MOSSADEGH...My Childhood Memory
A recollection of what was — and what might have been
A recollection of what was — and what might have been
Ebrahim Norouzi, MD
Even today, well over half a century later, I still think about the events of Wednesday, August 19, 1953, in Iran, my country of birth.
At the time I was nearly 11 years old and a 6th grade student. My hometown was Ghazvin, a small historic town 90 miles northwest of Tehran, Iran’s capital city. While I don’t recall my whereabouts on that particular day, I do remember my feeling of dread as I learned the next day that a coup had taken place.
On that day, Radio Tehran went silent. Then, at 4:00pm, the voice of Mehdi Mir-Ashrafi, an ultraconservative Majles deputy, came on the air. He announced that due to an uprising by the people, “the traitor Mossadegh has escaped” and that his house was in flames. He then falsely said that on the order of Mossadegh, thousands of people had been machine gunned to death, and that Foreign Minister Hossein Fatemi had been torn to pieces. Later on, Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi declared on the radio that per the Shah’s decree, he was now the legal Prime Minister. In actuality, the Shah had fled to Baghdad three days prior, soon after signing two decrees, one dismissing Mossadegh and the other appointing Zahedi. Since the scheme had initially gone awry, the Shah decided to flee the country.
The unthinkable had happened. The nation’s popular, democratically elected Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, had been violently removed from power in an act of foreign and domestic intrigue. Mossadegh barely escaped with his life as his house was blasted by royal guards, attacked by hired mobs, looted and burned. The following day, as Mossadegh was being arraigned, his belongings were openly being sold in the streets of Tehran.
At the time of the coup I was on summer break, preoccupied primarily with playing soccer in the dusty lanes of my neighborhood and fending off its various bullies. Though I did not and perhaps could not articulate it at the time, my sentiments were of love for my country, a strong interest in justice, and a desire for freedom from arbitrary rule of any kind. I found all of these and a lot more in the figure of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, the Prime Minister and “Great Father of the Nation”, as he was addressed by many Iranians.
My earliest memory regarding my political awareness goes back to when I was barely seven years old and in 2nd grade. I believe it was in early spring of 1949 when I came across a magazine cover showing a picture of the young monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, sitting up in a bed wearing what appeared to be a hospital gown. He was recovering from minor wounds sustained during an attempt on his life a couple of months earlier. A long bandage covered his upper lip extending practically from ear to ear.
The magazine gave full coverage of the assassination attempt on the Shah’s life that had occurred on 15 Bahman 1327 (February 4, 1949). The assassin disguised himself as a photographer and waited for the Shah to enter Tehran University for a ceremony. From a close range, he fired at the Shah five times. All shots missed except for one that passed through his upper lip and damaged his front teeth. One of the bullets had gone through the Shah’s hat and another one only tore a bit of his clothes over the shoulder.
As I looked at the photo of the slightly wounded Shah with his sad, humiliated look, I clearly remember the response it invoked in me . . . disappointment. This reaction shocked me and caused me to momentarily question my own judgment. Nevertheless, in view of the Shah’s dictatorial tendencies, my intuition—at the age of seven—was that the Shah was the major obstacle to Iran’s progress.
Later, I learned that the publication of that special issue and its pro-Shah cover story were part of a broad campaign by the royal court and Shah supporters to garner sympathy. Other pro-monarch magazines and newspapers followed suit, showering the Shah with “praise and prayer” and hailing the “miracle from God” that saved the Shah for his people.
The campaign fostered an atmosphere of fear and intimidation which the Shah fully exploited. He began settling scores with his detractors and implemented a series of repressive measures. Martial law was declared and publication of unfriendly newspapers was suspended, along with passage of a new law limiting freedom of press. The communist Tudeh party, accused of being behind the assassination attempt, was declared illegal and all their top leaders were arrested. The cleric Ayatollah Kashani, a long time anti-British activist, was exiled to Lebanon. To further expand the power of the monarch, a constituent assembly was established granting the Shah the power to dissolve the Majles (Parliament) as he wished.
I was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, none of whom were particularly political. My parents displayed no overt expression of support for Mossadegh, though my guess is that they appreciated what he was trying to do for the country. I suspect they did not talk politics in order to keep their children out of trouble during those turbulent times. Religion and poetry seemed to be their main focus. Around the house we had copies of the Koran and several books of Persian poetry by Hafez, Saadi, Rumi, Aref-e Ghazvini (creator of patriotic songs), and my mother’s favorite, Parvin Etesami, the great contemporary female poet.
