Iran: Dictatorship or Democracy?

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Dabir Tehrani’s talk at

2011 Middle East Festival Forum on

Iran: Dictatorship or Democracy?

Sanctuary, Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge,

Edinburgh, EH1 1EL

9 March 2011 - 6.30 - 9.15pm.

To understand the politics of Iran today, we must first understand how the country has arrived to the present status by revisiting some of its history. Up until 1911CE, Iran like many other countries had endured some 2500 years of dictatorships. After a major revolution, which took five years to bear fruit, the Iranians started with a type of Constitutional Monarchy in 1916. That was soon converted to a type of ‘elective dictatorship’ when Reza Shāh came to power, by a coup d'état.

During his rule he managed to have full control and while

reducing the power of clergy and bringing some modernity

to the country, he also successfully manipulated every

election for the National Assembly to his advantage.

His autocratic rule continued until World War II, when

in 1941 he was forced by Anglo-Soviet forces to abdicate

and consequently his 22 year old son, Mohammad Rezā,

was installed as the king. Mohammad Rezā Shāh was partly

educated in Switzerland and initially decided to rule the

country in a similar manner to that of the British

constitution, i.e., with limited involvement of the monarch in politics. He rehabilitated all political personalities who had suffered disgrace during his father’s reign. Thus Iranians enjoyed a relatively democratic regime for a short period of 12 years, 1941-1953. 210px-shah_of_iran

Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, a well respected lawyer educated

in Switzerland, was democratically elected as Prime Minister in

1951. He has been highly regarded by Iranian scholars; in

particular for nationalizing the oil industry a landmark in

Iranian history. He had graciously announced that he would

appropriately compensate the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company

for their losses [1]. Unfortunately, to the great dismay of

many Iranians, he was toppled in a couple of coup d’états,

organized by the American CIA and British SIS, in July & August 1953 [2].

The coups were preceded by a series of extremely violent

pro Mosaddegh and seemingly peaceful anti government

street demonstrations (both types[6] secretly orchestrated

by the CIA [2], with intelligence provided by the SIS).

I, being then a student, witnessed some of the former

street actions. The Shāh, who had escaped the country in

the July’s failed-attempt, was reinstated in the second coup

d’état in August 1953. He promptly arranged for the oil

concessions to be given to the Western oil companies! He then ruled the country brutally for 25 years, until his reign was dismantled by the Islamic Revolution in February 1979, bringing a semi-elective theocratic dictatorship to power, which is still ruling the country. The current regime is even worse than the dictatorship of Reza Shāh and his son, who both had brought some modernity to the country. Mullah’s now rule the country with brutality much more severe than their predecessors and try to impose as much of the Islamic Sharia law on people as they can, with no regard for Human Rights and with corruption dominating their regime.

The U.S. and British actions further solidified sentiments that the West was a meddlesome influence in politics of developing countries. In the year 2000, reflecting on this notion, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright stated:

"In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh. The Eisenhower Administra-tion believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons; but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."

In 1979, the documents obtained by the revolutionary students at the occupied American embassy in Tehran, showed the degree in which the US had meddled with the politics in Iran. They had important media on their payroll and had agents in the key government positions, in private companies and in NGOs. These created an atmosphere of very deep suspicion of, and lack of trust in, Western representatives in Iran.

Albright’s statement that ‘many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America’ is indeed putting it very mildly. In fact many Iranians considered that the organizers of the coup d’état stole [3] not only major part of their oil for 25 years, but also stole their freedom and their right to democratic self rule, on massive scales.

When it comes to their own national interest [3], some powerful countries do not mind meddling with the internal politics of the other countries, changing regimes, putting their puppet governments in power, and then striving for stability.

Currently, stability in Sudan is top priority for China; stability in Arabia is top priority for the USA and these are only two of the very clear examples.

The suspicion of the West has also been extended to the people and leaders of other developing countries such as Venezuela, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, and Gambia.

If you think the 1953 coup d’état is an old story, water-under-the-bridge, see the news in the Times online of October 29, 2009 [4] quoted below:

“Mr. Hossein Rassam, 44, a senior Iranian employee (Political Counselor) of the British Embassy in Tehran has been given a four-year prison sentence after being found guilty of fomenting violence at the behest of the British Government.

Mr. Rassam was one of eight Iranian staff at the British Embassy arrested after mass street protests that erupted in cities across Iran following the disputed re-election of President Ahmadinejad on June 12, 2009.”


A journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization. He answered: 'It's a good idea. They ought to try it'.

  • I would like people to urge the Western governments to be more civilized, put humanity interest before their own national interests [3], be sincere in their advocacy of democracy, avoid meddling with the internal politics of other countries, and avoid supporting dictators who act like their puppets.

  • It would be of great help if we could have an independent and powerful United Nations with a strong ‘democracy watchdog’, monitoring the election processes, for absence of corruptions and absence of any foreign influence, thereby maximizing democracy, and minimizing dictatorship throughout the world.

[1] The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (British) argued that they had an oil agreement with Iranian government, which was still in force in 1952, when the oil industry was nationalized by the government of Iran. They said they had brought investment, technology and know-how to Iran and it was not fair to take the industry over from them. The reasoning brought about by the Iranian government was that during the period of about 50 years of operation in Iran, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had already enjoyed its large share of profits. Iran, like any other nation, had the right to nationalize any of its industries, and reasonably compensate them for any losses so incurred. The British themselves had nationalized some of their own industries prior to 1952. In fact the British took their claim against Iran to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and the court ruled against them and in favour of Iran [5]. That is another strong reason for most Iranians to consider the coup an unjust and unfair action by the USA & the UK.

[2] – Stephen Kinzer, “All the Shah’s Men”, John Wiley & Sons, 2003.

[3] - We have heard a number of high ranking politicians – Presidents, Prime Ministers etc. – proudly saying that the action they took was in ‘their national interest’. This would be fine, if it did not transgress the basic rights of other nations. A thief might say he stole property from a family, in the interest of his own family. This would not be at all a good justification for stealing, would it?

[4] -

[5] -

[6] – By organising pro-Mosaddegh demonstrations, in which the demonstrating mobs were smashing the windows and vandalizing shops, they wanted to show how terrible the supporters of Dr. Mosaddegh were!

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