“Tant pis pour nous”: Towards An Alternative Examination of Mosaddeq’s Oil Crisis

August 23, 2008

This post is a conference paper I presented at Columbia U. in the early spring. Its length is not indicative of future essays/commentary I intend to post.

According to the precepts of rational choice theory, individuals weigh costs against benefits during decision-making processes and, in the end, choose the course of action which maximizes their benefits and minimizes their costs. Often, political scientists, and social scientists more broadly, utilize rational choice models to explain the decisions made by policy-making elites. Even more importantly, rational choice theorists frequently assume that costs and benefits are predominately materialist considerations, and if intangible and immaterial factors are involved during the decision-making process they are presumably overwhelmed by the materialistic considerations. Robert Gilpin, a political scholar with an affinity towards rational choice-oriented realist theory, further elucidates this point, noting that power is not the only motivation for man; humans also value beauty, truth, and goodness. He writes, “Realism does not deny the importance of these other values …What the realist seeks to stress is that all these more noble goals will be lost unless one makes provisions for ones security in the power struggle among social groups.”[1]

Within the discipline of political science, scholars too frequently dismiss issues such as political culture and rhetoric as conduits though which politicians gain the political capital needed to pursue “real” interests. The mantra that the sole aim of political study is the examination of power relations or, in other words realpolitik, continues unabated. There exist, however, more critical prisms through which to analyze and understand politics and political action. While I do not disagree that the study of power is essential to political science, it is, in my opinion, reductionist and misleading to argue that socio-cultural influences subside when material interests, such as the welfare of the state apparatus, enter the equation. The symbolic, I argue, is equally compelling and politically powerful in the complicated sphere of politics.

One proponent of dismantling the dominant rational choice models is critical theorist Jean Baudrillard, who argues that the current rational choice perspective is “a sort of near-sighted, cross-eyed hydra” that “exorcises the danger of a radical analysis, whose object would be neither the group nor the individual subject at the conscious level.” He continues, “There is no doubt that individuals (or individuated groups) are consciously or subconsciously in quest of social rank and prestige and, of course this level of the object should be incorporated into the analysis. But the fundamental level is that of unconscious structures that organize the social production of differences.”[2] To put it more plainly, the processes of unconscious thought, derived from socially constructed desires and beliefs, are the invisible hand that guides all human perception, actions, and interactions. At the same time, the social structuring of the human unconscious determines which factors can contribute to one’s individual, social, or national prestige. For example, Prominent international relations theorist and proponent of a materially-directed rational choice approach Hans Morgenthau, who contends, “We are able to judge other nations as we judge our own,” without seeming to comprehend the presence of value plurality in the community of nations and among their peoples.[3] When the statement is situated in its Cold War context, Morgenthau’s use of the term “judge” takes on a new materialist-rationalist meaning. The seemingly insatiable need for both capitalist and communist states to quantify even minute peculiarities and the perceived division of the world into ideologically defined camps undoubtedly influenced the materialist manner in which Morgenthau and his Western contemporaries approached examinations of state’s elites’ decision-making processes. In this case, then, we can see that the western emphasis on the material benefits contributes to his and countless other western social scientists materialist perception of what is a “rational” choice in the pursuit of prestige.

The materialist rationality that the mainstream rational-choice theorists advocate, whether analyzing democratic trends, relations between states, or historical cross-cultural interactions, is decidedly and unabashedly, to borrow Samir Amin’s term, Eurocentric. It is, in other words, the use of cultural hegemonism to justify Western-materialist worldviews. Moreover, this approach simultaneously attempts to universalize the Western conception of rationality while producing localities of knowledge which can be used to separate the West from the “other” when the material-rationality fails to produce an accurate representation and translation of the “other”. The adherence to and failures of these models can be attributed to, Amin says, the bifurcation of the global economic system into capitalist and tributary spheres. The capitalist system is oriented towards the rational and scientific at the expense of the mystical and the ideal, thus producing knowledge structures that reflect this component of capitalism. On the other hand, tributary societies, located on the periphery of the capitalist domain, remain deferential to accepted transcendental truths. Early 20th century Iran and, arguably, contemporary Iran can be considered tributary societies. Taking Amin’s analysis into consideration, any analysis of Iran originating from a materialist-rationalist perspective will lack synchronicity with the actual ideological bent of the society.

