Communists Tried to Stop the 1953 Coup — But it was “Too little, too late”

Published by IranWire

Around the world, the left is regularly haunted by its mistakes, and by persistent questions about these historical errors. For generations of the Iranian left, no question has been bigger than the one concerning the year 1953: Why did the powerful communist party of Iran, the Tudeh Party, fail to utilize its hundreds of thousands members and affiliates and its powerful military organization to stop the US-organized coup? Why did it fail to save the left-leaning Prime Minister Mossadegh?

Few historians have grappled with this question in such detail as Maziar Behrooz, an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University. His book Rebels with a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran (2000) remains one of the most well-known accounts of Iranian communism. Behrooz spoke to IranWire in a telephone conversation about the role of the communists in the events leading to the 1953 coup.

The question of why the Tudeh Party failed to stop the 1953 coup despite having thousands of members and a significant military organization has plagued Iranian leftists for generations. In your work, you point to factionalism inside the party as the main reason. Can you say more about this?

The Tudeh Party had internal factional problems, which had resulted in them having conflicting views on Mossadegh and his oil nationalization struggle. Therefore, they could not come up with a coherent policy. If the Tudeh was to interfere in the coup to support Mossadegh, the party had to have a coherent policy and their relationship with the prime minister should have been in a much better state than it was when the coup happened.

Having said that, the Tudeh did play a role during the run up to the coup by trying to inform the prime minister about it and trying to coordinate with him in those three decisive days, 16 to 19 August. But it was too little, too late.

Many Tudeh leaders allege that it was Mossadegh who didn’t allow them to stop the coup. What do you make of that? 

Defending the government was the job of the head of government — which was Mossadegh. He was the head of the army at that point so he had the primary responsibility to defend the government, not a political party which had been declared illegal and was semi-underground at the moment of the coup. So there is some truth in that.

But the problem is that Tudeh did a lot during the two years of Mossadegh’s premiership to weaken him, especially during the first year. They also did a lot of propaganda, claiming that they would defend Mossadegh and defend against any coup but then didn’t do anything.

One has to look at it from two perspectives. It is correct that it was primarily the prime minister who was responsible for defending his government. But it is also true that the Tudeh Party weakened him and viciously attacked him at some point and it also claimed that it would defeat any attempts at a coup and yet didn’t do anything.

The Tudeh was the biggest political party in Iran, even in its semi-legal state. It was a powerful political entity and had a major network in the military. One has to look to the internal divisions inside the party, as I’ve tried to do in my own work, that paralyzed the party and didn’t let it develop a coherent policy toward the oil nationalization movement and any possible military coup.

You define two factions in the Tudeh leadership over the years, but as you say they don’t seem to have been very coherent. What separated the factions?

The two factions had a number of issues with each other. One must understand that personal rivalries were an important aspect of Iranian politics back then and, one could argue, even today. This is one reason. The other is that they had two different readings of the Marxism that was being propagated by the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In 1952, as the CPSU was preparing for its 19th congress, Stalin came up with a new perception on the role of the national bourgeoisie, which included people like Mossadegh and their role in the anti-imperialist struggle. Before this new thesis, the national bourgeoisie was considered to be a progressive movement. When communists were able, they would ally with it and create a coalition under its banner. After this 1952 change, it was suggested that the national bourgeoisie is no longer a progressive force and it can no longer lead an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggle. It has to come under the banner of the Communist Party. This was a general thesis.

When Mossadegh came to power, and the oil nationalization movement came into being, everybody within the Tudeh Party was suspicious of Mossadegh. All factions basically argued that Mossadegh was deceptive and he wanted to switch from British imperialism to US Imperialism; that he was from a feudal family and a lackey of American imperialism and so on and so forth.

But as the time went on, the difference between the two factions began to show. Especially after the events of July 1952 (when Mossadegh was dismissed and reinstated after four days) when what I’ve called the moderate faction slowly began to see the oil nationalization movement as progressive. They began to tone down attacks on Mossadegh. But at the same time, from the summer of 1952 to summer of 1953, factional fighting within the Tudeh began to intensify. This is basically reflected in the party policy toward Mossadegh. By that I mean that you have some organs of the party that continued to attack Mossadegh while others were taking a more moderate tone. This continued until a month or two before the coup. All of this translated into the party being completely unable to develop a coherent policy toward the prime minister as the danger of the coup neared and in effect paralyzed the party.

