Iran's New Strong Man
This editorial was originally published in the September 5, 1953, issue of The Nation.
Everyone here was amazed that Dr. Mossadegh's tragi-comic portrayal of a nationalist with the qualities of a Gandhi and a Machiavelli had a two-year run on the Persian stage. British critics--and more recently the Americans--thought his performance horrible. But by playing to the Persian gallery, Dr. Mossadegh blocked all attempts to cut it short.
The weeping Prime Minister has now finally been replaced by a chest-thumping militarist who was watching from the right wing and awaiting the nod of the vacillating young occupant of the royal box. The hard-profiled General Zahedi will not play to the gallery and will get no applause from the left. He will seek the plaudits of the large feudal landowners, tribal chieftains, obscurantist religious leaders like Kashani, and reactionary generals like himself. He clearly models his performances on that of the military dictator who made him a general, Reza Shah, the father of the present monarch.
The British public first heard about General Zahedi from Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean, now a Conservative MP, who described his adventures in Iran in 1942 in a book called "Eastern Approaches." At that time Maclean was a heroic counter-intelligence kidnapper, and General Zahedi, then commander of the Persian forces at Isfahan, was a leading Nazi plotter. British and Russian forces had entered Iran in 1941 to safeguard that back door to embattled Russia. The pro-German Reza Shah had been replaced by his son.
German agents were known to be still active in southern Iran, and British counter-intelligence feared a rising of pro-Nazi Persian militarists like General Zahedi to coincide with a German offensive in the Soviet Caucasus and a German air-borne attack on the Allied Tenth Army. "Operation Pongo" was the British answer. A staff car flying the Union Jack drove openly up to General Zahedi's house. When the General came to the door, "he found himself," according to Maclean, "looking down the barrel of my Colt automatic." The General was smuggled out in the staff car with a gun in his ribs and flown off to Palestine.
Maclean wrote in his book: "General Zahedi, though pleasant to meet, was a really bad lot--a bitter enemy of the Allies, a man of unpleasant personal habits, and by virtue of his grain-hoarding activities a source of popular discontent and an obstacle to the efficient administration of South Persia."
After the Allies released him in 1945, General Zahedi became inspector of military forces in southern Iran, just in time to participate in the maneuver which gave the burgeoning Communist-led Tudeh Party its first setback. The Tudeh-led strike in the Abadan oil field in July, 1946, and the inclusion of three Tudeh ministers in the Qavam Cabinet in August, 1946, had frightened the British into counter-action along three lines. British troops were landed in Basra, the Iraqi port adjoining Abadan. The pro-British Iraqi government demanded the "return" of Khuzistan, the Persian province in which Abadan is located. And the tribes in southern Iraq "spontaneously" threatened to revolt unless the Tudeh ministers were excluded from the Cabinet. General Zahedi, long an intimate of the tribal chieftains, acted as intermediary to persuade the very willing Qavam government to "capitulate" to this pressure.
In 1949 General Zahedi resumed the post of chief of the national police which he had held in 1931, a post rich in possibilities for furthering his ambition to become Prime Minister of an ultra-rightist government. But the more moderate and modern-minded General Razmara also had his eye on the premiership, with the backing of the Shah and Britain, and got Zahedi replaced by his own man. The Shah then named Zahedi to the Senate.
The general'S present starring role is the climax of two years of wily maneuvers off stage and on. When Dr. Mossadegh in May, 1951, formed the government which nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, General Zahedi participated as Minister of the Interior. At this stage Dr. Mossadegh was anxious to carry with him the Shah and his right-wing military supporters. Zahedi was dismissed from the government three months later when it was disclosed by British correspondents that he was being groomed to be Mossadegh's successor by the court and the British embassy.
Out of the government, General Zahedi became leader of the influential Retired Officers' Association, whose numbers mounted as Mossadegh purged the army of 200 right-wing senior officers considered sympathetic to the Shah and likely to be used by him to oust the Premier. When the wily Zahedi saw the Mossadegh-Kashani alliance weakening last autumn, he entered into negotiations with the Mullah. Mossadegh retaliated by announcing he had quashed a "foreign-aided plot which aimed to make General Zahedi Prime Minister." As a senator Zahedi was immune from arrest, and from the Senate floor he accused Mossadegh of political blackmail, rigging the elections, creating moral and material chaos, and deceiving the nation with hypocritical claims. Within a few days Mossadegh cut a senator's term of office from six to two years, thus ending Zahedi's immunity.
Events now suggested that an army-court coup was maturing. In mid-February the Bakhtiari tribes--the Shah's wife, Soraya, is half-Bakhtiari and half-German--started a minor revolt. At the end of February, Zahedi was arrested and accused of planning to set up a shadow Cabinet to take over from Mossadegh. Two days later many members of his Retired Officers' Association, in conjunction with Kashani's followers, led the demonstrations which persuaded the Shah to change his plans for leaving the country. Dr. Mossadegh, always fearful of an army coup in the name of the Shah, renewed his effort to eliminate the Shah as commander-in-chief.
Zahedi was barely out of prison when he was linked to the kidnapping, torture, and murder of the chief of police, Brigadier Afshartous, in April.
The Communists gave General Zahedi his chance to be Iran's "man on horseback." The Shah was becoming clearly impatient with Mossadegh's efforts to depose him, win control of the army, and set up a dictatorship. Mossadegh was losing popular support through his quarrel with Kashani and his failure to break the British blockade or halt the decline of Persian currency. The incident which convinced the Shah that he would have American and British support if he overthrew Mossadegh was the demonstration by the Tudeh Communists on July 21, the first anniversary of the death of agitators killed while protesting the July, 1952, dismissal of Mossadegh.
On August 14 the Shah signed the decree dismissing Dr. Mossadegh and appointing General Zahedi Premier. When Dr. Mossadegh did not immediately comply, the Shah fled temporarily, leaving the dirty work to General Zahedi. There was no one in Iran more suitable to undertake it.