Ahmad Qavam and his government on the charge of pro-American sympathies. The Qavam government, declaring martial law, allowed the military to send troops into the streets to quell disturbances in a bloody show of force, the first of several to come.

The emergence of the army as a political instrument and the arrival of the American advisory corps to rebuild the armed forces was hardly a coincidence. Nor were the efforts of the young Mohammad Reza Shah at the outset of his reign to woo the army as a natural ally and a reliable support base. A series of public trials revealing the heinous crimes of the high-ranking police officers and henchmen of Reza Shah’s time soiled the Pahlavi image. The young shah’s fear of the old notables, many with Qajar ties, and some with real or perceived foreign connections, added to his sense of insecurity. Army officers, on the other hand, were entangled in their own power struggles, and some, like the chief of staff, Haj ‘Ali Razmara (1901–1951), entertained political ambitions. Others were sympathetic to the nationalist cause, and a few in the lower ranks were loyal to the Tudeh Party. Yet most army officers sought more than a figurehead in the person of the young shah; they sought a refuge and a chance to regain their lost privileges and repair their tarnished image. The Azarbaijan crisis of 1946 provided the army with the chance to act as a counterforce to the growing Soviet influence and appear as a savior of the nation.


As in Europe and elsewhere, Soviet membership in the Allies’ grand coalition offered the left an indispensable chance to reorganize, and soon thrive, as a major force in postwar politics. As early as September 1941, Iranian communists and socialists from previous years began to organize themselves into a broad coalition under the rubric of the Tudeh Party, the “party of the masses,” which was chosen to camouflage the party’s overt communist identity. Some had been released from Reza Shah’s prison. Others had arrived fresh from Europe or from exile in the Soviet Union. A coalition dominated by Marxists educated mostly in Weimar Germany and a few old hands trained in the Soviet Union, the Tudeh quickly developed into a disciplined and doctrinaire political machine with growing membership among the intellectuals and urban middle classes and some industrial workers, and with almost complete loyalty to Moscow (see map 8.2). In the following years, Tudeh affiliates, including some trade unions, the Society of Friends of Peace, and youth, women, and university organizations, also helped spread the socialist message.

Modern socialist ideologies were not entirely alien, having been part of the Iranian environment since the turn of the twentieth century. In a land that as early as the sixth century CE nurtured Mazdakism—perhaps the first protocommunist movement in the world—such ideals had lingered for centuries and occasionally had been rekindled, such as in the early ninth-century Khorramdinan movements, in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Noqtavi movement, and even during the 1849 Babi resistance in Mazandaran. During the Constitutional Revolution modern socialist ideologies, a spillover from the 1905 Russian revolution, reached Tabriz through the Caucasus, mostly via Azerbaijani émigré workers in the oil fields of Baku. A few managed to gain prominence on the Iranian political stage after 1909, and Iranian socialists joined the Adalat Party after 1916. Among them, Avates Mikailian, known as Habib Soltanzadeh (1889–1938), a theoretician of some sophistication and later a critic of the Soviets’ heavy-handed indoctrination, was the chief counterweight to Haydar Khan ‘Amu-Ughlu and Ehsanollah Khan. He met a predictable fate, falling victim to one of Stalin’s purges.

Among nonrevolutionary socialists, Solayman Mirza Eskandari (1863–1944), a Qajar aristocrat and veteran leader of the Democrat coalition in the second Majles, emerged as a political leader of the moderate Ajtema‘iun Party with socialist proclivities. He had maintained an ambivalent attitude toward Reza Khan, and even briefly served as a minister under him. A cultured man, Solayman Mirza represented the last of the generation who viewed socialism primarily as an anticolonial force in a constitutional framework. The consolidation of Pahlavi rule, however, wiped out any such chance for the Iranian left. Loyalty to the Soviet leadership over world communism reduced most socialists in the eyes of authorities to dangerous agitators, if not traitors. The Pahlavi secret police quelled any form of left-leaning labor protest and trade union activities, and from 1931 on, new legislation declared illegal any communist (eshteraki) organization. Recruiting among Iranian students abroad remained the only alternative for die-hard veterans, and interwar Germany, with an active communist movement, proved fertile ground. Many Iranians studied in Germany on government scholarships.

The career of Taqi Arani (1903–1940), a forerunner of the Tudeh Party, and his gradual conversion from nationalism to Marxism, is a case in point. A product of the postconstitutional environment, he started as an ardent nationalist (as his adopted surname Arani—meaning “Aryan” but also “someone from Aran,” the ancient name for Azarbaijan—suggested). His later education as a student on government scholarship in Berlin in the tumultuous years of the Weimar Republic gradually turned him into a socialist with a penchant for dialectic materialism and the scientific theory of relativity. Upon his return to Iran in 1931, when he had earned a doctorate in chemistry and accepted a teaching post at Tehran Technical College, founded by the Germans, Arani’s circle of Marxist-leaning intellectuals still operated on the idea of gradually transforming Iranian society toward greater social justice and improving the lot of the poor and deprived. His publication of Donya, a journal of social and scientific debate, also was meant to reflect a spirit of evolutionary rather than revolutionary progress through education and raising social awareness. The highbrow articles ranged from causality, scientific reality, and dialectical materialism to sophisticated criticisms of the then-fashionable Bergsonian spiritualism, which he compared to the Persian counterrationalist legacy of Persian Sufism, obstacles, in his view, to scientific progress.

His arrest, subsequent trial, and ten-year sentence as the alleged ringleader of a communist circle, which came after a student protest at Tehran University in 1938, ruined the young Arani. He joined a few other Marxists of various persuasions in the dreaded dungeons of Reza Shah. That Arani perished in February 1940 at the age of thirty-seven, after eighteen months of solitary confinement, is a sober statement on the fate of the intellectual left, who potentially could have articulated a different reading of Marxism at least partially free of the shackles of Stalinism. Whether he died of typhoid, as prison authorities claimed, or was murdered in jail—as happened to many of Reza Shah’s real or perceived opponents—he was destined to become a martyr of the left.

In the years that followed, prominent figures among the Group of Fifty-Three (panjah o seh nafar)—as the Marxist convicts in Reza Shah’s jail came to be known (thanks to the author Bozorg Alavi, whose memoirs of his confinement appeared under the same title)—gravitated toward Marxism-Leninism, often with unabashed loyalty to Soviet Union. An early show of the Tudeh’s true colors came during the 1943 “northern oil” affair, when the Soviet Union pressed the Iranian government to acquire an oil concession in northern Iran. The Tudeh leadership advocated granting the concession in the Caspian littoral to counter, as it argued, British control of Iran’s southern oil fields. By 1945, at the end of the war, while insisting on the northern concession, which Tudeh described as “positive equilibrium,” it also closed ranks behind Stalin’s decision to continue the Red Army’s occupation of Azarbaijan.

The Tudeh was largely influential among schoolteachers, university students, and some faculty, low-ranking civil servants, intellectuals and some labor organizers, activists in the northern centers such as Rasht and Tabriz, industrial workers in Isfahan, and oil-field workers in the south. Organized and disciplined, at least among its rank and file, the strength of the Tudeh was in its frequent street demonstrations, labor protests, and engaging of the public through its numerous publications and “dialectical” debates. The strike in the southern oil field in March 1946 over low wages, appalling living conditions, and the overall exploitation of workers by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company came to be known after 1938) demonstrated Tudeh’s popular base and political muscle (see map 8.2).

The image of the strength the Tudeh projected was enhanced by the fact that other political tendencies failed to present a viable program or a solid party structure. The Tudeh’s domestic program called for better wages and working conditions, land reform and an end to agrarian exploitation, mass literacy, and workers’ profit sharing. These were objectives later adopted with some modifications by the liberal nationalists and, in due course, in the 1960s by the shah’s White Revolution. Yet despite common grounds, the Tudeh did not hesitate to label liberal nationalists as tools of American imperialism, a conspiratorial worldview shared by most communist parties of the time as well as by others in the Iranian political arena.


The end of the war ironically added to Iran’s political strife. By 1945, as postwar discord solidified in the Cold War, it complicated Iran’s domestic politics almost instantaneously. This was nowhere more palpable than in the autonomy-seeking movement led by the pro-Soviet Democratic Party of Azarbaijan, an episode short in duration but with important consequences for Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. The Azarbaijan crisis was the first clear contest between the Western bloc and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

As the time for evacuation of the Allied troops drew near, the British and American forces withdrew before the end of the six-month grace period that was stipulated in the 1942 treaty. The Soviets procrastinated, however, under the pretext of security concerns for the Baku oil fields and the possibility of sabotage from the Iranian side. The prospect of the Red Army’s prolonged occupation of Azarbaijan not only alarmed the Western powers, their Iranian sympathizers, the shah, and the army but also increasingly the nationalist circles. The memories of Russian occupations during the Constitutional Revolution and World War I came back to haunt Iranians once it became evident that the Red Army had no intention of evacuating the “liberated” territories under its control. More worrisome was the steep shift in the Azarbaijan Democratic Party’s rhetoric on secession, which appeared to many observers in Tehran as an ominous prelude to Iran’s disintegration. That the Democratic Party of Kurdistan was seeking autonomy in cahoots with its Azarbaijani counterpart added to these worries (see map 8.2).

The leader of the Democratic Party of Azarbaijan, Sayyed Ja‘far Pishehvari (1893–1947), was a revolutionary veteran of the Jangal movement who also participated in the short-lived autonomy-seeking movement in 1920 of Mohammad Khiabani in Azarbaijan (which Khiabani labeled as Azādestan, “the liberated land”). Earlier as an émigré to the Russian Caucasus, young Pishehvari was among the first to join the Adalat Party of Baku and take part in the 1917 Russian Revolution. He was deeply impressed with Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ message of social justice and equality for all ethnicities and religions. After spending ten years in Reza Shah’s jail on charges of communist activities, upon his release in 1941 Pishehvari became one of the founding members of the Tudeh Party. Soon, however, he parted with the Tehran Marxist intellectuals and resumed his activities under direct Soviet supervision. A vocal advocate in his Tehran newspaper of the Soviet positions, he was a communist in action but an ethnic nationalist at heart.

Pishehvari returned to Tabriz enraged after he was disqualified as a deputy from Azarbaijan to the fourteenth Majles on the grounds that he had tampered with the votes with the blessing of the Soviet occupiers. Arriving in Tabriz he was joined by a clique of émigrés from the Soviet Republic of Azarbaijan and by a handful of local Azarbaijani radicals. Together they formed the central cadre of the Democratic Party. Almost simultaneously in Mahabad the Kurdish nationalist Qazi Mohammad (1893–1947), the head of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, declared autonomy and at the behest of the Soviets soon declared support for the Azarbaijan movement.

The program of the Azarbaijan Democrats was impressive, at least on paper, and in some ways reflective of resentment toward the Tehran government. The Pahlavis’ centralization policies and particularly the mandatory study of Persian in schools at the expense of Azarbaijani Turkish—treating the latter as somewhat an alien language—was a source of justifiable outrage. Beyond the issue of language, the belief that Azarbaijan had not received its fair share of political representation or economic and infrastructural priorities added to animosities toward Iran’s Persian-speaking majority. Also emphasized in the Democrats’ program of action were autonomy in all provincial affairs including creation of a militia force to maintain security and implement provincial policies; primary education in Turkish, Turkish-language press, broadcast, and cultural activities; establishing a university in Tabriz; proportional representation in the Majles; overhaul of the taxation policies; and earmarking provincial revenue for development of Azarbaijan’s road building, communications, urban amenities, and infrastructural improvement. Moreover, they sought administrative reforms and purging of the hated gendarmerie of the Pahlavi government and end to abusive practices against the villagers, redistribution of the state lands, and appropriation of estates belonging to large landowners who had fled the province.

In achieving these objectives—potentially an experiment in federalism—the Democrats relied on a small group of communist old-timers and émigrés, left-leaning middle-class activists, a number of middle- and lower-ranking army officers, and a small peasant militia armed by the Red Army. Capitalizing on the legacy of the Constitutional Revolution, the Tabriz resistance of 1908–1909, the Khiabani movement, and drawing on the neighboring Turkish Republic’s 1920 National Pact, the Azarbaijani Democrats envisioned their role, at least early on, as saviors of all of Iran. Yet during its short life, the autonomous government sharpened its secessionist rhetoric; leaned more toward the Soviet Union; quarreled with the central government; disarmed the Iranian army in their Azarbaijan barracks, the police, and the gendarmerie; dismissed non-Azarbaijani officials; suppressed voices of opposition; and promised to defend itself “to the last drop” against Tehran’s attempts to reintegrate the province. To make the Tabriz government more secure, it also drove out big landowners and distributed the state lands. It paved roads, built schools, and fought hoarding and price hikes. Moreover, it advanced for the first time universal suffrage and appointed women to the party’s governing body. Adopting the Soviet model but under the guise of the Iranian Constitution, it even created regional and urban councils.

Subservience to the Soviets aside, the successes of the autonomous government were impressive even in the eyes of critics. No Pahlavi provincial authority had made such gains in a short period. That the Azarbaijan regime was self-conscious of its “Turkish” ethnicity to the point of secession clearly contrasted with Azarbaijan’s role four decades earlier during the constitutional period, when, devoid of ethnic sentiments, the province served as the powerhouse of a nationwide Iranian revolution. The tangible change in tone was primarily ideological. As Tehran under Pahlavi rule swung more toward a Perso-centric nationalism, so did the Democrats toward an Azarbaijani identity. That there was a Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan on the other side of the border helped all the more to manipulate a sense of Turkish solidarity. From Moscow’s perspective the autonomous movement was a long shot in unifying the two Azarbaijans. There were other immediate objectives, too.


The belligerent gestures of the Democratic Party raised anxieties in Tehran. The land reforms implemented by the Democrats had forced large-scale landlords from Azarbaijan and appropriated their estates. The shah and ranking army officers, moreover, were convinced that Azarbaijan’s secession is a prelude to Iran’s breakup. The Red Army’s candid support for the autonomous regime, and especially barring Tehran’s military reinforcements from reaching Tabriz, reaffirmed such anxieties. These also resonated with the British and the American concerns for the imminent creation of Soviet satellites in Iranian Azarbaijan and neighboring Kurdistan. Yet neither the Iranian political lineup nor the still-courteous relations among the Allies expedited any drastic action. Negotiating with the Democrats seemed the only plausible way. The coming to office of the seasoned statesman Ahmad Qavam as prime minister in 1946, at the head of a broad coalition, was intended to achieve this objective, which had brought down earlier governments.

