Iran’s Deputy Prime Minister & Foreign Minister (1951-53)
Ebrahim Norouzi, MD
Dr. Hossein Fatemi (1919-1954, Persian Calendar 1296-1333) was an Iranian journalist who became perhaps the most vital member of the nationalist government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh; serving as Assistant to the Prime Minister, Tehran Deputy in the Majles [Parliament], and, at the age of 33, as the youngest Foreign Minister in Iran’s history.
A promising child
Fatemi was born in Naein, a small desert city in the province of Esfahan, as the youngest of five siblings (four brothers and one sister). An exceptionally bright and self-assured child, he became a favorite of his school teachers. One of Hossein’s cousins, H. M. Naeini, remembered him as a defiant youngster whose older cousins could not bring under their influence.
At age 13, Hossein was sent to Esfahan for his high school education which included a period in a school run by British missionaries. It was during these teenage years that he experienced the death of his parents, both within a short time.
Journalism — the first love
During his stay in Esfahan, Hossein also worked at the office of Bakhtar, a literary magazine owned by his brother, Nasrollah Saifpour Fatemi. Even though Bakhtar closed after two years, Hossein found the experience very rewarding and decided to follow journalism as a career. In pursuit of this goal, a 20 year-old Fatemi moved in 1937 to Tehran, where he landed a job as a writer at the office of Setareh newspaper for a monthly salary of 20 toomans. Unable to afford a place of his own for living, Ahmad Maleki, the owner of Setareh, allowed him to sleep at the office. Hossein worked long hours and wrote social and political commentaries for the paper, and before long, in recognition of his good work, Maleki raised his monthly salary to 30 toomans.
In the summer of 1941, in the wake of WWII and occupation of the country by British, Russian and later American forces, Britain orchestrated Reza Shah’s removal and exile, placing his son Mohammad Reza on the throne. Reza Shah had risen to power through the help of the British, but had exhausted his usefulness to their colonial designs. Reza Shah’s departure resulted in the dismantling of his police state apparatus, which improved the conditions for political expression and allowed the 22 year old Fatemi, along with many others, to resume their political activitism more openly.
One of Reza Shah’s many victims was the progressive cleric Modarres, who had dared to oppose Reza Shah’s tyranny and had paid the ultimate price. Hossein Fatemi spoke at a memorial gathering held for Modarres, giving a stinging condemnation of the crimes committed by the deposed Shah. Later that evening, he was arrested by the notorious police chief Mokhtari, beaten and imprisoned. His loyal sister, Saltanat, tirelessly campaigned for his release, which came about only when a new police chief was assigned to the post.
In 1942, in order to have a greater journalistic impact, Fatemi transferred Bakhtar newspaper to Tehran. In his first editorial, he wrote under the heading of "God, Iran, Freedom:"
In 1943, he joined other like minded journalists to campaign against censorship and the government’s closure of newspapers not towing their line.
In 1944, Fatemi traveled to Europe, and after attending an international labor conference, began to study Law and journalism in Paris. In his absence, the circulation of Bakhtar newspaper dropped significantly and its publication ceased. Fatemi, however, continued to write articles regarding the important issues of the time, including the worrisome situation regarding the separatist movement in Iran’s Azerbaijan Province. The rebellious movement was supported by Stalin’s Soviet Union and the communist Tudeh party. These articles were featured in Setareh newspaper and prominently in the weekly, Mard-e-Emrouz, headed by his friend, Mohammad Masoud. While still in Paris, he received the grim news that Mohammad Masoud had been assassinated. The suspected assassin was a secret Tudeh party member who was later convicted of the crime. In a letter to Nasrollah Shiefteh, his journalist colleague in Iran, he wrote of his pain at the loss of his friend and how he had not only lost hope for his country, but even for the human race as a whole.
To express how he felt at the death of his friend, he cited a poem by Aref-e-Gazvini that started with the line; "Don’t tell me to stop crying, crying is all I can do / tears are now my only connection to my lost friend." To deal with his deep sorrow, Fatemi decided to keep the memory of Mohammad Masoud alive by continuing to publish Mard-e-Emrouz. At his urging, Nasrollah Shiefteh obtained the permit and resumed the publication of the paper. After only five issues, the publication of the paper was suspended by order of Mohammad Reza Shah. From the inception of Mard-e-Emrouz by Mohammad Masoud, the Shah had harbored great resentment toward the paper for its critical stand on the Pahlavi dynasty.
