Iranian Journalist, Deputy Premier & Foreign Minister
Ebrahim Norouzi, MD
Hossein Fatemi (1919-1954)1 was an Iranian journalist and newspaper publisher who became the most vital member of Premier Mohammad Mossadegh’s nationalist government; serving as Deputy Prime Minister, official spokesman, and, at the age of 33, the youngest Foreign Minister in Iran’s history.
A promising child
Born in Naein, a small desert city in the province of Esfahan, Hossein Fatemi was the youngest in a family of six (five brothers and one sister). He was an exceptionally bright and self-assured child, becoming 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.2
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 — a natural calling
While in Esfahan, Hossein also worked at the office of Bakhtar, a literary magazine owned by his brother, Nasrollah Saifpour Fatemi. Bakhtar closed down after two years, yet Hossein found the experience so fulfilling that he decided to embark on a journalism career.
In pursuit of this goal, in 1937, a 20 year-old Fatemi moved to Tehran, where he landed a job as a writer and reporter at the office of Setareh newspaper for a starting monthly salary of 20 toomans. Though this amount was not enough to afford housing, he was allowed to sleep at the office. Hossein worked long hours writing social and political commentaries for the paper, and before long, in recognition of his good work, Setareh owner Ahmad Maleki raised his monthly salary to 30 toomans.3
During this period, under the despotic rule of Reza Shah Pahlavi, independent journalism was a perilous profession. Fatemi’s commentaries led to him being investigated by the office of press censorship, but he was excused presumably because of his young age (the office head, impressed with his abilities, told him that he had a bright future as a writer). Though Fatemi endured the episode unscathed, from that moment on, he was placed under police surveillance.4
In early 1941, Nasrollah Fatemi persuaded his brother to return to Esfahan and work as the editor of his newly resumed Bakhtar, now published as a newspaper focused primarily on current events and political matters. For Hossein Fatemi, this was a golden opportunity to integrate his journalistic calling with his advocacy of social causes.
War comes to Iran
In the summer of 1941, in the wake of World War II 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 Pahlavi on the throne. Reza Shah had risen to power through the help of the British, but had exhausted his usefulness to their imperial designs. There was a silver lining to Reza Shah’s departure, however, as the social atmosphere in the country improved and many political prisoners were released.
The dismantling of Reza Shah’s police state apparatus improved conditions for political expression and allowed the 22 year-old Fatemi, along with many others, to resume their political activities more openly. One liberated captive of the former regime was Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. A former governor, minister and Majles deputy, Mossadegh had either been in prison or under house arrest at the command of Reza Shah for the preceding 13 years.
Another of Reza Shah’s many victims was the progressive cleric Seyyed Hassan Modarres, who had dared to oppose Reza Shah’s tyranny and had paid the ultimate price. Hossein Fatemi organized a memorial gathering for martyrs including Modarres — who had been murdered in his jail cell on Reza Shah’s orders in 1937 — giving a stinging condemnation of the crimes committed by the deposed Shah. Later that evening, Fatemi was arrested and imprisoned. His loyal sister, Saltanat, tirelessly campaigned for his release, which came about after several days only when a new police chief was assigned to the post.5
In mid-1942, in order to have a greater journalistic impact, Fatemi transferred Bakhtar newspaper to Tehran. In his first editorial, God, Iran, Freedom, he wrote:
Fatemi’s writings were audacious and targeted. He often wrote about what he viewed as the appalling legacy of Reza Shah. On the occasion of the exiled Shah’s birthday on March 15, 1943, Fatemi recalled that the ex-dictator had the habit of “arresting innocent individuals merely for longing freedom and after confiscating their belongings and incarcerating them for 5, 10 or 15 years would poison them to death, returning their lifeless bodies to their unfortunate and grief-stricken families.”7
Fatemi also frequently assailed the corrupt activities of the elites, meddlesome foreigners, misguided Communists and successive governments for press censorship and arbitrary closure of newspapers. Consequently, he made powerful political enemies, and in particular, became the object of intense attack in the Tudeh (Communist) press.8
A kindred spirit
As a young journalist in Tehran, Fatemi became captivated by the work of Mohammad Masoud, Iran’s most iconoclastic journalist and owner and editor of the popular Mard-e Emrouz weekly newspaper. Through its pages, Masoud crusaded mainly against the privileged class, but also jabbed powerful Islamic clerics, Communist leaders and members of the royal court.
Mard-e Emrouz enjoyed the highest circulation in the country, yet during its five year existence, the authorities suspended it more than fifty times. Masoud and Fatemi shared a similar journalistic style and in due time, these like-minded patriots developed a strong personal bond.
