August 23, 1953


Reversal in Iran

For twenty-eight months the kingdom of Iran has been the most troubled spot in the troubled Moslem world. During these months Iran--wedged up against the Soviet border and standing at the gateway to the world's richest oil resources--has moved steadily, under tremendous internal and external pressures, toward a closer association with Russia.

Last week the drift was suddenly and dramatically stopped. In five turbulent days the country passed through a violent revolution. Events followed one another so swiftly that it was almost impossible to determine the sequence. The Shah (King) fled in exile; riotous mobs in Teheran proclaimed the end of the monarchy; rival gangs battled in the streets; the army stepped in; Premier Mossadegh, virtual dictator of the land, cowered in his palace as the mob besieged it; a new Government took over; Mossadegh, shorn of his power, surrendered; and the Shah returned in triumph.

How stable the new Government is remains in question. Whether it will reverse the course of Mossadegh--a course that had been steadily alienating Iran from the West and multiplying its vast internal problems--in undetermined. But the events of the week did bring a halt to a drift and they opened a way for Iran and the West to make a new try at an agreement.

A Week of Violence

The dramatic events centered around five main institutions:

The Shah, Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, is Iran's constitutional monarch, with the power to name the Premier. He is Commander in Chief of the army. He is young (33), likes to drive fast cars, flies his own plane, has a reputation for being pro-Western and progressive in his social ideas. He also has a reputation for indecision.

The Premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, is symbol of Iranian nationalism. He drove the British out of the Iranian oil fields--a victory which brought him tremendous popularity. He is old (72 by his own count) and internationally famous for his bizarre habits--receiving diplomatic visitors in bed, weeping profusely and fainting in public, bounding upstairs like a rabbit at formal meetings.

The Army, 130,000 strong, is the decisive factor in Iranian politics. A pushover by big power standards, it has some tanks and jeeps. It is nominally under control of the Shah. The rank-and-file revere their leader. But for months Dr. Mossadegh has been filling key positions with his men.

The Teheran mobs are a traditional extra persuader in Iranian politics. They are composed of members of secret Islamic societies, nationalist groups, bazaar thugs and bully-boys. They can stage "spontaneous" political demonstrations and raise riot at a moment's notice. They shift rapidly with the prevailing political winds.

Cohesive Communists

The Tudeh (Communist) party is the only cohesive political group in Iran. Barred as the Communist party in 1938, it sprung up as Tudeh (meaning Masses) during the war. Barred again in 1948 after an assassination attempt against the Shah, Tudeh gained power and prominence steadily under Dr. Mossadegh. Like the mobs, Tudeh can generate a riot on the slightest pretext. But it has little deep-seated popular support.

The action began a week ago last Thursday. The Shah, on "vacation" near Ramsar on the Caspian Sea, issued two decrees. One dismissed Dr. Mossadegh as Premier. The other appointed Maj. Gen. Fazollah Zahedi in his stead. The Shah sent them to Teheran by the chief of the Imperial Guard, Col. Nematollah Nasiri.

On Saturday Colonel Nasiri presented the decrees to General Zahedi. The general accepted the appointment, and told Colonel Nasiri to take the dismissal notice to Dr. Mossadegh. At midnight Saturday Colonel Nashiri set off for Dr. Mossadegh's house with several truckloads of Imperial Guards.

The Shah Flees

The Premier was waiting. Tipped off hours in advance, he had stationed a cordon of regular army troops equipped with tanks and jeeps around the house. When the Imperial Guards arrived they were speedily disarmed. Colonel Nashiri was arrested. From outlying districts army brigades moved downtown behind tanks. Premier Mossadegh issued a proclamation, saying that alert army action had foiled an attempted palace coup. General Zahedi slipped into hiding. The Shah and his wife hastily bundled their clothes into the imperial plane and flew across the border to Iraq.

