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History Used and Abused

19 Aug 2009 16:472 Comments

In Nov. 1951, the British Embassy reported that Kashani was so disgruntled with Mosaddeq that he had put out "feelers" in many directions, including the royal court and the U.S. Embassy. "The Americans," reported the British Embassy, "have told us in the strictest confidence that he [ Kashani] has been in touch with them. His main thesis is the danger of communism and the need for immediate American aid." Ayatollah Kashani (white beard) pictured above with Navab Safavi.

History Recanted: The role of the clergy in the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh


[TEHRAN BUREAU] On the eve of May Day 1983, Iranian television sprung a surprise on its viewers. It paraded veteran Tudeh leaders confessing to a host of major crimes, including that of advocating an "alien ideology." Public confessions in themselves were nothing new. Ever since 1981 a diverse array of political dissidents -- Maoists, Mosaddeqists, former Khomeinists, royalists, and Mojahedin activists -- had admitted to hatching "sinister conspiracies" and establishing "treasonable ties with foreign powers." Nor was the content of the Tudeh confessions entirely novel, for the Left had long been accused of "conspiring" to destroy the nation, disseminating "alien" concepts, and, most frequently of all, "spying" for the Soviet Union.

The surprise in these 1983 confessions, which continued intermittently for over ten months, was the prominence given to history. History featured in the recantations made by the three most important Tudeh figures: Nuraldin Kianuri, the seventy-one-year-old first secretary of the party; Ehsan Tabari, the organization's main theoretician since the mid-1940s; and Mahmud Behazin, a well-known author and fellow-traveler since the early 1940s. Behazin kicked off the first show with a lesson on the Islamic clergy's true understanding of the past, Marxism's misinterpretation of the course of history, and secular radicals' betrayal of the people of Iran through their "alien" ideology.

The three Tudeh leaders followed similar scripts. They began by greeting "Imam Khomeini, the Great Leader of the Revolution and Founder of the Islamic Republic." They stressed that their brief confinement in prison had provided them with the opportunity to study the past. Kianuri concluded his second long recantation by stressing that the Left needed to examine in great detail Iran's history and society. Tabari exclaimed that he had realized that his whole life's work was "spurious" as soon as the prison authorities introduced him to Islamic authors, notably Ayatollah Motahhari. Tabari explained that his own publications were useless because they had relied on foreign sources (Europeans, Zionists, Freemasons, and Soviet Marxists) and on Kasravi and Sangalaji, whose errors he recognized in prison as soon as he read Imam Khomeini's Kashf al-Asrar. A less important Tudeh leader, before being executed, limited his defense to thanking his jailers for turning the prison into a "university."

The Tudeh leaders all declared they wished to reveal their mistakes so that the younger generation would learn from them. Tabari, for instance, warned the youth that Marxism would inevitably cut them off from their own people, history, and culture. The Tudeh leaders praised the clergy for having heroically led the people throughout history, Behazin claiming that the clergy had enjoyed close links with the oppressed for over one thousand years. Kianuri stated that Marxism had no chance against the clergy since the latter were armed not only with "militant Islam" but also with age-old popular support. Moreover, they all argued that their "foreign ideology" had led them to "depend" on the Soviets, hatch conspiracies, misunderstand their own society, worship the intelligentsia, and disrespect the country's religious culture. In his first television appearance, Kianuri traced the source of "all our mistakes to our foreign ideology." In his later appearances, he no longer spoke of "mistakes" but of "illnesses," "sins," and "high treason."

Even more significant, the Tudeh leaders each cited the same four decisive points in history in which the Left had supposedly betrayed Iran: the Constitutional Revolution, especially the government's forceful disarming of Sattar Khan's fighters in 1910; the Jangali (Jungle) Resistance of 1915-21, ending with the death of its leader, Mirza Kuchek Khan, in the wooded mountains of Gilan; the rise of Reza Shah in 1921-25, particularly the opposition to his coronation mustered by Ayatollah Modarres; and Mosaddeq's 1951-53 administration, terminating with his overthrow in the notorious August 19 coup.