In 1944, Fatemi enrolled in the School of Social Studies in Paris, France to study journalism and international studies. During his absence, Bakhtar’s circulation dropped significantly and was eventually forced to close down. Fatemi, however, continued to write commentaries on important issues such as the Soviet Union’s covetous assistance of pro-autonomy movements in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. In place of Bakhtar, these articles were featured in Setareh newspaper and prominently in the weekly Mard-e Emrouz.9
In February 1948, Fatemi received word from Tehran that Mohammad Masoud had been assassinated by a secret member of the Communist Tudeh party. The shocking news plunged Fatemi into a state of deep depression. In a letter from Paris to Nasrollah Shifteh, his journalist colleague in Iran, he wrote that losing Masoud in this way had destroyed not only his hope for his homeland, but even for the human race as a whole. He expressed his sorrow by citing a poem from Aref-e-Gazvini; “Don’t tell me to stop crying, crying is all I can do / tears are my only link to my dead friend.” 10
Fatemi decided to keep the memory of Mohammad Masoud alive by continuing to publish Mard-e Emrouz, urging Shifteh to obtain the permit to resume publication. After only five issues, however, the paper was suspended by order of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. From its very inception, the Shah and his family had harbored great resentment toward the paper for its critical stance on the Pahlavi dynasty.
After obtaining several diplomas and a doctorate degree in Journalism, Fatemi returned to Tehran in late 1948. The title of his theses was “The Problem of Labor in Iran”.11
While Hossein Fatemi was in Paris, Ahmad Ghavam, the conservative veteran politician was serving as Iran’s Prime Minister for the 4th time. During this term, Ghavam faced a strong challenge from Dr. Mossadegh, an opposition deputy then representing Tehran in the 14th Majles who had been elected with the highest number of votes from Iran’s capital.
When the time arrived to elect deputies for the 15th Majles, Ghavam managed to prevent Mossadegh from being re-elected through manipulation of the electoral process. Having been denied re-entry to the Majles, Mossadegh continued to provide guidance for his supporters from the outside on many key issues. One such issue was Iran’s insufficient share of the profits from the British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). Consequently, in late 1947, the liberal faction in the 15th Majles demanded that the government renegotiate the oil agreement with the AIOC for a more equitable deal. Ghavam, however, was soon out of office and in a span of 12 months, three successive prime ministers failed to make any progress on the oil issue.
It was not until July 1949 that Premier Mohammad Sa’ed presented the Majles with an agreement he had negotiated in secret with the AIOC. The so-called “Supplemental Agreement” had allocated to Iran an amount far below the 50-50 arrangement that was in effect in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The 15th Majles never had a chance to deliberate the Supplemental Agreement as its term ended shortly thereafter.
The birth of Bakhtar-e Emrouz
Simultaneous with the oil nationalization issue coming to the forefront, Fatemi began publishing his newly certified Bakhtar-e Emrouz newspaper in Tehran, intended to embody the spirit of both Bakhtar and Mard-e Emrouz. To assure financial viability, the paper had a fresh design with varied content including world news, commentaries, political analysis, news from the bazaar, sports, science, culture, humor and film reviews.
The first issue of Bakhtar-e Emrouz hit the newsstands on July 30, 1949. In an article titled “Give Me Freedom Or Give Me Death”, Fatemi outlined that the mission of the paper was to fight for the interests of “the barefoot and hungry people of Iran...the hapless millions who live in the dark ages, unaware of their rights in the 20th century world”.12
“These Thieves Want More Free Rides” was the title of a subsequent article in which Fatemi labeled many conservative Majles deputies as despicable crooks who had been elected by means of dishonesty and sycophancy. The government reacted by bringing about the suspension of Bakhtar-e Emrouz for several days, the first of many more to come.13
Origin of the National Front
Fatemi’s return to Tehran was welcomed by many like-minded figures, including Mohammad Mossadegh, the well-known Majles deputy, now actively engaged in politics after years of absence. Dr. Mossadegh invited Fatemi to join a group of progressive journalists and recently elected minority deputies for a strategy session at his house.
The September 13th gathering centered around the perennial issue of government meddling in the election process, including the upcoming vote for the 16th Majles. It was during this meeting that Dr. Fatemi suggested the formation of a coalition party to include different groups with a common view on some fundamental national issues.
A month later, on October 14th, Fatemi joined Mossadegh and eighteen others for a sit-in on the grounds of the Shah’s palace, primarily to protest the fraudulent election of the 16th Majles. The demonstration may have been effective, as shortly thereafter, the election committee supervisor admitted the existence of irregularities and recommended that the voting in Tehran be redone.14
In a subsequent meeting at the home of Dr. Mossadegh, the participants of the triumphant sit-in founded the National Front, an umbrella party for the nationalists and democratic groups. Of the twenty who formed its core membership, there were seven lawyers, four civil servants, three journalists, two law professors, two engineers, and two clerics.15
Early in 1950, Fatemi was one of a dozen National Front members who participated in the Tehran election for the 16th Majles. When the result was announced in April, Mossadegh was the number one representative from Tehran, having received more than half of the 56,000 votes cast. Fatemi and five other National Front members had also won seats as Tehran representatives.16
Gen. Razmara and oil fever
Not long after the opening of the 16th Majles, a special 18-member oil committee chaired by Dr. Mossadegh was formed, assigned with the task of studying the Supplemental Agreement with a recommendation for action. In December 1950, the oil committee concluded that the Supplemental Agreement had failed to safeguard the legitimate interests of the nation and should be rejected. This recommendation was viewed by some, foremost among them the AIOC, as a prelude to the nationalization of the country’s oil industry.
