The struggle for Iran -The Asian Age

In July 1951, the Conservative Party was voted to power in the general elections in Britain. Attlee was replaced as Prime Minister by the redoubtable Winston Churchill. The change meant a further hardening of British posture vis-à-vis Iran. Churchill, in Stephen Kinzer's words, saw Mossadegh as "a danger to Britain's oil supply", and also "an intolerable symbol of anti-British sentiment around the world". To Churchill, Mossadegh was "an elderly lunatic bent on wrecking his country and handing it over to the Communists".

The new Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, travelled to the US for consultations with Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and to seek US support for a more forceful policy vis-à-vis Iran. The problem with Iran, he argued, would be best resolved by deposing-not appeasing-Mossadegh, and Britain would not scruple to use coercive measures towards this end. Acheson was not enthused; Assistant Secretary of State, McGhee, was appalled.

The British government, however, was undeterred. Iran-at the time under an embargo of sorts, imposed by Britain, and with no tankers of its own-had limited options for the export of its oil. In the early months of 1952, tankers from Argentina and Japan voyaged to Iran and returned loaded with oil in disregard of the British embargo. Another tanker carried oil from Abadan to Venice.

Churchill decided that the embargo needed to be enforced more stringently. In the month of June, a tanker, the Rose Mary, undertook an "experimental voyage" to Iran. It had been chartered by a private Italian oil company, and was to return with a cargo of oil.

The company planned to purchase several million tons of Iranian oil over the coming decade, and wished to be assured that the embargo could be breached with impunity. On its return journey, the tanker was intercepted by British warships and escorted to the British protectorate of Aden. Britain successfully argued before an obliging local court that the tanker was carrying stolen property, that the oil it was carrying belonged to AIOC.

The seizure of the Rose Mary was a clear message to all possible importers of oil from Iran. In 1950 Iran's oil exports, which accounted for 70% of the country's export earnings, yielded an income of US $ 45 million. In 1951 the figure was halved, and in 1952 it had dwindled to almost nothing.

On October 16 Iran severed diplomatic ties with Britain. There were indications that the British government was bent on Mossadegh's ouster. Britain had in place "a formidable network of clandestine agents in Iran", who were "proficient at everything from bribing politicians to organizing riots", and rumours were rife in Tehran that a conspiracy was afoot to stage a coup. The decision to break off relations was to forestall any such contingency.

In November 1952, General Dwight David Eisenhower, distinguished soldier and war hero, was elected President of the US. He was the first Republican candidate in twenty years to be elected to the highest office of the country. For the first time in American history, broad responsibility for the conduct and oversight of the country's foreign policy-overt and covert-would be entrusted to two siblings, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Director of CIA Allen Welsh Dulles.

To the British government, the change in Washington was a boon. Even before the new Administration had assumed office, MI6 agent Christopher Montague Woodhouse-who had headed the intelligence section of the British Embassy in Tehran earlier-was sent to Washington for discreet talks on the situation in Iran with officials of the State Department, the CIA, and also people who were expected to be appointed to important positions in the new administration.

In his discussions, Woodhouse forcefully argued that the point at issue went beyond oil and nationalization, and had to be seen from the broader perspective of Cold War complexities. The Marxist Tudeh party was a potent factor, and unless the situation was handled firmly, there was a real possibility of Iran falling into the Soviet orbit.

The obvious solution was a change of regime in Iran. The message was very successfully conveyed. Woodhouse, a product of Winchester and Oxford, would, a few years on, be elected to the House of Commons, and subsequently succeed to a hereditary barony.

British-US bilateral consultations on Iran were raised to the political level after the new US Administration took office. In March 1953, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden visited Washington. The brothers Dulles-Cold Warriors both-were easy enough to persuade to the British point of view on Iran.

Eventually President Eisenhower-after some soul-searching-also acquiesced, and the stage was set for Operation Ajax-the code name for the planned coup-the consequences of which would be felt in the decades to come. Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the US and Nobel Laureate for Peace, was selected to be the CIA field commander for Operation Ajax. An elaborate multi-pronged plan of action was worked out to destabilize Mossadegh's government and eventually oust him from office.

Mossadegh's public image would be tarnished and his popularity undermined, a "law and order" situation would be created, and disaffected and royalist military officers would be persuaded to the idea of a coup to bring about regime change. And finally, the Shah, who was not quite enamored of Mossadegh, would sign two decrees; the first, dismissing Mossadegh from office, and the second, appointing in his place retired General Fazlollah Zahedi.

The Radio Station would then be seized, the Shah's decrees announced over radio, and Mossadegh placed under arrest. The power to appoint or dismiss a Prime Minister vested in the Majlis, and any imperial decree in this respect could only be of dubious constitutionality.

Zahedi had served as Interior Minister under Mossadegh, until removed from office by the latter. He was said to be close to the late Emperor, Reza Shah, and had been interned by the British during World War II for close links with Nazi agents. The New York Times once described him as "a boulevardier with a penchant for gambling and beautiful women".

By the second half of the year, the plan of action was in    operation. British Intelligence and the CIA, working through "highly resourceful Iranian operatives", had control over "a clandestine network of sympathetic politicians, military officers, clergymen, newspaper editors and street gang leaders", and these formidable assets were duly activated. Compliant journalists were engaged for a well-orchestrated media campaign against Mossadegh.

