May 13, 2006
Ahmadinejad's 1953 Reference: The Skeleton in the Regime's Closet Reaching Out?
As a followup to discussion of Mr. Ahmadinejad's love letter to George Bush, I want to note a specific reference he made in the letter. That reference is to the 1953 coup by the Iranian military that restored the Shah of Iran. That coup ousted Mohammed Mossadegh, a nationalist figure who had forced the Shah to retreat to exile, and who had led the nationalization of British oil-company operations in Iran. It is no secret that the US CIA played a heavy part in the events of the 1953 coup.
The brave and faithful people of Iran too have many questions and grievances [against the United States], including: the coup d’etat of 1953 and the subsequent toppling of the legal government of the day. . .
Why is this interesting or surprising? Wouldn’t the famed 1953 CIA-assisted coup be the lead in the list of complaints? Well, maybe not, for here’s a dark secret about the revolutionaries of the Islamic Republic of Iran – and even without extensive knowledge of the country, it is something notable on careful examination:
The religious faction/sensibility of Iranian politics, one out of which the Islamist movement would form, and out of which the Islamic Republic of Iran regime would emerge after the 1978 revolution, did not really oppose the 1953 coup that reinstalled the Shah they would yet come to loathe more.
No, the proto-Islamists did not actually partake in the coup. (UPDATE: It appears that some religious elements DID actively partake in the coup, see CIA memo in comments below, and this link, courtesy of raf*.) Certianly, they at least kept their street muscle and moral force out of the way and hostile to Mossadegh when disorders, aided and abetted by pro-Shah and American agents, took place which caused the army under General Zahedi to take over.
Why the politically active religious did that is probably due to the public activity and ambition of the Communist party which bled onto the streets in the last days of Mossadegh (I can recall this from detailed looks at the period, will follow up asap). (Kinzer, in an excerpt in comments, attributes that active anti-communist sentiment solely to CIA bribes and CIA sponsored anti-mosque violence made to seem as if it originated with pro-Mossadegh communists.) Like bin Laden in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, there were times in Cold War days when Americans and even hard-core Islamists, or their embryonic ancestors, found themselves in the same bed.
The following interesting account of the 1953 coup adds a comment about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s own view, a negative reaction to Mossadegh’s secular nationalism:
Ayatollah Khomeini saw [Mossadegh] as a promoter not of Islam but of Persian nationalism, and envied his popularity.
This shunning is demonstrated in this fact:
[After the Iranian revolution in 1978] Mosaddeq Avenue became Vali Asr, after the revered Hidden Imam, whose reappearance someday, Shiite Muslims believe, will establish the perfect Islamic political community.
So the 1953 coup’s fallen nationalist hero has been politely "disappeared":
Ignoring Dr. Mosaddeq, rather than excoriating him, became the rule [under Khomeini].
But this ignoring, among other problems, has had a price and reward:
Two decades later, the Mosaddeq cult has been revitalized by resurgent nationalism and frustration with the strictures of Islam. Dr. Mosaddeq inspires the young, who long for heroes and have not necessarily found them, either in clerics or kings.
So what Ahmadinejad may be doing with his 1953 comment is seeking to invite the secular opposition into the growing American-Iran confrontation. Whether that is indeed being attempted, I leave to the experts, but this appears to be so. Whether it is successful, I leave to future historians and current activists of all sides, if anyone is left to tell the tale.
Author's Special Note on Self, Iran, 'Aqoul
A pause now, for a note from your sponsor and writer.
I should note that we here at 'Aqoul touch Iran gingerly as we have relatively little expertise on it in our writing community (actually having serious knowledge of Mideast-North Africa related things is considered necessary before popping off on subjects, unlike in most of the punditocracy/blogosphere in the USA).
My own vague familiarity with Iran is ages-old academic, plus ogling lovely quite urbane Iranian female students that were many in those days. But I can say that the Iranian hostage crisis of 1978, at a decisive age, was the event that turned my interests to America in the Middle East, and altered me ultimately from initial neanderthalish haranguing of (non-female) Iranian students, to one who asked more questions than gave answers (even as I examined the Iranian Revolution in other contexts, it did strike me at the time as odd that the 1953 coup was not made too much of by the leadership).
Mouth-breathing American nationalism, been there, done that. Should be outgrown with puberty. My interests thereafter moved to the Arab Middle East, e.g. Israel-Palestinians issues -- been there, sick of that -- and so forth.
I hesitate further to admit also that it was Edward Said’s polemic Covering Islam – along with Godfrey Jansen’s more respectable Militant Islam – that had a great influence, coming in the direct wake of the Iranian Embassy seizure. No, it was not Said’s pretentiousness or lefty preaching that was effective, but rather a simple reference to the fact that maverick lefty I. F. Stone had essentially accurately predicted the Iranian seizure of the embassy without using any weird Bernard Lewisy attributions of robotic motives programmed by Islamic textual sources. In fact, maybe people of the Middle East, allowing properly for differences in culture, history, geography, and development, pretty much act out of the same common human motives -- good and ill -- as the rest of us.