On June 26th, 1950, Premier Ali Mansour abruptly resigned from his post after only three months on the job. The same day the Shah appointed General Ali Razmara, the chairman of joint chiefs, as Prime Minister. Razmara was a favorite of the Americans because of his domineering personality and more importantly, for his opposition to oil nationalization.
From the beginning, Razmara faced strong opposition from the nationalists for his anti-democratic tendencies. Fatemi portrayed him as a power-hungry general, more concerned with serving his foreign masters than the interests of the nation. This characterization angered Premier Razmara, who ordered Fatemi’s arrest and detention in the basement of the police headquarters. Razmara’s action was widely criticized in the Majles and by Tehran University students. The uproar brought about Fatemi’s release after three days.17
On March 7th, 1951, just nine months into his premiership, Razmara was assassinated by a member of the Feda’ian Islam extremist group as he attended a memorial ceremony at a mosque. The following week, on March 12th, Shah confidante Hossein Ala took the helm as Premier. Only three days later on March 15th, the Majles voted unanimously to nationalize the oil industry. National Front secretary Hossein Makki hailed it “one of the greatest days in the history of the Iranian nation.”18
The rapidity with which oil nationalization became the law of the land took everyone by surprise, including the British. In an attempt to block its implementation, the British pressured the Shah to appoint Seyyed Zia Tabatabai, the known Anglophile politician who had promised to make an acceptable deal with the AIOC as Premier. Right on cue, on April 26th, Hossein Ala resigned as Prime Minister, vacating the seat for Seyyed Zia Tabatabai.
The accidental Premier
One of the most seminal events in the history of the country took place in the Majles on April 28th, 1951. Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the veteran nationalist politician, was suggested for Prime Minister by none other than his arch-enemy, ultra-conservative deputy Jamal Emami. Emami had expected Mossadegh to refuse, as he had done on several occasions before, thus paving the way for the nomination and election of Tabatabai. Instead, Mossadegh, who was well aware of the British scheme, stunned him by accepting the nomination.
After all was said and done, Mossadegh was elected overwhelmingly, receiving nearly 90% of the votes. The following month, Premier Mossadegh presented his first cabinet to the Majles with Dr. Fatemi as his political and parliamentary deputy.
As Deputy Prime Minister, Fatemi was required to meet weekly with the Shah, briefing him on the government’s policies. On one occasion the Shah complained to Fatemi about his repeated negative commentaries about his late father, Reza Shah. Fatemi responded:
Meanwhile the British, who had threatened to invade the country, unleashed all-out economic warfare on Iran. This included blocking the sale of Iranian oil in the world market and freezing their sterling accounts in the British banks. In June 1951, Anglo-Iranian tensions reached new heights when the Iranian government closed all the British consulates throughout the country (except Tehran) on the grounds that they were engaging in subversive activities against the government.20
Matrimony — or political suicide?
For years, Fatemi shunned the idea of marriage, believing that his all-consuming career would preclude being a family man. That was before he fell in love with a 16 year-old girl named Parivash Satvati, the daughter of a retired general. At the time, the teenage Parivash reportedly had no interest in getting married, nor did she have the same romantic feelings for Fatemi, who, at 31, was nearly twice her age. Nevertheless, she promised to marry him if he gave up all of his political ambitions. Amazingly, he agreed.
On November 27, 1951, Hossein Fatemi and Parivash Satvati were united in matrimony. Yet his decision to abandon all political activity caused an outcry from his supporters. The noise ended only when his wife, realizing the consequences of her demand, changed her mind and consented to his return to the political arena.22
An indispensable man
By the end of 1951, Hossein Fatemi had become one of Iran’s most consequential political figures, shouldering numerous responsibilities. In addition to preparing speeches for Premier Mossadegh and party secretary Hossein Makki, he produced all of the National Front’s communiqués and declarations. As the head of its public information committee, he was highly effective in dispelling rumors and propaganda against the government. Fatemi also frequently mediated infighting among National Front members, bringing them together at crucial moments.23
Simultaneously, Fatemi continued to run Bakhtar-e Emrouz, generally recognized as an official organ of the National Front. By this time, the paper enjoyed an average circulation of 25,000, the third largest in the country.24
Though these attempts were futile, the Shah, his supporters, and British agents were, however, more successful in luring other National Front members away from Mossadegh. Defectors included Abol-Ghasem Kashani, the powerful activist cleric, Mozaffar Baghai, the founder of the anti-communist/pro-worker Toilers party, and Hossein Makki, once a mainstay of Mossadegh’s circle.