Since the 1983 television confessions, these four crises have featured prominently in government propaganda: in newspapers, radio broadcasts, Friday sermons, school textbooks, and even intellectual journals. Government officials sometimes cite these Tudeh recantations to prove their case. The Islamic Republic has certainly not treated history as bunk. Indeed, it has gone to considerable trouble -- with somewhat unconventional means -- to obtain the "historical truth."


Mosaddeq's Administration

Mosaddeq, although deceased since 1967, haunts the Islamic Republic. He does so because he embodied many political features the Islamic Republic admires, but few of the social ingredients it considers essential. He had an impeccable anti-Pahlavi record. He opposed the 1925 change of dynasty and, consequently, was cast out of politics for sixteen years; it was rumored that he came close to meeting the same fate as Modarres. During 1941-53, he persistently criticized the new shah's unconstitutional powers. After Mosaddeq's overthrow in the 1953 coup, he was imprisoned, released, and then once again forced into house imprisonment, where he eventually died.

Mosaddeq had an equally impeccable anti-imperialist record. He denounced the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement and the 1921 coup. He opposed economic capitulations in any shape or form as well as military alliances with the Great Powers. He led the 1944-45 opposition to the granting of an oil concession to the Soviet Union, and, of course, he launched the 1951 campaign to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In fact, he was one of the world's very first nonaligned leaders. What is more, he challenged the British and the shah with public support. He appealed directly to the masses, often bypassing Parliament, which he denounced at one point as a "den of thieves." A prominent royalist deputy exclaimed in exasperation:

Is our premier a statesman or a mob leader? What type of premier says "I will speak to the people" every time he faces a political problem? I always considered this man to be unsuitable for high office. But I never imagined, even in my worst nightmares, that a seventy-year-old would turn into a rabble-rouser. A man who surrounds Parliament with thugs is nothing less than a public menace.

Mosaddeq was no cleric nor was he willing to use religion against his opponents. On the contrary, he was a secular humanist and a typical offspring of the French Enlightenment. His thesis, written for a law degree at Lausanne, argued in favor of fully secularizing the legal system in Iran. His speeches used imagery from Iranian history and the Constitutional Revolution, not from Shii Islam. His closest advisers were young secular nationalists, some of whom -- especially those from the Iran party -- could be described as militantly anticlerical. His administration contained no clerics and few technocrats with clerical connections. He was reluctant to appoint Mahdi Bazargan as minister of education, suspecting that Bazargan would bring too much religion into the schools. What is more, a small group of religious fanatics known as the Fedayan-e Islam tried to assassinate Mosaddeq and wounded Hosayn Fatemi, his foreign minister.

Unable to exorcise Mosaddeq's ghost, the Islamic Republic has tried to contain it. High school textbooks allocate twelve pages to Kuchek Khan, four pages to Modarres, another four to Shaykh Nuri, and less than two to Mosaddeq -- about the same as given to Navab Safavi, the Fedayan-e Islam leader. Meanwhile, the mass media elevate Ayatollah [Abul Qasem] Kashani as the real leader of the oil nationalization campaign, depicting Mosaddeq as merely the ayatollah's hanger-on. Even more significant, the regime portrays the 1951-53 period as yet another example of leftist betrayal, arguing that the nationalist movement failed because it was stabbed in the back by the Tudeh.