The most politically inclined person in my family was my uncle Ali, a published poet living in Tehran, who in 1952 ran for the seat of Ghazvin representative to the Majles. He was a nationalist candidate and his campaign slogan was stenciled in red ink on the walls around town: “Vote for Ali Norouzi, a true disciple of the school of Mossadegh” (به شاگرد مکتب مصدق به علی نوروزی رای بدهید). He did not win, but I was proud of him nevertheless. Ali also dedicated his book of poetry Heart-rendering Melodies to “The most revered Dr. Mossadegh”.
Interestingly, I later learned that another uncle of mine, Mohammad Norouzi, worked for Dr. Mossadegh as his personal aide. Among his duties were collecting rent from various properties that Dr. Mossadegh owned and inspecting Najmieh Hospital for such things as cleanliness of the kitchen and food quality. Najmieh, a part charity hospital was founded by Mossadegh’s mother and was managed by Dr. Mossadegh and his physician son, Gholam-Hossein. My uncle also shared an office with Dr. Mossadegh’s trusted intendent Mr. Mohammad Sharafatian in the Prime Minister’s house. The office was located just past the steel front door of house #109 on Kakh Avenue.
In his will Dr. Mossadegh allotted payments of 15,000 and 7,000 toomans to Mr. Sharafatian and my uncle respectively, each one of whom had already been given a piece of land by the premier. I felt a bit envious when I learned that Saeid, my uncle’s son, had even met Dr. Mossadegh during Norouz (Persian New Year) celebration and had received a signed photo and 10 toomans as aidee (a gift in the form of money given at Norouz). For as long as I can remember, my cousin had the signed photo of Dr. Mossadegh mounted in his house atop the door to his room.
While in the 5th and 6th grade, I continued to keep up with political developments on the radio. As my reading comprehension advanced, I frequently went to the main square to the only newsstand in town to look at the headlines and buy an issue when I could afford it.
In the spring of 1951, I learned that Mossadegh, then a highly effective minority opposition leader in the Majles, had overwhelmingly been elected by its deputies to become the Prime Minister. I was elated and believed that with Mossadegh now fully in charge, the nation’s enemies would be defeated and all the country’s problems would be solved.
Dr. Mossadegh marched towards his goals earnestly indeed, but he faced an array of equally determined opponents. However, he could always rely on the support of the people, who loved and respected him enormously. He reached the zenith of his power on 30 Tir, 1331 (July 21, 1952), when the nation rose to his support in the largest popular demonstration of his career. This event heightened my devotion further, and I began to drag along my cousin Hamid to participate in the political rallies supporting Mossadegh and his government. 30 Tir followed Mossadegh’s resignation as Premier after a dispute with the Shah regarding who should command the armed forces — the Shah or the government. Due to popular demand, Mossadegh resumed his premiership, in addition to becoming Minister of Defense, four days later.
The safety of my small town allowed us to roam freely, at times sneaking off to catch a bumpy ride by hanging on the back of the city’s horse drawn carriages. We visited the offices of different political parties to hear their views, listened to patriotic speeches given by the ultra nationalist Pan-Iranist party supporters, who viewed the Shah as a symbol of the glory of Iran; and heard the communist Tudeh party members, who mostly lauded, to my bewilderment, the glory of life under Soviet-style communism.
At times, the two parties’ fierce competition led to street clashes and bloody noses. My loyalty—and I sensed that of the vast majority of Iranians as well—was for the nationalist ideology and the National Front, an umbrella group led by Dr. Mossadegh.
The rank and file members of Tudeh party mostly viewed Mossadegh as a champion of anti-imperialism, yet Tudeh leaders never gave Mossadegh their full support, even after he nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in April 1951. Ever since 1944, the Tudeh party had held a grudge against Mossadegh for blocking an oil concession to the Soviet Union in northern Iran. The Tudeh however, sensing the rising influence of the Western powers in Iran, belatedly joined the national uprising of 30 Tir in support of Mossadegh.
Following the oil nationalization of 1951, the country’s economy was under severe stress due to the British blockade of Iranian oil trade in the world market. Although the Truman administration offered lip service in support of Iranian rights vis-à-vis the oil dispute, in reality, they along with all major international oil companies had completely sided with the British. Mossadegh’s plea to America for help went unanswered, while America supplied Britain with oil equal to what they had “lost” in Iran.
