A major question — especially relevant in the context of today’s “Arab Spring” — concerns the oil crisis of the 1950s and the extent to which Iran’s internal debate over the nationalization of oil reflects democracy at work.
Most accounts of the period center on the importance of Mosaddegh and his legacy. However, the role of Ayatollah Kashani who headed the religious wing of the National Front is also important.
By the way, Indie Games has created a game called, The Cat and the Coup, a documentary game in which you play the cat of Dr. Mohammed Mosaddegh, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran. As I’ll discuss over the next couple of posts, a coup attempt against Mosaddegh began on August 16, 1953, but failed when the prime minister was warned ahead of time that he was to be ousted. The CIA played a role, but I’ll discuss that later. Anyway, you can find information about the game at http://coup.peterbrinson.com/.
As a player, you coax Mossadegh back through significant events of his life by knocking objects off of shelves, scattering his papers, jumping on his lap and scratching him.
You can also learn about the coup attempt called Operation AJAX on your iPad. Information is at:
Okay. Back to business — and to Ayatollah Kashani.
Kashani, in the early 1950s, espoused many of the same issues later attributed to the Ayatollah Khomeini. He was able to rally large numbers of lower class and lower middle class Iranians to the nationalist movement.
While it has been argued that the subsequent British/American covert operation imposed an imperial dictatorship on Iran which the revolution of 1978-1979 succeeded in unseating, the personalities of both Mosaddegh and Kashani were central to the debate as played out by the various actors — the Tudeh Party, the National Front, and the royalists.
Initially held together by the prime minister’s personal charisma, Mosaddegh’s coalition was, in the end, quite fragile.
On the far left was the communist Tudeh Party, a popular and well-funded organization maintaining political ties with the Soviet Union. This group drew its membership from the middle and working classes of society and was quite active in industrial cities such as Isfahan as well as in oil areas. At its peak in 1953, the party had over 25,000 members and about 300,000 sympathizers.
The group originally supported Mosaddegh but later broke with him, calling him a tool of the United States.
Mosaddegh himself represented the National Front coalition, a group which was intense in its dislike of both the shah and the British.
The National Front was made up of diverse interests representing the traditional middle class and the professional middle class. The traditional middle class was comprised of the Toiler’s party, the Society of Muslim Warriors, the Ayatollah Kashani and his closest followers, and the Devotees of Islam.
Membership in the Toiler’s party was dominated by bazaaris who wanted a constitutional monarch, political equality, and an end to imperialism.
Religious organizations were led by Kashani who was outspoken in his opposition to the British and the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).
Kashani’s father had been killed fighting the British in World War I, and he himself had previously led uprisings against the British and had also been charged in 1941 with collaborating with the Germans. His main supporters included distinguished clerics, but he stood alone among leading Iranian mujtahids in supporting the nationalist movement.
The professional middle class was made up of liberals, moderates, and those with modern education. It included the Iran party, the National party, the Third Force, and independent supporters. The intellectual core of the group was the Iran party whose members (for the most part) had been educated in Europe. They provided the ideological infrastructure for the National Front, promoting liberal democracy, nationalism, and reform. Mosaddegh’s personal ideas approximated those of this group.
The National Party was made up of high school and university students who were important in providing street and organizational support.
The Third Force advocated socialism and liberalism.
These formal groupings were bolstered by various independent supporters who opposed the shah, the court, the large landowners, and the military officer corps.
As Mosaddegh began to seek stronger political powers for himself and the Tudeh Party became increasingly assertive, the bazaar and religious groups split from the coalition.
The Kashani faction had always distrusted the prime minister because of his class background and his indifferent approach to Islam. Rightists charged that he was leading Iran toward communism, while leftists accused him of being a tool of American imperialism. Meanwhile, the shah and the royalists were able to coopt some of the traditional middle class with Kashani himself cooperating to a certain extent with the regime.
Kashani is also said to have cooperated with American intelligence agents when the Eisenhower administration shifted to a policy of intervention.
Eisenhower’s change in policy should not have been unexpected. There was a growing perception that communism posed a direct threat to the United States.
Given the role of the Tudeh Party in the nationalist movement in Iran — and in the context of Joe McCarthy’s dominance in US domestic politics — the administration’s decision to support a move against Mosaddegh is unsurprising. Bolstering this thinking, of course, was America’s growing interest in controlling access to Iranian oil along with the inability of US officials to distinguish between communist and nationalist movements throughout the Third World.
Mosaddegh himself advanced US insecurities regarding Iran by raising the specter of a communist threat to his country and arguing that American assistance was essential if Iran were to stay out of the communist camp.