Born to a family of divan nobility who for four generations were in the service of the Qajar state, Ahmad Qavam was always proud that he had prepared in 1906 the final draft of the royal rescript known as the Constitutional Decree. As Qavam al-Saltaneh (“foundation of the monarchy”)—the Qajar title of which he was highly proud and fiercely protective—he learned his time-honored political skills in the Qajar court. His vast hereditary estates in Azarbaijan and Mazandaran also contributed to his financial resilience. Shrewd, lofty, and yet pragmatic, he was more successful—or luckier—than his older brother, Hasan Vosuq al-Dowleh. Always ready to take calculated risks, Qavam’s career was punctuated with many ups and downs. Fearing Reza Shah in his final years, Qavam wisely spent his time in internal exile and like many notables of similar stature, in 1941 returned to the political limelight. He nursed a subtle grudge toward the Pahlavi crown while maintaining a working relationship with a wide range of players on the political stage.

His premiership between January 1946 and December 1947—the second since his rehabilitation—was a renewed chance to engage in a balancing act typical of the Qajar elite but with some important innovations. By juggling at one time the shah, the army, the Azarbaijan Democrats, the Tudeh Party and its Soviet patron, the British and the Anglophile clique (and later the pro-British southern tribes), the American diplomats and the US military mission, as well as the old elites and ambitious members of the middle class, he managed to gain impressive results, though only briefly. His policy of “positive equilibrium” resembled Naser al-Din Shah’s treatment of his powerful neighbors, and his advocacy of negotiation in “good faith” (hosn-e niyyat) with his many political adversaries was rooted in shrewd pragmatism.

Most urgent were three interrelated issues: persuading Stalin to evacuate Azarbaijan, finding a solution to Soviet demand for an oil concession, and finding a way out of the Azarbaijan autonomy crisis. Soon after his appointment, he flew to Moscow along with his left-leaning deputy Mozaffar Firuz (1906–1988), a political enabler from the powerful Farmanfarma family. The son of Firuz Mirza Nosrat al-Dowleh, Mozaffar at the time was Iran’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. Direct negotiations with Stalin led to a surprisingly favorable accord signed in March 1946 that committed the Red Army to a swift withdrawal from all Iranian territories. A Soviet-Iranian joint oil company was also to be formed to explore granting a concession in the northern Iranian provinces, but with a crucial caveat. Any such concession was conditional on the ratification of the forthcoming fifteenth Majles. This was essential, as Qavam argued, since the fourteenth Majles, thanks to Mohammad Mosaddeq, then the leader of the opposition in the Majles, and his allies, banned Iranian government from negotiating any oil concession with a foreign government without the approval of the legislature. The April 1946 Qavam-Sadchikov Accord, as it came to be know, also recognized that the Azarbaijan crisis was purely an Iranian internal affair and hoped that it would be peacefully resolved within the existing constitutional framework and in a spirit of good faith.

Keeping the momentum, Qavam quickly invited to Tehran representatives of the Azarbaijan Democrats and negotiated a fifteen-article agreement from a position of strength. It conceded to them genuine grievances and their proposed reforms while modifying their claim of autonomy by defining the Democrats’ elected assembly as a provincial council (anjoman-e ayalati) endorsed by the Iranian constitution but long neglected. To further nurture the new accord with the Soviet Union, and as a gesture of goodwill toward the Iranian left, in a government reshuffle Qavam brought into his cabinet four ministers from the Tudeh Party, an unprecedented move that earned him the praise in the Soviet press as the “greatest politician of the East.” He complemented his balancing act by appointing centrist ministers to meet the liberal nationalist constituency as well as appointees close to the royal court and the army.

To further consolidate his government, and his domestic program of reform, in May 1946 Qavam created his own Democratic Party of Iran, a wide coalition that included younger socialist and liberal politicians, mostly of middle-class backgrounds; elites and conservatives of older generations; supporters of the shah; supporters of the army; and representatives of the powerful tribes—all bundled together under one shaky political tent. By mid-1946 it seemed that his government had overcome multiple challenges and was about to remedy the country’s chronic aliments. He formed for the first time a supreme council for devising a planned economy, overhauling labor laws, and reforming the much-abused election laws; he established a state-owned investment bank for industrial and mining developments; and he began to distribute state-owned agricultural lands to small landowners. His program appeared to be closer to an American capitalist model than the familiar state-based notions of development.

Yet Qavam evidently underestimated the forces of opposition, both domestic and foreign, and their ability to close ranks against his politics of reconciliation. A group of powerful khans from the central and southern tribes hastily colluded under the banner of Nahzat-e Jonub (Southern Movement) seeking autonomy and demanding countermeasures to stop communist infiltration in the south. They enjoyed the full support of the Anglophile party of Sayyed Zia al-Din Tabataba’i, the tacit support of the shah (and probably his financial backing) and blessing of the British consuls in Fars and Khuzestan. Employing their tribal riflemen, the Qashqa’i and the Khamseh of Fars, the Dashtestani and other tribes of southern Fars, branches of the Bakhtiyari confederacy of Isfahan and Khuzestan, and the Mamasani and Boyer Ahmad of Luristan raised havoc with the population of the neighboring towns and villages, raiding gendarmerie and police posts and disarming the demoralized government troops. Their chief targets, however, were the oil workers of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and their Tudeh-affiliated trade union, which had gone on strike over pay and better working conditions. The Arabic-speaking communities of Ahvaz and around the Abadan refinery had joined in seeking recognition for Khuzestan as part of the grater Arab nation. They even sent a delegation to Baghdad to seek support. To many nationalists and to centrists in Tehran, this was further sign of an impending disintegration of the country.

The prospect of a civil war involving the autonomy-seeking movements in Azarbaijan and Kurdistan and the threat of the rebellion of the southern tribes were too great for Qavam. Even before the start of the fifteenth Majles, he was already facing tensions within his own party and from the parliamentary opposition led by Mosaddeq and from the conservative quarters. No more merciful were the press, which painted him as a corrupt and arrogant aristocrat and a leftover from the rotten Qajar elite. To lessen the pressure, Qavam had to disown the Azarbaijan regime for its secessionist ambitions, dismiss the Tudeh ministers from his cabinet after only seventy-five days of their being in office, appoint more pro-shah ministers, bring back the centrist General Razmara as the army chief of staff, and reaffirm the American military advisory mission headed by Colonel Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf (1895–1958, the earlier chief of the New Jersey police and a Roosevelt appointee). Moreover, at the urging of the United States and Britain, Qavam affirmed Iran’s complaint against the Soviet Union in the newly established UN Security Council and eventually allowed for preparation for the long-overdue election of the fifteenth Majles, which was made conditional to the Allies’ withdrawal.

To outside observers, the sudden shift in Qavam orientation seemed opportunistic and thus a sign of weakness, even though by moving away from the left and embracing the center-right, Qavam was making the most out of a difficult situation. Though like his Qajar predecessor he did not fully adhere to either of the two camps, his realpolitik no doubt was succumbing to pressure from the shah, and from the United States, especially on the question of Azarbaijan. Under the pretext of safeguarding a fair election in Azarbaijan for the fifteenth Majles, the Qavam government thus felt confident enough to dispatch troops to the bordering Zanjan region, then controlled by the Azarbaijan Democrats. After a brief pause and a bloody confrontation on December 12, 1946, the Iranian army swiftly marched to Azarbaijan, crushing local resistance along the way and soon took control of the province.

The advance of the army after months of negotiations and reneging on both sides was not unexpected, even by the Tabriz leadership. Pishehvari and most of his staunch supporters, despite their reassurances to the contrary, quickly fled across the border to Soviet Azerbaijan, leaving behind some apparatchiks and exposing their rural militia to vengeful troops and the whims of large landlords and their henchmen. In reclaiming their lost estates, landowners proved even more oppressive than the indoctrinated Democrats. Some lower-ranking party members were captured and sentenced to long prison terms, others were retaliated against, and yet others went into hiding. The army officers who had defected to the Democrats’ side were promptly tried and executed. In a short time the whole of Azarbaijan, and soon after Kurdistan province, returned to government control, putting an inglorious end to what was soon to be labeled the Azarbaijan “rebellion,” and its perpetrators, alien “aggressors.”

As it turned out, the real winner of the “heroic” return of Azarbaijan to the motherland was not Qavam but the twenty-seven-year-old Mohammad Reza Shah and generals of his army, who were anxious to score a victory to reverse the bad memories of the 1941 fiasco and years of imposing unpopular martial law over the Iranian public. The United States, the chief sponsor of the rejuvenated Iranian armed forces, also scored an early success in the escalating Cold War, at least on the Middle East front. The crisis had placed the shah and most of the Iranian senior military in the American camp. The shah, who flew to Azarbaijan piloting a small military aircraft, was basking in a glory that was not really his for he hadn’t played a major part in the operation’s planning or execution. In later years he made sure that repatriation of Azarbaijan was commemorated annually with military parades, radio broadcasts of jingoistic slogans and military music, and the naming of streets after the felicitous event. It was the first of many acts the shah used to exalt his own image.

The collapse of the Azarbaijan autonomy movement reaffirmed the power of the political center over the geographical periphery. Soviet ambition aside, the Azarbaijan movement was a reaction to the intense centralization of the Reza Shah era and his imposition of a cultural homogenization policy over diverse ethnicities. It in effect sealed the position of the Iranian state as a centralized power and demonstrated that ethnicity—and in the Azarbaijan case the emphasis on language as the core of ethnic identity—had little chance to win out when territorial nationalism as the dominant ideology of the state complemented geopolitical factors.

Qavam, however, was not entirely out of the picture. The final act of the Azarbaijan drama had yet to play out on the floor of the fifteenth Majles, and chiefly through the actions of Qavam’s rival and relative Mohammad Mosaddeq. After the withdrawal of the Red Army and demise of Azarbaijan autonomy, the fate of the northern oil concession was to be decided. Rigging the election with the help of the royal court and the army, Qavam hoped to control the majority in the legislature even though a small minority headed by Mosaddeq, who was highly critical of Qavam, were reelected. In October 1947 when the bill to establish a joint Soviet-Iranian oil venture in northern Iran was proposed by Qavam’s government, it was declared dead on arrival. Mosaddeq and his nationalist allies, some still members of Qavam’s Democratic Party, vigorously campaigned against granting any oil concession to foreign powers, a crucial move that set the stage for the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry two years later.

Soon after the vote, Qavam’s government, the longest serving in the postwar years, began to crumble. Massive strikes and frequent demonstrations orchestrated by the Tudeh Party and affiliated labor unions, which had become Qavam’s sworn enemies, paralyzed his government. Ministers who even a few weeks earlier were loyal to him resigned, some because he appeared to be sticking to his end of the agreement with the Soviets, and others because he appeared to be reneging it. Rabble-rousers in the Majles such as Hosain Makki (1911–1999) and Mozaffar Baqa’i (1912–1987), who earlier supported Qavam, resigned and joined Mosaddeq’s parliamentary faction. The press, too, labeled him the “old fox” of Iranian politics. Having no choice, he resigned in desperation in December 1947 and quickly left for medical treatment in Europe. Yet despite this apparent defeat, whether out of good faith or through sheer maneuvering, he had achieved the immediate goals he had set for his government, something that no other premier during the tumultuous postwar years could claim. He had ended the secessionist crises, had brought together the left and the center (at least briefly), had opened new avenues for middle-class mobility, and had initiated a planned economy for the country.


The annulment of the northern oil concession, Qavam’s unforeseen political Achilles’ heel, immediately rekindled both in and out of the Majles the longstanding demand to renegotiate the oil concession that had been granted to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The failure of Reza Shah’s government to improve the terms of the original D’Arcy oil concession of 1901 had left a lasting scar. The 1933 concession extended for another sixty years AIOC’s full control over the huge oil fields of Khuzestan as well as over production levels, distribution, pricing, bookkeeping, taxation, and ownership of installations and equipment at Abadan refinery. The AIOC, which was owned by the British government, was not only a vital source for replenishing the postwar British economy but also a source of steady income, having extended operations beyond Iran into neighboring Iraq; Kuwait; and the British-controlled emirates of the Persian Gulf, the so-called Trucial States stretching from Abu Dhabi to the border of Oman (the future United Arab Emirates).

The Iranian share, a meager royalty on the production of Iranian crude, amounted as late as 1951 to barely 16 percent of the total. In a clever ploy, moreover, the Iranian share was subject to income taxes paid to the British treasury not only on the oil extracted from Iranian fields but also on AIOC production in the whole region. In 1947 AIOC’s after-tax profits exceeded £40 million (US$161 million), which entitled Iran to just £7 million ($34 million), or 17.5 percent royalties, from its own production, and this only after preliminary efforts to increase the Iranian share. There were other flagrantly unfair AIOC practices in determining Iranian royalties and other revenues, to which the Iranians had long objected. Discriminatory treatment toward Iranian technicians, engineers, and managers was another source of grievance. The AIOC—the forerunner of today’s British Petroleum (BP)—ran the Iranian oil industry not unlike a colonial plantation, exerting the hierarchy of class-conscious English society and preserving a culture of colonial privilege. Iran’s other major contribution to the workforce was cheap labor, mostly Bakhtiyari herdsmen and the Arabic-speaking population of Khuzestan working under harsh conditions and with exploitative wages and poor living standards. On the oil workers’ living conditions in Abadan one observer wrote:

Wages were 50 cents a day. There was no vacation pay, no sick leave, no disability compensation. The workers lived in a shantytown called Kaghazabad, or Paper City, without running water or electricity. . . . In winter the earth flooded and became a flat, perspiring lake. The mud in town was knee-deep, and . . . when the rains subsided, clouds of nipping, small-winged flies rose from the stagnant water to fill the nostrils. . . . Summer was worse. . . . The heat was torrid . . . sticky and unrelenting—while the wind and sandstorms shipped off the desert hot as a blower. The dwellings of Kaghazabad, cobbled from rusted oil drums hammered flat, turned into sweltering ovens. . . . In every crevice hung the foul, sulfurous stench of burning oil. . . . [I]n Kaghazabad there was nothing—not a tea shop, not a bath, not a single tree. The tiled reflecting pool and shaded central square that were part of every Iranian town . . . were missing here. The unpaved alleyways were emporiums for rats.1

The cancellation of the northern oil concession thus offered to nationalists in the Iranian Majles a golden opportunity to demand renegotiation of the AIOC concession and eventually a call for nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. The policy of negative equilibrium set forth as early as 1946 was favored by Mosaddeq, his close colleague Hosain Makki and their cohorts, as well as by the Tudeh, which nevertheless was furious over the cancellation of the northern oil concession. With negative equilibrium, the nationalists aimed to cancel unfair privileges of both powers and to preserve Iran’s precarious balance in an increasingly polarizing world. Stalin’s gradual abandonment of the idea of an Iranian oil concession (apparently because of new prospects in western Siberian oil reserves) further helped Iranian nationalists in their quest.

