IRAN: The People Take Over

TIME magazine — August 31, 1953

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | August 9, 2012                    

Mohammad Mossadegh TIME’s first full-length report on the August 19th, 1953 coup in Iran finally reached newsstands and subscriber’s mailboxes twelve days after the fact. What they produced in the interim, as far as classic examples of propaganda go, is a gem.

As their title indicates, TIME trumpeted the violent coup overthrowing Premier Mossadegh’s nationalist government as a noble and spirited people’s movement which sprung organically from the streets. As they put it in this fantastically inverted capsulization:

“This was no military coup, but a spontaneous popular uprising...”
Yet most astonishing of all is the audacity of the concluding sentence, a passage so ridiculous it’s hard to believe anyone dared write it, much less commit it to print:

“In the streets, Americans who had recently been greeted with cries of "Americans, go home," now found themselves welcomed happily by Iranians who let them know that the Iranians had done all of this for them and now counted on help from the U.S.”
Got that? Iranians, we’re told, overturned their legitimate government — not so much for their own sake, but for the benefit of America. Unbelievable •

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TIME magazine, August 31, 1953

The violent, hot land of Iran last week headed uncontrollably over the crumbling edge of the abyss, and then, during three wild days, pulled itself back to safety.

When the week began, Mohammed Mossadegh seemed safely on top. The Shah was in flight; the fanatic mullahs’ and the stubborn Majlis’ opposition was hidden or cowed; the army was a sullen eunuch; the world resigned. Who was there to say him no?

His street supporters celebrated with a carnival of destruction. Communist and Nationalist mobs swarmed deliriously over Teheran’s principal squares, pulling down the great bronze statues of the Shah and his father. They opened and denied the Reza Shah’s tomb, spat on the Shah’s picture, applauded as Foreign Minister Hussein Fatemi cried: “To the gallows” with the young Shah.

The Ambassador’s Call. At sundown of the second day, wily old Mossadegh seemed to have all Teheran in his hand. But something was stirring in Teheran that could not yet be measured. Perhaps Mossadegh, unopposed, had gone too far and too fast and frightened the people. Perhaps the Shah’s flight forced them at last to decide between monarch and Premier.

Precisely at 6 p.m., U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson (back the previous day from two months’ vacation) mounted the stairs to Mossadegh’s bedroom at 109 Kakh Street. Henderson stayed one hour; soon after he left, things began to happen.

What went on up in Mossadegh’s bedroom? Henderson began by protesting the stoning of six U.S. citizens’ cars that day, and asked assurances that U.S. lives and property would be protected. Otherwise, he would order all American women and children evacuated. That startled Mossadegh. Then the ambassador inquired politely about the legal validity of Mossadegh’s regime in view of the Shah’s parting decree, in which he fired Mossadegh and named General Fazlollah Zahedi in his place. When Henderson quit the room, Mossadegh was firmly convinced that the U.S. was undecided whether to continue to recognize him as Iran’s Premier.

Happy to Oblige. Apparently this fitted together with other doubts and misgivings that were gathering in Mossadegh’s mind. Shaken, the old man went to the phone and ordered his army and police to drive the rioting Reds off the street. That call, turning the army loose on the most powerful street support he had, was Mossadegh’s fatal mistake. The troops were only too happy to oblige; they clubbed the rioters unmercifully and punctuated their thudding gun butts with shouts of “Long live the Shah” and “Death to traitors.” Growing bolder, they forced the Reds at bayonet point to cheer the Shah, too. The next morning, the bruised and bitter Tudeh Central Committee proclaimed: “No more aid to Mossadegh, who is a compromising traitor,” and the Reds retreated into hiding. He had disappointed them: Mossadegh in their eyes was to have been the Kerensky who preceded them to power. Now, suddenly, their fortunes had changed.

The third day was the people’s day. The shabbily dressed poor poured out of their south Teheran slums, chanting, “Long live the Shah.” Others, armed with knives and clubs, joined them. Shopkeepers pulled down the shutters in front of their stores and swelled the march. Ordered to stop the parades, the soldiers turned, instead, on their officers. Eight truckloads of troops and five tanks, dispatched to the city to help Mossadegh, turned over their equipment to the first pro-Shah mob they met.

Flanked now by soldiers, the mob began a nine-hour-long assault on one Mossadegh stronghold after another. When they finished, they had captured the police station and Radio Teheran: they had sacked eight government buildings and two pro-Mossadegh newspaper plants; they had smashed the headquarters of the Tudeh and the pro-Mossadegh Pan-Iranian party.

This was no military coup, but a spontaneous popular uprising; individual soldiers joined, but not a single army unit came in. Not until 4 p.m., when an air force general appeared before General Zahedi’s hideout with a tank, did Zahedi emerge and take command of a field already won. The General-Premier and his officers were as surprised by the victory as the people themselves. The army had planned to counterattack Mossadegh on Friday; the people beat them to it by two days.

