In 1941, World War II was in full swing. Thanks to its oil reserves, Iran was a key piece on the geopolitical chessboard. Reza Shah Pahlavi was in-charge as an absolutist ruler. The British had backed his rise but were uncomfortable with his flirtations with Nazi Germany. In 1941, the British decided to get rid of Reza Shah and install his son Mohammad Reza Shah. He was a weak 22-year-old who was putty in British hands. His rise to power had a silver lining though.
From 1941 to 1953, Iran experienced a golden period of freedom. During this era, seven political parties emerged in the Iranian parliament Majles. Mohammad Mosaddegh emerged as the most important leader during this period. He became prime minister in 1951 and initiated significant reforms.
Before 1941, Reza Shah ruled Iran with an iron hand. If people dared to protest, they were shot on the spot or tortured to death or whisked away to a brutal prison. From 1941 to 1953, free speech, democracy and rule of law emerged in Iran. Mosaddegh was a key figure in democratizing Iran.
The Brief Story of Iranian Democracy
Educated in France and Switzerland, Mosaddegh came from a patrician family. However, he was a reformer who believed in democracy. In 1925, Mosaddegh voted against Reza Khan taking over as the Shah. Once in power as Reza Shah, the monarch exiled him from public office. With Reza Shah out of power in 1941, Mosaddegh emerged from the shadows to play a key role in Iranian history.
In 1944, Mosaddegh was re-elected to the Iranian parliament, the Majles. As a patriot, he wanted a strong Iran. Mosaddegh aimed to build an Iran with rule of law, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, parliamentary democracy and a strong economy. Above all, this Iranian leader opposed foreign interference in the internal affairs of Iran. In particular, he did not want the British to exploit Iranian oil for London’s imperial benefit. He was also against concessions to the Soviets in northern Iran.
Mohammad Reza, the new Shah, and Iran’s comprador elite were beholden to the British for their hold on power. So, they did not take kindly to the rise of Mosaddegh. This corrupt and absolutist elite was also against democracy because they would have lost power. They tried the age old trick of rigging elections.
As a result, protests erupted in 1949. People came out into the streets to rally against voter fraud. Mosaddegh led a group of delegates to the Shah’s to protest the “lack of free elections.” That forced Mohammad Reza to promise “fair and honest” elections. Mosaddegh and some other leaders founded a party named Jebhe Melli, which literally translates to National Front, to contest the elections.
Once the Majles convened after the elections, Mossadegh emerged as the most powerful parliamentarian. As leader of Jebhe Melli, Mossadegh pushed for major reforms. The Majles approved a development plan with agricultural and industrial reforms. The plan required financing, which was only possible through oil revenues. Sadly for Iran, most of these revenues were going to Britain.
Oil Catches Fire
Unsurprisingly, oil revenues were a hot button issue in the 1949 elections. Once the Majles assembled, many of its members were duty bound to renegotiate the patently unfair agreement imperial Britain had forced a subservient Iran to conclude. In the words of the fictional character Michael Corleone, made famous by the 1972 movie The Godfather, the British had made the Iranians an offer they couldn’t refuse. Led by Mosaddegh, Iranians now mustered the gumption to reject that British offer.
Mosaddegh promised to end the British control of Iran’s oil industry. He demanded renegotiation with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), the British oil giant now known as BP. Note that the AIOC was supposed to pay a mere 17.5% of oil revenues to Iran. In contrast, its American counterpart was paying Saudi Arabia 50% of oil revenues in 1950. To rub salt in Iranian wounds, AIOC practiced creative accounting and did not even pay the 17.5% it owed Iran. In fact, they paid more in taxes to London on their profits from Iranian oil than to Tehran. Led by Mosaddegh, Iranian patriots resolved to get Iran’s fair share from AIOC.
Iranian pressure made the British offer slightly better terms in 1950. Mosaddegh was key in rejecting this unfair offer and demanded a 50-50 split, the same enjoyed by Saudi Arabia. Naturally, the British opposed Mosaddegh tooth and nail. They claimed that revision of their agreement with Iran would amount to a breach of contract. The British very conveniently ignored their own common law idea of duress as grounds for invalidating a contract. Simply put: if Winston puts a gun to Rumi’s head to get his signature on a contract, that legal document is null and void. Such legal principles were moot for AIOC, which tried every trick in the book to safeguard its extortionate illegitimate profits.
British intransigence fueled Iranian patriotism on oil revenues. The public swung behind nationalization of AIOC. By the time the British belatedly agreed to a 50-50 split in February 1951, the ship for renegotiation had sailed. In March, the Majles passed legislation to nationalize the oil industry. True to form, the Shah did not sign this bill. This British lackey stayed loyal to his imperial masters, not the Iranian people.
By not signing the nationalization bill, the Shah frustrated the Majles and the Iranian people. In April, the Majles made Mosaddegh prime minister, with around 90% voting for him. A few months earlier, Mosaddegh had turned down the prime ministerial position. This time, he took charge with a single-point agenda: cut out foreign powers from Iran’s oil industry.
With Mosaddegh in-charge, the Shah reluctantly signed the nationalization bill. This dramatically changed Britain-Iran dynamics. The AIOC left Iran, dismantling even the massive Abadan Refinery and associated facilities. For the first time in two centuries, Britain was on the backfoot. Unsurprisingly, this mighty imperial power fought back. It went to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to appeal against Iranian nationalization. Mosaddegh cannily disputed the court’s jurisdiction. Months later, the ICJ decided in favor of Iran.