During the 1951-1953 Iranian Oil Crisis, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq defied the blatantly Eurocentric assumptions in rational choice models, instead consciously pursuing policies that emphasized the symbolic and immaterial to the detriment of Iran’s political and economic welfare. The crisis originated in March 1951 when Mosaddeq nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company against the protestations of the British; immediately, the British responded with actions that paralyzed Iran’s biggest oil field and refinery at Abadan. The next two years would be marked by failed negotiations and stubbornness at both ends of the table despite a British offer in 1952 that addressed almost all of the reasons for Mosaddeq’s previous rejections. During this time, the already marginal strength of the Iranian government was slowly sapped by coercive measures taken by Britain, which included the following:  freezing of all Iranian assets in Britain, banning the export of key commodities to Iran, blockading the Iranian coast, threatening invasion and sabotage, and threatening legal action against any international oil company doing business with Iran.[4] These measures quickly took their toll on the Iranian economy and, by winter 1951, Iran’s treasury was hemorrhaging nearly $4 million a month and near bankruptcy, the currency was inflating at a rapid pace with meat doubling in price each month, and civil servants and the army went unpaid.[5] Yet despite the sobering hardships Iranians suffered, on November 26, ninety out of the 107 members of the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) voted in favor of a vote of confidence for Mosaddeq with the remaining 17 parliamentarians abstaining.[6] In the face of such solidarity, foreign intervention by the British and American governments would be necessary to end the standoff in the summer of 1953.

Many Western observers at the time viewed the Prime Minister as highly irrational and Western discussions on Mosaddeq’s actions during the Oil Crisis still include expressions of bewilderment, if not outright disdain for his ostensibly suicidal actions. Such reasoning comes from the idea that the central aim of rulers is to ensure the survival of a political unit. “To be a ruler, you have to have a country to rule. If you invite intense retaliation upon yourself, you’re dead, and your country is destroyed as a going political entity,” contends political scientist Kenneth Waltz.[7]

I will argue that even though Mosaddeq knowingly pursued immaterial and symbolic policies that led to his political demise, his response was not “irrational” due to the social, cultural, and political environment that influenced his decision-making processes. By using theories of identity, post-colonial nationalism, and martyrdom, I will analyze how Mosaddeq’s political situation facilitated a socio-cultural response antithetical to rational choice’s common materialist assumptions and, ultimately, argue against the dominance of materialist considerations in rational choice models.

The Formation of Iranian’s Identification with Martyrdom

Since Alexander’s victory over the Persian Empire in 330 BCE, and even more so following the Islamic conquests of Persia beginning in the 633 CE, the Iranian nation has repeatedly subscribed to an ascetic milieu that has formulated how the people have translated events throughout post-Achaemenid history, which is composed of repeated invasion and subjugation by foreign forces. This widespread belief of an absolute truth existing in Iranian culture has produced, to reiterate Baudrillard’s more general idea, “unconscious structures that organize the social production of differences.” Just as the Orient is politically authoritarian, socially primitive, and economically backwards from a Western perspective due to Eurocentrism, Europe is politically and socially corrupt and economically parasitic from the Oriental’s viewpoint. I am not discussing provincialism here, however, because the Western perception is enduring whereas the Oriental viewpoint is only prevalent when its place within the ascetic sphere is threatened. In the case of Iran, the absolute value to be obtained and secured is justice. The question that arises is, then, how did this ideal attain such significance?

Scholar Manochehr Dorraj contends that the importance of the concept of justice in Iranian culture can be attributed to the Persians’ pre-Islamic Manichean traditions in conjunction with the prevalence of tragedy in Iranian culture. When the ascetic and the tragic are combined, he discovers a need for a social expression of tragedy through martyrdom, which is an act taken to defend a symbolic form of justice.

A culture whose art, literature, and popular myth are deeply imbued with tragedy, perceives martyrdom as a dramatic expression of tragedy. In such a social context, martyrdom is not an aberration but the manifestation of a culture of tragedy personified.[8]

To support his argument, Dorraj references the Shahnameh, the national epic of Iran, which thematically focuses on the tragic fall of heroic leaders. He juxtaposes this piece of literature with the national Greek epics the Illiad and the Odyssey whose central figures are heroic and victorious. This cultural relation to tragedy therefore produced the inlet through which the dramatic tragedy of Shi’ism’s two most-revered martyrs, Ali and Husayn, would resonate with majority of Persian society and the Safavid ruling elite in the early 16th century.