Last Stand. Mossadegh’s last stand came at 109 Kakh Street. U.S.-built Sherman tanks, ranged at each end of the tree-lined avenue, dueled for four hours, 75-mm. shells clanging off their World War II armor. The defending Mossadegh forces ran out of ammunition first, and it was all over. The losing commander was turned over to the royalist mob, which pulled him apart. A tank smashed the green grill gate, and thousands of attackers swarmed into the yard. Mossadegh had got away.

The mob tore apart the famous iron cot on which Mossadegh had reigned so long with weepy-eyed, irrational stubbornness. The rioters ripped the house to pieces, hauled the furniture into the streets and auctioned it off (a new electric refrigerator went for $36). Soon, nothing remained of 109 Kakh Street but memories of a regime which had stood Iran and the Western world on its ear for more than two years. But, even in his last hours of power, Mohammed Mossadegh cost the nation dear: 300 died that day. Dressed in silk pajamas, Mossadegh surrendered 24 hours later to General Zahedi, was temporarily imprisoned in the luxurious Teheran Officers’ Club and then carted off to a common jail cell.

Tennis Partner. The man in whose name the street mobs prevailed had fled his native land three days before. Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, the Shahinshah, arrived in Rome with a two-day beard on his chin, accompanied by his disheveled, 21-year-old Queen, who was on the verge of tears. That night, unable to sleep, the Shah paced the living room of their three-room suite at Rome’s showy Hotel Excelsior. With his personal pilot, Major Mohammed Khatami, he talked over future plans for a pleasant exile. “He asked me to stay with him,” the major said later. “I told him I was afraid I would become a burden to him.” “Who,” asked the Shah plaintively, “is going to play tennis with me if you leave me?”

The Shah bought himself four tennis rackets and a pair of black antelope shoes; Soraya bought lingerie and two crocodile handbags and, at a couturier’s, ordered a dozen summer frocks. That noon, in the Excelsior dining room, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi began his shrimp cocktail, just another king in exile; by the time he reached his coffee, he was back in business as Shah. A reporter [AP’s Richard Ehrman] (see PRESS) rushed to his table with the news: “Mossadegh has been overthrown, Your Majesty!” The Shah’s jaw dropped; his trembling fingers reached for a cigarette. “Can it be true?” he asked uncertainly. The Queen was quicker on the uptake. “How exciting,” said Soraya, placing a calming hand on her husband’s arm. “It shows how the people stand,” said the Shah at last. “I have to admit that I haven’t had a very important part in the revolution.” Aides scurried off to check airline schedules.

Now the Iranian chargé d’affaires in Rome and a functionary from the Italian Foreign Ministry, both of whom had ignored the Shah’s harried arrival in Rome, came to pay their belated respects. On top of things again, the Shah refused to see the charge d’affaires who had snubbed him; later the Shah had him fired. Next morning, the Shah slipped out to a jeweler’s and selected a variety of diamond baubles for Soraya. This was a consolation gift for her agreeing to remain a while in Rome for her “health.” Then he boarded a chartered K.L.M. airliner for Bagdad, where he put on his gold-braided air marshal’s uniform (specially flown from Teheran). He piloted his own twin-engined Beechcraft on the final leg to his capital.

Triumphal Arches. Six days after fleeing into exile, the Shah was back in his capital, stronger than ever, without having lifted a finger. Though his flight had reflected his panic, it also served to precipitate the crisis and thereby, in the end, had proved beneficial. For the people had shown more faith in him and in the throne he occupied than he himself suspected. Premier Zahedi and the entire frock-coated diplomatic corps were at the airport to greet him.

In the swirl of officials and newspapermen and honor guards, the Shah made his way with difficulty. Two bureaucrats flung themselves on the ground before him, embraced his legs and tried to kiss his feet; embarrassed in front of the foreign newspapermen, the Shah, after patting the bureaucrats’ heads, tried to disengage himself. He looked tired, and as he made his way down the reception line past teary-eyed officials, his own eyes filled too. He clasped Ambassador Henderson’s hand heartily; he gave Soviet Envoy Anatoly Lavrentiev a perfunctory handclasp. Then he was off to the palace in a limousine, under hastily erected triumphal arches and past cheering crowds.

Later he received newsmen in the fountain-echoing garden of Saadabad Palace and spoke some brutal truths: “The treasury is empty. We need help in the next few days. We do not ask any nation in particular, and we are not beggars, but if help does not come, we will have a nightmarish struggle.” In the streets, Americans who had recently been greeted with cries of “Americans, go home,” now found themselves welcomed happily by Iranians who let them know that the Iranians had done all of this for them and now counted on help from the U.S.


Related links:

Operation Ajax Was Always An Open Secret | A Timeline

After 1953 Coup, Amb. Loy Henderson Scorns Iranian Conspiracy Theorists

Columnist Suspects U.S. Involvement in 1953 Coup — in 1953

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

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