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Authors: Stephen Kinzer

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Over the months that followed, Reza Shah approached Mossadegh several more times with offers of high government posts, including chief justice and even prime minister. Mossadegh rejected them all. After he was reelected to the Majlis at the end of 1926, he went so far as to refuse to take his oath of office because it included a vow to respect the Shah’s authority. That should have prevented him from taking his seat, but given the power of his presence and the force of his will, no one challenged him.

The Majlis, like every other institution in Iran, was soon reduced to the role of a rubber stamp for Reza Shah. He outlawed opposition parties and banned their leaders from public life. Once this repressive campaign began, there was no doubt that Mossadegh would soon be among the victims. When the 1928 election approached, Reza Shah ordered that votes be counted in such a way that no one who opposed him would win. Mossadegh was among the losers. At the age of forty-five, his political career seemed over.

Several possible courses lay open to the deposed statesman. He could soften his opposition to Reza Shah and try to work within the regime, but given the strength of his principles this was impossible. He could defy the regime by launching a campaign of subversion, which might have led to his murder; even several of Reza Shah’s longtime allies suffered this fate when he began to suspect their loyalty. The remaining option fit best not only with the times but with Mossadegh’s own personality. He simply dropped out of sight, retiring to his country estate at Ahmad Abad, sixty miles west of Tehran, and devoting himself to study and experimental farming. His name disappeared from the press and from public discourse. As Reza Shah’s power grew, Mossadegh’s image faded and then all but disappeared. Most Iranians presumed that his moment had passed. He believed so himself.

After the first few years of his self-imposed exile, weighed down by the travails of isolation and devastated by news of the 1933 accord under which Reza Shah reaffirmed Anglo-Iranian’s right to run the country’s oil industry, Mossadegh fell ill. He bled so profusely from his mouth that in 1936 he traveled to Germany to consult specialists; they could find no cause for his condition. Even in his weakened state, however, Reza Shah feared him. One day in 1940 soldiers appeared at his house in Ahmad Abad, ransacked it in search of evidence that might implicate him in subversion and then, although finding nothing, placed him under arrest. At the local police station, he protested indignantly to the chief, citing a law under which prisoners had to be charged with a crime or released within twenty-four hours. The chief replied that the only law he knew was Reza Shah’s will and that Reza Shah had ordered Mossadegh imprisoned indefinitely without charge. This sent Mossadegh into a rage. He had to be dragged into the car that was waiting to take him to prison. On the way he took an overdose of tranquilizers, apparently a suicide attempt, but succeeded only in falling into a coma. In his cell he showed evidence of what his jailer called “chronic hysteria,” trying to cut himself with razor blades and at one point embarking on a hunger strike. After several months, through the intercession of Ernest Perron, a Swiss-born friend of the Shah who had once been cured of an illness at a hospital endowed by Mossadegh’s mother, he was allowed to return to Ahmad Abad under house arrest.

For twenty years, part of it spent in active politics and the rest in obscurity, Mossadegh saw Reza Shah and his regime as Iran’s great enemy. Then, suddenly, Reza Shah was gone. That changed everything, both for the nation and for Mossadegh himself. The election of 1943 was the first free one in many years. Mossadegh emerged from his retreat, ran for his old seat in the Majlis, and was elected with more votes than any other candidate. But although his old enemy had been dethroned, a new and even more powerful one stood in the way of his dream for Iran. The British, and in particular the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, dominated the country as never before. Now Mossadegh would turn his sights on them.


His Master’s Orders

During the late 1940s, when Iran was being torn by separatist rebellion and bled dry by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the young Mohammad Reza Shah concentrated his attention on sports cars, race horses, and women. He became a fixture of the international party set, favoring London nightclubs and carrying on a string of affairs with second-level movie actresses like Yvonne De Carlo, Gene Tierney, and Silvana Mangano. Several times he tried to consolidate his shaky position at home through repression and vote-rigging, but succeeded only in making himself a figure of ridicule. Newspapers called him a lackey of the British. Public rallies were held to denounce him. He was blissfully unaware of the contempt in which many Iranians held him, however, and did not imagine he was in any danger when he visited the University of Tehran to attend an anniversary celebration.

Snow was falling on that day, February 4, 1949. The Shah had just stepped out of his car and was approaching a staircase when a young man posing as a photographer pulled out a pistol and began shooting at him. Just six feet separated the two, but the gunman proved a very poor shot. His first three bullets hit only the Shah’s military cap. In a reflexive response, the Shah turned toward him, and as he turned, a fourth shot tore a hole in his right cheek. Bodyguards, generals, and police officers, apparently not considering the Shah’s life worth saving, dove for cover, leaving the two men facing each other for a second. The Shah ducked as a fifth shot rang out. It grazed his shoulder. With just one bullet left, the shooter pointed directly at the monarch’s chest and pulled the trigger. There was only a light click. The pistol had jammed.