Targeted for death
On February 15th, 1952, Dr. Fatemi was speaking at a grave site vigil marking the four year anniversary of the slaying of Mohammad Masoud, when an attendee standing only a few feet away pulled a gun from his jacket and fired directly into his body. The assailant, it turned out, was a young teenager with a 4th grade education, who was also a disciple of the fanatical Feda’ian Islam religious cult.
Fatemi was rushed to the hospital, fully aware that he was severely wounded and might not survive. Convinced that the British were behind the attack, he asked his friends en route to continue the struggle by publishing Bakhtar-e Emrouz after he was gone.
Within an hour, Fatemi was lying in the operating room of Najmieh Hospital27 preparing for emergency surgery by Professor Yahya Adl, the most prominent surgeon in Tehran. Surgical exploration revealed that the assailant’s bullets had perforated Fatemi’s large colon in three places, while narrowly missing his heart. Twelve days later, after his condition had stabilized, Adl performed a colostomy and resection of the damaged part of the colon, removing 30 centimeters. Fatemi remained in the hospital until late May when he flew to Hamburg, Germany for an evaluation and closure of his colostomy.
Although he survived the assassination attempt, Fatemi never fully recovered from his injuries, and from that point forward, carried a cane most everywhere he went.
Fatemi was still in Germany when Iranian authorities discovered a British plot to overthrow the government. Among the Iranians who participated in the scheme were Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, Gen. Abdol Hossein Hejazi and known British spies Habibollah Rashidian and his two sons, Ghodratollah and Assadollah. All the known participants were arrested with the exception of Zahedi, who as a member of the Senate had parliamentary immunity.
Fatemi returned home in September 1952, but was still too physically weak to take his seat as Tehran representative in the 17th Majles. He seemed accepting, even philosophical, about the attempt on his life, viewing it as the price one must pay as a leader of a national liberation movement.
Fatemi never pursued legal action against his would-be killer, Mohammad Mehdi Abd-e Khodai, though the government tried and convicted the young assassin to two years in prison. In a twist of history, Abd-e Khodai entered politics following the 1979 revolution and was elected to the first Majles in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The youngest Foreign Minister
In October 1952, Premier Mossadegh offered Dr. Fatemi the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs in his new cabinet. Despite ill health and his doctors’ instructions that he not work more than two hours per day, he accepted the challenge. At age 33, Hossein Fatemi was now the youngest Foreign Minister in Iranian history.
Immediately Fatemi embarked upon his long held desire to purge the ministry of rampant cronyism and corruption. He pursued this course according to a set of “revolutionary guidelines” that he and his reform-minded colleagues had introduced. Although he had considerable success in this particular instance, he was dissatisfied with the overall pace of the reforms in the country. He believed more than ever that only through a revolutionary approach would a true and lasting reformation be achieved. Meanwhile, he was losing patience for a settlement of the oil dispute with the British.
On October 22, the Anglo-Iranian crisis hit a new low when Fatemi announced that Iran was breaking off all diplomatic relations with the British government. Still, in a message to the Chargé d’Affaires, he expressed hope that Britain would realize “the truth and the nature of the Iranian nation’s movement” and eventually “revise their attitude.”28
On May 31, 1953, still suffering from his injuries, Fatemi delivered a radio message informing the nation of his imminent trip to Germany for medical evaluation and treatment.29 While in Europe, he also presided over a two-day meeting of Iranian foreign diplomats at The Hague. It was there that on July 25th he took part in a somber interview with political commentator Sepehr Zabih regarding the important issues facing the country.30
On the subject of the defection from Mossadegh’s camp by individuals such as Ayatollah Kashani, Mozaffar Baghai and Hossein Makki, Fatemi expressed no surprise, saying that he had always known them to be chiefly motivated by personal and political ambitions.
As for the presence of any serious threat to the country from the Tudeh party, he did not think that they constituted a clear and present danger, but that the West was deliberately exaggerating its strength to set up “a pretext for intervening in the country’s internal politics.”
Asked about the prospect of receiving help from the Soviets, he said, “...such support is not forthcoming, and, even if it were, most assuredly it would be so laden with strings that its outright rejection was a foregone conclusion.” Furthermore, he said, Dr. Mossadegh would prefer to risk the collapse of his nationalist government than being forced to accept their support on undesirable terms.
Regarding the oil dispute with Britain, Fatemi did not expect a settlement soon. “This country has lived for centuries without oil. If this is the price to be paid for our honor and dignity, so be it,” he said. He saw Iran’s transition from an oil-dependent economy to one without oil as proceeding through government policies, such as the expansion of barter agreements and promotion of light industries.
When it came to the Shah, he did not foresee the young monarch posing a serious threat to the survival of the nationalist government, unless he was forced by foreign powers to accept the risk of making a major challenge to Mossadegh. Very shortly, Fatemi’s comment would prove eerily prophetic.
