Mosaddegh was born to a prominent family of high officials in Tehran on 16 June 1882; his father, Mirza Hideyatu'llah Ashtiani, was a finance minister under the Qajar dynasty, and his mother, Shahzadi Malika Taj Khanum, was the granddaughter of the reformist Qajar prince Abbas Mirza, and a great granddaughter of Fat′h-Ali Shah Qajar. When Mosaddegh's father died in 1892, his uncle was appointed the tax collector of the Khorasan province and was bestowed with the title of Mosaddegh-os-Saltaneh by Nasser al-Din Shah. Mosaddegh himself later bore the same title, by which he was still known to some long after titles were abolished.
In 1901, Mosaddegh married Zahra Khanum (1879–1965), a granddaughter of Nasser al-Din Shah through her mother. The couple had five children, two sons (Ahmad and Ghulam Hussein) and three daughters (Mansura, Zia Ashraf and Khadija).
In 1909, Mosaddegh pursued education abroad in Paris, France where he studied law at the Institut d'etudes politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). He studied there for 2 years, returning to Iran because of illness in 1911. After 5 months, Mosaddegh returned to Europe to study a Doctorate of Laws (doctorat en droit) at the University of Neuchatel in Switzerland. In June 1913, Mosaddegh received his doctorate and in doing so became the first Iranian to receive a PhD in Law from a European university.
Mosaddegh taught at the Tehran School of Political Science at the start of World War I before beginning his political career.
Mosaddegh started his political career with the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-07. At the age of 24, he was elected from Isfahan to the newly inaugurated Persian Parliament, the Majlis of Iran. During this period he also served as deputy leader of the Humanitarian Society, Jameeyate Ensaniat, under Mostowfi ol-Mamalek. In protest at the Anglo-Persian Treaty of 1919, he relocated to Switzerland, from where he returned the following year after being invited by the new Iranian prime minister, Hassan Pirnia (Moshir-ed-Dowleh), to become his minister of justice. While en route to Tehran, he was asked by the people of Shiraz to become the governor of the Fars Province. He was later appointed finance minister, in the government of Ahmad Qavam (Qavam os-Saltaneh) in 1921, and then foreign minister in the government of Moshir-ed-Dowleh in June 1923. He then became governor of the Azerbaijan Province. In 1923, he was re-elected to the Majlis.
In 1925, the supporters of Reza Khan in the Majlis proposed legislation to dissolve the Qajar dynasty and appoint Reza Khan the new Shah. Mossadegh voted against such a move, arguing that such an act was a subversion of the 1906 Iranian constitution. He gave a speech in the Majlis, praising Reza Khan's achievements as prime minister, while encouraging him to respect the constitution and stay as the prime minister. On 12 December 1925, the Majlis deposed the young Shah Ahmad Shah Qajar, and declared Reza Shah the new monarch of the Imperial State of Persia, and the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. Mosaddegh then retired from politics, due to disagreements with the new regime.
In 1941, Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced by the British to abdicate in favor of his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1944, Mosaddegh was once again elected to parliament. This time he took the lead of Jebhe Melli (National Front of Iran), an organization he had founded with nineteen others such as Hossein Fatemi, Ahmad Zirakzadeh, Ali Shayegan and Karim Sanjabi, aiming to establish democracy and end the foreign presence in Iranian politics, especially by nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company's (AIOC) operations in Iran. In 1947 Mossadegh once again announced retirement, after an electoral-reform bill he had proposed failed to pass through Majlis.
On 28 April 1951, the Shah appointed Mossadegh as Prime Minister after the Majlis (Parliament of Iran) nominated Mosaddegh by a vote of 79–12. The Shah was aware of Mosaddegh's rising popularity and political power, after a period of assassinations and political unrest by the National Front.
The new administration introduced a wide range of social reforms: unemployment compensation was introduced, factory owners were ordered to pay benefits to sick and injured workers, and peasants were freed from forced labor in their landlords' estates. Twenty percent of the money landlords received in rent was placed in a fund to pay for development projects such as public baths, rural housing, and pest control.
