Newsletter #47: The Coup Against Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh and the Limits of Sovereignty, with Golnar Nikpour and Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi

By Michal Schatz

Months before the Second World War ended, the allied powers were already focusing their sights on a postwar future through the reconfiguration of international governance. On June 26, 1945, fifty countries signed the Charter of the United Nations, inaugurating a new form of international organization that would succeed in maintaining peace where its predecessor, the League of Nations, had failed. The first article of the UN’s founding charter lists among its purposes “the principle of equal rights and self-determination among peoples.”

Leaders from the emerging Third World saw in this principle an opening: the possibility of national sovereignty and guaranteed independence from the colonizing countries. As historians like Margarita Fajardo have shown, in the decades after the war, the UN became an important tool with which newly decolonized countries fought to assert their sovereignty and institute binding international laws to ensure their equal standing with imperial countries on the world stage.

Among the UN’s fifty founding signatories was Iran, whose representatives recognized early on the opportunities with which the new organization presented them. Part two of Golnar Nikpour’s and Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi’s discussion with Dan raises a number of important questions about self-determination as a legal category and offers a vivid account of how difficult attaining and exercising national self-determination was for subjugated countries immediately following the war.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

Eskandar and Golnar emphasize that Mohammad Mosaddegh emerged as the figurehead (and eventually prime minister) for Iran’s postwar movement for self-determination not as a radical, but as an anticolonial nationalist about whom many of Iran’s communist Tudeh Party leaders felt ambiguous if not hostile. Although many of Third Worldist anticolonial leaders who followed him in the 1950s and ’60s were Marxists, Mossadegh was not. Instead, as Christopher Dietrich has shown, Mossadegh’s government attempted to use the UN to reclaim national control through permanent sovereignty over natural resources, particularly oil.

Already, in 1950, Third World countries’ representatives from across the globe began a project to legally tie self-determination to national resource ownership. Iran’s representative to the UN, Jalal Abdoh, was serving as head of the Economic and Financial Committee and undertook the task of transforming the idea into international law. In December 1952, Abdoh’s resolution on permanent sovereignty passed in the UN, to the outrage of the United States and Britain. But as we know from this week’s episode, this formal legal proclamation that Iran was within its rights to self-determination in nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was of no consequence to the British and US who worked with Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, to stage a coup and oust Mosaddegh from power.

Thinking about this week’s episode in relation to Mosaddegh’s government’s involvement in the UN, it’s clear that postcolonial states’ right to self-determination promised in the UN’s founding charter relies on the dominant powers’ willingness to accept the potential loss of control that accompanies that right. Thus far, this is not a sacrifice that countries like the US have been prepared to make.

Even with the connection between the right to self-determination and permanent sovereignty over national resources formally inscribed into international law, the US felt empowered to back a coup against Mosaddegh in retaliation for nationalizing Iran’s oil industry. This raises the question of the nation state and what possibility there is for international legal accountability on the world stage. For those of us on the Left, it will be important to develop new theories of global organization as we face new political challenges, like climate catastrophe, in the twenty-first century.

Further Reading This week’s episode is so rich and covers so many different themes that it’s hard to know where to begin. The best starting point if you want to better understand revolutionary thought in modern Iran is probably Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi’s book Revolution and its Discontents: Political Thought and Reform in Iran. On the twentieth century history of oil politics, Christopher Dietrich’s Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization explores how anticolonial oil elites fought against the colonial powers for control over national resources after the Second World War.

If you’re interested in the history of twentieth-century international government organizations and self-determination, check out Erez Manela’s The Wilsonian Moment Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. And, of course, listen to Part 1 of our Iran series with Golnar Nikpour and Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi if you haven’t done so yet.