Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967) was a lawyer, professor, author, Governor, Parliament member, Finance Minister, and democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran.
Mossadegh fought both internal corruption and foreign interference, enacted social reforms and nationalized the Iranian oil industry.
In 1953, he was overthrown by a British-American coup, arrested and tried as a traitor in military tribunal court. It was the CIA’s first successful dismantling of a foreign government, and Iran has not known democracy since.
Mohammad Mossadegh was born June 16, 1882 in Tehran. His father, Mirza Hedayat Ashtiani, was Iran’s Minister of Finance, and his mother, Najm al-Saltaneh, was closely related to the ruling Qajar dynasty. At age 10 his father died, leaving him and his only sibling, a younger sister, to be raised by his mother.
In recognition of his late father’s service to the crown, the monarch Nasir al-Din Shah gave him the title of "Mossadegh al-Saltaneh". Years later, when a national identity card system was introduced in Iran, he chose the surname of Mossadegh for himself, which means “true and authentic”.
Mossadegh’s career began at the unusually young age of 15 when he was appointed, again in honor of his father, to Mostofi (Chief of Finance) of Khorasan Province. As a young man, in addition to pursuing his interest in modern science, he took part in various sports, and learned to play Tar, a traditional Persian string instrument.
At 19, he married Zia al-Saltaneh, a Qajar princess; whom he considered “my most cherished person after my mother”. The couple would have three daughters — Zia Ashraf, Mansoureh and Khadijeh; and two sons, Ahmad and Gholam-Hossein.
Mossadegh was only 21 years old when the people of Esfahan elected him to the Majles (Iranian Parliament) as their representative. However, because he did not meet the legal age requirement, he withdrew his name from consideration. During the constitutionalist movement of 1905-1911, Mossadegh actively participated in the events which led to the establishment of a Constitutional Monarchy in place of arbitrary monarchial rule.
Mossadegh studied political science in Tehran and in 1909, continued his education in Paris. While in Paris he began to experience extreme weakness and fatigue and was forced to quit school and return to Iran. Throughout his life he was burdened by this persistent problem, better known today as "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome". Later, he returned to Europe and studied Law at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland. In June 1914 he became the first Iranian to receive a Doctorate in Law, and returned to Iran only a day before the start of World War I.
Soon after his return to Iran, Mossadegh became the subject of a malicious accusation by a political rival. The unfounded accusation made him so upset that he became sick and developed a fever. His mother, who is best known for founding Najmieh charity hospital in Tehran, noticed how miserable he was and told him that she wished he had studied medicine rather than law. Anyone who studies law and enters politics should be ready to suffer all types of slander and insults, she told him, yet “A person’s worth in society is dependent on how much one endures for the sake of the people”. In his memoirs, Mossadegh wrote that those words of wisdom prepared him for the life he chose and from then on the more hardship and insults he faced, the more prepared he became to serve the country.
Mossadegh accepted a job in the government as Deputy Secretary of Ministry of Finance where he tried to combat corruption and brought convictions to several individuals. In 1919 he chose self-exile in Switzerland in protest over an agreement between the government and Britain that he found very disturbing. The main provision of this agreement was handing over to British advisers the supervision of Iran’s army and financial systems. Fearing the worst for Iran he feverishly campaigned against it in Europe and wrote to the League of Nations asking for help in this matter. Mossadegh returned to Iran after the agreement was rejected in the Majles.
Mossadegh’s reputation as an honest, just and concerned politician preceded him upon his return to Iran. As he traveled throughout Fars province, he was greeted warmly by locals and received an offer to become their governor, which he accepted. After a few months, he resigned this post in protest of the 1920 British inspired coup in Tehran that ultimately led to the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. After the Fars governorship, Mossadegh served as Finance Minister in Prime Minister Ghavam’s government and was later appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs during the premiership of his friend Moshir-al Dowleh. This was followed by a short term as Governor of Azerbaijan province. In 1923, Mossadegh was elected to the 5th Majles and began his historic opposition to the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty by British supported Reza Khan, who was at that time the Prime Minister of Iran. He foresaw the return to dictatorship in Iran when “..one man was to be king, Prime Minister and magistrate!”
As Mossadegh predicted, life under the tyrannical reign of Reza Shah was harsh and oppressive; in fact the political climate became so unbearable that he had good reason to fear for his life. In 1928, he voluntarily withdrew from social and political activism and retreated to his village of Ahmadabad located about 100 kilometers outside of Tehran. During this period, which lasted over a decade, he occupied his time reading and farming; conducting experiments to improve crop production and sharing the knowledge he acquired with other farmers in the village.