For the next forty-eight hours Dr. Mossadegh was in control. Communist and nationalist mobs raced through the Teheran streets screaming "Death to the Shah!" Statues of the monarch and his father were pelted and desecrated, then toppled from their pedestals. The Mossadegh press screamed for "revenge" and the "gallows." Foreign Minister Hossein Fatemi warned Iraq that harboring the monarch might lead to "unpleasant political events." The Shah and the Queen flew on to Rome. From his hiding place, General Zahedi put out a stream of proclamations denouncing Dr. Mossadegh as a usurper.

Wednesday morning the tide swiftly turned. A NEW YORK TIMES correspondent cabled this description:

The sudden reversal was nothing more than a mutiny by the lower ranks against pro-Mossadegh officers. Revering the Shah as the "shadow of God on earth," disgusted by destruction of the statues, the troops had taken orders with mounting hostility over the past two days. On Tuesday night when they were ordered to quell the riots they had pitched in with a vengeance, using rifle butts and tear gas freely, forcing the rioters to repeat at bayonet point "Long Live the Shah! Death to Mossadegh!" Then Wednesday morning at about 9, a group of weight-lifters, tumblers and wrestlers armed with iron bars and knives began marching toward the heart of the city shouting pro-Shah slogans. That was all the troops needed. Ordered to break up the demonstration, they turned their weapons against their officers. Spontaneously the mobs shifted from Mossadegh's to the Shah's bandwagon.

Battle in Teheran

For nine hours after that pitched tank battles and mob violence swept Teheran. Eight Government buildings were burned. Over 300 people were killed. An unconfirmed report said Foreign Minister Fatemi had been captured and "torn to pieces." At length pro-Shah forces fought their way to Dr. Mossadegh's house and routed a detachment of household guards. Dr. Mossadegh had fled. His house was burned and looted. The fight was over.

Later on Wednesday General Zahedi broadcast to the Iranian people. He said he was the rightful Premier by order of the Shah. In Rome, the Shah prepared to fly home. At a press interview he said: "Ninety-nine per cent of the population is for me. I knew it all the time."

Next day Dr. Mossadegh, wearing his familiar silk pajamas, surrendered to the new Premier in his headquarters at the Teheran Officers' Club. In Baghdad on his way home, the Shah said Mossadegh was an "evil man" guilty of "the highest crimes." Yesterday the Shah came back to Teheran in triumph. He said: "I cannot contain my immense joy."

Two Years to Crisis

The turbulent events of last week were played out in a narrow and remote setting. But they involved the policies and positions of the great powers. And they had deep roots in Iran's economic soil. This is the international and economic background:

Internationally, Iran has been a focus of Anglo-Russian rivalry for 200 years. The Russians have important fishery concessions in the Caspian Sea, and harbor territorial ambitions for Iran's northern province of Azerbaijan. In the South the British have been the dominant power. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company has developed a billion dollar industry. Twice--in the first and second world wars--the two great powers have arranged joint occupations of Iran. The last time, the U. S. entered the picture. When the Russians refused to leave Azerbaijan at war's end, the U. S. and Britain helped Iran wage a successful fight for evacuation at the U. N. Ever since the U. S. has moved to resist Communist penetration in Iran.

Economic Tensions

Economically, Iran (pop.: 19,000,000; area: 628,000 sq. mi. or about the size of the U. S. east of the Mississippi) is a backward agrarian country. About 15 per cent of the population, including an upper crust of rich absentee landlords and their ample households, live in the towns; another 20 per cent are nomadic tribesmen. The rest of the people are peasants. Bound to the land by debt (60 per cent of the peasants own no land; another 25 per cent less than 3 acres) they work a parched and stony soil. Irrigation and fertilizers are primitive. Illiteracy is widespread. Misery is the common lot.

In this situation, nationalism--seeded in hatred of the British and kept vigorous by the daily contrast between the oil company's wealth and the prevailing Iranian poverty--has been the dominant political idea in Iran. For years the country rung with cries of "Throw the British out!" The cries reached their apogee--and fulfillment--in the appointment of Mohammed Mossadegh as Premier in April 1951.