In 1948, Fatemi returned to Iran after being awarded a Doctorate degree in Law and a degree in Journalism. He resumed his journalistic career by publishing a newly established newspaper called Bakhtar-e-Emrouz, a melding of both Bakhtar and Mard-e-Emrouz.
In mid 1949, Dr. Fatemi was invited as a journalist to attend a meeting at the house of nationalist leader Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, who had returned to active participation in politics after years in exile or prison following Reza Shah’s abdication. The meeting organizers had invited a mixed group of progressive journalists and recently elected minority deputies to the 15th Majles [Iranian parliament] for a strategy session. This may have been the first time Dr. Fatemi met Dr. Mossadegh, whom he had previously recognized in his writing as a true leader of the nationalist movement. During this meeting Dr. Fatemi suggested the formation of a coalition party to include different groups with a common view on some fundamental national issues. A few days later in another meeting in Dr. Mossadegh’s house, "Jebhe Melli" [National Front] was born. In order to reach the goals set, Dr. Fatemi emphasized the need for freedom, independence and social justice as its core values. He was given the responsibility of promoting the National Front platform, and his paper Bakhtar-e-Emrouz became its unofficial newspaper.
In 1950, at the age of 31, Dr. Fatemi married Parivash Satvati, and two years later his son, Ali, was born.
In a short period of time, Dr. Fatemi became a prominent member of Mossadegh’s democratic and nationalist movement. Dr. Mossadegh’s main agenda was to stop the looting of oil resources by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and even more importantly their political interference into the Iranian body politic. However, no settlement was reached during their protracted negotiations. Faced with the British intransigence in negotiating a more fair agreement, Dr. Fatemi recommended that the oil industry be nationalized. On the eve of the Persian New Year [Norouz] on March 20, 1951, the National Front bill for oil nationalization was unanimously approved by the Majles deputies. A month later, the Majles nominated Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh to the position of Prime Minister, which he won by votes of nearly 90% of the representatives present.
Dr. Fatemi began serving as Assistant to the Prime Minister, and accompanied Mossadegh at the United Nations Security Council in New York, where Mossadegh presented Iran’s case in her dispute with the British. After his return to Iran, Dr. Fatemi quit his government position in order to participate in the 17th Majles election, and was elected as a Tehran representative.
The pages of Bakhtar-e-Emrouz in 1951 reflected the escalating tension between Iran and the British. The British government imposed economic sanctions on Iran and threatened Iran with a military attack. In June 1951, the government discovered a large amount of secret documents in a house belonging to Richard Sedon, a British subject. The documents contained clear evidence of an existing spy network acting against the government. Richard Sedon represented himself as an employee of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but in reality he was a British spy and carried a diplomatic passport issued by his government. The documents showed subversive activity by a large number of Iranian politicians and journalists, including communists who were receiving bribes from the British government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In response, the government closed British consulates and other related offices throughout the country. The British government reacted by calling their ambassador, Francis Shepherd, back to London. In October 1951, the British oil workers departed Abadan after refusing to be hired by the newly formed National Iranian Oil Company.
While attending the anniversary of his assassinated journalist friend, Mohammad Masoud on February 16, 1952, Dr. Fatemi himself became the target of an assassination attempt. The assailant was a 16 year-old with a 4th grade education who was a member of Fedayan-e-Islam, a violent religious cult. Dr. Fatemi suffered extensive abdominal injury and underwent emergency surgery at the Najmieh Hospital, a charity hospital founded by Mossadegh’s mother. Although he survived the assassination attempt, he spent nearly a year in the hospital and never fully recovered.
On October 13, 1952, Dr.Fatemi in his role as Government spokesperson announced the discovery of a British plot for a coup against the government. The Iranian members of the plot included General Fazlollah Zahedi, General A. Hejazi and British spies, including known Anglophiles Habibollah Rashidian and his two sons, Qodratollah and Assadolah. All were arrested with the exception of Zahedi who, as a senator, had parliamentary immunity. This episode further damaged the already strained relations between Iran and Britain. In the fall of 1952, only a few days after the 33 year-old Fatemi became the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Iran broke off diplomatic relations with Britain.
