The Rule of Law and the politics of nationalism in Iran


This paper was presented as Reformation in Iranian Constitutionalism, 1951-53 at the “Commemorating the Constitution, a University of Pennsylvania and the University of Oxford conference in Philadelphia, March 23-24, 2006


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2006. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.    ________________________________________________________________________       

abstract: This is a study of the jurisprudence of a political system in the throes of constitutional reconstruction. For its analytical framework, it employs the emerging universal definition of the rule of law, including such elements as popular sovereignty, written constitution, separation of powers, human rights, freedom of thought and expression, the right to assembly, and protection of property. It finds the main fault line for the instability of the Iranian political system after the fall of Reza Shah (1925-1941) in the fissure caused by those who wished to reform it. In the rule of law they sought protection against the arbitrary exercise of power. Their struggle for azadi (liberty) and esteqlal (independence) was grounded in the quest for justice and lawfulness. Emboldened by political victories based on demonstrations of popular support, the Reformists, led by the National Front, pressed for the implementation of what they deemed to be the original intent of the 1906 Constitution. The rhetoric of nationalism catapulted them to power in 1951-1953, giving them a rare opportunity to forcefully detail their manifesto. This Reformation was vigorously opposed by the conservatives, led by the royal court, who sought to preserve privileges accrued from the established practice of the Constitution.  The Conservative jurisprudence was different from that of the Reformists. Both used the same lexicon, however, as they were rooted in the discourse of Iran’s continuing constitutional movement. Indeed, the contemporary political debate in Iran is part of that continuum. The centrality of the rule of law for Iranian constitutionalism is not new, it is historic.



            I first published my reflections about the Mossadeq era some fifty years ago – when I was an undergraduate- in a series of columns in the Duke University Chronicle. As I continued in other venues, a few years later I had the fortune of observing Ervand Abrahamian’s industry in plowing the same field. I soon left the academics, but Abrahamian, over all these years, has been poring over the historical details of the Mosaddeq period -as much as anybody else I know. Thus, I feel comfortable to use as a yardstick for measuring the current state of literature on our subject, Abrahamian’s article “The 1953 Coup in Iran.” Published in 2001, this article is noteworthy for pointing out that the then recently leaked CIA documents not only did not settle the historians’ debate about what really happened but that, in fact, those partly censored documents have further muddied the picture of that event (Abrahamian, 2001:183-84 ). Clearly, a detailed examination of the whole topic, the phenomenon of Mossadeq, still remains to be done. Ours, however, is not the proper forum. Mindful of that unfinished task, mine is just a call for a specific outlook in that examination, with some illustrating examples.


            My initial proposition appears simple but, if accepted, it is far reaching in implications. I maintain that the 28 months in the years 1951 to 1953, when Mossadeq was Iran’s prime minister, witnessed the last attempt by the secular liberals to fulfill the promises of the Iranian Constitutional Movement that had begun a half century earlier.  Mosaddeq’s own words were “struggle to implement Constitutionalism (“kooshesh baray-e esteqrar-e mashrootiyat)” (Afshar, 1986: 216). Like all overused terms, “secular liberals” has accumulated the barnacles of age. In this paper, I use it in juxtaposition to the term “religious reformists.”

            My corollary proposition might not be as easy to accept. It is that in said process, Iran’s secular liberals undertook a reformation of the written Constitution of 1906. The sticky part here is the term reformation. It is used advisably. It means, as it probably could be said to mean in the conventional reference to Martin Luther’s attempt to reform the Catholic Church, the cleansing change toward the original intent -another overused term which is defined here in context. In our case, this reformation was the implementation of the spirit of the Constitutional Movement beyond merely the words of the Constitution. In Mosaddeq’s language the goal was “to return to the spirit of the Fundamental Laws (Constitution) its real meaning (be rooh-e qanoon-e asassi mafhoom haqiqi-e khod ra baz gardannand)” (Afshar, 1986: 218).

            Consider this exchange that took place in the court that tried Mossadeq after the fall of his government:

            -Prosecutor: “When the Constitution explicitly (be serahat) talks about the prerogatives and powers (ekhtiarat va eqtedarat) of the Shah… could anybody claim that the royal rights are only ceremonial?”

            -Mossadeq: “Yes, the people!” (Bozorgmehr, 1982: 366).

As Mosaddeq explained repeatedly, otherwise, what was the Constitutional Movement all about? (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: passim)

            The repetition of the term mashroutiyat (Constitutionalism”) in Mosaddeq’s briefs and comments in the Court, leaves no doubt that in that exchange, while referring to “the people” Mosaddeq has in mind not the abstract political theory of “general will” (cf Abrahamian, 1982: 274), but a specific historical movement as the context: the Iranian Constitutionalism. “Constitutionalism” is the proper term of art for the word mashroutiyat that otherwise, literally, means conditionality (Adamiyat, 1976:172). The context determines the meaning. “Popular sovereignty” was the “original intentof Iran’s Constitutionalism. As Mossadeq pleads untiringly, if that was not the goal, for what was so much sweat and blood shed by the Constitutionalists (mashrouteh-khohan)?

            In Mosaddeq’s lexicon this related but still separate word, Constitutionalists (mashrouteh-khohan), is often used interchangeably with another term, Seekers of Liberty (azadi khohan). The latter, however, was more commonly used in Mosaddeq’s later years. In the years under our consideration, for Prime Minister Mossadeq the Constitutional Movement was the pursuit of Liberty and Independence (azadi va esteqlal). This was his mantra (Afshar, 1986: 279).

            Interdependent as the two were, the primacy of Liberty vis-à-vis Independence could not be disputed. As a social phenomenon, “the notion of liberty (fekr-e azadi)” began in Iran, in the 19th century, in order to reform the domestic political system, albeit in reaction to the felt superiority of foreigners (Adamiyat, 1976:3-19 Adamiyat, 1961: passim; Amanat, 1997:359 et passim). As the experience of the Tobacco Regie protest demonstrated, by the 1890’s, historical circumstances had made Independence the absolute prerequisite of Liberty in Iran. More than half a century later, this still held true. Prime Minister Mosaddeq was a passionate subscriber to this view, having fought bitterly against the Anglo-Iranian Agreement of 1919 -which would have given the British effective control of Iran’s military and finances (Ghani, 2000: 29-30) – and, later, the 1933 Anglo-Iranian Oil Agreement (Afshar, 1986: 293).

            But Independence could not guarantee Liberty. This was again due to history. As Mossadeq argued, old habits needed time to cure. Years of governance by “foreign agents (ommal-khareji) left their powerful impact, he said, compounded by the naiveté of a mostly illiterate citizenry. It is telling that for his first government which began in April 1951, Mossadeq proposed only two items as his agenda: nationalization of oil and electoral reform. He floated the idea of separating the franchise of the illiterate in order to favor the literate, but facing domestic opposition Mossadeq had to postpone changes in the election laws (Abrahamian, 1982: 268-69) because he needed to focus now almost exclusively on the issue of oil nationalization, the Independence prerequisite to Liberty (Afshar, 1986: 209).


            Prime Minister Mossadeq succeeded in conducting a remarkably free election for the 17th Majlis in Tehran, and a few other cities.  He struck a bargain -in a six hour meeting- with the Shah for the latter, and the security forces he controlled, not to interfere in those elections, in return for the assurance given by Mosaddeq, based on his sheer faith, that the supporters of the communist Tudeh party would not win a single seat. Mosaddeq delivered on his promise: all 12 deputies from the Capital were from Mosaddeq’s National Front; the best a Tudeh could do was to rank 13th (Afshar, 1986: 258).