Demands for better terms, and eventually for nationalization, also coincided with the decolonization of the postwar era, and no doubt were boosted by it. The end to nearly two centuries of British colonial presence in India and the eventual victory of the Indian nationalist movement was cherished by the Iranians, who for long had been mindful of the British power to the east. Yet Indian independence in July 1947 came with the painful experience of partition and the rise of the adversarial nations of India and Pakistan, an event coinciding in November 1947 with the partition of Mandatory Palestine and the emergence of the state of Israel despite Arab Palestinian protests.

Receiving wide coverage in the Iranian press, these events added to the already-tense relations with AIOC and mounting resentment toward the “old lion” of the British Empire, or as the Iranian press portrayed it, the “old fox.” Partitions in Palestine and India were seen as British ploys to divide and prolong colonial rule in a new disguise, in the same way that AIOC was exploiting the fractured Iranian polity for its own benefits. Suspicion and distrust toward Britain thus bordered on open hostility. From the 1930s onwards, oil was no longer seen by the majority of Iranians just as a thick black material extracted from the underground by farangis in the midst of the remote southern Bakhtiyari mountains and then exported through the distant shores of the Persian Gulf. Now the Iranian oil was something connected to Iranians’ everyday lives from the kerosene they put into their lamps to the gasoline that was needed for buses and trucks. Now they felt intensely that their national wealth was being excessively pumped out from under their feet at frivolous prices and shipped away to distant lands in order to secure the prosperity and well-being of powerful nations at the expense of their poverty and disempowerment.

Besides being an issue of Iran’s moral right over its own resources, the demand for higher oil income became an urgent national cause given the fall in other sources of state revenue. Income from direct and indirect taxation, and customs and excise taxes, all diminished because of the postwar economic downturn. Over a quarter of a century the Iranian state—and to an increasing degree the Iranian economy—became heavily reliant on oil revenue for reorganizing its armed forces and later for financing its growing bureaucracy and public works. Even more so this was the case after World War II. US military aid after 1943 only partially helped the growing deficit, and US loans promised in the late 1940s and early 1950s did not materialize until after 1953. Enamored of the then-popular idea of the state as agent of economic development, Iranian nationalists considered oil revenue the only key to industrial and infrastructural transformation. The left hoped to replicate the Soviet planned economy, whereas the pro-Western tendencies relied on the American model of development, as articulated by the Roosevelt administration. The Iranian state sought an almost complete monopoly over oil income as a pragmatic means to achieve these objectives.

The increase in oil revenue since the 1920s, though impressive at first glance, was deceiving. While Iran’s crude production increased nearly fivefold to thirty-one thousand long tons daily (equal to 252,500 barrels) between 1941 and 1950, its fixed royalties of 16 percent, a paltry one-sixth of the total AIOC income of £100 million (about $400 million), was canceled by near hyperinflation of the postwar years. The Iranians naturally felt the British government was not negotiating in good faith for better terms for Iran. The British public, in contrast, demanded that its government, then led by the Labour Party under Clement Attlee, compensate them for their sacrifices and hardships during the war and uphold the overseas interests crucial to the recovery of their nation. This was in clear contrast to demands for Iranian nationalization as in 1956 the British public opinion was diametrically opposed to Egypt’s demand for nationalization of the Suez Canal. Even though the Labour government at the time was nationalizing major British industries including coal and the railroad, the rationale for nationalization was barely extended to investments abroad. Even Labour’s leniency toward Iran at the outset of negotiations was countered by AIOC’s rigidity, even hostility, toward Iranian demands, which remained unresolved.


The oil negotiations only deepened Iran’s political divide, which by now was conditioned by Cold War rivalries. Whether directly or by proxy, a multiparty scramble between 1949 and 1951 involved ambitious army generals, Mohammad Reza Shah and the royal court, conservative statesmen, the Tudeh Party and its sympathizers, the politicized clergy who were returning to the political stage, their affiliated Islamist organizations, and liberal nationalist and their diverse allies who were organized under the umbrella of the National Front (Jebheh-ye Melli).

In January 1949 a renewed call in the Majles for the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry added fresh momentum to the anti-British sentiments. Though not entirely unprecedented, the Majles debate energized the minority deputies led by Mohammad Mosaddeq, pressing the government to negotiate a new deal with AIOC. Less than a month later, in a tense environment of polarized politics and short-lived alliances, an unsuccessful assassination attempt was carried out against the shah by a presumed Tudeh sympathizer. The shah, who was attending a public event at Tehran University, escaped major injuries, but the incident offered a chance for forces supporting the shah to declare the Tudeh Party illegal, arrest its leadership—some of its members appeared to be involved in the plot—and start a nationwide crackdown on the left.

Soon after, the shah, who exploited the incident to gain a greater say in domestic affairs and presumably to defuse maverick factionalism in the Majles, demanded the revision of the constitution so as to provide him with a new royal prerogative. In July 1949 a hastily convened Constituent Assembly amended article 48 of the 1906–1907 constitution thus granting new constitutional powers to the shah to dissolve the Majles at his discretion but on the condition that a new election be held within the following six months. This victory for Mohammad Reza Shah was doubtless achieved with some level of support from the populace, tired of political skirmishes and skullduggery in and out of the Majles (pl. 9.3).

If the amendment to the constitution was clearly in the shah’s favor, the rapidly changing political climate was not. With frequent street demonstrations becoming an effective tool of the Tudeh, and with pro-Mosaddeq advocates taking the upper hand in the press and behind the podium, the election of the sixteenth Majles was bound to become the focal point of nationalist opposition to the status quo. Protesting the rigged election—which favored conservative candidates mostly of the landowning classes—a coalition of nationalist deputies headed by Mosaddeq took advantage of the new constitutional amendment and demanded that the shah cancel the old election and order a new one. At the outset this proved a futile maneuver, even after Mosaddeq and his allies took a prolonged sanctuary (bast) in the royal palace. Yet a few months later, the shah succumbed to public pressure and ordered a new election only in the capital. In January 1950 when the Tehran electorate went to the polls, Mosaddeq and candidates of the National Front gained the highest number of votes, a starting point for a process that eventually brought Mosaddeq to the office of prime minister. The tacit alignment of the shah with the National Front, however, was ephemeral and largely a reaction to both the growth of Tudeh and the rise of General Razmara as the new strongman of the armed forces.

General Haj ‘Ali Razmara’s premiership in June 1950 came in the wake of many months of political turmoil and changes or reshuffling in the weak cabinets. A rising star of the Iranian army, Razmara was a French-educated field officer who served throughout Iran in various capacities in the military and was popular among the lower ranks. He was the key officer in recapturing Azarbaijan in 1946, and at the age of forty-seven he had become Iran’s youngest chief of staff. Ambitious, disciplined, and politically astute, he had married up in the nobility.

While reaching an understanding with the Tudeh Party, Razmara nurtured some support among conservatives, which allowed him to keep the shah at bay for a while and try to rein in the National Front on the crucial issue of oil negotiations with AIOC. He had the blessing of the United States, which saw him as a bulwark against both communism and the reactionaries and had promised him much-needed financial aid. He had the confidence of Britain in settling the oil crisis, at least at the outset, and was on good terms with the Soviet Union, which was heartened by his soft handling of the Tudeh. For a moment it seemed that he had mastered the most volatile stage four years after Qavam’s coalition government had brought a semblance of political stability to the country.

Siding with the moderates, Razmara backed the Supplemental Agreement, a proposal negotiated earlier with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and was before the Majles since July 1949. It offered Iran better terms but fell far short of the demands set forth by the Iranian nationalists and backed by the popular press. He soon realized that the Supplemental Agreement had no chance in the face of fierce opposition from the National Front. Nor were the AIOC’s negotiators willing to offer better terms. Loyal to the colonial mentality of the time, the AIOC executives—and the British civil servants who backed them in London—came up with the ingenious ides of holding the Iranian government in breach of the 1933 agreement, a concession that the British government had earlier almost imposed on Reza Shah and his minister of finance, Hasan Taqizadeh.

Furthermore, the AIOC condescendingly viewed Iranian subordinates in its employment as incapable of holding managerial posts and unable to grasp the company’s bookkeeping—which the Iranians viewed as shady and full of dishonest accounting practices. It moreover brazenly defended its treatment of the Iranian workforce. Stubborn and shortsighted–almost cynical—it turned a deaf ear to Razmara’s repeated pleas and to the United States’ mediation efforts behind the scene. The US interest in the negotiations was perceived by AIOC as likely to allow Americans an eventual foothold in the Iranian oil industry. American oil companies—themselves not models of fairness and integrity—had negotiated new contracts with the government of Venezuela on a fifty-fifty profit sharing basis, and in 1950 they were about to do the same with Saudi Arabia, where ARAMCO, a conglomerate of giant American oil companies, had been operating since 1933. ARAMCO had received, in exchange for the fifty-fifty deal with Saudi Arabia, a 50 percent tax break from US Congress (known as the “golden gimmick”). The AIOC refused to consider any of that and quietly urged the Americans to keep the Saudi deal a secret until the Iranians agreed to their far less favorable terms.

By November 1950, when the Majles finally rejected the Supplemental Agreement, the reluctant AIOC began to entertain similar terms of fifty-fifty profit sharing, which, as it turned out, was too late. Despite signs of earlier moderation, the Majles’ Oil Committee—chaired by Mohammad Mosaddeq—was no longer interested in anything short of full ownership of Iran’s oil industry. Razmara recognized the eventuality of nationalization and the potentials of public enthusiasm aroused by months of debates in and out of the Majles. He argued that Iran was technically and financially unprepared to take over the giant oil industry and instead suggested that it was more realistic to adopt a gradualist approach toward nationalization. Yet the firebrands within the National Front, and Mosaddeq himself, were in no mood to back down from the rhetoric and give Razmara a chance. They accused him instead of financial corruption, hounding the press, and being a “British lackey” and a traitor who deserved to be eliminated.

Razmara’s proposed decentralization program also met with disapproval from the National Front, even though the Constitution envisaged the popularly elected provincial councils as the basis for a less centralized political arrangement. His plan was labeled by his opponents as a “conspiracy” to partition Iran. Razmara’s anticorruption campaign, to rid the country of the inept officialdom—and more important, his proposed land reform—faced resistance from the landowning deputies in the Majles. Curbing the influence of the royal court functionaries equally angered the shah. The press moreover damaged his moral standing by hinting at his secret liaisons. The Tudeh Party, too, whose leadership had escaped prison and fled to exile in the Soviet Union—allegedly with the help of Razmara’s pro-Tudeh officers—were no kinder to the premier and even branded him an agent of American imperialism. In reality, Razmara’s foreign policy parted ways with the Americans’ patronizing support and even went so far as to end the US military aid program and abort reconnaissance flights over the Soviet border.

In March 1951, still at the political helm and determined to resolve the oil dispute, Razmara was assassinated by Khalil Tahmasbi, a member of the Fada’iyan-e Islam (those who sacrifice themselves for Islam) terrorist organization when he was attending a memorial in a Tehran mosque. The assassin was loyal to the speaker of the Majles, Ayatollah Abul-Qasem Kashani (1877–1962), and to the maverick politician Mozaffar Baqa’i, a Majles deputy and ranking member of the National Front who had a checkered past. Other members of the National Front were also accused of involvement. Whether the assassination was the work of a deranged mind or, more likely, triggered by Razmara’s personal feud with Kashani—who was bitter over having been temporarily exiled by Razmara after the attempt against the shah’s life—remains a matter of speculation. The Iranian narrative often downplayed Razmara’s assassination, for if he was not demonized as a foreign agent, he was considered a potential dictator in the model of Reza Khan. His removal benefited both the shah—who was afraid of his energetic general—and the National Front at a time when quarrels over oil nationalization had reached a new height.

Two weeks after Razmara’s assassination, on the eve of the Nowruz celebration (March 20, 1951), the oil nationalization bill passed the Majles after more than two years of heated debate. Vast popular support for Mosaddeq in rallies and in the press was a sign of a clear public mandate. The absence of a balancing force, such as Razmara, also triggered a massive anti-AIOC strike throughout the oil industry, organized by the Tudeh Party. It turned violent and cost many lives. Both events promised more conflicts domestically and internationally.

The rise to prominence of Ayatollah Kashani as an ally of the National Front and speaker of the Majles registered a turning point, for it signaled the end of clergy’s political isolation under Reza Shah. As an activist leader he should be seen as the historical link between Modarres, a generation earlier, and Ayatollah Khomeini, a generation later. After returning from exile in Beirut at the shah’s personal urging, Kashani not only had gained a new accolade but also had added a new element of Islamic radicalism to the public space. As a result, the Fada’iyan-e Islam, his implicit allies, acquired greater acceptance in the political fold. Abul-Qasem Kashani, a mojtahed trained in Najaf in the late 1910s, had earned his prestige by his politics rather than his scholarly record. Witness to the British occupation of southern Iraq during World War I, in 1919 he was sentenced to death in absentia by the British mandatory authorities for his part in the Iraqi Shi‘i revolt. Fleeing to Iran, he became a protégé of Hasan Modarres and stood with him against Reza Khan’s 1924 proposed republic. Shortly afterward, however, when he was elected to the Constituent Assembly that abolished the Qajar dynasty, he voted in favor of Pahlavi rule and remained on amiable terms with Reza Shah.

During World War II he was arrested by the British occupying forces in Iran on charges of harboring pro-Nazi sentiments and was sent into exile. Soon after his return a few years later, he rose to prominence, first by organizing a contingent of Iranian volunteers to the Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and afterward as the patron of the Fada’iyan-e Islam. Naming Razmara an infidel whose blood was to be shed, his pronouncement acted as a virtual fatwa emboldening the Fada’iyan to murder the premier. As an influential cleric, Kashani appealed to the National Front for he mustered large crowds of the lower-middle classes and the bazaar merchants in support of the nationalist cause. Later as the speaker of the Majles he proved only partially committed to the National Front’s program and soon after became something of a liability for Mosaddeq. By 1953 he had abandoned the National Front altogether and implicitly defected to the shah’s camp, a glaring shift of loyalty to be followed by most members of the clergy. Rumored to be colluding with the AIOC representatives, his turnaround was a major blow to the nationalist cause.