On August 16, 1953, at a quarter past midnight, Dr. Fatemi’s house was suddenly raided by thugs in military uniforms with their guns drawn, who abducted him, barefoot, and took him to jail. Fatemi’s arrest was part of a coup plot against the government of Dr. Mossadegh, which had been planned, financed and directed by the American CIA with the close participation of the British government and the Shah.
Simultaneous with the raid on Dr. Fatemi’s house, other armed men also arrested a cabinet member and a Majles deputy. Their effort to locate and arrest the Chief of the Army staff, Brigadier-General Riahi, was however unsuccessful. Dr. Mossadegh, acting on a tip about a coup plot, had instructed the General to spend the night at his military command center and await further instruction. The coup operators also sent Colonel Nassiri, the commander of the Imperial Guard Unit, to Mossadegh’s residence for his arrest. Nassiri handed Dr. Mossadegh a CIA dictated decree from the Shah, dismissing him as Prime Minister. When Mossadegh refused to abide by the decree, General Nassiri attempted to arrest Dr. Mossadegh. His effort was preempted by Mossadegh ordering his guards to arrest Colonel Nassiri. A lieutenant who had accompanied Nassiri also switched sides and joined in the effort to arrest Nassiri himself. Meanwhile, the Shah had traveled to the shore of the Caspian Sea and, with his luggage packed at his side, was anxiously awaiting the news from Tehran. When he was informed of the failure of the coup, he and his wife, Soraya, hurriedly boarded a small plane and flew to Baghdad.
The nation awakened to the news of the aborted coup as broadcast by Tehran Radio at 7:00 A.M. The events created a tense atmosphere in the country, and an uncertain mood prevailed. Iranians were shocked by the news but generally happy that the coup had failed. In Tehran, crowds appeared in the streets expressing pro Mossadegh and anti-Shah sentiments. In the afternoon a large crowd demonstrated in Baharestan square in front of the Majles. They listened to speeches by Dr. Fatemi and two other pro-Mossadegh deputies.
That day, Dr. Fatemi gave the most fiery speech of his life. He first profusely thanked the people of Tehran and praised them for always being at the forefront of the national movement and in support of the heroic son of the nation, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.
In his remarks, Dr. Fatemi directly attacked the Shah and his deceased father, Reza Shah, for their treachery against the nation and called for the monarch’s abdication. He called the shah a traitor and a coward who abandoned the country at this crucial moment and fled to the nearest British embassy he could find.
The same day, throwing all caution to the wind, Dr. Fatemi wrote a strongly worded editorial in Bakhtar-e-Emrouz titled "Give me death or give me Freedom." He explained how the midnight invasion of his house by 50 or 60 Imperial Guard soldiers had frightened his wife and their screaming infant son, who was less than one year old at the time. On the matter of what he thought of the Shah, he recalled a long meeting he had with him at the palace only a few months earlier. In a frank discussion, he accused the monarch of collaboration with the British against the elected government of the country. He likened him to King Farouk of Egypt who chose to become a British lackey and lost his throne for turning his back on his people. He told the crowd that he had never bowed to the deceitful Shah who, like a beautifully marked snake, coiled in apparent fear, would strike at an opportune moment and deliver his lethal poison. He wondered what else was left for the Shah and his family to extract from the nation’s hungry and barefoot people, whose money had paid for the guns of the Imperial Guard soldiers, now being used against them. He even called on Mossadegh and rhetorically asked how much more patience the nation must endure and how long they must witness the atrocities committed by the royal court? He called upon the nation to awaken from their long sleep and regain their lost historical glory.
In the following two days, Dr. Fatemi’s editorials had the same tone and expression of rage toward the monarch. In the last issue, published on August 18th, he blasted the destructive history of 150 years of imperial Britain in the east and sharply criticized the Shah, as well as his sister and mother for their "crimes against the people of Iran and freedom". He charged the Shah’s court with acting as a British embassy and declared the Shah’s willingness to push a dagger in the heart of his countrymen whenever he could.
On August 19, 1953, the coup operators tried again, this time succeeding in ending the 28 month old government of Dr. Mossadegh, a fatal blow to the movement for freedom, independence and democracy in Iran. Dr. Fatemi, who was in Mossadegh’s home at the time, escaped and went into hiding for 204 days. During this period he began writing his memoir, which was left unfinished due to his discovery and arrest on March 13, 1954 (22 Esfand, 1332).
