Mohammed Mossadegh is not widely remembered in this country, but he was Time Magazine's Man Of The Year for 1951. The first Iranian to receive an advanced education from a European university, and a man widely renowned for his blunt honesty and impeccable integrity, Mossadegh was brilliant and disturbingly passionate, capable of verbally eviscerating opponents in political or juridical debates, and just as easily capable of breaking down crying while giving a speech, or even passing out while in the middle of tense negotiations. His understanding of national and international law became legendary. He often conducted official business while lying in bed.
Iran's monarchy had had a long, turbulent history, with the corrupt and incompetent Qajar regime being forced to democratize by the 1906-1911 Constitutional Revolution, but that effectively came to an end when the Qajars were toppled in the early 1920s by a British-backed military officer named Reza Khan. In 1925, Reza Khan became Reza Shah Pahlavi, and soon turned the Iranian parliament, or Majlis, into a rubberstamp. Most people don't understand this, but the final Shah of Iran was not part of an ancient royal family, rather he was heir to a dynasty that had lasted exactly two generations, himself included.
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Reza Khan's rule was secular but brutal, and he often clashed with the clergy and just as often eliminated his chief political rivals. But Iran's monarchy had long been but a compliant puppet of the British, who had controlled much of the Middle East, which had not yet become important because of oil. To that era's economic, political, and military powers, Iran's primary importance was as gateway to India, the British Empire's Crown Jewel, which the Russian Empire long had coveted. But in the early 20th century, oil had become important, and the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) controlled Iran's oil production, creating a sprawling and horrifying slum to house the Iranian workers, with a parallel, segregated country club community for the British executives and managers. Iran was so taken for granted, and the British oil company's profits were so staggering that AIOC actually paid more to the British government in taxes than to Iran for the right to steal its oil. During World War II, Reza Shah wanted to remain neutral, so the old rivals Britain and Russia, now allied against Germany, invaded and occupied Iran. In 1941, the Shah was forced to abdicate, and was replaced by his young son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
In 1951, the Majlis again was asserting independence, and when it was to confirm the Shah's latest appointment to be figurehead prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh led the democratic nationalist opposition. In an attempt to stifle Mossadegh, a monarchist member of the Majlis sarcastically suggested that Mossadegh himself ought to stand for prime minister. Mossadegh had had a long, turbulent political career, dating back to his election to the early, still democratic Majlis, and a subsequent self-imposed exile to Switzerland, when that Majlis was neutered by Reza Shah. Few considered him desirous of leadership. But when so sarcastically challenged, Mossadegh rose and said he would be proud to serve, and the next day the Majlis elected him. Literally overnight, the Shah's intended puppet had been replaced by a man devoted to the cause of true democracy. Mossadegh also was a secularist, a proponent of workers' and women's rights, and an avid defender of basic political and social freedoms. More ominously, for the British, Mossadegh wanted to nationalize Anglo-Iranian.
Negotiations between Mossadegh and Britain were impossible, and when Mossadegh expelled British diplomats, many of whom had been involved in covert activities, the British turned to the United States for help. President Harry S. Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, sympathized with Iran's nationalist ambitions, and believed the best way to thwart Soviet expansionism was to side with the legitimate aspirations for freedom in less developed countries. Truman tried to mediate, but he and Acheson both were appalled by British intransigence. The British appealed to the World Court, and lost. Mossadegh became an international celebrity. But in late 1951, the British returned Winston Churchill to Downing Street, and in 1952, the Americans elected Dwight Eisenhower to the presidency. History was about to change.
Eisenhower himself was not enthusiastic about supporting Churchill's intentions with Iran, but his secretary of state and CIA director, the Dulles brothers, eventually convinced him otherwise. A covert operation was led by Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., grandson of late U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, and it included creating great social unrest and the hiring of some of Iran's most notorious criminals to stage violent riots in support of the Shah, which Mossadegh, being a champion of the rights to free speech and assembly, at first did not oppose. Coupled with the economic chaos caused by a British-led international boycott against buying Iranian oil, Mossadegh's rule was weakened, and a well-bribed military then took action. A first coup attempt failed, the Shah was forced to flee to Iraq, then Rome, but before a week had expired, a second coup attempt had succeeded. All of this was coordinated by Roosevelt, mostly out of the American Embassy in Tehran. The Shah was restored, Mossadegh turned himself in, and Iranian democracy was dead.
So pleased were they with their results, the Dulles brothers soon began planning their second coup, which would take place in Guatemala. Anglo-Iranian subsequently changed its name to British Petroleum. Mossadegh spent three years in prison, and the rest of his life under house arrest, in a small village where only his family and close friends were allowed to visit. The increasing repression under the Shah eventually led to his being overthrown, but it took more than two long decades, and because the Shah had so successfully crushed most secular opposition, that 1979 revolution quickly became fervently religious. Most Americans didn't understand why Iranian revolutionaries subsequently attacked the American Embassy in Tehran, taking dozens of hostages, and neither the politicians nor the media bothered to explain. But most Iranians knew that the 1953 demolition of their democracy, and the restoration of the Shah, had been planned from that very building. Many Muslims around the world also knew very well what had happened.
This is but a very brief outline, and there are many fascinating details and nuances, but understanding this history will be increasingly important, as the same neocons who so brilliantly propagandized for the so successful invasion of Iraq ramp up their pressure on President Obama to get more aggressive with Iran. It isn't much of a campaign issue, but with the theocratic Iranian regime the Eisenhower Administration made almost inevitable still pursuing the nuclear weapons that the nations that already have nuclear weapons say no one else must be allowed to have, the politics of nucelar proliferation will continue to grow more complicated and more dangerous, and Iran will remain its primary focus.
The Obama Administration was much criticized by some conservatives for its wise and cautious response to the 2009 Iranian democracy movement, because those conservatives either didn't understand or didn't care to understand that any overt or aggressive American support would have been cast by the Iranian government as but more American meddling, and a repeat of 1953. There are no easy answers and there are no easy solutions, and many people both in Iran and in the United States are politically invested in there being no answers or solutions. To some, it's about the seeming domestic political expedience of international confrontation and brinksmanship. To some, it's about fomenting war.
(This is an updated version of a previous post)