Muhammad Reza, who was a great votary of secularism and Western culture, introduced sweeping changes in education, law and public behaviour. He considered the views of the Shia clergy retrogressive and tried to downsize their role and influence in public life. Religious institutions were placed under the control of the government and deprived of much of their authority and resources. There were widespread protests and demonstrations against the Shah’s policies, which were ruthlessly suppressed. The Shah’s autocratic rule, widespread violation of human rights, growing dependence on Western countries and the attempt to impose Western modernity on the people generated a great deal of resentment and anger across the country.
The Coup of 1953
Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq (or Mossadegh) was an expert on law and constitution, a prominent parliamentarian, a staunch nationalist and an able administrator. He was head of the National Front Party and was democratically elected as Iran’s prime minister in 1951 amid political uncertainty and chaos. Shortly after assuming office, Mosaddeq introduced a range of political, economic and social reforms, including social security and agrarian reforms. His most important decision was the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, which has been under the control of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) – later renamed British Petroleum or BP -- since 1913. AIOC, which provided cheap oil to Britain and garnered the bulk of the revenues from oil exports, was widely perceived by the Iranian people as a tool of British imperialism.
The British government was immensely incensed by Mosaddeq’s drastic decision because it meant the loss of a most valuable foreign asset and easy source of cheap oil for the country. Britain considered Mosaddeq a serious threat to its strategic and economic interests and therefore launched an all-out offensive against the Mosaddeq government and called for the boycott of Iranian oil.
The American CIA and the British intelligence agency M16 planned and orchestrated a military coup to overthrow the Mosaddeq government. The plot – codenamed “TPAJAX” –was approved by the British prime minister Winston Churchill and the US president Dwight D. Eisenhower. The CIA and the British intelligence agency launched the plot by unleashing massive anti-Mosaddeq propaganda, bribing members of the Iranian parliament and high-ranking army officials, funding public protests and rallies and fomenting riots and mayhem with a view to discredit the government. An amount of $1 million was allocated for the execution of the plot. The CIA planted fabricated stories against Mosaddeq in the media in Iran and the United States. Dreaded Iranian ruffians and mobsters were hired by the CIA to stage pro-Shah protests and to create a situation of unrest and turmoil. The agency also enlisted the support of Reza Shah Pahlavi and urged him to sack Mosaddqeq as prime minister and to nominate the CIA’s and M16’s hand-picked choice, General Fazlollah Zahedi. The king signed the decrees and fled to Rome. Many of Mosaddeq’s supporters were imprisoned and some were executed. More than 800 people were killed in the army crackdown. Mosaddeq’s house was ransacked and destroyed and he was charged with treason and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Following the overthrow of the Mosaddeq government, General Fazlollah Zahedi became prime minister. His government soon signed an agreement with Western oil companies to the effect that the flow of Iranian oil to world markets, especially to Britain and the United States, would soon be restored. In return, the US gave $5 million to the new government. The Shah returned from Rome and reinstalled as king with the backing of the US and Britain and began his rule as an absolute autocrat until he was overthrown in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
The involvement of the CIA and the British intelligence agency in the coup has long been pubic knowledge and every school child in Iran knows about it, but the CIA and the British government have always denied their role. Soon after his inauguration as US president in 2009, Barack Obama acknowledged, in his speech in Cairo, the role of the US in the coup, saying, “In the middle of the Cold War, the US played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.”
On August 19, 2013, the independent National Security Archive Research Institute at George Washington University, Washington, DC, published declassified documents, obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act, which explicitly demonstrate the involvement of the CIA in the coup. The CIA’s confession of its involvement in the coup is revealed in an excerpt from an internal CIA report titled “The Battle for Iran” written by an in-house historian in the mid-1970s, which says: “The military coup that overthrew Mosadeg (sic) in his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.” The CIA documents include a draft internal history of the coup titled “Campaign to install a pro-Western government in Iran,” which defines the objective of the campaign as the fall of the Mosaddeq government and its replacement with “a pro-Western government under the Shah’s leadership with Zahedi as its prime minister”. The coup was predominantly a British operation, motivated by geopolitical and economic considerations, and was jointly carried out by the British and American intelligence agencies. Washington decided to join the plot as it would provide easy access to cheap oil and would draw Iran to its orbit of influence.