            With a thin majority among the deputies from the early returns -the rest were supporters of the Shah, the big land owners, and tribal chiefs-, Mossadeq left the growing electoral controversies in the remaining districts undecided as he had to rush to the Hague where he spent an inordinately long time -two weeks- on the oil issue before the World Court (Afshar, 1986: 258).

            Success in the Hague was far from assured. At times, Mossadeq was so despondent as to confide to his son that he would kill himself in the event he failed at the World Court (Mosaddeq, 1986: 10). Mosaddeq’s chronicler, Homa Katouzian, implies that his expectation of an adverse ruling by the World Court was a main reason for his resignation on July 16, 1952 (Katouzian, 1999: 123).

            Mossadeq was indeed now profoundly dissatisfied with the domestic situation. The distorted existing constitutional system was not working. Mosaddeq’s then close ally Mozffar Baga’i later reported that Mossadeq told him in the Hague about his plan to ask the Majlis for extraordinary legislative powers which Mossadeq said he needed to levy taxes in order to balance the budget (Baqa’i, 1985: 401-02; Afshar, 1986: 238). The Majlis had already shown its preference for the Shah’s candidate for the position of its Speaker over Mosaddeq’s candidate (Abrahamian, 1982: 269).  With the monarch’s control over the armed and security forces, his candidates would have won the pending elections in almost all of the remaining districts. Mossadeq concluded that he could no longer govern while the Shah continued such control by choosing the Minister of War.  This last was the reason Mossadeq gave for his resignation. His announced explanation to the nation (Abrahamian, 1982: 271) sounded as the requiem for a failed short experiment in the pursuit of Liberty and Independence.

            Fortune, as in Fortuna, had surprises in store, worthy of a Greek chorus. Mosaddeq’s resignation precipitated the tumultuous events of the next four days which have come to be known as the seey-e tir (the 30th of the Persian calendar month Tir, July 21, 1952). The confluence of disparate factors that thus returned Mossadeq to power defied reasonable expectations. They must be noted here as they defined the new political stage in Iran: (1) the putative replacement for Mossadeq, Ahmad Qavam, proved to be now only an ineffective ailing shadow of his once mighty self, eight years earlier, when he had impressed the interested Western powers; (2) the Shah refused to meaningfully empower Qavam, whom he distrusted, by acceding to Qavam’s demand for the dissolution of the Majlis and the arrest of his arch enemy Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani (Arsanjani, 1956: 10,11, 27, 38, 40-42, 52, 72; Baga’i, 1985: 293);(3) the Shah lost confidence in the ability of his armed forces, which he had ordered to crush the pro-Mosaddeq street demonstrations (Abrahamian, 1982: 271); (4) Kashani, Baga’i, and the Tudeh party proved effective in mobilizing massive demonstrations in support of Mossadeq (Abrahamian, 1982: 320); (5) Baqa’i managed to rally again those deputies who had supported Mossadeq before but took his resignation as an opportunity to campaign for themselves as Prime Minister -this proving unrealistic, they agreed to urge Mosaddeq’s return (Baqa’i, 1985:289-89); and  finally, (6) the Hague Court’s ruling was reported out in favor of Mossadeq now, just in the nick of time. (Katouzian, 1999: 125) This last factor, Mosaddeq singled out as a main reason for the people coming out on the streets in celebration and “reinstating” him.  (Afshar, 1986: 259) This was the politics of nationalism at its prime.         

            Note also that the offer and acceptance of Mosaddeq’s premiership a year earlier were equally incredible. (Afshar, 1986: 177-79, 247). Mossadeq believed that “From the beginning and always, the Shah wanted to destroy me and my government.”  (Afshar, 1986: 375). When the Majles deputies offered to nominate him as Prime Minister, they were certain he would not accept. The Majles’s preference vote for Seyyed Zia Tabataba’i, Britain’s candidate was so expected that he was already waiting for his appointment at the Royal Court. The deputies hesitated only as they feared that Seyyed Zia would repeat his wholesale arrest of many of them which he had done upon being brought to power by the British in 1921. Once Mosaddeq accepted their offer, the pressure of public opinion prevented the deputies from reneging. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 101)

            By all accounts then, Iranian politics had not appeared ready for either of these two developments, Mosaddeq’s consecutive governments. This fact underscores the shaky foundations of the secular liberals’ movement. In a remarkable admission, Mozaffar Baqa’i has said that, when Mosaddeq’s campaign began in 1949 -with Baqa’i as one of his then important lieutenants-, “we knew that… nearly all Iranian people …would be against us” (Baqa’i, 1985: 270).


Liberty and Foreign Relations

            Nonetheless, energized by the seey-e tir, the reinstalled Prime Minister Mosaddeq, in July 1952, lost no time in pursuing his goal of Liberty (azadi). His concentration on domestic matters was a dramatic contrast with his focus on foreign policy in his first year. Whereas then he had been totally preoccupied with activities related to the issue of oil (Afshar, 1986: 280; Abrahamian, 1982: 268, 275), now foreign policy was relegated to virtually benign neglect. Even Mosaddeq’s foes marveled at how successfully he had managed the issue of Independence. (Baqa’i, 1985: 239).  Mosaddeq’s remaining foreign program was essentially to simply endure and wait until the West came around to dealing with Iran on terms acceptable to him, which Mossadeq believed was inevitable because of the strategic significance of oil (Afshar, 1986: 235, 268). Notice here Mosaddeq’s world view, reflected in a concrete assessment of specific and real current trends, as distinguished from a general, sweeping theory of historical inevitability, then popular with the Marxists among the Iranian secular liberals.

            Notice further, the premises and the application of that world view: Mossadeq did not change his long-standing foreign policy of “negative equilibrium (movazehneh-ye manfi)” between the two Powers, Britain and Russia, that historically impinged on Iran’s independence; he expressed sympathy toward the emerging anti-colonial movements in the third world (The New York Times, October 13, 1952), and indeed would take credit for Iran’s “brave movement” as “having shaken the foundations of imperialism in all of the Middle East” (Bozorgmehr,  N.d.: 167); he actively probed for a more cooperative attitude from the Soviet Union, especially after the death of Stalin in March 1953 (The New York Times, July 23, 9, 26, August 5,9, 11, 13, 20, 1953; Tudeh, 1954:45; Afshar, 1986: 184); but Mosaddeq remained tilted toward hoping that the United States would adopt a favorable posture regarding his regime because it was the best option against the Communists. That hope was fundamental not only to Mosaddeq’s foreign policy, but also to the very success of his domestic policy of the pursuit of Liberty.

            The American officials’ conduct left some reasons for Mosaddeq’s hopeful expectations. During May 21-24, 1953, Loy Henderson (American Ambassador in Iran) and William Warne (Director of the Point Four program in Iran) were in Karachi conferring with the American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. They brought back with them a letter from Dulles conveying American sympathy and friendship for the Iranians. (The New York Times, May 25, 1953; Fateh, 1956: 655) Presumably encouraged by these American officials, on May 28, Mosaddeq wrote to President Eisenhower, requesting economic assistance to “enable Iran to utilize her other (than oil) resources.” (Bulletin, 20 July, 1953: 76-77) As American foreign aid officials reported later, the United States virtually promised to give this assistance to Mosaddeq. (U.S. House of Representatives, 84th Cong., 2d Sess.: 713, 716-730)  Henderson went to Washington in what must have appeared to Mosaddeq as a trip to expedite the delivery of American aid.

