In the polarized world of Iranian politics, differences can be acrimonious. Few issues attract as much controversy as the country’s political development and its recurrent attempts for democratization. Even academic scholars are often strongly committed to one camp or the other. So it’s significant that scholars from many different quarters have expressed respect for sociologist Misagh Parsa’s latest book Democracy in Iran: Why It Failed and How It Might Succeed, published in November 2016.
Not shying away from bold conclusions, the Dartmouth College professor doesn’t have much time for those who pin their hopes on a gradual democratization of the Islamic Republic. “For Iran to democratize,” he says, “the options are narrowing to a single path: another revolution.”
It is therefore no surprise that anti-Tehran scholars such as Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takyeh have praised the book, with Takyeh calling it “easily the most important work in English on the Islamic Republic since the revolution.” Takyeh also sees it as “one of the most important books published about the Islamic Republic since its inception” and praises Parsa’s “mastery of an impressive range of sources, his elegant writing style and his intellectual honesty.”
But scholars known for more left-leaning views have also praised the book. University of Michigan’s Juan Cole speaks glowingly of Parsa’s decades of work on social movements in Iran and has called the book a “must read” for those who want to understand contemporary Iran “as opposed to the fantasies constructed by think thanks and opinion page editors inside the Beltway.” Ervand Abrahamian, a towering figure among historians of modern Iran, calls the book “the first work that focuses on the [democratization] movement as a social movement, with a basis in the larger society.”
IranWire talked to Professor Parsa, and asked him about his take on the 1953 coup and its role in the struggle for democracy in Iran. In a telephone interview, he shared his views on how the coup shaped Iran’s history and helped make Iran what it is today, all the while demonstrating the patience and humility for which he has become known.
Your most recent book looks at Iran’s attempt at democratization. When you look back to the 1953 coup, how significant do you think it was for the country’s subsequent development?
It was an important development. The country had been democratic or relatively democratic from 1941, when it was invaded by Great Britain, the US and the Soviet Union. Democracy had been spreading by a blossoming of political parties and publications and expansion of political rights and civil liberties. From 1951 to 1953, when Dr Mossadegh was in office, political repression had declined and political mobilization had expanded. All those developments, with some exceptions, were positive.
The coup damaged Iran’s political process and put the liberals in a position of defense and repression, and ended up in the establishment of Savak in 1957, putting Mossadegh on trial and later house arrest. It produced negative consequences for Iran’s political development.
But Iran also had opportunities to move in a democratic direction. President Eisenhower, at the end of his second term, talked about democracy and Iran’s political development. When President Kennedy took office, he pressed Iran to liberalize and start a land reform. Things of that sort could have helped Iran develop in the direction of a democracy. But Iranian political organizations, particularly the liberal National Front, were divided over their approaches to Dr Amini, who was prime minister in the early 1960s. They didn’t support a political process that would have expanded political freedoms, although Amini was in favor of it. National Front was divided. Some factions were completely against Amini and his American-sponsored rule. Some were for reforms but they missed that opportunity to press the shah to pursue the democratic process. When President Kennedy was assassinated, the shah took over and launched what he called the White Revolution. He ended up imposing greater censorship and a decline in political opening and ended up becoming more repressive politically by the time we approached the end of the 1960s. So all these problems existed that were not related to the coup.
Then came President Nixon, who had no interest in pressing Iran toward democracy. When President Carter came, he did pressure Iran to observe human rights. But Iran’s political development had reached a boiling point with economic decline and the rise of forces in favor of radical change. The shah was finally overthrown. Ayatollah Khomeini, who had promised political freedom, had led a revolution whose slogans were for “Freedom, Independence, Islamic Republic.” Ayatollah Khomeini threw out all of the post-1953 period and criticized corruption and imperialism. But he also promised freedom, when he was in Paris and even before, when he was in [exile in] Najaf. In Paris [where he spent the last months of his exile, from October 1978 to February 1979], he even spoke about genuine democracy that would be better than Western democracy. But he ended up not fulfilling this and pushed for his theory of the Guardianship of the Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih) when he seized power.
To make a long story short, yes, the 1953 coup adversely affected Iran’s democratization, but that was not the only thing that was important.
When you look at the forces that were active during the crucial years leading to the 1953 coup, who do you think was truly committed to democracy? Mossadegh and those around him? The Tudeh Party?
The National Front and a group of intellectuals who were fighting for a social democratic approach. Those were the forces that fought for democracy.
