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

No. 187


  • Aspects of the Political Environment of the Zahedi Government


There has been a tendency to regard the Mosadeq Government in retrospect as a noble but unsuccessful experiment, and to credit Mosadeq himself with high motives which were thwarted by unworthy advisers and the former Prime Minister’s own faults of character. It is necessary to convict Mosadeq and his advisers of their crimes as soon as possible; delay makes this already thorny problem increasingly difficult. The Zahedi Government has not succeeded in posing as the inheritor of the nationalist movement, but has successfully represented itself as the guardian of the constitution and the monarchy and therefore as the champion of order and stability; its popularity rests in part on the belief that it can achieve and maintain profitable relationships with the West, particularly the United States. Iranians welcome American support of the new Government, and advise us that in their eyes the United States has now, by supporting the Zahedi Government, recognized its responsibilities in Iran; they desire internal political support as well as economic aid from the United States. Iranians also hope to improve their relationships with the nations of the free world, including Britain. Public opinion now seems favorably inclined toward some kind of reasonable settlement of the oil question; however, there will be an opportunity for unscrupulous demagoguery to complicate matters before the problem is finally resolved. Political courage and skill will be required to reconstitute a full-fledged Majlis following Mosadeq’s attempt to destroy this institution. Continued good relations between the Government and the Court are vital to the stability of Iran; the relationship will continue to be subject to disruptive influences.

The Mosadeq Era in Retrospect

The Iranian people’s retrospective assessment of the historical significance of the Mosadeq era is one of the major factors defining the freedom of action of the present and any future governments of Iran.

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One of the seeming paradoxes so frequent in Iranian politics has been the public’s inclination to begin weaving a favorable myth around the Mosadeq Government only a few days after demonstrating an overwhelming desire that Mosadeq be ousted. Even among those who had opposed Mosadeq most bitterly during the final months of his incumbency there are partisans of the belief that the old National Front movement had been a noble if unsuccessful experiment. The Government has begun an information campaign seeking to nullify this impression with limited success to date.

Some Iranians offer the unilateral explanation that the lingering favor for the former Government represents the hold on the public of Mosadeq’s personality. Representatives of all shades of opinion stubbornly cling to the belief that Mosadeq was a patriot sincere in purpose. Most of his strongest critics grant him this much, but condemn him for disqualifying traits of character such as stubborness, inflexibility, and hunger for power. His defenders attempt to blame all the former Government’s shortcomings on Mosadeq’s advisers. This analysis serves to exalt Mosadeq even further: he becomes a sort of demi-god who is too good to live among ordinary Iranians, who frequently seem to take a perverse pride in themselves as a nation of unprincipled Haji Babas.

A somewhat broader explanation of Mosadeq’s continuing reputation proceeds from the nature of the “national movement” which he epitomized. Some anti-Mosadeq observers now admit that the National Front initially had the sympathies, at least in principle, of as many as ninety percent of politically conscious Iranians. It seems evident that nationalism, defined to mean freedom from foreign political influence and economic exploitation, is still an attractive ideal to most Iranians, even those who reject it as impractical or as incompatible with their personal interests. Under these circumstances, at a time when many Iranians feel obliged to compromise on the matter of foreign influences, Mosadeq to some extent symbolizes the nationalist ideal. However, most Iranian observers are inclined to think that Mosadeq’s term as the active leader of the forces of nationalism has ended.

Mosadeq’s Advisers

Public attitudes toward Mosadeq’s advisers are sharply different from those expressed toward the former Prime Minister. Ex-Foreign Minister Hosein Fatemi is probably the best-hated man in modern Iranian history. Anti-Mosadeq elements are hardly less bitter toward Fatemi than are Mosadeq’s most devoted partisans, who put Fatemi in first place among the “unworthy” advisers whom they blame for Mosadeq’s failures. When Fatemi was reported to have been torn to pieces by the mob on August 19, the Iranian public, usually repelled by the idea of physical violence, seemed to welcome the report without a qualm. Efforts to capture him still hold a high place in public interest.

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Next in order of degree of guilt, as judged by the Iranian public, come Deputies Shayegan, Zirakzadeh, Sanjabi and Hasibi. The first three are blamed along with Fatemi for Mosadeq’s cooperation with the Tudeh Party. Hasibi is blamed for contributing to the Mosadeq Government’s failure to achieve a favorable settlement of the oil question; a stronger reason for blame may be, however, that he, like Fatemi, jumped from comparative obscurity to a position of influence without undergoing the requisite political apprenticeship which is normally expected of top-ranking government figures. As in the case of Fatemi, these four advisers are now unpopular with Mosadeq supporters and opponents alike.

