Mohammed Mossadegh


From the beginning of the 19th Century, Iran is subjected to interference and land grabs by Britain and Russia. Popular discontent with Iran's weak and corruption-prone royal regime mounts and becomes increasingly vocal. In August 1906 the shah (king) is forced to issue a decree promising the introduction of a new constitution. The constitution that is subsequently drafted places strict limitations on royal power and establishes a representative parliament, or Majlis. The shah signs the new constitution on 30 December 1906. He dies five days later. In 1908 oil is discovered in Iran. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 19 May 1882 into Iran's ruling elite. His father is finance minister and his mother the granddaughter of the crown prince. Mossadegh marries Princess Zia Saltaneh in 1903. The couple have five children.

1906 - Mossadegh is elected to the first Majlis (parliament) as a representative for Isfahan in central Iran. He refuses to take up the position, claiming he is too young.

1907 - Britain and Russia sign the Anglo-Russian Agreement to stabilise their relations in contested areas the Middle East and Asia. Under the agreement, Iran is divided into spheres of interest. The Russian sphere is located in the north. The British sphere in the south and east. The neutral sphere in the centre is to be open to both powers. The Iranian Government is not consulted about the agreement and not informed about it until after it is signed. The agreement remains in force until 1918.

1908 - In June, Iran's new shah attempts to reassert royal power. A brigade led by Russian officers is ordered to bomb the Majlis and close down the building. Mossadegh, a known liberal, goes into hiding to avoid execution or imprisonment.

Meanwhile, oil is discovered in Iran. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company is formed soon after. The company is renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1935. In 1910 the company commissions an oil refinery at Abadan on the Persian Gulf.

1909 - Forces opposed to the shah regroup and march on Tehran in July. The shah is deposed and the 1906 constitution reestablished. The shah goes into exile in Russia.

Mossadegh travels to France, where he studies at the Political Science Institute for two years. Illness forces him to return to Iran but after five months he is back in Europe to study law at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. He graduates in 1913 with a doctorate in law.

1911 - When the Majlis refuses to bow to a Russian ultimatum to dismiss an Iranian-employed administrator who has attempted to collect tax within the Russian sphere of interest, Russian troops stationed within Iran move to occupy Tehran. However, local chiefs preempt the Russians. The Majlis is forced to accept the Russian ultimatum before being shut down once again.

1914 - The First World War begins on 3 August. Iran declares its neutrality but is caught up in the conflict by the presence of Russian, Turkish and British troops within its borders.

During the war, the British Navy places a long-term contract with the AIOC for the supply of fuel oil for its fleet. The British Government also buys a majority of the company's stock.

Mossadegh returns to Iran to take up a professorship at the Political Science Institute of Tehran. He writes two books - 'Civil Legal Procedure' and the 'Capitulation'.

1917 - Mossadegh is appointed deputy finance minister to the government.

1918 - The First World War ends on 11 November with the signing of a general armistice. Russian influence on Iran declines following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war. Britain becomes the dominant foreign player in Iran's affairs.

Britain soon attempts to implement an Anglo-Persian Agreement and establish a virtual protectorate over Iran. Mossadegh, a fervent nationalist, strongly objects and travels to Europe to promote his views. Though the agreement is supported by Iranian Prime Minister Vosuq od-Dowleh, the Majlis refuses to approve the deal.

Vosuq od-Dowleh is subsequently forced out of office. He is replaced by Moshir al-Doleh, who invites Mossadegh to join the Cabinet as minister of justice. Mossadegh is also appointed governor of the Fars Province in the south of Iran.

1921 - In February the Iranian Government is overthrown in a British-backed military coup d'état led by Persian Cossacks Brigade officer Reza Khan. Reza Khan quickly takes full control of the country, ruling in all but name. Mossadegh resigns as governor of Fars in protest against the government established by the coup.

1923 - Mossadegh serves as minister of finance and then briefly as governor of Azerbaijan Province. In May he is appointed minister of foreign affairs.

Reza Khan secures the prime ministership. Mossadegh is elected to the Majlis as a representative for Tehran.

1925 - In October Reza Khan deposes Iran's existing royal house. In April 1926 he crowns himself as His Imperial Majesty Reza Shah Pahlavi, beginning the so-called Pahlavi Dynasty.

Reza Khan's rule brings modernisation to Iran's political and social systems and a substantial reduction in the power of the clergy and tribal leaders.