As tactical allies of Kashani, the Fada’iyan-e Islam a small but effective semi-clandestine militant group, routinely resorted to terror, intimidation, and assassination of the “enemies of Islam.” Their utopian Islamic order was disciplined by a strict reading of the shari‘a, and they shared characteristics with advocates of Salafism. The Fada’iyan’s founder and leader, who chose the nostalgic pseudonym Navvab Safavi, or “prince of the Safavid house,” was a maladapted seminarian in Qom who once was an AIOC employee in Abadan. He was no doubt inspired by Ikhwan al-Muslimin (Society of Muslim Brothers) in Egypt and like that group’s founder, Hasan al-Banna, nursed anticolonial sentiments after having worked in a British-controlled environment. Like the Ikhwan, the Iranian Fada’iyan tried to build a hierarchical network of devotees. Their use of the term fada’i (one who sacrifices his life for a cause) may have been inspired by memories of the twelfth-century Isma‘ilis of the Alamut and legend of the Assassins, but in practice it was modeled after the Ikhwan’s hierarchy.

A disturbing development of the postwar era, the Fada’iyan—nearly all laymen with backgrounds in the bazaar—were intolerant of both secular society and critics of Islamic shari‘a as interpreted by mainstream clergy. In 1946 they assassinated Ahmad Kasravi for his disparaging remarks about Shi‘ism. In 1949 they killed the minister of the royal court ‘Abd al-Hosain Hazhir (1902–1949), a capable statesman and ally of the shah, presumably on charges of irreligious conduct and selling out to foreign interests. To achieve their ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic government, however, the Fada’iyan were willing to form tactical alliances even with members of the National Front or the Pahlavi court. Their radical convictions led to their eventual destruction however when in 1955 Navvab Safavi and two of his lieutenants were executed after a failed assassination attempt against the prime minister Hosain ‘Ala (1884–1964), a statesman of some integrity from the Qajar nobility who was viewed as an Anglophile. Their memory lingered and inspired others in later generations and especially among the activists of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.


After an interregnum of an interim government and weeks of negotiations with the shah, on April 28, 1951, Mohammad Mosaddeq was appointed the new prime minister. He had received seventy-nine votes of confidence out of the total of ninety-one Majles deputies present on the voting day. The leader of the National Front and one of the most eminent deputies in the whole life of the Majles, Mosaddeq was hailed as the defender of national sovereignty, constitutional rights, free and fair elections, and above all a champion of the oil nationalization campaign. His long career of more than half a century distinguished him as an ardent liberal, a seasoned parliamentarian, and a charismatic orator. His political savvy as a premier proved less immaculate, as he struggled to maneuver a bankrupt government through a tumultuous period of internal and external crisis.

Physically frail and melancholy in character, Mosaddeq was something of a hypochondriac, a condition not uncommon among members of the Qajar nobility. Mocking references in the Western press to the “crying” prime minister and his eccentricities, though thoroughly biased, may well be attributed to an anxiety disorder that made him susceptible to nervous collapse and bouts of depression. Frequently bedridden, he embarked on his national crusade from under a blanket, as if it might shield him from a hostile world. His informal manner of conducting government affairs from his bed, complete with pajamas and a white robe de chambre, became the subject of unfair ridicule. In formal attire, however, his abiding by rules of Persian etiquette and old-school courtesy made him a charming man of verve and character. Yet it was his public image of frailty and poor health that prevailed. As he once observed in conversation with Dean Acheson, the American secretary of state, his poor health reflected the condition of his nation, which had long been battered and bruised (fig. 9.4). It is no wonder that he was destined to be written into modern Iranian history–and modern Iranian psyche—as a fallen hero, a virtual martyr, and a personification of his nation, which was in cosmic battle with adversarial forces.

A principled and at times stubborn man, he was approaching seventy years of age when he accepted the office of premier. Like his relative Ahmad Qavam, he belonged to Iran’s bureaucratic and landowning nobility and had old family ties to the Qajar house. His Qajar title was Mosaddeq al-Saltaneh (“validator of the kingdom”). Having lost his father at a young age, he was brought up by his mother, a matriarch who proved deeply influential to his personality and the shaping of his public career. A pageboy in Naser al-Din Shah’s court and later a state accountant (mostowfi)—a hereditary office in his family—he rose through the ranks to hold various high offices in the postconstitutional era. He observed the Constitutional Revolution with a mix of respect and reservation, as any nobleman of his standing would, before heading to France in 1910, followed by three years of studying law at Neuchâtel University in Switzerland.

Figure 9.4. US Secretary of State Dean Acheson confers with Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, October 1951.

Department of State, Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library.

The experience of studying law in a modern European setting seemed to have made him a lifetime convert to constitutionalism and the rule of law. Yet unlike many Europeanized modernists of his time, he remained truly engaged with his own culture and society. Having married into the family of the Imam Jom‘eh of Tehran—one of the oldest clerical families of Iran, with roots in the Safavid era—Mosaddeq’s somewhat unusual union seems to have helped give him a new perspective on the place of Shi‘i Islam in Iranian society and traditions. It also offered him a subject for his Swiss doctoral dissertation on will and testaments and inheritance in Islamic law, a subject novel for a dissertation at the time and for a man of his background. Examining subtleties of the Shi‘i legal system through the lens of modern European law helped him recognize impediments in enforcing these in a modern context. Upon his return in 1914, on the eve of World War I, he began a career of teaching and administration while publishing in Persian on such topics as capitulatory rights of imperial powers and national sovereignty. These were themes instructive in shaping his political vision.

By February 1921 and the rise of Reza Khan to power, Mosaddeq, like many of his cohorts, probably viewed the coup as a foreign plot in the wake of the aborted 1919 agreement (to which Mosaddeq had been adamantly opposed while he was still in Europe). Fearing arrest, he took refuge in Bakhtiyari territory in central Fars, a move that was seen by Tehran as prelude to a rebellion. Yet soon after the restoration of the Qajar notables, he returned to Tehran to serve in various sub-ministerial and ministerial posts. He came to accept Reza Khan as a necessary evil, though he did so with an air of condescension. He even joined a small group of like-minded statesmen and cultural figures who, in 1921, briefly took it upon themselves to educate the culturally uncouth Cossack officer. In 1922 Mosaddeq briefly served as finance minister under Qavam and in early 1923 as foreign minister under Hasan Moshir al-Dowleh Pirniya, though in both posts he performed as a conscientious but reluctant statesman. In every post he found a perfectly convincing reason to resign, a favorite resort in the face of resistance—or perceived resistance—to his moral high ground. Aside from the vagaries of the politics of the time and undeniable causes for frustration, one cannot help but sense in Mosaddeq a certain moral gratification in his ingenious ways of opting out of the system.

Yet peculiarities aside, soon Mosaddeq found himself out of the government loop. Even after his courageous speech in 1925 in the fifth Majles against abolishing the Qajar dynasty, Mosaddeq survived as a deputy in the next two sessions of the Majles and on a number of occasions opposed the government’s reform program. He opposed for instance the north-south axis of the proposed trans-Iranian railroad on strategic and financial grounds. Instead, he favored a cheaper road network and a northwest-to-southeast railroad to connect the European network through Turkey to South Asia. Though he seems to have been oblivious to the importance of the Persian Gulf’s sea access, he was correct in realizing the possibilities for expanding cross-border trade. On judicial reforms he was not in favor of Davar’s drastic overhaul of the judiciary. He questioned the hurried and harmful urbanization process, and especially the mindless destruction of the city quarters, which he correctly thought injurious to the Persian urban fabric and architectural monuments. In nearly all cases his objections were ignored, adding to his frustration with the Pahlavi Westernizing process—and to Reza Shah’s suspicion of the outspoken deputy.

Mosaddeq’s stance relegated him to political exile. From 1928 to 1943 for fifteen years he lived the life of a recluse, sequestered in his private estate near Tehran farming his land and fighting various illnesses. Yet seclusion did not save him from arrest and imprisonment when in 1940, during the last phase of Reza Shah’s vengeful purge of the old elite, he was detained in a remote fortress in Birjand in southern Khorasan for his alleged pro-German sentiments. This was after his pro-German son-in-law, Ahmad Matin Daftari, who served as the penultimate prime minister of Reza Shah, was dismissed from office and arrested. Mosaddeq’s physical elimination would be almost certain were it not for the crown prince Mohammad Reza’s intercession with his father. By 1943 when Mosaddeq was elected to the fourteenth Majles as a first deputy from Tehran, he was recognized as a leading voice against the mistakes and atrocities of Reza Shah’s time. His was also an audible voice against undue British influence in Iranian affairs and intrigue through proxies. He objected to the failings of the postwar governments and flagrant irregularities in the Majles election.

Motivated and reenergized by new political horizons, he came to view the politics of the notables as no longer viable and essentially bankrupt. Even more than Qavam and Razmara, both of whom he opposed, he was willing to align himself with the growing middle classes, who shared his high aspirations. He was quick to learn the populist politics of the postwar era and quicker to grasp and indigenize its anti-imperialist message as it circulated throughout the non-Western milieu, from China, India, and Southeast Asia to Africa and Latin America. In this and other respects, Mosaddeq represented a new face of postcolonial leadership pioneered by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and later by Sukarno in Indonesia and Jamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Yet in contrast to most postcolonial leaders, Mosaddeq was an anomaly: he neither rose from the underprivileged classes or the bourgeoisie, nor did he entertain revolutionary views at the outset of his career.


From the start of his premiership in April 1951, Mosaddeq’s agenda was set with an almost heroic fervor. He had come to office to implement the oil nationalization as his prime objective—an aspiration that, despite a popular mandate, was soon to face opposition from many quarters: from Britain, which was fundamentally against it; from the Tudeh, which still advocated a northern oil concession to the Soviet Union; and soon from the shah and conservatives and eventually from Mosaddeq’s own allies in the Majles and the National Front. Soon after he officially declared the nationalization in May 1951, in a public address from Radio Iran in June, he summed up the motives behind the decision:

Long years of negotiations with foreign countries have thus far yielded no results. With the oil revenue we can meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. . . . By eliminating the power of the British company [i.e., AIOC], we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will achieve its economic and political independence.2

High hopes for oil nationalization as key to economic sovereignty, prosperity, material development, and an end to foreign intervention remained at the core of Mosaddeq’s agenda throughout his term in office. In the same address he restated the need for compensation—which the nationalization law passed by the Majles had set at 25 percent of Iran’s net profits from oil production in order to cover AIOC’s legitimate claims and ownership of the oil installations. Mosaddeq also denied any intention to expel the British technical staff employed in the oil industry.

To achieve this, he had to cross a treacherous course. His first cabinet, chosen hastily, consisted of a mix of conservative generals, devout nationalists, and old-hand bureaucrats, no doubt to balance the diverse constituencies whose support he hoped to muster. During the twenty-six months he was in power, he repeatedly reshuffled his cabinet (five changes of ministers of the interior in the first ten months), a record even for Iran’s turbulent politics of the time. His noncabinet appointments were no more stable. Within the Majles, support for his program and its implementation also dwindled. Even if such instability was in part the outcome of the semirevolutionary climate Mosaddeq inherited or intrigue from domestic and foreign quarters, he also contributed to it. Despite lofty objectives, his managerial flaws—aggravated by illness, anxieties, and obstinacy—never allowed him to fully grasp the reins of power. Instead, these paved the way for his eventual downfall, which he anticipated himself with an air of fatalism almost from the start. Yet he seemed to thrive in the environment of confrontation, as if political idealism brought out the best of his public performances.

At the outset, nationalization went ahead with an overwhelming public mandate and with the Majles’ support. Mosaddeq emerged as the hero of “dispossession” (khal‘-e yadd), as the takeover of the oil industry from British control came to be known. After an angry exchange of notes with the AIOC, soon an Iranian team was dispatched to the heart of the British oil operation in Abadan to hoist the Iranian flag over the oil refinery. To AIOC’s surprise, Iranian technicians and a few engineers who were assigned to Khuzestan were able to manage the oil industry’s day-to-day operations. Yet with limited experience in oil exploration and refining, it soon became apparent that they needed time and cooperation to master the managerial skills and the technical knowhow that were jealously guarded by the British company. Despite Mosaddeq’s public assurances, AIOC quickly withdrew its entire staff and the Iranian government’s call for British employees to resume work in the nationalized industry remained unheeded. Under the shadow of British warships harbored at Abadan, the British government soon evacuated nearly all its nationals. It also put Royal Air Force squadrons in Cyprus on full alert to support the anticipated naval takeover of the oil installations.

Outraged by Iranian action, the British government also lodged complaints with the International Court of Justice at The Hague, demanding that Iranian oil nationalization be declared illegal and thus void under international law. In response, Iran lodged its own counterclaims and sent representatives to defend its case. The Iranian oil nationalization thus rapidly developed into an international crisis, with important security and strategic repercussions that soon invited US intervention. At the time, Iran supplied more than 20 percent of the world’s total oil production and the imminent cutoff of such a vital source threatened to disrupt the Western economies that were coming out of the postwar recession. Yet the American mediation, headed by President Harry Truman’s emissary Averell Harriman (1891–1986), proved ineffective. Wary of British sincerity, Mosaddeq’s government turned down the proposal for a fifty-fifty profit sharing proposed by the Americans. Mosaddeq and his advisers were legitimately concerned with many provisions and hidden clauses that such a proposal had made in favor of the British company. Torn between loyalty toward Britain, its most important ally, and support for a country long abused by European powers, the Truman administration seemingly was not prepared to press its case any further. Public demonstrations organized by the Tudeh Party against the American “goodwill” mission and the ensuing clashes with the mounted police in front of the Majles resulted in ten fatalities and many injured.

By September 1951, as Anglo-Iranian relations further deteriorated, the British government took its case to the UN Security Council. To contest the British claim, Mosaddeq was prompted to travel to New York as the head of a large delegation, a move designed not only to press Iran’s case but also to draw support in the United States and from the international community. A warm reception by the American public was promising even before Mosaddeq’s passionate speech at the Security Council reiterated Iran’s position that the dispute with AIOC was an internal affair and outside the jurisdiction of both the Security Council and the International Court of Justice. Mosaddeq’s speech was coached in a proficient legal language.