They called it “Ajax”
Fatemi ended his 10 week stay in Europe on August 11, 1953, returning to Iran only four days before an Anglo-American plot to unseat Mossadegh was put into action. “Operation Ajax”, as it was known by its CIA codename, had been authorized by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and included the key participation of the Shah and several high-ranking military officers. One of its first targets was Hossein Fatemi.
The action began shortly before midnight on August 15, 1953. Fatemi was in his bathroom getting ready to retire for the night when soldiers burst into his home, guns drawn, and abducted him. He was still in his bathrobe and shoeless when they dragged him to jail, wife and baby screaming in terror.
Simultaneous with the raid on Dr. Fatemi’s house, other armed men also arrested a cabinet member and a Majles deputy, though their attempt to locate and arrest the Army Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Taghi Riahi, was unsuccessful.
Mossadegh was next on the list, as shortly after midnight, Colonel Nematollah Nassiri, the commander of the Imperial Guard, arrived at his residence with a decree (farman) from the Shah dismissing him as Prime Minister. Mossadegh turned the tables and had Nassiri arrested on the spot. As for the Shah, he had gone to his favorite location on the shore of the Caspian Sea awaiting the outcome of the coup. The instant he learned of its failure, he along with Queen Soraya fled the country in a small plane, stopping over in Baghdad and finally to Rome.
The nation awakened to the news of the aborted coup as broadcast by Radio Tehran. An atmosphere of tension and uncertainty prevailed.
Early the next morning, Fatemi was released from detention by his captors, and went to the home of Dr. Mossadegh, where many of the Premier’s close associates had assembled. Karim Sanjabi, a prominent National Front member, witnessed Fatemi coming down the stairs in a state of rage, cursing the Shah for the mistreatment his wife suffered at the hands of the security personnel after his arrest.31
Another insider reported that Fatemi allegedly told Mossadegh that he wished to resign as Foreign Minister and be appointed as Minister of Defense. When Mossadegh inquired about his intention, Fatemi replied that he intended to execute 50 coup participants by noon. Mossadegh asked ‘On what legal grounds’? Fatemi responded, ‘By the laws of the revolution’, to which Mossadegh replied that he only abided by the laws of the constitution.32 As the irate Fatemi was leaving the Premier’s office, he told Gholam-Hossein Mossadegh, “Your father’s lofty attitude will get us all killed”.33
Fatemi then instructed the staff at Bakhtar-e-Emrouz to prepare a front page article under a large headline saying: “Coup Collaborators Will Be Summarily Tried and Punished”. However, he later called the office and asked his colleague Mohammad Ali Safari to move the headline to the second page and use smaller lettering. According to Safari, Fatemi called twice more, each time asking him to give less prominence to the headline. When Safari queried Fatemi about it, he answered “...I fear that this old man’s incessant talk of the law will get all of us killed”. Ultimately, when the paper went to press a small headline read “The Accused Will Be Summarily Tried”, but no related article appeared anywhere in the paper.34
That afternoon, the streets of Tehran were jammed, and people estimated in the tens of thousands soon assembled in front of the Majles in Baharestan square and adjoining streets. The restless crowd listened to several passionate speeches by the National Front members such as Dr. Ali Shayegan and Ahmad Razavi. From a balcony facing the square, Fatemi gave perhaps the most rousing speech of his life. After praising the people of Iran for being at the forefront of the national movement in support of their leader Dr. Mossadegh, he proceeded to deliver a blistering attack against the Pahlavi dynasty for its treachery against the nation. Throwing all caution to the wind, he accused the Shah of cowardice for abandoning the country at such a critical time, finding protection at the nearest British embassy he could find. Finally, he openly called for the abolition of the monarchy in favor of establishing a republic.35
The same day, Dr. Fatemi wrote a strongly worded lead editorial in Bakhtar-e-Emrouz. He revealed 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.36
In the following two days, Dr. Fatemi’s editorials had the same tone and expression of rage toward the monarch. On August 17th, Fatemi published “The Traitor Who Wanted To Bring Death and Destruction Has Fled the Country”. He wrote that Dr. Mossadegh knew from day one that the son of Reza Shah had no inclination to walk in step with the nation, yet remained discreet so as not to create an opening for the British to exploit. In view of the latest events, he claimed, the people were demanding the creation of a regent to temporarily assume the duties of the monarch.37
In the last issue, published the afternoon of August 18th, Fatemi blasted the destructive history of 150 years of imperial Britain in the east and sharply criticized the Shah, as well as his sister (Ashraf Pahlavi) and mother for their “crimes against the people of Iran and freedom”. He charged the royal 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.38
“Torn to pieces”
The morning of August 19, 1953, the 28 month old government of Mossadegh began to crumble. Emboldened in part by the government’s inaction, the coup operators returned to the street with soldiers, tanks and hordes of hired mobs. Mossadegh’s house was attacked and looted, and the office of Bakhtar-e-Emrouz was stormed and burned down.