In Shi’i communities, the martyrdoms of Ali and Husayn came to embody differing meanings of justice. On the one hand, Ali represented just governance whereas on the other Husayn was an agent for resistance against injustice.[9] While Ali’s role as a source of guidance is reserved for the policy elites, Husayn’s drama transcends class boundaries. Resistance is equally translatable to the decision makers and the masses themselves. It can be utilized as a tool for resistance to a national regime, as it was during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, or by the ruling classes in conjunction with the masses for the purpose of coding and responding to external events that bear significant ramifications for the Iranian nation. Consequently, adherence to the tenets Shi’ism produced an intense devotion to these ideal of justice among the Persian millat and strongly influenced Iranian political discourse in the modern era by producing a “rhetorical frame of meaning”[10] though which individuals understood and analyzed everyday events and the decisions of their leaders.

Similarly, societies create rules and rules create societies. These rules bind agents to act in accordance with or against the rules in order to achieve certain goals. Eventually, the agents can then work collectively on behalf of a state, and the rules generated by society accordingly affect the decision-making processes of agents acting on behalf of the state.[11] In an Iranian context, it can be assumed that striving for justice is a rule that helps constructure the social order. If Mosaddeq’s logic is to be understood, we must return to the broad socio-cultural beliefs that shape individual and collective values – which produce rules and their accompanying mental structures that are used translate intra-cultural and inter-cultural events.

Nationalism, Justice, and the Political in 20th Century Iran

Muhammad Mosaddeq’s ascension to the position of Prime Minister in 1951 occurred at the height of a social realization that the internal order, which in relation to exogenous impositions is considered just, had been usurped by an external entity. The chronology of Iranian interactions with Europeans from early to mid 20th century is a procession of external meddling. First, Iran’s Qajar Dynasty had granted the British a sizable tract of land in 1901 for the extraction and development of the countries oil. Then, the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 divided Persia into three defined spheres of influence, in which the Qajar monarchy retained control over a sliver of territory. This was followed by the 1933 Anglo-Iranian Oil Agreement that reaffirmed British rights to Iranian oil. This agreement was rightly viewed by many Iranians as an extension of the 1901 oil concession rather than a renegotiation of terms and, to add injury to insult, the British frequently failed to pay the Iranian government its full share of oil revenues.[12] The most important event in Iran’s early 20th century chronology, though, was the Allies invasion in 1941 and the subsequent overthrow of Reza Shah. While Reza Shah and his iron-fisted style of rule was reviled by influential sectors of the Iranian polity, such as the bazaaris, landowners, and the clergy, his removal from power demonstrated the frailty of the Iranian state and the need for internal reflection and reform.

In the following ten years, public debate flourished as a weak monarch, the former shah’s son Muhammad Reza Shah, remained on the periphery of Iranian political discourse; elites bickered about a variety of contemporary issues and political parties formed.[13] Despite the severely fractured political environment, all political groups agreed on two principles: the elimination of British control over the Iranian oilfields and the founding of a functioning and stable constitutional state. Mosaddeq and the majority of Iranians believed that the latter was impossible to attain with the elimination of foreign interference in national affairs. The prevalence of these two desires proved to be advantageous for the Naitonal Front party and its crusading leader, Mosaddeq, who utilized the anti-British sentiment to garner support for his mission to restore a just order which rested upon Iranian control and management of its economic lifeblood: the Abadan Oil Field. The nationalism linking and supporting the ideas of oil nationalization and democracy provided an opening through which the ascetic could enter the political equation. All that remained was an opportunity for the ascetic to achieve confluence with the tragic, which occurred the moment the Majlis nullified the past Anglo-Iranian oil agreements. An ascetic crisis had thus arisen from which Mosaddeq could not retreat, irregardless of the slim odds for victory.