To further pressure Iran, in September 1951 the British government imposed a full maritime embargo on the export of Iranian oil. A few customers who were willing to purchase Iranian oil were quickly scared off and with equal rapidity the shortage in demand was filled by increased production of the Iraq Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of AIOC, and of other Persian Gulf oil fields in Kuwait and Dubai. Initial impact aside, the long-term effect of the embargo on the British market was minimal. Yet its effect on the Iranian economy was substantial throughout Mosaddeq’s premiership. Issuing national government bonds to compensate for the loss of income could barely avert a financial crisis. A later increase in the volume of currency issued by the Mosaddeq government only intensified the inflationary trend. It became apparent that nationalization, though a brave move expressive of national sentiments, was a formidable task, if not an untenable one. By early 1952, oil production had come to a complete standstill—for the first time since 1909—threatening with bankruptcy the government that aimed to liberate Iran from the yoke of economic hegemony.

In the coming months more battles were to be fought in the streets, in the Majles, at negotiating tables with AIOC and with American negotiators, in international forums, with the shah and army, and even within the ranks of the National Front. Riding on Mosaddeq’s popularity and feeding on Iranians’ bitter memories of foreign intervention, the National Movement (Nahzat-e Melli)—as the oil nationalization campaign came to be known—appeared triumphant. Mosaddeq was a national hero the likes of whom Iran had rarely seen: a civilian rather than a military man, an articulate member of the nobility but also a fatherly figure with genuine compassion for ordinary folks, and though physically weak, determined and morally upright. Evidently willing to settle the oil issue in a reasonable fashion, he nevertheless was committed to restore the “rights of the nation,” a quandary that was not eased by the AIOC’s highly vindictive attitude, the British government’s resolve to destroy Mosaddeq almost from the start, the vagaries of the Cold War, and the treacheries of Iran’s domestic politics.

By early 1952 his opponents began to close ranks. On the left, the Tudeh Party portrayed him as a landowning aristocrat and an American agent and demagogue, while labeling the nationalization of oil as a backdoor entry for American economic imperialism (fig. 9.5). Even though a socialist splinter, which seceded from the Tudeh Party in 1948 and later came to be known as Niru-ye Sevvom (Third Force), joined the National Front and supported Mosaddeq, the Tudeh leadership and its press, loyal to the Soviet party line, did not. Through its frequent rallies in the capital and provinces, Tudeh presented itself as the party of the oppressed and underprivileged; it was not only against the monarchy and Western interests but also against Mosaddeq’s crumbling “bourgeois liberalism” (pl. 9.4).

Figure 9.5. Portrayed by a pro-Tudeh satirical journal as a baboon, Mosaddeq is dancing to the tune of his master, Uncle Sam. Baqa’i plays the tune.

Chalangar, no. 2, Ordibehesht 3, 1331/25 April 1952. Courtesy of Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi.

Counterdemonstrations by supporters of the National Front, as well as by the members of the Sumka (the Persian acronym for National Socialist Party of Workers of Iran) and supporters of Fada’iyan-e Islam, often resulted in bloody clashes and crackdowns by the police and the armed forces. Sumka was a small but openly fascist party that in every respect fashioned itself after the defunct German National Socialist Party. It advocated “Aryan” supremacy, engaged in thuggish street battles, and thrived on appearing militaristic (black-shirt uniforms in particular), and invented racist rituals. Officially founded in 1951 by a group of Iranian Nazi sympathizers headed by Davud Monshizadeh (1915–1989), a SS collaborator during the war and later a professor of Iranian philology in Munich, Sumka treated the Tudeh and the National Front as perfect targets of vocal and physical violence, much in the spirit of the Nazis. Sumka’s agitations were frowned upon by the pro-shah security forces but tolerated as a counterforce to the Tudeh. Mosaddeq’s government and is police force were too feeble to take meaningful action.

The security forces were themselves a source of trouble. During Mosaddeq’s first term, which ended in July 1952, there were at least ten serious cases of police crackdowns on street demonstrations, resulting in injuries and deaths. Pro-shah officers ambivalent about Mosaddeq’s abilities and critical of his alleged leniency toward the left often headed up the police force. Social unrest and violent rallies tarnished Mosaddeq’s image as a well-intentioned leader inundated by enmity and intrigue. Serious fractures within Mosaddeq’s own ranks heightened doubts of his political survival. At its inception, the National Front, a coalition of diverse and at times opposing political groups (few could be called parties) and independent politicians, espoused oil nationalization as its chief objective. On the left there was Hezb-e Zahmatkeshan-e Iran (Party of the Toilers of Iran)—itself a merger of nationalists of the left, headed by Mozaffar Baqa’i, and the socialist Niru-ye Sevvom, headed by Khalil Maleki (1903–1969), a German-educated academic, an articulate theoretician of socialism and a man of political integrity. The Third Force included a number of intellectuals and activists of the younger generation who were disillusioned with the Tudeh subservience and dogmatic line and by its totalitarian structure. Among them was Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923–1969), later an influential author and social critic. At the center was the Iran Party, dominated by liberal nationalists including Allahyar Saleh, Karim Sanjabi, Gholam-Hosain Sadiqi, and Hosain Fatemi. They were Mosaddeq’s close allies and shared his vision of liberal nationalism.

Hosain Fatemi (1917–1954), a close adviser to Mosaddeq and one of the founders of the National Front, was a firebrand editor of the influential newspaper Bakhtar-e Emruz (Today’s West), the unofficial organ of the National Front. Later as minister of foreign affairs and spokesman in Mosaddeq’s last cabinet, he was among the harshest critics of the shah and the royal court and a supporter of republicanism. His stance against Fada’iyan-e Islam’s intrusion into the political realm, which nearly cost him his life, did not deter him from steering Mosaddeq’s political course toward greater radicalism, much to the disgust of British and the American diplomats and negotiators. Adding to the volatile mix was Fada’iyan-e Islam, which soon concluded that, contrary to their earlier wishes, Mosaddeq was not their man and had no intention of enforcing the shari‘a as law of the land, let alone laying the ground for an Islamic government. Navvab Safavi, who openly aspired to establish the Caliphate, soon found himself in prison during most of Mosaddeq’s premiership.

As the oil dispute heated up and the stakes got higher, other allies of Mosaddeq, such as Baqa’i and Makki, gradually abandoned him; some switched to the shah’s camp, others abstained from taking sides, and others openly criticized the premier on the issues of oil negotiation, its disastrous outcome, and what appeared to be his increasingly authoritarian conduct. His critics viewed Mosaddeq’s struggle in the face of foreign and domestic opposition as quixotic, but few could propose a way out of his political quagmire. By mid-1952 it was as if he had exhausted most of his options and was ready for an honorable exit. Yet the oil dispute was one issue that kept the premier going in his arduous crusade. As he repeatedly confessed to his allies and foes, full implementation of oil nationalization at any price was the single most important mission—perhaps the only mission—of his premiership.

In addition to legal claims lodged with the International Court of Justice, the British threatened military intervention in the Persian Gulf. The United States came to realize sooner than Britain that, given Mosaddeq’s popularity, any direct confrontation with his government was unwise, illegal, and would most likely fail. Thinking within a Cold War frame of reference, the Americans advised that if Mosaddeq was to be removed from power, there was a chance that Iran would fall into the hands of the communists. The British opted to procrastinate in the hope that the transient nature of Iranian politics would soon put Mosaddeq out of office and open the way for a more pliant successor, such as the Anglophile Zia al-Din Tabataba’i.

The shah, sensing that political climate was in favor of Mosaddeq and oil nationalization, was not yet prepared to take part in an overt move against his premier. Simmering for sometime, however, were deep disagreements between them that were bound to boil over soon. He nursed a suspicion that Mosaddeq, a member of Qajar nobility and a longtime critic of his father’s rule, was contemplating an end to the Pahlavi monarchy in favor of a republic. Anxieties translated into frequent clashes—while still maintaining proper etiquette—not only over military and ministerial appointments but also over where Mosaddeq’s government was heading. The shah viewed his premier as a political maverick, and his personality as bold but unbalanced. Confrontation with Britain and engaging in street politics, the shah believed, is bound to result in economic ruination and possibly even a communist takeover. A majority of the old elite, the higher ranks of the army, majority of the senior ulama, and businessmen who suffered from economic stagnation shared his perspective. Mosaddeq’s political independence and his subtle patronizing attitude toward the shah, despite expressions of utter loyalty, did not help to ameliorate the shah’s fears.

Mosaddeq harbored his own misgivings. In earlier years he had not disfavored the young shah as a constitutional monarch even though he remained apprehensive toward most members of the royal family, especially the shah’s twin sister, Ashraf Pahlavi (1919–2016), whom he viewed, perhaps with an air of misogyny, as the source of intrigue and conspiracy. By 1949, however, the shah’s newly acquired power to dissolve the Majles at will alarmed Mosaddeq. With the army’s higher ranks mostly loyal to the shah, especially after Razmara, and with the conservatives closing ranks behind him, the shah appeared to Mosaddeq and his allies as a serious obstacle to the democratic process and even more to the successful fruition of the nationalization campaign. The shah received the attention—if not the confidence—of the Americans and maintained his ties with the British both through diplomatic channels and by means of informal contacts. As differences hardened over policy and over appointments, Mosaddeq began to point fingers at the shah not only for meddling in the affairs of the government and for sabotage in the Majles but also for fraternizing with his foreign foes.


By the time of the election of the seventeenth Majles in January 1952, Mosaddeq’s government had begun to experience major obstacles on all fronts. Oil negotiations reached a deadlock, largely because the British were procrastinating in hopes of a favorable vote of the International Court of Justice. The Iranian public loyal to Mosaddeq anticipated a rapid victory even though the deputies of the Majles had increased their attacks on the government’s performance. A victim of his own rhetoric, Mosaddeq could hardly comply with any settlement short of full control of the oil industry while Britain, concerned with its own imperial prestige, was in no mood to recognize nationalization as a sovereign right of the Iranian nation. Any compromise on Mosaddeq’s side would have prompted the swelling ranks of his opponents to accuse him of betrayal or, worse, of being an agent of the foreign powers, a charge that Mosaddeq had leveled at many of his own detractors.

The election of the seventeenth Majles was in shambles. In Tehran the electorate of about 140,000 returned to the Majles all twelve candidates of the National Front, a victory that inevitably raised the suspicion of Mosaddeq’s opponents such that they accused him of fixing the results. In other pro–National Front constituencies outside Tehran favorable candidates were also elected. Yet having realized that not all provincial results would be favorable to him—and would therefore relegate the National Front to a minority—Mosaddeq simply suspended the election and allowed the seventeenth Majles to be convened with a mere 85 deputies out of the total of 136. The pretext that if elections were held in anti–National Front constituencies they would be rigged by his opponents could be interpreted only as political maneuvering and, in fact, went down on Mosaddeq’s record as his first constitutional breach. In due course, even the eighty-five-member chamber proved increasingly critical of Mosaddeq.

In mid-July 1952 Mosaddeq was still popular enough to receive a vote of confidence from the Majles—sixty-five voted for him and nineteen abstained. Armed with parliamentary support, in a private audience with the shah ten days later he demanded for himself a full delegation of defense responsibilities, including control of all promotions, retirements, and appointments in the armed forces. The shah adamantly resisted on the grounds that he, not the premier, was head of the executive branch and responsible for army appointments. The crisis was rooted in contested readings of the Constitution and its ambiguous definition of the monarch’s power. Was the premier a mere enforcer of the monarch’s wishes or, as head of the government, designated by the legislature, was he responsible for all affairs of the state—this was a question unresolved in the text of the 1906–1907 Constitution. Deeper down, the dispute reflected the ancient tension between the royal court (dargah) and the divan, which for centuries upset the Iranian state.

When the shah refused to comply, Mosaddeq submitted his resignation and returned home. For a moment it seemed as if his term of office were over, along with his hopes for oil nationalization. The shah instantly appointed in his stead Ahmad Qavam, who had returned to the political arena after an absence of five years. The shah’s many grievances against the shrewd aristocrat aside, the appointment aimed to lessen political unrest and help resolve the oil crises. Qavam’s record as a skilled maneuverer persuaded the shah, the British and the Americans, and the conservative establishment to opt for the veteran statesman who now promised to resolve the oil crisis and restore law and order. Yet two independent developments completely changed the climate against Qavam and in favor of Mosaddeq, a turning point that shifted Iran’s politics toward a more radical course. The news of victory at the International Court at Hague came four days after Qavam’s appointment on July 17 as the new premier.

Though on July 19 the Majles gave its vote of confidence for the new premier, Qavam’s premiership met with spontaneous mass resistance. His promise that he would take a series of draconian measures to quell unrest, end the undue intervention of the clergy in politics (especially of Kashani), and bring the oil crisis to a conclusion, outraged a wide-ranging sector of the public still supportive of Mosaddeq. Street rallies in the capital and provinces on July 21, 1952 (which came to be known as si-e tir, or “thirtieth of the month of Tir 1331” of the Persian solar calendar)—perhaps the largest Iran had ever witnessed at the time—soon turned violent. Clashes with the police resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. The troops and tanks stationed in sensitive locations throughout the capital fired at the angry crowd. Even in Baharestan Square, in front of the Majles, despite protests by deputies of the National Front, the troops continued aiming at demonstrators. The riots made strange bedfellows. Members of the Tudeh Party, together with Sumka and the Fada’iyan-e-e Islam, attacked government buildings and beat troops and police officers. The call for the return of Mosaddeq to power displayed overt support for him and was a clear setback both for the seventy-seven-year-old Qavam, who immediately resigned on July 22, and for the shah, who quickly reappointed Mosaddeq to office. The shah also succumbed, resentfully, to Mosaddeq’s demand for control over the military.

The street slogan “We sacrificed our lives, we write with our blood: either death or Mosaddeq,” voiced by ordinary people, saw in Mosaddeq not merely a political leader but a savior of the Iranian nation. Mosaddeq’s victory was a serious blow to British and American hopes to see a compromising premier in his place. Both powers had actively sought out Qavam and backed him as an alternative to a coup or direct military action. Moreover, the July 21 uprising displayed the power of the urban lower and middle classes as a counterforce to the politics of the elite; this was a victory for Mosaddeq, who mustered such sentiments despite the Tudeh Party’s long-standing claims to be the party of the masses. Though Tudeh leadership still criticized Mosaddeq, during the uprising its rank and file embraced the National Movement en masse with Mosaddeq as their leader.