With the danger past, security agents jumped up and quickly clubbed and shot the would-be assassin to death. Mohammad Reza Shah, then twenty-nine years old, took a few minutes to recover. Still breathing heavily, he announced that he had been saved by divine intercession. He may have believed it. The next day he sent his bloodstained uniform to the Officers Club and ordered that it be placed in a display case. Soon afterward, he decided that it was time for him to impose his will on Iran as his father had done.

Iran had entered a new era when Reza Shah abdicated in 1941. Many of his former subjects were thrilled to see him gone, among them thousands of tribal families who immediately abandoned the wretched settlements into which he had herded them and returned to their ancestral mountains and nomadic life. Others, even some who had chafed under his harsh rule, feared that they had lost their country’s only bulwark against chaos and the rule of foreigners. Most felt the mixture of relief and apprehension that rowdy schoolchildren feel when a strict teacher suddenly takes ill. Newspapers, political parties, labor unions, and social organizations blossomed, but so did criminal gangs. The fear of authority that Reza Shah had instilled in people melted away. When one upper-class woman reprimanded her chauffeur for turning the wrong way into a one-way street, he replied, “Oh! It does not matter, now Reza Shah has gone.”

After forcing the feared strongman to abdicate, the British had first considered restoring the discredited Qajar dynasty. Only after discovering that the pretender, who lived in London, spoke no Persian, did they decide to allow Mohammad Reza to take the throne. Immediately after his coronation, they directed him to appoint a pro-British politician, Mohammad Ali Furughi, as prime minister. Through Furughi they effectively ruled Iran. To secure their power, they revived the old formula under which the country was divided into three sectors. Soviet troops controlled the north, while the British held southern provinces that embraced oil fields, the refinery at Abadan, and the land route to India. Iranians were allowed to continue governing Tehran and the rest of the country’s midsection, always under the occupiers’ watchful eyes.

The Allies made good use of Iran during the war, not only extracting huge amounts of its oil but also building several large supply bases from which they launched military operations across the Middle East and North Africa. Ordinary Iranians, however, saw their standard of living fall precipitously. Much food was diverted from civilian to military use. Trucks and railroads were used mainly for military purposes. Prices rose as speculators thrived, and poor harvests left many people hungry. Furughi was dismissed when he became the target of public anger, but his successors fared no better.

As long as the war was on and Iran was under military occupation, dissent was muted. Slowly, however, political life resumed. Everyone understood that war and occupation were only temporary conditions. Once they were over, there would be a new nation to build.

Neither the young Mohammad Reza Shah nor his various prime ministers managed to capture the public imagination during the 1940s. The only figure who did was a flamboyant American soldier, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who arrived in 1942 as head of a military mission. Schwarzkopf was a West Point graduate who had become chief of the New Jersey State Police. He reached celebrity status while directing the investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping and later spent several years as the voice of the radio drama
Gang Busters.
When World War II broke out, he rejoined the army and was sent to Iran. Allied commanders assigned him to transform the country’s ragged rural police force into a crack unit, and he took to the task with gusto. For six years, including difficult periods when bread riots and other protests shook the country, he and his Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie turned up wherever trouble broke out. At the same time he quietly trained a secret security squad that became the scourge of leftists and other dissidents. He struck many Iranians as a larger-than-life figure, a fearsome avenger who carried the Shah’s power into every corner of the country. In a remarkable quirk of history, his son, also General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, returned to the region as commander of Operation Desert Storm in 1990–1991 and also left a lasting imprint on its history.

Iranians in the mid-twentieth century were searching for new solutions to their old problems of poverty and underdevelopment, and like their counterparts in other countries, some embraced the emerging ideology of communism. During the 1930s, Reza Shah had imprisoned several dozen left-leaning professors and political organizers, and while they were behind bars together they spent much time discussing politics. When they were released after Reza’s abdication, they constituted themselves as the Group of Fifty-Three and began searching for a new political platform. Some of them joined with a loose group of liberals, reformers, and social activists to form Iran’s first real political party, called Tudeh (Masses). At its founding convention, held in 1942, Tudeh adopted a progressive program based on the principle that government should protect ordinary people from exploitation by the rich. It advocated sweeping reform, though not revolution or one-party rule. Young, patriotic, and idealistic, it seemed a promising movement. The British allowed it to function, and Soviet commissars, pleased by the presence of communists in its ranks, actively supported it.

For a time, Tudeh thrived as the party of modernity and European ideas. Its pro-Soviet faction, however, grew steadily stronger and finally, in 1944, seized control. Tudeh turned decisively toward Marxism and launched an intensive organizing campaign among the urban poor. It was so successful that on May Day 1946, it was able to fill the streets of Tehran and Abadan with tens of thousands of enthusiastic demonstrators. Several of its leaders won election to the Majlis that year and went on to help pass laws limiting child labor, establishing a forty-eight-hour workweek, guaranteeing maternity leaves, and setting a minimum wage.

