Film: Iranian Odyssey – Mossadegh, Oil and the 1953 Coup, An (2010)

March 8, 2015 | By


IranianOdyssey_snapshotFilm: Excellent

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Genre:  Documentary / War

Synopsis:  Beautifully researched documentary on Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (1951-1953), whose efforts to nationalize the country’s oil industry ultimately led to a MI6-CIA-led coup and the return of the monarchy.

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Maziar Bahari’s documentary examines the pivotal period between 1951-1953 in which Iranian cabinet minister Mohammad Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister and proceeded to nationalize the country’s oil industry after 40 years of control by the British Ango-Persian Oil Company (later to become BP), and whose progressive goals were ultimately thwarted by coup led by the CIA at the behest of Britain’s MI6.

According to Bahari’s research, Mossadegh had initially wanted the same terms enjoyed by African and Middle Eastern countries, a straight 50/50 split of resources with U.S. oil companies, but a stubborn A-P’ wanted to hold onto their 51% ownership of the extraction, refining, and distribution of the country’s oil, earning the company twice as much income as Iran.

A-P’s reasoning was classically colonial / corporate arrogance: they extracted the oil, built the industry’s infrastructure, and went through the trouble to send the oil to international markets, so why shouldn’t they maintain top-to-bottom control?

Mossadegh orchestrated protests among the workers, and when he came to power in 1951, moved for industry nationalization, which forced A-P to pressure the British government to install a ban on Iranian oil exports. The contemporary echoes of this policy are starkly familiar, and yet for a while it seemed Mossadegh had the upper hand, ultimately succeeding in his plans for nationalization.

A-P’s fears, and probably those of U.S. firms, were clear: if Mossadegh’s efforts worked, there’s no reason other former British and European colonies in Asia and Africa could succeed in reclaiming their natural resources. The deep concern of A-P is understandable, given England had lost control of India, their biggest South Asian colony, in 1947.

The CIA’s involvement which ultimately led to Mossadegh’s ousting, trial, 3 year jail term, and house arrest until his death in 1967, played out like the grand finale of an elaborate chess game between colonial powers, with a country’s oil reserves as the top prize. Maneuvers included pitting local Communists against religious leaders, the Soviets wanting to acquire control in southern territories and install a puppet regime, and Iran’s forced shuttering of the British embassy when an earlier coup was revealed. Folded into this complex series of twisting conflicts was Iran’s monarch, the Shah, who maintained favourable relations with Britain and the U.S.

What ultimately emerged from the 1953 coup d’tetat was a formula that could be repeated in other countries when progressive socialist, nationalistic leaders got too uppity for oil corporations: play up local political and religious rivalries, deepen the fear of Communism, and create enough agitations to motivate the right factions to ultimately gain power and maintain favourable relations with western countries.

The events which led to the Shah’s return and lengthy rule are sometimes bewildering, but like Mossadegh, the Shah had to struggle with religious leaders who similarly wanted more power, and represented a substantive mass of conservative, working class, and rural citizens who felt increasingly disenfranchised. The boiling resulted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution which transformed the former monarchy into a clergy-run state.

Packed with stills, archival news footage, audio, and significant interviews, including former Mossadegh aides, rivals, descendants, and a former British Foreign Office diplomat, Bahari’s doc is a valuable primer on a pivotal period in Iran’s complex 20th century history. Portions of Ganesh Anandan’s music were chopped up and oft-repeated throughout the film, but his use of frame drum and dulcimer add an especially poignant tone to this edifying film.

Maziar Bahari’s recent directorial work is the documentary To Light a Candle (2014), and some of his prior work is available online, including Mohammad and the Matchmaker (2004) and And Along Came a Spider (2003) on YouTube; and Reporters in Iraq (2005),  An Iranian Odyssey: Mossadegh, Oil and the 1953 Coup (2010), and From Cyrus to Ahmadinejad: The Not So Secret Iran-Israel War (2012) on Vimeo.

His 2009 incarceration in an Iranian jail was recently dramatized by Jon Stewart in the film Rosewater (2014).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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