I recall a delightful conversation that I had one day with a young Mossadegh devotee named Habib who worked as a helper at my small neighborhood grocery store. At the time the Majles had authorized the issuance of government bonds (Garzeh-e-Melli, meaning National Bonds) as part of an effort to improve the treasury. Habib had just bought several Garzeh-e-Melli that were issued at various denominations, each carrying a 6% interest and redeemable after two years. He grasped the purchased bonds in his hands with the same reverence as a pious Moslem would hold his holy Koran. I wondered how the young assistant with his meager earnings could afford to buy them. He was a Mossadeghi and happy to own them, even though there was no guarantee that he could redeem them at a later date. For the most part, the majority of the bonds were bought by members of the lower and middle class, as they were shunned by the upper class.
By early 1953, Dr. Mossadegh’s fortune and that of his government was fading. A significant turn for the worse happened on a day known to Iranians as No’he Esfand (Feb. 28, 1953). On that day, the Shah invited Mossadegh to the palace for a farewell meeting. He and his wife, Soraya, planned to go abroad, ostensibly for rest and medical evaluation for infertility. While there, Mossadegh received a message from U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson requesting an urgent meeting. As Mossadegh was leaving the palace for his house, he was taunted by a large street crowd in front of the palace. The participants were mostly right-wing military and religious opposition members, along with a contingent of street mobs belonging to Ayatollah Kashani’s camp. At least one of the Shah’s brothers, Hamid-Reza, participated.
The gathered crowd insisted that Mossadegh, whom they believed was behind the idea, should step in and prevent the Shah’s departure. It was due to Mossadegh’s alertness and quick action that he left the scene unharmed. After Mossadegh’s safe departure, the Shah reportedly was told that “the bird flew the coop”.
However, the mob did not stop there, as they later moved towards Mossadegh’s residence and attacked his house with the intention to physically harm, if not murder him. Mossadegh barely escaped by climbing a ladder over the wall to the adjoining property which he also owned and had rented to an American technical mission known as Point 4. From there he went to Army headquarters and then to the Majles.
In a frank radio address on April 5, 1953, Mossadegh informed the nation of an unholy alliance between the domestic enemies of his government and foreign agents and their involvement in the plot to kill him.
Even though at the time I did not know the details of what happened, I sensed the seriousness of the events of No’he Esfand and that Mossadegh’s foes had joined foreign powers to permanently eliminate him from the scene.
About this time, one Friday morning, while hanging around in the main street near my house, I noticed that the tailor shop, owned by a die-hard monarchist, was boldly displaying a pro-Shah and strongly anti-Mossadegh flyer in his shop window. The sight of this alarmed me, for I viewed it as a sign of instability. I reacted by writing on the side of his shop window “Long Live Mossadegh” and shouted “Mossadegh!, Mossadegh!”, as I ran away.
In no time, the shop owner summoned his apprentice, a big and burly boy, to go after me. I remember running as fast as I could but have no memory of what happened next—until I felt myself being awakened, as if from a sleep, by a cold wind hitting me in the face. Opening my eyes, I found myself sitting sideways on the bar of a moving bicycle with my older brother pedaling. He told me that he found me unconscious in the street, while bleeding from the forehead, and was taking me to the hospital.
At the hospital, I realized that I had a large gash on the top of my forehead with blood still running down my face. The doctor had to close a two inch laceration using several metal clips. I left the hospital with a large turban-like bandage around my head. On the bicycle ride back from the hospital, my brother told me that apparently as I was trying to jump over a joob (traditional open storm water canal generally on both sides of the street), I had tripped and bashed my head against its sharp concrete edge, rendering me unconscious. Arriving home, my mother panicked at the sight of me and screamed at my brother “What on earth have you done to my baby?” The cut on my forehead healed in due time, though I still wear the scar.
No’he Esfand was in fact the first serious coup attempt orchestrated by the royal court, military and religious opposition groups as well as the Anglo-American agents against Mossadegh and his government. This episode increased the vulnerability of Mossadegh and emboldened his enemies to persevere until Mossadegh was permanently removed from power. That day, August 19, 1953, would be the last day of Iran’s brief dance with democracy.
Years later, while living in New York City in 1969, I saw the movie Camelot starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. This musical film told of the legend of medieval King Arthur who, from a castle named Camelot, united the Knights to stop the advancing Saxons.
Ask every person if he’s heard the story
And tell it strong and clear if he has not
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot
As I sat watching in the darkened theater, the comparison to Mossadegh was inescapable to me. Yet the reality was that King Arthur was only a legend, but Mossadegh was a real enlightened leader, and while Camelot was a fictional place, the Iran of Mossadegh actually existed.
The Mossadegh era was that “One Brief Shining Moment” of mutual love and respect between the People and their chosen leader. Ultimately, Mossadegh’s visionary dream of an empowered nation, independent and free, fell victim to the savage forces of greed, power and domination—a struggle that continues to this day.
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