On 1 May, Mosaddegh nationalized the AIOC, cancelling its oil concession (expired in 1993) and expropriating its assets. The next month, a committee of five majlis deputies was sent to Khuzistan to enforce the nationalization. Mosaddegh explained his nationalization policy in a 21 June 1951 speech:
The confrontation between Iran and Britain escalated as Mosaddegh's government refused to allow the British any involvement in Iran's oil industry, and Britain made sure Iran could sell no oil. In July, Mosaddegh broke off negotiations with AIOC after it threatened to "pull out its employees", and told owners of oil tanker ships that "receipts from the Iranian government would not be accepted on the world market." Two months later the AIOC evacuated its technicians and closed down the oil installations. Under nationalized management many refineries lacked the trained technicians that were needed to continue production. The British government announced a de facto blockade, reinforced its naval force in the Persian Gulf and lodged complaints against Iran before the United Nations Security Council.
The British government also threatened legal action against purchasers of oil produced in the formerly British-controlled refineries and obtained an agreement with its sister international oil companies not to fill in where the AIOC was boycotting Iran. The entire Iranian oil industry came to a virtual standstill, oil production dropping from 241,400,000 barrels (38,380,000 m3) in 1950 to 10,600,000 barrels (1,690,000 m3) in 1952. This Abadan Crisis reduced Iran's oil income to almost nothing, putting a severe strain on the implementation of Mosaddegh's promised domestic reforms. At the same time, BP and Aramco doubled their production in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, to make up for lost production in Iran so that no hardship was felt in Britain.
Still enormously popular in late 1951, Mosaddegh called elections. His base of support was in urban areas and not in the provinces. This fact was reflected in the rejection of Mosaddegh's bill for electoral reform (which no longer disqualified illiterates from electoral participation) by the conservative bloc, on the grounds that it would "unjustly discriminate patriots who had been voting for the last forty years".
According to Ervand Abrahamian: "Realizing that the opposition would take the vast majority of the provincial seats, Mosaddegh stopped the voting as soon as 79 deputies – just enough to form a parliamentary quorum — had been elected." An alternative account is offered by Stephen Kinzer. Beginning in the early 1950s under the guidance of C.M. Woodhouse, chief of the British intelligence station in Tehran, Britain's covert operations network had funneled roughly £10,000 per month to the Rashidian brothers (two of Iran's most influential royalists) in the hope of buying off, according to CIA estimates, "the armed forces, the Majlis (Iranian parliament), religious leaders, the press, street gangs, politicians and other influential figures". Thus, in his statement asserting electoral manipulation by "foreign agents", Mosaddegh suspended the elections. His National Front party had made up 30 of the 79 deputies elected. Yet none of those present vetoed the statement, and the elections were postponed indefinitely. The 17th Majlis convened on February 1952.
Tension soon began to escalate in the Majlis. Conservative opponents refused to grant Mosaddegh special powers to deal with the economic crisis caused by the sharp drop in revenue and voiced regional grievances against the capital Tehran, while the National Front waged "a propaganda war against the landed upper class".
On 16 July 1952, during the royal approval of his new cabinet, Mosaddegh insisted on the constitutional prerogative of the Prime Minister to name a Minister of War and the Chief of Staff, something the Shah had done up to that point. The Shah refused, seeing it as a means for Mosaddegh to consolidate his power over the government at the expense of the monarchy. In response, Mosaddegh announced his resignation appealing directly to the public for support, pronouncing that "in the present situation, the struggle started by the Iranian people cannot be brought to a victorious conclusion".