The heavily bearded Fatemi was arrested around 9:00 AM and taken to police headquarters. While being transferred to prison that afternoon, in a pre-arranged set up, a large group of pro-Shah mobs welcomed him with shouts of insults and threats of violence. As the handcuffed Fatemi was being led down the stairs by the policemen, about a dozen hoodlums, including their leader, Sha’ban Jafari, rushed toward him. Sha’ban, also known as "the Brainless" and his followers began beating and stabbing Fatemi, who was left unprotected by the policemen responsible for his transfer. His sister, Saltanat, who was witnessing the event later said that she ran toward her brother and used her body to shield him from repeated blows and in the process was herself injured. Years later, in an interview conducted in California, Sha’ban admitted that he personally beat up Fatemi that day but denied using a knife against him or his sister.
Badly wounded, Dr. Fatemi was taken to an army hospital, but was moved to the prison before receiving adequate medical attention. His sister’s relentless effort to get medical care for her brother paid off when two partly independent physicians visited Dr. Fatemi at the prison and recommended that he should be sent back to the hospital. Dr. Fatemi was taken back to the hospital, where he was unexpectedly visited by Dr. Ayadi, the Shah’s personal physician. Dr. Ayadi accomplished his mission and cleared him for military interrogation. The Shah wasted no time and personally ordered the start of the interrogation in preparation for a secret military trial. Behind closed doors, the short trial of Dr. Fatemi and two other defendants started on September 29, 1954 (7 Mehr 1333). Clearly in pain and unable to walk, he was brought to the court on a gurney carried by several soldiers.
Most of the charges against Dr. Fatemi were related to his activities following the failed first coup attempt on August 16. The overarching charge was his activity against the foundation of the government and inciting the population to an armed uprising against the power of the monarchy. Dr. Fatemi was convicted and sentenced to death. The other two defendants, both of whom had participated along with Dr. Fatemi in front of the Majles by giving speeches, each received a 10-year prison term. Dr. Fatemi’s legal appeal was rejected, and he refused to apply for clemency from the Shah. He said that he had not committed a crime and would not beg for pardon. The British government recommended death for Dr. Fatemi, reasoning that as long as people like him are around, there exists a possibility of a counter coup.
Loy Henderson, the American ambassador to Iran, who thought of Dr. Fatemi as the brightest member of Mossadegh’s team, worried that if Fatemi remained alive he could be a catalyst for the creation of a coalition of communist and nationalist forces. The Shah himself reserved his harshest revenge for Fatemi and had told Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA leader of the coup, that Fatemi would be executed. The prominent progressive Ayatollah Zanjani, the person most in touch with Dr. Fatemi during his incarceration, struggled to save Dr. Fatemi from facing the firing squad. He even asked the highest ranking pro-Shah Ayatollah, Boroujerdi, for help. Boroujerdi wrote to Zanjani that the British are filled with revenge, the Shah is too weak, and nothing can be done about it.
On November 10, 1954 (19 Aban 1333), at the age of 35, still suffering from his injuries and with a fever, Dr. Fatemi faced the firing squad. While tied to a post and moments before eight bullets pierced his body, he reportedly shouted: Fatemi’s body was buried at a cemetery among the hundreds of graves belonging to those who had lost their lives in support of the ideals that he and Mossadegh championed in the interest of the Iranian nation.
Dr. Hossein Fatemi was a brilliant, highly ethical, and courageous nationalist who favored a more robust and revolutionary approach to solve Iran’s problems. Years before in a Bakhtar article, he wrote that the country needs a revolution and the blood of sacrifice to water the nation’s tree of freedom. He was the imaginative brain behind the many initiatives of Mossadegh’s government, among them the formation of the National Front, the idea of oil nationalization, election reform, expulsion of the British from Iran, and reliance on an “economy without oil.” Dr. Fatemi was born into a low income family, and lived modestly throughout his lifetime. Like Dr. Mossadegh, he refused to receive any salary while working in the government. In his memoirs, Mossadegh wrote of Dr. Fatemi,
More on Hossein Fatemi:
Inexplicable? — The Morning Herald, October 11, 1951
Iran Charges Russian Plot — Associated Press, November 4, 1951
Reaping the Whirlwind. — The Times Record, February 16, 1952
Inseparable: Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar Remembered
Iran’s Decade of Assassinations: 1946-1955
Secret 1962 U.S. Memo Plots Ways To Sustain the Shah’s Rule (Or Not)
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”