The project of secular modernity launched by the Shah of Iran had a far-reaching influence on the country, particularly in the cities. However, the overwhelming majority of Iranians continued to consider Islam as the mainspring of their identity, commitment and hopes and aspirations. Iran’s Shi’i ulama, who scrupulously and steadfastly guarded their doctrinal, institutional and financial independence, continued to guide and steer the religious and cultural life of Iranian Muslims through a country-wide network of mosques, madrasas and shrines and reinforced societal cohesiveness through regular religious discourses. On the other hand, a small group of university-educated intellectuals and thinkers, notably Mohandis Bazargan and Ali Shariati, sought to synthesise Islamic traditions with modern Western ideas.
Ali Shariati (1933-1977) was born in a highly respectable family in Sabzvar in northeastern Iran. He received his early education from his father, Muhammad Taqi Shariati, who was an erudite scholar and one of the foremost Shi’I ulama of his time. Ali Shariati continued his studies in Mashhad and at the same time became involved in social and political activities in a climate of uncertainty and turmoil which followed the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953.
Shariati was imprisoned for several months for his anti-Shah activities. In 1959 he travelled to France to pursue studies in sociology. He stayed in Paris for about five years, at the end of which he obtained a doctorate in sociology from the University of Paris. During his stay in Paris, Shariati was considerably influenced by the eminent French Orientalists Louis Massignon (1883-1962) and Jacques Berque (1910-1995). Both Massignon and Berque had a positive and sympathetic attitude towards Islam and Islamic civilization. Shariati was also influenced by the Russian-born French sociologist Georges Gurvitch (1894-1965), the French-Algerian psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary writer Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) and Che Guevara (1928-1967), the Argentine Marxist revolutionary writer and guerrilla leader who played a major role in the Cuban revolution. Shariati translated parts of Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth into Persian.
The most profound influence on Shariati came from the ideas of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). Shariati believed that the laws governing an ideal society are clearly set out in the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah. He emphasized the relevance of Islamic teachings and principles to present times and argued that Islam provided a viable alternative to both capitalism and Marxism. Shariati was highly critical of Western imperialism which had led to the enslavement of millions of people in Africa and Asia. However, he did not favour a wholesale or uncritical rejection of Western culture and ideas. Rather, he argued that science and modernity should be appropriated within the overarching framework of Islamic values and traditions and Iranian culture.
During his stay in Paris, Shariati was closely associated with Iranian groups and organisations that were opposed to the Shah regime. When he returned to Iran in 1964, he was promptly arrested by the police. However, an international outcry and protest led to his release after a few months. Shariati took up a teaching assignment at the University of Mashhad but he was compelled to resign after a few months. He then began lecturing, informally, at the Husayniya-i-Irshad, a highly respected institution of religious studies in Tehran. His lectures became highly popular among students and intellectuals and fuelled the anger and resentment against the Shah. Alarmed by the rising levels of anti-Shah sentiments as a result of Shariati’s lectures, the authorities ordered the closure of the institution and arrested him. After his release Shariati travelled to England, where he died under mysterious circumstances in 1977. He did not live to witness the realisation of his dream in the form of the Iranian Revolution.
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was exiled by the Shah for his opposition to state policies, gave a call to the Iranian people to overthrow the Shah’s regime, which brought together the Shia clergy, merchants, professionals, students, journalists and men and women from different strata of society. A countrywide network of people and institutions, including an estimated 60,000 to 200,000 mullahs with ties to people and some 90,000 mosques located across the country, played a pivotal role in the revolutionary upsurge that ultimately led to the overthrow of the regime. Despite the active support extended by the US to the Shah, public protests grew in intensity and frequency across the country. Khomeini returned to Iran on 1 February 1979 and was enthusiastically received by hundreds of thousands of people. The Shah fled the country in 1979 and the Pehlavi dynasty came to an end.
A perusal of On the Sociology of Islam (1979), a collection of Shariati’s lectures and discourses, shows that the fundamental sources of inspiration in his thought were the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah, as interpreted by the Shi’i ulama. Shariati eschewed idle speculation and arm-chair theorising and believed that knowledge, including sociological knowledge, should be imbued with a concern with social change and reconstruction.