            For American policy-makers, giving economic aid to Mosaddeq was justifiable if such aid was viewed as a means to combat Communism.  But the implications for the oil dispute of thus buttressing Mosaddeq’s economic position were obvious.  The United States would be indirectly helping Mosaddeq break the Western economic blockade of Iran.  This fact, causing the exertion of considerable pressures by Britain and major American oil companies on the United States government, was perhaps responsible for the sudden reversal of the American position with regard to economic assistance to Mosaddeq’s government. Following a review and reconsideration of American policy toward Iran in June 1953, President Eisenhower informed Mosaddeq, in a letter dated June 29, 1953, that the Iranian Prime Minister should not expect American economic assistance because the United States was displeased with his oil policy (The New York Times, 9 July 1953; Cottam, 1964: 228-230; Fateh, 1956: 658-659).

            Undaunted, Mosaddeq stressed that he still would not abandon his policy of seeking American friendship and support (Bakhtar-e Emruz, 8 August 1953; Keyhan, 8 August 1953; The New York Times, July 23, 1953). Even as late as August 18, after the aborted Royal coup of August 15, Mosaddeq’s Ambassador in Washington cabled that “in my opinion now that the US has realized the weakness of the opposition and the strength of the head of ra’is dolat (the government, i.e., Mossadeq), it might try to revise its policies” (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 76). In gauging American policy, Mossadeq could rely on no one more than his Ambassador, Allahyar Saleh. As an indication of his lingering hope for a favorable American policy, on August 17, Mossadeq sent his own son to the airport to welcome the returning United States Ambassador Loy Henderson. When Henderson asked for an appointment on August 18, Mossadeq promptly accommodated him by postponing a cabinet meeting which he had called for that same time to deal with critically pressing matters in the aftermath of the failed Royal coup of two days earlier (Bozorgmehr,  N.d.: 415).

The Liberty Program

            That Royal coup was directly related to the fact that, from seey-e tir, Mossadeq had been unfurling his domestic program with a dizzying speed. This was within a legal framework based on the emergency legislative powers that Mossadeq had now obtained from both Houses of Parliament, with the formal approval of the Shah, all three intimidated by the outpouring of popular support for Mossadeq in seey-e tir (Afshar, 1986: 250).  The legislative Powers (ekhtiyarat) were initially granted for a period of six months but then extended for another year. Accordingly, Mossadeq could legislate with immediate effect, subject only to specific action by the Parliament after the bills were submitted to it. A remarkable number of laws, exceeding 200, were enacted this way (Afshar, 1986: 238). Their enormous impact could be measured by the comprehensive scope of the Powers. Mossadeq was authorized to legislate in nine broad areas for the purpose of enacting and reforming laws relating to: elections; financial affairs and the budget, and taxation; economy, monetary policies, and banking; oil resources; administrative organizations and civil, judicial, and military employment; local councils and social reforms in villages; the judiciary; the press; education, public health, and means of communications (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 83).

            In a review of what Mossadeq did with these powers, the scholar Habib Ladjevardi concluded with the following pithy sentence:

Although Mossadeq’s adherence to democratic procedure was not absolute, greater effort was made by his administration to make laws more democratic, to make government more responsive to the public, and to govern the country by the rule of law than by any other administration in Iranian history (Ladjevardi, 1988, p.88).

            “Govern the country by the rule of law” even though it meant failing to adhere absolutely “to democratic procedure”. That was what Mossadeq was trying to do! That was the whole program. That was the National Front’s “nehzat (Movement)”. That was the purpose of Mossadeq campaign for azadi va esteglal (Liberty and Independence). That was the essence of the Reformation of Constitutionalism. No one seems to have an argument against this.

            Katouzian’s narrative of Mosaddeq’s Movement is presented within the framework of Katouzian’s “theory of Iranian history,” wherein arbitrary rule (istibad) is contrasted with “the rule of law” (Katouzian, 1999: xii). I don’t see any quarrel with this juxtaposition in discussion of the earlier parts of the Constitutional Movement in the Freydoon Adamiyat’s writings. Indeed, I would be surprised to see such a quarrel in the works of other serious scholars of Iran’s Constitutionalism. Equally, however, I would be surprised to see any of them having penetrated the meaning of the term “the rule of law” beyond a vague slogan. I have not yet discovered that. Yet, I submit here, that this subject, the rule of law, is the core of the jurisprudence of Iran’s constitutionalism. More specifically, I further submit that Mossadeq should be viewed as Iran’s foremost constitutional lawyer who, additionally, as Prime Minister practiced what he preached. It follows then; I submit finally, that a study of Mosaddeq’s goals, policies, and impact, undertaken within the framework of the public law concept of the rule of law is long overdue. Let me now set forth my arguments for these submissions.




The Rule of Law

            Mossadeq was by training and temperament a lawyer. He was the first Iranian to receive a law degree from the West -Switzerland- where he practiced law for a while and intended, and in fact twice attempted -in 1914 and 1919- to continue with it there as his life time career (Afshar, 1986: 80-81, 118). His early writings -several books- were all on the law (Afshar, 1986: 80-84).  Mosaddeq’s last writings also reflected the outlook of a lawyer, not only as briefs for the court that tried him, but also in the rebuttal to political accusations against him, later published as a part of his Memoirs. In these tracts one is struck by the distinctive style and patterns characteristic of lawyers: logic prevails as distinguished from, say, rhetoric and pontificating not to mention sophistry; the focus is on the determining elements of the issue; relevancy is the guide for choosing arguments; and the tenor avoids hyperbole and ad hominem engagement.

            Compare his style with not just that of the prosecutor in his trial (Bozorgmehr,  N.d.: Book One, Thirty-eight to Forty-four, Book Two, Five, Seven, et passim), but with the style of his renegade aide Baqa’i (Baqa’i, 1985, passim), and the National Front theorist Khalil Maleki (Maleki, 1981, 464-498, et passim). Of all Mosaddeq’s aides, only Ali Shayegan, himself a Professor of Law at Tehran University, came close to Mosaddeq’s style. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 684-692) The Deputy Prime Minister Gholamhusayn Sadiqi’s style was, in contrast, that of a sociologist -“oosta-e (Prof.)” as Mossadeq fondly referred to him. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 628-45, Book Two, Thirteen-fourteen). 

            One might add prodigious writing habits to Mosaddeq’s list of traits associated with lawyers. Baqa’i, now a foe, would recall observing with wonder how Mosaddeq, an old man of 70, worked as hard as “four young men.” In October 1951, they would work together on preparing Iran’s case before the U.N. Security Council until late into the night, then at five the next morning Mosaddeq would call and wake Baqa’i up, giving him for review some 50 pages of writing which Mosaddeq had produced in the interim. (Baqa’i, 1985: 402-03) Mosaddeq’s lawyer at his trial, who observed Mosaddeq at work for several months, also marveled at his stamina for writing (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: Book One, Thirty-eight).

            It follows then that for Mossadeq, the rule of law would contain concrete “elements” -in lawyers’ vernacular- distinguishing it from other, albeit related, concepts. Far from being impervious to the old and evolving historical definition of the rule of law, Mossadeq followed its precepts in his conduct during his rule.

            A few examples should suffice here. In his trial Mosaddeq would point out that he was well informed about the international definition of the concept of “political crimes.”  He stressed that the term was not defined in the domestic law of any nation. He referred to the definition arrived at by the 1935 Conference of “the Jurists from the world” in Copenhagen as the updated source for his understanding of the concept. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 199) Mosaddeq would also repeatedly refer to Western European (British, Swedish, and Belgian) Constitutional Monarchies as the model for his ideas about the Constitutional principles for Iran. Indeed, Mosaddeq was eager to demonstrate his knowledge of the Western concepts related to the rule of law.