One of the most critical moments was the seizure of Radio Tehran. That afternoon, royalists burst onto the airwaves and announced that Fatemi had been torn apart by angry mobs. This “news” went around the world. When it reached Fatemi's brother Nasrollah Saifpour Fatemi, an academic at Princeton University, the shock gave him a heart attack, and he was rushed to the hospital.
In fact, the mobs had failed to locate Fatemi, whom they had intended to capture and murder. With Fatemi at large, the newly installed Zahedi government placed a reward of 10,000 toomans for his whereabouts.
Captured, stabbed and beaten
After the coup, Fatemi remained out of sight for seven months. His last hiding place was a house in Tajrish, a north Tehran suburb, which had been rented to Dr. Mohseni, a newly wed army doctor. Dr. Mohseni not only had taken the risk of sheltering Fatemi, but had provided him with his appropriate diet and required injections on a regular basis. Dr. Mohseni and his wife avoided arrest by fleeing the country shortly afterward. The memoirs that Fatemi attempted to write were never completed.
Once at police headquarters for questioning by Gen. Bakhtiar, about a dozen hoodlums headed by the notorious mob boss Sha’ban Jafari gathered outside, shouting “Kill him! Kill him!”. That afternoon, when Fatemi was being transferred to prison, Jafari and his “thick necks” ambushed him, attacking with sticks and knives. Fatemi’s devoted sister, Saltanat, who had just arrived at the scene tried to shield her brother, but in the process she too received repeated blows and cuts.
Fatemi, who had sustained stab wounds to his chest, back and side and was clearly in need of medical attention, was taken to Lashgar-e Zerehi army prison instead of a hospital. Once there, his condition deteriorated as he began to vomit blood, compelling the prison officials to belatedly transfer him to an army hospital. Meanwhile, the coup regime wasted no time to spread the propaganda that Fatemi had masterminded all the anti-government activities in the country for the preceding seven months while in hiding.39
Years afterward, when Sha’ban Jafari was living in California as a political refugee, he spoke of the incident in an interview. He explained that his quick presence at the scene was due to his being summoned by authorities. Jafari admitted that he had considered Fatemi an enemy and would have strangled him to death if he could get his hands on him. He then confessed that he was personally involved in beating Fatemi that day, but denied stabbing him or his sister.40
Torment of a sick prisoner
Fatemi’s condition deteriorated in the hospital. Unable to eat, he required intravenous feeding. His wife and 20 month old son were barred from visiting for nearly a month. When a visit was finally allowed, it was only for ten minutes and took place in the presence of a representative from the army prosecutor. According to Mrs. Fatemi, her crying son could not recognize his bearded father whom he had not seen for months and would not let his father kiss him. A visibly saddened Fatemi managed only to exchange few words with his wife.
Meanwhile, Professor Adl recommended that Fatemi undergo surgical exploration on the suspicion that he had internal bleeding. General Abdolkarim Ayadi, the head of the army hospital and the Shah’s personal physician, disagreed and ruled that Fatemi was well enough to undergo interrogation and a military trial. The army prosecutor, Brigadier-General Hossein Azemoudeh, even accused Fatemi of feigning his illness, claiming that he actually ate secretly at night.
Fatemi remained in the hospital for three months after which he was transferred back to Lashgar-e-Zerehi army prison. A newspaper report noted that Fatemi’s weight—158 pounds at the time of admission to the hospital—had dropped to 110 pounds in two months’ time.41
Letters from prison
As a prisoner, Fatemi was kept isolated and incommunicado with the outside world. Yet despite the tight security, Ayatollah Seyyed Reza Zanjani, a progressive cleric in the same prison for his political activism, managed to contact him. Zanjani, who was to be released soon, offered Fatemi his help as a link with his supporters outside. Fatemi welcomed the offer and during the next six months, Zanjani received more than two dozen messages from Fatemi.
The content of the letters revealed that Fatemi had remained fully loyal to Mossadegh, considering him to be an exemplary model and the leading light of the national movement. He was interested to know if Mossadegh had any instruction for him regarding the method of his defense. Should he try to discredit the coup regime or follow a more conciliatory course? He wrote that personally he was not ready to go easy on the coup regime, even at the risk of losing his life.42
Trial and capital punishment
The secret military trial of Fatemi and two other defendants, Dr. Ali Shayegan (advisor to Mossadegh) and Ahmad Razavi (Majles deputy and National Front member), began on September 29, 1954. Fatemi was in considerable pain during the trial and, unable to walk, had to be carried in by several soldiers on a gurney. To avoid stirring public sympathy for Fatemi and creating bad publicity for the coup regime, no cameras were allowed in the court.43
The charges against Fatemi were mainly centered on his alleged acts of sedition against the monarchy during August 16, 17 and 18. One such charge was his telegram to the Iranian ambassador in Iraq who had requested directives regarding the Shah’s landing in Baghdad. In response, Fatemi had instructed him to refrain from making any contact with the Shah in view of his role in the coup and departure from the country without notifying the government.44 Fatemi’s other crimes were his participation in the Baharestan demonstration and his last three editorials in Bakhtar. On these two issues, Fatemi wrote to Zanjani that Mossadegh was well aware of his participation in the demonstration and that he had shared the editorials with Mossadegh in advance and had made alterations at his request, something that he had never done before.45
The hasty judicial process lasted less than two weeks. When the verdict was announced on October 11, 1954, it was the death penalty for Fatemi and life imprisonment for the other two defendants. The government rejected Fatemi’s appeal, and he refused to seek clemency from the Shah, saying that he had not committed any crime. As for Dr. Shayegan and Razavi, both of whom were being punished for giving speeches in front of the Majles on Aug. 16th, their sentences were later reduced to 10-year prison terms.