If a further providential sign was needed, it came with the news of Iran’s victory at The Hague on the same day: July 21, 1952. The ICJ agreed with Iran that the court lacked jurisdiction in the Iranian oil dispute since AIOC was a nonstate entity operating under an Iranian license; therefore, the court could not hear the case, as the British government had urged. This was the position initiated by Karim Sanjabi (1904–1995), a French-educated lawyer and a loyal member of Mosaddeq’s inner circle, who was a member of the delegation representing Iran in the court. The chief lawyer hired by Mosaddeq’s government, the Belgian Henri Rollin, skillfully argued Iran’s case. In June 1952 Mosaddeq himself attended the final court sessions to personally present Iran’s case and offer moral support to the defense team. The vote was perhaps the most constructive international victory for Mosaddeq and his allies, having reversed the International Court of Justice’s earlier injunction and vindicated the position Iran had taken all along.

With a public mandate and the vote of the International Court of Justice, Mosaddeq stood to gain an unprecedented advantage, and he was quick to exploit that in hopes of implementing his reform agenda beyond oil nationalization. Despite stiff resistance in the Majles, including from his own National Front allies, he push through legislation that delegated to him an unprecedented six months of full legislative power, amounting to rule by decree. Even before the end of the six-month period on August 11, 1952, Mosaddeq had succeeded in extending the delegation of power for another year, a move that was possible only through backdoor deals and reliance on street support. The virtual suspension of the legislature by a man who had built his career on defending the Constitution and legislative independence not only was ironic but also contentious, if not entirely unconstitutional.

Resort to rule by decree, however, seemed unavoidable, at least at the juncture where Mosaddeq found himself after July 21, when he became increasingly concerned with the mischief of the royal court and even the possibility of an army coup. Moreover, the Majles during most of its recent sessions had proved a quarrelling and rambunctious body with scores of demagogic and fraudulent deputies. It was a body with wide-ranging powers over the executive, and it often abused those powers with impunity. In the polarized climate of the time, if any government aimed at serious reforms, it would have found it a daunting task to pass legislation through the Majles. Yet Mosaddeq, when he was a Majles deputy, vehemently denied any outright delegation of power to the executive branch. Most recently in the case of Razmara, when he asked for far less delegation of power to renegotiate the oil concession, Mosaddeq and his allies called him a traitor, an agent of British and American imperialism, and as a generalissimo entertaining dictatorial aspirations in the style of Reza Khan.

To his credit, Mosaddeq employed his extraordinary powers to carry out a series of urgent reform measures, which he had promised in the program of his second government and mostly arose from the oil crisis. These included purging the army and the administration of corrupt elements (what amounted to eradicating Mosaddeq’s opponents), balancing the budget through higher taxation, and reforming election laws. Yet in reality, the sum total of Mosaddeq’s second government included measures that could least be justified by Mosaddeq’s own moral standards and legal principles. In November 1952 the law of social security (amniyat-e ejtema‘i) vastly extended the power of the state to detain and prosecute individuals and organizations at the expense of the most basic civil rights. On pain of exile and threat of imprisonment, dismissal, and financial penalties, the law banned most forms of civil disobedience, demonstrations, strikes, and expressions of political dissent. The enforcement of martial law throughout nearly all of Mosaddeq’s second term further tarnished the image of a man who had been hailed as defender of constitutional liberties.

No less problematic was reform of the press laws. It goes without saying that the behavior of the press all through the period was often egregiously reckless, if not criminal, with frequent cases of calumny and personal vendettas, absence of journalistic ethics, and plenty of ideological bias and outright lies. Yet imperfect as the press was, it still was the most influential forum for political debate and expression of dissent, especially since the airwaves were fully controlled by the state. Criticizing all sources of power and influence—the ministers, Majles deputies, the royal court and the shah, and the proxies of foreign powers—it was a thorn in the side of all governments of the period. The new regulations, however, made such functions ever more formidable, if not practically impossible. The new press bill before the Majles for ratification faced harsh criticism not only from newspaper editors and publishers who took sanctuary (bast) inside the Majles but also from among some of the most ardent former supporters of Mosaddeq.

With little hesitation, Mosaddeq’s government, with himself occupying the post of minster of defense, undertook a widespread purge of army officers suspected of hostility toward the National Movement. By September 1952 more than 150 senior officers were forced to retire, thus adding fuel to the rampant fires of discontent among the military ranks. Angered by attacks in the press and in the Majles, more and more officers turned against Mosaddeq. The officers supportive of the National Front were too few and too hesitant to counter the restive officer corps. Likewise, purges in the judiciary created serious discontent. Relying on delegated power, Mosaddeq’s judiciary reform commission, presided over by a zealous minister of justice, dismissed without any set procedure close to two hundred sitting judges, state attorneys, and higher-ranking officials on charges of corruption and ineptitude, despite resistance from members of the reform commission. The en masse dismissal of the judges of Iran’s Supreme Court under the pretext of eradicating corrupt elements from the court and giving it a more “Islamic” face, further frightened the judicial establishment, which was largely the product of reforms under ‘Ali Akbar Davar, the celebrated minster of the early Reza Shah era.

Mosaddeq’s more successful measures in the area of finance, labor laws, rural development, and housing—to the extent they ever were implemented—projected the image of a welfare state committed to the improvement of the standard of living and well-being of ordinary citizens. Yet here, too, a bureaucratic reform agenda—in the same vein as many state-run reform programs elsewhere—aimed to centralize services and strengthen the government’s hold over the public domain. Land reform, an idea contemplated since the constitutional period, was left aside by the Mosaddeq government until such time that the oil dispute was resolved. As a member of the landed nobility, Mosaddeq could not have fully dissociated himself from a worldview that still considered Iran an agrarian society, governed by ancient landlord-peasant covenants.

Added to the tensions caused by Mosaddeq’s restructuring, there was a growing level of discord with the shah and the royal court. Mosaddeq had closed down the offices of the shah’s brothers and sisters, banished Princess Ashraf to Europe on charges of conspiracy, and after July 21, 1952, had tried to rein in the shah by strictly treating him as a constitutional monarch. As early as February 1952 the shah appeared politically disarmed and isolated—ready to leave the country on a journey that appeared to be a prelude to his abdication or, as some viewed it, a shrewd move to outmaneuver his premier. In either case, it did not help Mosaddeq’s image that he was an old Qajar aristocrat facilitating the departure of a seemingly innocuous monarch who, though ambitious and even scheming, was constitutionally the head of state. On February 28, when Mosaddeq went to the royal palace to see the shah off, he encountered a small but angry pro-shah crowd—some of them the very same knife-wielding thugs (chaqukesh) who five months later, on July 21, were hired in pro-Mosaddeq rallies to set up barricades and attack the police. Fearing for his life, the premier fled the royal palace and took refuge in his own house nearby, which by then was functioning as his headquarters.

Relying more on a handful of his radical ministers and advisers such as Fatemi, and all the while fearful of his own violent removal, Mosaddeq tilted even more toward a political chasm. Even his former National Front colleagues were attacking him as an extremist while being repudiated, on and off, by Kashani and his allies. Viewed as the presumed “spiritual leader” of the National Movement, in reality Kashani relied not only on Fada’iyan-e Islam and on street toughs but also on the royal court, which he viewed as a counter to Mosaddeq’s excesses.

Earlier during Mosaddeq’s first tenure as premier and while Kashani was serving as the speaker, the Majles passed a bill with the utmost urgency releasing Khalil Tahmasbi, the assassin of the former prime minister Razmara—a clear interference in the conduct of the judiciary condoned by Mosaddeq’s government. The assassin was hailed by the Fada’iyan as a hero and a “master” and was received by Kashani at his home. Equally appalling was the passage of a bill initiated by Mosaddeq’s supporters that labeled Ahmad Qavam a “corruptor on the earth” (mosfsed-e fi’l arz), a charge in Islamic law punishable by death, and that called for the expropriation (mosadereh) of his properties. As a measure of duplicity of the speaker of the Majles, and his rapid shift in loyalty, on the morning of July 21, while rioters were denouncing Qavam on the streets of the capital, Radio Iran was broadcasting Kashani’s message congratulating Qavam for his premiership. In the meantime the angry crowd led by thugs looted Qavam’s house for the second time in a decade. He took refuge in Qom and in late July fled the country in fear of his life. The confiscated Qavam’s estate save for a portion that is to be allocated as pension to his family, was set aside for compensation to the martyrs of the July 21 uprising.

When the newly established Iranian senate, the second chamber of the Iranian legislature envisaged in the Constitution and convened in August 1951, refused to ratify either of the above two bills, Mosaddeq’s supporters, with his consent, first reduced the term of the senate from four year to two and then unceremoniously dissolved the senate altogether. The speaker of the senate and other senators, including Hasan Taqizadeh, declared the dissolution unconstitutional, but in the intimidating climate of the time, they seemingly had no choice but to abide. Mosaddeq’s supporters in the Majles accused senators of being reactionaries who were either appointees of the shah or large landowners who bought their way past the ballot box to guard the status quo and their own vested interests.


Mosaddeq’s domestic reforms, especially in the areas of administration and economy, were meant to answer to public unhappiness with the inconclusive nationalization campaign and the hardships caused by the absence of oil revenue, as well as the “oil-free” economy that he was courageous enough to advocate for. Yet by early 1953 he seemed to be at an impasse with dangerous options before him. Mosaddeq’s earlier conciliatory tone welcoming an amicable end to the oil crises during his first term had reached fever pitch by the second term. In October 1952 the defiant premier broke diplomatic relations with the newly elected Conservative government after the Iranian oil embargo went into effect. This provided a further pretext for the Tories to convince the United States of the need to force Mosaddeq out of office. With Winston Churchill as premier and Anthony Eden as foreign secretary and the most influential voice in the cabinet, the British government was in no mood to compromise. The British establishment and the conservative press routinely portrayed the Iranian premier as a dangerous xenophobe, an erratic rabble-rouser, and—after July 1952—a dictator. Eden, who had studied Persian at Christ Church and earned his degree in Oriental studies, viewed the world through the all-too-familiar Orientalist prism and was unwilling to accept the painful prospects of a postcolonial Britain at a time when Egyptian nationalism was on the rise. The Egyptian Free Officers, with Colonel Abdel Nasser as the force behind the coup, came to power on July 23, 1952, two days after the uprising in Iran. The British authorities could hardly have missed such a coincidence.

To them, as to many in the British establishment (and the British public at large), clinging to AIOC not only seemed vital for the postwar recovery but also symbolically crucial to project abroad an image of power and prestige, despite the realities of a waning empire. The British government thus chose to procrastinate while awaiting the outcome of the American presidential election in November 1952. The election of Dwight Eisenhower was indeed a turning point, for, among other things, it allowed the new secretary of the state, John Foster Dulles (1888–1959), to articulate a more aggressive foreign policy to assert the US presence in the world. Eden and Dulles, the two grand strategists, thus flanked Churchill and Eisenhower, the two wartime heroes, who strived to solidify the two powers’ Cold War alliance.

From the British perspective, the only feasible option in the oil dispute with Iran after the defeat of Ahmad Qavam was to bring about the downfall of Mosaddeq, rather than to opt for leniency or wait for Mosaddeq’s government to fall under the weight of its own difficulties. By February 1953, a joint declaration prepared by Truman and Churchill—the last in a series of back-and-forth proposals and counterproposals between Iran and Britain conducted through the intermediary of the United States—put forward three options to settle the oil dispute. The Iranian government found the terms highly burdensome and turned them down. In particular, the British demand for massive compensation, which amounted to Iranian economic indenture for many decades, could not have been condoned by any sovereign state, least of all by a nationalist government in the midst of a revolution. It was as if the terms were designed to be rejected, paving the way for an aggressive course.

Mosaddeq, sensing the changing international climate, offered a conciliatory counterproposal. In exchange for the British government complying, at least in public, with the principle of nationalization, he consented to arbitration by the International Court of Justice on the amount of compensation to be paid for the AIOC’s installations and other investments, but not for future losses of oil revenue. He further offered AIOC partnership with Iran—but not a monopoly—in the production and distribution of Iranian oil, at a percentage negotiable by the two sides. Under normal circumstances, this Iranian counterproposal would have provided viable grounds for an amicable agreement, but this was not to be the case, for the two Western powers obviously were not negotiating in good faith.

By March 1953 the new Eisenhower administration was convinced that the only plausible course for the United States was to remove Mosaddeq by means of a military coup. John Foster Dulles and his brother, Allen Dulles (1893–1969), the director of the newly organized Central Intelligence Agency, were architects of a foreign policy that came to be known as the Eisenhower doctrine. It was designed primarily to contain what seemed to Americans as the impending communist threat. Among countries neighboring the Soviet Union, Iran proved particularly crucial because of its long borders with its northern neighbor, its massive oil reserves, access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and its powerful Tudeh Party. The climate of communist phobia in the United States marked by the Red Scare and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee further vindicated in the Americans’ eyes the undertaking of preemptive measures in a contentious case such as Iran.

Such concerns were not divorced from the growing American business interests in the postwar Middle East. Besides the oil fields of Saudi Arabia—which had been developed by the American conglomerate ARAMCO since the 1930s and reached full production in the early 1950s—Iranian reserves were highly promising. The US giants, among them Standard Oil of California, required new fields of operation overseas to fulfill the growing demand for oil, and Iran offered an excellent opportunity, except for the ongoing political turmoil in the country. The Iranian nationalization had put an end to the British monopoly, yet the remaining obstacle appeared to be the unpredictable political climate presided over, as John Foster Dulles put it, by that “madman” Mosaddeq.

This was a clear shift from earlier US approach to Iranian crisis. As early as 1949 the Truman administration was anxious to bring about a peaceful settlement in accordance with the initial postwar policy of supporting nationalist and anticolonial movements all over the world as a bulwark against communism. Mosaddeq and his colleagues, too, viewed the United States as Iran’s natural ally and a key to a peaceful solution to the dispute, as a young superpower whose global interests were not in line with the exploitations of the European colonial powers such as Great Britain or ideological expansionists like the Soviet Union. The earlier stages of US mediation bore out such impressions of good faith. Yet in practice—even before Eisenhower’s administration—the United States shifted gears, backing the British claims on the 1933 AIOC concession and pressuring Iran to honor its terms.

The new US administration warned Iran, rather condescendingly, to preserve its neutrality in the face of pressure from the Soviet Union. It also expressed anxiety over the Tudeh Party’s increased anti-American activities. The US efforts were effective enough to persuade the British to accept nationalization—in concept, if not detail—in exchange for agreeable compensation. To strengthen his position, Mosaddeq had earlier juggled between the communist and the Western blocs, yet the United States’ lukewarm support for him did not encourage an overt anticommunist stance. When, for instance, in October 1951 Mosaddeq visited the United States on the occasion of the UN Security Council’s debate on the Iranian crisis, his reception by the Truman administration was mixed. Though he was welcomed in some liberal quarters as an anti-imperialist champion, in other more conservative circles he was considered an eccentric troublemaker.

