Many Iranians blame American interventionism -her backing for the Shah’s repressive regime, her permission to allow the Shah to travel to the US in October 1979, her support for Iraq in war against Iran, her connivance at Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against Iranians- for their country’s decades of modern tragedy and for the successive repressive regimes they have continued to face. Similarly, many Americans think that Iran’s regime since 1979 has consistently acted against American interests. Let’s look at the man who was at the centre of the events that shaped the history we have witnessed over the past several decades.

The story begins sixty-six year ago. On August 19 in 1953, America -duped by a cunning old man, Winston Churchill- subverted the democratically elected government of Mossadegh in Iran, a country whose people loved the United States and Americans.  It changed the Middle East for all times to follow.

Mossadegh was born on May 9, 1882. He showed an exceptionally intelligent mind from the childhood and grew up and lived during especially turbulent times in Iran’s history. He was eight years old when the Tobacco Revolt broke out. When elections for the first Majlis were convoked in 1906, a young Mossadegh contested and won a seat from Isfahan.

Mossadegh’s limitless self-confidence led him to always fight fiercely for his principles. He was a visionary rather than a pragmatist and never compromised in an honorable cause. At several defining moments in his career, he chose to retire from public life rather than sully himself. He moved through life with a determination that inspired many of his fellow countrymen. In intelligence and education, he surpassed all of them.

Mossadegh was not a schemer and conspirator by nature and had a childlike faith in the sincerity of most other people. He was also a very decent and chivalrous man who appreciated form, ceremony, and diplomacy. This naïve good heartedness contributed to his downfall.

After Reza Khan assumed power in 1921, he chose to make use of Mossadegh’s remarkable talent and made him his finance minister. But after assuming the office, Mossadegh launched an anticorruption campaign that exposed Reza and his friends. Reza removed him from the post and named him governor of Azerbaijan province where Soviets were plotting a separatist rebellion. Mossadegh quit the post when Reza refused to give him authority over troops stationed there.

Then Mossadegh served as the foreign minister but soon resigned when he realized that Reza did not share his democratic instincts. He then ran for a seat for Majlis in 1924 and was elected comfortably. He soon emerged as Reza’s sharpest critic. In 1925, Mossadegh fiercely opposed Reza’s becoming the Shah and urged him to form a republic and become its prime minister. It was of no avail as Reza became the Shah with the support from clergy who were opposed to a democratic system.

Over the months that followed, Reza Shah repeatedly offered Mossadegh senior positions in the government, including chief justice and even prime minister. Mossadegh categorically turned all of them down. As Reza Shah became a tyrant, Mossadegh had no option but to withdraw from politics and public life. He retired to his estate at Ahmed Abad, ninety kilometers west of Teheran.

As he devoted himself to study and experimental farming, his name disappeared from public scene. Reza Shah, however, continued to fear him and kept Mossadegh under surveillance – imprisoning him in 1940 for no reason and then, on his release a few months later, placing him under house arrest. Once Reza Shah was gone, Mossadegh returned to active politics, ran for his old seat in Majlis, and won with more votes than any other candidate in the country. Mossadegh then turned his fire towards Britain’s blatant exploitation of Iran. Even though a relatively small island, Britain had risen to world power largely because of its success in exploiting the natural and human resources of subject nations.

Upright, intelligent, patriotic, liberal, passionate, tolerant, erudite, and eloquent; Mossadegh left an indelible mark in the skin of times. The first Iranian to win a doctorate of law from a European University, Mossadegh had an exceedingly sharp mind. He was a compassionate man who not only understood but also shared his fellow countrymen’s suffering. The country’s most popular figure of his era, Mossadegh was an unbending democrat, a fierce advocate of national independence, Iran’s most highly educated citizen, and as scrupulously honest as any Iranian leader ever.

Even though Iran was one of the biggest oil producers in the world, British government unscrupulously fleeced all the earnings from Iranian oil through its company, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. At mid-century, finally free of foreign occupation, impoverished Iranians felt deeply offended by this gross injustice.

Mossadegh gave speech after passionate speech in Parliament condemning Anglo-Iranian. On April 28, 1951, as Iran was filled with color and the scent of majestic greenery – breeding flowers out of the dead land, Parliament met to elect a new prime minister. At that time Reza Khan’s son Mohammad Reza was the Shah of Iran. Defying the Shah, its members elected their most respected and educated colleague, Mossadegh, who had kindled Iran’s determination to own its oil. Immediately after his election, Mossadegh’s Iran nationalized its Anglo-Iranian Oil Company with Parliament’s unanimous approval.

This set the stage for a confrontation and mischiefs whose aftermath has since continued to mar Iran and the Middle East. Mossadegh could not be bribed or intimidated by any means and the British government -led by the lifelong colonialist Winston Churchill- could not accept the loss of its most lucrative asset anywhere in the world.

British did everything they could to punish Iran. Exports stopped, and devastating economic hardships set in. Nonetheless Mossadegh did not budge and neither did Iranian people. The British, conditioned by centuries of heartless colonialism, could not countenance the idea of giving back natives something valuable that they wanted to keep for themselves even after they no longer occupied Iran.

Mossadegh made a historic defense of Iran’s right at the UN Security Council. “The oil resources of Iran, like its soil, its rivers and mountains, is the property of the people of Iran,” he told the Security Council on October 15, 1951. “They alone have the authority to decide what shall be done with it.” The most eloquent leader Iran had produced in many centuries rose to the world stage and presented the case of one helpless nation against a colonial company. Many around the world identified with it as the case of the wretched of the earth against the rich and powerful. Mossadegh became the embodiment of the nationalist passion that was surging through the colonized nations. The Security Council refused to pressure, sanction, or censure Iran.

