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IRAN: Strong Man

5 minute read

Mohammed Mossadegh decided that the time had come to act. His top lieutenants crammed themselves into two Chevrolets and drove out of Teheran to a rendezvous at the summer home of Hussein

Makki, Mossadegh’s fiery No. 1 aide. They were determined to get Mossadegh back into office, and to oust wealthy and adroit old Premier Ahmed Qavam (TIME, July 28). But how?

For five frantic hours they considered and rejected proposals. Qavam might be assassinated—but he was a hard man to get a shot at. They might stir up tribal revolts—but that would take too long. Finally, they agreed on a desperate, dangerous move: invite the Red toughs of the outlawed (Communist) Tudeh Party —whom they knew by bitter experience to be militant and well led—to fight in the street alongside them, against the army and the police. Makki summed up the instructions: “Launch a series of violent demonstrations no matter what their outcome—even revolution.” The first was scheduled for Monday, with new outbreaks on each succeeding day until old Qavam or the young Shah yielded.

Chaos broke out as planned. Teheran, a city of 1,000,000 population, was paralyzed by a general strike. Mobs threatened the Majlis, fired government jeeps, and hurled stones at the troops and police, who replied with tear gas and gunfire. At least 20 persons, and perhaps many more, were killed. The Communists linked arms with members of the pro-fascist Pan-Iranian and Sumka parties and led the rioters in chanting a new slogan: “Down with the Traitor Shah.” But by late afternoon the exhausted demonstrators began trickling back to their hovels.

The Weak Shah. Qavam moved to counterattack. He hurried to the Shah, proposed that the Majlis be dissolved, and outlined plans to jail the mob leaders. At this point, the fight for Iran might have gone either way. But the attacks on the monarchy had scared the Shah; moreover, he feared, and not without reason, that Qavam’s vigorous measures might cause defections in the army. The weak Shah refused the dangerous but necessary gamble.

Old Fox Qavam resigned the premiership; he could do nothing else. He hurried into hiding, and at week’s end was still safe, though mobs cried for his head and the Parliament threatened to strip him of his fortune. As the news of Qavam’s downfall spread, 72-year-old Mossadegh stepped out on his balcony, sobbed to the mob: “Your sacrifice today saved the country,” and fainted.

The next day, the weepy, faint-prone old man was back in power. He had beaten Qavam and the Shah, who now gave Mossadegh the War Ministry he had earlier denied him. And he had beaten the British, even if his victories had left his country near anarchy and his people impoverished.

The Evil Mullah. Mossadegh knew that his hour of triumph was yet incomplete. Returned to power by the mob, he was in danger of becoming its prisoner. Teheran’s streets resembled those of Moscow in November 1917. The army had disappeared, the police had fled. Communists and Nationalists had taken over the police stations, were patrolling the streets and careening around in police cars. The alliance between the Reds and the Nationalists was growing, fostered by a turbaned Rasputin named Mullah Ayatulla Kashani, who boasts that he decreed the death of the late Premier Ali Razmara. At a huge Red demonstration, a spokesman read these words from Mullah Kashani: “It was the union of you workers and the Iranian people that brought us victory.” The emboldened Reds roamed the streets demanding legalization of the outlawed Tudeh, and shouting hate-America slogans.

Mossadegh sent his newly appointed police chief, a well-known Nationalist, to broadcast a warning for the Mullah’s ears: “Some of the foreign agents have changed colors and, under the guise of Nationalist groups, are carrying out their sinister plans . . . Hound out such elements from your ranks.” He followed this by force. Police reappeared and began chasing the Nationalist-Communist gangs.

Mullah Kashani caved in, joined the chorus for law & order and set his Nationalist thugs to battle their Red buddies of a few hours before.

Slowly, Teheran emerged from under the terror. Mossadegh made a point of visiting the Shah and respectfully kissing the monarch’s hand, whereupon the Shah bussed the old Premier in the face. Then Mossadegh, full of confidence and good will, called in British Charge d’Affaires George Middleton to talk about oil. He had just scored a victory against the British: the World Court at The Hague rejected Britain’s protest against the expropriation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., on the grounds that the court did not have jurisdiction. Mossadegh offered his British caller nothing tangible but conversed amicably for two hours.

For the moment, at least, the revolution which had been turned on earlier in the week had been safely turned off. Out of the bloodbath, fainting Mohammed Mossadegh emerged as the undisputed strong man of Iran.

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