            Let me enumerate several elements that define this conception of the rule of law – its old and evolving universal definition. They are popular sovereignty, written constitution, separation of power, accountability, equality before the law, independent judiciary, and individual (or human) rights, economic as well as political. I will present here a brief overview of Prime Minister Mosaddeq’s record with respect to each.

Reformation of the Constitution

            Mosaddeq’s performance was shaped by historical circumstances discussed before. Aware and active since the inception of the Constitutional Movement, what Mossadeq attempted, as already indicated, was tantamount to a cleansing of the bad practices that had distorted what he envisioned was the original intent of the Movement, all the time taking pain to point out historical precedents.

            The 1906 Constitution, with its Amendments, was the written constitution in Mosaddeq’s model of the rule of law. The singular distortion of that Constitution was the actual rule by the king (hokoomat), as distinguished from a ceremonial function of the crown (saltanat) (Afshar, 1986: 349, 359).  In Mosaddeq’s view, this trend reached its apogee under Reza Shah and was pursued relentlessly by his son. “The Shah must reign ceremoniously (saltanat) and not rule (hokoomat) ” was so central in Mosaddeq’s constitutional vision that it became his emblematic call in the major events of his time: from the 16th Majlis vote of preference (ra’i-e tamayol)that installed Mossadeq as Prime Minister to his dismissal by the royal fiat which was meant to justify the 1953 coup that removed him from office, as well as the epochal clash of February 28, 1953 (noh-e esfand) which ended by Mossadeq refusing henceforth to meet face to face with the Shah. (Afshar, 1986: 267)

            Accountability (mas’ooliyyat), and avoidance of concentration of power in the king’s hand, were part and parcel, and the sustaining constitutional arguments of Mosaddeq’s position. Since in a monarchy such as Iran’s, the king could not be held accountable (masoo’l), Mossadeq explained, the Shah could not be vested with the powers to govern. His limited role was just to provide the traditional legitimacy of the crown (Afshar, 1986: 228). Mosaddeq would often remind his audience of the continuing relevance of these famous words from his speech in the 5th Majles against Reza Shah’s accumulation of powers: “Same person to be Shah, Chief of Ministers, Minister of War, Commander General of Armed Forces? Such a government does not exist even in Zanzibar. If they behead me and cut me up into small pieces, I will not vote for such a government” (Afshar, 1986: 227).

            Mosaddeq dismissed as incorrectly superficial, the Royalists’ references to Article (asl) 50 of the Amendments to the 1906 Constitution -which stated that the Shah was the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces-, and Article 51 -which stated that declaration of war and the making of peace agreements were the prerogatives of the Shah. He argued that those Articles should be interpreted and understood in conjunction with “completing” provisions of the Constitution such as, respectively, Article 45 -which made the enforcement of all royal Orders (faramin) conditional on the signature of the responsible Ministers-, and Article 56 -which made any expenditure (such as for war) subject to the approval of the Majles (Afshar, 1986: 261, 371-72).

            No issue in the Constitutional debate during the Mosaddeq years was more important than whether the Shah had the right to dismiss the Prime Minister. The very legitimacy of Iran’s regime after August 1953 has been challenged by Mosaddeq’s supporters who have maintained that Mosaddeq has continued to be Iran’s “legal Prime Minister” (nakhost vazir-e qanooni) despite his dismissal by the Royal order of August 16, 1953. Mosaddeq himself has provided the argument for this claim on sound legal grounds.

            First, Mosaddeq asserted, the Iranian Constitution of 1906 solely empowered the Majles to dismiss the Prime Minister, by a vote of no confidence. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.:  141, 773) Article 46 of the Amendments to the Constitution, which states that “The dismissal and appointment of Ministers is done according to the august farman (Order) of the Shah,” Mosaddeq explained, addresses the formality of the process, just as in the case of recording a real estate purchase contract; the actual parties are different. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 91, 141) Otherwise, the Constitution would not have any meaning because that is precisely the right which in the past “salateen estebdad (Arbitrary Rulers/Kings)” had claimed and exercised. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 91) He called attention to Article 46 of the Amendments, which states that “The person of the Shah is immune to mas’ooliyyat (accountability). In all matters the Ministers are accountable to the Majlis.” Mosaddeq asked, if the Shah could interfere in the affairs of the state while not being accountable, how could there still be a constitutional regime? As Mosaddeq explicated, the prerequisite to accountability is being subject to questioning and challenge. Such subjection, on the other hand, would be contrary to the prerequisite of the stability of the crown and, further, the hereditary right to succession which is not contingent on investigation for the qualification of the heir. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 91-92, 773)

            Not only Mosaddeq’s above interpretation of the provisions of Iran’s Constitution, regarding the issue of dismissal, was in agreement with the principles of a true constitutional regime (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 141), but secondly, Mosaddeq pointed out, Constitutional precedents in Iran supported it. Only two times in the past had a Shah attempted to dismiss a Prime Minister. Once, during the 3rd Majlis, Ahmad Shah dismissed Prime Minister N.Q. Samsam al-Saltaneh, but the latter rightly refused to accept and continued to consider himself the “legal Prime Minister.” During the 5th Majlis, Ahmad Shah again tried to dismiss the Prime Minster, Sardar Sepah (the future Reza Shah). This time Mosaddeq and some other protesting deputies succeeded in nullifying the Shah’s order, and Sardar Sepah continued as Prime Minister. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 772-73)

            Even when Majlis was not in session the Shah could not dismiss the Prime Minister, Mosaddeq maintained, because the Constitution does not provide any basis for such an exception to that governing principle. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 144) In his own special case, Mosaddeq argued, because of the legislative Powers (ekhtiyarat) which the Majlis had bestowed on his person as Prime Minister, he could not be dismissed before those Powers were first terminated and then the Majlis voted no confidence in him. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 145)

            Third, Mosaddeq’ continued, the “good” Iranian precedent on the issue of the right to dismiss the Prime Minister was in full accord with the precedent of the Belgium Constitution on which Iran’s Article 46 was modeled. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 599) Finally, Mosaddeq posited, this position was based on the customs and precedents of other constitutional regimes. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 94)          

The Politics of Reformation

            The key in containing the Shah’s political ambitions, as Mossadeq saw it, was curbing his influence with the armed forces. Mosaddeq feared the armed forces as virtually the only instrument capable of overthrowing him. His efforts to contain that threat took the form of replacing the key commanders with men less hostile to himself, and reforming the military justice system which had been used effectively to suppress political opponents of the Shah (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 146-47).

            Mosaddeq could not find many commanders who would choose his side in confrontation with the Shah (Afshar, 1986: 271-72, 371, 380; Abrahamian, 1982:273, 278-79).  Axiomatic was his appointment of General Mohammad Daftary as both the Chief of Police and the Martial Law Administrator of Tehran on the critical day of August 19, 1953. That Daftary was a relative only showed how few officers Mossadeq had confidence in. Two days after his appointment, General Daftary also betrayed him by playing an active role in neutralizing the single battalion that came to defend Mossadeq (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 30, 41). Unbeknownst to Mosaddeq, four days earlier, Daftary had been appointed as the Chief of Police by the coup leader General Fazlollah Zahedi (Kashani, 2003: 16-17).