Wanted: dead, not alive
The death sentence was the ideal scenario for American and British officials, who deemed Fatemi to be a significant threat who needed to be eliminated permanently.
Loy Henderson, the U.S. ambassador to Iran and a collaborator in the coup, viewed Fatemi as the “most cunning and unscrupulous” in Mossadegh’s circle. On Aug 21st, he cabled from Tehran his worry that if Fatemi remained alive, he could be a catalyst for the creation of a coalition of nationalist and communist forces “against [the] West”. He found it “especially discouraging” that Fatemi had not been murdered by mobs as reported two days earlier.46
Sam Falle, a top British diplomat who lived in Iran until the closure of their embassy in Tehran, had advised the Foreign Office in September that “A cold-blooded execution, apart from being inhuman, might be unwise in Mossy’s case, although it might be the best answer for Fatimi [sic] if he is ever caught. As long as these boys are alive and in Persia there is always the danger of a counter-coup. Toughness is necessary.”47
The Shah himself reserved his harshest revenge for Fatemi and had told CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, a key player in the coup, that Fatemi would be executed. He ignored a written appeal from his distraught brother, Nasrollah, for clemency. In his final memoir, written in exile while dying of cancer, the Shah claimed that he was unable to save Fatemi from execution “because he was a communist.”48
Among those who attempted to obstruct Fatemi’s execution were Allahyar Saleh, Iran’s ambassador to Washington prior to the coup. Saleh sought the help of Ayatollah Boroujerdi, the highest ranking cleric in the country in the matter. Boroujerdi replied that the British were filled with revenge, the Shah was too weak, and nothing could be done about it.49
Death and glory
It was before dawn on November 10, 1954 that Fatemi was informed by Brig. Gen. Azemoudeh of his imminent execution. In an apparent reference to Fatemi’s previous statement that he had no fear of death, Azemoudeh mockingly asked how did it feel now that he was about to die. Fatemi responded, “I am not afraid of death, particularly such a glorious death. My dying would serve as an example for the new generation in Iran on how to defend the country from the clutches of a group of foreign spies.”
At about 6:00 a.m., still in the same prison clothing and wearing slippers, Fatemi was positioned in front of a four member firing squad, tied to a post. Moments before eight bullets pierced his body, he reportedly exclaimed: Fatemi was buried at Tehran’s Ebn-e Babveyh cemetery among the hundreds of graves belonging to those who lost their lives for the ideals that he and Mossadegh championed. His death brought about widespread but mostly muted mourning particularly among high school and university students. At the funeral, even the military personnel were moved to tears.51
Hossein Fatemi: statesman, revolutionary, martyr
Dr. Hossein Fatemi dedicated his life to being a soldier for the cause of independence and democracy in Iran. He once wrote that what Iran needed was revolution and the blood of sacrifice to water the nation’s tree of freedom. As Mossadegh put it, “Fatemi’s pen helped us as much as an army could”. Like Mossadegh, he lived modestly and accepted no salary while working in the government.52
Fatemi was also the mastermind behind many initiatives of Mossadegh’s government, among them the formation of the National Front, nationalization of oil, the expulsion of the British, and transition to an ‘economy without oil’.
Sir George Middleton, Britain’s former Charge d’Affaires in Tehran, acknowledged that Fatemi had been a worthy opponent who, rather than being driven by emotion, “actually knew the arguments”. “Fatemi knew his facts and figures, and had solutions in mind”, Middleton recalled in a 1985 interview. “Most of them were probably unacceptable to the British at that time, but nevertheless, one could talk sense—talk facts.”53
First published April 25, 2008. Revised and expanded August 10, 2016. © The Mossadegh Project
1 Hossein Fatemi (1919-1954, Persian Calendar 1296-1333). Fatemi’s precise birth date, or even birth year, is difficult to confirm. On his ID card, his year of birth was given as 1296 (1917), but according to nephew Saeid Fatemi, it was recorded as 1298 (1919) in the family Koran. (Source: Hossein Fatemi, Writings In Captivity: August 17, 1953-November 8, 1954, Hedayat Matin-Daftari, editor). Either way, he would still have been the youngest Iranian Foreign Minister.
