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233. Despatch From the Embassy in Iran to the Department of State1

No. 337

SUBJECT

  • Popularity and Prestige of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosadeq

Introduction

The Embassy has lately been receiving reports tending to indicate that Prime Minister Mosadeq has lost much of the popular support which he previously enjoyed. Without the means or possibility of employing scientific public opinion polling techniques, it is of course impossible to draw definite conclusions, but the comments received may reveal a broad trend.

Original Support and Its Decline

There seems to be no question of the broad base of popular support for Dr. Mosadeq at the time he first took office as Prime Minister. As leader of the struggle against the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in a country where resentment and even hatred of the British is deep-rooted, Mosadeq could count upon the support of people from all levels of society with but few exceptions. For many months after oil nationalization, the Prime Minister’s popularity continually mounted. To the common people, Mosadeq was looked upon almost as a demigod.

The phenomenon of Mosadeq was almost unique in Iran. The figure of a frail, old man, in an Oriental country where age of itself commands respect, who appeared to be successfully winning a battle against tremendous odds, aroused the sympathy of almost all Iranians. In a country where political corruption had been the accepted norm, there now appeared a man whose patriotism and financial honesty were unassailable.

The economic and financial situation of the country, however, continued to worsen and as opposition to him increased, the Prime Minister found it ever more necessary to adopt arbitrary means to silence it. The contradictions in his public statements and promises continued to become more glaringly apparent. While speaking of an “oilless economy” on the one hand the Prime Minister excused his failure to initiate promised reforms on the ground that he could not “fight on two [Page 613]fronts”. The much promised “oil solution”, which was constantly dangled before the people, failed to materialize. More and more demands for dictatorial powers were made, and more and more the Prime Minister was compelled to employ arbitrary and high-handed methods to keep himself in power.

For months Mosadeq failed to leave his residence for fear of his life. He admitted fear of crowds. No longer was he able to address “the people” in parliament square. His speeches were delivered from his bed into a recording machine and played back over Radio Tehran. He did not dare make a public appearance. Mosadeq was no longer the popular hero.

The Prime Minister finally made it clear that he intended to remain in office regardless of popular support. With the backing of a minority of deputies, it was now he who could use the threat of obstructionist tactics. He warned that he would remain in office as long as he had a simple majority in parliament of one-half plus one. He no longer demanded overwhelming votes of confidence. It was clear as well that, if he were not sure of obtaining one-half plus one, his faithful group of deputies could simply hold up proceedings by merely walking out of the parliamentary assembly. He has now gone a step further and threatened the dissolution of the Majlis.

The Shah and Mosadeq

To divert public attention from his failure to solve the oil problem or to consolidate his hold on office or for these, as well as other reasons, Mosadeq precipitated a crisis over the position of the Shah. There seems to be no doubt that the Prime Minister did in fact “suggest” that the Shah leave Iran. There seems to be little doubt also that he had underestimated the Shah’s popularity. Whereas the person of Mohammed Reza Shah has relatively little significance in Iran, the monarchic concept is deeply impressed on the minds of the Iranian people. Without here going into details, it is sufficient to note that his failure to rid himself of the Shah represented a major defeat for the Prime Minister. It was the first time since he had come to power that he failed to accomplish, on a domestic issue, that which he had set out to do.

The manifestations of protest against the Shah’s departure undoubtedly caused Mosadeq and his entourage to reappraise the position of the Shah, and their efforts to find a modus vivendi resulted in the now well known “Majlis eight-man committee report” limiting the Shah’s powers. The Shah’s attitude toward Mosadeq has been interpreted by the latter’s opponents as “weakness”, and the Shah does appear to have discredited himself with some of those who wished him well. However, the opposition now appears to fear the consequences to it of a Shah completely subservient to and a weapon in the hands of [Page 614]Mosadeq. It is noteworthy that Mosadeq’s opponents have not based their attacks against the principle of limiting the Shah’s powers, but on the quid pro quo of also limiting those of Mosadeq, i.e., cancellation of the Majlis grant of plenary powers. The Government in turn was careful not to put before the public any such clear-cut issue as a choice between Mosadeq or the Shah.

Present Popularity

As to the Prime Minister’s popularity the following comments are revealing. April 7 the Consul at Tabriz sent a message to the Embassy which stated that it was apparent the Prime Minister’s hold over Azerbaijan had “weakened visibly” during the previous two months. The Consul noted an increasing amount of publicly expressed opposition to Mosadeq indicating a decline in his personal prestige, and that the attempt of the Prime Minister to undermine the Throne had resulted in increasing the Shah’s prestige “to the detriment of Mosadeq”.