The government is centralised. The education system is secularised and, in 1935, the country's first European-style university is established. Iran's transport infrastructure is expanded and industrial development is encouraged. The country's legal system is taken out of the hands of the clerics. Women are brought into the social mainstream. European dress codes are imposed and the wearing of the veil is banned. The military is strengthened, with between 30 to 50 percent of total yearly national expenditure being allocated to military projects.

However, along with the reforms, come increasing repression and social unrest.

Rather than becoming an effective defence force focused on foreign threats, the military is used to uphold Reza Khan's increasingly dictatorial regime.

The Majlis is sidelined and freedom of speech curtailed. Opponents are arrested, with many being sent to jail or into exile. Many others are murdered. In the countryside, peasant farmers find their lifestyles deteriorating under Reza Khan's policies.

Iran's economy becomes more and more centred on the production of crude oil from the country's vast reserves, which by the end of the century are estimated at between 89.7 and 99.1 billion barrels, ranking them as the fourth or fifth largest in the world.

Mossadegh strongly objects to Reza Khan taking the title of shah. He retires from politics into private life.

Late in Reza Khan's reign, Mossadegh is arrested and exiled for several months before being placed under house arrest in his Ahmad-Abad country estate west of Tehran.

1933 - The Iranian Government cancels the AIOC oil concession and negotiates a new agreement that reduces the area covered and improves the returns to Iran. The term of the contract is also extended to the end of 1993, when all oil facilities, including the refinery at Abadan, are to revert to the Iranian Government.

1938 - Iran's Communist Party is banned.

1939 - German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

Iran again attempts to remain neutral but is brought into the war when British and Soviet Union troops invade on 26 August 1941 in order to secure supply lines across the country and into the Soviet Union. Iran's military forces are decimated within three days.

Following the invasion, Reza Khan abdicates in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who takes the throne on 16 September 1941.

1943 - Iran declares war on Germany in September. From 28 November to 1 December, the country hosts the Tehran Conference meeting between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The three leaders discuss the details of their joint campaign against Germany and reaffirm their policy of accepting nothing less than Germany's unconditional surrender. They also reaffirm their commitment to Iran's independence and territorial integrity and their willingness to provide Iran with economic aid.

However, Iran experiences economic hardship during the war. The resulting privations assist the rise of the communist Tudeh Party (tudeh means masses), which also receives patronage from the Soviet Union.

1944 - Mossadegh returns to public life, regaining a seat in the Majlis as the first deputy for Tehran. He becomes a prominent advocate of Iranian nationalism and leader of the Jebhe-ye Melli (National Front), a coalition of secular and religious political groups.

Among his nationalist initiatives, Mossadegh introduces a bill to stop ministers negotiating oil concessions with a foreign party without the approval of the Majlis. The bill is passed in December.

1945 - The Second World War in Europe ends on 7 May when Germany surrenders unconditionally. In keeping with their wartime pledges, British and US forces withdraw from Iran.

Soviet troops remain in the country until the Majlis grants an oil concession to the Soviet Union. The concession is later revoked by a vote of 102 to two in a ballot led by Mossadegh. The Majlis also passes a bill forbidding any further foreign oil concessions and requiring the government to exploit oil resources directly.

1947 - The AIOC reports an after-tax profit of US$112 million. Of this only US$19.6 million is returned to the Iranian Government. The British Government is paid US$24 million in tax.

Between 1913 and 1951, the AIOC makes gross profits of US$3 billion. Only US$624 million of that sum remains in Iran. The company also excludes Iranians from management positions and bars the Iranian Government from inspecting its books.

1949 - With the need for development funds growing, the Majlis becomes increasingly focused on renegotiating the oil concession with the AIOC to achieve more equitable returns to Iran. Mossadegh leads the push.

Meanwhile, following an abortive attempt on the shah's life on 4 February, reputedly by Iranian communists, the Tudeh Party is banned.

1950 - Mossadegh is elected as chairman of the government's Oil Committee. In November the committee rejects a draft agreement with the AIOC that offers the government slightly improved terms but not the 50-50 profit-sharing split of other Persian Gulf oil concessions.

Mossadegh's position on the oil industry attracts growing popular support, and the National Front wins many new seats in elections held during the year.