Particularly distasteful to anti-Mosadeq Iranians are individuals such as former Ministers Alemi and Sadeqi, who after Mosadeq’s fall professed to have been completely fooled by Mosadeq and to have been entirely unaware of his more flagrantly anti-constitutional intentions. Several prominent Iranians intimated to Embassy officers that the disclaimers of responsibility by Alemi and Sadeqi were in their eyes prime examples of the moral degradation which had accompanied Mosadeq’s destruction of constitutionalism. Referring to these ministers, Dad on September 14 editorialized:

“They allowed themselves to be used for the annihilation of our country, and now that the government has fallen, they are making sorrowful statements to acquit themselves.

“These turncoats who bow before every power are the cause of misery and wretchedness of our fatherland. It is deplorable that a minister who admits that he used to read government decisions in the papers continued in office and drew his salary until the last day of the government.”

Prosecution of Mosadeq and His Advisers

One of the thorniest political problems besetting the new Government is the disposition of the person of Prime Minister Mosadeq and of those of his advisers and supporters who are also accused of treason or deliberate breaches of the constitution. More than a month after Zahedi’s accession, no indictments against them have been rendered. Although the Government maintains that cases are being prepared as fast as possible and occasionally makes general statements of the progress being made, the problem becomes progressively more acute as time goes on. The public generally interprets the Government’s failure to take prompt action as a sign of weakness, and anxiously awaits actual trials; delay has already given time for the pro-Mosadeq legend to grow, and for the feelings of righteous indignation earlier held by part of the public to wane.

Qualified Iranian observers who have discussed this problem with Embassy officers have varying opinions as to the preferable jurisdiction [Page 778] for these trials, but most agree that the choice of a court is of secondary importance. They have been virtually unanimous on three points: 1) the sooner the trials are held and sentences passed, the better for the Zahedi Government; 2) Mosadeq should not be allowed to put his histrionic abilities to work in a public trial if it can possibly be avoided; 3) no harm should come to Mosadeq personally. The most popular formula provides that Mosadeq be tried promptly on charges of treason, in a closed or carefully managed court, and condemned to death, sentence to be commuted by the Shah to permanent exile.

Although there seems to be little question of the advisability of prompt trials, it goes without saying that the trials should be conducted carefully, with an eye to maximum propaganda exploitation. The ostensible reason for the delay in proceeding with the trials is that considerable time is required for formal interrogations and the preparation of indictments. Other possible reasons for the delay have been suggested, most of them purely speculatively: Zahedi may be uneasy, looking backward at the Qavam affair, about establishing a fresh precedent for the punishment of ex-premiers; bribes or blackmail may be at work inside the military judicial machinery which is preparing for the trials; hidden sentiment for Mosadeq the individual may be motivating members of government. Embassy observers find it difficult to credit the popular belief that the Government’s lethargy represents simple “fear” of pro-Mosadeq elements. The simplest and perhaps best explanation of the Government’s slowness in proceeding against Mosadeq is that such processes are always slow-moving in the hands of Iranians.

Neither Government nor public seems very concerned about the chastisement of Mosadeq’s advisers and lieutenants such as former Chief of Staff Riahi; should Fatemi be captured, this situation might well be altered.

Attitudes Toward the Zahedi Government—General Zahedi acceded to the Premiership, not on the basis of what he stood for as a personality, but as the chosen instrument of forces opposed to the destruction of the monarchy and of constitutional government in Iran. He was accepted as the man of the hour capable of assuming “field leadership” of pro-Shah, anti-Mosadeq and anti-Tudeh elements. He gained added prestige as a result of the belief that he was the individual most acceptable to the Western powers, particularly the United States. According to their point of view, various political groups hoped that Zahedi could best draw American support to Iran, or that he could best come to a “realistic” agreement with the British. Armed with the Shah’s firman appointing him Prime Minister, Zahedi was almost unanimously accepted by the popular forces which rose up on August 19 against the Government which had given Iran two years of frustration culminating [Page 779] in the final moves to upset the institutional framework of constitutional government.

Zahedi was widely credited with having saved Iran from “a change of regime”, which many believed would have resulted in a Communist take-over in short order. Almost immediately, however, some possibly disgruntled individuals began to wonder whether Zahedi had not “fulfilled his historic mission”, or whether, at least, he would not have done so after a fairly brief period in which he would devote himself entirely to reestablishing orderly government. On the whole, however, it came to be accepted that Zahedi and his backers expected him to play a larger role. Particularly after the prompt grant of American aid, it was realized that Zahedi could not be expected to step down before his own hand had been tried at the task of reconstruction and reform.

It soon became apparent that Zahedi, despite his personal history as an early partisan of the nationalist movement, and despite the protestations of his supporters that Zahedi was returning the nationalist movement to its proper course, was not being successful in representing himself as the inheritor of the nationalist mantle. The population took it for granted that Zahedi would again accept for Iran the influence of a major power—in this case, the United States. Most of those who regarded foreign influence as undesirable seemed to accept the United States as a less objectionable patron than either Britain or the USSR.