Stone, by the way, would later correctly nail the fascism in Plato/Socrates, and the real political motives for his execution. I also had the honor not long before Stone's death of being yelled at by him over the phone because he misunderstood something I said. He had gone quite deaf and one had to shout into the telephone, which I hesitate to do, though would have had less difficulty doing, had I been raised in the Middle East (I hope I am not in trouble for that side comment).
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in 1953 there weren't that many "politicized religious" people around to begin with. please note that khomeini was for a long time quite an exception in the iranian religious community, and he did not become politically active until the early 60s.
so - in 1953 there was no "religious faction of Iranian politics" to speak of. the religious establishment had been coopted.
what IS interesting, of course, is the way the post-79 government dealt with the topic of "mossadegh".
oh, and regarding your claim that "I should note that we here at 'Aqoul touch Iran gingerly as we have relatively little expertise on it in our writing community" i would like to answer: darbareye iran ciz miidunam.
Posted by: raf* at May 13, 2006 02:04 PM
so - in 1953 there was no "religious faction of Iranian politics" to speak of. the religious establishment had been coopted.
I beg to differ: please oh please can I differ.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 13, 2006 03:26 PM
Assuming Kinzer's account done on the annoyingly lefty Democracy Now is correct:
Kermit Roosevelt set about trying to create chaos in Iran. He was able to do that very quickly by a series of means. . . Pretty soon the public started to see the Mossadegh ’s coalition splitting apart and people denouncing him on the floor of parliament. . . .Within a couple of weeks, he had 80% of the newspapers in Tehran on his payroll and they were grinding out every kind of lie attacking Mossadegh. The next thing Roosevelt did was start bribing religious leaders. Soon, at Friday prayers, the Mullahs were denouncing Mossadegh as an atheist enemy of Islam. . . .He actually at one point hired a gang to run through the streets of Tehran, beating up any pedestrian they found, breaking shop windows, firing their guns into mosques, and yelling -- "We love Mossadegh and communism." This would naturally turn any decent citizen against him.
They were not an organized movement as later, but the politically attuned and active religious took a noted stand.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 13, 2006 03:41 PM
Mossedegh, the reactionary Qajar anti-Pahlavist turned nationalist demogogue, had about as much in common with Khomeini ideologically as did, say, the British Labor Party. His name is simply now a stick with which to beat America.
If Mossadegh had continued in power, the two likeliest outcomes would have been either a solidification of his secular nationalist regime into an authoritarian dictatorship or a power struggle with the Tudeh, with the latter abetted by the Soviets inciting the Azeris. The Eisenhower administration, after high level meetings with Mossadegh, concluded the latter was the likeliest outcome.
In either case, people with Khomeini's ideas would have had a short shelf-life in that kind of Iran. Iranian Islamist wailing about Operation Ajax amounts to crocodile tears.
Posted by: mark safranski at May 13, 2006 05:45 PM
your example proves my point entirely - the religious establishement in iran was not doing any kind of "political islam" at all. they could be bribed. and they weren't really sympathetic to the secular nationalist mossadegh who was allied with the communists.
the religious leaders were not, as you asserted, "politicized" to the extent that one could've spoken about a "religious faction of Iranian politics".
that's all i argued.
Posted by: raf* at May 13, 2006 07:32 PM
That reference to Mossadegh also struck me as being completely out of place, but I didn't know what to make of it. Interesting theory, since it goes to the idea that against foreign influence, everyone unites, a natural reaction in any country, and one easily exploited.
Posted by: pantom at May 13, 2006 08:11 PM
the religious establishement in iran was not doing any kind of "political islam" at all. . . .they could be bribed,. . . the religious leaders were not, as you asserted, "politicized" to the extent that one could've spoken about a "religious faction of Iranian politics
Pedantry. Perhaps "faction" should be religious sensibility.
There was a religious sensibility in politics which religious leaders and sentiment could affect, and in turn, that affected the outcome of the situation. (I also dont believe Kinzer's implication that CIA bribes and paid gangesterism were all there was -- there was a sincere fear of Mossadegh bringing in atheistic communism. And actual communists were also doing actual street disruption.)
In any event, the religious forces of the time, who would coalesce into the Shiite Islamist political movement of later years, tended to favor his overthrow. That was their stand. They helped neutralize "the street" out of sincerity, bribes, or both.