In a letter dated April 1, 1953, the Consul at Isfahan made the following comment:

“I think I should report that for many weeks now people with whom I have talked have spoken with growing dissatisfaction about Dr. Mosadeq and the ‘government’ in general. Articulate persons are dissatisfied with lack of accomplishment, non-progress toward settlement of the oil controversy, new taxes and regulations governing foreign commerce. They talk mysteriously of a coming change in Tehran, that matters cannot go on as at present. This comment is not meant to be a public opinion poll, but just a report of comments and the thinking of some of the ‘better class’ people with whom I have talked.”

The Consul at Meshed reported at this time that the people there seemed to want both Mosadeq and the Shah.

In late June the Consuls at Isfahan and Meshed largely confirmed their previous reports. The Consul at Isfahan found the “lower class still supporting Mosadeq”, although opposition to him was increasing among the middle and upper classes. He noted, however, that “feeling generally is apathetic”. At Meshed the Consul remarked a “swinging back to Mosadeq” on the part of “hedging opportunists”, but that “only the Shah is popular with all”. The Consul there also stated that Mosadeq’s main strength lies in the belief that all other politicians are worse.

In April 1953 the TCI Regional Directors were of the opinion that while the Prime Minister was still able to maintain control of the provinces through his appointees to provincial posts, “his popularity with the general public seems to be undergoing considerable strain . . .” In mid-June these same Directors “were agreed that Mosadeq does not enjoy the same popularity he commanded a year ago . . .”

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The tribes, not unusually, are divided in their attitude. The Bakhtiari leaders seem to be strongly opposed to Mosadeq and have been intriguing against him, for which activities several of their leaders are in prison. The Kurdish leaders are resentful over Mosadeq’s attempt to impose an agrarian reform measure totally at the expense of the landholders. Violence has broken out on several occasions and it is safe to assume that the Kurds, independent in any event, are not favorably disposed toward the Prime Minister. The Qashqais, notoriously opposed to the Pahlavi dynasty, may be counted upon to support Mosadeq in any move which will weaken the position of the present Shah.

In Tehran the Prime Minister seems to have lost much of his support, although he continues to enjoy a degree of popularity in certain quarters. The bazaar is now divided between allegiance to Mosadeq and allegiance to Kashani and Baqai. Among businessmen generally Mosadeq is heartily disliked, although in this category as well there appear to be important exceptions. For example, exporters are inclined to be more favorably disposed toward him than are importers, as are small local manufacturers whose activities have been stimulated by the shortages in competing foreign products and by inflationary tendencies. The Prime Minister retains the support of the intellectuals of the Iran Party variety, most of whom have found sinecures in the present Government. Nevertheless, the most recent Government sponsored demonstration on June 19 revealed the Government to be surprisingly weak in popular following. Despite the publicity given over Radio Tehran in addition to the vehicles equipped with loud speakers circulating throughout the city of Tehran urging the people to attend the demonstration, there were only between three and five thousand participants, excluding the twelve or more thousand in Tudeh front groups who came for reasons of their own.

The Consul at Tabriz reports that on the same day a rally was also held there, with only an estimated four hundred Mosadeq supporters participating. The demonstrators were forced to disperse by the police when pro-Shah spectators began to hurl stones. The Consul’s report concluded: “Rally’s small size indicative of the Prime Minister’s lack of support in Azerbaijan.”

Conclusion

It seems apparent that the personal prestige and popularity of Dr. Mosadeq since his return to office in July 1952 has diminished considerably. His prestige and his position depend more upon the prestige and power that come from control of the Government apparatus such as the security forces, the propaganda media, the job, contract and license giving power. Formerly, his strength sprang from a wide and deep base of popular support, and despite the opposition of key figures within the Government apparatus. As is true in any country, the pres[Page 616]tige and popularity of the man in power is closely related to the issues of the moment. In a struggle directly involving the British, Mosadeq could count upon a tremendous following. There could be a temporary rise in Mosadeq’s popularity which might in the future come about as a result of some particular issue. However, excepting the remote possibility that he solve some basic problem with which the country is faced, it currently appears unlikely that the downward trend of Mosadeq’s popularity—as distinct from his hold over the organs of Government—may be reversed.

For the Chargé d’Affaires ad interim:
Roy M. Melbourne First Secretary of Embassy
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1950–1954, 788.13/7–153. Secret; Security Information. Drafted by Cuomo. A copy was pouched to London. Received July 10.