This last theme plays well in nationalist circles precisely because it repeats the arguments the National Front has used ever since the 1953 coup. According to the National Front, Mosaddeq would have survived if the Tudeh had given him greater support, would have been able to counter the West if the Soviets had offered assistance, and would have been able to resist the coup if the Tudeh had been willing to mobilize its clandestine military network. These arguments, now Mosaddeqist catechisms, contain only half-truths. It is true that the Tudeh did not support the National Front initially, but by 1953 it had moved close to Mosaddeq. The Tudeh participated in pro-Mosaddeq demonstrations, helped scotch an attempted royalist coup, and called for the establishment of a republic. It was the only large organization to support Mosaddeq's highly controversial referendum of July 1953 proposing to dissolve Parliament. By then, ten of the original twenty founding members of the National Front had defected to the royalist camp. Khomeini, like many other clerics, opposed the 1953 referendum on the avowed grounds that it violated the fundamental laws of the 1906 constitution.

It is true that the Soviets did not go out of their way to help Mosaddeq, but this was as much due to the latter as the former. Mosaddeq's whole strategy was designed to obtain American support against the British. At the height of the Cold War he knew perfectly well that if he moved closer to the Soviets, he would automatically alienate the Americans. Even after the coup, he kept up the pretense that he had been overthrown not by the Americans but by the British.

It is also true that the Tudeh did not mobilize its military network to stop the coup, but again this had much to do with Mosaddeq's own decisions. On August 14, Kianuri, who was then the head of the Tudeh military network, informed Mosaddeq that a coup was in the making and provided him with a list of conspirators. Mosaddeq took no notice, saying that he had appointed most of these senior officers. On August 16, the same officers seized three cabinet ministers who were most in favor of an alliance with the Tudeh. On August 18, Mosaddeq, at the urging of the American ambassador, ordered the martial law authorities to clear the streets of all demonstrators. About six hundred Tudeh supporters were arrested. Finally, on August 19, when the coup was in progress, Kianuri phoned Mosaddeq to offer help, but Mosaddeq declined the offer on the grounds that "he did not want bloodshed" and that "events were now beyond his control." It is also significant that on the eve of the coup one of the main National Front papers pronounced the royalist danger to be dead and warned that the main threat now came from the Tudeh.

If Mosaddeq fell because of a "stab in the back," the stab came not so much from the Left as from the religious Right. From the very beginning, the clerical establishment had arrayed itself against the National Front. Ayatollah Behbehani, the senior cleric in Tehran and the grandson of the famous constitutional leader, had openly sided with the shah. The substantial influx of CIA money into the Tehran bazaar on the eve of the 1953 coup became known as "Behbehani dollars." Even more important, Ayatollah Borujerdi -- a staunch royalist and the leading marja-e taqlid from 1944 until his death in 1961 -- had tried to stem Mosaddeq's popularity by issuing an edict forbidding the clergy from participating in politics. He epitomized the conservative clergy, who claimed to be apolitical but in fact bolstered the royalist regime. Ruhani, Khomeini's main biographer, tries to explain Borujerdi's behavior by claiming that the "imperialists" had planted "agents" around him to isolate him from society.

Ayatollah Kashani was one of the few prominent clerics to ignore Borujerdi's ban and support Mosaddeq. The Islamic Republic makes much of Kashani's forthright rejection of the ban but takes care not to mention who issued the edict nor that Borujerdi was Khomeini's main mentor for nearly two decades. Even though Kashani publicly supported Mosaddeq, their relations were problematic from the very beginning. As early as November 1951, the British Embassy reported that Kashani was so disgruntled with Mosaddeq that he had put out "feelers" in many directions, including the royal court and the U.S. Embassy. "The Americans," reported the British Embassy, "have told us in the strictest confidence that he [ Kashani] has been in touch with them. His main thesis is the danger of communism and the need for immediate American aid." Similarly, in May 1952 the head of the British intelligence service in Tehran reported that a prominent royalist had boasted to him that the "shah's astute policies" had detached Kashani from Mosaddeq. He added, "I did not dispute this but would put on record that the detaching of Kashani was due to quite other factors, and that these factors were created and directed by the brothers Rashidian." (The Rashidian brothers were the main conduit of British intelligence service money into Iran.)

