As part of IranWire’s series marking the anniversary of the 1953 coup in Iran, we spoke to several expert historians. But Abbas Amanat, Professor of History and International Studies at Yale University, stands apart. Perhaps the world’s leading authority on Iran’s Qajar dynasty (1785 to 1925) , Amanat first became well known for his book Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (1989), which shed new light on how messianic movements can act as agents of reform. His magisterial biography of Nasir al-Din Shah, Iran’s primary king in the 19th century, was published in 2008 and sparked much debate, including over its Persian translation. Throughout a career spanning decades, he has transversed well beyond the Qajar era. In Apocalyptic Islam and Iranian Shiism (2009), he showed a versatile understanding of various trends in Iran’s official faith. His Sharia: Islamic Law in the Contemporary Text (2007) and Is There a Middle East: The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept (2011), he demonstrated that he was comfortable tackling topics well beyond the borders of the Iranian nation-state.
But Amanat’s most anticipated book is still to come. Iran: A Modern History, due to be published later this year, is in a way the result of a lifetime of scholarship. A 1000 page interpretative take on Iranian history since 1501, it has already drawn praise from fellow Iran and Middle East scholar. University of Michigan’s Juan Cole describes Amanat as a “giant... among this generation of historians of Iran” and praises the book’s “eloquent prose.” University of California, Los Angeles professor Sanjay Subrahmanyan calls the book an “impressive achievement” that should “remain a work of reference.” Nile Green, a rising star of historiography of the region, calls Amanat’s narrative “lucid, readable and erudite.”
Amanat was less than six years old, he has eyewitness memories of the 1953 coup, as he lived only a few streets away from Prime Minister Mossadegh’s official residence in Tehran.
With the aim of taking a broader look at the coup and its impact, we talked to Amanat via telephone. Speaking from his home in New Haven, Connecticut, Amanat spoke to IranWire in Persian.
For generations, Iranians have attached a special importance to the 1953 coup and see it as a historical turning point. As a historian, how much do you think the coup was a decisive turning point in Iranian history?
We can look at it from two points of view. First, the 1953 coup its own; second, its consequences. From the first, if it is the mere overthrow of Mossadegh’s government, we can say that it could have happened in some other way. But this is important, because the coup led to the strengthening of the coming Pahlavi state [the ruling dynasty of Iran from 1925 to 1979] . So we have to look at the events in the late 1950s and 1960s, all the way to the revolution, to see whether the coup was a turning point or not. From this point of view, I think it was a very important turning point. In the aftermath of 1953, the shah’s government led a regime that was limited to his person. Whatever form of democracy that existed previously — even if it was chaotic and turbulent — was totally dismissed. No political parties were formed, no different ideologies were tolerated. We had a period of calm instead — a calm derived from dictatorship and autocracy that led to the outbreak of a massive revolution.
Recently, there has been much attention paid to the role Ayatollah Kashani played in supporting the 1953 coup. Since the clerics played a role in opposing Mossadegh, why did the nationalists and progressives trust them again in the next political conjuncture, i.e. the 1979 revolution?
First, you should note that collective memory is very short in societies without a historical memory. In the 60s and 70s, the history of Iran’s national movement [during the 1940s and 1950s] was rarely studied seriously. The role of clergy wasn’t understood very well. For many Iranians, even the intellectuals and readers, it was very, very difficult to find out about the political behavior of the likes of Kashani. You should also note that many of the ties in 1953 coup were hidden. It wasn’t clear that there was collaboration between those who organized the coup and elements in the clerical class, like [Ayatollah Mohammad] Behbahani. In the case of Kashani, since he had separated his path from Mossadegh and the National Front from 1953, this was more obvious. But why did the next generation ignore it? Partly due to the picture that Khomeini gave of himself, the revolution and the clerical movement. He portrayed his path as totally distinct from that of a political cleric like Kashani, who was open to political dealing. Later, Kashani was added to the background of the Islamic Revolution, just as [anti-constitutional cleric] Sheikh Fazlollah Noori and [Tehran MP Hassan] Modaress were, but the public, and even those who read, didn’t know any better.
There is a third point. Kashani was gradually made aware that the pro-Mossadegh current is slowly losing its social base and, if not completely, it will be partly doomed to decline and fall. I also believe that Mossadegh himself believed, before 1952, that he should end his government. Kashani, with his political acumen, knew how to support the winning side. On the other hand, he thought the national movement could harm the clerical establishment because socialist ideas were becoming popular and the Tudeh Party could gain power.
Could we say that there was a coalition between the shah’s court and the clergy in the post-coup period? It seems to have shown itself in the anti-Baha’i campaign that the shah’s government unleashed.
