In this edited extract from 1966 and Not All That, Sanaa Qureshi discusses the relationship between football and nationalism, and whether football can be used subversively to achieve social justice.
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“I enjoy making revolution! I enjoy going to football!” — Antonio Negri
Despite an increasingly globalised world, where in the last ten years, football clubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have become global brands, international football remains understandably pinned to the idea of triumphant nation states. Thus state orders are reinforced and a popular nationalism is commodified. As part of this, England’s World Cup win in 1966 remains, justifiably, a great source of national pride. The memories of that victory continue to fuel contemporary ideas of what success for the national team looks like.
In 1996, thirty years after the famous win, England hosted the European Championships and St George’s flags, for the first time in my short life, were inescapable. Perhaps it was because England were facing Scotland in the group stages or because England were hosts, but somehow, the Union flag, with all those colonial traumas stitched into its fabric, was replaced by the St George’s flag as the English patriot’s symbol of choice.
However, somewhere amidst the fervour of late 1990s “Cool Britannia” and New Labour, the St George’s flag also became the divisive symbol of the bullish, racist nationalism of the British National Party. Virtually no broadcast or news story about the BNP came without the familiar sight of the red and white flags or supporters adorned in England football shirts. With the far-right party picking up council seats and their candidates contesting parliamentary elections and holding on to their deposits, their rhetoric became mainstream. Thus, the St George’s flag became synonymous with modern English fascism. Moreover, the formation and subsequent rise of the English Defence League (EDL) was closely linked to a subculture of football fans coming together against their imagined enemy of Islam. Members often seen draped in football paraphernalia, specifically England shirts, routinely take part in violent street demonstrations.
It is undeniable that English nationalism, footballing or otherwise, is viscerally bound up with an aggressive racism that demarcates who belongs and who is the unwanted Other. Invariably, there are groups of people, particularly those who have been targets of the BNP or EDL, that are reluctant to embrace the English national team and the associated aggressive patriotism.
Yet despite, or perhaps because of, how vigorously England, the St George’s flag and the support of the national team has been hijacked by the isolating politics of nationalism, people believe the potential for subversion is even greater. Individuals and groups from minority communities in Britain have sought to reclaim the idea of Englishness from the far-right and to broaden the understanding of what it means to identify as English. Progressive ideals have been situated underneath a banner of nationalism that purports to be inclusive, welcoming and multi-cultural. England shirts have been worn proudly, the red and white a signal of support for a new, refreshed demonstration of Englishness.
Movements to reclaim and rebrand words and cultural associations have been favoured as a means of asserting alternative theories and ideas, albeit incrementally. However, it is difficult to assess how useful or sustainable this attempted reclamation can be without the accompaniment of the wholesale reframing of the issue, in this case, the concept of the English nation state. Further, can it be considered realistic for people of colour to reform an identity whose values are intrinsically bound up with whiteness?
Feelings of alienation are often exacerbated when international football tournaments come around and the success of the nation state appears to be so heavily hinged on the success of the national football team. Fifty years on England’s famous victory football has irrefutably shaped what English national success looks like and at the same time continues to provide a tool to interrogate what Englishness looks like. The commodification of nationalism through international sporting events thus serves as a useful means to understand how collective identities are fractured, formed and expressed through football.
The relationship between nationalism and football is complex and often fraught with reactionary politics. However, the sport also serves an important role in the formation of collective national identity in post-colonial states. Famously, Algerian players in the French league formed the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) in 1958, a team that exported the desire for Algerian self-determination and liberation from the French throughout North Africa, the Middle East, parts of Europe and Asia. Similarly, the Iraqi national team’s achievements in the 2007 Asia Cup were set against a backdrop of continued violence, occupation and logistical difficulties. Victory brought together an often fragmented country and a sense of Iraqi national pride was keenly felt throughout.
French success in the 1998 World Cup, which was also held on home turf, was heralded as a defining moment in the previously difficult narrative of integration. With a team led by the inimitable Zinedine Zidane, French-born to Algerian parents, and composed of players whose backgrounds told a story of French colonialism, this was supposed to be a turning point in French race relations. Instead, it has come to signify the shallow understanding of racial, economic and social inequality that continues to plague French society. The World Cup victory of a multi-cultural France allowed the French state and media to temporarily plaster over deep fissures without addressing the root causes of discontent. Owing to the universal nature of the game, the cohesion and success of a football team can be very easily translated into populist notions of unity and togetherness. Likewise, these concepts are often inspired by the collective spirit integral to team sports.
Despite its limitations, international football is situated in a unique position, where individual relationships with the state coalesce into either a collective sense of belonging or unbelonging. To be able to understand how people and communities relate to their national football team is to gain an insight into how they relate both to themselves and where they live.
The burgeoning cultural and financial potency of world football has benefited from an increasingly networked, globalised world. Football has grown in stature as a worldwide game, transcending borders, languages, races and religions. The simplicity and the aesthetics of play have contributed to its ascendant popularity, whilst free-market economics have encouraged both the corporatisation and commodification of the game.
Investment in stadium infrastructure in England was kick-started by the birth of the Premier League and the virtual end of live-televised league football on free domestic channels. Ultimately, the transformation of how the sport was both accessed and managed lay in the increased exposure provided by Sky TV. Principal income streams switched from match-day takings, including tickets and merchandise, to the ever-growing sums from TV deals, while the football stadiums became sites for executive boxes, naming rights and touchline-to-touchline advertising and sponsorship.
In line with neoliberal economics, the influx of new money did not remove inequality but instead exacerbated it. Well-established football clubs that already had money were able to tighten their financial grip on professional football, whilst those at the lower end of the spectrum continue to drift further away, facing administration and a future of financial uncertainty. As television money pours into the English Premier League, the maldistribution of wealth is a salient reminder of the society it is situated in.
Alongside the increase in capital flows, labour flows have also predictably broadened, bringing players from all over the world to the top European leagues. This mobility of labour not only diversified talent but also undoubtedly improved the standards of football across the world, especially Europe where many of these players sought to forge careers. However, with this movement arose ample opportunity for exploitation, particularly of young Africans, who were trafficked on false promises to jobs that didn’t exist. With such vast quantities of money thrown around at the highest levels of professional football, the potential for injustice is amplified, particularly in the search for social mobility and economic security. From countries still in recovery from the economic and social destruction suffered under British colonialism, professional football in Europe is considered a viable route out of poverty for many young men in Africa. Not dissimilar from the movement of migrant labour into often precarious, low-paid work in bad conditions in Western Europe, football is not exempt from its role in oppressive labour practices, nor is it very far removed from the spectre of colonialism. Flows of labour from the African continent also mirror neo-colonial resource-extraction models, with players viewed as raw materials that have their value added in the European academies. With fortress-Europe recklessly weaponising borders as a means of deterrence to incoming migrants, it is likely that this will only worsen in coming years, with only the most economically profitable allowed entry.
In England, the very foundation of the Premier League is the well-functioning football club, complete with the consistent exploitation of the lowest-paid workers, from club cleaners to catering staff. Despite the millions pocketed by star footballers, those at the other end of the spectrum, those who make matches possible, often scrape by on minimum wage. The astronomical increases in player wages and commercial revenues have not yet trickled down in any meaningful manner. After a lengthy and well-fought campaign by the Living Wage Foundation, the Premier League committed to ensuring all top-flight clubs will pay workers a living wage. However, this was stipulated to just include directly employed workers, excluding contracted staff, who are also often on precarious, zero-hour contracts. This short-sightedness on the part of Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore demonstrated a real lack of desire to effect lasting change in labour policies not just in football but as an example to all employers. With burgeoning social and cultural influence both in England and the rest of the world, campaigners should use the football industry as a soapbox from which broader social change can be encouraged. Furthermore, for football to remain the most popular sport in the world, it should be willing to recognise its complicity in upholding systems of oppression, especially those from which it directly profits.
Amongst all the debates about whether football can be subverted to achieve social justice or if there is even a space for radical politics in a multi-billion-pound industry, one key thing stands out. Belonging. Whose game is it? Who should be most invested in the redemption of this beast? Those who are the architects of the spectacle or those who watch on, delighted? Numerous campaigns and movements speak about returning football to its roots, nostalgic for a time when football was the preserve of the working classes. Although it is true that football has been made successful through working class labour, the sport has always been controlled by the wealthy, capitalist classes. Codified in public schools, football was initially introduced to working class men as a means of civilising them. It is clear therefore that any reclamation of the game cannot take place at the top level — community-focused, fan-owned clubs are outliers, exceptions. To accept that this global game is too powerful, an uncontrolled monster, is not to give up on it. Instead, it allows us to focus on our communities, our local teams, our supporters groups, to direct our resources where we find utility. It offers up the potential for strength and solidarity beyond tribalism, to join up movements of resistance, from Palestine to Algeria to the militarised borders of Europe. It gives people a space in which to create a game in their own image.