The act of oil nationalization was the core component in restoring justice and, to ensure that this process bore fruit, Mosaddeq was willing to submit the Iran nation to the any material deprivations imposed by British. While the prime minister was willing to make concessions on technical details that could have pacified the British government, he lacked the will to compromise on the central issue: that of total Iranian control of their oil industry. Mary Ann Heiss observes, “Unless British officials were willing to concede that point [Iranian control of oil], the prime minister was prepared to see his nation’s oil industry shut down.” [14] To explicate this point further, she points to an example of Mosaddeq’s nonchalant attitude towards warnings of impending material doom. When informed on numerous occasions by British and American officials that Iran’s intransigence (as perceived by the West) would result in the devastation of Iran’s economy or, even worse, subject the Mosaddeq government to externally-imposed regime change, he would simply respond: “Tant pis pour nous. Too bad for us.”[15]

Critics of my alternative approach to Mosaddeq’s Oil Crisis will point to the extensive historiography on the standoff that attributes the prime minister’s downfall to a series of miscalculations resulting from his ignorance regarding the strength forces aligned against his government. Drawing from this literature, mainstream rational choice theorists can argue that when situated in the historical context, Mosaddeq’s decisions were simply materialist-rationalist responses because no historical evidence exists to support the claim that Mosaddeq continued his struggle despite being aware of the growing turmoil among Iran’s populace and the governing apparatus. A passage in Homa Katouzian’s Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran is reminiscent of the expansive historical literature that supports these materialist-rationalist claims.

The government was largely – and mistakenly – undisturbed by all [of the turmoil]…and felt that it could dig in for a long diplomatic war of attrition with Britain. It had also laid too much emphasis on its popular support, not realizing that, with the rift within the Movement itself, the growing open and explicit agitation of its domestic and foreign enemies, the increasing agitation within the army and security forces, etc.[16]

In light of historiographically sustained materialist-rationalist interpretations of the Oil Crisis, Mosaddeq’s defiant “Tant pis pour nous” response can be marginalized as mere diplomatic rhetoric – a negotiation ploy that fails to accurately represent his actual political will.

These common contentions, based on the presumption that Mosaddeq acted in ignorance of the contentious political climate, however, fall apart when confronted with knowledge of a more comprehensive historical narrative. Despite concluding that the Mosaddeq government was unaware of the political friction caused by its foreign and domestic policies, Katouzian’s contradicts this position by recounting various high-profile events that demonstrated the growing political schism within the country. His list includes the defection of key members of the National Front coalition in 1952,[17] the February 28, 1953 riots – in which Mosaddeq’s residence was attacked – resulting from the widespread belief that the prime minister was forcing the shah to leave the country, [18] and the arrests of the conspirators of the murder of Police Chief Mahmud Afshartus. [19] It is illogical to assume that Mosaddeq, a man frequently described as wily, politically shrewd, and paranoid of foreign intervention (it is famously reported that he said of the British, “You do not know how crafty they are…You do not know how evil they are. You do not know how they sully everything they touch.”[20]) was unable to understand that his nationalist movement faced an increasingly desperate political situation.

There is strong evidence that the dominance of asceticism in the Iranian worldview constructed Mosaddeq’s absolutist approach at the unconscious level; thus influencing his sacrificial decision-making subconsciously. The Prime Minister was not a devout Muslim, yet he responded to this ascetic crisis in a truly Iranian fashion by simultaneously embracing the tragic and the ascetic, resulting in his unwavering moralist stance and an inability to compromise for fear of violating his inner moral compass. With this in mind, it is important to note that he did not use an Islamic discourse to garner support for his decisions through the production of parallels with Shi’ism’s martyrs. In fact, the prime minister’s secularism and defense of “civil law” provoked a reactionary response the religious establishment, whose lack of support strongly influenced the outcome of the August 19 coup. Instead, the unconscious production of a culturally specific “rhetorical frame of meaning” that allowed for the Iranian public to sympathize with the heroic and tragic figure of Mosaddeq. In his quest for justice, Mosaddeq was ready to “seal the oil wells with mud” [21] and sacrifice himself on the altar of politics to free Iran of foreign yoke and symbolically restore the Iranian notion of justice at the time: the expulsion of British influence while retaining constitutionalism.