            Mosaddeq’s chief of staff, General Taghi Riyahi, had been hardly enthusiastic in carrying out his duties toward Mosaddeq (Bozorgmehr, 1986: 30), and reportedly believed that the Shah should control the armed forces (Fardoost, 1991:174). On August 19, 1953, there were only 70 to 80 soldiers assigned to defend Mosaddeq’s house, even though it had been attacked several times in the past and had been under constant threat. In contrast, the Shah’s palace, out of harm in the Saadabad suburb of Tehran, was assigned more than 1,000 soldiers and 4 tanks. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 439)

            Mossadeq professed loyalty to the Shah (Afshar, 1986: 260; Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 28) while insisting that he should be a ceremonial figure.  As the Minister of Defense, Mosaddeq was careful to consult with a special board of three Generals appointed by the Shah for that purpose. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 439) Mosaddeq would stress repeatedly that he swore allegiance to the person of this Shah -as deputy to the 14th Majlis- whereas he had refused to do so for his father, Reza Shah (Afshar, 1986: 188, 211). There is no persuasive evidence that Mossadeq intended to establish a republic or any other form of government in place of constitutional monarchy, or that he wanted to change the dynasty, or that he wanted to replace the incumbent Shah with another Pahlavi.

            After the aborted Royal coup of August 15, many pro-Mosaddeq newspapers condemned the Shah’s action and called for his removal. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 291, 295-96; mal 514-15) Mosaddeq, however, would maintain that this was not his position. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 299,479) The Tehran radio continued to play the Royal national anthem. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 570). The widely talked about replacement of the name of the Shah with the word Iran in the morning prayer at the military bases at this time was caused by the need to avoid clashes between the pro and anti-Shah, mostly Tudeh, officers. As one of the 100 conscript officers then stationed in Tehran has told me, nearly 70 of his fellow officers were Tudeh sympathizers -he was not one.  Mosaddeq has maintained that after August 15, he wanted to ask the Shah to return immediately, or alternatively appoint a Regency Council, and if the Shah did neither, then Mosaddeq would establish the Council by other methods. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 637-40)

            Mossadeq believed that constitutional monarchy was the best hope for Iran at that particular stage of its development. He rejected the idea that only a republican form could guarantee democracy. There were republican regimes that were dictatorial, he pointed out, and constitutional monarchies that were democratic. (Afshar, 1986: 273) This position was not incompatible with the view expressed in Mosaddeq’s trial by Sadiqi who implicitly allowed for change in the future at a different stage of Iran’s development. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 637, 640) As another of Mosaddeq’s close advisors on those days, Ahmad Nariman, expressed it, “at present … our conditions have not yet become such that people could freely elect their own deputies.” How could they then “elect a president every 4 years” (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 593)

            Indeed, in a country with a long tradition of monarchy, Mossadeq valued the Shah’s support (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 27). While he refused to recognize the 1949 Constitutional Assembly’s grant to the Shah of the right to dissolve the Majles (Afshar, 1986: 270) Mosaddeq considered it important to obtain the Shah’s confirmation of the results of the August 1953 referendum dissolving the 17th Majlis and the Royal order for holding the election for the 18th Majlis. (Afshar, 1986: 201) He formally asked for these in his August 13 meeting with the Shah’s intermediary, Acting Court Minister Abolqasem Amini (Kashani, 2003: 13). As one of Mosaddeq’s close advisors on the days immediately after the August 15, 1953 coup would state, “monarchy is the symbol and sign of the nation.” (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 593)

Majlis and Popular Sovereignty

            The parliament was another focal point in Mosaddeq’s reformation of the Constitution. His major achievements here included the practical elimination of the Senate, a significant product of the Constitutional Assembly of May 1949, itself denigrated by Mosaddeq because it had been convened in an atmosphere of abnormal sympathy for the Shah in the aftermath of an assassination attempt on his life. A bill approved by the rival lower house, the Majlis, now reduced the Senate’s term from 6 to 2 years. This extinguished the existing Senate session, one-half of whose members were directly appointed by the Shah and the other half, in effect, indirectly chosen by him (Baqa’i, 1985: 252-3). There was no plan to hold elections for a new session of the Senate.  

            As Mossadeq saw it, popular sovereignty meant that political power was vested in a Majlis that truly represented the people. This required free elections: free from the controlling influence of the Court, the Armed Forces, and the big land owners (Afshar, 1986: 210; Baqa’i, 1985: 251-52). All of said groups, Mossadeq often declared, were either the willing or the intimidated agents of a single foreign power, Britain.  The solution to this problem was to eliminate the primary motive for Britain’s interference in Iran’s domestic politics by denying it any right in Iran’s oil other than that of an honest customer (Afshar, 1986: 182, 273, 365). [1] Even this, of course, would not immediately ensure free elections. 

            Using his legislative Powers Mosaddeq enacted reformed laws for elections at the local levels which were implemented. The more important new laws for national elections, however, were signed by him in January 1953 but could not be put to use before the fall of his government (Kashani, 2003:7).

            Based on his experience with the 17th Majlis, Mossadeq believed that for some time to come only in Tehran, and perhaps a few other major urban centers could a semblance of free elections be conducted. In Mosaddeq’s view, such a rump Majlis would not contradict the spirit of the Constitution. The First Majlis, which for him set a model for productivity and honest service to the nation (Bozorgmehr, N.d. 122-23), was also comprised solely of deputies from Tehran and very few other cities.

            What was more, only a limited enfranchisement of the “informed (fahmideh)” (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 195) male electorate was Mosaddeq’s practical goal. Mosaddeq’s concept of “informed” was broader than intelligentsia (roshanfekr) in that it was not confined to the more highly educated. On the other hand, Mossadeq accepted the exclusion of women as a necessary concession to avoid the intolerable ire of the clergy (Abrahamian, 1882: 275-76).

            A thus circumscribed Majlis could yet prove to be an obstacle in Mosaddeq’s plans. His majority in the 17th Majlis was eroded when some of the deputies he had endorsed turned against him. This was not surprising, Mosaddeq explained, as it would take several cycles of elections for the “faithful and principled” candidates to be identified (Afshar, 1986:202, note 2, 258).

            Mosaddeq proved correct in believing that the new majority in the 17th Majlis that opposed him did not have a viable constituency as popular opposition to him. They were able, however, to block crucial measures -including the one by a Commission that resolved the constitutional disputes with the Shah in Mosaddeq’s favor (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 94; Baqa’i, 1985: 414-15; Afshar, 1986: 261)-, and to give sanctuary in the Majlis to Mosaddeq’s potent challengers such as General Fazlollah Zahedi. (Afshar, 1986: 190 note 4)

            Facing a non-cooperative 17th Majlis, Mossadeq chose two devices to circumvent it in implementing his reformation of the Constitution: delegated legislative powers and popular referendum. Both were extraordinary but, arguably, not unconstitutional. Both were used solely to promote what Mossadeq believed was the true spirit of the Constitution. The matter of the extraordinary legislative Powers (ekhtiyarat) has already been discussed. Three sets of laws which Mossadeq enacted under those Powers are especially noteworthy for their intended long term effects on the jurisprudence of Iran’s constitutionalism. One set was the laws overhauling the judiciary, a core value of the Constitutional Movement. As Mosaddeq’s Minister of Justice would say later: “In the judiciary not only was there bribery, no one’s namoos (integrity) was safe; people’s heysiyat (reputation) was in danger. I recruited men who … had long lamented (this situation) so that I may” serve the public by reforming it (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 527; Afshar, 1986: 281; Ladjevardi, 1988: 90). The second set were laws abolishing special courts, including the military special courts with jurisdiction over civilians, in order to ensure equality before the law (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 83). The third set were the laws expanding individual economic rights and social welfare, especially workers’ rights and farmers’ share of the crop (Afshar, 1986: 282-84; Ladjevardi, 1988: 80-81). [2]

            The delegation of legislative powers to the executive branch by the Majlis was not without precedent, but in the past Mossadeq had vigorously opposed it as against the Constitution. He had asserted correctly that Majles deputies did not have the power to delegate their power to legislate to anyone, and especially not to the executive branch as Article 28 of the Constitution dictated separation of powers (Baqa’i, 1985: 466). Acknowledging that history, Mosaddeq now argued that extraordinary circumstances justified the grant of these legislative powers to him “in accord with the spirit of the Constitution, because the Constitution is for the country, not (the reverse,) the country for the Constitution” (Afshar, 1986: 250-51; Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 327). Indeed, while the Constitutional principle of separation of powers was thus suspended, the Prime Minister used his temporary legislative authority to pass laws that transferred power “from the Royal Court, the military, and the privileged  elite, not to Mosaddeq but, in keeping with the Constitution, to the judiciary, local councils, professional associations and the public” (Ladjevardi, 1988: 88-89).