Tudeh’s growing power tempted the Soviet Union to make a daring strike against Iran. During World War II, the three Allied powers had agreed that they would withdraw their occupation forces from Iran six months after the end of hostilities, but when that deadline came in early 1946, Stalin ignored it. Citing vague threats to Soviet security, he declared that the Red Army would remain in Iran’s northern province of Azerbaijan. When Tudeh activists there proclaimed a People’s Republic of Azerbaijan, he ordered his troops to prevent Iranian soldiers from entering the province to reestablish their authority. Soon a local militia emerged, flush with weapons from Moscow. For a time it seemed that Azerbaijan might secede entirely, perhaps to join the Soviet Union or serve as a jumping-off point for a Soviet move against Turkey. But Azerbaijanis remembered Reza Shah and rebelled at the prospect of another dictatorship. Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam, an exceptionally talented statesman, traveled to Moscow and managed to persuade Stalin to step back from the brink of confrontation. He withdrew his soldiers as General Schwarzkopf’s gendarmes marched into Tabriz, the provincial capital. The People’s Republic of Azerbaijan passed into history. Jubilant Azerbaijanis celebrated by summarily executing all the Tudeh leaders they could find.

Mohammad Reza Shah rightly feared Tudeh, which was strongly antimonarchist, but for several years after the Azerbaijan episode he could find no way to act against it. After the assassination attempt of 1949 he came up with one. All evidence suggested that the failed assassin was a religious fanatic, but the Shah ignored it and accused Tudeh of organizing the attempt. He banned it and imprisoned dozens of its leaders.

Seizing on the public sympathy that the shooting had generated, the Shah also took several other steps to increase his power. He ordered the creation of a second legislative chamber, the Senate, which had been authorized by the 1906 constitution but never established; he liked the provision that gave him the right to appoint half the senators. Then he persuaded the Majlis to pass a bill allowing him to dissolve both chambers and call new elections at his pleasure. Finally and perhaps most important, he won from the Majlis a change in the way prime ministers were appointed. Under the constitution, the Majlis chose them and the Shah gave his assent. Now the system would work the other way, with the Shah choosing and the Majlis voting afterward to confirm or reject his nominee.

Mohammad Reza Shah took all of these steps with the discreet advice and support of the British. For many years, British officials had taken it as a matter of simple logic that since they had such a vital commercial stake in Iran, they must keep it stable and friendly. Without their assent, Mohammad Reza would not have been able to ascend the throne, and he fully understood the debt he owed them. When violent protests broke out at their refinery in 1946, they came to collect.

The riots that shook Abadan led many Iranians to rally to the workers’ cause, partly out of instinctive sympathy but also because of the grossly unequal terms under which the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company operated. In 1947, for example, the company reported an after-tax profit of £40 million—the equivalent of $112 million dollars—and gave Iran just £7 million. To make matters worse, it never complied with its commitment under the 1933 agreement with Reza Shah to give laborers better pay and more chance for advancement, nor had it built the schools, hospitals, roads, or telephone system it promised. Manucher Farmanfarmaian, who in 1949 became director of Iran’s petroleum institute, was appalled by what he found at Abadan:

Wages were fifty cents a day. There was no vacation pay, no sick leave, no disability compensation. The workers lived in a shantytown called Kaghazabad, or Paper City, without running water or electricity, let alone such luxuries as iceboxes or fans. In winter the earth flooded and became a flat, perspiring lake. The mud in town was knee-deep, and canoes ran alongside the roadways for transport. When the rains subsided, clouds of nipping, small-winged flies rose from the stagnant waters to fill the nostrils, collecting in black mounds along the rims of cooking pots and jamming the fans at the refinery with an unctuous glue.

Summer was worse. It descended suddenly without a hint of spring. The heat was torrid, the worst I’ve ever known—sticky and unrelenting—while the wind and sandstorms whipped off the desert hot as a blower. The dwellings of Kaghazabad, cobbled from rusted oil drums hammered flat, turned into sweltering ovens…. In every crevice hung the foul, sulfurous stench of burning oil—a pungent reminder that every day twenty thousand barrels, or one million tons a year, were being consumed indiscriminately for the functioning of the refinery, and AIOC never paid the government a cent for it.

To the management of AIOC in their pressed ecru shirts and air-conditioned offices, the workers were faceless drones…. In the British section of Abadan there were lawns, rose beds, tennis courts, swimming pools and clubs; in Kaghazabad there was nothing—not a tea shop, not a bath, not a single tree. The tiled reflecting pool and shaded central square that were part of every Iranian town, no matter how poor or dry, were missing here. The unpaved alleyways were emporiums for rats. The man in the grocery store sold his wares while sitting in a barrel of water to avoid the heat. Only the shriveled, mud-brick mosque in the old quarter offered hope in the form of divine redemption.

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