Britain also contemplated the idea of invading Iran to retake its oil fields by force. President Truman, however, refused to support. Unable to bludgeon Mossadegh into submission, the British decided to overthrow him. Mossadegh learned of their plot and decided to close the British embassy, sending all British diplomats home. Among these “diplomats” were the secret agents who had been assigned to overthrow him.

In desperation, Churchill turned to the Americans and the CIA, beseeching them to overthrow Mossadegh for the sake of a trusted old ally. Truman repeatedly refused. However, American stance in the matter changed when, in November 1952, Eisenhower won the election. President Eisenhower and his two cohorts -the two Dulles brothers, the elder of whom became the secretary of state and the younger the head of CIA- were to fundamentally reshape America’s global policies, viewing poor countries merely as bit players to be used in American interests. This was a tectonic shift in America’s approach to the world.

Eisenhower and Dulles brothers viewed a government that dared to nationalize a western corporation as an enemy to be quashed. Eisenhower agreed to send the CIA to do the job. It was without debate, without reflection, without analysis, without investigation, and without weighing pros and cons that Eisenhower’s government made the decision to topple Iran’s democratic government. Anyone who pointed out that it would be against long-term American interests was either ignored or silenced – like CIA station chief in Teheran, Roger Goiran, who warned against it, was removed. They never consulted the State Department experts.

Mossadegh appealed to them, publicly and in private letters, but they snubbed him each time he did so. American scholar Mary Ann Heiss concluded after studying this episode: “They (Dulles and Eisenhower) were not interested in negotiation. . . . It was all very emotional and very quick. There was no real attempt to find out who Mossadegh was or what motivated him.”

According to the CIA’s postmortem, which is now public knowledge, it set out to depose a democratically elected, highly popular, and peaceful foreign leader. The CIA named it Operation Ajax. Operation Ajax would start an era of American intervention to reshape the world as it deemed fit.

Instead of cheering Iran’s passage to democracy and freedom, American government looked at its nationalization of an oil company of America’s closest ally and saw an enemy. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas later wrote, “When Mossadegh and Persia started basic reforms we became alarmed. We united with the British to destroy him; we succeeded; and ever since, our name has not been an honored one in the Middle East.”

CIA’s records divulge in elaborate details how the agency accomplished this task. It bribed newspaper columnists, mullahs, and members of Parliament to denounce Mossadegh. It paid Iranian opinion makers to call Mossadegh an atheist, a Jew, a homosexual, and even a British agent. It bought key military officers and police commanders. It hired gangs to rampage through the streets of Teheran as the supporters of Mossadegh, firing pistols, destroying property, and shouting pro-Communism slogans.

Then it hired gangs to pretend as pro-Mossadegh crowds, attacking Mossadegh’s political enemies to portray Mossadegh as unable to control his own people and capital city. The mobs, of course, drew thousands of participants who had no idea of the manipulation at play. The CIA helped stage an uprising in the southern provinces by tribal leaders who were already on British payroll. It bought Ayatollah Kashani to issue a fatwa and incite violence against Mossadegh. In short, the CIA showed its considerable prowess, which is now well known to Pakistanis and many other nations, to buy generals, manipulate politicians, use mullahs, spread inflammatory rumors, place provocative articles and coverage in media, produce hired crowds on short notice and so on. As he persistently refused to use state violence in the face of all this turbulence -following a blood-soaked battle in front of his residence-  Mossadegh era soon came to an end on August 19, 1953.

This coup ended democracy in Iran and set the country off toward dictatorship. The cowardly and incompetent Mohammad Reza Shah, who had fled Iran in the turbulent days before the coup, was flown back to the country and the Peacock Throne. He ordered Mossadegh, who was then seventy-one years old, arrested and tried for treason.

During his trial Mossadegh told his judges, “My only crime is that I nationalized the Iranian oil industry and removed from this land the network of colonialism and the political and economic influence of the greatest empire on earth.”

The guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion, however. Mossadegh was awarded three years in prison, followed by house arrest for life. Mossadegh served his full prison term and then in 1956 was brought to his home in Ahmed Abad. There he lived in incarceration till he breathed his last on March 5, 1967.

Thus, ended a remarkable life that inspired people round the world to believe that nations can and must fight for the right to govern themselves in freedom.

In his era, Mossadegh was a colossal figure who shook an empire and changed the world. Time chose Mossadegh over Truman, Eisenhower, and Churchill as its Man of the Year for 1951. He is an icon of Iranian history, Middle Eastern history, and the history of anticolonialism. No account of the twentieth century can be complete without a chapter about Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.


Mossadegh’s twenty-seven months tenure has yet been the only period in its history when Iran tasted real democracy. In addition to the nationalization of the oil company, Mossadegh’s stay in the office was studded with a number of other achievements. A few of which are as below.

– The promise of Constitutional Revolution finally became real.

– The power was held by elected officials.

– Parliament addressed people’s needs.

– Iranians enjoyed more freedom than ever, before or after, in their history.

– Mossadegh made significant social reforms.

– He freed peasants from forced labor on their landlords’ estates.

– He ordered factory owners to pay benefits to sick and injured workers.

– He established a system of unemployment compensation.

– He took 20 percent of the money landlords received in rents and placed it in development fund.

– He started significant projects for pest control, rural housing, and public baths.

– He supported women’s rights.

– He defended religious freedom. – He allowed complete freedom of expression.

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