Kashani's opposition to Mosaddeq came into the open by mid-1953 once the latter issued a referendum to dissolve Parliament, drafted an electoral bill enfranchising women, tended to favor state enterprises over the bazaar, refused to ban alcohol, and declined amnesty to assassins from the Fedayan-e Islam. More mundane matters, such as the awarding of government contracts, also played a role. According to British intelligence, Kashani's two sons had set up a lucrative business buying and selling import licenses for prohibited goods using their father's threats. At this time Kashani also suddenly discovered that Mosaddeq's thesis, written thirty-five years earlier, had been anti-Islamic.

By mid-1953, Kashani was urging the bazaars to support General Zahedi, the nominal leader of the prospective coup. He also praised the shah for being "young," "kindhearted," and highly "popular." Kashani's closest supporters in Parliament, especially Shams Qanatabadi, Mozaffar Baqai, and Hosayn Makki (Modarres's biographer), denounced Mosaddeq as a dictator worse than Hitler and a Socialist more extreme than Stalin. They also accused Mosaddeq of being anti-Islamic on the grounds that he endangered private property. Hojjat al-Islam Mohammad Falsafi, a preacher who later became prominent in the Islamic Republic, actively participated in the coup by telling street audiences that Mosaddeq was intentionally paving the way for communism. The Fedayan-e Islam announced that they would cleanse Iran of such undesirable elements as Mosaddeq.

On the shah's triumphant return home on August 22, the Fedayan-e Islam newspaper hailed the coup as a "holy uprising," demanding Mosaddeq's execution and praising the shah as the world's Muslim hero. Not surprisingly, Navab Safavi, their leader, was promptly released from prison and permitted to go on a world tour. Meanwhile, Kashani told a foreign correspondent that Mosaddeq had fallen because he had forgotten that the shah enjoyed extensive popular support. A month later, he went even further and declared that Mosaddeq deserved to be executed because he had committed the ultimate offense: rebelling against the shah, "betraying" the country, and repeatedly violating the sacred law. Presumably this was Kashani's way of continuing the "crusade against imperialism and the Pahlavis."

Years later, when the Islamic Republic had been established, Falsafi praised Ayatollah Kashani as the real crusader against imperialism and the genuine precursor of Imam Khomeini. He also denounced Mosaddeq as a rabid secularist out to uproot religion from Iran. Similarly, Hasan Ayat -- who began his political career in Baqai's entourage and ended life as the most vocal lay proponent of theocracy -- argued that Mosaddeq, despite his image, was really an "agent" of Anglo-American imperialism. The evidence, according to him, was "overwhelming." Mosaddeq was an aristocrat who had joined the Freemasons in his youth, studied in Europe, and held numerous cabinet posts in the 1920s, which would have been impossible, so Ayat claimed, without British intrigue.

For his part, Khomeini often praised Kashani but rarely mentioned Mosaddeq. On one occasion, Khomeini claimed that unscrupulous secularists had so tarnished Kashani's reputation -- as they had done to Shaykh Nuri earlier -- that after 1953 this "great anti-imperialist fighter" had been too embarrassed to leave home. "People in the streets," Khomeini recounted, "would dress dogs as Ayatollah Kashani. Even fellow clerics lacked the courtesy to stand up when he entered a room." Khomeini ended this speech by stressing the need for a proper understanding of history to undo the damage done by the unscrupulous secularists. But nowhere in this speech nor at any other public occasion did Khomeini explain why he had been conspiculously absent from politics in the turbulent years of 1951-53. Was this due to Borujerdi's ban or because he disliked Mosaddeq's secularism as much as that of the Pahlavis? He took the secret to his mausoleum.

This is an excerpt from Khomeinism: essays on the Islamic Republic, first published in 1993. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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Good article. Thank you.

Maziar / August 20, 2009 12:03 PM

Most Excellent. I think your books on Iran are foundational texts for all social scientists focusing on Iran.

Here is a list of Dr. Ebrahimian's scholarly books:


swn / August 24, 2009 2:54 PM