Given this background, it is not surprising that Zahedi’s personal prestige is related to his continued close association with the monarchy and the United States, both of whom carry more prestige with the public under current circumstances.

Despite this tertiary position, Zahedi has maintained his personal predominance over other politicians now “on-stage.” His personal dignity and skill in handling himself publicly have earned him respect; criticism of his government has generally not been directed at Zahedi personally.

Criticism of Zahedi’s subordinates began almost immediately after his rise to power.2 He has not to date satisfied original hopes that he would fill key positions with new faces, capable of supplying real leadership in a program of reconstruction. Although professedly anxious to return to conservative patterns of government, the Iranian public nev[Page 780]ertheless hoped that Zahedi would somewhere find untainted personalities to fill seats of responsibility.

Attitudes Toward the United States—Although most Iranians recognize the fact that truly popular forces manifested themselves spontaneously in the uprising of August 19, they seem equally convinced, however illogically, that the United States was somehow responsible for Zahedi’s success. The United States’ prompt grant of aid, although smaller than many had hoped, served notice to the public that Zahedi’s Government had our full support. America thus gained part of the credit for saving constitutional government in Iran, and her prestige accordingly soared. The consensus was that the United States had at last begun to fulfill her moral “responsibilities” to the Iranian people. The idea that the United States has such “responsibilities” is hardly questioned by Iranians, even by ardent nationalists. The fact of our being a great power in itself implies obligation in their minds, and they have never forgotten Western promises to repay Iran for her “cooperation” during World War II. In the Iranian view, we have now recognized these responsibilities by our backing of Zahedi, which act directly obligates us to “see Iran through”. Iranians of almost every political persuasion are now advising us that Zahedi, or at least the forces which he represents, must succeed, else the United States will “go the way of Britain”. Failure to “make the Zahedi Government succeed” would be a blow of the first magnitude to the American position in Iran.

The “American support” which Iranians are seeking does not consist solely, perhaps not even primarily, of economic aid, although that is an essential factor. “Guidance” and political support within the country are considered a second basic aspect of American aid to Iran. We are told that we must supply ideas as well as finances to the new Government; the more cynical version is that we must “lead the new Government by the hand”.

Although the attitudes described in the above paragraphs are widely held among the public at the present time, it must be kept in mind that the Government itself, as is usual with Iranian Governments receiving support from abroad, can be expected to seek a maximum of aid for a minimum degree of policy control from outside sources. The same can be said for the Shah, whose confidence in his own ability to rule as well as reign has doubtless been strengthened by recent developments. Regardless of these factors, and regardless of the validity of Iranian imputations to the United States of “moral responsibility” for effective government in Iran, the fact remains that a breakdown in such effective government would entail grave consequences to the United States’ position in Iran.

General Attitudes on Foreign Relations—Overt manifestations of Iranians’ innate xenophobia have declined markedly since Zahedi came to [Page 781] power. Simultaneously, there has appeared some evidence that the increasingly isolated position in which Mosadeq’s policies had placed Iran during the past two years had not been to the taste of most educated Iranians. Xenophobic though they may be, on occasion, Iranians are as anxious as any other nationalistically inclined people that their nation be a fully accepted member of the family of nations. The press has recently made repeated criticisms of the Mosadeq regime for having “alienated” Iran’s neighbors and other countries.

Relations with Great Britain—Although it would still be suicidal for an Iranian to espouse friendship with the British openly, a desire to “normalize” relations with the United Kingdom, at least at the diplomatic level, has been frankly expressed in the pro-Government press. Iranians now feel free to declare that Mosadeq’s anti-British policy was too radical, and even to question the reasonableness of having broken diplomatic relations. The sense of insecurity developed during the past two years will not be entirely erased until Iran’s long-run relationship with Britain has been defined. The pro-Government press has frankly admitted that the initiative in seeking this definition should come from the Iranian side. The majority of Iranian observers believe, however, that this initiative might better await the settlement of the oil problem, or at least substantial progress toward such a solution.

These attitudes do not mean that Iranians generally are willing to “give in” to the British, or that the majority of Iranians would welcome a return to the former degree of British influence. The public seems more concerned at the moment with the personal capabilities of their leaders than with the extent to which they may be subject to British influence.

Although the underlying anti-British sentiment of the Iranian people remains, it has become more passive since the futility of blindly anti-British policies has been widely recognized. Since August 19, concomitantly with the improvement of the American position in Iran, British prestige has risen somewhat. This has taken place in a country where prestige has long been a reasonably satisfactory substitute for favorable regard. In any case, Britain may have to continue indefinitely to rely on prestige rather than affection as the basis for achieving a satisfactory modus vivendi with Iran. Her prestige could depend largely on the extent to which she appears to Iranians to be successful in reasserting her influence in Iran.