            Mosaddeq’s use of popular referendum to dissolve the 17th Majlis was a device that was unique. The Constitution did not explicitly bar it. After Mosaddeq’s fall, several of his close allies claimed that they had expressed to him their opposition to the referendum. (Katouzian, 1981: 102-104; Kashani, 2003: 10) The argument offered in support of this opposition is that Mosaddeq could still retain the support of the majority of the deputies and with the 17th Majlis in session he could have rallied popular support against a coup. (Katouzian, 1981: 103; Kashani, 2003: 10) This would not persuade Mosaddeq because it was not supported by facts. Mossadeq was convinced that he would be voted out by the Majles. (Afshar, 1986: 268; Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 124, 125) Nor could Mosaddeq allow the prevention of the quorum by deputies friendly to him to last long because it would have caused “people to turn against us.”  (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 126)

            Mosaddeq talked about the referendum with “some of the supporting deputies and some ministers and they too did not see a solution other than this; they all treated this view with agreement. I proposed the referendum to the cabinet of Ministers and they approved it.” (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 126) Indeed, the only ally of Mosaddeq who spoke on this issue publicly immediately after Mosaddeq’s fall, in the court that tried him, Majlis deputy Ahmad Razavi, defended the referendum: “No Majles could be dissolved except according to the Constitution. However, relying on referendum is a new matter which should not be dismissed absolutely.” (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 664)

            The only critical comment about referendum which Mosaddeq considered worthy of commenting on in his Memories was that of Abdollah Moazzemi, who was not an ally. This was not so much because Moazzemi was then the President of the Majles as because, Mosaddeq pointed out, he was “a doctor of law and Professor of the University”.  Mossadeq listened to Moazzemi’s argument but rejected its application of the principle of the supremacy of the Majles by reasoning that the 17th Majles was “dependent on foreign powers” (Afshar, 1986: 190 note 4, 254).

            The argument that the referendum was not unconstitutional rested on two facts: its operational consequence had in effect been achieved by the resignation of two-thirds of the deputies; the Majlis was thus deprived of the necessary quorum, and ceased to convene after July 9, 1953 (Baqa’i, 1985: 405). Secondly, the resignations were tantamount to a Majlis vote for dissolution; the referendum only confirmed it by popular votes.


            As a popular endorsement, the referendum was of special value to Mossadeq. It “proved that the nation agreed with the government,” Mosaddeq said (Afshar : 270) He treated the dispute over the dissolution of the Majlis -with the reluctant majority of the deputies and the Shah- as a matter that should be put before the nation for a vote. Indeed, he asserted that this was the only way to resolve that issue (Afshar, 1986: 269-70) In a speech to the nation, he argued: “The People of Iran -and no one else- has the right on this issue. For it is the people of Iran who brought into existence our fundamental laws, our Constitution, our parliament and our cabinet system. We must remember that laws were created for the people; and not the people for the laws” (Abrahamian, 1982: 274). In that vein, Mosaddeq called the referendum a “principle of liberty and democracy. “ (Afshar, 1986: 255)

            There were flaws in the manner the referendum was held. The main criticism was that there were two distinct places for voting, one for those favoring referendum and the other against it. (Ladjevardi, 1988: 88) Mosaddeq explained that the separation was for security reasons -to avoid clashes between opposing groups. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 664) More important, he countered that the election was supervised by the highest ranking judges; that unlike the past there was no ballot box stuffing by uninformed voters brought to the polls by big land owners as, instead, people went to the polls informed; and that the distance between polling places and the short time of polling -three hours- were especially designed to prevent any potential violators from voting more than once.(Afshar, 1986: 203-04, 255) As a close aide concluded, the voting in the referendum was the “most free” election possible in a country such as Iran (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 663).

            The referendum produced by far the largest number of votes that had ever been cast in Iran. More than 2 million supported Mosaddeq’s position. Barely 100,000 votes were cast against the dissolution of the Majlis. The highest number of votes that had ever been collected in any past election in Iran was about 1,400,000 (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 24; Abrahamian, 1982: 274). That was for the whole country, a fact that Mosaddeq used to emphasize the magnitude of the greater number of votes in the referendum which was held only in Tehran and a few other cities -thereby he also deflected another criticism concerning the geographic limitation of the referendum (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 24).

            Mossadeq clearly did not intend to govern by referendums; he called for immediate royal Order to hold elections for the 18th Majlis (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 55, 664; Kashani, 2003: 13). Going directly to the people, however, was for Mossadeq a recurrent and effective resort against his opponents. The referendum is the sole concrete quantified record that Mosaddeq’s popularity went beyond Tehran. His past electoral successes in Tehran were the foundation of his power as a popular leader. In the three times that Mossadeq could stand as a candidate from Tehran in the free elections after the fall of Reza Shah in 1941, every time he won more votes than any other candidate in the country. These were the elections for the 14th and 16th Majlis and the first round of the elections for the Senate (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: Book One, Fourteen). A member of a tiny minority in the Majlis (in both the 14th and the 16th), Mossadeq wielded disproportionately significant power because of his actively demonstrative popular support that cowed the other deputies (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 126; Abrahamian, 1982:267) and the Shah.

            Mosaddeq has maintained that the successes of his government were due to the people’s public expression of support. (Afshar, 1986: 231; 271; 279) Opportune as huge public gatherings were for Mossadeq, he also endorsed them as the manifestation of the freedom of assembly promised by the Constitution. [3] Furthermore, he argued that empowering people by politicizing them was the best way to secure Iran’s independence, because foreign powers could manipulate and easily remove a king -as they did with Ahmad Shah and Reza Shah-, but could not do so to a whole nation that is politically aware (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 195). That was why Mosaddeq would not deny participation in street meetings to the supporters of the outlawed Tudeh Party (Afshar, 1986: 289, 369; Abrahamian, 1982:319; Baga’i, 1958; 412). For the same reasons, Mossadeq would not deny them -or indeed his rightist opponents- the right to publish newspapers, or to employ other peaceful means in their exercise of the right of free expression (Afshar, 1986: 106, 369, 374). As a model of the protector of the constitutional right of free expression, upon assuming the office of Prime Minister, Mossadeq announced that no one would be prosecuted for criticizing him (Afshar, 1986:249, 374). In another emblematic gesture, the next day, Mossadeq visited the jail that housed political prisoners and declared that the place had been the “slaughterhouse” of many enlightened and free thinking people (The New York Times, 9 July 1953, 1993: 447).