On July 26, 1940, Reza Shah’s police squad unexpectedly arrived at Mossadegh’s residence, searching and ransacking his house. Although no incriminating evidence against him was found, he was taken to the central prison in Tehran. Mossadegh was interrogated and, without being informed of any charges against him, transferred to a prison citadel in Birjand (a city in northeast Iran). Well aware of the fate of many others who dared to oppose Reza Shah’s arbitrary rule, he expected to be killed.
The harshest blow to Mossadegh resulting from his imprisonment was the effect it had on his 13 year old daughter, Khadijeh, who had witnessed her father’s brutal arrest and forced transfer to Birjand prison. The highly sensitive Khadijeh was deeply traumatized and spent the rest of her life in psychiatric hospitals. Mossadegh later said that this tragedy was the cruelest punishment that could have ever been inflicted on him.
Reza Shah released Mossadegh from Birjand prison in November 1940, transferring him to Ahmadabad; “to live there, until he dies”. A year later his house arrest ended when the British forced the abdication of Reza Shah, and his 22 year-old son, Mohammad Reza, ascended to the throne.
Having returned to political activities, Mossadegh was elected with overwhelming support to represent Tehran to the 14th Majles in 1944. During his tenure in the Majles, Mossadegh passionately fought for Iran’s political and economic independence from foreigners, including addressing the highly unfair oil agreement with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a goal for which he received overwhelming popular support.
The contemporary history of Iran had been intertwined with oil, a highly sought after energy source by the west, since 1901 when a 60 year exclusive rights were given to William Knox D’Arcy, a British subject, for oil exploration and exploitation in Iran’s southern provinces. In 1908, oil was struck and The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was established. Just before the start of World War I in 1914, the British government purchased 51% of the company’s shares. The British thus created a beachhead and practically colonized the southern west corner of Iran, directly and indirectly interfering in the political affairs of the entire country. APOC cheated on the meager 16% payment to Iran and treated Iranian oil workers with contempt and racism in their own land. It all came to a head in July 1946 when about 6,000 Iranian oil workers went on a strike in Agajari. Their clash with the government troops resulted in more that 200 dead and wounded workers.
Mossadegh envisioned an Iran that was independent, free and democratic. He believed no country could be politically independent and free unless it first achieved economic independence. As he put it, “The moral aspect of oil nationalization is more important than its economic aspect.” He sought to renegotiate and reach an equitable and fair restitution of rights of Iran but was faced with intransigence by the company. To put an end to 150 years of British political interference, economic exploitation and plundering of Iran’s national resources, Mossadegh engineered the nationalization of the oil industry.
Mossadegh first presented the idea of nationalization to the Majles mandated “Oil Commission” on March 8, 1951. The following day the National Front, a coalition of several parties, held a huge rally in Baharestan square in front of the Majles in support of oil nationalization. On the eve of the Iranian New Year, on March 20, 1951 [29 Esfand, 1329] the National Front bill for oil nationalization received the final approval from the Senate, only a few days after unanimously being approved by the Majles deputies. A month later, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh was nominated for the position of Prime Minister, which he won by votes of nearly 90% of the representatives present.
The dispute between Iran and the disbanded Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) continued with no resolution on the horizon, increasing tension between Iran and Britain. The British government imposed economic sanctions on Iran and threatened Iran with a military attack. In June 1951, the Iranian government discovered a British spy network that revealed subversive activities by a large number of Iranian politicians and journalists, including communists who were receiving bribes from the British government and the AIOC.
In response, the Iranian government closed the British consulate. The British government reacted by calling their ambassador, Francis Shepherd, back to London. In October 1951, Premier Mohammad Mossadegh traveled to New York to personally defend Iran’s right to nationalize its oil industry before the UN Security Council. The British government, looking for support, had taken their case to the United Nations for a hearing. Mossadegh gave a dramatic and successful presentation, demonstrating that Britain’s oil profits in 1950 alone were more than what it paid to Iran during the previous half century.
Mossadegh then headed for Washington, DC where he met with President Harry S. Truman. His visit was covered widely in newspapers, magazines, television, and theatrical newsreels. On his return to Iran in November 1951, he stopped at Farouk airport in Cairo, Egypt and was greeted by thousands of admirers who chanted “LONG LIVE MOSSADEGH” and “LONG LIVE IRAN.” During his four day visit, the Egyptian King, Premier, Cabinet and other dignitaries honored Mossadegh personally, and a gala dinner was given in his honor by the municipality of Cairo. By January 1952, Mossadegh was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year, his second Time cover in a span of 7 months.