Football is not separate from the society that supports it; rather it is irrevocably tied up with the most unjust systems of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia and capitalism. This, however, is precisely why the potential for resistance is so huge and necessary. The collective spirit in football, whether it’s on the street or in the stadium, is unparalleled. This is what must be harnessed to unsettle and destabilise systems of power, to liberate occupied peoples and to imagine a game that we can be proud of.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s classic account of colonialism, he wrote:
If sports are not incorporated into the life of the nation, in the building of the nation, if we produce national sportsmen instead of conscious individuals, then sports will quickly be ruined by professionalism and commercialism.
If it is too late for football to be used to build, we must be willing to use it to destroy.
1995 may have been the year that Britpop burst through, but 1996 was the year in which it loomed largest and was most overbearing, Oasis in particular, despite not releasing an album that year. 1996 was still a year of Conservative g overnment, but so commanding was Tony Blair’s lead in the polls it was clear he was Prime Minister elect. It was possible, in 1996, for him to bask in the unspoiled glow of his triumph in bringing the long Tory nightmare to an end, untarnished by the many compromised decisions he would make almost immediately on taking office in 1997, beginning by accepting a £1 million donation from Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, only months later to grant exemption to the motor racing organisation from a general ban on cigarette advertising. All of that was to come; in 1996, he was still practically an honorary Oasis band member.
1996 was also the year of Euro ’96, in which English footballing hopes were bound up with the worlds of both comedy and music. It wasn’t just Baddiel and Skinner’s collaboration with The Lightning Seeds, “Three Lions”, but the sanguine, laddish, retrograde mood engendered by Britpop and Loaded. It wasn’t just football that was coming home, but the general sense that after the dark Seventies and the fragmented Eighties, Britain (led by England, of course) had rediscovered its mojo, the spring in its step, the spirit of Hurst and McCartney, the white heat of a bygone era.
“Sport is a battle” is the metaphor we are now required to live by as football fans. The club must survive and prosper at the cost of everything else. However, this formula changes somewhat in international football, where the “need” for victory is often sutured unquestioningly to the national cause. Curiously, this relationship seems to intensify even as the sense of common purpose between clubs and communities fades. This came to light in a peculiarly candid way during the predictable period of recrimination following England’s equally predictable early exit from the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Even before the players had set off for home Harry Redknapp, the geezerish and journalist-friendly cockney who had been passed over for the England manager’s job in 2012 because of a pending court case, turned up in the press claiming that a number of English internationals were in the habit of begging their club managers to withdraw them from the national squad for friendly games. The allegation was stark: that some English players regard playing for their country not as an honour, but as an annoyance. England coach Roy Hodgson and his outgoing captain Steven Gerrard cannily took the sting out of Redknapp’s comments by asking him to name names, but the matter did not drop entirely. Former England striker and current light-entertainment go-to Ian Wright wrote in his column in the Sun newspaper that any player found to have shirked international “duty” without good reason should be required to phone the parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to drop out.
This was imagined on Twitter in plenty of bleakly funny versions of how the transcript of such a call might read. Palpably, the suggestion was a piece of attention-seeking on the part of Wright, who has never, it seems, got over his early-career rejections or his marginalisation in the 1990s England team by more rounded strikers such as Alan Shearer. However, it spoke to something in England’s present-day ideological make-up, namely a resurgent patriotism of symbols which regards Englishness, whatever that might mean, as somehow under threat. The role the football player takes in this set of beliefs is intriguing. Wright was playing to the idea that the default setting for footballers is a patriotic one, that they feel a sense of pride in national symbols which extends beyond their utilitarian, team-bonding value. By linking this version of patriotic obligation to that of the soldier’s, he tacitly insists on the relative unanimity of nationalistic sentiment amongst the working-class communities that both footballers and the rank-and-file military are drawn from.
While one does find the occasional player, such as Serbia’s Siniša Mihajlović or Croatia’s Zvonimir Boban, for whom patriotism is obviously a very real and visceral thing, it seems plausible and even likely that the average international player uses it as a motivational tool, a way of rationalising responsibility to the footballing cause. There’s a ludicrous misrecognition on the part of the right-wingers doing their Queen-and-country act in the stands who think the men on the pitch automatically share their blood-and-soil mentality: footballers, like most sportspeople, tend to focus themselves out of any formal political identification and even, in some cases, vaguer political affects. Presenting footballers as exclusively patriotically motivated is a form of fantasy about working-class politics, which is to say that it suits certain agendas to treat the “proles” as intrinsically nationalistic, thus implicitly turning anti-nationalistic (typically socialist) politics into an illegitimate bourgeois charade. And here lies the true equivalence between footballers and soldiers. The majority join the military because of the route it offers out of poverty, regardless of the narrative which states that they do so through an unmediated love of the patria. This narrative has, both in the UK and the US, a double function, simultaneously masking socio-economic inequality and lending affective “credibility” to those countries’ ridiculous joint-enterprise neo-imperial wars. The linking of footballers to soldiers, then, has as its ultimate outcome an intensification of the militarisation of British society, the same phenomenon, in fact, that we witness when, on the occasions when England score a goal at an international tournament, the footage cuts away to show soldiers watching the game from whichever theatre of operations they have been sent to in the latest stage of the quixotic War on Terror.
That said, the determinations of an intensified seriousness in the visual language of the football media are not limited to society’s broader militarisation. One thinks of the way that various England internationals from the present and the recent past, such as the aforementioned Gerrard, John Terry and new captain Wayne Rooney, seek to present themselves to the nation. The media consensus around the England team emphasises their surfeit of passion, which supposedly exists in inverse proportion to a shortfall of technical ability and tactical nous, but to actually watch an England game is, very often, to be struck by the cowed performances and expressions of players we are supposed to think of as possessed of leonine bravery and aggression. These are rarely performances full of sound and fury but lacking in signification: in fact, they are bereft of all these attributes.
Gerrard’s career is almost precisely coterminous with the Blair – Brown – Cameron era in British politics. In this period, the affective aspect of politics has intensified in counterpoint to a more generalised “waning of affect”: being seen to “care”, or to share in spuriously “common” desires which have replaced genuine collective purpose, seems to be regarded as a far safer bet electorally than possessing either proven competence or the potential for developing it. At the same time, and this is something which takes us once again to those portentous kit advertisements, the tenor of branding has changed significantly, with the governing maxim no longer “this product is great” but “this product is invested with passion”. We’re passionate about conservatories! We’re passionate about crisps! We’re passionate about dog food! However much it cloys with us, it is hard to believe in an individual who is not to some extent invested in aspects of these values, for who would want to be perceived as not caring?
To be regarded as wrongly or cynically motivated is something which footballers must deal with constantly: no wonder Gerrard, Terry, Rooney and the like must seek not only to play football well, but to come across as adequately invested, when they and the rest of their profession are subject to constant slights about the essential worthlessness of what they do. For all the substantial material recompense playing the sport earns them, there are few jobs which invite more clamorous accusations of social irrelevance and metaphysical inanity. This is an issue which comes up every time there is a big international competition. Of course, football becomes unpleasantly ubiquitous during the World Cup, with the main sufferer of this ubiquity being not those who don’t enjoy the game but, counterintuitively, those who do. The unpleasantness is a consequence of ubiquity’s tendency towards dilution, which has the consequence of football being turned into “footie”, that abstracted version which lends itself to all kinds of dismal exercises in masculinist and nationalistic identity formation. Watch the footie on telly last night, mate? Well, no, I went to the football last night. If you spend every weekend of the season following a team, it is pretty easy to come to feel alienated during the World Cup or European Championships, when the sport becomes the preserve of geezerish dilettantes and the themed ladvertising kicks in. It’s at this stage that I usually start to feel sympathy for people who dislike football entirely.
That’s until things turn up like the irritating 2014 meme imagining an alternate reality in which archaeology, rather than football, dominates the media and archaeologists are paid thousands of pounds a week. In the weeks leading up to the World Cup in Brazil, this became the definitive plaint on the behalf of the non-believers, the document tasked with articulating to football fans just what it means to be on the outside of the festivities. Despite the fact that I can imagine what it must be like, for the precise reason that I largely feel the same, for the non-football fan to be bombarded with “footie” for a whole month every second summer, I couldn’t identify at all with the meme.