Veteran politician Ahmad Qavam (also known as Ghavam os-Saltaneh) was appointed as Iran's new Prime Minister. On the day of his appointment, he announced his intention to resume negotiations with the British to end the oil dispute, a reversal of Mosaddegh's policy. The National Front—along with various Nationalist, Islamist, and socialist parties and groups—including Tudeh—responded by calling for protests, assassinations of the Shah and other royalists, strikes and mass demonstrations in favor of Mosaddegh. Major strikes broke out in all of Iran's major towns, with the Bazaar closing down in Tehran. Over 250 demonstrators in Tehran, Hamadan, Ahvaz, Isfahan, and Kermanshah were killed or suffered serious injuries.
After five days of mass demonstrations on Siyeh-i Tir (the 30th of Tir on the Iranian calendar), military commanders ordered their troops back to barracks, fearful of overstraining the enlisted men's loyalty and left Tehran in the hands of the protesters. Frightened by the unrest, Shah dismissed Qavam and re-appointed Mosaddegh, granting him the full control of the military he had previously demanded.
More popular than ever, a greatly strengthened Mosaddegh convinced parliament to grant him emergency powers for six months to "decree any law he felt necessary for obtaining not only financial solvency, but also electoral, judicial, and educational reforms". Majlis deputies elected Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani as House Speaker. Kashani's Islamic scholars, as well as the Tudeh Party, proved to be two of Mosaddegh's key political allies, although relations with both were often strained.
With his emergency powers, Mosaddegh tried to strengthen the democratic political institutions by limiting the monarchy's powers, cutting the Shah's personal budget, forbidding him to communicate directly with foreign diplomats, transferring royal lands back to the state and expelling his politically active sister Ashraf Pahlavi.
In January 1953, Mosaddegh successfully pressed Parliament to extend his emergency powers for another 12 months. With these powers, he decreed a land reform law that established village councils and increased the peasants' share of production. This weakened the landed aristocracy, abolishing Iran's centuries-old feudal agriculture sector, replacing it with a system of collective farming and government land ownership. Mosaddegh saw these reforms as a means of checking the power of the Tudeh Party, which had been agitating for general land reform among the peasants.
However, during this time Iranians were "becoming poorer and unhappier by the day" thanks to the British boycott. As Mosaddegh's political coalition began to fray, his enemies increased in number.
Partly through the efforts of Iranians working as British agents, several former members of Mosaddegh's coalition turned against him. They included Mozzafar Baghai, head of the worker-based Toilers party; Hussein Makki, who had helped lead the takeover of the Abadan refinery and was at one point considered Mosadegh's heir apparent; and most outspokenly Ayatollah Kashani, who damned Mosaddegh with the "vitriol he had once reserved for the British".
The British government had grown increasingly distressed over Mosaddegh's policies and were especially bitter over the loss of their control of the Iranian oil industry. Repeated attempts to reach a settlement had failed, and, in October 1952, Mosaddegh declared Britain an enemy and cut all diplomatic relations.
Engulfed in a variety of problems following World War II, Britain was unable to resolve the issue single-handedly and looked towards the United States to settle the matter. Initially, the USA had opposed British policies. After mediation had failed several times to bring about a settlement, American Secretary of State Dean Acheson concluded that the British were "destructive, and determined on a rule-or-ruin policy in Iran."
The American position shifted in late 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected U.S. President. In November and December, British intelligence officials suggested to American intelligence that the prime minister should be ousted. British prime minister Winston Churchill suggested to the incoming Eisenhower administration that Mossadegh, despite his open disgust with socialism, was, or would become, dependent on the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, resulting in Iran "increasingly turning towards communism" and towards the Soviet sphere at a time of high Cold War fears. After the Eisenhower administration had entered office in early 1953, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to work together toward Mosaddegh's removal and began to publicly denounce Mosaddegh's policies for Iran as harmful to the country. In the meantime, the already precarious alliance between Mosaddegh and Kashani was severed in January 1953, when Kashani opposed Mosaddegh's demand that his increased powers be extended for a period of one year.
