The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

50 Years ago, Mossadeq Was Overthrown

Sep 8, 2003

The following is excerpted from an article in the September 4 issue of Lutte Ouvrière [Workers Struggle], newspaper of the French Trotskyist organization of the same name.

On August 19, 1953, the Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq, was overthrown in a coup d’etat organized by the U.S. The CIA and those around the shah (the king of Iran) carried out the coup in order to break Mossadeq’s attempt to escape the greed of the international oil companies.

The oil game

Fourth largest producer of oil in the world, Iran was long a target for the imperialists. From the beginning of the 20th century, Great Britain had exploited the oil of Iran. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was a veritable state within a state, an extension of Great Britain which itself had occupied parts of Iran since World War II.

At the end of April 1951, Mossadeq was named prime minister under the pressure of demonstrations in the street. He had put together a diverse group of nationalists into a coalition called the National Front which found support both from the popular masses and from representatives of the Islamic religion. Mossadeq proposed a measure, which parliament voted, to nationalize Iran’s oil. The Iranian National Petroleum Company was created. British technicians who refused to work for it were expelled from the country in September. In October, the British closed a refinery in Abadan, one of the most important in the world, and organized a blockade against the sale of Iranian crude oil. After a little while, the American oil companies joined in, showing their solidarity with the British actions.

Mossadeq’s response was "Better to be independent and produce only a ton of oil each year than to produce 36 million tons and be slaves of England." His words played to considerable popular support, shown by a number of demonstrations. There were similar situations elsewhere in the Middle East. For example in July 1952, nationalist Egyptian army officers, including Nasser, overthrew the king of Egypt, who was the personification of corruption and of submission to the English imperialists.

The U.S. intervention

Iran was also in the midst of an economic crisis in 1952: the nationalized oil company couldn’t sell its oil on the world market. The middle classes in the bazaars and the big landowners were withdrawing their support from Mossadeq, who also faced a hostile American government under the Eisenhower administration. The shah dismissed Mossadeq in July of that year, but took him back a few days later under pressure from the National Front, the religious leaders and demonstrations in the streets. The situation was becoming too unstable in the eyes of the Western powers.

The U.S. government decided to overthrow Mossadeq. The CIA came up with a plan, supported by the British secret service. A candidate was found to carry out the plan: a General Zahedi, who had attempted a failed coup to overthrow the government at the start of 1953. Pouring in hundreds of millions of dollars to buy military, religious, and parliamentary support, as well as demonstrators hostile to Mossadeq, the American government succeeded in rallying forces for the shah, who had fled to Rome. On the 19th of August, these supporters of the king, with the police behind them, held demonstrations to bring back the shah. The shah returned, Mossadeq fled. He was condemned to death, but after three years in prison he was assigned to home detention until 1967. The Toudah, the Iranian Communist Party, had not called very clearly for resistance to the coup d’etat. It was harshly repressed, its militants and a large number of workers were persecuted.

The imperialist powers had reestablished their control. In 1954 a consortium was set up, in which the American oil companies controlled 40% of Iranian oil, the English oil companies controlled another 40%; the French oil companies got 6%. The Iranian National Oil Company got to sign the accord with the consortium.

The attempt by Mossadeq to lighten the imperialist guardianship of Iran failed. The population, which had hoped under Mossadeq to see an improvement in their conditions of life, were forced to submit to the dictatorship of the shah for the next 30 years.