Let’s think, first of all, about why it is specifically archaeology which replaces football in this ostensibly harmless thought experiment. Why not, say, “shopping” or “military history”? I have no score to settle with archaeology – who would, honestly? – and appreciate the discipline’s substantial, if not politically unproblematic, contribution to the sum total of human self-understanding. However, the field does have certain connotations which are useful in particular forms of self-presentation. Archaeology carries with it an image of wistful past-gazing, of laudable knowledge-foraging, of being the kid who ignored football in the playground because they were too busy digging away in the corner looking for clay pipes or Neolithic man. For all of its fascinations, it is also a realm in which the humblebragging, self-anointed geek enjoys considerable social capital.
In other words, it’s just the kind of thing which appeals to that online constituency Jacques Lacan anticipated when he said that thing about how les non-dupes errent, how the non-dupes are mistaken. That it is the not-fooled, the people who “see through stuff”, who are the most taken-in ideologically, has always had a considerable degree of appeal, but never more so than in the era of internet atheism, an age in which meme factories like the smug I Fucking Love Science pour out quotable rationalism seemingly by the second. Lovely archaeology coming on as a substitute for aggressive, alpha-male, avaricious, irrational (and, though the piece would never dare mention it, largely working-class) football seems to me the kind of notion that really speaks to the aren’t-bees-more-fascinating-than-Jesus, calling-Valentine’s-Day-Hallmark-Holiday, Stop-Kony crowd.
But, lest we fail Practical Criticism 101, let’s go back to the text itself. The point of the meme, remember, is to induce some sort of artificial parity between football and archaeology – to ask us to imagine if archaeology, presented without additional ideological freight, and football, presented likewise, swapped places in the cultural imagination. However, the writer cannot resist the opportunity to start introducing other elements into the equation almost as soon as it has been established, finding subtle ways of embedding value judgements. Here, it’s imagined that archaeologists acquire the same, “worst possible” behavioural traits that the media at large attributes, with consummate dishonesty, to all footballers. The rationale for doing this is not, as it purports to be, to get us to imagine archaeologists on an alcohol-fuelled rampage in Mayfair, but to remind us that football players are uncouth (working-class) louts who provoke “scandal”.
Then there’s another dig. Having hypothesised an archaeologist who would “act” like a footballer, the writer reminds us what an archaeologist would be doing when they’re not up to no good, namely “searching the past for answers”. That’s to say that their professional activity would still be of considerable value, inviting a comparison to the implied “pointlessness” of football. Such purported pointlessness is a classic canard of a hypocritical utilitarianism which locates value (or “point”) in, say, BBC4 documentaries about archaeology or Scandinavian crime dramas, but not in competitive sport. This, I suspect, is an aspect of that classic piece of political equivocation by which utilitarianism is good for the working-class goose, but not appropriate for the middle-class gander, one which seems to be reserved largely for football.
As the campaign in Ireland to Repeal the 8th reaches its climax, here’s a guide to some movements from the US that are combining feminist tactics, social media and political strategies to challenge abortion stigma.
Abortion Stigma: From a Whisper to a Shout
This is an edited extract from From a Whisper to a Shout: Abortion Activism and Social Media, out now from Repeater.
Abortion. Can we finally stop whispering about it?
Abortion has been around almost as long as pregnancy. Historical records show separate references to abortion techniques as long ago as 3000 years BCE in Egypt, Greece, and China, and major world religions did not forbid it. Even the Catholic Church permitted abortion until the moment of ensoulment, believed to occur at the time of quickening, the first time the pregnant person can feel movement of the fetus. No one before the nineteenth century believed abortion was taking a human life. Traditional Hebrew religious law did not consider a woman pregnant until forty days after conception, allowing a window in which abortion was morally acceptable. Some classical interpretations of the Quran permitted abortion before ensoulment, defined here as the moment when an angel breathes the spirit into the fetus at 120 days, while other interpretations approved abortion conditionally for valid reasons. Still other schools of Islam forbade abortion entirely.
As a secular society, the US history of abortion is mostly the history of its regulation. Pregnancy termination was widely practiced but completely unregulated in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. An induced abortion before quickening wasn’t even considered an abortion but a pregnancy that had “slipped away”. The earliest regulations, such as Connecticut’s 1821 law, the first on record, were legislated to protect women from being poisoned by dangerous abortifacient drugs sold by unscrupulous vendors. These early laws were poison-control measures, not abortion restrictions, and they did not challenge the concept of quickening or women’s right to make decisions about their pregnancies. Their autonomy over their bodies was preserved by what the law omitted. By the mid-nineteenth century, the emerging medical profession sought to restrict abortion to take control of the procedure — and everything else related to pregnancy — away from women and midwives.
The American Medical Association (AMA) was formed in 1847 and provided physicians with an infrastructure from which to organize an anti-abortion campaign. The basis of the campaign was professional issues, as the organization moved to medicalize pregnancy and childbirth; but from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, racist and anti-feminist messages are easy to read in some early anti-abortion campaigns. Dr Horatio R. Storer, a prominent advocate of banning abortion, expressed anxiety about Mexicans, Chinese, Blacks, Indians, or Catholics spreading into the American West instead of native-born white Americans. He was opposed as well to the concurrent push from women to enter medical school. Storer also took issue with quickening: he argued that it is not a fact or a medical diagnosis, “but a sensation” based on women’s bodily sensations, leaving doctors dependent on women’s judgment and self-understanding.
By 1890 abortion was criminalized in every state, although it wasn’t treated exactly the same in each. In some places it was permitted only when necessary to save the life of the woman, while in other areas women could receive an abortion in a doctor’s office or even at home. The latter practice ended in the mid-twentieth century as new methods of controlling abortion were implemented by medical and legal authorities. By this point in the 1950s, somewhere between 200,000 and 1.2 million illegal, unsafe abortions were performed every year, according to Dr David Grimes, a former chief of the Abortion Surveillance Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was also mid-twentieth century when activists began to work for the repeal of abortion laws and restrictions. This grassroots movement pre-dates what is now known as second-wave feminism.
The first activists to advocate for abortion access in terms of women’s rights, Patricia Maginnis, Lana Phelan, and Rowena Gurner, came together in California in the early 1960s — first Maginnis and Gurner in 1961, with Phelan joining in 1965. The group they formed, the Society for Humane Abortion (SHA), worked tirelessly for more than a decade to educate the public about the issues. They delivered presentations about abortion at conferences and in classes, and in 1969 published the satirical guide The Abortion Handbook for Responsible Women. To maintain SHA’s tax-exempt status, they created a second group, Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (ARAL), which eventually grew into the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). After the 1973 US Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, the group’s new leadership shifted its focus to keeping abortion “safe and legal” and changed its name to National Abortion Rights Action League (still NARAL). In 2003, the organization changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America, stating that they faced a hostile political climate for abortion and the new name “underscore[s] that our country is pro-choice”, according to then-president Kate Michelman. It’s surely no coincidence that the new name completely omitted the word abortion.
Several US states revoked criminalization of abortion and allowed termination of pregnancy before twenty weeks in 1970: first Hawaii, then New York, Alaska, and Washington. Also in 1970, a young, impoverished Texas woman named Norma McCorvey found herself unintentionally pregnant for the third time and challenged the state law prohibiting abortion. Texas laws were then the most restrictive in the nation. Because both abortion and unmarried pregnancy were considered so shameful, she was referred to in court documents as Jane Roe to protect her privacy. By the time the US Supreme Court ruled in her favor, on January 22, 1973, it was too late for her to abort, but Roe v. Wade made it legal for every pregnant person in the country to make a decision to end a pregnancy in the first two trimesters, for any reason.
It must be recognized, however, that Roe was decided on the basis of the right to privacy, grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment and judicial precedent, not on the basis of equality. Numerous critics, including current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have commented on how the decision “is as much about the doctor’s right to recommend to his patient what he thinks his patient needs. It’s always about the woman in consultation with her physician and not the woman standing alone in that case.”
Abortion opponents soon began working to limit abortion access, and in 1976 Congress passed Illinois representative Henry Hyde’s proposed prohibition of Medicaid funds for abortion for indigent women. The constitutionality of the Hyde Amendment has been upheld repeatedly, even its prohibition of medically necessary abortion. Activists working today from a reproductive justice framework note that while the right to privacy is now well established, it is essentially a negative right; that is, a right to be left alone. No positive right to abortion is established, making it functionally accessible only to those who can afford it.
In the forty-four years since the 1973 Supreme Court ruling, individual states have enacted 1,074 abortion restrictions. Of these, 353 (27%) have been enacted just since 2010. Restrictions include mandating medically inaccurate or misleading counselling prior to the procedure; requiring a waiting period after abortion counselling, thus necessitating at least two trips to the facility; mandating a medically unnecessary ultrasound exam before an abortion; banning Medicaid funding of abortion (except in cases of life endangerment, rape or incest); restricting abortion coverage in private health-insurance plans; requiring onerous and unnecessary regulations on abortion facilities; imposing medically inappropriate restrictions on medication abortion; and imposing an unconstitutional ban on abortion before viability or limits on abortion after viability. In this climate, talking about abortion is ever more important — to break abortion stigma and to keep abortion safe, legal, and accessible, abortion must be visible. Instead, abortion has been increasingly stigmatized and shamed since Roe v. Wade was decided.
