Twelve Years a Democracy in Iran (1941-1953)

Published by IranWire

Mohammad Mossadegh, the popular Iranian prime minister who was overthrown by a CIA-organized coup in 1953, is a towering figure in Iran’s modern history. But what was his influence in the wider Middle East? How was Mossadegh and his overthrow seen in the Arab world and in Israel?

IranWire put these questions to Lior Sternfeld, assistant professor of history and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University. Sternfeld is a social historian and an “Iranist” who has written extensively on the 1941-1953 period – and specifically on Mossadegh’s reception in Egypt and the broader Arab world. Much of Sternfeld’s work concerns the political lives of Iranian Jewry and their forgotten role in the key political moments in the country’s history.




You have written on the warm reception that Mossadegh received when he visited Egypt. Can you tell us more about how he was seen there, and elsewhere in the Arab world? Was the 1953 coup seen as a defeat by anti-colonial forces in the region?

The role of Mossadegh in the anti-colonial movement is one of a trailblazer. When he came to Egypt in 1951, he was at the height of his popularity in the Arab world. On the same trip, Lebanon refused to let him in because they were afraid of public reactions to concessions they had given to Belgian companies. He was also extremely popular in Iraq.

In Egypt, he came eight months before the revolution of 1952. He was seen as a hero of the east, a hero that could change the path and trajectory of the east vis-a-vis the superpowers like England, the US and the Soviet Union. When he was overthrown, at least in Egypt, this was not seen as a defeat for the anti-colonial movement since anti-colonialism had become part of official policy there. It was rather seen as what made the nascent Third World nations awake —a mistake on behalf of superpowers that would galvanize the movement rather than bury it.


Was the 1953 coup, then, perhaps seen as a warning to other leaders who confronted the West?

The same week that Mossadegh was overthrown in Iran, the Sultan of Morocco was exiled and this was seen as an attack on the Third World and the Middle East from east to west. It definitely showed leaders like Nasser, who would later become not just the president but the main figure of the Arab Third World movement, that he could learn from the mistakes of Mossadegh who, because he was protecting Iranian democracy, had tried to negotiate with superpowers, without having enough leverage on them. Nasser had tried to negotiate over the Aswan dam but he was now much more suspicious of the US and British governments. In short, Mossadegh helped create a distinct identity for the Third World movements.


How was Mossadegh and the coup that overthrew him viewed in Israel?

In Israel, the fall of Mossadegh drew unexpected reactions from different sides of the political map. The Israeli government, under Ben Gurion and Moshe Sharett, had decided to join the US Block and Israel became part of the Western block in the Cold War. But it was the Israeli right wing who talked of Mossadegh in admiring ways. There was relief in the [social democratic] Mapai government after Mossadegh was overthrown because this was seen to relieve pressure off the complicated relationship of Israel with Iran under Mossadegh. It was thought that now more useful collaboration could happen between the two countries. They were not wrong. After Mossadegh was overthrown, Iranian-Israeli collaboration was much more stable and relaxed. But the right-wing in Israel considered itself an anti-colonial movement and saw the coup as a defeat for the future of the Middle East. During Mossadeq’s tenure, they tried to push Israel to work closely with Mossadeq, to not abide by the oil embargo. After the coup, they saw it as being stuck with Nasser. Back then, Nasser wasn’t a very known figure but he was an example. They thought the chances of a Middle Eastern anti-colonial alliance including Israel were lost and they were right.


It might come as surprise to many that the Israeli right wing saw itself as anti-colonial. Tell us about that.

The right-wing Herud party in Israel was shaped during the time of struggle against the British mandate. They were one of the underground military forces that fought against British imperialism and British mandate colonialism. They were able to make interesting alliances with other anti-colonial movements in the Middle East.

Even after 1948 [Israeli independence], people like Menachem Begin, who later became prime minister, saw their first enemy as Britain and not the Arabs. You can see it in many of his speeches in the early years. He was one of the politicians in Israel who fought against discrimination against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. The notion of being an anti-colonial power was central to the Herud party and you can see it in their publications. They spoke in admiring terms of Mossadegh and of the Bandung conference of 1955. They were really into creating networks of Middle Eastern nations that would include Israel.


How was it that a socialist force like Mapai, which was on the left, joined the US side in the Cold War?

Mapai had to give up on many elements of socialism and internationalism early on, because it positioned itself as the consensus party of the center in Israel. In 1950 or 1951, it was already clear that Israel was leaning to join the Western block in the Cold War and [Mapai] had to make adjustments in foreign policy. If the watershed moment of the Herud party was the struggle against Britain, for Mapai it was struggle against the Arabs and establishment of the state. If your enemy is your immediate neighbor, you have to modify your socialism to fit this situation.


What was the effect of the 1953 coup on the political activities of Iranian Jews?

Until 1953, there was an amazing scene of Jewish newspapers in Iran. Few of them were identified with the Tudeh Party and with leftist circles in Iran. Obviously the ability to join leftist circles and be openly leftist drew many Jews to support Tudeh and Mossadegh. I know, for example, that many Jews who came from non-political households found it very exciting to join the Tudeh clubs and protest for Mossadegh.

When the coup happened, all these newspapers ceased to be published. When the political atmosphere was closed to identifying with anything but the shah, all you [found] in public was identifying with the shah. Because this was the only legal thing to do politically. The next generation of Jews were also prominent in leftist movements, student movements and underground Tudeh but we don’t have the same richness of material, newspapers and publications, until 1978, when the political atmosphere again opens up a little bit.


During 12 years of relatively free conditions, there was also a lot of anti-Semitic activity in Iran by the likes of Pan-Iranists or the supporters of Mozaffar Baqai, an ally of Ayatollah Kashani who did not support Mossadegh. Were the elders of the Jewish community in Iran relieved that the turbulent years of democracy were replaced with the clamp of autocracy? 

It was a peculiar time for the Jewish community, its elders and the Zionist organizations that worked in Iran. For the latter, having a stable working relationship with Iran and Israel meant that they could open Zionist clubs and get the protection of the government. The shah gave lots of freedom to Zionist activists and Zionist organizations. Obviously, it is a fact that in those 12 years of democracy, there were more anti-Jewish sentiments in the public sphere, but these 12 years are also crucial for the process of Jews becoming more assimilated in Iranian politics, because they could participate in the political game. They could, say, support Mossadegh or Tudeh. Even when they supported the shah, this was something that could be seen as more genuine when there were so many options around. For Jews, to be able to identify formally with a number of Iranian political organizations was a significant development.


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