In Iranian history, asceticism and tragedy have persisted as cultural points of reference that form an everyday “rhetorical frame of meaning.” When these cultural traditions exist in conjunction with an adherence to the Shi’ism, though, they become relatable to the concept of martyrdom and its coefficient ideal of justice. These concepts become unconsciously integrated into the socio-cultural paradigm, causing subconscious reactions from both the leaders and the masses. Indeed, the case of the 1951-1953 Oil Crisis indicates strong affiliation between Iranian culture and the cultural conceptualization and actualization of justice and just actions. By situating himself as a martyr, Mosaddeq transcended the everyday bickering of politics and earned the trust of the people. Some academics such as Majid Tehranian have gone so far as to say that the political legitimacy of leaders throughout Iranian history rests upon their willingness to become martyrs. To discuss Tehranian’s claim any further is to go beyond the scope of this paper, but it is one example of many demonstrating how prevalent and significant analysis of the symbolic in Iranian political culture is among scholars reared on the periphery of the capitalist world.

I believe that it is too easy to write Mosaddeq’s actions off as merely political tactics or cultural manipulation employed in the practitioning of realpolitik. While it can be argued that the Prime Minister took a gamble and that his struggle, had it ended in success, would have benefited Iran economically and politically, such a contention falls flat. The confluence of the ascetic and the tragic in Iranian culture in conjunction with Mosaddeq’s fatalist understanding of the situation negate such speculative logic. His unwillingness to bend to what he viewed as unjust at the expense of his life’s work – expelling the British and endowing Iran with democratic institutions – can be summed up by Roy Mottahedeh’s vivid account of Mosaddeq’s demeanor during his days in hiding following the second, successful coup:

In the last two days of his premiership, he could have appealed to the radio for help, as he had so many times before, and tens of thousands would have filled the streets…and defended his cause. But he did not. Sources in his inner circle say that after two days of silence while hiding in a cellar with two of his ministers after the countercoup, one of these ministers (a university professor with a French doctorate) said, “How badly it all turned out, how badly!” To which Mossadegh [sic] responded, “And at the same time how really well it turned out, how really well!” For Mossadegh was not only the battling hero Rostam [the quintessentially tragic character for the Shahnameh], the son of Zal, and the brilliant commander Ali, the Lion of God, he was also Hosain [sic], the Prince of Martyrs.[22]

In the face of impending demise, Mosaddeq chose not to act despite his awareness to the consequences. Throughout this saga, he could have capitulated to one of the British offers, maximized his costs and minimized his benefits, or calculated the optimal political maneuvers available to his government. Yet he refused to choose a path that diverted from the “rhetorical frame of meaning” unconsciously imposed by Iran’s dominant socio-cultural worldview.

[1]Robert Gilpin, “The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism,” International Organization 38 (1994) 290-291.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, “The Ideological Genesis of Needs,” in The Consumer Society Reader, ed. by Juliet B. Schor and Douglas B. Holt (New York: The New Press, 2000), 67.

[3] Hans Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: McGraw -Hill, 1978), 11.

[4] Kenneth M. Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and America (Random House: New York, 2004), 57.

[5] “After Mossadegh, Who?” Time Magazine, 19 November 1951, Time Magazine Online Archives.

[6] Michael Clark, “Mossadegh Upheld in Chamber, 90 to 0,” The New York Times, 26 November 1951, p. 1.

[7] Kenneth N. Waltz, interview by Harry Kreilser, Berkley, California, 10 Feburary 2003.

[8] Manochehr Dorraj, “Symbolic and Utilitarian Political Value of a Tradition: Martyrdom in the Iranian Political Culture,” The Review of Politics 59 (1997): 491.

[9] Michael M.J. Fisher, Iran, From Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 147.

[10] Jill Diane Swenson, “Martyrdom: Mytho-Cathexis and the Mobilization of the Masses in the Iranian Revolution,” Ethos 13 (1985): 122.

[11] Nicholas Onuf, “Constructivism: A Users Manual,” International Relations in a Constructed World, ed. Vendulka Kubalkova, Nicholas Onuf, Paul Kowert (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1998), 59-61.

[12] Mansoor Moaddel, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2005), 193.

[13] Ibid, 191

[14] Marie Anne Heiss, “The United State and Great Britain Navigate the Anglo-Iranian Oil Crisis,” in The United States and the Middle East: Diplomatic and Economic Relations in Historical Perspective, ed. Abbas Amanat (New Haven: Yale University Center for International and Area Studies, 2000), 80.

[15] Ibid, 80.

[16] Homa Katouzian, Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1999), 185.

[17] Ibid, 162-170.

[18] Ibid, 172.

[19] Ibid, 182-185.

[20] Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003), 105.

[21] Pollack, 59.

[22] Roy P. Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 133.


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