The Oil Question—Public interest in a settlement of the oil dispute with Great Britain continues to be high. This interest appears to rest primarily on the belief that major oil revenues would of themselves offer promise of general economic betterment, although more sophisticated Iranians recognize that the problem has far wider implications. The belief that Mosadeq mishandled the oil question is widespread, and there [Page 782] is considerable appreciation of the fact that the oil question might long since have been resolved in a manner satisfactory to Iran had not Mosadeq preferred to exploit the problem for internal political purposes.

Although the Iranian public is eager for an oil settlement, the problem remains an extremely sensitive one. The degree of difficulty to be expected in negotiating and implementing an oil settlement depends largely upon the tact with which developments are presented to the public and upon the turn of political events in Iran having little to do with the public’s essential willingness to make this or that concession to the British. The consensus of Iranian opinion consulted is that “if all goes well” the Iranian public would accept a settlement little more favorable than that offered Mosadeq in February of 1953.

Most Iranians, even in high government circles, are as yet insufficiently aware of the factors impeding a prompt settlement of the oil question. For example, the importance to the West of ratification of any such agreement by a full-fledged Majlis is not generally appreciated. The political stresses which will inevitably be created by election campaigns may provide an occasion for individual Iranian politicians to seek to turn the oil question to their personal advantage. Although the Iranian public now evidences a “reasonable” attitude toward the question, it is impossible to predict the extent to which public opinion may be influenced by unscrupulous demogoguery during the next few months.

The Parliamentary Situation 3—Another of the major problems facing the Zahedi Government is the disposition of the 21-member rump Majlis which survived Mosadeq’s efforts to destroy it. Its members show little inclination to disband voluntarily, and the Seventeenth Majlis might well continue to exist in its present anomalous form until the end of its normal term in May, 1954. Although the Majlis has legal status, it cannot conduct regular business, enact legislation, or ratify international agreements in the absence of a quorum. As elections of the Seventeenth Majlis were never completed, it would be theoretically possible to achieve a quorum by holding elections in unrepresented constituencies for the 56 seats which were never filled. This procedure would take less time than full-scale elections of a new Majlis. However, actions such as the ratification of international agreements by such a Majlis might at a later date be repudiated on the ground that the Majlis had been “irregular” even though technically entirely legal.

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Under the above circumstances, and given the importance of finalizing such international agreements as might grow out of negotiations for an oil agreement as soon as possible, the Zahedi Government may be obliged to dissolve the Seventeenth Majlis and proceed to the election of the Eighteenth.4 This procedure entails difficulties. First, the present rump Majlis must be forced by political pressure to dissolve itself, or the Shah must assume the responsibility and invoke his constitutional prerogative to dissolve it. The Government would then have to face the major difficulties inherent in holding elections in Iran, where the actual voting procedures normally required take several months. Holding elections in Iran usually absorbs a major portion of the Government’s energies, and produces tensions which not infrequently result in public disturbances. The resurrection of a full-fledged Majlis following Mosadeq’s efforts to destroy it thus poses a problem which will require both courage and political skill for the Zahedi Government to solve.

The Government and the Shah—The Zahedi Government received from the public on August 19 a mandate to safeguard constitutionalism; the obligation to protect the position of the monarchy was implicit in this mandate. As the public has given little attention thus far to the possibility of friction between Zahedi and the Shah, the subject of their relationship lies beyond the scope of this despatch. It may be observed here, however, that the perennial problem of defining the respective spheres of influence of the Court and the Government has by no means been removed. Although Zahedi and the Shah have no substantive grounds for disagreement, and although each has everything to gain and nothing to lose from continuing cooperation, the habit of various political elements of trying to play one against the other can be expected to threaten their relationship increasingly.

For the Ambassador:

Roy M. Melbourne First Secretary of Embassy
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1950–1954, 788.00/9–2653. Confidential; Security Information. Received October 2. Drafted by John Howison, Second Secretary of Embassy. A handwritten note on the despatch indicates it was read and approved by Henderson.
  2. Embassy Despatch 185 of September 25, 1953, “The Zahedi Cabinet”, gives a more detailed analysis of Iranian attitudes toward the members of the Zahedi Government. [Footnote is in the original. Despatch 185 is in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1950–1954, 788.13/9–2553.]
  3. Omitted from this discussion is the question of the revival of the Senate. There is virtually no politically valent [sic] sentiment for the reestablishment of the Senate, and the absence of a Senate produces no serious difficulties of legislative procedure under the Iranian constitution. [Footnote is in the original.]
  4. See Embassy Despatch 135, of August 16, 1952, for a discussion of electoral procedures. [Footnote is in the original. Despatch 135 was not found.]