1951 - In February the AIOC finally agrees on a 50-50 split in profits, but with nationalist sentiment on the rise it is now too late. On 8 March the Majlis votes to nationalise the oil industry.

Mossadegh is named prime minister in April. His first act after selecting his Cabinet is to enforce the Oil Nationalisation Bill. Soon after, Iran takes control of the AIOC's refinery at Abadan, which at the time is the largest in the world, supplying 43% of Europe's petroleum requirements.

Britain responds to the nationalisation by placing a worldwide embargo on the purchase of Iranian oil and pressuring its allies to do the same. In September, Britain freezes Iran's sterling assets and bans export of goods to Iran.

The US administration supports Britain. It refuses to lend Iran funds until the dispute is resolved and works to ensure the oil embargo is enforced.

Britain also takes its case against Iran to United Nations (UN) Security Council in New York and the International Court of Justice at The Hague in the Netherlands. Mossadegh defends Iran's action in both forums. Ultimately, Britain's legal challenge fails when the Court of Justice upholds Iran's argument that the oil dispute is outside its jurisdiction and cannot be heard.

Meanwhile, oil production in Iran comes to a virtual standstill and the economy begins to go into serious decline. Only Japan and Italy resist the pressure to join the embargo and continue to purchase Iranian oil.

Mossadegh is named 'Time' magazine's person of the year for 1951, "not that he was the best or the worst or the strongest, but because his rapid advance from obscurity was attended by the greatest stir".

"The stir was not only on the surface of events: in his strange way, this strange old man represented one of the most profound problems of his time. Around this dizzy old wizard swirled a crisis of human destiny," the magazine says.

"There were millions inside and outside of Iran whom Mossadegh symbolised and spoke for, and whose fanatical state of mind he had helped to create. They would rather see their own nations fall apart than continue their present relations with the West. ...

"Mossadegh does not promise his country a way out of this nearly hopeless situation. He would rather see the ruin of Iran than give in to the British, who, in his opinion, corrupted and exploited his country. He is not in any sense pro-Russian, but he intends to stick to his policies even though he knows they might lead to control of Iran by the Kremlin. ...

"The fact that Iranians accept Mossadegh's suicidal policy is a measure of the hatred of the West - and especially the hatred of Britain - in the Near and Middle East."

1952 - On 17 July, after the shah refuses to grant Mossadegh the power to appoint the minister for defence, Mossadegh resigns, sparking a general strike and three days of rioting by Iranian nationalists and communists. The shah is forced to reappoint Mossadegh as head of the government on 22 July and to grant him full control over the military.

Mossadegh appoints himself as minister for defence and begins to introduce changes in the military high command, dismissing officers loyal to the shah and replacing them with nationalists.

In August the Majlis grants Mossadegh full power over all areas of government for a six-month period, allowing him to attempt to reform the country's tax and revenue structures and to control government spending. These special powers are subsequently extended for another six months. Mossadegh also obtains approval for a law to reduce the term of the Senate from six years to two years, bringing about the dissolution of that body.

Also in August, Mossadegh offers to enter into new negotiations with the AIOC if the company hands over US$1.4 billion it has been holding in a contingency account and if Britain ceases blocking the sale of Iranian oil in world markets. At the same time, Britain and the US offer to recognise the nationalisation if The Hague is allowed to adjudicate the level of compensation. However, the offers are rejected by both sides.

Britain, meanwhile, starts to plan a coup d'état to topple Mossadegh and urges the US to join in the operation, which is code-named TPAJAX, or Operation Ajax. The coup plan has the full backing of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, although the outgoing administration of US President Harry S. Truman is reluctant to become involved.

Aware that a plot is being hatched, Mossadegh breaks off diplomatic relations with Britain on 16 October. The British embassy in Iran is closed down and all British diplomats inside the country are ordered to leave. The involvement of the US now becomes essential if a coup is to succeed.

1953 - The administration in Britain and the new administration of incoming US President Dwight D. Eisenhower become increasingly alarmed by the behaviour of Mossadegh and the ongoing nationalism inside Iran. Their concerns are further heightened when Mossadegh begins to work with the communist Tudeh Party. They fear that Iran will be drawn into the Soviet sphere, although Mossadegh advocates a policy of nonalignment in foreign affairs.

Mossadegh's position also becomes destabilised by internal conflicts within the National Front, with several senior members and the religious faction defecting.

In March the shah attempts to have Mossadegh assassinated, but Mossadegh is warned and the scheme fails. The same month an Iranian general approaches the US Embassy in Tehran seeking support for an army-led coup against Mossadegh.

On 4 April the US director of central intelligence releases US$1 million which, according to a secret history of the coup written in 1954 by the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) chief coup strategist, Dr Donald N. Wilber, is to be used "in a way that would bring about the fall of Mossadegh".

"The aim was to bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement, enabling Iran to become economically sound and financially solvent, and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party," the secret history says.

Major-general Fazlollah Zahedi is selected by the coup plotters as Mossadegh's replacement. He also leads the coup, along with the shah.

In May, Wilber travels to Cyprus to meet Norman Darbyshire, chief of the Iran branch of British intelligence, to make initial coup plans. Anti-Mossadegh cartoons begin to appear on Tehran's streets and the Iranian press start to publish articles criticising Mossadegh.

British and US intelligence officers meet again in June to finalise the coup strategy, after which Kermit Roosevelt, the chief of the CIA's Near East and Asia Division, travels secretly to Iran to coordinate the plans with the shah and the Iranian military. However, the shah is reticent and has to be pressured along every stage of the plan.

On 1 July, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives final approval for Britain's participation in the coup plan. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower approves the joint operation on 11 July. The plan has four elements - first a campaign to undermine Mossadegh's popularity and raise the spectre of a communist takeover of the government; second, Mossadegh's dismissal; third, street riots; and lastly the emergence of Zahedi as prime minister.

Beginning in August, CIA operatives masquerading as communists start to stir dissent within the community. At the same time the media campaign against Mossadegh is cranked up.

On 4 August, suspecting that a plot has been mounted against him, Mossadegh organises a plebiscite that asks voters to choose between the dissolution of the lower house of the Majlis or the resignation of his Cabinet. The referendum is in effect a vote of confidence in Mossadegh's government. After claiming a massive vote in favour of his Cabinet, Mossadegh dissolves the house.

On 13 August the shah signs royal decrees dismissing Mossadegh and his Cabinet and appointing Zahedi as prime minister. However, the legality of the decrees is questionable as the prime minister can only be appointed or dismissed by the Majlis.

The coup d'état begins on the night of 15 August when a royalist army colonel from the shah's Imperial Guard attempts to serve Mossadegh with the royal decree ordering his dismissal. But the coup plot has been uncovered and the officer is arrested outside Mossadegh's house in Tehran.

The next day it appears that the coup attempt has failed, with the majority of the military remaining loyal to Mossadegh. As masses of demonstrators take to the streets in support of Mossadegh, the shah flees to Baghdad then Rome, and several of the conspirators involved in the coup are arrested. Believing the danger has passed, Mossadegh directs that the troops who have remained loyal to return to their barracks.

However, on 19 August the pro-shah forces rally, staging a counterstrike that is fuelled by anti-communist sentiment and backed by the pro-shah members of the military and police. Mossadegh's fortified house is stormed and he only narrowly escapes before it is looted and burned. More than 300 people die during the fighting in Tehran, and over 100 are wounded.

At 7:00pm on 20 August, Mossadegh surrenders to Zahedi and is placed under arrest.

The shah returns to Iran on 22 August. He is now heavily indebted to the US and Britain for the continuation of his reign. The CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) immediately provide the coup government with US$5 million to help it consolidate power. It is the CIA's first successful attempt to overthrow a foreign government. Martial law is declared. It remains in force until the end of 1957.

Referring to Mossadegh, the shah says, "The law must be carried out with regard to persons who have violated national institutions and the constitution, wasted the nation's money and the spilled blood of innocent persons to promote hypocrisy."

Mossadegh's trial before a five-member military tribunal begins on 8 November. Mossadegh conducts his own defence, arguing that the shah did not have the right to dismiss him without prior approval from the Majlis.

On 21 December the tribunal sentences Mossadegh to three years solitary confinement for trying to overthrow the monarchy.

In a letter read to the court, the shah praises Mossadegh for "the services rendered ... during his first year as Premier in connection with nationalisation of the oil industry which is desired by the whole nation and is confirmed and supported by the monarchy itself".

On hearing his sentence, Mossadegh states, "The verdict of this court has increased my historical glories. I am extremely grateful you convicted me. Truly tonight the Iranian nation understood the meaning of constitutionalism."