The Tudeh Party, the communists, became powerful but they remained significant only among the intellectuals. The Iranian working class was not very powerful at that time, aside from the oil sector. It was not very large. Influence of the communists was mostly among the intellectuals who were mostly middle class but they were pushing more for a communist system. They didn’t stand a chance against Mossadegh, who was very popular. His popularity would not have allowed them to come to power.
But all these forces were repressed by the coup.
Recently, some revisionist takes on the history of the 1953 coup have shed doubts on Mossadegh’s democratic credentials. What do you think of these revisionist attempts?
I don’t know the extent to which these revisionists can be taken seriously. They include Amini himself, who was a relative of Mossadegh and even a member of his administration and said that he [Mossadegh] had dictatorial tendencies and that he didn’t approach all political issues and elections in a completely democratic fashion. One can criticize Mossadegh and his followers for pushing politics that were not perfectly democratic. We see this kind of thing in many societies, not just Iran. This was a country that had been under dictatorial rule for centuries and then was faced with an opening connected to the Constitutional Revolution [1905-1911] that was again repressed under Reza Shah. You can’t expect everything to work democratically and perfectly.
But Mossadegh was much more democratic than anything before him. Mossadegh didn’t start a coup. He didn’t block political organizations or put people in jail. He allowed them to operate. His government was put under pressure by other countries not buying Iran’s oil. Then there were the right-wingers like Ayatollahs Kashani and Bebahani who ended up defecting from him. Ayatollah Borujerdi also thought communism was expanding and pressured Mossadegh to stand against the communists. But Mossadegh did not impose repression and censorship.
He didn’t get that far. We don’t know what we might have done. From looking at his past, I don’t think we can blame him.
What was the clergy’s role in the coup? Can we say they were mostly allied with it and against Mossadegh? Was this why the shah took actions against the Baha’is in the aftermath of the coup?
Clergy did have a role in the coup, particularly Ayatollah Behbahani and, to a lesser extent, Ayatollah Kashani, who was probably not in direct connection with the CIA. Behbahani and the thugs who were working with him definitely had a role. Ayatollah Kashani criticized Mossadegh before the coup, saying that our economy is bankrupt, our children are becoming communists and rhetorically asked Mossadegh, “What are you doing?” in an interview he gave to an Egyptian newspaper. He was very critical toward the end. When the shah left, Ayatollah Borjuerdi sent a telegram to Baghdad and said “Islam is danger, come back!” When came he back, they had an alliance with him against the Baha’is, symbolized by the destruction of the dome of a Baha’i house of worship in Tehran by [Lieutenant General of the Iranian Imperial Army, Nader] Batmanqilij.
In short, we could say that the clergy had an important role in overthrowing the prime minister. But there were also clerics who were against the coup. Ayatollahs Zanjani and Taleqani were part of the national front. Clergy didn’t pursue a united front. Some were pro-shah, some were anti-shah. A lot of clerics were also non-political. Yet, in the final stage, the clergy, particularly those led by Behbahani, played a role in the coup.
What about Ayatollah Khomeini, who was a relatively young cleric at the time? There is apparently not much known about his views and actions during the coup.
Yes, there is not much known about Ayatollah Khomeini’s views on the coup and Dr Mossadegh’s two-year rule. But there is a story that he told after the revolution, when he came back to Iran and was speaking about the National Front and stood against their opposition to the principle of qisas [legal punishment by retribution]. The National Front had called for a rally against qisas and Khomeini didn’t like that, and called them mortads [apostates] who were acting against Islam. This was in 1981.They were repressed at the time and became irrelevant afterwards.
Khomeini spoke of how the National Front had been once so proud of “that guy,” by which he meant Mossadegh, and said that he, Mossadegh, was not a Muslim and had he survived, he would have damaged Islam. He then told a story about when Mossadegh was in power. The story runs like this: Khomeini was walking to the home of a prominent religious leader in Iran when he heard that Mossadegh’s supporters had brought a dog to the streets and had put a pair of glasses on the dog’s face and called him ayatollah, referring to Ayatollah Kashani, who supposedly wore glasses and was acting against Mossadegh at the time. When he arrived at the house of this prominent ayatollah, he told him about this incident and told the audience there that Mossadegh will be “slapped by Islam.” And, lo and behold, he was slapped by Islam. That was his view of Mossadegh. After the 1979 revolution, it became clear that he didn’t like Mossadegh and didn’t support him and he had indeed predicted that he’d be “slapped by Islam.”
Read the other articles in the series: