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

No. 224

RECENT INCREASE IN POLITICAL PRESTIGE OF
AYATOLLAH KASHANI

Summary:

Ayatollah Seyid Abol Qasem Kashani, the fanatical, nationalist Iranian mullah, has recently become increasingly prominent in Iranian political affairs. His long career is one of constant opposition to British intervention in the domestic affairs of Iran. The oil nationalization issue, of an anti-British and highly nationalistic nature, has brought about an atmosphere in this country which easily lends itself to exploitation by such a man. He has more recently been assisted in elevating himself to a position of prominence by publicity accorded him in the foreign press and by the prestige given him through the fact that he alone among religious leaders received calls from Mr. W. Averell Harriman and Mr. Richard Stokes.

His delusions of grandeur have been accentuated by events which have put him in the limelight of a local political affair having international implications. Although under present tense conditions, he has attained a position of influence, that position is founded upon transitory circumstances. It is doubtful that he could command sustained support from any large segment of the population. He has neither the support nor the confidence of his religious colleagues and his pretensions under a determined attack would prove far superior to his capabilities.

Introduction:

Recently, Ayatollah Seyid Abol Qasem Kashani has become increasingly prominent in Iranian public affairs. Ambitious, opportunistic, fanatical, Kashani’s influence depends primarily on the support of the poorer and more ignorant classes of the Iranian people, and the more fanatical elements of the bazaar. From among this following Kashani can recruit those who would commit acts of violence for real or imagined offenses against the Moslem faith. He has been implicated in several assassinations and murders.

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His power springs from these elements and he is careful to maintain his influence over them. With such support, Kashani has been able to frighten into cautious silence many who would otherwise oppose those causes which for whatever reason he has chosen to espouse. At the moment, the popular issue—which he helped make popular and which he is now exploiting to his advantage—is that of oil nationalization. The issue and the popular, hysterical attitude toward it on the part of the great masses of the Iranian people, is perfectly suited to bring out the “talents” possessed by Ayatollah Kashani by virtue of training, experience, and inclination.

Background:

Kashani was raised in a highly religious Moslem family. His father was a religious leader in the Shiah Holy City of Najef in Iraq where the principal activity, particularly during the days of Kashani’s youth and even today, revolved around the Shiah pilgrims who came to pay homage at the tomb of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet. Educated by mullahs, he became one himself at an early age. His father opposed the British in Iraq during World War I and the still-young Kashani found himself in a Holy War declared by his father and other religious leaders against all Christians. His father was killed in a battle following the British landings on the Persian Gulf. Since then he freely threatens “Holy War” at the least provocation and his hatred of the British, accentuated by later events, verges on the psychopathic.

He continued to oppose British interference in Iranian affairs for some years after World War I, but he must have appraised Reza Shah as one stronger than himself for he cautiously kept out of that monarch’s way in spite of the anti-clerical policies which were carried out during his reign and the continuation of Iranian oil exploitation by the British.

Following the advent of World War II and the abdication of Reza Shah, Kashani again took up the task of opposing British activities. When the Allies occupied Iran, the British promptly imprisoned him in spite of objections raised by the then U.S. Minister, Dreyfus. His relative partiality to the U.S. dates from that time.

During the next twenty-eight months of forced inactivity, he never lost touch with his followers and upon being released he quickly returned to his plottings. This time his activities were directed against Prime Minister Qavam, who exiled him to the provinces. In early 1949, after the attempted assassination of the Shah, as a precautionary measure Prime Minister Mohammed Sa’ed, aided and advised by Army Chief of Staff Ali Razmara, sent Kashani out of the country again.

The influence he wields was demonstrated when he was elected to the Majlis while still in exile. He was elected as a National Front deputy [Page 128]in 1950 along with his friend. Dr. Mosadeq. Both attribute all of Iran’s shortcomings and misfortunes to British interference in Iran. When Razmara became Prime Minister, Kashani did not find it difficult to support National Front policies, particularly in attacking the man whom both he and Mosadeq believed to be subservient to British influence and who had been instrumental in bringing about his most recent exile.

Recent Events:

In the meantime the British oil concession dispute flared up into a popular movement into which were released all the aggressive energies of the Iranian people generated by decades of frustration. The British, through the Oil Company, were identified as the sole cause for all the difficulties in which collectively and individually the Iranians found themselves. The nation-wide hysteria over oil nationalization created an atmosphere tailor-made for a reactionary religious leader with a flare for political intrigue. He has tried to take full advantage of it. It should be pointed out, however, that contrary to anything he may say at the present time, at least until June of last year he had not opposed the supplementary oil agreement offered by the AIOC and under discussion at that time.2

Nevertheless, events moved on and he moved with them. With the unwitting aid of the foreign press in combination with the aroused and unrequited passions of the Iranian people, Kashani was elevated, and cleverly helped elevate himself, to an influential position in Iranian political affairs. Dr. Mosadeq was careful to call on him as soon as he became Prime Minister, and has kept in regular contact with him ever since. Kashani in turn has supported the Prime Minister. He has at all critical moments issued messages to the people affirming the necessity of Dr. Mosadeq’s leadership in the vital oil nationalization issue.

Several months ago Ayatollah Kashani decided not to appear in public. He has refused to take his seat in the Majlis claiming that to do so would lower his prestige. He never calls on anyone, but receives everybody in private audience—in his own surroundings. His messages to public gatherings are recorded and played back to the audience. With regard to his Majlis seat, Kashani said that he would go to the Majlis only in case of an emergency. Perhaps he is waiting for a propitious occasion. In the prevailing tense atmosphere, and over the oil nationalization issue, should Kashani decide to make a public appearance he would undoubtedly draw together an impressive mass of people.

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At the suggestion of Dr. Mosadeq two weeks ago, W. Averell Harriman called on Kashani.3 As released to the press by Kashani, the interview was practically a Kashani monologue. A few pertinent remarks from the published version of the interview follows:

“I must tell you plainly, Mr. Harriman, that we have been oppressed and robbed by the former oil company for fifty years” . . . . “Now four hundred Moslems have pinned their hopes on our country. All the Moslem countries expect us to break the chain put on our feet by British imperialist exploitation . . .” “Should Dr. Mosadeq compromise, he will lose the sincere support he is now receiving from the people” . . . . “I am now working for the union of the Moslem nations, and also for the union of the peoples of the East. As I told you, I am trying my best to unite my four hundred million Moslem brethren, who should be united and who should maintain complete neutrality”.

Shortly after the Harriman interview, Kashani was spurred to more intense efforts. He spoke now with ever greater authority. He addressed a message to the people of Khazistan expressing his appreciation of their patriotism and assistance:

“I expect every effort will be exerted to maintain order . . . . and to support the government of His Excellency Dr. Mosadeq, and the appropriation committee which is working for the benefit of the workers of Khazistan. I pray that God Almighty will bestow health, happiness and tranquility upon my dear brethren and that the hands of the merciless foreigners will be severed. In conclusion, I should point out that the return to Tehran of His Excellency Hosein Makki, honorable deputy from Tehran, is temporary and only for medical treatment. He will return shortly.”

Kashani then addressed messages to Prime Ministers Nehru of India and Liaqat Ali Khan of Pakistan calling upon them amicable to settle the Kashmir dispute. He received a reply from both Prime Ministers.

To digress for a moment at this point, when Reza Shah decided to break the power of the clergy in Iran one of his first acts was to strike at its finances. He confiscated the ecclesiastical properties and the managers of the properties were made civil functionaries of the Ministry of Education. In recent years, despite the growing influence of the clergy no attempt has as yet been put forth by that clergy to revise the funda[Page 130]mental laws made by Reza Shah which stripped it of its power. It is to the Minister of Education that Kashani now addressed himself. In a letter to him Kashani urged the Minister to make certain changes in order to conform to the regulations of Islam. The letter closes:

“I seriously request your Excellency to issue prompt instructions regarding the foregoing points and expect that you will advise us of any decision you make to this effect.”

The next move was for The Right Honorable Richard Stokes to pay him a visit. He, like Mr. Harriman, was subjected to a long harangue. His repeated requests for permission to leave were ignored while Kashani talked on. It was during this interview that Kashani made the following remark:

“Even Dr. Mosadeq, who enjoys the unanimous support of the people, if he deviated from the nine article law, risks losing not only his prestige but also risks suffering the same fate as Razmara”.

To Kashani this means anyone deviating from the path of nationalization as now laid down by Kashani “risks suffering the same fate as Razmara”.

After the satisfaction of his interview with Mr. Stokes another flow of “messages” may be expected. The first has already appeared. It is Kashani’s message to Pakistan on the occasion of its fourth anniversary of independence. The message ends:

“In conclusion I avail myself of the opportunity to strongly recommend to the authorities, the nation and the press of Pakistan to continue its previous policy of friendship with its Indian neighbor and not to take any steps that would undermine the satisfactory solution of existing differences.”

As evidence of his expanding activities the Tehran newspaper Keyhan, of August 16 reports the following:

“The correspondent of the newspaper Al Masri has reported that Haji Amin-ol-Hoseini, the Grand Mufti of Palestine, is a staunch supporter of Ayatollah Kashani. His representative, Mr. Seyid Abdul Jalil Ankar is now in Tehran to meet Ayatollah Kashani, bringing letters from the Mufti addressed to him . . .”

Conclusion:

In Kashani’s career there is a thin thread of consistency. Through-out, he has opposed British interference in Iranian affairs. The consistency ends there, except perhaps for his opportunism. CAS reports that he can be bribed. He has at least on one occasion made overtures to the American Embassy here for financial support in return for which, presumably, he would support United States policies.

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He has fantastic delusions of grandeur which until recently had little basis in fact. Events, however, have moved in his favor. His political stature has been inflated by the publicity accorded him in the foreign press and the prestige given him by the fact that Mr. Harriman and Mr. Stokes called on him. Their interviews have been exploited to the maximum by Kashani.

Although his stature has grown over the last few months, Kashani has not attained the overwhelming influence which he believes he has and which he would have others believe he has. Despite his present prominence in Iranian political affairs, there is no doubt that his pretensions vastly exceed his capabilities. As has been pointed out that prominence came about by circumstances having but a fortuitous relationship with his character and less with any personal political convictions. There is, therefore, little basis for it. He would fall from his relatively influential position as soon as its thin props were removed.

His reputation as a religious leader is not supported by his colleagues whose influence in educated circles far exceed that of Kashani. While his bombast and threats are effective in the current tense atmosphere, he probably would fail to withstand a determined attack against him by any government with the support of reputable religious leaders who would expose the shallowness of the man and the exaggerated character of his pretensions.

For the Ambassador:

Arthur L. Richards
Counselor of Embassy
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 84, Tehran Embassy Files, 1950–1952, classified general records, Box 24. Secret. Drafted by Cuomo. The despatch was originally prepared as a memorandum, dated August 17, and then sent as a despatch on August 20.
  2. Embassy Despatch No. 382 of June 22, 1950. [Footnote is in the original. Despatch 382 from Tehran is ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1950–1954, 788.00/6–2250.]
  3. The Harriman Mission, composed of W. Averell Harriman, William M. Rountree, Walter Levy, and General Landry, traveled to Iran on July 13 in order to encourage a solution to the oil dispute between Iran and the United Kingdom. Harriman left Tehran on August 25. Richard Stokes, Lord Privy Seal, led the British delegation to Iran that remained in Tehran from August 4 to August 23 at which time talks between the British and the Iranians were suspended. For extensive documentation on the Harriman Mission, see Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, vol. X, Iran, 1951–1954, pp. 88–173 (Documents 3991).