The Empire Strikes Back
The British did not just resort to legal measures though. Their fabled intelligence agencies started conspiring to oust Mosaddegh through hook or crook. The British courted American support to do so. Their task was not easy. After World War II, the US had been siding with Iran on the oil issue. It had its own strategic interest to break into the Iranian oil market. Mosaddegh was well aware of the importance of the US. In November 1951, the Iranian prime minister visited Washington to meet President Harry Truman. Mosaddegh had a good reception and returned to Iran positive that the US would act as an honest mediator between Iran and Britain.
Mosaddegh’s successful US trip and rising international popularity unsettled the Shah. Vainglorious and insecure, the Shah resented Mosaddegh. When the prime minister appointed a minister of war, the Shah vetoed him. In response, Mosaddegh resigned.
This act in July 1952 led countrywide protests. People poured into the streets, chanting “Give me death or give me Mosaddegh.” Hasht Subh, a leading Iranian newspaper, published the headline: “Salaam to Hero Mosaddegh, We Swear That We Stand by You to Our Death.” In keeping with the tradition established by his brutal father, the Shah ordered a crackdown. On July 21 — 30 Tir in the Iranian calendar — the Shah’s forces killed hundreds of people. This bloody day in 1952 is still remembered as the 30 Tir Uprising.
The very next day, on July 22, the ICJ decided in favor of Iran. This fueled popular support for Mosaddegh. Despite his brutal actions, the Shah was unable to establish control over Iran. He was forced to recall Mosaddegh. The Majles now firmly backed the prime minister. Iranians were euphoric. They believed that they could now move forward towards a new future.
The British had other plans. They refused to accept the ICJ decision. They saw Iranian insubordination as a danger to the British Empire and imposed a worldwide embargo against Iranian oil. They froze Iranian assets and banned exports of all goods to Iran. Britain acted against Iran in much the same way as the US is doing today. Like the US today, Britain planned a regime change in Tehran: Mosaddegh had to go.
British covert operations against Mosaddegh were savage and sophisticated. Misinformation, bribery, blackmail, murder and riots were all part of the toolkit. On April 20, 1953, news broke out that General Mahmood Afshar Tus, Mosaddegh’s chief of police, had been kidnapped and killed. Investigations revealed that generals sidelined by Mosaddegh were responsible for this brutal killing.
By now, the British had Americans on their side. The zeitgeist in the US had changed. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Richard Nixon was vice president and Joseph McCarthy was the most powerful voice on Capitol Hill. McCarthy saw a communist under every bush and feared the Soviet Union would take over the world. The British found US paranoia against communism fertile ground to sow seeds of doubt about Mosaddegh. Bit by bit, they convinced Washington to join them in their conspiracy to overthrow Mosaddegh.
British and American efforts in weaning support away from Mosaddegh in the Majles forced the prime minister’s hand. Mosaddegh asked the Shah to dissolve the Majles. Now both a British and an American lackey, this weak ruler declined. Mosaddegh called for a referendum on the dissolution of the Majles. Over 99% of Iranian voters supported him. On August 15, 1953, Mossadegh dissolved the Majles.
This proved to be the highpoint of Mossadegh’s power. Events would soon overwhelm him. His political enemies were now conspiring with the British and the Americans to get rid of him. Yet Mosaddegh had changed history. He had challenged autocratic rule at home and deepened democracy. At the same time, he had taken on imperial powers and won back Iranian sovereignty.
Why Mosaddegh Matters
Mosaddegh was a great statesman. He was honest, hardworking, idealistic and resolute. He made immense personal sacrifices in his political life. Mosaddegh steered Iran in a new direction despite the odds. In 27 months as prime minister, he achieved more than any other Iranian leader in the last two centuries.
In the land of absolutist Shahs, Mosaddegh championed rule of law, creating an independent judiciary to check the powers of the executive. Mosaddegh also supported freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. An ardent democrat, he tried to increase political participation and organize free elections.
Mosaddegh’s economic reforms were significant and are often overlooked. A frugal man, he balanced the budget and focused on increasing Iran’s economic output. The tiff with the British was as much about economics as politics. Mosaddegh invested in health, unemployment insurance and infrastructure. Unlike the Shah who believed in ostentatious consumption, Mosaddegh was a believer in long term investments that would have a major multiplier effect.
Mosaddegh curtailed the culture of corruption fostered by the Shahs. He removed corrupt ministers and appointed honest ones. He got rid of generals who served British interests. He redistributed lands illegally seized by Reza Shah.
One of Mosaddegh’s last attempts in power was to give women the right to vote in municipal councils. He also wanted to provide women maternity leaves and give them the same rights as men in social insurance, benefit, and disability allowances. He had little success but that was not for lack of trying.
In 1952, Mosaddegh was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. As American media often does, they painted this unfamiliar foreign figure as a villain. In contrast, Mosaddegh was hailed in colonies and newly independent colonies. In Yugoslavia, Egypt and India, he was hailed as a liberating hero. Remember, this was a time when almost all of Africa was still under European rule and the US still practiced race segregation. In his far-sighted reforms, Mosaddegh was far ahead of his time. Noted American diplomat Henry F. Grady called Mosaddegh “a man of great intelligence, wit and education—a cultured Persian gentleman.” To Grady, the Iranian leader reminded him “of the late Mahatma Gandhi.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.