~ The Untold Story of a Historic Media Falsity ~
Dr. Mossadegh’s Fatal Punishment, Contrived by the Press

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | February 13, 2015                     

The Philadelphia Inquirer front page | September 23, 1953

In the wake of the momentous anti-democratic coup d’etat in Iran, London’s mass-circulated Daily Express became the first to tell of the shocking fate of the recently deposed Iranian Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. Following a three-week secret trial, revealed the newspaper in their exclusive September 23, 1953 dispatch from Tehran, a final sentence had been delivered by the court: public hanging.

Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh Within days, the elderly, much-beloved leader who only a month prior held the nation’s highest office and commanded global prominence, would be dangling lifelessly from a noose, twisting in the wind for all to witness....what a spectacle!

Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh The “news” wasn’t true, of course—but to the gullible press corps, it seemed plausible enough. Immediately, major news agencies like the Associated Press, Reuters and United Press whipped up bold wire articles on the event, resulting in sensationalistic front page headlines worldwide. The media bellowed the grim news with little caution, fully reliant on their one and only source—Arthur Cook, Tehran correspondent for the Express.

hanging noose Word of Mossadegh’s imminent execution captured the imagination. One Canadian newspaper was actually heartened by the prospect of what they deemed as a just punishment, producing an unabashedly merciless editorial in anticipation of his death titled No Pity For Mossadegh. 1

In the editors’ view, Mossadegh was a disgraceful “semi-dictator” who, despite his age and physical infirmities, “deserves no pity”. A public lynching, they reasoned, would be necessary to make an example out of the “cruel”, “reprehensible” ex-Premier, in order to help ensure “other Mossadeghs” would not take his place.

The Daily Express Allegations

Cook’s story was not only dramatic, but action-packed: On Tuesday, September 22nd, at 12:30pm, court chief Col. Ghorbani announced that Mossadegh had been found guilty on eight counts for treason and one count for the mass murder of 130 Iranians during the 28 Mordad coup.

“Dr. Mossadeq, you have been found guilty on these nine counts: Of being a traitor to your country; having accepted money from Russian Ambassador Lavrenti; [sic—Anatoli Lavrentiev] having helped Communist papers urging the Shah’s banishment; having freed imprisoned Communist leaders; having attempted to change the regime; having been a traitor to the Shah; having refused to obey the Shah’s dismissal order; having ordered the shooting of people resulting in 130 deaths.” [that’s only eight counts, not nine!]

Ghorbani then handed the accused his written sentence.

“Limply, Mossadeq’s hand stretched out to take it,” Cook wrote. “He swayed and shook as he read it through. Now his arms were waving wildly. He swore and ran at Ghorbany with his fist raised. An officer’s foot stopped him and Mossadeq tripped and collapsed. Ghorbany gave the order ‘Take him away’ and three officers lifted Mossadeq and carried him to bed in the next room.”

The Mercury front page | September 24, 1953

Coup Regime Denies Verdict

When press agencies in Tehran sought confirmation of the capital punishment verdict, government spokesman Abol-Hassan Amidi Nouri flatly refuted it, saying that Mossadegh had not even been tried yet. “According to Iranian law”, Nouri explained, “a person after arrest must be investigated secretly. Then the prosecutor makes his charges, which will be public. The last stage is the trial.” AP, September 24, 1953

The Brooklyn Eagle | September 23, 1953

The media remained skeptical, however, noting that according to Cook, the sensitive information was deliberately kept secret so as to quell an indignant pro-Mossadegh uprising. Cook also wrote that the verdict would not be official until the following Thursday, when Mossadegh would have to appear before the court to have the sentence confirmed, and only the Shah could intervene to stop it. For the sake of maintaining order, maintained Cook, the public would not be informed of the ruling until it was finalized.

“Tonight,” cabled Cook, “not a Persian knows about the verdict, apart from the officers who were in court, the Shah, and Premier Zahedi Fazlollah [sic—Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi] ....Top secrecy has been kept up till the last minute and only after the field court’s decision, a foregone conclusion of confirmation of the death sentence, will the people be told of Mossadegh’s fate.”

The Advertiser front page | September 25, 1953

Sticking To His Story

The next day, newspapers prominently reported the denial, yet implied it was just a front to maintain secrecy, adding that Tehran Radio was already “preparing” the country for the execution. “Mossadegh must hang for his misdeeds”, boomed the radio announcer the evening of the verdict, according to British press reports. “They are too numerous and too monstrous for any other sentence.” Though denials came from various quarters, Arthur Cook wouldn’t budge from his story about the pending lynch party.

It was getting difficult to know what to make of “The Mossadeq Mystery”, as Singapore’s biggest paper, The Straits Times termed it in their headline. Despite the confusion, it was still surmised that Iran’s dismissal of the death penalty rumor was not to be taken seriously because the news was simply being ‘withheld’ out of security concerns.

“Nearly all newspapers in Tehran have obeyed an official order that nothing must be published about the death sentence until it is officially announced,” reported The Advertiser’s London correspondent. The media was also adding that an “informed army source” said the state would demand Mossadegh’s hanging death at trial, contradicting the earlier impression that he was hopelessly condemned to be strung up.

On the 25th, The Sydney Morning Herald relayed that Cook was holding his ground, explaining that the Zahedi regime, fearful of street demonstrations, was leaking the news gradually out of caution. The article summarized Cook’s latest dispatch, including this extremely fishy, out of character detail: “Meanwhile, Dr. Mussadiq waits at Saltanat Abad Palace, moaning to himself in a half-demented way: “I have done wrong, I have made mistakes, but it was the fault of my Ministers.”

