by Ebrahim Norouzi, MD
The Mossadegh Project | August 7, 2009
Even today, well over half a century later, I still think about the events of Wednesday, August 19, 1953,
in Iran, my country of birth.
At the time I was nearly 11 years old and a sixth grade student. My hometown was Gazvin, a small town 90 miles northwest of Tehran, Iran's capital city. While I don't recall my whereabouts on that particular day, I do remember my feeling of dread as I learned the next day that a coup had taken place.
On that day at 4:00pm, Radio Tehran went silent. Then, after a few minutes, a government opposition figure came on the air and announced, "The illegal government of Mossadegh is overthrown". The voice that followed was of General Zahedi, claiming per Shah's decree to be the legal prime minister of Iran. In actuality, the Shah had fled the country three days before, leaving behind a signed blank sheet of paper that was later turned into a decree by the CIA, as he flew to Baghdad and from there to Rome.
The unthinkable had happened. The nation’s popular, democratically elected prime minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, had been violently removed from power in an act of foreign treachery. Mossadegh barely escaped with his life as his house was bombed by the royal guards, attacked by hired mobs, looted and burned to the ground. The following day, as Mossadegh was being arraigned, his belongings were openly being sold in the streets of Tehran.
At the time of the coup I was on summer break, preoccupied primarily with playing soccer in the dusty lanes of my neighborhood and fending off its various bullies. Though I did not and perhaps could not articulate it at the time, my sentiments were of love for my country, a strong interest in justice, and a desire for freedom from arbitrary rule of any kind. I found all of these and a lot more in the figure of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the Prime Minister and “Great Father of the Nation”, as he was addressed by many Iranians.
My earliest memory regarding my political awareness goes back to when I was barely seven years old and in second grade. I believe it was in early spring of 1949 when I came across a magazine cover showing a picture of the young monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, sitting up in a bed wearing what appeared to be a hospital gown. He was recovering from minor wounds sustained during an attempt on his life a couple of months earlier. A long bandage covered his upper lip extending practically from ear to ear.
The magazine gave full coverage of the assassination attempt on the Shah’s life that had occurred on 15 Bahman 1327 (February 4, 1949). The assassin disguised himself as a photographer and waited for the Shah to enter Tehran University for a ceremony. From a close range, he fired at the Shah five times. All shots missed except for one that grazed his upper lip. One of the bullets had gone through the Shah's hat and another one only tore a bit of his clothes over the shoulder.
As I looked at the photo of the slightly wounded Shah with his sad, humiliated look, I clearly remember the response it invoked in me... disappointment. This reaction shocked me and caused me to momentarily question my own judgment. Nevertheless, my intuition—at the age of seven—was that the Shah was the major obstacle to Iran’s progress.
Later, I learned that the publication of that special issue and its pro-Shah cover story were part of a broad campaign by the royal court and Shah supporters to garner sympathy. Other pro-monarch magazines and newspapers followed suit, showering the Shah with "praise and prayer" and hailing the "miracle from God" that saved the Shah for his people.
The campaign fostered an atmosphere of fear and intimidation which the Shah fully exploited. He began settling scores with his detractors and implemented a series of repressive measures. Martial law was declared and publications of unfriendly newspapers were suspended, along with passage of a new law limiting freedom of press. The communist Tudeh party, accused of being behind the assassination attempt, was declared illegal and all their top party leaders were arrested. The cleric Ayatollah Kashani, a long time anti-British activist, was exiled to Lebanon. To further expand the power of the monarch, a constituent assembly was established granting the Shah the power to dissolve the Majles (Iranian Parliament) as he wished.
I was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, none of whom were particularly political. My parents displayed no overt expression of support for Mossadegh, though my guess is that they appreciated what he was trying to do for the country. I suspect they did not talk politics in order to keep their children out of trouble during those turbulent times. Religion and poetry seemed to be their main focus. Around the house we had copies of the Koran and several books of Persian poetry by Hafez, Saadi, Rumi...and my mother’s favorite, Parvin Etesami, the great contemporary female poet.