You could definitely say that there was a collation between Shah and the Shia Marja, i.e. Ayatollah Borujerdi. We have documents on this. Ayatollah Borujerdi had issued a message to the shah, saying that “we worked with you (ie. the shah and the monarchy) to bring down Mossadegh and crack down on the communist party and now expect you to work with us to crackdown on the Baha’is, who are a great enemy of Islam.” As much as I know, the shah did collaborate with them. The events of 1955 and 1956 and propagations of [anti-Baha’i preacher, Mohammad Taqi] Falsafi on radio during the holy months of Ramadan and Muharram happened with the shah’s consent. It was rare for the Shah Mosque in the Tehran Bazaar to be given to a Shia preacher to freely propagate against the Baha’is.
Later, when things were heightened and it wasn't only about closing down the Baha’i center in Tehran, and when harassing and killing Baha’is spread to villages in Yazd, Isfahan, Najafabad and beyond, the Pahlavi government, perhaps under pressure from foreign representatives, changed its position. This is why the bill that was in the parliament and aimed to expropriate Baha’i property was suddenly dropped. The government basically found out the grave consequences of this policy.
Now why did this conscious alliance between the clergy and monarchy decline in the later years? Because the Pahlavi government totally ignored the “Religion and State” discourse that had a long past in Iran and tried to totally sideline the clergy. The domestic developments in the 1960s, especially the land reform, heightened the divisions between the government and the clergy. Although when we speak of the “clergy,” we have to note that they weren’t united. It was only a faction inside the clergy that considered itself militant and dissident and stood against the government. This was the faction that rose under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. It should even be said that Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise as the Marja was mostly due to its standing up to the monarchy in the 1960s.
To what degree were Mossadegh’s mistakes responsible for his defeat and the victory of the coup? Do you think the positive image of Mossadegh has changed throughout the years?
Let me answer the latter first. The image that has so far remained of Dr Mossadegh in the collective national memory of Iran is that of a political figure with integrity and conviction. This will remain and it’s unchangeable. You can’t deny the role he played by insisting on the nationalization of oil and his attempts to revive parliamentary democracy, creation of political parties and press freedom. This makes him among the exceptional personalities of the 20th century. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t speak of his great mistakes too. No historian would agree with turning him into a hero and a super-human.
In his second period, i.e. from July 1952 to August 1953, Mossadegh committed fundamental mistakes that even many of his followers accept. One was to hold a referendum while the Iranian constitution didn’t recognize such a mechanism. Second, in the period of parliament’s dissolution, if we look at it in strict legal terms, while there was no parliament in session, the shah had the right to change his prime minister. Mossadegh didn’t stand on valid legal grounds here.
Also, if we look at his political behavior in the last few months, we see how he gradually lost many of his domestic allies and was isolated. He had faced two opponents at the same time. On one side, it was the issue of the nationalization of the oil industry, confronting the UK government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and, to a degree, the US. On the other, it was the court and the monarchy. His political behavior actually led to these two opponents getting closer to each other and they finally defeated him. This showed that he was sadly not successful in the political game. We can maybe say that he could have focused on oil nationalization without clashing with the court and the shah. If he had a policy based on expediency, he wouldn’t have isolated himself from the military.
I want to come to your upcoming book, Iran: A Modern History, which is a comprehensive study of Iranian history from the Safavid time to today. Have you also spoken of the 1953 coup there? In a long duree perspective, where does the coup stand?
This is a very good question. I should begin with saying that I remember the 1953 coup as a six-year old eyewitness. Our house wasn’t that far from the Kakh Street, where Dr Mossadegh’s residence was located. I remember that day very well and have some images in my mind of how the anti-Mossadgeh, pro-shah crowd was formed on the streets. I remember very well the events of the day after the coup, when Mossadegh’s residence was attacked and his property ransacked, because much of what was looted passed from the front of our house, which was on an alley off Khorshid street, maybe 500 feet from the Kakh Street. This affected my take as a historian since I had witnessed this event myself.
In the history of early modern and modern Iran, which begins in 1501 with the Safavid monarchy, we can see two general trends. One is the question of the State and the Court, i.e. the relationship between the state administration and the monarchy, which is an important current in Iran’s political life. There are many examples of friction between the two and in Pivot of the Universe [a biography of the 19th century monarch, Nasir al-Din Shah], I have talked about this. In 1953 and during Mossadegh’s premiership and his opposition to the monarchy, this was tangible.
The second issue is the question of religion and the state that I talked about before. The deep ties between these two important institutions goes very long back in Iranian history and it even predates Islam. In the 20th century, this relationship was faced with a fundamental upheaval. The two were used to standing together against non-religious, non-government currents. But now they were divided. Before 1953, we could see that at least a faction of the clergy, i.e. Kashani, backed the monarchy against the national movement. But after this, a deeper schism was created between the state and religion that culminated in the 1979 events.
These are two general trends we could observe in the long duree take. It should be added that the national movement was a continuation of the constitutional revolution [1906-1911]. In the 1941 to 1953 period, we see the return of the movements of that revolution. The 1953 coup effectively oppressed the same movement that had started in the constitutional revolution and demanded a legal government, democracy-based freedom, free press and freedom of expression. This again re-appeared during the 1979 revolution. There are few countries that witnessed two or three revolutions in a single century and Iran is one of them, if we count the national movement as a revolution.
Read the other articles in the series: