Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Prize Laureate

Human Rights Crusader Explains Meaning of Mossadegh

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | December 9, 2006                   

Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi Born in 1947, Shirin Ebadi was the first woman judge in Iran, but after the Iranian revolution which she initially supported, the government forced her to relinquish her position solely on the basis of her gender. She began a human rights law practice and was later jailed for defending victims of the Islamic Republic’s brutality.

Ebadi, who has authored 12 books, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 “for her efforts for democracy and human rights” and “the struggle for the rights of women and children”.

An outspoken opponent of any military attack on Iran, Ebadi is pictured at left at her human rights center in Tehran with a No Iran War shirt on the wall.

In her memoir Iran Awakening, Ebadi begins with the events of the 1953 coup which toppled Iran’s elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh, described as “the coup that interrupted both Iranian history and their [her parents] lives”.

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope (2006)
by Shirin Ebadi and Azadeh Moaveni

Excerpt from Chapter One, page 1 (A Tehran Girlhood):

My indulgent grandmother, who never spoke to us children in anything but honeyed tones of endearment, snapped at us for the first time on August 19, 1953. We were playing in the corner of the shadowed, lantern-lit living room when she turned on us with a stern expression and scolded us quiet. It was the year before I started grade school, and my family was spending the summer at my father’s spacious country home on the outskirts of Hamedan, a province in central western Iran where both of my parents were raised. My grandmother also owned property nearby, and the grandchildren gathered there each summer, playing hide-and-seek in the fruit orchards and returning by sunset to gather around the radio with the adults. I vividly recall that evening: we returned home with sticky fingers and berry-stained clothes to find the adults in a terrible mood, for once unmoved by our disarray. They sat huddled around the radio, closer than usual, with rapt expressions, the copper bowls of dates and pistachios before them untouched. A trembling voice announced on the battery-operated radio that after four days of turmoil in Tehran, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh had been toppled in a coup d’état. To us children, this news meant nothing. We giggled at the downcast eyes and somber faces of the adults and scampered away from the still, funereal living room.

Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967) The supporters of the shah who seized the national radio network announced that with the fall of Mossadegh the Iranian people had triumphed. Few outside those paid to participate in the coup d’état actually shared this sentiment. For secular and religious Iranians, working class and wealthy alike, Mossadegh was far more than a popular statesman. To them, he was a beloved nationalist hero, a figure worthy of their zealous veneration, a leader fit to guide their great civilization, with its more than twenty-five hundred years of recorded history. Two years prior, in 1951, the prime minister had nationalized Iran’s oil industry, until then effectively controlled by Western oil consortiums, [British only — the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.] who extracted and exported vast stores of Iranian oil under agreements that allotted Iran only a slim share of the profits. This bold move, which upset the West’s calculations in the oil-rich Middle East, earned Mossadegh the eternal adoration of Iranians, who viewed him as the father figure of Iranian independence, much as Mahatma Gandhi was revered in India for freeing his nation from the British Empire. Democratically elected to power by overwhelming consensus in 1951, Mossadegh extended his popularity beyond the appeal of his nationalism. His open demands for freedom of the press, his penchant for conducting diplomacy from his bed, his Swiss education, and his Iranian savvy combined to enchant people, who saw in him a brilliant, cunning leader who embodied not just their aspirations but their intricate conception of self—like them, he was composed of seeming contradictions, aristocratic roots and populist ambitions, secular sensibilities that never precluded alliances with powerful clerics.

The Iranian constitution of 1906, which established the modern constitutional monarchy, vested only symbolic power in the hands of the monarchy. Under the reign of Reza Shah, from 1926 to 1941, a wise dictator and nation builder who assumed total authority with a measure of popular support, the monarchy ran the country. But in 1941, after British and Russian forces occupied Iran during World War II, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate the throne in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The young shah presided over a period of relative political openness marked by a freer press, the balance of power shifted back toward elected government, with the parliament and its appointed prime minister taking control of the country’s affairs as the constitution had intended. During Prime Minister Mossadegh’s brief era, the shah exerted nominal influence, and until the coup d’état of 1953, it could be said the Iranian people were effectively governed by their elected representatives.

In 1951, next to the prime minister, the unloved thirty-two-year-old shah, heir to a newly minted, unpopular dynasty conceived of by a Persian Cossack army officer, appeared a green inferiority of little promise. The shah observed Mossadegh’s rise with anxiety. In the expansive popular support for the prime minister, he confronted his own vulnerability as an unpopular monarch backed only by his generals, the United States, and Britain. The two Western powers were incensed by Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iranian oil, but they bided their time before launching a response. In 1953, they concluded that circumstances were auspicious for his overthrow. Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, arrived in Tehran to reassure the skittish shah and direct the coup d’état. With nearly a million dollars at his disposal, he paid crowds in poor south Tehran to march in protest and bribed newspaper editors to run spurious headlines of swelling anti-Mossadegh discontent. In a neat four days, the ailing, adored prime minister was hiding in a cellar and the venal young shah was restored to power, famously thanking Kermit Roosevelt: “I owe my throne to God, my people, my army, and to you.” It was a profoundly humiliating moment for Iranians, who watched the United States intervene in their politics as if their country were some annexed backwater, its leader to be installed or deposed at the whim of an American president and his CIA advisers.

The shah ordered a military trial for Mossadegh, and newspapers ran front-page photos of the fallen prime minister entering the crowded courtroom, his gaunt frame and aquiline features more striking than ever. The judge handed down a death sentence but said he would reduce it to three years in prison, in tribute to the shah’s superior mercy. For those three years, Mossadegh languished in a central Tehran prison; afterward, he retired to his village of Ahmadabad, to spend his retirement responding to letters from his devastated and still loyal supporters. In later years, his replies, penned in his subtle, lucid handwriting, appeared framed in the offices of Iran’s leading opposition figures, those who would a quarter century later thrust the shah from power in the 1979 revolution.

Democracy Now — June 14, 2004

Shirin Ebadi was interviewed on the radio and TV broadcast of Democracy Now! on June 14, 2004. Ebadi's responses were translated live from farsi by former U.N. Ambassador Mansour Farhang.

AMY GOODMAN: Many people at the time of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Iran had no idea the issues raised by the Iranian students going back to Mossadegh. Can you explain the U.S. relationship with Iran from your perspective as an Iranian?

SHIRIN EBADI: Mossadegh was a very popular Prime Minister in Iran. He was the one who nationalized the Iranian oil industry. The Shah at the time opposed Mossadegh and their differences led to a confrontation, and the Shah received assistance from the United States to engineer a military coup to overthrow Mossadegh. And the Iranian people who appreciated the freedom during the period never forgave the Shah or the United States for the coup and the overthrow of Mossadegh.


Related links:

Shirin Ebadi on Iran’s Human Rights Abuses | Open Letter to UN

Shirley Chisholm Appeals For Human Rights in Iran (1972)

When Black Lives Matter, Iran Loses Propaganda Points

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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