Organizational/structural stigmas include such examples as the way abortion is physically separated from other healthcare, including gynecological and obstetric care, and inconsistent training available in medical schools. The community level of stigma includes the risk of being labelled promiscuous or careless or worse, another illustration of how abortion is highly stigmatized in the US. Individual-level stigma may be the most variable, as personal experience varies; the discourses of stigma in the community, organizations, government/structures, and media frequently influence individual psyches and experiences. All of these are discursive; that is, created and maintained through language and communication. This discursivity is integral to how they work.
For instance, consider the idea that abortion is stigmatized because it contradicts “ideals of womanhood”. Kumar et al. identify three archetypes that characterize the so-called essential nature of woman in the popular imaginary: a sexuality focused on procreation rather than pleasure; the inevitability of motherhood; and a nurturing instinct. When a woman voluntarily terminates a pregnancy, she is believed to be rejecting all of those archetypes — even though a majority of women who have abortions (59%) are already mothers and the most common reasons cited for seeking abortion are about family responsibilities. Yet voluntarily terminating a pregnancy challenges the moral order of patriarchal culture. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, named other beliefs about women that abortion decisions and access challenge: “There’s this thought that women are just too scattered, we’re too impulsive, we are too hormonal, we can’t make good decisions for ourselves”.
Most central, according to theories of abortion stigma, is the implicit tension about female sexuality: when, why, how, with whom. Did she use contraception? (That means she intended to have sex!) Is she too young? (She’s not ready to make this decision!) Did she choose the wrong man? (Perhaps someone others think is wrong for her.) And so on. Legislation regulating abortion is the most overt example of language that judges women for deviance from these feminine archetypes and further stigmatizes abortion with the lingering stain of criminality.
This is not to suggest that women are themselves ashamed of sex or sexuality, or even that all women feel stigma about abortion. Those who have terminated pregnancies are a heterogeneous group — in no small part because they are a large group. More than one million women in the US have abortions each year and estimates are that by age forty-five one-third of women will have had an abortion. It is also believed by demographers that abortion in the US is underreported. But abortion secrecy rules are well documented: two of three abortion patients anticipate experiencing stigma and a similar number (58%) feel the need to keep their decision from friends and family — an unfortunate trend, as social support is a mitigating factor in experiencing stigma. The pressure to keep abortion secret is strong enough that even when the procedure is covered by private insurance (about 30% of cases) two-thirds of those patients will pay out-of-pocket rather than have it appear on their medical and insurance records. This may be another factor in heightened stigma in the US; anecdotal evidence suggests that abortion is less stigmatized in the UK, where it is covered by the National Health Service.
Norris et al. (2011) suggest that additional reasons for abortion stigma may lie in the discourse of personhood attributed to the fetus. Advances in fetal medicine, such as 3D fetal photography and advanced fetal surgery, have facilitated this, as has the proliferation of anti-abortion legislation.
Morality and medicine, like fact and fiction, are entangled in many of these state laws enacted to restrict access to abortion. The Guttmacher Institute (2016), a research and policy organization focused on sexual and reproductive health and rights, reports that at least half of the fifty states have imposed regulations designed to deter women, such as mandatory counselling, required waiting periods, required parental involvement for minors, mandatory ultrasound imaging, and prohibitions on the use of Medicaid funds. A separate report documents the proliferation of regulations known as TRAP laws (Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers), which focus specifically on clinics and providers, mandating clinic requirements in such categories as corridor widths, distance from hospitals, admitting privileges for providers, and more. A 2016 US Supreme Court decision (Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt) struck down the latter type of regulations. The state law in question had already closed nearly two dozen clinics in Texas since 2013. In the three years since the law took effect, an estimated 100,000 Texas women have self-induced abortions. The number could be more than twice that, depending on how it is calculated. The court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt concluded “that neither of these provisions offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes. Each places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion [and] each constitutes an undue burden on abortion access”, as well as being violations of the Constitution.
Many state regulations seem frankly designed to shame and stigmatize, as well as impose additional burdens on the process. Some regulations appear intended to influence women against abortion with bad science. For example, six states require abortion providers to advise women that the procedure can result in severe mental health consequences, despite repeated research showing this is not true. Yet no state requires that pregnant people be informed of the research linking unintended pregnancy and childbearing with adverse mental health outcomes. Kansas, Texas, South Dakota, and Arizona require that the pre-abortion counselling session include a statement that abortion may harm their ability to conceive in the future. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has affirmed that “that one abortion does not affect your ability to get pregnant or the risk of future pregnancy complications”. Five states still mandate that materials or counselling be provided informing women of a potential link between abortion and breast cancer — a link that was debunked almost fifteen years ago when the National Cancer Institute convened a workshop of more than a hundred of the world’s experts on the subject, who concluded that abortion does not increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. This finding has been affirmed by ACOG and the American Cancer Society, as well as a panel convened by the British government in 2004.
Equally egregious and insulting are the mandatory waiting periods, required in twenty-seven states. These “cooling-off periods” range from eighteen hours to three days after pre-abortion counselling before patients can receive an abortion, and usually exclude weekends and holidays. These regulations are based on the belief that women choose impulsively to terminate an unintended pregnancy, or perhaps have not considered the full impact of their choice; that is, that upon termination, they will no longer be pregnant. State legislators presume that women cannot make good decisions. Research has shown that women are actually less conflicted in abortion decisions than people making decisions about other medical procedures. A recent study of Utah’s seventy-two-hour waiting period found that most clients (91%) were just as certain after the three-day wait; 17% reported that waiting made them more certain. Previously published studies by the same researchers have shown that waiting periods increase the cost of the abortion and cause logistical hardships for patients. Civil rights lawyer Danielle Lang (2016) writes, “The argument goes as follows: Women, whose natural role is mother, would never in their right mind seek to terminate a pregnancy. Their choice therefore must be a result of bad influence, coercion or undue pressure.” Fifteen states even require pre-abortion counselling to inform the woman that she cannot be coerced into obtaining an abortion. It’s difficult to imagine other medical procedures being treated in this fashion, such as a three-day waiting period to have an aching tooth pulled or gaping wound stitched up, with a warning that no one can compel you to have those stitches. In his recently published memoir, abortion provider Dr Willie Parker extends the comparison to cancer, writing:
A woman who decides not to pursue treatment and to shorten her life in order to be clear-minded for as long as possible is considered “brave”. A woman who decides to take radical action, to undergo surgeries and try every experimental drug in the pipeline is a “warrior”. Even patients with lung cancer are not blamed and judged for smoking in the same way that women who seek abortions are blamed for having sex.
These regulations may individually seem minor, but their impact and reach are significant. Gold and Nash (2017) point out that seventeen states have at least five types of these restrictions that flout scientific evidence, and 30% of US women of reproductive age live in those states. Their review examines ten categories of restrictions; 53% of US women live in a state that has at least two of these restrictions.
In addition, abortion stigma has been effectively weaponized by anti-abortion activists. Protestors have used shaming and insulting language — such as calling patients “murderer” and “slut” as they enter clinics — and created overt barriers at clinics across the country. Despite the FACE Act (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) and the presence of volunteer escorts, anti-abortion zealots regularly show up at clinics to engage in prayer vigils and so-called sidewalk counselling, as well as to mob the cars and taxis of clinic patients and their companions and to photograph patients and providers without permission. “Sidewalk counselling” often consists of repeated interrogation about whether the patient has Jesus in her life, or slut shaming. A 2017 mini-documentary about clinic protestors produced by Rewire News shows anti-abortion activists acknowledging that they write down license plate numbers of clinic staff, which prompts anxiety and fear among clinic employees.
Abortion stigma reaches beyond those who have the procedure: abortion providers and clinic workers also experience it, albeit of a somewhat different nature. This has to do in part with structural forces of current medical practice. For instance, most abortions occur in women’s health clinics, which increases their isolation from the rest of healthcare. This was initially a strategic choice by proponents to maintain sensitive and women-controlled care of patients. Today it has made providers easy targets – literally and metaphorically – for abortion opponents. They are subject to harassment and violence and their clinics are singled out for regulations that other kind of outpatient medical facilities are not. The scarcity of abortion providers today results in some doctors becoming de facto abortion specialists (which is not inherently troublesome, as many physicians and surgeons develop expertise in particular procedures). The stigma is greater if they perform second-trimester abortions. Although providers experience these sources of abortion stigma on a continual basis, they can counter them with belief in the value and necessity of their work. On the other hand, unwillingness to disclose their work in public or social settings can increase the perception that abortion work is unusual or deviant, and reinforce the stigma. Family and friends of the patient may also experience abortion stigma. Male partners have reported ambivalence, guilt, sadness, anxiety, powerlessness — the same range of emotions felt by women who seek abortions.
