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Podcast: Mossadegh in the Year of Zarif (Script)

August 16, 2015
10 min read
Podcast: Mossadegh in the Year of Zarif (Script)
Podcast: Mossadegh in the Year of Zarif (Script)

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You’re listening to Iran’s Weekly Wire; I’m Roland Elliott Brown.


This week marks the 62nd anniversary of the overthrow Iran’s popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

Mossadegh died in 1967, but he’s still revered as a national hero in Iran .

That’s because in 1951, he nationalized Iran’s oil, and entered a hard diplomatic struggle with Britain over control of Iran’s oil industry.

He also symbolised democratic possibilities. He was a secular, liberal reformer who balanced the power of the ambitious young Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

But in 1953 the CIA, along with the British intelligence service MI6, worked together to overthrow Mossadegh. They helped the Shah to become Iran’s dictator, until the Iranian people overthrew him in 1979.

Today, many Iranians cite the overthrow of Mossadegh as a trauma underlying their political misfortunes ever since.

But this year, as Iran seals a deal with the US over its nuclear program, some Iranians say they’ve found a new Mossadegh: Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Does the analogy hold up? This week, I spoke to three experts on Mossadegh, to find out.


To start, it’s worth hearing from an expert about why a political figure from decades ago is still relevant to Iranian politics.

Here’s Ervand Abrahamian. He’s a professor of history at the City University of New York, and author of The Coup.

[Ervand Abrahamian] Well in a way the 53 coup is like a guillotine. It cuts Iranian history. From 53 to 79 is a blank. you jump from 53 to 79. If you take that gap, 53 isn't that far behind. And because it had a deep impact on the history, it means people feel it’s closer to them than something that happened decades ago. And of course in any country where you have a major dramatic event, whether it is world war 2 or Pearl Harbour or something, it has a deep imprint even if it is half a century or more past. People, even the generations that were not born then, they live under that shadow.

It’s not hard to see why Iranians would feel like they live under a shadow.

The 1979 revolution isolated them from the world.

The dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, which started in the early 2000s, only made things worse.

But now the shadow seems to be lifting, thanks to the nuclear deal agreed by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in July.

2015 has been Zarif’s year. He has secured the future of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, and won Iran a new economic lifeline.

After Zarif concluded the deal, Iranians celebrated in the streets. Some of them chanted, “Zarif, Mossadegh, these are the heroes of Iran!”

Iranian newspapers printed cover images of Zarif and Mossadegh side by side. The idea was that both Mossadegh and Zarif had fought for Iran’s rights.

But does it make sense to compare Iran’s oil industry in the 1950s with its nuclear program in the 2000s? Ervand Abrahamian sees some similarities:

[Ervand Abrahamian] I think there are actually striking parallels. In 1951-53, Iran nationalized the oil industry, and initially of course Britain was dead opposed to it. But then it actually, under American pressure, changed its position and said, on principle, we agree with nationalisation, we can't really oppose it because we've just nationalised our own oil industry, steel industry, and so on. So on record, they were always agreeable to nationalisation, but when it came to actual negotiations with Mossadegh, their argument was, and they were supported by the United States, you are not really mature enough or educated enough to run the oil industry, so you can nominally be in charge, but in reality we have to be in charge of running the oil industry.

For Abrahamian, that attitude is similar to the way the Bush administration looked at Iran’s nuclear program.

[Ervand Abrahamian] Similarly, in nuclear negotiations, because Iran has signed the non-proliferation agreement, it has actually the right to enrich uranium as long as it doesn't do it for military purposes. This is implicitly recognised by the international community, but when it came to negotiations, especially under Bush, the argument was, we accept this in principle, but in reality we can't trust you, i.e. you're not mature enough or you are too childish, you can't be trusted with nuclear technologies because you might do something bad about it.

Even so, that’s not quite what Zarif was up against in the last few years.

[Ervand Abrahamian] Obama's position, even when he was campaigning for this presidency, he made it clear he didn't object to Iran's having a nuclear program as long as it was not a nuclear weapons program. So I think that change made it possible for Iran to then engage in the negotiations, and the present deal, if it goes through, basically is on the premise that Iran does have the right to enrich, can enrich, as long as it is limited and it doesn't venture into military aspects.

But of course, the oil industry doesn’t really have military aspects.

Whereas oil was, and is, the backbone of Iran’s economy, its nuclear program has a less obvious role.

Here’s Mark Gasiorowski of Tulane University. He’s been studying Mossadegh for decades:

[Mark Gasiorowski] I'm not sure that there are really many similarities worth talking about. What Mossadegh did 60 plus years was a perfectly legal thing, and something that greatly benefitted Iran and the Iranian people and it was entirely within Iran's rights to nationalise the British-controlled oil industry. The events that have been playing out in recent years with respect to Iran's nuclear program are a very different sort of thing. They are not something that benefit Iran certainly in any socio-economic sense. To the extent that Iran's nuclear program has nuclear implications, and they seem to be very strong, basically have brought Iran to the point today where it is potentially within a few months of having a nuclear weapon. This is a dangerous and destabilising situation.

So what about the two men at the centre of this analogy?

