The quandary of US regional policy now can be traced, in large part, to its ouster of a democratically elected Iranian liberal, writes Mustafa El-Labbad*
Exactly 55 years ago, on 19 August 1953, a coup took place in Tehran. The target of that coup was Mohamed Mosaddeq, the man who challenged Western domination and an archaic oriental monarchy.
Mosaddeq came from an aristocratic family, one that traces its lineage to the Qagars who had ruled Iran for centuries. He would be remembered forever for an incredibly daring act. He nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (currently British Petroleum), the first act of nationalisation in the entire region. He didn't come to power through a coup d'état, as many did in the region. In 1906, aged 24, he was elected deputy for Isfahan. Later on, he went to France to study and then obtained a doctorate in international law from Switzerland.
He served as finance minister in the government of Ahmed Ghavam ol-Saltaneh in 1921 and as foreign minister in the government of Moshir Al-Dowleh in 1923. As a member of parliament, he voted in 1925 against Reza Khan becoming the new Shah of Iran. Together with Hussein Fatemi, Ahmed Zirakzadeh, Ali Shayegan and Karim Sanjabi, he formed and then led Jebhe Melli, the National Front of Iran.
On 28 April 1951, the Iranian parliament elected Mosaddeq as prime minister with 79 votes in favour and 12 against. Two days later, he nationalised Iranian oil. At the time, his main allies were Tudeh, Iran's communist party and a few reformist clergymen. One of the clerics who supported Mosaddeq was Ayatollah Kashani, who maintained that, "anyone opposing the nationalisation of Iranian oil is an enemy of Islam."
Despite Mosaddeq's popularity among the low- and middle-income classes, trouble loomed in the horizon. His plans for agrarian reforms antagonised the powerful landowners and their allies in the clergy. The superpowers of the day were also determined to put a stop to his actions. The UK filed a case with the International Court of Justice, claiming that Mosaddeq violated contractual agreements. Mosaddeq travelled to The Hague, where he delivered a fiery speech, denouncing Britain for stealing from the Iranians.
On his way back to Iran, Mosaddeq stopped over in Cairo where he was afforded a red carpet reception by Prime Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas. Egyptian crowds lined up in the streets to cheer the popular visitor.
The UK slammed an embargo on Iranian oil, claiming that Iran has illegally usurped the rights of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. As economic conditions deteriorated in Tehran, the confrontation between the shah and Mosaddeq came to a head. In August 1953, the shah fled to Italy. But leaving, the shah signed two decrees: one dismissing Mosaddeq from office and another appointing General Fazlollah Zahedi in his place.
On 19 August 1953, Zahedi bombed Mosaddeq's home in downtown Tehran while Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA operative who was the actual mastermind of the coup, sent thugs led by Shaban Jafari into the streets. One of Mosaddeq's associates, Hussein Fatemi, was assassinated in the street in broad daylight. The coup was successful. Mosaddeq was tried at a military court and given a death sentence that was later commuted to solitary confinement for three years followed by house arrest at Ahmadabad.
The drive to Ahmadabad from Tehran takes two hours on a winding, scenic road. The house in which Mosaddeq spent his final years is hardly distinguishable from any Iranian house. There are no signs to guide visitors. A few friendly words with the guard and he opens the door to let us into an overgrown garden, where Mosaddeq's automobile is still parked. Arranged around the garden are floral bouquets recently sent by admirers of the late prime minister. In front of Mosaddeq's tomb, a big picture hangs on a wall. It shows Mosaddeq delivering a speech, animatedly gesticulating, his face set in a determined expression. In another room, a picture of an ageing Mosaddeq, sad and lonely, is on display.
Mosaddeq's aim was to modernise Iran, strengthen its economy, free it from the hegemony of foreign oil companies, and give its people a taste of equality through agrarian reform and other income redistribution programmes. His progressive views alienated the British, the Americans, the landlords, and finally the clerics. In the end, the Ayatollahs -- including Mosaddeq's once outspoken ally, Kashani -- turned against Mosaddeq, declaring him an "enemy" of Islam and Sharia.
Following the coup, the Iranian government made a point of clamping down on the leaders and supporters of Jebhe Melli, Mosaddeq's liberal leaning party. A political void ensued, during which new generations drifted into radical and often underground organisations. Some joined the communist party Tudeh. Others joined Mujahidin-e Khalq. Others still joined the mullahs and their rising star, Khomeini, the man who introduced the term velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurists) into Iran's political scene.
Then as now, US policy was a complete failure. Having overthrown a democratically elected liberal leader, the US set the stage for the eventual takeover by a strong-headed mullah-led regime. In recent years, Washington did the Iranian regime the service of removing its foes from power, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Now the Americans don't know what to do with Iran. When they ask for its help, as in Iraq, they boost its regional standing. And when they threaten it, Tehran stirs up trouble for them elsewhere. The US may seem at a loss today, but that's only sweet justice. Their troubles with Iran started with the ousting of Mosaddeq.
* The writer is director of Al-Sharq Centre for Regional and Strategic Studies.