After serving his sentence, Mossadegh is placed under house arrest in his Ahmad-Abad estate, where he remains until he dies.

In the wake of the coup, hundreds of National Front leaders, Tudeh Party officers, and political activists are arrested, with some being sentenced to death. Several hundred pro-Mossadegh military officers are also arrested, allegedly for membership of the Tudeh Party, and approximately two dozen are executed.

Relations with the US and Britain are restored. The US immediately provides economic assistance, and a new oil concession is negotiated with Britain.

Shah Pahlavi attempts to introduce a variety of social, economic and administrative reforms, albeit in an atmosphere of increasing repression.

Opposition parties, including the Tudeh and the National Front, are banned, suppressed, or closely controlled. Freedom of speech is curtailed. The secret police (SAVAK - Sazman-e Ettelaat va Amniyat-e Keshvar) is strengthened.

1954 - Oil production resumes late in the year. Under an agreement reached between the government and a consortium of eight foreign oil companies, industry control of the oil companies is restored, but the government's share of income is greatly increased to approximately one-half of the net profits.

The consortium is made up of the AIOC (with a 40% holding), Royal Dutch Shell (a 14% holding), Standard Oil Company (New Jersey), Standard Oil of California, Socony Vacuum, the Texas Company, Gulf Oil Corporation, and the Compagnie Francaise des Petroles.

At the same time, Iran agrees to pay compensation to the AIOC of US$70 million over 10 years.

The AIOC is renamed the British Petroleum Company, better known these days as BP.

1961 - Iran joins with other major oil-exporting countries to form OPEC, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

1963 - In June, Shia cleric Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini is placed under house arrest following a blistering speech attacking the shah. His arrest sparks three days of the most violent riots seen in the country since the coup against Mossadegh.

1964 - Khomeini is released from house arrest in April. In November he again publicly attacks the regime, denouncing a new law giving diplomatic immunity to US military personnel serving in Iran, and to their staffs and families. He is arrested and sent into exile in Turkey. In October 1965 he moves to Iraq, where he remains until October 1978, when he is expelled by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. From Iraq, Khomeini moves to France. Khomeini continues to agitate against the shah during his time in exile.

1967 - Mossadegh dies from throat cancer on 4 March. At the time of his death he is still under house arrest. He is buried in one of the rooms of his house. He is survived by his two sons and three daughters.


The rule of the shah becomes increasingly dictatorial, repressive and corrupt. Steeply rising inflation and inequitable distribution of oil revenues leads to increasing community dissatisfaction. Local unrest is coupled with growing criticism from abroad over Iran's human rights record. At the same time, the influence of Shia fundamentalists like Ayatollah Khomeini becomes more pervasive.

Religious and antigovernment demonstrations break out in 1978. The government declares martial law but is unable to contain the unrest. At the end of 1978 the National Front agrees to form a new government on the condition that the shah leaves the country.

Shah Pahlavi leaves Iran on 16 January 1979, saying he is going on a short holiday. He never returns. He dies in exile the following year.

Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Iran on 1 February 1979. From his base in Tehran he coordinates the so-called Islamic Revolution - the final overthrow of the monarchist regime.

By 13 February 1979 the task has been completed and Iran is in the hands of Khomeini and his supporters. The country is rebuilt as a self-reliant Islamic republic controlled by Khomeini's Council of Guardians. Relations with world powers hit rock bottom. The US is characterised by Khomeini as the Great Satan and the Soviet Union as the Lesser Satan.


Mossadegh is an unlikely hero. Though often derided for his eccentricities and hypochondria, he was honest and sincere, with a deep love of his country and an abiding wish for it to be free at last from the intervention of foreign powers.

It is intriguing to pose a raft of "what ifs" around Mossadegh and the coup that overthrew him, though the permutations of cause and effect are forever too complex for anyone to be even remotely sure of alternative outcomes.

What does seem certain, however, is this - if the United States hadn't been involved in the planning and execution of the coup, there would be a stronger basis for trust between Iran and the US than currently exists. From this many more "what ifs" are raised.

While it may be drawing far too long a bow to describe the overthrow of Mossadegh as one of the pivotal events of the 20th Century, there are many aspects to the episode that appear to justify this claim. Not the least of these is the fact that the ouster of Mossadegh was the first successful coup planned and executed by the CIA.

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