I have often wondered what, if anything, Khomeini was on the record as saying/doing at that time; but such archives, if existent, are not readily accessible.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 13, 2006 08:21 PM
there is quite a difference between a "religious faction" and "religious sensibilities". you know that.
indeed, i do find the question as to how big the influence of the religious establishment was vs. such a popular (& populist) figure like mossadegh (& his secularist allies) quite interesting. having clerics sermonizing about how bad these guys are is one thing, but whether the public actually cared about it is something else.
i'm sure there are some biographies of khomeini that do shed light on what he was doing & saying at the time. after all, he was already in his early 50s (we forget how OLD khomeini was when he gained power in '79).
i've done some research: some high-ranking clerics were vociferous against mossadegh & supported the shah. these two accounts are interesting, but i don't know (& cannot quickly establish) if they are trustworthy, as the author has a clear bias pro-mossadegh and anti-clerics:
STILL, it is important to note that there was no single "religious faction" in iran's politics at the time. there were important clerics supporting mossadegh, important clerics (quite actively) opposing him, and other important clerics staying completely out of politics.
khomeini supported the shah until around 1961 and he was not sympathetic to mossadegh.
Posted by: raf* at May 13, 2006 08:52 PM
This cited CIA memo alone demonstrates the points of a) politicized religious influence, b) the existence and activity of at least one armed faction of proto-Islamists, and c)the apparent role in 1953 coup (seen in the accompanying text for this cited memo) of specific individuals associated with the later Islamic Republic movement and government movement (Ayatollah Kashani and family), and I will have to revise the post to reflect that some religious leaders appear to have actually engaged affirmatively in the 1953 coup. Not a surprise but hadn't seen that before.
[From CIA account:]
(4) Religious Leaders.
It is our belief that nearly all the important religious leaders with large followings are firmly
opposed to Mossadeq. Both the U.S. field station and the British group have firm contacts with
such leaders. The pro-Zahedi capabilities in this field are very great.
These leaders include such assorted and sometimes inimical elements as the non-political
leaders [......] and [......], as well as [....] and [...] and his terrorist gang, [....]. During the period of
intensive anti-Mossadeq publicity before the coup day, the leaders and their henchmen will:
(a) Spread word of their disapproval of Mossadeq.
(b) Give open support to the symbol of the throne and give moral backing to the shahthrough direct contact with him at the shrine.
(c) As required, stage small pro-religious anti-Mossadeq demonstrations in widely
scattered sections of Tehran.
(d) Threaten that they are ready to take direct action against pro-Mossadeq deputiesand members of Mossadeq’s entourage and government.
(e) Ensure full participation of themselves and followers in Situation A.
(f) After the change of government, give the strongest assurance over Radio Tehran
and in the mosques that the new government is faithful to religious principles.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 14, 2006 07:45 AM
i would still be careful with those articles. quite frankly, i am suspicious of the author's ability (and willingness) to provide information that would not support his "the bad shah & the bad mullahs vs. the good mossadegh" view of iranian history.
also - it will be very important to find out just how influential those clerics actually were at the time, in addition to establishing how organized they were as well.
Posted by: raf* at May 14, 2006 08:21 AM
Well, flipping through Keddie's Modern Iran, Kashani is described as the "most influential" cleric of the 50s, and as heading the `ulamaa parliamentary faction with a religious-nationalist agenda. But she also points out that most of the `ulamaa were not getting actively involved in politics. Still, some did, first among them Kashani, who obviously played a rather important role in the coup.
The armed/terrorist faction mentioned above would seem to be Feda'iyan e-Islam, a small band of fringe Islamists who tried to restore Good Old Islam through assassinating government figures. Apparently also connected to Kashani somehow.
Posted by: alle at May 14, 2006 10:27 AM
still, that doesn't answer the question just how influential clerics were in iran in the early 1950s.
i am quite impressed by how productive this thread is & am looking forward to mh's revision.
Posted by: raf* at May 14, 2006 10:34 AM
Alle & *raf --
Barring any shocking discoveries I am leaving as last changed. The main thrust is that the clerical folks in 1953 were pro-CIA coup, more or less, and that that is something they have a hard time to live down as they complain about the USA. The President of Iran's forthright invocation of that coup against the US may suggest an internal reconciliation.
Or it was just rhetoric. Either way a good way to show that the official litany of US sins in Iran is fraught with internal issues for the leadership.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 14, 2006 11:46 AM
I took the reference to Mossadegh in the letter as an appeal to Iranian nationalism.
Adding a little more support to Mark Safranski's point above, in his memoirs Eisenhower described Mossadegh as naive. He didn't expand much on it. What did he mean? I've always interpreted it as a statement that Mossadegh thought that there was an alternative for Iran other than being either within the American sphere or within the Soviet sphere. The Mitrokhin Archives have further supported the notion that there was no third choice.
Posted by: Dave Schuler at May 15, 2006 02:17 PM
"The Mitrokhin Archives have further supported the notion that there was no third choice."
The actual history of post-revolution Iran seems to indicate there was, in the wat it turned out. Not that there's anything right with that, ie the way it turned out.
Posted by: matthew hogan at May 15, 2006 07:46 PM