In June 1952, Mossadegh traveled to the Hague, Netherlands and presented nearly 200 documents to the International Court regarding the highly exploitative nature of the AIOC and the extent of its political intervention into the Iranian political system. “There is no political or moral yardstick by which the court can measure its judgment in the case of nationalization of the oil industry in Iran", he argued, and "under no condition we will accept the jurisdiction of the court on the subject. We cannot put ourselves in the dangerous situation which might arise out of the court’s decision.” The verdict was to be announced later, and Mossadegh returned to Tehran having won the respect of the judges.
Back in Iran, economic and security conditions were deteriorating rapidly, worsened by increasing subsersive activities of foreign powers and their agents. In a July 1952 meeting with the young monarch Mohammad Reza Shah, who headed the military, Mossadegh requested control of the armed forces but was refused. In response, Mossadegh immediately submitted his resignation as Prime Minister.
The following day, the Shah, at the behest of the British and American governments, appointed Ghavam Saltaneh as Prime Minister. Ghavam Saltaneh took a hard line, further angering the people who had come out to the streets in support of Mossadegh. In the largest street protest on July 20, 1952 (30 Tir, 1331) security forces clashed violently with the demonstrators, resulting in hundreds of casualties. The Shah, witnessing the depth of the people’s support for Mossadegh, became highly alarmed and changed course. He appointed Mossadegh to the dual role of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, as permitted by the Constitution. On the same day the International Court at the Hague voted in favor of Iran, holding that it had no jurisdiction in the oil dispute case. This was soon followed by the U.N. Security Council rejection of the British complaint against Iran. Mossadegh was at the height of his power and popularity, hailed as a hero not only in Iran, but in the greater Middle East.
As leader of Iran, Mossadegh sponsored laws for a “clean government” and independent court systems, defended freedom of religion and political affiliations, and promoted free elections. He implemented many social reforms and fought for the rights of women, workers, and peasants. A fund was created to pay for rural development projects and give assistance to farmers. According to his policy of Negative equilibrium, an idea that helped the formation of the non-allied nations, Mossadegh also refused to grant an oil concession to the Soviet Union. Most importantly, Mossadegh helped to foster a national self-sufficiency that remains unduplicated in Iran since his tenure: balancing the budget, increasing non-oil productions and creating a trade balance. His policies were frequently opposed by the Shah, army generals, leading clerics, land owners, the Tudeh (Communist) party, and the governments of Britain and America. Nevertheless, Mossadegh could always rely upon the support of the people.
Meanwhile, the British continued to undermine Mossadegh’s authority by inciting division in the country, tightening the worldwide embargo on the purchase of Iranian oil, freezing Iranian assets and threatening Iran with invasion by amassing a Naval force in the Persian Gulf. When all attempts failed, Britain concluded that ‘Mossadegh must go’ by any means necessary. Working jointly with the American CIA, they plotted a coup to overthrow his democratically elected government.
On August 15, 1953, with participation of the Shah and their Iranian collaborators, a CIA drafted plan codenamed Operation Ajax, headed by Kermit Roosevelt, went into action, but it failed to dislodge Mossadegh from power. In the second attempt on August 19, 1953, [28 Mordad 1332] the violent overthrow of the government was accomplished. Mossadegh escaped capture, but his home was invaded, looted and burned to the ground. The following day Mossadegh surrendered to authorities and was imprisoned. During this bloody episode, many hundreds were killed or wounded. Followers of Mossadegh were arrested, imprisoned, tortured or even murdered. Mossadegh’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Hossein Fatemi went into hiding but was captured a few months later. He was beaten, stabbed and, after a show trial, executed by a firing squad. The reign of terror had begun.
Tried as a traitor in a military court, on December 19, 1953, Mossadegh pronounced:
“Yes, my sin — my greater sin...and even my greatest sin is that I nationalized Iran’s oil industry and discarded the system of political and economic exploitation by the world’s greatest empire. ...This at the cost to myself, my family; and at the risk of losing my life, my honor and my property. ...With God’s blessing and the will of the people, I fought this savage and dreadful system of international espionage and colonialism.
...I am well aware that my fate must serve as an example in the future throughout the Middle East in breaking the chains of slavery and servitude to colonial interests.”
Mossadegh was convicted of treason. He was placed in solitary confinement for three years followed by house arrest for the remainder of his life in his ancestral village of Ahmadabad. On March 5th, 1967, Mohammad Mossadegh died at age 84, one year and ten months after the passing of his beloved wife of 64 years.
• All quotes translated by Ebrahim Norouzi, MD. © The Mossadegh Project
The Nation’s Martyr: Hossein Fatemi, Iran’s Young Foreign Minister