As the days passed, Cook’s boss became increasingly impatient. An Australian colleague—journalist, author, radio and TV presenter Tim Bowden—assessed the situation anecdotally in his memoir: 2

“The trouble was, Arthur had not fully understood the Iranian system of justice, which was based on the French model. Mossadegh had been found guilty in a committal hearing—the real trial was yet to come—so Arthur was the only reporter suggesting Mossadegh’s imminent demise. An increasingly distraught Arthur received a cable from his foreign editor Charles Foley asking ominously: WHY YOUR EXCLUSIVE STILL EXCLUSIVE? Followed twenty-four hours later by another: IT’S MOSSADEGH’S NECK OR YOURS.”

Why Lie?

Aside from the competitive drive for a news ‘scoop’, it isn’t clear why Arthur Cook decided to fabricate the ‘hanging’ story. Yet once the lie was out there, Cook apparently figured he could withstand the risk, betting that Mossadegh would, in fact, be executed anyway, in effect vindicating his tale. The gamble never paid off, however, and Cook, who was reportedly the first British correspondent allowed in Tehran after the coup, paid a price for his unprofessionalism. The whole fiasco cost Cook his job at London’s famed Daily Express.

However, journalistic standards being what they were, Cook soon landed on his feet, scoring a position at the paper’s main rival, The Daily Mail, where he went on to serve as their correspondent in Beirut, New Delhi, Jakarta, Bangkok and Singapore, interviewing such figures as British Labor politician Herbert Morrison, Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru, and Pauline Lumumba, wife of Congolese Premier Patrice Lumumba. In 1971, he completed the book Story Unused: A Correspondent in the Far East, 1962-67, a memoir.

The Fate of Dr. Mossadegh (1882-1967)

Dr. Mossadegh in court Mossadegh’s military tribunal trial commenced on November 8th, and his prosecutor did indeed ask the court to render a death by hanging verdict. The fallen Premier was spared the gallows, however, due to his advanced age (anyone over 60 was immune from execution). In late December, he was condemned to a three year prison term in solitary confinement.

“The verdict of this court has increased my historical glories”, Mossadegh pronounced sarcastically. “I am extremely grateful you convicted me. Truly tonight the Iranian nation understood the meaning of constitutionalism.” 3

He was released in 1956 to his estate in Ahmadabad, where he was unable to ever leave, enforced by armed guards.

On March 5, 1967, over 13 years later, Dr. Mossadegh succumbed to cancer in Ahmadabad, where he had remained under mandatory lifetime house arrest. Rumors of his state-sanctioned death, as the saying goes, had been greatly exaggerated.


1 No Pity For Mossadegh was the lead editorial in The Lethbridge Herald of Alberta, Canada on Thursday, September 24, 1953. They ran an AP wire report on the hanging the day before.

2 No Tern Unstoned – Musings At Breakfast (2004) by Tim Bowden. Bowden’s info, if accurate, is enlightening yet contains errors. He places the story in 1952 instead of 1953, and claims Cook’s report stated that Mossadegh would “hang the following morning” (Cook named no date for the execution). Bowden also wrongly writes that Mossadegh “overthrew the Shah during a dispute on oil policy.”

3 As quoted in Mossadegh Gets 3-Year Jail Term by Welles Hagen in The New York Times, December 22, 1953.

In 1998, well known writer and author Russell Baker referenced the Cook incident in a column about fakery in journalism following some high profile industry scandals. “I saw Mossadegh hanged today,” was the opening sentence”, recalled Baker of Cook’s 1953 article. Cook, in fact, never said he witnessed any hanging, only a hanging verdict. Relying upon memory, it seems, as NBC’s Brian Williams can attest, is another professional hazard in the often deceitful realm of the journalist.

Fellow newsman Desmond Maberley (1927-1999) elaborated on Russell Baker’s brief anecdotal reference in The New York Times in a letter to the editor published July 4, 1998. The former Executive Editor for Reuters in North America, Maberley joined the agency in 1957 and retired in 1988.

Like Tim Bowden, Maberley got to know Arthur Cook while working in Asia in the 1960’s. His letter confirms Bowden’s assertion that Cook was fired for the report, though the quoted cable from Cook’s Daily Express editor greatly differs in wording, though not in essence, from Bowden’s “It’s Mossadegh’s neck or yours” line.

To the Editor:

Re Russell Baker's June 26 column and caustic comments on British journalists, there is more to be told about The Daily Express’s ace foreign correspondent who scooped the world on the hanging of Mohammad Mossadegh in Teheran in the 1950’s, only to have the man live another 13 years.

When the evidence became overwhelming that Mossadegh was still alive -- it included a photograph of him in his cell -- the editor of The Express proved to be somewhat more forthright than the editors in Evelyn Waugh’s ''Scoop.'' He sent a message to the correspondent that said: ''Either Mossadegh hangs by Friday or you do.''

Mossadegh didn’t hang, nor did the correspondent, but he was fired. This didn’t stop him from going to work for The Daily Mail. I knew him when he was working for the paper in Southeast Asia and I was with Reuters there.

Jackson Heights, Queens
June 29, 1998

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Related links:

Scottish Students at Edinburgh University Honor Premier Mossadegh | Oct. 1951

Did Dr. Mossadegh Carry A Gun To Protect From Death Threats?

The Death of Mossadegh—a final goodbye

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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