The most politically inclined person in my family was my uncle Ali, a published poet living in Tehran, who in 1951 made an attempt to run for the seat of Gazvin representative to the Majles. He was a nationalist candidate and his campaign slogan was stenciled in red ink on the walls around town: "Vote for Ali Norouzi, a true disciple of the school of Mossadegh". He did not win, but I was proud of him nevertheless.
Years later, I also learned that another uncle of mine living in Tehran worked for Najmieh hospital, a charity hospital founded by Mossadegh’s mother. I felt a bit envious when I learned that his son, around my age, had even met Dr. Mossadegh during a Norouz (Persian New Year) celebration and had received a signed photo and sum of ten Toomans as Aidee (a gift in the form of money given at Norouz) directly from his hand.
During 5th and 6th grade, I continued to keep up with political developments on the radio. As my reading comprehension advanced, I frequently went to the main square to the only newsstand in town to look at the headlines and buy an issue when I could afford it.
In the spring of 1951, I learned that Mossadegh, at that time a highly effective minority opposition leader, had overwhelmingly been elected by the Majles deputies to become the prime minister. I was elated and believed that with Mossadegh now fully in charge, the nation’s enemies would be defeated and all the country’s problems would be solved.
Dr. Mossadegh marched towards his goals earnestly indeed, but he faced an array of equally determined opponents. However, he could always rely on the support of the people, who loved and respected him enormously. He reached the zenith of his power on Tir 30, 1331 (July 21, 1952), when the nation rose to his support in the largest popular demonstration of his career. This event heightened my devotion further, and I began to drag along a cousin to participate in the political rallies supporting Mossadegh and his government.
The safety of my small town allowed us to roam freely, at times sneaking off to catch a bumpy ride by hanging on the back of the city’s horse drawn carriages. We visited the offices of different political parties to hear their views, listened to patriotic speeches given by the ultra nationalist Pan-Iranist party, who viewed the Shah as a symbol of the glory of Iran; and even the communist Tudeh party members, who mostly lauded, to my bewilderment, the glory of life under Soviet-style communism.
At times, the two parties’ fierce competition led to street clashes and bloody noses. My loyalty—and I sensed that of the vast majority of Iranians as well—was for the nationalist ideology and the National Front, an umbrella group led by Dr. Mossadegh. The rank and file members of Tudeh party mostly viewed Mossadegh as a champion of anti-imperialism and were supportive of his efforts. Yet the Tudeh party never gave Mossadegh their full support, even after he nationalized the former Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. Predictably, when Mossadegh refused to grant an oil concession to the Soviet Union, Tudeh leaders labeled him as a tool of western imperialism.
Following the oil nationalization of 1951, the country’s economy was under severe stress due to economic sanctions imposed by the British and their blockade of Iranian oil trade in the world market. Although the Truman administration offered lip service in support of Iranian rights vis-à-vis the oil dispute, in reality, they along with all major international oil companies had completely sided with the British. Mossadegh’s plea to America for help went unanswered, while America supplied Britain with oil equal to what they had "lost" in Iran.
In spite of everything, through austerity and sound economic policy, Mossadegh managed to pay salaries to the idled oil workers, as well as balance the budget and trade for the first time in Iranian history, (a feat that has not been replicated since, even in the best of times). Inflation was also kept in check under Mossadegh, and in fact, the year following the coup which deposed him, inflation in Iran nearly tripled.
I recall a memorable and delightful conversation that I had one day with a young Mossadegh devotee, who worked as a clerk at my small neighborhood grocery store. At the time the Majles had authorized the issuance of government bonds (Garzeh-e-Melli, meaning National Bonds). He had just bought several Garzeh-e-Melli that were issued at various denominations, each carrying a 6% interest and redeemable after two years. He grasped the purchased bonds in his hands with the same reverence as a pious Moslem would hold his holy Koran. I wondered how the young clerk with his meager earnings could afford to buy them. He was a "Mossadeghi" and happy to own them, even with no guarantee that he could redeem them at a later date. Actually, the majority of the bonds were bought by the lower and middle class, as they were shunned by the upper class.
