Mohammad Mossadegh

Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967), Iranian nationalist politician and prime minister (1951-1953), led the movement for the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. His democratically elected government was overthrown as the result of a coup d'état sponsored by Great Britain and the United States.

Mohammad Mossadegh (Musaddiq) was born in Tehran into a prominent family of notables. His father was a senior official of the state treasury and his mother was related to the ruling Qajar dynasty. Mossadegh was in his teens when he assumed the administrative position of his deceased father, as was the custom at the time. In 1901 he married Zia us-Saltaneh, who came from a family of politico-religious dignitaries. They had five children. An active supporter of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1907, Mossadegh was elected a deputy to the first Parliament (Majles), but was below the required minimum age for qualification and therefore could not take up his seat. In 1909 he went to Paris to pursue higher education, but illness forced him to return home. He resumed his studies in 1911, this time in Neuchatel in Switzerland, where he gained a doctorate in law. Returning to Iran in August 1914, he taught at the School of Political Science; wrote on legal, financial, and political issues; and engaged in party political activity before his appointment as an under-secretary in the Ministry of Finance.

Mossadegh bitterly opposed the abortive Anglo-Iranian Agreement of 1919, which aimed to formalize British tutelage over Iran. He occupied various ministerial posts and provincial governorships before coming to national prominence as a deputy in both the 5th and 6th Parliaments (1924-1928), establishing himself as a skillful parliamentarian, dedicated to promoting democratic constitutionalism and national sovereignty. In October 1925 he was one of the few deputies to oppose the bill that paved the way for the assumption of the throne by Reza Khan, a leader of the coup of February 1921. Mossadegh continued to oppose the new regime, but with the consolidation of the Pahlavi autocracy he was excluded from political life, and from 1936 onward was forced to live as a recluse in his country home in Ahmadabad, north of the capital. In June 1940 he was summarily arrested, on the orders of the shah, and imprisoned in a desolate town in southern Khorasan, where he twice tried to commit suicide. Six months later he was allowed to return to his country home as the result of intercession by the crown prince, Mohammad Reza.

Following the British-Russian occupation of Iran in 1941, Mossadegh returned to the political scene as first deputy for Tehran in the 14th Parliament (1944-1946), having received the highest number of votes cast in the capital. He advocated neutralism in foreign policy and, in the wake of American, British, and Soviet demands for oil concessions, sponsored a bill banning the granting of oil or other concessions to foreigners. He also emphatically but unsuccessfully advocated a reform of electoral laws that would render elections less prone to rigging. The government rigging of elections to the 15th Parliament prevented Mossadegh's reelection, but he was elected to the 16th Parliament (1950-1952) as Tehran's first deputy, despite the government's efforts to exclude him and his supporters. The National Front, led by Mossadegh, was formed during the election campaign for the 16th Parliament. The National Front advocated free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and an end to martial law.

In October 1947 the Parliament had rejected a draft agreement to grant oil concessions to the Russians and had empowered the government to redeem Iranian rights over the country's southern oil resources, then controlled by Britain. The much resented British oil concession—granted in 1901 and revised in 1933—was thus formally placed on the agenda of Iranian politics and became an increasingly dominant issue, closely intermingled with Iranian domestic politics. British refusal to concede to Iranian demands eventually provoked the call for nationalization of the oil industry, championed by the National Front, and led in turn to the premiership of Mossadegh in May 1951. The oil issue had served as a rallying cry for a popular movement with nationalist as well as democratic aspirations that linked national self determination, symbolized by the act of nationalization, to popular sovereignty. Mossadegh's premiership constituted not only a challenge to Britain's entrenched position in Iran but also involved forcing the shah to comply with the constitutional principle that the monarch should reign and not rule. Mossadegh's task proved daunting. The British, although ostensibly willing to negotiate with him, were not genuinely prepared to accept the reality of nationalization, which Mossadegh in turn considered irrevocable. They attempted through various tactics, including an embargo on the sale of Iranian oil, to destabilize his government. They also resorted to covert measures to engineer his downfall.

Faced with a relentless opposition from pro-British and royalist elements, Mossadegh felt increasingly incapacitated. British efforts to replace him, together with the refusal of the shah—who had only grudgingly acquiesced in Mossadegh's premiership—to transfer the War Ministry to the prime minister, eventually resulted in Mossadegh's resignation in July 1952. However, he was returned to power a few days later as the result of a popular uprising. He now enjoyed greater authority, but there seemed to be no realistic prospect of settling the oil question.

Meanwhile, the government's economic and financial difficulties were increasing. The Tudeh (Communist) Party, although banned since 1949, not only harassed the government but also enabled Mossadegh's opponents to claim that a communist takeover was likely. The army would not readily accept prime ministerial control, and some of Mossadegh's own supporters joined his opponents. Although the Parliament had granted him extra powers, his position was inherently vulnerable, and toward the end of his term of office relations between the government and the Parliament proved increasingly difficult. Mossadegh resorted to a referendum to dissolve the Parliament and start fresh elections on the basis of a new electoral law. This provided an ideal opportunity for the British and American secret services, aided by his domestic opponents, to engineer his downfall through a coup d'état in August 1953.

The coup, which established royal autocracy, firmly committed Iran to the West and revoked the substance of oil nationalization. Mossadegh and many of his supporters were arrested, accused of violating the constitution. He was tried by a military tribunal and, despite a vigorous self defense, was condemned to three years imprisonment and subsequently confined to his country home until his death on March 5, 1967 at the age of 84. In the aftermath of the coup of 1953 repressive measures prevented the revival of the National Front, but Mossadegh's charisma and the appeal of the ideals and sentiments associated with his name persisted in the collective memory of large numbers of Iranians. He remained a potent source of inspiration for opponents of royal autocracy. His legacy, consisting of civic nationalism and liberal democracy combined with personal integrity, civility, and public spiritedness, remained dominant ingredients in the enduring aspirations of large segments of the Iranian populace.

Further Reading on Mohammad Mossadegh

A thorough biography of Mossadegh remains to be written. For a useful account see Farhad Diba's Mosaddegh: A Political Biography (London, 1986). See also Homa Katouzian's Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran (London, 1990). On Mossadegh's career as a parliamentarian and prime minister see Fakhreddin Azimi, Iran: The Crisis of Democracy, 1941-53 (1989). On Mossadegh and the oil question see James A. Bill and Wm. Roger Louis (eds.), Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil (London, 1988), and Musafa Elm, Oil, Power and Principle: Iran's Oil Nationalization and Its Aftermath (1992). An English translation of Mossadegh's memoirs, which contains many useful insights into his life, career, and ideas, is available as Musaddiq's Memoirs, edited and introduced by Homa Katouzian (London, 1988).