Saga of resistance

Published : Sep 26, 2008 00:00 IST

Mohammad Mossadegh. The intelligence agencies of the U.S. and the U.K. played a key role in his ouster.-

Mohammad Mossadegh. The intelligence agencies of the U.S. and the U.K. played a key role in his ouster.-

Fifty-five years after Mohammad Mossadegh was toppled as Prime Minister, Iran continues to fight for its full sovereignty.

ON August 19, 1953, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a key role in the coup that overthrew Prime Minister of Iran Mohammad Mossadegh. It was the first time that the U.S. effected a regime change in West Asia through the barrel of the gun.

In the 55 years that have lapsed since that historic event, many other leaders in the region have met the same fate at the hands of the U.S. Saddam Hussein was the last one. His major crime from the Western standpoint was the nationalisation of the Iraqi oil industry. The primary motive, as it was during the 1950s, was control of the regions hydrocarbon assets.

Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister of Iran on April 28, 1951. Two days later, he took a step that no government had taken since the discovery of oil in the region: he nationalised the Iranian oil industry, which was under the control of Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, now known as British Petroleum. Mossadegh had the backing of the Tudeh Party, then the biggest and best organised communist party in the region.

Nationalisation of the oil industry was a long-standing demand of the Tudeh Party. It had organised a strike in the Abadan oilfields in 1946 demanding this among other things. At the time, the Tudeh Party was briefly in government. The United Kingdom, which then had governments in the region under its imperial sway, threatened a military invasion from across the border if the Tudeh Party was allowed to continue in government. Neighbouring Iraq, then under a U.K.-controlled government, claimed the Iranian province of Khuzestan as its own. The Abadan oil refinery was situated here. The government in Teheran duly succumbed to the pressure and sacked the communist Ministers. The Tudeh Party was officially banned in 1949 but it remained a force to reckon with until the 1960s.

Mossadegh was well aware that his radical move to nationalise the U.K.-controlled oil industry would have dangerous portents. Initially, the steps he undertook evoked widespread support. He was hailed as a hero in the region and beyond. For a short period, one of Mossadeghs main allies was the influential cleric Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani, who said that those opposing nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry were enemies of Iran.

But Kashani and his supporters later joined hands with the Shahs supporters in the CIA-manipulated street protests, which led to the overthrow of Mossadegh two years later. Kashani, who was the Speaker of the Majlis at the time, objected to the passing of secular reforms by Mossadeghs government. In fact, many historians feel that Kashanis support was crucial for the ultimate success of the coup.

Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had a monopoly on the exploitation of Iranian oil at the time. It was no surprise that the West was quick to protest vehemently against the move by the Iranian government. It feared that a precedent would be set in the region and other parts of the world. Mossadegh had also set in motion steps to implement radical land reforms. This was opposed by the Iranian elite and sections of the clergy. Mossadeghs enemies, internal as well as external, quickly worked to destabilise the popularly elected government.

The U.K. took Iran to the International Court of Justice, alleging that Iran broke contractual agreements. Mossadegh travelled to The Hague to defend Irans stand and delivered a moving speech exposing the rapacious nature of the U.K. oil company and its systematic looting of Iranian oil assets. The U.K. had been meddling in Irans internal affairs for a century and a half before that. The court decided the case in favour of Iran.

The West retaliated by imposing an economic blockade to bring the government to its knees. At the same time, plans were being hatched to destabilise the popularly elected government and bestow absolute powers to Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. A vicious propaganda campaign was immediately started against Mossadegh after he nationalised the countrys petroleum assets. He was portrayed as a pawn of the Tudeh Party and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Mossadegh, in fact, was a nationalist and had throughout his long political career put the countrys interests first. He played a key role in denying oil concessions to the USSR after the Second World War when it demanded parity in drilling rights with the West in Iran. Mossadegh also prevented the Soviet Union from profiting unduly in the lucrative caviar trade. He enforced Irans control over its territorial waters in the Caspian Sea, the only place where caviar-producing sturgeon fish is found.

But the West decided to make an example of Mossadegh so that other leaders in the oil-rich region did not get similar ideas. Time magazine famously made him Man of the Year in 1951. The accompanying article portrayed the Iranian politician as a quirky leader given to mood swings and bouts of lethargy. The West has since perfected the art of demonising leaders it does not like. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh were similarly caricatured. Now, it is the turn of leaders such as Robert Mugabe and Hugo Chavez.