For all their different motives, do Zarif and Mossadegh have anything in common?

Darioush Bayandor, a former diplomat under the Shah, and the author of a new book about the coup, doesn’t see the connection.

[Darioush Bayandor] Frankly the question of analogy is totally absurd in my view, but people need heroes, and at times invent them. There is no comparison, and the show that is being put up by Iran, it's all artificial, just for the sake of publicity for the regime. Mr. Zarif is a competent person but has acted, I don't want to use the word underling, because he's a competent person, but he is a subordinate to a regime which is a theocracy basically. And what he does is at the service of that regime.

That’s an important point. Mossadegh was a prime minister with the power to make policy. He often challenged the Shah. Zarif doesn’t challenge Iran’s supreme leader.

On the other hand, Zarif is one of the more urbane public figures the Iranian government has put forward in recent years. And people are responding to that. Here’s Ervand Abrahamian.

[Ervand Abrahamian] There's another angle, I think, which is, Iranians, when they look at the various public figures, Zarif is much closer to Mossadegh than people with turbans from the religious hierarchy. He is very western educated, very savvy, he doesn't deal in rhetoric, polemics, he is probably religious himself but he doesn't use religion in politics very much, like Mossadegh. So in those ways, people who like Mossadegh, see Zarif as in away continuing that tradition of patriotism, nationalism, but not of religious variety, much more liberal reformist secular variety. I think that's where implicitly people resonate about him.

And it’s worth noting that there are some constants in Iranian politics, no matter who is in power. Here’s Mark Gasiorowski:

[Mark Gasiorowski] I suppose it's true that Iran 60 years ago and today in both cases is a medium-sized country, a middle power confronting superpowers, and of course Iranians are very proud of their long heritage, they wish that Iran were more powerful and more successful than it is today, see outside powers as an obstacle to that and so it's not really surprising that leaders who confront the outside world, confront the superpowers, confront the west, both 60 years ago and today are pretty popular. It's something that is pretty strongly rooted in  Iran's circumstances and in its popular culture and popular perceptions of the world, but again, if you look more specifically at the two situations, there are a lot of differences, so again I wouldn't go too far with the similarities.

Of course, the extent to which Zarif “confronted” the West is an open question. International sanctions forced Iran to the negotiating table. Here is Darioush Bayandor.

[Darioush Bayandor] What Mr. Zarif did, which has its own merit in these negotiations, was to in fact disentangle Iran from awkward and cumbersome situation, bring it out because of the sanctions that had been imposed on Iran and those sanctions were such that put Iran in very very  difficult situation, as a result of which there was a decision to concede on this particular dossier on that particular chapter, they decided to somehow get themselves out of it, and Mr. Zarif was the champion of that enterprise. What he finally got was a well-padded, nicely -packaged sort of declaration of surrender on nuclear issue. Nothing more, nothing less than that.

The idea that Iran surrendered over the nuclear issue makes the Rouhani government very anxious.

Whereas Mossadegh sought complete control of Iran’s oil, Zarif has given international bodies the power to monitor Iran’s nuclear program.

But while Mossadegh’s unwillingness to compromise on the oil issue made him a more romantic figure, Zarif will be remembered as the more effective diplomat.

Here’s Mark Gasiorowski.

[Mark Gasiorowski] Mossadegh was a very positive figure in many ways for Iran, he tried to do important things, but I would say that his legacy is mixed. In my mind he should have resolved the oil crisis. That would have made him a lasting hero in Iran and would have really established something strong and positive that would have been durable in Iran, rather than something that could be easily pushed aside by a few CIA officers 62 years ago today. Zarif has succeeded in negotiating an agreement. Now it remains to be seen whether this will be approved in the US, but probably it will.

And once the US Congress seals the deal, it may be more useful to think in grand geopolitical terms than in personal ones.

[Mark Gasiorowski] I think much more relevant would be to compare the current situation with various other major instances of detente or rapprochement that have occurred in modern times. US-soviet detente in the 1970s, and then again in the Gorbachev era. I think especially relevant is the comparison with US-China rapprochement that began in the 1970s, with Nixon's trip to China. In a lot of these cases, like the Chinese example, an initial agreement was followed by many many others, and was followed by the reintegration of that country into the world economy and world diplomacy. And that could well happen with Iran, and it would be very very good for Iranians, and it would be good for the United States, and for most of the rest of the world. This doesn't mean that Iran has to suddenly revert to the kind of lackey status that it had under the Shah before the revolution, but Iran's economy, Iran's diplomatic initiatives, its regional security, especially in the case of threats from the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist movements, all of these could benefit a great deal by going further beyond the nuclear agreement to agreements between Iran and the West on various other matters.

In other words, Iranians hope the shadow that fell over them in 1953 is finally lifting.

By comparing Zarif to Mossadegh, they aren’t offering a sound historical analysis.

But they seem to be saying that now is the time for a  great Iranian statesman. For young Iranians, Zarif is the first plausible candidate they have ever seen.

Mossadegh is the last one whose name they remember.


That’s all from Iran’s Weekly Wire. If you want to find out more about Mossadegh, you can watch Maziar Bahari’s documentary, An Iranian Odyssey on


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