It should also be remembered that the bulk of the leadership of the party was no longer in Iran. They had migrated out when the party was declared illegal. The five-member Executive Committee that was left in Iran and was in charge of day to day events and day to day policy has three moderates, one hardliner and one, Ali Olovi, who fluctuated. These two factions also each controlled different organs, such as the women organization, the youth organization, the military organization, and so on and so forth. The party, in effect, had lost its central discipline and these different organs were pushing different policies against each other and toward Mossadegh.

But Nooredin Kianoori, who you classify as belonging to the hardline faction, always alleged that he had been pro-Mossadegh and through his wife, who was a family member of the prime minister, even warned Mossadegh on the day of the coup.

Kianoori is dishonest in his memoirs about his own role toward Mossadegh. He was an ally of his brother-in-law, Abdolsamad Kambakhsh and together with Ahmad Qassemi, Qolamhossein Forootan, Ehsan Tabari, these young and older members of the hardline faction were not only very close to the official line of the Soviet Union, they were also very hostile to Mossadegh.

Kianoori was not genuine when he later tried to present himself as someone who actually followed a moderate policy toward Mossadegh.

After the defeat, the Tudeh leaders organized a plenum of the Central Committee in Moscow in 1957. How successful were they in their attempt to learn from their mistakes? 

They tried to assess what had happened and had been a major catastrophe for the party. They tried to basically come to compromise and blame those who had been arrested and were cooperating with the regime after the coup such as [Nader] Shermini, head of the youth organization, [Dr Morteza] Yazdi [previously a communist MP and minister of health], or the party’s first secretary [Dr Mohmmad] Bahrami. All blame was put on these people, rather than explaining to themselves and to the outside world why they had failed in such a manner. The plenum that was to asses the failure was in reality a compromise between the two factions so that the blame could be put on those who couldn’t defend themselves because they had been kicked out of the party or were in prison. They didn’t try to understand the roots of the party problems and, of course, this was going to be an issue in the decades to come and all the way to the revolution.

In your work, you point out the death of Joseph Stalin in March, 1953, a few months before the coup, as having had a role in paralyzing the Tudeh Party. In what ways did the Soviet Union maintain control over the Tudeh Party? 

Before the coup, the Tudeh Party was a living organism with popular support, especially in cities and among workers and the middle class. In that sense, the Tudeh was much more able to make its own policies and this goes for both factions. They still thought they had a coordinated policy with the Soviet Union but, to go back to the beginning of our discussion, they had different perceptions of what was going on in the USSR. Still, the element of loyalty to the Soviet Union as the bigger brother and the central commander of the world proletarian revolution remained to the end.

But since the Tudeh Party had its own popular base, it was more able to show flexibility. That’s why you had two factions, with one becoming more moderate toward Mossadegh. Before the coup, the Soviet Union didn’t have day to day control of the party. After the coup, the situation changed. The party lost its network and its popular base. It was dismantled and crushed. In exile, the party was completely at the mercy of it host country, first the Soviet Union, then the German Democratic Republic [East Germany]. Then, the influence of the Communist Party of Soviet Union increased. I have given a lot of examples of this. Even for their apartments, the Tudeh leaders were dependent on the Soviet Union or the ruling party in East Germany. Tudeh had became completely dependent on them.

In 1960, when the Tudeh was trying to unite with the Azerbaijan Democratic Party (ADP), which had been stationed in Baku and the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, it was the Soviets that finally intervened and demanded that the two parties unite, even if the moderates who were in charge of the Tudeh Party were not pleased with the arrangement. [The ADP represented the communist movement in Iranian Azerbaijan and had led an autonomous statelet, backed by the Soviet armed forces, from November 1945 to December 1946.]

In 1969, when the Tudeh Party was infiltrated [by the intelligence forces of the shah and West Germany] and the first secretary was a moderate, Reza Radmanesh, he was implicated in negligence and the Soviet Union, again, directly intervened and had him removed and replaced by Eskandari. The same thing happened in 1979 when Eskandari was replaced by Kianoori.

Soviet interference increased after 1953 but throughout Tudeh’s life, it was dependent, ideologically and organizationally, on the Soviet Union. This dependence was one of its major shortcomings.

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