Mossadegh’s Great Escape From Tehran To Bogota
How El Tiempo Scooped The World in 1953
In the field of journalism, nothing beats an ‘exclusive’. To be the first on a story, or better yet, break news that no one else can — especially when it is of major significance — is the ultimate.
This is the untold story of a South American newspaper who fell upon a golden opportunity to scoop the whole world.
It happened in the waning days of 1953. For months, Iran had dominated the news after a violent military coup replaced a democratic government with an autocratic regime. Then came the surrender and subsequent military trial of the deposed Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, for “treason”. The colorful proceedings were followed closely by the media, and on December 21st, a final verdict was reached. Though spared the death penalty, Mossadegh was condemned to three years in solitary confinement in prison, after which he would be confined to house arrest for the rest of his days.
Naturally, the sentence was huge news around the world...but then the story took a sharp turn, and only Bogota’s own El Tiempo, the leading Spanish-language paper in Colombia, could tell it.1 Here is our own translated summary of their riveting, stop-the-presses front page story on Dec 28th:
At 10:30 the night before, the editors were tipped off to be on alert for a plane landing with a very important person inside. The message came via telephone from their correspondent, Juan Goenaga, who explained that the airplane, a twin-engine “Dakota” (Douglas DC-3 made famous during WWII) would be arriving incognito, separate from scheduled national flights. It had already landed in the northern port city of Barranquilla, where it had to stop to refuel so it could continue on to Bogota, where it would connect with the Pan-Am flights in Cali.
The paper immediately contacted local airline employees, who informed them that the passengers had fulfilled the required customs and immigration practices. After questioning various hotels searching for “the enigmatic and mysterious traveler”, they learned that a number of individuals had registered at 10pm and 12:00 midnight at Hotel Granada, insisting on anonymity.
After pleading with the manager, and eventually a bellhop, several editors were able to locate and enter room #306.
Upon entry, they found an old man of about 75 whom they instantly recognized. It was Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.
The former Premier slowly rose from the hotel bed, where he and the editors shook hands and exchanged greetings “in perfect English”.2 At that moment one of them snapped a photograph, but the flashbulb visibly unsettled Mossadegh, who insisted that it not be published under any circumstances.
“The fact that I find myself in this city is perfectly accidental”, he said, explaining that the detour was due to an unforeseen change of itinerary but “we hope to make the necessary connection in one of [Colombia’s] cities to sail to Panama”.
Having managed to score this impromptu “brief interview”, the editors probed further for the details of how he managed to escape Tehran. Mossadegh, however, said he was extremely fatigued, and they noticed he was also suffering from a persistent cough, so they were not able to discern the story from their “messy conversation”.
One of Mossadegh’s secretaries filled in the gaps. On Friday, as Mossadegh was being transferred to prison, a group of nationalist student supporters seized two army trucks, intercepted the car transferring him, and brought him to a waiting aircraft. The plane took off immediately for what became a 36 hour journey stopping in Cairo, Egypt, then Casa Blanca, Morocco and from there the remote islands of the Azores, an archipelago of Portugal. Their destination, however, was Panama.
Then Mossadegh agreed to answer a few questions about his strange odyssey.
“I want to reiterate one more time,” said Mossadegh, “my loyalty and recognition to the figure of [Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi]. My enemies have tried by all means to give the contrary impression and the imperialist interests have contributed.”
Asked about how he felt about this whole ordeal, Mossadegh suddenly became emotional, his words muffled by sobbing. “It was a moment of intense emotion for those present, all of which is characteristic of the former nationalist leader”, they wrote, “...in the most culminating moments of his hectic political life.” His secretary then begged them to leave, but they insisted on a reply to their question.
Mossadegh relented, “It has all been a farce mounted by the dictator Zahedi, sold to oil interests, who want to dominate our country. Persia, which has been the cradle of civilization — remember the Code of Hammurabi3 — will never bow to interests contrary to their own nationality. . . And now I beg you to let me rest. I want you to tell your compatriots of a country so unknown to me [Colombia] that I am grateful in the depths of my heart for the hospitality not less noble than I have received in the few hours that I will be here.”
Another aide then entered the room with a glass to prepare a medicine for the exhausted ex-Premier. La entrevista terminó.
And that was the startling account from El Tiempo, the widely circulated daily Bogota newspaper founded in 1911, and also distributed in America. Oh....and one more thing. The article ended with this closing statement:
“At this time we retire to reach out and offer our readers this informative scoop, which, as you well understand, is only a harmless joke of the Dia de Inocentes [Day of Innocents]. We must confess that our editors — the sole protagonists of this wonderful journey — enjoyed as much as you this “escape” from their daily labors, a day when news stories are “slashed” like Herod’s innocent victims.”
And now would also be a good time for us, the Mossadegh Project, to acknowledge the obvious. None of this ever happened. But we really had you going there for a minute, huh? No?
The first clue, of course, is the date of this piece, April 1st, better known as “April Fool’s Day”. El Tiempo’s feature on Mossadegh’s excellent adventure also held this clue — it was published on December 28th — the date of Dia de los Santos Inocentes, the Latin equivalent of April Fool’s Day. As part of the fun, it is traditional and accepted for the media to make up wild stories on this day annually.
So just to be absolutely clear, their story was fake news. Our chronicle of it, however, is real. Mossadegh se Fugo de Teheran y Sorpresivamente Llego a Bogota was an actual headline in El Tiempo, though there has never been an historical account of this farce until now, about 63½ years later.
The “Day of the Holy Innocents”4 observed in the Latin American and Spanish-speaking world commemorates the story from the Bible of evil King Herod, who, seeking to destroy baby Jesus, ordered all babies under two slaughtered. Yet somehow, it’s also a day when people crack jokes and revel in absurdity.
If people can goof off on a day remembering mass infanticide in Bethlehem, then perhaps El Tiempo turning an Iranian tragedy into comedy on this paradoxical Latin holiday makes a little sense.
The sad story of 28 Mordad (the 1953 coup in Iran), too, centers around an evil King. 26 years later, the despotic and traitorous Shah of Iran found himself booted out of his homeland, living out of his suitcase, circling the globe seeking asylum in countries who wanted nothing to do with him. Among the places he and his family temporarily resided? — Panama.
1 Mossadegh se Fugo de Teheran y Sorpresivamente Llego a Bogota Hoy en la Manana Partio Rumbo a Panama (Mossadegh Fled from Tehran and Surprisingly Arrives in Bogota
Today, In the Morning Heading Off to Panama), El Tiempo, December 28, 1953.
2 Mossadegh spoke neither English nor Spanish. He did speak French.
3 The Code of Hammurabi was an ancient Babylonian law, not Persian.
4 AKA ‘Massacre of the Innocents’
“If I sit silently, I have sinned”: A guiding principle
Along the Road Toward Dictatorship | CIA Propaganda (1953)
SENTENCED TO HANG: Mossadegh’s Media-Contrived Death Verdict (1953)
Indian Paper Declares Imprisoned Mossadegh "Hero of the East" (1954)
MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”