Mossadegh, though hailing from an aristocratic family, always identified with the masses. He opposed the installation of Reza Shah, the first of the two kings of the Pahlavi dynasty, to the Persian throne in 1925. The U.K. had a big role to play in propping up an almost illiterate army person to the Peacock Throne in Teheran. Mossadegh was briefly imprisoned for his continued opposition to Reza Shah Pahlavi in the late 1930s. But after the removal of Reza Shah following the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941, the restrictions on Mossadeghs political activities were removed. During the War, Reza Shah Pahlavi was sidelined by the Allies for his pro-Nazi leanings.

In his first two years in office, Mossadegh was able to put down the serious challenges orchestrated by the royalists because of the popular backing he enjoyed. The backers of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the second Shah, initially had only the active support of U.K. intelligence. Until the mid-1950s, the U.K. held unparalleled sway over West Asia.

The U.S. came into the picture in a big way in 1953 after Dwight Eisenhower took over the presidency in 1952. The Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, convinced the President that Iran under Mossadegh was on the verge of joining the Soviet camp. By then the Cold War had also begun in earnest.

A book on the 1953 coup in Iran All the Shahs Men by Stephen Kinzer based on declassified CIA documents graphically describes how the CIA, aided by the U.K.s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), executed the plan codenamed Ajax to overthrow the Mossadegh government. Influential people were bribed, cajoled and pressured. Misleading and malicious stories were planted in newspapers, and street violence was provoked by paying common criminals and prostitutes to stage protests. Among the dirty tricks put into operation was that of local CIA agents posing as communists, who went about threatening leading Islamic clerics. The motive was to spread fear among the pious populace that godless communism was on the verge of taking over Shia-dominated Iran.

The U.S. Ambassador made false allegations of violence being used against American nationals. The violent protests, preceding the coup, claimed the lives of more than 300 civilians. The young Mohammad Reza, who was still finding his feet in Iranian politics, was persuaded by Kermit Roosevelt, who headed the CIA operations in Teheran, to issue a decree dismissing the democratically elected Prime Minister. Kermit was the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and an avowed imperialist like his famous grandfather.

Mohammad Reza, after signing the decree, had to flee Iran briefly in the face of public outrage at his brazen unconstitutional act. The U.S., however, had another Iranian pawn, who was more than willing to trample on the peoples will General Fazlollah Zahedi. Mohammad Reza, while issuing his decree dismissing Mossadegh, also issued another one naming Zahedi as the replacement. The coup process had begun. One of Mossadeghs close associates, Hussein Fatemi, was assassinated in broad daylight.

During the Second World War, Zahedi was put under arrest for pro-Nazi sympathies. But he was taken back into the army after 1945. He was Interior Minister when Mossadegh nationalised the oil sector. But he was dismissed three months later after the U.K. media reported that he was being groomed to replace the incumbent Prime Minister. In 1953, Zahedi was arrested for forming a shadow cabinet to replace the legal government. Zahedi, who was the leader of the influential pro-Shah Retired Officers Association, began the final manoeuvring to oust the popularly elected government. With the theocracy now totally ranged against Mossadegh Kashani had declared that Mossadegh was an enemy of Islam and the Sharia he was running out of options.

Mossadegh could have rallied his followers to fight on as President Salvador Allende of Chile did. But the Iranian leader, a pacifist who admired Mahatma Gandhi, said that he wanted to avoid bloodshed. With his residence surrounded by forces loyal to Kashani, he finally surrendered. He was tried by a military court.

Mossadegh told his accusers that moral victory was his as he had defended the right of Iranians to full sovereignty. He was imprisoned for three years and he spent the rest of his life under house arrest. His house in the town of Ahmadabad in northern Iran has become a place of pilgrimage for many Iranians.

The forced removal of Mossadegh and the suppression of the Tudeh Party left a political vacuum, which was later filled by the Islamists led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The Islamist leadership in Teheran is continuing Mossadeghs fight for full sovereignty for Iran while the U.S. is still looking up to the Pahlavi dynasty for succour.

The George W. Bush administration is trying to prop up Mohammad Rezas son and terrorist organisations such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq as counterweights to the Islamists.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a speech in 2000 that it was a strategic mistake on the part of the U.S. to overthrow the democratically elected government led by Mossadegh. It was a belated and a backhanded acknowledgement that the widespread anti-American feelings in Iran today can be traced to the treatment the U.S. had meted out to one of Irans greatest sons.

But Washington does not seem to have learnt any lessons from the historic blunders. In its efforts to bring about a regime change in Iran, the U.S. administration is resorting to the same methods it used against Mossadegh. These include sanctions and gunboat diplomacy.

In the 1980s, the U.S. administration encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Irans oil-rich provinces, sparking the eight-year-old war, which claimed more than a million lives.

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