Many of his supporters in the Majlis and even in his own party, the National Front, were suborned and turned away from him. There were orchestrated riots and demonstrations, largely anti-Mossadegh and royalist, but also pro-Mossadegh and pro-communist. The object, of course, was to manipulate public opinion against Mossadegh, and to precipitate a state of such chaos, confusion and lawlessness that an extra-constitutional change of regime would be all but inevitable, and even welcome to the people of Iran. By early August, Tehran was in turmoil.

The coup was successful on the second attempt. The first attempt had to be aborted when the Chief of Army Staff, General Taqi Riahi, was alerted to the conspiracy to overthrow the government. The Commander of the Imperial Guard, Colonel Nematollah Nasiri, who had gone to the homes of General Riahi and Mossadegh at midnight on August 15 to place them under arrest, was himself taken into custody by loyal army commanders. The Shah promptly fled to Baghdad in a twin-engine aircraft, which he himself piloted; General Zahedi went into hiding.

The coup had flopped; a lesser man would have called it a day, Kermit Roosevelt, however, persisted. He contacted General Zahedi in his hiding place and prepared plans for another try. It would be a re-run of the earlier strategy, in a more intensified form.

Rumours were spread that the abortive coup of August 15 was an attempt by Mossadegh to usurp the throne. Copies of the Shah's decrees, dismissing Mossadegh from the office of Prime Minister and appointing General Zahedi to replace him, were widely circulated.

Roosevelt needed more military muscle for his plans. Accordingly, with the wholehearted cooperation and every support from the Military Attache of the US Embassy, General Robert McClure, Commanders of military outposts in Tehran, and also garrisons outside the capital, were approached with offers of money and promises of promotion if they backed Operation Ajax.

The results were mixed. The Shah's decrees weighed with some military officers, and were used to lend a semblance of legitimacy to the planned coup. Everything worked according to plan. Hired mobs, ostensibly supporters of Mossadegh, were let loose in Tehran. For two days, August 17 and 18, they shouted pro-Mossadegh and pro-communist slogans, and wreaked havoc.

The country seemed to be moving towards anarchy. The following day, pro-Shah and anti-Mossadegh mobs were unleashed; people in their thousands congregated at mosques and public squares. They were joined by tribesmen from outside Tehran, and also police officers, as they marched towards the centre of the city.

Tehran was in upheaval. There were sounds of gunfire and exploding mortar shells. The royalists were boosted by reports that the garrison commander in Kermanshah-a few hundred miles from Tehran-was moving, with his troops, towards the capital in their support. Several government buildings were attacked and burned. The radio station was stormed by a royalist team, and the Shah's decrees broadcast over radio.

And finally heavily armed military teams drove to Mossadegh's home in Sherman tanks to place him under arrest. There was resistance, and a few hundred lives were lost. The Army Chief, General Riahi, who could have made a difference, had been arrested earlier in the day by pro-Zahedi troops. Mossadegh escaped through the back of the house.

A few days later he surrendered, and the era of Mossadegh passed into history. Two factors had worked to Roosevelt's advantage. The Shah having fled Iran, Mossadegh believed that the threat of a coup was past. And, secondly, he was unaware that American policy towards his government had changed so radically. The Iranian government had thus dropped its guard, and was unprepared for the crisis.

The Shah returned from abroad in triumph. He would wield near-absolute power until his own ouster and exile more than twenty five years later in 1979. During his years of power, Iran would identify closely with the West, the US in particular, and, in American strategy, would be "central to stability in the Gulf".

General Fazlollah Zahedi duly assumed the office of Prime Minister. The lucrative oil concession administered by the National Iranian Oil Co. was awarded to an international consortium; Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. was given 40% of the shares, five American companies were awarded 40%, and the remainder was divided between Royal Dutch/Shell and Compagnie Francaise de Petroles.

The name, National Iranian Oil Company, remained unchanged. The Company agreed to share profits equally with Iran. Its books, however, would not be open to audit by Iran, and neither would Iranians would sit on its board of directors.

A military tribunal found Mossadegh guilty of treason, and sentenced him to three years of imprisonment and after that house arrest or confinement to his village for the rest of his life. In 1956, after serving his prison sentence, he was taken to his home in Ahmad Abad. He made good use of his twilight years.

He trained local farmers in the use of modern equipment, studied medical books, and read up on traditional methods of medical treatment. He treated sick villagers himself, and helped those with serious problems to get admitted in a hospital in Tehran that had been founded by his mother. He read voraciously; books on Islamic philosophy, political theory and also cooking. Mossadegh passed away on March 5, 1967 at the age of 85.

An autocratic system of governance, as has been said, all too often has within it the seeds of its own failure. Historian Sir Ian Kershaw gave a plausible explanation for this when he observed: "A despot's entourage of nervous sycophants is clearly the worst environment for good decision-making". And so it was with the Shah.

By the mid-1970s, his regime had begun to unravel, and several reasons have been cited for this. The regime was oppressive; no opposition or dissent was tolerated, in particular leftists and Marxists were targeted. Over time, the Shah became isolated and distant from the people, and increasingly autocratic. In the mid-1970s, he even sought to establish a one-party system of governance. Corruption was widespread.

(To be continued…)

The writer is a distinguished former Bangladesh diplomat