“Iranians have taken to the streets across the country to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1979 revolution,” reads a Monday morning Al Jazeera report, “renewing their allegiance to the country’s Islamic principles at a time of rising economic and political pressure amid the resumption of punishing US sanctions.”
So much terrible history rammed into one sentence: The brutal U.S.-backed regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; the 1979 revolution and the 444-day hostage crisis that roiled the 1980 presidential election; four decades of turmoil, sanctions, secret deals and Cold War manipulation; a ray of hope after the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran that was slapped down by the Trump administration; a return to ruinous sanctions; and, as ever over these 40 years, a looming threat of war.
There is a name missing from that Al Jazeera report, just as there is a name missing from this Washington Post report on the anniversary that nearly drips derision from its deliberately hidebound rewrite of history. That name is Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran who was deposed and imprisoned at the behest of powerful interests by Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill over access to Iranian oil.
Western politicians and the mainstream journalists who cover them shy away from the name Mosaddegh, for his name is an incantation summoning the bloody specter of blowback and the carnage that comes whenever the game of thrones is played for petroleum in the battered birthing bed of civilization. “Mosaddegh” is a condemnation, a warning, and a lesson yet to be heeded by those in Washington, D.C., who believe their power and wealth means they can outrun consequences.
Mosaddegh’s father was a finance minister, his mother a princess of the Qajar dynasty. He studied law abroad in Paris and Switzerland and was briefly a professor before entering the family business: politics. He was elected to his first office at age 24, and rose to prominence over the years as a vocal advocate for social and economic reform.
Iran, during this period, was suffering under the economic occupation of Britain and the powerful Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). A 1933 agreement between the AIOC and Iranian leader Reza Shah promised that the oil giant would use a portion of its revenues to improve Iran’s infrastructure and pay laborers fairly, but that promise went unfulfilled for years. Iran suffered, and seethed, under the yoke of foreign influence.
On March 7, 1951, tensions reached a breaking point with the assassination of Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara by Fada’iyan-e Islam, a Shia fundamentalist group which advocated for, among other things, wresting control of Iran’s oil away from the AIOC and other Western influences. Later that same month, the Parliament of Iran, known as the Majilis, nominated Mosaddegh — an advocate for oil nationalization and an ally of a powerful pro-nationalization political organization called the National Front — to be prime minister by an overwhelming majority. The Shah, alert to the rising tensions within the country, confirmed the nomination.
On May 1 of that same year, Prime Minister Mosaddegh nationalized the AIOC and claimed the country’s oil reserves for the sole use of Iran. “With the oil revenues,” he argued in a speech delivered that June, “we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence.”
The reforms presented by Prime Minister Mosaddegh were profound, and deeply needed. Unemployment compensation was instated for the first time. Employers were ordered to give benefits to sick and injured workers. Mosaddegh’s Land Reform Act required landowners to give 20 percent of their profits to a pool fund that would pay for improved rural housing, sanitation and other benefits for poor and middle-class residents. His oil nationalization law even set aside 25 percent of petroleum profits to settle claims from the AIOC and other aggrieved Western parties. Mosaddegh’s long-term goal was to use the rest of those revenues to build roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure to finally bring Iran into the 20th century.
It was not to be.
Mosaddegh’s democratic revolution lasted two years. In 1953, U.S. and British intelligence services acting on behalf of the AIOC engineered a coup that overthrew Mosaddegh’s government in an action codenamed “Operation Ajax.” Briefly threatened with execution, he was held in solitary confinement for three years before spending the remainder of his life under house arrest in the tiny village of Ahmadabad. Mosaddegh died in 1967. Deprived of the simple dignity of a funeral, he was buried in his own living room.
The rest is all the permissible history we read today on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Reza Pahlavi Shah, son of Reza Shah, ruled the nation in singularly brutal fashion until his overthrow in 1979. The U.S. and British agencies responsible for the overthrow of Mosaddegh covered their actions with concerns about communist influences, but in the end, it was all about the oil.
With the rise of Reza Pahlavi, the AIOC changed its name to British Petroleum (BP) in 1954 and joined a consortium of petroleum interests in a holding company called Iranian Oil Participants (IOC). The organization — comprised of familiar names like BP, Gulf Oil, Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Oil of California (later re-named Chevron), Standard Oil of New York (later re-named ExxonMobil) and Texaco — became known as the “Seven Sisters,” and controlled roughly 85 percent of the world’s oil reserves until the oil crisis of 1973. Six years later, the revolution put a period at the end of that sentence and started a whole new chapter, one we still live within today.
Mosaddegh’s name whispers beneath the lies peddled a decade ago by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, lies that are heard in the Oval Office today when spoken by Iraq War architect and Trump National Security Adviser John Bolton. “Bringing democracy to the Middle East,” they said, forgetting or ignoring that it was there once already, thoroughly organic, until it was pulled up by the roots and destroyed because petroleum pays better.
Mosaddegh’s name whispers now in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq and once again in Iran, where men like Bolton still lust to make war. The indescribable current calamity wrought by the West upon the Middle East could have been entirely averted had the U.S. and Britain simply allowed Iran to keep its oil, taken the proffered 25 percent payout and let that country develop on its own. It wouldn’t be perfect (nothing is), but it would be better than this:
The tedious triumphalism embedded within these messages from the Trump administration obscure a violent truth: Those 40 years of failure belong to the United States and Britain, to actions taken 66 years ago by politicians who also believed they could run through the raindrops as they played God for profit with the lives of others. The suffering of the Iranian people has “Made in the USA” and “God Save the Queen” stamped across it, a history lesson inked in blood.
Remember the name Mohammad Mosaddegh the next time you hear a politician or businessman talk about bringing freedom somewhere. Like as not there’s a buck to be turned, and the bodies will be buried where they drop. All the oil money in the whole wide world cannot outrun consequences.