Kumar has cautioned researchers to avoid “conceptual inflation” in defining abortion stigma, noting the importance of separating stigma analytically from prejudice and discrimination as it is both a cause and a consequence of inequality. To understand the power dynamics, the concept must be narrowly defined. When abortion is highly politicized, as in the US, “greater conceptual clarity is needed on the power differentials that create and maintain abortion stigma such as those related to race, age, and class”.
The precise nature of abortion stigma comes into clearer focus upon examination of women’s stories of abortion experience. Two documentary films released in 2005 featured personal stories of abortion: I Had an Abortion by Jennifer Baumgardner and The Abortion Diaries by Penny Lane. Both films had the explicit purpose of making abortion narratives public, widely shared, and without shame. Both films feature individuals stating that the shame of unintended pregnancy is greater than the shame of abortion. Joh in The Abortion Diaries tells her interviewer it was upsetting to her “that somebody knew that I’d messed up. ’Cause that’s what it was considered, that if you got pregnant, you messed up.” Baumgardner reports a male friend who has been part of more than one abortion (not uncommon for an urban, single, heterosexual dude approaching forty) who says it’s not the abortion that’s shameful, it’s the pregnancy. A 2016 HBO film, Abortion: Stories Women Tell by Tracy Droz Tragos, shows little change in the intervening decade. While the new film differs from those from 2005 in that it includes stories of women who elected to continue their pregnancies and stories of abortion protestors as well as abortion stories, the theme of abortion stigma is still strong. In a Newsweek interview, Tragos references all the women she spoke with who could not tell their stories on camera, fearing repercussions at work or at home, saying they found “some solace in even talking about [it] and being heard”.
Smith et al.’s recent interview study of reproductive decisions among young women in the American South found stigma attached to both pregnancy and abortion. Within their Alabama communities, “young women faced with an unintended pregnancy were often deemed ‘fast’ and labelled ‘heathens’ or ‘whores.’ Participants described how women can be the target of accusations and gossip regardless of their pregnancy decision”. A few participants reported losing friends when others, especially parents of their friends, learned of their pregnancies. Interview studies of adult women have also found women reporting disapproving attitudes from friends and family members, as well as loss of friends and boyfriends over abortion decisions. Reproductive justice activist Loretta J. Ross (2016) suggests that respectability politics today leads to more abortion shaming in our era of accessible birth control and legal abortion because now women are seen as both moral and intellectual failures for not using contraception, whereas a previous generation of young women with few options might be chastised only for their risky abortions.
Shame and secrecy surround nearly every reproductive health event; menstruation and menstrual disorders, miscarriage, and breastfeeding all follow widespread cultural norms of concealment and secrecy. For instance, Seear (2009) reported average diagnostic delays of eight years in the UK and eleven years in the US for endometriosis, due largely to stigma that normalizes menstrual pain and enforces silence. Miscarriage is also difficult to discuss and widely misunderstood, yet common: it occurs in about one-fourth of pregnancies in the US but 55% of Americans believe that it is rare. A national survey about miscarriage found that while most respondents knew that genetic malformation is a possible cause of miscarriage, substantial numbers agreed with the following incorrect causes: lifting heavy objects (64%), having had a sexually transmitted disease in the past (41%), past use of an IUD (28%), past use of oral contraception (22%), or getting into an argument (21%). Among survey respondents who had experienced miscarriages, 47% reported feeling guilty, 41% reported feeling that they did something wrong, 41% reported feeling alone, and 28% reported feeling ashamed.
This reproductive secrecy imposes a norm of silence around any reproductive experience that does not meet patriarchal ideals of femininity, such as adhering to the roles of good wife and good mother; in other words, there is no acceptable social discussion of miscarriages, abortions, or the decision to be childless by choice. The invisibility of these common experiences belies how normal they are. For example, many women in Gelman et al.’s study did not learn how common abortion is until they had one. They told researchers how surprised they were at the packed waiting rooms, expecting that “it would be me and maybe like one or two other people”, as one informant said.
Ellison suggests that this “cultural censorship of an experience shared by so many women reinforces an inflexible tension between cultural ideals and women’s lived realities”. This can be seen easily among Smith et al.’s young informants, who report that unintended pregnancy is both shamed and a common occurrence in their communities. These young women learn to regard abortion as even more shameful, reporting that they’ve been told abortion is irresponsible, immoral, selfish, and “you’ll get sick”, making abortion invisible in these communities. The women told the researchers stories of friends and family members who had obtained secret abortions and of miscarriages that they suspected were “hidden” abortions.
While the rate of unintended pregnancy has declined considerably over the last decade, it is still a common occurrence everywhere in the US, at 45% of all pregnancies. Twenty-one percent of all pregnancies end in abortion, leading to an annual total of more than one million pregnancy terminations. Both abortion and unintended pregnancy show a downward trend, with the most likely explanation “a change in the frequency and type of contraceptive use over time”, especially long-acting hormonal methods such as IUDs. At current rates, one of every four American women is likely to have an abortion by age thirty, and one in three by age forty-five.
But abortion stigma and shaming of women who seek abortions, their supporters, and abortion providers shows little decline. There is, however, a bold new movement of feminist activists challenging and resisting abortion stigma. These groups rely heavily on the internet and social media platforms to share stories and inform others about pending legislation and judicial decisions, as well as to promote participation in traditional activism, such as protests, meetings, and rallies. One of their shared goals is to normalize abortion by talking about it. These groups include #ShoutYourAbortion, Lady Parts Justice, We Testify, The Abortion Diary, 1 in 3 Campaign, Sea Change, Shift (affiliated with Whole Woman’s Health Alliance), My Abortion My Life (a project of PreTerm clinics of Ohio), Rewire, URGE (Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality, which uses the hashtag #AbortionPositive), Abortion Story Project, Project Voice, and probably many more. In the interest of time and space, I will focus here on #ShoutYourAbortion, Lady Parts Justice, We Testify, The Abortion Diary, and 1 in 3 Campaign. These five were selected partly for convenience, but also because they are among the most visible of these groups and they represent use of diverse social media channels: Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, websites, and podcasts.
#ShoutYourAbortion (SYA) is, according to their website, a “decentralized network of individuals talking about abortion on their own terms and creating space for others to do the same”. The SYA slogan says, “Abortion is normal. Our stories are ours to tell. This is not a debate.” The hashtag emerged in 2015, from a Twitter conversation between Amelia Bonow and Lindy West, in response to a congressional vote to defund Planned Parenthood. Bonow wrote on Facebook about how grateful she was to have had abortion accessible at her local Planned Parenthood affiliate when she needed one the previous year, and with her permission, West shared her story on Twitter, with the hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion.
Lady Parts Justice (LPJ) was founded by comic Lizz Winstead, filmmaker Arun Chaudhary, and marketing CEO Scott Goodstein. LPJ and their sister organization, Lady Parts Justice League (LPJL), produce satirical, informative videos about anti-reproductive rights legislation, including parodies of popular songs and television shows re-worked with messages related to current abortion legislation. LPJL provides USO-style support to independent clinics all over the country, performing comedy shows that serve as entertainment for clinic employees and as fundraisers for clinic needs, often in regions that seldom see popular comedy performers tour. LPJL has also helped escort patients, planted a protective prickly bush in a fencing gap to block protesters, painted fences, counter-protested anti-choice activists, and thrown dance parties in parking lots for escorts and staff.
We Testify, a program initiated by the National Network of Abortion Funds, “is dedicated to increasing the spectrum of abortion storytellers in the public sphere and shifting the way the media understands the context and complexity of accessing abortion care”. It is a leadership program designed to support people of color in building their power and telling their stories. Renee Bracey Sherman, We Testify Program Manager, is the author of a resource guide for public abortion storytelling published by Sea Change.
The Abortion Diary podcast was started by Melissa Madera in the summer of 2013, after Madera had kept her abortion experience secret for thirteen years and seen the impact that finally telling her story had on her family, her friends, and herself. She chose the platform of podcasting to create a safe space for sharing stories “because, more than anything else, I wanted to listen”. By the beginning of 2017, she had collected more than two hundred abortion stories.
The 1 in 3 Campaign is the oldest abortion story project on the internet, and features the largest set of abortion stories published online, and the only bilingual collection, with stories published in English and in Spanish. More than a storytelling platform, 1 in 3 is also an organizing hub for college students working on reproductive justice issues on their campuses. It was created in 2011 by Advocates for Youth, an organization dedicated to supporting sexual and reproductive rights for young people.