By early 1953, Dr. Mossadegh’s fortune and that of his government was fading. A significant turn for the worse happened on a day known to Iranians as 9 Esfand (February 28, 1953). On that day, the Shah invited Mossadegh to the palace for a farewell meeting. He and his wife, Soraya, planned to go abroad, ostensibly for rest and medical evaluation for infertility. As Mossadegh was leaving, he was taunted by a large street crowd in front of the palace. The participants were mostly right-wing military and religious opposition members, along with a contingent of street mobs belonging to Ayatollah Kashani’s camp.
Kashani had a long rivalry for the spotlight with Mossadegh. He had previously given his tacit support to Mossadegh, but broke with him when Mossadegh refused to curry favor as Kashani demanded for his sons and cronies. The gathered crowd insisted that Mossadegh prevent the Shah’s departure, based on the rumor that it was he who was forcing the monarch out of the country. It was due to Mossadegh’s alertness and quick action that he left the scene unharmed. After Mossadegh’s safe departure, the Shah reportedly was told that “the bird flew the coop”.
However, the mob did not stop there. They later moved towards Mossadegh’s residence and attacked his house with the intention to physically harm, if not murder him. Mossadegh barely escaped by climbing over the wall to the adjoining property which he also owned and had rented to an American Operation Mission known as "Point 4". From there he went to Army headquarters and then to Parliament.
In a frank radio address a month later on April 5, 1953, Mossadegh informed the nation of an unholy alliance between the domestic enemies of his government and foreign agents and their involvement in the plot to kill him.
Even though I did not know the details of what happened, I sensed the seriousness of the events of 9 Esfand.
One Friday morning around this time, while hanging around the main street near my house, I noticed that the tailor shop was openly and boldly displaying a pro-Shah and strongly anti-Mossadegh flyer in his shop window. The sight of this alarmed me, for I viewed it as a sign of instability. I reacted by writing on the side of his shop window "Long Live Mossadegh" and shouted "Mossadegh!, Mossadegh!", as I left. In no time, the shop owner summoned his apprentice, a big and burly boy, to go after me. I remember running away as fast as I could but have no memory of what happened next—until I felt myself being awakened, as if from a sleep, by a cold wind hitting me in the face. Opening my eyes, I found myself sitting sideways on the bar of a moving bicycle with my older brother pedaling. He told me that he found me unconscious in the street bleeding from the head and was taking me to the hospital.
At the hospital, I realized that I had a large gash on the top of my forehead with blood still running down my face. The doctor had to close a two inch laceration using several metal clips. I left the hospital with a large turban-like bandage around my head. On the bicycle ride back from the hospital, my brother told me that apparently as I was trying to jump over the juye (a traditional open stormwater canal generally on both sides of the street), I had tripped and bashed my head against its sharp concrete edge, rendering me unconscious. Arriving home, my mother panicked at the sight of me and screamed at my brother "What on earth have you done to my baby?"
9 Esfand was in fact the first coup attempt orchestrated by the royal court, military and religious opposition as well as the Anglo-American agents against Mossadegh. This episode increased the vulnerability of Mossadegh and emboldened his domestic enemies to lend a hand to the ultimately successful coup by the American Central Intelligence Agency, which permanently removed him from power. That day, August 19, 1953, would be the last day of Iran's brief dance with democracy.
Years later, while living in New York City in 1969, I saw the movie Camelot starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. This musical film told of the legend of medieval King Arthur who, from a castle named Camelot, united the Knights to stop the advance of the Saxons.
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot
Ask every person if he's heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
As I sat watching in the darkened theater, the comparison to Mossadegh was inescapable to me. Yet the reality was that King Arthur was only a legend, but Mossadegh was a real enlightened leader, and while Camelot was a fictional place, the Iran of Mossadegh actually existed.
The Mossadegh era was that "One Brief Shining Moment", a rare space in time of mutual love and respect between the People and their chosen leader. Ultimately, Mossadegh’s visionary dream of an empowered nation, independent and free, fell victim to the savage forces of greed, power and domination—a struggle that continues to this day.
August 19, 1953: The Day Iran's Democracy Died
MOSSADEGH, Islam and Ayatollahs
MOSSADEGH: A Medical Biography - by Ebrahim Norouzi, MD
Dr. Hossein Fatemi Biography - In Memory of a Martyr