In March 1953, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles directed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which was headed by his younger brother Allen Dulles, to draft plans to overthrow Mossadegh. On 4 April 1953, Allen Dulles approved $1 million to be used "in any way that would bring about the fall of Mosaddegh". Soon the CIA's Tehran station started to launch a propaganda campaign against Mossadegh. Finally, according to The New York Times, in early June, American and British intelligence officials met again, this time in Beirut, and put the finishing touches on the strategy. Soon afterward, according to his later published accounts, the chief of the CIA's Near East and Africa division, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. the grandson of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, arrived in Tehran to direct it. In 2000, The New York Times made partial publication of a leaked CIA document titled Clandestine Service History – Overthrow of Premier Mosaddegh of Iran – November 1952-August 1953.
The plot, known as Operation Ajax, centered on convincing Iran's monarch to issue a decree to dismiss Mossadegh from office, as he had attempted some months earlier. But the Shah was terrified to attempt such a dangerously unpopular and legally questionable move, and it would take much persuasion and many U.S. funded meetings, which included bribing his sister Ashraf with a mink coat and money, to successfully change his mind.
Mosaddegh became aware of the plots against him and grew increasingly wary of conspirators acting within his government. According to Dr. Donald N. Wilber, who was involved in the plot to remove Mossadegh from power, in early August, Iranian CIA operatives pretending to be socialists and nationalists threatened Muslim leaders with "savage punishment if they opposed Mossadegh," thereby giving the impression that Mossadegh was cracking down on dissent, and stirring anti-Mossadegh sentiments within the religious community. A referendum to dissolve parliament and give the prime minister power to make law was submitted to voters, and it passed with 99 percent approval, 2,043,300 votes to 1300 votes against. According to Mark J. Gasiorowski, "There were separate polling stations for yes and no votes, producing sharp criticism of Mosaddeq" and that the "controversial referendum...gave the CIA's precoup propaganda campaign an easy target". On or around 16 August, Parliament was suspended indefinitely, and Mosaddeq's emergency powers were extended.
In August 1953, the Shah finally agreed to Mossadegh's overthrow, after Roosevelt said that the United States would proceed with or without him, and formally dismissed the prime minister in a written decree, an act that had been made part of the constitution during the Constitution Assembly of 1949, convened under martial law, at which time the power of the monarchy was increased in various ways by the Shah himself. As a precautionary measure, he flew to Baghdad and from there hid safely in Rome. He actually signed two decrees, one dismissing Mosaddegh and the other nominating the CIA's choice, General Fazlollah Zahedi, as Prime Minister. These decrees, called Farmans, were specifically written as dictated by Donald Wilber, the CIA architect of the plan, and were designed as a major part of Wilber's strategy to give the impression of legitimacy to the secret coup, as can be read in the declassified plan itself, which bears his name.
Soon, massive protests, engineered by Roosevelt's team, took place across the city and elsewhere with tribesmen paid to be at the ready to assist the coup. Anti- and pro-monarchy protesters, both paid by Roosevelt, violently clashed in the streets, looting and burning mosques and newspapers, leaving almost 300 dead. The pro-monarchy leadership, chosen, hidden and finally unleashed at the right moment by the CIA team, led by retired army General and former Minister of Interior in Mosaddegh's cabinet, Fazlollah Zahedi joined with underground figures such as the Rashidian brothers and local strongman Shaban Jafari, to gain the upper hand on 19 August 1953 (28 Mordad). The military joined on cue: pro-Shah tank regiments stormed the capital and bombarded the prime minister's official residence, on Roosevelt's cue, according to his book. Mosaddegh managed to flee from the mob that set in to ransack his house, and, the following day, surrendered to General Zahedi, who was meanwhile set up by the CIA with makeshift headquarters at the Officers' Club. Mosaddegh was arrested at the Officers' Club and transferred to a military jail shortly after. On 22 August, the Shah returned from Rome.
Zahedi's new government soon reached an agreement with foreign oil companies to form a consortium and "restore the flow of Iranian oil to world markets in substantial quantities", giving the United States and Great Britain the lion's share of Iran's oil. In return, the US massively funded the Shah's resulting government, including his army and secret police force, SAVAK, until the Shah's overthrow in 1979.