Each has unique strengths and emphases. For instance, #ShoutYourAbortion centers visibility and politics of recognition, while Lady Parts Justice uses feminist humor as a tool of political analysis, and We Testify and the 1 in 3 Campaign use story-sharing to politicize themselves and others. All are working to normalize abortion, as they politicize supporters through narrative, online outreach, activism, and consciousness raising. For imagining a world without abortion stigma does not require that we celebrate abortion, only that we acknowledge it openly and without shame. A world without abortion stigma is also a world in which women can experience a vibrant sexuality, including access to comprehensive birth control and reproductive health services without shame, and one in which talking about those experiences is neither forbidden nor required.
An edited extract from Authentocrats by Joe Kennedy, out on 21st June from Repeater
The Nine Yorkshiremen of the Apocalypse
On the Friday evening before the June 2017 United Kingdom General Election, a special edition of the BBC’s political debate show Question Time was broadcast in which Theresa May, the leader of the Conservative Party, and Jeremy Corbyn, who we’ve met already, were invited to York to answer questions from a curated studio audience. Because May had refused a head-to-head debate, the would-be prime ministers spoke separately, and Corbyn found himself on second. May had already endured a vexing time, being forcefully challenged over Conservative cuts, particularly to the NHS, and a related public-sector pay-freeze in a way she clearly found difficult to parry. As the audience had been handpicked for balance’s sake, it was clear that Corbyn would have to endure a similar temperature of scrutiny, but the themes of his interrogation were pointedly different.
By lunchtime the following day, the image of those who took Corbyn to task had imposed itself on the consciousness of not only many on the British left, but on the public at large. Nine audience members’ faces had been screen-grabbed and corralled in a composite image, swiftly circulated on Twitter, Facebook and beyond, which was designed to demonstrate the uniformity of the debate’s conservative
To celebrate May Day, we’re offering 50% off on some of our politics titles for today only!
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Is the “death of politics” simply an inevitable sign of the times, going hand in hand with climate change, technological development and postmodern malaise? Or is it the intentional result of right-wing engineering?
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“A welcome call to arms” – Times Literary Supplement
Nincompooplis: The Follies of Boris Johnson
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A Threat of the First Magnitude: FBI Infiltration and Counterintelligence
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In May we’ll be publishing Lesley-Ann Brown’s Decolonial Daughter: Letters from a Black Woman to her European Son, a book which explores, through the lens of motherhood, issues such as migration, identity, nationhood and how it relates to land, forced migrations, imprisonment and genocide for Black and Indigenous people.
Having moved to Copenhagen, Denmark from Brooklyn over eighteen years ago, Brown attempts to contextualise her and her son’s existence in a post-colonial and supposedly post-racial world in where the very machine of so-called progress has been premised upon the demise of her lineage. Through these letters, Brown writes the past into the present – from the country that has been declared “The Happiest Place in the World” – creating a vision that is a necessary alternative to the dystopian one currently being bought and sold.
You can read more about Lesley-Ann and her work in the Huffington Post:
Trailblazing Blogger Lesley-Ann Brown Has Been Laying the Foundations for a Literary Renaissance for over Two Decades – God is a Trini and She Lives High, All the Way Up, in Copenhagen
Poet and English Teacher in Copenhagen Denmark Sows Seeds with Fire and Reaps the Whirlwind – The Galactic Resistance is Real
In the second part of his essay on the role of MI6 and the CIA in the Iranian coup of 1953, No Less Than Mystic author John Medhurst covers the coup itself and its aftermath.
The response of the AIOC to the Iranian parliament’s agreement to Mossadegh’s nationalisation proposal of February 1951 was to suspend the production and export of oil from Iran. The British government, with the agreement of the powerful “Seven Sisters” oil cartel that controlled the world’s oil market, began to impose an oil embargo on the country. When the City of London also imposed a banking boycott on Iranian credit institutions, the Iranian Treasury was squeezed hard.
Shapoor Reporter, the Shah’s close friend and MI6 asset, was one of Iran’s key business leaders. MI6 money, channelled through the notoriously corrupt Rashidian brothers, bought the allegiance of key figures in Iran’s National Bank, including its Governor Dr Mohammed Nassirir. Using the excuse of attending International Monetary Fund meetings abroad, Dr Nassirir regularly stopped off in London to advise the FCO on the state of Iran’s finances, specifically how long the government could continue to pay its civil service without AIOC revenue (Dorril).
Britain’s anti-Mossadegh operation was multi-stranded and well rooted, but Mossadegh’s counterattack – the closing of the British Embassy in Tehran – dealt the plan a severe blow. Luckily for Churchill the main obstacle to American involvement in regime change in Iran, President Truman, was about to leave office, to be replaced by the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the last of Roosevelt’s New Dealers left the Washington stage, a newer breed of right-wing imperialists took power whose overriding political priority was to protect the wealth and power of American corporations.
No one exemplified this breed better than Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Director of the CIA Allen Dulles. Born in to the East Coast WASP elite – their uncle and grandfather had both each served a term as Secretary of State – the Dulles Brothers exhibited all of its arrogance with little of its wit and intelligence. Prior to their appointments by Eisenhower, both brothers had been senior partners at the prestigious Wall Street law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. Sullivan and Cromwell was the legal representative of the AIOC in the US and did handsomely from its business.
When the head of MI6 Sir John Sinclair visited Washington on 18th February 1953, he was cordially received by Allen Dulles. Dulles told Sinclair that the qualms of the previous administration about intervention in Iran no longer applied, and the American government was now fully supportive of plans to remove Mossadegh from office. Given that the British could no longer take the leading role, Dulles proposed that the field operation be led by CIA Head of Near East Operations, Kermit Roosevelt.
Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was cut from the same cloth as the Dulles brothers. Educated at Groton and Harvard, his grandfather had been President Theodore Roosevelt and he was a distant cousin to FDR, whose liberal politics he loathed. He joined the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) during the war, and cultivated many powerful and influential contacts in the Middle East. Roosevelt made a very favourable impression on the British when, after Mossadegh closed down the British Embassy, he flew to Tehran and picked up many of MI6’s contacts and informers and put them on the CIA payroll.
Roosevelt now had discretion to act as he saw fit. The British had suggested that the ideal puppet Prime Minister, after a coup, would be General Faziollah Zahedhi. The British knew him well, having arrested him during the war as a Nazi sympathiser. An ex-Chief of Police in Tehran, Zahedhi was a brutal anti-Communist who regarded not only the Tudeh but Mossadegh himself as Soviet puppets. Roosevelt brought him in.
The coup now acquired an official name – Operation Ajax (the more prosaic British had labelled their own covert anti-Mossadegh plan Operation Boot). The American Ambassador in Iran, Loy Henderson, had been sceptical of Boot but was enthusiastic about Ajax. He made contact with General Zahedhi and found him ready to help, although Zahedhi warned Henderson that the Iranians could not remove Mossadegh “through their own efforts”, mainly because most of them did not wish to do so.
That calculus could be changed, and the Rashidians were instrumental in doing so. Firstly they unleashed a street mob on to Mossadegh’s home. They then assassinated several of Mossadegh’s allies, including the loyal Chief of Police General Afshartous, who had uncovered and thwarted the AIOC’s own covert plans. As well as Afshartous, Mossadegh lost other key members of the National Front coalition, most importantly the senior Muslim cleric Ayatollah Kashani, who was persuaded that the best way to serve Islam was to start taking the Rashidians’ money.
These set-backs could have been weathered if the Iranian left had given Mossadegh solid support. But the Tudeh failed to appreciate how crucial the battle over the AIOC was to the future of Iran. At the end of 1950 the Tudeh viewed the nationalist movement as
the product of internal contradictions within the ruling classes… they were simply unable to recognise that there could be any other organised popular movement capable of challenging the basic structure of Iran’s power relations (Sepehr Zabih, The Mossadegh Era).
The “radical” wing of the Tudeh, under Abdol Kambakhsh, Ahmed Qasemi and Nur al-Din Kianuri, hewed firmly to the belief that any oppositional movement not led by the Iranian working class could not be serious about challenging neo-colonialism. The more “moderate” wing, led by Morteza Yazdi, Iraj Eskandari, and Ali Olovvi – originally part of the independent leftist “The Fifty-Three” and thus more flexible in their thinking than their hard-line Stalinist colleagues – began to shift towards support for Mossadegh as the crisis intensified. Unfortunately for Mossadegh, the Stalinists retained control of the party until it was too late.