2 Nasrollah Shifteh, Dr. Hossein Fatemi, Biography and Political Struggles (in Farsi), p. 287
3 Reza Nazem, Seyyed Hossein Fatemi and the Political Transformation in Iran (in Farsi), pp. 24-25
4 Bahram Afrasiabi, Memoirs and Struggles of Dr. Hossein Fatemi (1987, in Farsi), p. 83
5 Hossein Fatemi, Writings In Captivity: August 17, 1953-November 8, 1954, edited by Hedayat Matin-Daftari (2004, in Farsi) pp. 15-16 and p. 20
6 Shifteh, p.55. (Translated by Ebrahim Norouzi, MD)
7 Afrasiabi, p. 98
8 Shifteh, p. 6
9 Shifteh, pg. 9
10 Shifteh, p. 10
11 Nazem, p. 73
Hossein Fatemi, Writings In Captivity, p. 24
12 Shifteh, pp. 64-67
13 Nazem, p. 77
14 Nazem, pp. 82-85
15 Mostafa Elm, Oil Power and Principle: Iran’s Oil Nationalization And Its Aftermath, p. 94
16 Col. Gholamreza Nejati, MOSSADEGH: The years of struggle and opposition, Vol. 1, p. 146
Afrasiabi, p. 122
17 A. Houshang Mahdavi, The Fate of Dr. Mossadegh’s Companions (2004, in Farsi), p. 174
18 Associated Press, March 15, 1951
19 Mahdavi, p. 176. (Translated by Ebrahim Norouzi)
20 Elwell Sutton, Persian Oil: A Study in Power Politics (1955), p. 285
21 Nazem, p. 150
22 Shifteh, p. 387
23 Nazem, p. 92
24 Shifteh, p. 257
25 Australian Associated Press (A.A.P.), November 17, 1951
26 Shifteh, p.275
27 Najmieh Hospital, largely a charity facility, was named after Mossadegh’s mother, who founded it in 1929.
28 MINISTRY FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS’ LETTER TO HER BRITTANIC MAJESTY’S CHARGE D’AFFAIRES IN TEHRAN CONCERNING SEVERANCE OF DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS [Full letter]
29 Safari, p. 785
30 The Mossadegh Era: Roots of the Iranian Revolution, Sepehr Zabih, pp. 129-135
31 Nazem, p. 234-35
32 Mahmoud Hakimi, The Roaring River of Love: A look at the life of Dr. Seyyed Hossein Fatemi (in Farsi)
33 Interview with Gholam-Hossein Mossadegh, Paris, July 2, 1984 by Habib Ladjevardi. Iranian Oral History Project | Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies (Translated by Ebrahim Norouzi) [Link]
34 Mohammad Ali Safari, Pen and Politics, p.834
35 Shifteh, p. 311
36 Nazem, pp. 240-41
37 Shifteh, pp. 321-24
38 Shifteh, pp. 325-27
39 Shifteh, pp. 374-79
40 Memoirs of Sha’ban Jafari, Edited by Homa Sarshar (2005), pp. 174-77
41 Shifteh, pp. 387-92. Afrasiabi, pp. 301-06
42 WRITINGS IN CAPTIVITY, pp. 72-74 and 84
43 Shifteh, pp. 380-393
44 WRITINGS IN CAPTIVITY, p. 31
45 Afrasiabi, pp. 319 and 336
46 FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES, VOLUME X, IRAN, 1952-1954, p. 757
47 Sam Falle to Christopher Gandy, September 30, 1953 (Foreign Office records)
48 Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Mission For My Country (1980), pg. 91
49 Dr. Gholam-Hossein Mossadegh, In the Company of My Father, Mossadegh, p. 125
50 Afrasiabi, pp. 354-55, WRITINGS IN CAPTIVITY, p. 46
51 According to Parivash Setvati as interviewed by Ebtekar News [link removed], accessed Jan. 2016
52 Nazem, p. 89. Shifteh, p. 43
53 Interview with Sir George Middleton, London, October 16, 1985 by Habib Ladjevardi. Iranian Oral History Project | Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies [Link]
54 Shifteh, cited at the end of the Contents page (Translated by Ebrahim Norouzi)
• In view of the tragic ending of Iran’s national movement, one can ponder a few hypothetical questions pertaining to Dr. Fatemi. For instance, what if Fatemi’s health had not been severely compromised by the assassin’s bullets? Or, what if he had not been out of the country for nearly three months, only to return four days before the first coup attempt? Lastly, and perhaps most critically, what if Mossadegh, at least as late as August 16th, had yielded to Fatemi and had followed a forceful course of action, possibly averting one of the most colossal tragedies in Iranian history?
• There is a Dr. Fatemi Street and Fatemi Square in central Tehran. The street, named for the late Hossein Fatemi, has remained there since the 1980’s.
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
U.S. Writer Lauds “Traitor” Hossein Fatemi’s Execution (November 1954)
Remembering Dr. Saeid Fatemi (1927-2017)
Inseparable: Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar Remembered
Iran’s Decade of Assassinations: 1946-1955
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”