While Mosaddeq was in the US capital, William O. Douglas (1898–1980), the longest-serving justice of the US Supreme Court at the time, rendered his support to Mosaddeq and the Iranian nationalization campaign. He was a best-selling author, public commentator, faculty of the Yale Law School, and a widely traveled mountaineer who by 1952 had extensively traveled three times throughout Iran, climbed the summit of Mount Damavand, and for years observed Iranian politics and society. Hosting Mosaddeq’s daylong visit to the Supreme Court, Douglas called on Truman to value leaders like Mosaddeq and Jawaharlal Nehru as statesmen withstanding communist penetration. He later criticized the Eisenhower administration for abandoning Iran’s just cause in favor of covetous British colonial interests. On the occasion of Mosaddeq’s departure, he also wrote to the Iranian premier offering his moral support and consoling him for vicious attacks against him in the American press. He added: “I think the great body of the American sentiment will grow and grow in favor of you and your wonderful people . . . as the ugly and greedy British policy under Churchill’s management becomes as plain to everyone as it is to you and to me.”3

Time magazine declared Mosaddeq “Man of the Year” in 1951, overlaying on his cover portrait the caption: “He oiled the wheels of chaos.” The accompanying article conveyed a similar massage: Mosaddeq is an inevitable voice of the developing world’s national aspirations who nevertheless is a hazard to the West’s economic and strategic concerns. This captured the ambivalence of much of the American press, which followed, somewhat slavishly, the British line. Encountering a sophisticated man and a tough negotiator who did not fit their stereotype of a Middle Eastern weakling or a lascivious desert sheikh, the Washington polity was at loss. Mosaddeq was accompanied and aided by men capable of successfully putting forward their case in international forums and speaking out about decades-old Iranian grievances against European powers. Mosaddeq’s repeated exhortations that his “oppressed and poor” country was resolved not to carry the burden of exploitation was well symbolized in the confident, resolute message that emanated from his own trembling frame. The press, however, still nicknamed him “Old Mossy.”

By early 1953 the image of the United States as a benevolent savior of the weak had fully evaporated in the heat of the oil dispute. The myth of the common destiny of the “English-speaking peoples” advocated by Churchill during World War II still resonated with influential Anglo-Americans such as Dulles, who were brought up with a WASP missionary mind-set and were unsettled by their Cold War anxieties. Mosaddeq’s resolve outraged Americans who had difficulty appreciating his domestic hurdles. Increasingly, men such as Loy Henderson (1892–1986), the American ambassador to Iran, began to see him as a huge liability for the United States in its anticommunist crusade. Henderson was a seasoned diplomat, a Soviet specialist who served in the Soviet Union and then as the head of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department before being appointed as ambassador in 1942 and again in 1951.

Armed with a superpower worldview that clearly clashed with Mosaddeq’s dogged logic and hard reasoning, by early 1953 Henderson concluded that the premier’s character flaws and contrarian combativeness would soon take him to a political abyss from which there would be no return. Not only had he antagonized the British and alienated the shah and the army, Henderson observed, but he had also angered his own former allies in the Majles and in the press. As a result, he believed, Mosaddeq will sooner rather than later turn his back on the United States and rely heavily on left-leaning street politics. With his popular support diminishing and his enthusiasm for the US curbed, Henderson predicted that Mosaddeq would have no choice but to welcome the Tudeh Party (fig. 9.6). Taking full advantage of the situation, the Tudeh would eventually topple Mosaddeq’s shaky government and in the absence of an effective US presence would establish a pro-Soviet enclave in Iran. Such a perceived scenario was not acceptable at any price to the US ambassador and his superiors in Washington. Invariably Henderson and his seniors gravitated toward the long-standing British option of removing Mosaddeq from office.

The CIA plot, inspired and assisted by British intelligence, was simple and yet somewhat brutish. To start, legitimate grounds had to be laid by persuading the reluctant Iranian monarch to give his consent and use his constitutional, though disputed, prerogative to sack the premier and appoint in his stead their handpicked candidate, General Fazlollah Zahedi (1897–1963). Zahedi was a long-serving and ambitious, though adventurous, senior officer who fought against the Jangal movement in 1920, survived Reza Shah’s purges and haphazard dismissals, was arrested during World War II, and exiled by the British for his role in the German-instigated rebellion in Isfahan. After his release, he was later rehabilitated and returned to the political stage. He had been appointed as minister of war in Mosaddeq’s first government in 1951.

Figure 9.6. The first anniversary of the July 21, 1952, uprising gave the Tudeh Party a chance to show its muscle. It was one of several parties in the hundred-thousand-strong demonstration in front of the Majles denouncing the United States and Great Britain. The textile worker in the cartoon poster is kicking Uncle Sam and John Bull out into the Persian Gulf. The Persian slogan reads: “Yankee go home!”

© Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images.

Despite the joint American and British pressure, and the behind-the-scenes selection of Zahedi as a viable replacement, the shah was not willing to dismiss Mosaddeq outright. Having in mind the horrific experience of July 1952 uprising, the shah argued behind closed doors that the premier should be allowed to exhaust all his options in the oil dispute. If dismissed midway through the negotiations, the shah felt the monarchy would be seen by his people as having betrayed the National Movement and as serving as an agent of foreign powers, a charge he and his father had long fought to disprove.

In late spring 1953 Mosaddeq’s premiership took a grave turn, inadvertently unifying his domestic and foreign opponents and furnishing the necessary pretext for the staging of a military coup. In July 1953 a motion of no confidence was brought to the table against the government in the Majles over the torture of some detainees who were accused of the murder of the Tehran chief of police General Mahmud Afshartus (1908–1953)—a supporter of the National Front. In April 1952 Afshartus was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a group of conspirators who evidently included Mozaffar Baqa’i, the former member of the National Front, and a disgruntled group of army officers whom Mosaddeq had forced into retirement. His killing, the news of which terrified the public, was the first step in the staging of an anti-Mosaddeq military coup.

Mosaddeq, who sensed defeat in the Majles, urged all his allies to collectively resign their seats, thus effectively ending the quorum and dissolving the seventeenth Majles. He realized that once the Majles was not in session, he was in jeopardy, since the Constitution allowed the shah under the circumstances to appoint a new premier without the customary vote of approval from the Majles. To prevent this—since Zahedi’s appointment seemed certain, especially after he had taken sanctuary in the Majles under Kashani’s protection—Mosaddeq resorted to a new maneuver. Shortly before the first anniversary of the July 21 uprising, he took the daring—and arguably most controversial—decision of his public life: he called for a public referendum to ratify his decision to dissolve the Majles, amend the election laws, and rule by decree. More broadly, it was a call for a popular mandate against his many enemies. He still appeared strong on the surface but was becoming deeply vulnerable beneath.

The referendum, carried out in mid-July 1953 haphazardly and without any serious debate, was unprecedented and clearly damaging to Mosaddeq’s image as a man of principle. Referenda not only were not envisioned in the Iranian Constitution; this referendum was designed to grant the premier authority to dissolve the Majles at will, a power that the 1949 amendment to the Constitution had reserved, no doubt unjustifiably, for the shah. It was as if he were relying on the will of the people against the monopoly of power in the hands of the Pahlavi monarch and the Majles, which had become subservient to the shah.

Yet opposition to the referendum was broad. Mosaddeq’s opponents accused him of visibly gravitating toward dictatorship and called the referendum a demagogic tool to extend his rule by decree. Kashani, who earlier had resigned as speaker of the Majles and allied himself with the shah, issued a fatwa against the referendum and labeled Mosaddeq the “incarcerator of freedom.” Even Mosaddeq’s close allies in the National Front—or what was left of it—advised him against the move. At the time the government was already under attack for the unauthorized increase in the volume of the Iranian currency (to combat the loss of state revenue). Moreover, the Mosaddeq government was accused of laying the ground for the shah’s forced abdication, a charge that the premier vehemently denied.

Mosaddeq took the political risk while the United States had stopped its mediation efforts and denied Iran the long-promised loan of $100 million under the Point Four Program. The oil dispute had reached total deadlock despite Mosaddeq’s conciliatory pleas, and he had alienated the shah and most ranking army officers. As his politics gravitated toward the left, he appeared more susceptible to the Tudeh exploits. In such a climate, some form of a military coup was not implausible. Short of quitting, appealing to the people on the streets and mobilizing the public remained the only available path to Mosaddeq. Yet he appeared more like a tragic hero ready to fight to the end, which was coming.


In late June 1953 in a meeting in the office of John Foster Dulles—attended, among others, by Allen Dulles and Loy Henderson—the plan for a CIA-led covert operation to remove Mosaddeq was finalized. Operation Ajax, as it was named, was to be carried out in collaboration with British intelligence. The operation’s leader Kermit (Kim) Roosevelt Jr. (1916–2000), a grandson of Theodore Roosevelt and a senior CIA operative, was aided by a number of figures, including the quintessential Oxford don Robert Zaehner (1913–1974), then a lecturer in Persian and specialist in Zoroastrianism who served as a wartime counterintelligence officer of the British embassy in Tehran; Donald Wilber (1907–1997), an archaeologist of Iran at Princeton and the link to Iranian agents and officers; and Colonel Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf Sr., formerly an American military liaison in Iran who helped rebuild the Iranian gendarmerie in the postwar period and who knew the shah well. As if it were a working draft of Graham Greene’s 1955 Quiet American, Operation Ajax had all the drama of a spy thriller and all the drawbacks. The difference was that it was real, a blatant intervention in the affairs of another country.

Back in Tehran, Roosevelt and Schwarzkopf, after tough negotiations that lasted for days, managed to overcome the shah’s reservations about staging a coup. He was persuaded to sign in secret two royal decrees, one dismissing Mosaddeq and the other appointing Zahedi as prime minister. The new appointment had to be officially approved by the Majles, which had not yet been dissolved but was no longer functional. The issuance of Mosaddeq’s dismissal was a sheer formality. On August 9 the shah and his wife, Queen Soraya (1932–2001), left for the Caspian resort of Ramsar, anxiously awaiting the course of events.

The attempt to force Mosaddeq from office failed miserably on the first try, when in the early hours of August 16 the chief of the royal guard, Colonel Ne‘matollah Nasiri (1911–1979), a staunch royalist removed from his post during Mosaddeq’s military purge, carried the dismissal decree to Mosaddeq’s headquarters. Nasiri was arrested on the spot and his troops disarmed by the prime minister’s guard. Once the news reached the shah in the Caspian resort, he and the queen flew to Baghdad on his private plane. There they were received briefly by the Hashemite King Faisal II before leaving for Rome, where they remained, perhaps preparing for abdication and permanent exile, reportedly in the United States, where the shah entertained the idea of buying a large ranch.

The news of the failed coup had a great radicalizing effect on Mosaddeq’s supporters. On the same day Mosaddeq officially dissolved the Majles and in a public rally openly attacked the shah and the royalist officers involved in the coup. His foreign minister Hosain Fatemi openly called for the shah’s abdication and an end to the Pahlavi monarchy. The idea of creating a republic, which had been in the air for some time and lately advocated by the Tudeh Party, was never endorsed by Mosaddeq, at least openly. The Tudeh, now lending its support to Mosaddeq, in the course of the following three days quickly rephrased the call for a republic to one of a “democratic republic.” To many, even among Mosaddeq’s supporters, this was ominous, a euphemism for a Tudeh-dominated pro-Soviet regime. The next day in the main city squares, statues of Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah—edifices of self-glorification that had survived the postwar years—were brought down and in some instances red flags hoisted on the pedestals. The Tudeh sympathizers presumably hoisted them, though the provocative act could have been the work of pro-coup elements hoping to stir the already-murky waters.

Whether responding to the demands mostly from Tudeh quarters for a change in monarchical regime, or perhaps on his own, on August 18 Mosaddeq ordered yet another referendum, this time on the fate of the Pahlavi monarchy (or as he later claimed, to convene the royal council to act in the shah’s absence); this was another hurried move that met the resistance of some of Mosaddeq’s close supporters, including Gholam-Hosain Sadiqi and Karim Sanjabi. It also alarmed Henderson, who hurriedly returned to Tehran to witness the CIA coup as it unraveled. The ambassador had the audacity to go to Mosaddeq’s home and forewarn him of the imminent danger of his downfall, not from a CIA-sponsored coup but as a result of a Tudeh takeover. Mosaddeq, who no doubt was aware of American support for the royalist officers, if not of US sponsorship of the botched coup, nevertheless listened to the ambassador, who also assured him that General Zahedi was not hiding out in the American embassy. He was technically correct, since Kim Roosevelt had arranged for Zahedi to hide in the house of a staff member of the American embassy.

It is plausible that Mosaddeq, while benefiting from Tudeh support, feared the potentially grave consequences. He did not wish to be seen as the Alexander Kerensky of the Iranian revolution. Nor did he wish to go down in the pages of Iranian history as a frightened leader overwhelmed by the enormity of events or as a confused leader pressed between two competing superpowers whose agents, foreign and domestic, were busy plotting his overthrow. He must have had in mind the fate of his own relative, Ahmad Qavam, and preferred to stay and face the torment rather than make a humiliating exit. When on August 18 he declared martial law and banned further street demonstrations, it was still in the hopes of proving to his people, and to the Americans, that he was on a sound constitutional course. It became clear, though, that he was barely in touch with the rapidly changing realities, and his sense of confidence soon proved all but an illusion.

The Iranian plotters and their American and British counterparts were disappointed with the outcome of the first attempt, but they had not given up. It was apparently at the behest of Zahedi and his military and police cohorts that the plan for a second attempt was set. He was aided and encouraged primarily by Iranian agents on the British payroll, such as the Rashidi brothers, and a number of journalists unimpressed with Mosaddeq’s ability to withstand a Tudeh takeover. Although Kim Roosevelt’s role had somewhat paled after the failure of the first coup, and he himself was lukewarm about the success of the second one, he was still seen by the plotters as a source of moral, and if need be, financial, support.

Next day, August 19 (28 Mordad 1332 in the Persian solar calendar, as the date is engraved in Iranian memory), Mosaddeq’s ban on demonstrations, though by no means fully enforced, may have inadvertently kept many of his supporters off the streets and at home. The Tudeh, too, stayed away, perhaps thinking that they stood to benefit from any attempt by the military to oust Mosaddeq. From the Tudeh perspective, in the absence of the shah and with “bourgeois liberalism” having already run its course, the future would surely be theirs without having to resort to a bloody struggle. The Tudeh’s dormancy may also have been rooted in ignorance. At the time, the CIA involvement was unknown to all but a handful of officers around Zahedi and the Iranians agents working for the British and Americans. Even though Mosaddeq recognized the potential threat from the American side, he apparently could not bring himself to believe that the United States would go as far as bringing about his violent downfall, especially after his encounter with Henderson a day earlier.