What had begun as a premiership devoted to “one issue” had escalated to become a wide-ranging geo-political struggle between progressive democrats and an aristocratic-military elite (with fundamentalist Muslim support) whose self-interest overlapped the strategic priorities of the US and British governments. Mossadegh himself was also broadening his political outlook. The reaction of the AIOC and the British government to the nationalisation decree, and his conversations with India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had led Mossadegh to see the struggle over Iran’s oil as the product of the West’s economic colonialism, requiring a more radical response than he had supposed in his youth.
The CIA and MI6 now had all elements in place for a coup. They had authorisation from Eisenhower and Churchill. They had established contacts with powerful circles inside Iran who had a vested interest in the existing distribution of profits from the AIOC (General Zahedi had now formed a “Committee to Save the Fatherland”, composed of pro-British senior army officers, run out of the Officer’s Club in Tehran. The Committee was funded by the Rashidians, and established warm relations with Ayatollah Kashani). Thanks to Kim Roosevelt – now operating inside Iran under an alias – they had a steady stream of funds to bribe the bazaar merchants and their army of thugs. With his Chief of Police removed, Mossadegh was unprepared for the coming attack.
On 4th April $1 million was sent from Washington to the CIA station in Tehran. The money was to be used to fund the Committee to Save the Fatherland and to print inflammatory leaflets and posters to be disseminated around Tehran by Rashidian boot boys. The leaflets accused Mossadegh of corruption, of being anti-Islam, and of working with the Tudeh to hand Iran over to the Soviet Union. They helped to whip up an atmosphere of crisis, during which Zahedhi’s forces plotted to seize key points in the city such as the telephone exchange, Radio Tehran, the Central Bank, and Mossadegh’s home. It was planned that after Mossadegh was arrested, the Majlis – heavily lubricated by CIA money – would proclaim Zahedhi the legitimate Prime Minister. The Shah would then immediately endorse the new Prime Minister, as would Iran’s chief Imam.
On 15th June 1953 Kim Roosevelt flew to London to meet MI6 and explain the plan. The meeting in Whitehall was chaired by senior FCO mandarin Patrick Dean, Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee which oversaw all covert operations. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was in attendance. All approved the plan. On 25th June the plan was put to a high-level meeting in the State Department in Washington chaired by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and attended by his brother Allen, Director of the CIA. Once again Operation Ajax was given the green light.
The signal to the coup leaders inside Iran was helpfully provided by the BBC, whose senior news managers had acceded to a request from the Foreign Office that they broadcast a coded message that the coup was good to go. Hence on 8th August the BBC’s Persian language news broadcast began not with the usual “It is now midnight in London”, but with “It is now exactly midnight”. This was the coup’s starting gun.
As a first move, the US Military Assistance Advisory Group cut off liaison with those army officers loyal to Mossadegh, whilst assistance to Zahedi’s anti-government officers increased. Despite this, the Shah was nervous. It took Kim Roosevelt’s personal intervention to get him to sign a special firman that dismissed Mossadegh as Prime Minister and replaced him with General Zahedi. Meanwhile the Rashidian brothers organised mobs to pose as Tudeh militants to attack Mosques and Imams. The attacks, combined with propaganda presenting Mossadegh as a Communist sympathiser, turned many Muslim clerics against the government.
Mossadegh fought back. He surrounded his house with loyal troops and when the Shah’s emissary, Colonel Nassiri of the Imperial Guard, arrived to arrest him he was faced by a row of tanks led by the reliable Army Chief of Staff General Riyah. Much to Nassiri’s surprise, Riyah took one look at the arrest warrant from the Shah, declined to recognise it and arrested him instead. Zahedi went into hiding in a CIA safehouse.
Mossadegh temporarily closed down the Majlis, preventing Zahedi’s political cronies from presenting the Shah’s decree removing him from office. The Tudeh, finally waking up to the danger to Mossadegh and to themselves, began to mobilise their trade union supporters on to the streets. In the crucial period between the first attempt at a coup and the second – from 16th to 19th August – Tudeh activists were out on the streets distributing leaflets, attacking statues of the Shah and agitating for the establishment of a democratic republic.
Roosevelt sensed that further delay might give Mossadegh the opportunity to link up with the Tudeh and the unions. Whilst he worked furiously behind the scenes, Mossadegh called Loy Henderson to his residence on 19th August to demand the US government cease efforts to remove him from power. Mossadegh asserted that the Shah, by fleeing the country and deserting his people, had lost his authority. Henderson denied any US involvement in a coup. The meeting descended into a shouting match.
Mossadegh, who had reacted skilfully to the first stages of the coup, now started to make mistakes. Flustered by Henderson’s claims that US nationals were being attacked in the streets by Tudeh thugs, he called for a ban on all political demonstrations on the streets of the capital. Many of his supporters, including some in the Tudeh, heeded his call. But anti-Mossadegh forces did not. To add to the escalation, he placed General Daftary, one of Zahedi’s supporters, in charge of the armed security forces set up to put down the riots. Daftary promptly ordered the security forces to support anti-Mossadegh rioters. At the same time, the CIA delivered $10,000 directly to Ayatollah Kashani, and in return he called on all Muslims to support the rioters.
The unions awaited a signal from the leaders of the Tudeh, whose Executive met in emergency session. Ali Olovvi insisted the party call for a general strike to oppose the coup. Nur al-Din Kianuri – who some within the party suspected of being a KGB agent – opposed the call, fearful of making any move not sanctioned by Moscow. Unfortunately there was no time to seek and receive instructions from Moscow, which a few months after Stalin’s death was locked in political paralysis. Unable to decide, the Tudeh did nothing.
The Iranian military, meanwhile, began to sense which way the wind was blowing, and hitherto loyal officers started to shift allegiance. General Zahedi finally emerged from hiding and broadcast from Radio Tehran that in line with the Shah’s decree he was taking over as Prime Minister. At the same time military forces led by General Daftary converged on Mossadegh’s house to implement the Shah’s firman.
Elsewhere in the capital the anti-Mossadegh forces were winning. A mixture of disloyal army units and paid thugs attacked government buildings and the offices of newspapers that supported the National Front. Gunfire was exchanged, but the buildings fell quickly to the attackers. At Mossadegh’s house, resistance was more serious. Mossadegh remained in the house for most of the day, but when Zahedi’s tanks arrived his aides persuaded him he should leave. Helped by a small core of loyal soldiers he fled out the back amidst gunfire.
Mossadegh’s military support had collapsed. With Mossadegh’s government now effectively overthrown, Kim Roosevelt accepted the thanks of cheering officers at the Tehran Officer’s Club. A few days later Mossadegh gave himself up to Zahedi, and was temporarily imprisoned in the Officer’s Club. Zahedi himself was inclined to be generous to his defeated opponent, but the Shah was not. Arriving back in Iran after his supporters had done the fighting, he called Mossadegh “an evil man” and called for him to be moved to the city prison.
There was still sporadic resistance from Mossadegh’s supporters, especially from trade union militants at Abadan. But they had no organisation or access to arms. Most of the Tudeh’s Stalinist leaders decided discretion was the better part of valour, and fled to the Soviet Union. Ordinary Tudeh members put up a better performance, but they were outnumbered, outgunned and without leadership. They were quickly suppressed.
It was the close of a great moment in Iranian politics, the deliberate extermination of a pluralist liberal democracy by those who loudly claimed to defend such systems. Though the direct cause was outside intervention, the success of the coup had been eased by the inability of Iranian democrats, socialists and trade unionists to form a popular front to defend their interests. Those who regarded themselves as the political leaders of the Iranian working class were unable to focus on the main threat facing them. For this, the 1950s have been rightly called “the decade of great defeat for Iranian Marxists”, with the sad but accurate observation that
A generation of young, largely well educated activists saw their ideals crushed by a preventable coup which succeeded with minimum effort (Behrooz)
Mossadegh was tried for treason by a military tribunal that was only going to deliver one verdict. Nevertheless the old man still had some fire in him. He bluntly told the tribunal:
My only crime is that I nationalised the Iranian oil industry, and removed from this land the network of colonialism and the political and economic influence of the greatest empire on Earth.
He was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison followed by a life sentence of house arrest.
On 26th August, four days after the coup, Kim Roosevelt flew directly to London where he was taken to see Winston Churchill at 10 Downing St. He reported the complete success of Operation Ajax. After this he flew to Washington to a hero’s welcome at the CIA. President Eisenhower awarded him the National Security Medal for his work in Iran. The British government gifted him £500,000 in shares in the AIOC and the company made him an Executive Director. In 1958 Roosevelt left the CIA to become Vice-President of Gulf Oil, which had secured major contracts to develop Iranian oil after the coup.
Shapoor Reporter, the Shah’s friend and inside source for MI6, was knighted by the British government. Sir Shapor became one of the most powerful arms brokers in the Middle East and remained a close confidante of the Shah until 1979. Always a step ahead, he left Iran shortly before the revolution that deposed the Shah.