            Excesses were inevitable in an underdeveloped civil society unaccustomed to freedom. Critics charged that Mosaddeq’s democracy was in fact disorder and chaos (harj-o marj). Mosaddeq’s restrictive measures in response were mostly aimed at curbing the Tudeh supporters.  He ordered that their radical speeches or slogans not be allowed in street public meetings; and he enacted a short term public security law banning strikes and civil disorder that might be instigated by them. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 544, 574; Ladjevardi, 1988: 78-80, 89)

            Mossadeq had a healthy fear of a different group, the mercenary mob employed by the Shah and Mosaddeq’s conservative opponents that almost succeeded in killing him on February 28, 1953 (noh-e esfand) as he left an audience with the Shah (Afshar, 1986: 185, 215-17, 266-67, and that again led the successful attack on his house on August 19, 1953 (Afshar, 1986: 193, 337). After noh-e esfand, Mosaddeq made public the Shah’s privately expressed regret that Mosaddeq that day had escaped that mob’s clutch: “morq az qafas parid (the bird flew the coop)” (Afshar, 1986: 215; Katouzian, 1981: 100). About August 19, Mosaddeq has said, that day money -$390,000 which was from a check drawn by Edward Donally of the American Point Four Office in Tehran- was distributed among these “low lives and traitors” including “religious leaders, police chiefs, army officers and looters” (Afshar, 1986: 193, 337-38; Katouzian, 1981:105).

            Curiously, on both those days, the mob was led by the same street tough, Shaaban Jafari. That man had been arrested but released in the interval (Afshar, 1986: 215; Katouzian, 1981: 100,101, 105; Fardoost, 1991: 182) probably as much because of Mosaddeq’s observance of the due process of law as for his government’s inefficient administration of the criminal justice system. This combination was not unlike how Mosaddeq’s government dealt with the case of his opponents’ murder of his National Police Chief General Mahmoud Afshartoos, or with the matter of the prosecution of the main target of the popular uprising of seey-e tir, former Prime Minister Qavam (Katouzian, 1999:169; Baqa’i, 1985: 316-17). Mosaddeq believed that according to Article 69 of the Amendment to Constitution, only the country’s highest court sitting as a whole (majma’ omoomi divan-e keshvar) could try former Ministers. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 139) While populism was the main characteristic of Mosaddeq’s statecraft, he practiced it within legal bounds. 

            Mossadeq ignored as ineffective the threat by Baqa’i and Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani to mobilize popular opposition to him. He would contemptuously recall that “some” of these men did not have “even 100 votes” before joining him in the National Front which got them elected as Majles deputies. (Afshar, 1986:253) He regarded the far better organized Tudeh followers as not a serious threat either since, as he said, they did not have guns and canons (toop va tofag) (Afshar, 1986: 237, 272). Mossadeq interpreted the uncertainties created in Russia by Stalin’s death as further diminishing any threat from the Tudeh party. Conversely, he now worried more that the Tudeh would be used by Britain as agent provocateurs or as disguised agents -“the oil Tudeh (tudeh nafti)” -of the British oil interests (Afshar, 1986: 272; Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 573; Baqa’i, 1985: 295-96).          

            Yet, Mossadeq was confident that he would prevail in his dealings with the West (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 28). Good weather had helped him in stabilizing the economy at a sustenance level acceptable by the people who proved this in their referendum votes (Afshar, 1986: 235-37). Mosaddeq’s fear was correctly focused on the threat from the armed forces led by the Shah. His hope was that an intimidated Shah would not dare move against him (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 24-25, 29, 94, 130; Afshar, 1986: 194).  The Shah’s conduct in the course of the August 1953 coup -demonstrating reluctance, fear, and disbelief in the eventual success- almost proved Mossadeq right.

Taking Stock

            The pathology of Prime Minister Mosaddeq’s defeat is a rewarding study of the defeat of the secular liberals’ best and last attempt at the reformation of Iran’s Constitutionalism. Mossadeq accused the overwhelming majority of Iran’s political elite (rejal) of being selfish to the extent of accepting foreign assistance, even domination, against the interest of the nation (Afshar, 1986: 246-47, 253, 341).  This distrust may explain Mosaddeq’s autocratic decision-making (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 13, 111, Katouzian, 1981: 94).  Mosaddeq’s “stature” helped in providing the environment for his autocracy. A future foe, Baqa’i would recall how the 15th Majlis deputies who began opposition to the British oil company concluded that Mosaddeq was the only person with the stature to lead their popular movement; and how Ali Zohari, whose interpellation later as a 17th Majlis deputy would threaten the fall of Mosaddeq’s government, would declare that Mosaddeq was like “the Iranian flag; no matter how many times they hit our head with this flag we still would respect him” (Baga’i, 1985: 366).  Khalil Maleki is reported to have warned Mosaddeq that his decision to hold the referendum was the path to hell (jahannam) but that, nonetheless, his devotion to Mosaddeq was such that he would follow him to hell. (Katouzian, 1981:  103-104) Mosaddeq’s aides called him by many titles, including pishvay-e mellat (the Leader of the Nation), but the one they used commonly was the simple and most descriptive aqa (Master). Ali Shayegan would later recall, for a small group of us, how on the night of August 19, 1953 -sitting in the room to which he had fled with aqa- he expressed disappointment at the turn of events: “bad shod (misfortune has fallen)!” Mosaddeq’s response was defiant: “No, the alternative was worse.” Shayegan indicated submission -once again- to Mosaddeq’s position; as though summing up, he told us: “rafteem, rafteem ta sare-moon be sang khord (we proceeded/followed him, we proceeded/followed him, until our heads hit the rock).”

            Even if he did not always follow advice, Mossadeq was an attentive and good listener (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: Book One, Thirty-nine). He retained the counsel of most of the twenty-man original National Front, organized in October 1949 when they staged a sit-in at the Royal Court to protest the irregularities of the on-going elections for the 16th Majlis (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 476; Afshar, 1986: 245-46; Baga’i, 1985: 250). Of these, two were increasingly favored: Hosayn Fatemi (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 15), and Ali Shayegan. Mossadeq especially appreciated Fatemi’s “political instinct (shamm-e siasi) (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 477)

            Mosaddeq claimed that he did not attempt to institutionalize his popular support because his forming a political party would alarm the Shah (Afshar, 1986: 238). The biggest National Front party, Baqa’i’s hezb-e zahmatkeshan (Toilers Party) was formed in 1952 with the specific purpose of competing with the Tudeh Party (Baqa’i, 1985: 261, 290). It boasted of preventing Tudeh meetings by thugs armed with “choop va chomaq (stick and mace)” (Baqa’i, 1985: 312). It was soon fractured and rendered ineffective by the withdrawal of the more peaceable followers of Khalil Maleki who formed another party, nirooy-e sevvom (Third Force). Baqa’i turned against Mosaddeq. The new group, which advocated a home-grown liberal socialism (Katouzian, 1999: 95-112) -and at times radical departure from the Constitution (Baga’i, 1985: 472) – did not amount to much until noh-e esfand. Only then, in March 1953, did Mosaddeq reportedly take notice of them since one of their leaders, Jalal al-i Ahmad, led the crowd that confronted the anti-Mosaddeq crowd. Al-i Ahmad, a writer, was hardly a match for Shaaban Jafari who led the opposition and was injured in the melee (Katouzian, 1981: 101-102).