With astounding speed, in a matter of hours Mosaddeq’s political fortunes changed. It was as if agitators—some from the poor neighborhoods south of the capital who were angered by the prolonged economic hardship of the Mosaddeq years—and cash that Schwarzkopf had used to buy an anti-Mosaddeq crowd were sufficient to trigger a series of small, effective, demonstrations in key locations in the capital. No more than seventy thousand dollars were spent, indicative of the tinderbox waiting to flare up. The hired guns, which included the knife-wilding lutis of Tehran’s poorer neighborhoods and Tehran’s wholesale produce market, their associated gangs centered in certain zurkhanehs (houses of strength) and, allegedly, prostitutes from the poverty-stricken red-light district known as Shahr-e Now, were assigned with carrying the shah’s portrait and shouting pro-Pahlavi slogans. An angry crowd swarmed the streets from Sepah Square, north of the bazaar, attacking some government buildings on their way and taking control of sensitive installations before moving toward Mosaddeq’s house, near the royal palace. More effective than the crowd were the police and army units under the control of the officers loyal to Zahedi and his cohorts, who were evidently defiant of the shaky chain of command that Mosaddeq had tried to establish but could barely control. Tanks and troops were brought into the streets, quickly silencing a brave resistance set up by the prime ministerial guards—a loyal detachment of officers and soldiers whom Mosaddeq had handpicked to safeguard his office. The pro-shah units then began shelling the premier’s house. The casualties were at least seventy-five dead and hundreds injured.

All the while Mosaddeq stayed in his office surrounded by a core of his loyal advisers. To the extent the reports of this episode illustrate, he could not be persuaded to resign or to face the perilous reality in which he had found himself so unexpectedly. The demonstrations appeared spontaneous, even though they may have been planned in advance, and the attack on the premier’s house was so sudden that it took him and his ministers by complete surprise. Mosaddeq’s assumed “national esteem” (vejahat-e melli), a source of pride and confidence, had given him an illusion of invincibility. A glaring lack of government intelligence to gauge public empathy or the imminent conspiracy deepened his misperceptions.

Once Mosaddeq realized that the troops would not be countered by a popular uprising in his favor, as had happened in July 1952, he opted to resist to the last, as he had admitted to the American ambassador a day earlier: “I will stay here no matter what happens; let them come and kill me.” Lying in bed clad in his pajamas and surrounded by a number of bewildered ministers, advisers, and staff, it was as if he were welcoming his tragic fate—not resignation, but martyrdom. He was persuaded, only for the sake of saving other people’s lives, to declare a truce.

Under intense pressure, with his house nearly ruined by shells, he sent a loyal guardsman to hoist from the roof of his house a makeshift white flag, made from his bed linen. Presumably his legal convictions made him believe that by declaring truce, his house would be immune from further assault. Once that gesture was ignored and shelling continued, another bed linen was hoisted, but to no avail. The tragic situation eventually came to an end when he and a handful of his loyal colleagues including Gholam-Hosain Sadiqi (1905–1992), a French-educated professor of sociology at Tehran University and Mosaddeq’s minister of interior, fled over the wall of his house to a neighboring garden, where they spent a restless evening under threat of arrest. From the window of his temporary shelter, later Sadiqi recalled, Mosaddeq could see his house in smoldering flames.

The next day, the mob looted what was left of the premier’s half-burned house—including all the furniture, carpets, bedding, even the window sashes and goldfish in the courtyard pond. Mosaddeq himself came out of his hideout and voluntarily turned himself over to the military authorities, along with two of his close advisers. The new premier and leader of the coup, General Zahedi, and his staff received them personally in the Tehran Officers’ Club. He was first treated with respect and while staying in the club could contact his family and his aides. Concurrently, the pro-shah crowd attacked the National Front affiliates and began to arrest Mosaddeq’s chief aides, ministers, and supporters who had not yet gone underground (fig. 9.7).

Once the military authorities solidified their ground, Mosaddeq was transferred to police headquarters and charged with treason and insubordination. The military prosecutor asked for the death sentence, but during the military tribunal held two months later, where he put up a dogged and systematic defense of his political conduct as the premier, he received three years of solitary confinement, which apparently had been determined by the shah from the outset. This was to be followed by a lifetime in exile in Ahmadabad, his estate near Tehran.

It took three more years of Mosaddeq’s life while imprisoned to unsuccessfully go through the deliberately prolonged appeal process, whereby he tirelessly defended himself and his political career. By the time his appeal reached a futile end, he was transferred to his estate, where he lived his final years modestly and in relative seclusion. Though he was only to be visited by members of his family, he kept some contacts with the outside despite security surveillance and occasionally exchanged rigorous correspondence with opposition forces at home and abroad, especially in the early 1960s. He died on March 5, 1967, at the age of eighty-five (fig. 9.8). In his will he requested a simple funeral, to be attended only by close members of his family, and he wished to be buried next to the July 21 martyrs. That his remains were interred in his own estate—in a modest grave under the floor of the living room in his humble dwelling—was a testament to his years of struggle that ended in a hapless captivity.

Figure 9.7. A club-wielding crowd tears down the Iran Party’s sign from its headquarters in Tehran, August 19, 1953.

© Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images.

Figure 9.8. Mosaddeq in Ahmadabad, 1962.

Ahmadabad near Tehran, photo by Ahmad Mosaddeq, 1962. Courtesy of Farhad Diba.

The effects of the 1953 coup were widespread and transformative. Martial law was declared throughout the country, which continued until 1957. Many of Mosaddeq’s close colleagues and ministers were given prison terms or sent into exile, though with a few exceptions they were soon released. They were allowed to continue with their academic, administrative, and professional careers so long as they would not entertain political ambitions or express oppositional views. Others went into hiding and reemerged only gradually. One of the most vociferous, Hosain Fatemi, was executed in 1954 on charges of conspiracy and treason. Mosaddeq’s appointees were sacked, and in due course the eighteenth Majles nullified all prime ministerial decrees during Mosaddeq’s extraordinary powers. With greater vigor his military appointments were purged, and some officers loyal to Mosaddeq were given light sentences. The officers loyal to the shah were restored in rank and promoted. They created the backbone of Zahedi’s regime and later the shah’s power base.

Three days after the coup, the shah returned from Rome, though to no fanfare. Zahedi was the man of the day and the one who claimed all the credit for ousting Mosaddeq. He was also the United States’ trusted man, for a while at least, and the main channel for exerting influence. Though something of a maverick, Zahedi was an effective military leader but also—as often was the case with the American-backed military officers in the 1950s—a general with a reputation for corruption. He demanded and received from the Americans $2 million for his part in the coup, and he was not shy in helping himself and his cohorts to large commissions from the American aid program that poured into Iran in the following years. His major task, demanded no doubt in exchange for US favor, remained the systematic eradication of the Tudeh Party organizations and cadres.

Over the course of the following five years Tudeh suffered most as a result of purges, trials, and executions. Although most of the top leadership fled to the Soviet Union and spent long years of exile in the countries of the eastern bloc, their rank and file were easy prey for the newly founded security apparatus, which later became Savak. The Zahedi regime and the subsequent governments announced with much publicity the discovery of several covert Tudeh organizations, arms caches, and clandestine presses. Especially hard hit was the Tudeh Party’s military organization, consisting of a group of middle- and lower-ranking officers with determined Marxist-Leninist orientations. More than twenty were arrested, tortured, put on trial, and executed over the following sixteen months.


The downfall of Mosaddeq brought to an end the eventful postwar era, a revolution of sorts that was aborted by familiar forces of conservative opposition and foreign intervention, but also by errors of judgment that proved destructive. In this and other respects, the Mosaddeq era resembled the Constitutional Revolution. In many respects, it was a follow-up to that unfinished revolution, resurfacing a generation later. Mosaddeq’s dilemma, and his tragedy, was that in the outset he tried to fulfill national aspirations while remaining committed to the principles of constitutionalism and democracy. Yet his disturbing display of autocratic conduct toward the end of his premiership may be seen as a conundrum, a vacillation between two modes of constitutional liberalism and radical populism. Mosaddeq and his colleagues also exhibited another dichotomy familiar to the constitutional period: they paid homage to Islam as a source of Iranian identity and courted religious authorities while also hoping to preserve the ideals of a secular society, freedom of the press, and equality before the law—notions that were in contrast to the conservative outlook of the Shi‘i establishment and its radical allies. Mosaddeq’s vision and frame of reference were in part the Shi‘i tradition of Iran. For the greater part, however, he was a man with a secular mind-set that he and his cohorts hailed as a necessary framework for individual rights, division of powers, and liberation from economic hegemony and foreign intrigue. This was a difficult balance to maintain.

The forces that brought the National Movement to a bitter end, however, were more complex. Above all, the political volatility of the postwar era and the presence of many players created an environment of perpetual turmoil. The combination of an insecure monarch with memories of his father’s downfall, a royal court susceptible to intrigue, a reinvigorated officer corps in search of power and privilege, an old elite clinging to its privileges, corrupt deputies in the volatile Majles, the comings and goings of impermanent governments, the presence of a well-organized and ideological Tudeh Party, and extremist Islamic tendencies—all these made designing any workable consensus highly formidable, if not impossible. Before Mosaddeq, both Qavam and Razmara had failed to master the treacherous political terrain. The widening political chasm aside, the forces at play in any particular moment could forge odd and opportunistic alliances while others were willing change course or even to act as foreign proxies, a situation that called into question the loyalties of many politicians of the period.

The security contingencies arising from the Cold War, as Western powers viewed them, and deep anxieties about rising Soviet influence across the globe left little room, and respect, in the minds of most Western strategists, for non-Western national leaders and their aspirations. In countries like Iran, caught in the midst of the Cold War, Western economic interests and hopes for new energy exploits further justified interventionism. A potent combination of security and energy dimmed the chances of nationalist movements at the outset of the postcolonial age and made inevitable violent clashes of interests.

Mosaddeq’s own behavior in office did not help alleviate his differences with many domestic and foreign nemeses. In essence, he took for himself two powerful and simultaneous challenges. On the external front the oil nationalization campaign and on the domestic front rectifying the entrenched ills of authoritarianism, conservatism, and corruption. Relying on a level of public mandate unprecedented in modern Iranian history, he believed he could prevail by taking to task the shah and the royalists, a vast sector of the army, most of the Majles deputies, the landed elite, and most of the religious establishment—in other words, all those who controlled traditional sources of power and influence. This was a potent mix for any government and at any given time, even if it could rely on popular support. With the benefit of hindsight, one might envision a more circumspect and more realistic Mosaddeq prioritizing his objectives. But it is debatable if at the time he could have even exercised any order of priority in picking his fights, given how closely the oil dispute and domestic unrest were intertwined.

Mosaddeq may also be seen as a captive of his own rhetoric. As a Majles deputy and later during the first year of his premiership, he raised public expectations too high. He frequently accused other statesmen, like Razmara and Qavam, of compromise, conspiracy, and even treason. Such hyperbole made any compromise virtually impossible for fear that his friends and foes also label him a traitor. Yet it should be noted that AIOC and the British government never really offered any plausible deal to Mosaddeq for a viable compromise. Instead, the British preferred his demise, and as early as 1951 by military force, which hung like the Sword of Damocles over Mosaddeq’s head. Nor could US mediation substantially change the British resolve, even though some elements within the Truman administration were willing to give their support to Iran’s legitimate demands.

Before any politician of his time—especially from the class of landed notables—Mosaddeq had discovered mass politics, rallies, and public protests. Such wide national appeal, as has often been noted, proved an obstacle to the emergence of a solid and well-organized political organization. The National Front throughout its five-year existence remained a fluid coalition of an odd bunch of individuals, political tendencies, and embryonic parties. The lack of organized political support with a coherent program contributed to the volatility of Mosaddeq’s power base and his government.

Arguably even as late as early 1953, Mosaddeq could still safely maneuver on the back of a popular mandate that allowed him to challenge the interests of foreign powers and counter their schemes, and those of the shah and the Majles. Yet up to the very end he barely sensed the limitations of resorting to street politics. The general public, hard hit by rising inflation and unemployment, was ready to leave behind a decade of political turmoil, demonstrations, and much disillusionment. Despite earlier support for the oil nationalization campaign, by August 1953 the climate of indifference was palpable. Once triggered by anxieties over the shah’s departure and a perception of a Tudeh takeover, public support for Mosaddeq evaporated. The Tudeh’s eleventh-hour support for him only heightened fears among his liberal supporters afraid of communist manipulation.

All the above must have shaken the foundation of Mosaddeq’s pact and perhaps were sufficient to bring down his government. If he were not overthrown, at some stage he would have been compelled to resign under the weight of the obstacles and deadlocks he faced. Yet the prospect of foreign involvement in the form of a conspiracy to oust a nationally mandated leader—almost a prophetic figure—profoundly changed the political climate and brought about a paradigm shift. It also helped create a mythical personality out of Mosaddeq. The coup of 1953 put an end to an era of political engagement, no matter how imperfect, and launched a second era of Pahlavi autocratic rule that by and large excluded the public from the political process. Under the aegis of the shah, and backed by the United States and its allies, Iran’s chances for a plural society were further diminished.

In the following years as the CIA’s covert involvement became more apparent, the fall of Mosaddeq came to be seen by most Iranians as a flagrant intrusion by Western powers into Iran’s sovereignty and economic destiny. The shah’s authoritarian rule, evident shortly after the coup, further convinced his opponents of the United States’ malicious designs to impose on Iran a dictator subservient to its strategic interests. The fall of Mosaddeq turned into a traumatic memory that in the coming decades produced a narrative of victimization. It reinforced not only xenophobic suspicions but also pushed the Pahlavi opposition forces toward an anti-Western—more specifically, anti-American—discourse. There was plenty of evidence of Western imperial interventions to support a historical narrative in which the coup of 1953 was the climax, starting with the 1813 and 1828 treaties with tsarist Russia and ending with the 1941 Allied occupation of Iran. These were painful memories that once arranged in a cohesive narrative could deeply traumatize any national culture. If collective memories of a national community can be called “deep history,” the experience of the Mosaddeq era and its tragic end constructed such a history for generations to come.

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