For the “blame America first” crowd, the ouster of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 has long been a useful crutch. Now that a new administration is preparing to put Democrats back in the White House, this crutch is once again being trotted out as an excuse for rejecting the Trump administration’s successful approach to the Middle East — an approach that united Israel with the Arab world while isolating Iran — and returning to failed Obama-era policies.
Who was Mossadegh? It depends on whom you ask, and which Mossadegh you’re asking about. The Mossadegh that accrued enough political power and respect to be appointed prime minister in 1951 was a fierce Iranian nationalist motivated by noble goals: to reclaim Iranian’s most valuable natural resource, oil, and to modernize and democratize his country. For Democrats with an indefensible policy agenda to defend, this is who he remained until the bitter end.
But one must reckon with Mossadegh’s behavior during as well as prior to his premiership to get a fuller picture of both the prime minister, and the events that led to his removal from power. After nationalizing the oil industry, long controlled by the British through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Mossadegh refused to negotiate in good faith over what the British role would be moving forward or otherwise compensating them for their losses. The British responded by threatening to boycott European companies doing business with the Iranians and intercepting Iranian oil tankers, devastating the Iranian economy.
The U.S.’s role in this was as a mediator. It cautioned the British against military action, declined to participate in a plan to remove Mossadegh from power, and continued to aid Iran through economic aid packages.
While Mossadegh presented himself and his present-day American admirers portray him as a staunch believer in republicanism, the Mossadegh of history sought to consolidate power in himself. In August 1952, for example, Mossadegh demanded that he be granted “emergency powers” that the New York Times called “full dictatorial powers,” and that an Iranian senator said practically amounted to “the death of the constitutional regime.” Even Mossadegh’s son-in-law opposed this transparent power grab, which was initially rebuffed but later approved by the Iranian parliament. This, combined with his earlier demand that he be allowed to appoint the minister of war — the Iranian constitution granted this power to the shah, Iran’s monarch — demonstrated that Mossadegh was only a committed democratic advocate if all the powers of Iran’s democracy were invested in him.
Iran’s simultaneous slide toward economic ruin and dictatorship — which can be directly attributed to Mossadegh’s mismanagement and ambition, respectively — led to a decay in support among the once-broad coalition he had commanded. This was especially true of his middle-class supporters, who suffered enormously from his botched nationalization effort, and of religious leaders, who resented his goal of modernizing Iran. That the times were a-changin’ for the prime minister became clear in February 1953, when the shah of Iran announced that he would be leaving the country for undisclosed medical reasons. This act was seen by the public as a sign of a rift between their monarch and Mossadegh and resulted in widespread protests in support of the shah.
That July, Mossadegh again confirmed what should have been obvious by that point: His primary objective had become holding on to power. When anti-Mossadegh forces appeared to be reaching a critical mass in parliament, he had his supporters there resign. Without a quorum, Mossadegh maintained that a referendum was needed to determine what to do next. A plebiscite described by Ray Takeyh, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, as characterized by “boycotts, voting irregularities, and mob violence” ratified Mossadegh’s decision to dissolve parliament.
Mossadegh’s falling star at home and the succession of the Truman administration by that of Dwight D. Eisenhower resulted in a shift in U.S. policy toward Iran. The instability of Mossadegh’s government, the U.S. rightly worried, could lead to a Communist takeover. This confluence of factors led to the development of TPAJAX, a joint operation planned by the U.S., U.K., and a group of high-profile Iranian officials, generals, and religious leaders fed up with Mossadegh. The existence of this last group is particularly important to recall. While those who invoke Mossadegh’s name today would have you believe that Mossadegh’s removal was solely the consequence of U.S. meddling, this couldn’t be further from the truth. General Fazlollah Zahedi — once a minister in Mossadegh’s cabinet — Ayatollah Abdel Qassem Kashani, and most crucially, the shah, were not merely accessories to the plan, but its anchors.
The key to the operation was getting the shah to dismiss Mossadegh as prime minister, an action within his constitutional power, but that he was nevertheless hesitant to take. The U.S.’s chief role in Mossadegh’s removal was convincing the monarch, largely through intermediaries such as his sister, to take this necessary step
What is often overlooked is that the U.S.’s planned “coup” (can it be called a coup if it was carried out by constitutional means?) failed. Mossadegh was tipped off about the plan, and instead of heeding the shah’s dismissal, he had the officer who was sent to inform him of his unemployment arrested. Zahedi, the muscle behind the operation, went into hiding. So did the figure that lent it legitimacy, the shah.
This news was greeted with much gnashing of teeth in Washington, where the operation was seen as an abject failure. General Walter Bedell Smith, then serving as an undersecretary of state, informed President Eisenhower that the U.S. would “probably have to snuggle up to Mosaddegh if we’re going to save anything there.”
CIA operatives on the ground continued to publicize the shah’s constitutional dismissal, as well as to disseminate other anti-Mossadegh materials. But it was Iranians, not Americans, who ultimately succeeded in achieving TPAJAX’s objectives. In the days after Mossadegh’s decision to ignore his dismissal, chaos reigned in Iran. Communists and radical members of Mossadegh’s party, the National Front, poured into the streets to call for the abolition of the monarchy, among other changes. This triggered a backlash from both religious and military leaders and average Iranians. The latter were more loyal to the shah than the prime minister, who had brought so much political and economic hardship upon them. Loy Henderson, the U.S. ambassador to Iran, still speculated that these events “would probably have little significance.”
How wrong he was. Civilian crowds incited by Kashni and other religious leaders came out in even greater numbers than the radicals had. Mossadegh ordered the military to restore order, but most troops sided with their countrymen and the shah, bringing, in a stunning turn of events, an end to Mossadegh’s premiership on August 19, just six days after the shah’s failed dismissal of him.
The U.S. played an important and necessary precipitating role in Mossadegh’s removal then, but not the caricaturized one that is weaponized by people such as Marik von Rennenkampff, a State and Defense Department official in the Obama administration. In an op-ed for The Hill, von Rennenkampff conveniently ignores Mossadegh’s abuses of power and diplomatic intransigence, as well as the considerable Iranian opposition to him. Instead, he pins the 1979 Revolution and hostage crisis and all subsequent U.S.–Iranian hostilities on the Mossadegh imbroglio, casting the U.S. not only as the party responsible for the initial iciness between the two countries, but also as the primary aggressor over the last 40 years. He even goes so far as to dismiss the hostage crisis as merely “decades of anger boil[ing] over.” It is worrying that von Rennenkampff once held positions of some significance within the U.S. government. Even more alarming is that his historically and morally backwards perspective on American–Iranian affairs may once again be returning to power alongside Joe Biden.
After all, Biden’s old boss, President Barack Obama, was fond of promulgating a simplistic and anti-American telling of the Mossadegh ouster. In 2009, the newly minted president claimed that “in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Other Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, have made similar assertions. Why? To justify their illogical but dogged attempts to cozy up to Iran’s evil, explicitly anti-American regime at the expense of our relationships with Israel and the Arab world, both of which are much more natural fits as U.S. allies in the region.
With Democrats returning to power, Americans should beware of the revival of the Mossadegh myth. The people who will be wielding the levers of power in the executive branch will not hesitate to interpret history in the most uncharitable way possible to the country they serve if they believe it will help them fit their square peg into an obviously round hole.