As soon as the coup succeeded, many of Mosaddegh's former associates and supporters were tried, imprisoned, and tortured. Some were sentenced to death and executed. The minister of foreign affairs and the closest associate of Mosaddegh, Hossein Fatemi, was executed by order of the Shah's military court. The order was carried out by firing squad on 29 October 1953.
On 21 December 1953, he was sentenced to three years' solitary confinement in a military prison, well short of the death sentence requested by prosecutors. Upon hearing of his sentence Mossadegh is reported to have said "The verdict of this court has increased my historical glories. I am extremely grateful you convicted me. Truly tonight the Iranian nation understood the meaning of constitutionalism."
He was kept under house arrest at his Ahmadabad residence, until his death on 5 March 1967.
The secret U.S. overthrow of Mosaddegh served as a rallying point in anti-US protests during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and to this day he is one of the most popular figures in Iranian history.
The withdrawal of support for Mosaddegh by the powerful Shia clergy has been regarded as having been motivated by their fear of the chaos of a communist takeover. Some argue that while many elements of Mosaddegh's coalition abandoned him it was the loss of support from Ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani and other clergy that was fatal to his cause, reflective of the dominance of the Ulema in Iranian society and a portent of the Islamic Revolution to come. The loss of the political clerics effectively cut Mosaddegh's connections with the lower middle classes and the Iranian masses which are crucial to any popular movement in Iran.
The US role in Mosaddegh's overthrow was not formally acknowledged for many years, although the Eisenhower administration vehemently opposed Mossadegh's policies. President Eisenhower wrote angrily about Mosaddegh in his memoirs, describing him as impractical and naive. However, Eisenhower did not admit any involvement with the coup.
Eventually the CIA's involvement with the coup was exposed. This caused controversy within the organization and the CIA congressional hearings of the 1970s. CIA supporters maintained that the coup was strategically necessary, and praised the efficiency of the agents responsible. Critics say the scheme was paranoid, colonial, illegal, and immoral—and truly caused the "blowback" suggested in the pre-coup analysis. The extent of this "blowback," over time, was not completely clear to the CIA, as they had an inaccurate picture of the stability of the Shah's regime. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 caught the CIA and the US very much off guard (as CIA reporting a mere month earlier predicted no imminent insurrectionary turbulence whatsoever for the Shah's regime), and resulted in the overthrow of the Shah by a fundamentalist faction opposed to the US, headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. In retrospect, not only did the CIA and the US underestimate the extent of popular discontent for the Shah, but much of that discontent historically stemmed from the removal of Mosaddegh and the subsequent clientelism of the Shah. The US-backed coup, in effect, had ended Iran's last fully democratic government, and there would be no return of democracy even after the Shah's removal.
In March 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated her regret that Mosaddegh was ousted: "The Eisenhower administration 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 the same year, The New York Times published a detailed report about the coup based on declassified CIA documents.
In early 2004, the Egyptian government changed a street name in Cairo from Pahlavi to Mosaddegh to improve relations with Iran.Mosaddegh was named man of the year in 1951 by Time. Others considered for that year's title included Dean Acheson, General (and future President) Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur.
The figure of Mosaddegh was an important element in the 2003 French TV production Soraya, which deals with the life of the Shah's second wife and former Queen of Iran, Princess Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari. Mosaddegh's role was played by the French actor Claude Brasseur.
A short 24 minute film named Mossadegh, directed by Roozbeh Dadvand, was released in 2011. The role of Mosaddegh was played by Iranian-American actor, David Diaan.
An independent video game called The Cat and the Coup was released in 2011. It features the player playing as Mosaddegh's cat reversing Mossaddegh's life to the beginning.
During the 2012 Republican presidential primary debates, Texas congressman Ron Paul stated that Iran has become a theocratic dictatorship because of the CIA-backed coup in 1953.
The 1953 coup and the life of Mosaddegh were the subject of the 2012 Link TV documentary American Coup.