Inside of six months Dr. Mossadegh had nationalized the oil industry, and driven the British from the oil fields and the great refinery at Abadan. A hero at home, he was accounted a force to be reckoned with by the great powers. Russia wooed him. Britain established a legal blockade to prevent Iranian shipments of the nationalized oil. But she was under pressure from the United States--which feared that if Dr. Mossadegh fell the Communists might take over--to come to terms with the Iranian Premier. The time was right for a settlement with Britain and the inauguration of domestic reforms.

The Balancing Act

The man was not. Instead of settling and reforming, Dr. Mossadegh embarked on one of the great balancing acts of modern history. In foreign affairs, playing between East against West, he demanded more and more concessions and aid. At home, playing the army against the Shah, and Tudeh against his opponents, he demanded more and more power. In the end he was virtually dictator of Iran. But his only support came from Russia, Tudeh, and a handful of Army proteges. This was how he maneuvered himself into his fall:

November, 1951. In Washington Mossadegh spurned offers for oil settlement, hinted that economic troubles would open way to communist Iran, demanded without success a $145,000,000 U. S. loan.

Feb. 19, 1952. Mossadegh rejected World Bank offer for oil settlement.

July 19-21. Shah named new Premier when Mossadegh demanded appointment as War Minister. For three days there were violent pro-Mossadegh rallies. Shah reappointed Mossadegh as Premier.

Aug. 30. President Truman and Prime Minister Churchill made a "final" offer for oil settlement.

Feb. 28, 1953. The Shah bluffed abdication, partly to force Mossadegh's acceptance of Churchill-Truman offer. For two days there were pro-Shah rallies in streets. The pro-Mossadegh mobs led by Tudeh won out. The army had done nothing to help Mossadegh. He began replacing key officers with his own men.

March 20. Mossadegh finally rejected Churchill-Truman offer.

April 14. Mossadegh introduced a bill in Majlis (Parliament) to transfer army control from Shah to himself.

June 29. President Eisenhower rejected Mossadegh request for loan.

July 11. New Soviet Ambassador appointed to Teheran.

July 19. Unable to get army bill through Majlis, Mossadegh demanded dissolution. When Shah refused Mossadegh called for plebiscite.

Aug. 2. Backed by Tudeh, Mossadegh won plebiscite with 99.4 per cent of vote in a nonsecret balloting.

Aug. 10. Moscow announced bilateral talks with Iran on "all questions."

Aug. 14. Foreign Minister Fatemi announced full agreement on Russian talks agenda.

Aug. 15 (last Saturday). Mossadegh announced dissolution of Majlis. The stage was set for last week's events.

What Next?

Because of Iran's role in international politics, the change in regime last week is likely to have far-reaching repercussions. Immediately, of course, it is still a question how long the Zahedi regime can hold power. But with the army behind him and Dr. Mossadegh in custody, General Zahedi seems to be in a strong position.

Whether his Government will move toward an early oil settlement with Britain is uncertain. Thursday in a broadcast to Iran's foreign diplomatic missions, the new Premier said the Mossadegh regime had offended friendly foreign nations, and promised to "compensate for the past." Even before that, Anglo-Iranian stocks rose sharply on the London market. But General Zahedi and many of his supporters supported Dr. Mossadegh's oil nationalization. Thus the prospect is that negotiations, if any, will be difficult.

Nevertheless in the general cold war picture, the turn of events in Iran shapes up as a setback for Russia and an opportunity for the West. That state of affairs was mirrored last week in the varying reactions of the Communist and free worlds.

The Russians were plainly chagrined. For weeks the Soviet press has been giving major attention to "good-neighborliness" between Russia and Iran. Dr. Mossadegh has been painted as a model statesman. His downfall brought immediate charges of subversive activities by U. S. agents on behalf of the Shah. A front-page article in Pravda said: "The weapon of subversive activity was directed against Iran which did not wish to become the submissive slave of the American monopolies."

Western officials withheld public comment--and action--pending a clarification of the sudden developments. But privately they were elated. The change, they pointed out, brought to power in Iran an openly anti-Communist Government free of obligations to Tudeh. They said the new regime, beginning with a clean diplomatic slate, could turn again to the West and reverse Dr. Mossadegh's drift into the Russian embrace. Their general feeling was that the change provided the West with a new chance to build friendship with Iran.