            Professor Rouhollah Ramazani has delved into the Iranian culture to find “factionalism (tafraqeh)” as the proximate cause of Prime Minister Mossadeq’s failure. In Sadeq Hedayat’s popular novel, Haji aqa, Ramazani sees the critical conflict portrayed as between the intelligentsia (roshanfekran) and the traditional merchants of the bazaar. Jalal Al-i Ahmad, on the other hand, Ramazani discovers, believed that the key problem was the secular intelligentsia’s failure to win over the religious group (Ramazani, 1988:314-21). This theme is echoed in Abrahamian’s analysis of the split between the “traditional” (religious) class and the “modern middle class” in the second year of Mosaddeq’s government (Abrahamian, 1982: 274-75, 278). This view is tempting as it establishes a historical parallel with the earlier experience of the Constitutional Revolution. (Abrahamian, 1982: 278) However, it contradicts the fact that the major organizers of the big pro-Mosaddeq street meeting of August 15, 1953 were asnaf (guilds of merchants) (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 676).

            Neither Katouzian nor Professor Shahrokh Akhavi show enthusiasm for attributing much to religious opposition in Prime Minister Mosaddeq’s failure. They point out the quietism of the main religious figures; the failure of the main political clergy Kashani to propose any program other than mere negativism of opposition -to the British, to Ahmad Qavam (Afshar, 1986:251), to Mossadeq-; and the fact that Mossadeq retained the support of influential lower-ranked political clerics in the Majles and outside, including Mahmoud Taleqani, as well as some higher ranking clerics, especially the two Zanjani brothers, Abul Fazl and Reza (Katouzian, 1999:170-174 ; Akhavi, 1988:114-15).

            Mossadeq, of course, was not immune to attacks on religious grounds.  The charge of apostasy (takfir) against Mossadeq was an old recurrent practice based on an intentional misinterpretation of a reference to the Prophet in his University thesis in French (on Divorce in Islamic Law) (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 369; Abrahamian, 1982:277). Kashani issued a fatva, declaring that participation in the referendum was haram (a religiously forbidden act) (Kashani, 2003:12). Fear of Islamist terrorists – who in the past had attacked and wounded his aide, Fatemi (Abrahamian, 1982:268)- moved Mossadeq in his trial court to publicly assert his piety. He declared that not only was he a believer but that every week he held rozeh (public religious services) in his house. Mossadeq, however, was a cultural Muslim, like most secularist Iranians. Indeed, his comments in the court were pointedly directed to the cultural Islamic symbols helpful to his campaign: he invoked the seyyed-o shohada (Lord of the Martyrs) Imam Hosayn as his model for his opposition to injustice and the Prophet as the model for steadfastness (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 413).

            Prime Minister Mossadeq was not able to fully utilize the Tudeh supporters in what was essentially a common secular humanist movement. They helped him, especially by swelling the number of those attending public demonstrations against his opponents. (Kashani, 2003: 7, 8, 13; Baga’i, 1985: 412; Abrahamian, 1982:319, 320-21) However, Mosaddeq spurned the Tudeh’s offer of active cooperation made after seey-e tir and again in the fateful days of August 1953. (Kashani, 2003:16; Baga’i, 1985: 295, 312; Abrahamian, 1982:324-25; Afshar, 1986: 371) In this, Mosaddeq operated under several restrictions. He was mindful of adverse reaction by the Shah. Up to the very end this was an issue Mosaddeq had to contend with. His last discussion with the Shah, just days before the August 1953 coup, was on how to deal with the Tudeh “threat.” The acting Court Minister came to meet Mosaddeq, carrying the Shah’s proposal for a crackdown. Mosaddeq disagreed; his solution was to reduce discontent that gave rise to the Tudeh’s popularity. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 578) Mossadeq never conceded the Tudeh’s claim that it had a hold on Iranian intelligentsia. (Afshar, 1986: 189) He denigrated the Tudeh leaders as agents of either Russia or Britain. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 573) Many Tudeh leaders returned the compliment by attacking Mossadeq’s aristocratic and land owning background and his solicitation of American support. As Mosaddeq saw it the Tudeh had no choice but to support him even while he refused to acknowledge them; as the Tudeh saw it, it could not do so without coordination with a willing Mosaddeq and his supporters (Abrahamian, 1982: 325;).

            Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini was not a factor in those years. Only later would he refer to Mossadeq contemptuously as “on mard-e melli (that nationalist man)” (Akhavi, 1988:115). Mosaddeq’s secular followers, however, regarded that appellation which was meant to be disparaging as a badge of honor. To them Mossadeq was not just a nationalist, but a person who believed in popular sovereignty (Katouzian, 1981: 83, 87; Entesharat-e Mosaddeq, 1975: passim).  Mohammad Khatami has argued that without the religious groups, Iran could not achieve independence (Khatami, 198-200; Mansoorian, 2004). The secularists could argue that even with independence, under the current Islamic regime, liberty is still missing -and that Liberty, subsuming Independence as a prerequisite- is the ultimate goal of the Iranian Constitutionalism.


[1]   Mosaddeq maintained that elections to the First Majlis was free; that despite “interferences” the majority of deputies to the Second and Third sessions of the Majlis were “patriots and dedicated;” that in the Fourth to the Sixth sessions of the Majlis, with the exception of some deputies from Tehran, the deputies were all elected with the approval of Britain and the British Oil Company, or at least because they did not oppose them. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 122-23) During Reza Shah’s reign, he chose the deputies whose role was to merely rubber stamp his orders; and he obeyed Britain. Only after the fall of Reza Shah’s dictatorship, Mosaddeq stated, did the situation in the Majlis return to the pre-dictatorship era, allowing some deputies to express their opinions. (Bozorgmehr, N.d.: 120) The claim that one’s political opponent was a British agent was a part of the widely held popular belief that almost everything in Iran took place at the order of Britain – memorialized in the book, Da’ee-jon napelon (Uncle Napoleon). Accordingly, the supporters of the Shah and Kashani each have routinely called Prime Minister Mosaddeq an agent of Britain. (Fardoost, 1991: 169; Kashani, 2003:5, note 8, 10, 14, 18)

[2] The regime that was established after the fall of Mosaddeq declared all the bills approved by him unconstitutional, and hence null and void. Some, however, proved too popular to be totally disregarded. Revised and truncated versions of them were reinstated.  (Ladjevardi, 1988: 89-90)

[3] October 22nd 1951 was a fine day on this campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Prime Minister Mossadeq had come to visit Philadelphia, upon finishing his presentation of Iran’s case before the United Nations’ Security Council in New York. His host was an Iranian student, a senior at Penn. “What would you like to do, Your Excellency Mr. Prime Minister,” the student asked. Mosaddeq’s schedule allowed only one day in Philadelphia. He said: I want to go to a park and address the people of Philadelphia. The student was puzzled. Mossadeq had in mind the Hyde Park corner in London. In the Philadelphia park, Mossadeq stood on some sort of a makeshift soapbox and talked about Iran’s grievances against the British oil company. A dozen people gathered around, the student later told me. They were bewildered as Mossadeq spoke first in French and then in Persian, gesticulating for emphasis. His audience did not comprehend him. Mossadeq was content, however. He spoke to the people, he explained to his host, as though at some existential level it mattered. Indeed, the student, carried away, later told me, “I could see the imprint of Mosaddeq’s ardent conviction on the faces of his audience.” More to the point, Mossadeq had connected to the student, Kuros, like many other Iranians.


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This article entitled Reformation in Iranian Constitutionalism, 1951-53; The Rule of Law and the politics of nationalism was presented at the “Commemorating the Constitution, a University of Pennsylvania and the University of Oxford conference in Philadelphia, March 23-24, 2006.

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