The head of MI6, Sir John Sinclair, became Director of the Royal Institute for International Affairs, one of the UK’s leading academic research bodies. In that role he ensured the historical record of the 1953 coup conformed to official spin, as laid out in a June 1951 cable from the FCO’s Eastern Department to the Washington Embassy:
It is essential… that Britain not be seen as a capitalist power attacking a nationalist Persia
For a time the official version – that Mossadegh was an unstable semi-Communist removed by the Shah and the Iranian military alone – was widely accepted. Latterly, popular histories by New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer and the great demythologiser of British foreign policy Mark Curtis (who revealed the FCO cables and other hitherto secret material) have gone some way to put the record straight.
Reflecting the shift in economic power from Britain to the US, it was American oil firms that gained the most from the new regime. Iran’s oil reserves were divided up by a series of new leases and contracts overseen by New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, on whose Board sat the CIA Director and the Secretary of State who had orchestrated Operation Ajax. The Iranian concessions were parcelled out to a massive international consortium dominated by American oil companies. The AIOC had only 40% of the consortium. Renaming and rebranding itself, the AIOC became British Petroleum (BP) and began to explore new commercial opportunities in Kuwait, Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico. By the 1980s it was the fifth largest company in the world.
Within Iran the Shah introduced a ferocious regime of repression, led by his new intelligence agency SAVAK. The Tudeh bore the brunt. After the coup four thousand of its members were arrested, including teachers, civil servants, students and industrial workers. Forty were executed, but many more were tortured and imprisoned. Trained in torture techniques by the CIA and MI6, SAVAK kept a stern boot on political opponents. At the time of the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah one of SAVAK’s biggest concentration camp, at Irafshan, held fifty thousand political prisoners.
The 1979 revolution replaced one authoritarian structure with another. Arguably, that structure, after nearly four decades, is finally beginning to exhibit signs of internal reform and modernisation, although the extent to which this may occur without continuous pressure from the populace and support from the international left is in doubt.
One thing remains clear. However and if the process of democratisation develops, Iran still lives with the legacy of 1953 left it by Britain and America.
The Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture is hosted annually in January by the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Each time, a speaker will be invited to engage with the themes and ideas written about by Mark with an eye to taking them further or, indeed, somewhere else.
For the 2018 inaugural lecture, Kodwo Eshun (Mark’s colleague and co-editor, with Mark, of Post-Punk Then and Now) spoke about the impact of Mark’s work.
How did the CIA and MI6 orchestrate a coup d’etat in Iran in 1953? In this new, two-part essay, No Less Than Mystic author John Medhurst looks at how Britain and the USA destroyed democracy in Iran to protect their own economic and political interests, and how the legacy of this is still being felt today.
Part One coverst the pre-coup history of British and US involvement in Iran, and how this led to the events that would change the political make-up of the region forever.
Since 1979, British and American governments, when confronted with a political crisis within Iran, have invariably spoken of their desire to see more democracy in that country. To say these noises are hypocritical would be an understatement. The last time Iran experienced a multi-party, constitutional democracy was in 1953, when Britain and America planned, funded and implemented a military coup in the country, a coup whose sole aim was the protection of their oil interests. That democracy, however imperfect it may have been, has not returned since.
In 1908 oil was discovered in what was then Persia, one year after an agreement between Britain and Tsarist Russia to partition the country in to two spheres of control, the British holding the south and the Russians the north. The British were quick to appreciate the future use of the oil and organised a group of investors to form the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC, renamed the AIOC in 1936). In 1914, to protect its interest in perpetuity, the British government purchased a 51% controlling share of the company.
In 1919, after a world war that had severely taxed Britain’s economic and military strength, the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave Britain control over Persia’s army, communications, transport and treasury. The British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon insisted that if Britain was to assume “the mandate for Mesopotamia” it could not allow “a hotbed of misrule” to exist in this strategically vital area. In Curzon’s view the oil reserves of southwest Persia were “great assets” to be “worked for the British Navy”, and thus had to be controlled and protected.
No matter what political and dynastic changes occurred within Iran (as the country was renamed in 1935) over the next thirty years, Britain stuck to this goal.
For much of the period this meant accommodation to the rule of the man who started life as Reza Khan but ended it as Reza Shah. In 1921 Reza led a coup against the corrupt and enfeebled Qajar dynasty. With the British promising him military and financial resources, Reza quickly took Tehran, arrested the Shah’s Cabinet, and sent the Shah himself on a long European holiday. Reza then became Prime Minister. His original ambition was to follow the example of Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk and secularise his country, but after opposition from Iran’s powerful Imams these plans were swiftly dropped.
For a while Reza’s rule was uncertain, but the attempted return of the old Shah in 1926 united both the Imams and the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, behind him. In April 1926 they declared the formal end of the Qajar dynasty and the ascension of Reza as Shah. The Pahlavi dynasty thus began its stormy history.
Reza’s immediate clampdown on the press and trade unions, his jailing and killing of political opponents, did not disturb British policy makers, for whom the only consideration was his subservience to British oil interests, in particular the AIOC and the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement. The most radical alternative to Reza, the Iranian Communist Party (ICP), was outlawed in 1930 and most of its leaders imprisoned.
Reza’s fitful attempts to modernise Iranian society were not insignificant, especially in education, but they were driven forward by autocratic fiat and suffered badly from lack of a political base. As a sincere nationalist he made efforts to terminate the AIOC concession negotiated as part of the Anglo-Persian Agreement, and in the late 1920s he tried to re-negotiate the concession on better terms for Iran. The British were adamant that the concessions should remain unaltered. Frustrated at every turn, in November 1932 Reza declared that he was cancelling the concession.
Alarmed, the AIOC’s Chairman Sir John Cadman flew to Tehran to personally negotiate with the Shah. This produced the 1933 Anglo-Iranian Agreement, which in return for relatively minor concessions on the AIOC’s part – increased financial returns to Iran, and a promise that the appalling working conditions at the company’s notorious Abadan plant on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway would be improved – extended the concession for a further thirty-two years. The weakness of the Agreement led to discontent with Reza’s rule across all social classes.
Notwithstanding his unpopularity, with domestic opposition crushed Reza’s rule might have extended for decades if not for the outbreak of the Second World War. During the 1930s Reza had tilted towards open support for Hitler and Mussolini. When war was declared between Germany and Britain he announced Iranian neutrality. This allowed Nazi agents free rein within the country. After the German invasion of Soviet Russia in June 1941 the new allies (Britain and the USSR) feared that Germany might use Iran to launch a further attack on Soviet Russia from the south.
To prevent this possibility British and Soviet troops invaded Iran in August 1941 to secure the border and the country’s oil. The Iranian army, few of whom were willing to fight for Reza, quickly disintegrated. In September 1941 Reza was forced to abdicate and was replaced by his twenty-one-year-old son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a weak and pampered playboy whom the British believed they could easily control. Yet a much greater threat to the AIOC now emerged, in the form of the nationalist politician Mohammed Mossadegh.
Mossadegh came from Iran’s social and political elite. His grandfather had played a prominent part in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, which had forced the old Shah to create an Iranian parliament, the Majlis, for the first time. Elected to the first Majlis in 1906 at the age of twenty-four, Mossadegh left the country in 1919 in protest against the Anglo-Persian Agreement. But Iranian politics were in his blood and he returned a year later to take up the post of the Shah’s Finance Minister, and later Foreign Minister. His granite integrity made him few political friends. The definitive work on his eventual downfall concluded “many rich and influential Iranians considered him a class traitor because of his insistence on judging them by the letter of the law” (Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men).
1943 saw the first relatively free elections in Iran. Mossadegh, having spent nearly twenty years in retreat at his country estate, stood for a seat in the Majlis. He returned to parliament as one of the most respected politicians in the country, known for long and principled opposition not only to Reza Shah but also to the AIOC.
The real spark of revolt against the AIOC was lit in 1946 when the workforce at Abadan went on strike. Over a quarter of century earlier, in 1919, what has been called “The first major strike of a colonised working class in the Middle East” (Frederic Clairmont, “BP: The Unfinished Crimes and Plunders of Anglo-American Imperialism”) led to the deaths of over thirty refinery workers when the army and AIOC police gunned down striking workers. This led to the formation of the Iranian Communist Party. Within a few years a national campaign led by the trade unions and the ICP for an eight-hour working day forced the government to concede the demand in the Labour Law of 1923. In 1925 trade unions led May Day celebrations across Iran.
This working-class spirit was suppressed by Reza Shah, but not destroyed. The 1946 strike demanded not only better working conditions but enforcement of the terms of the 1933 Agreement that had promised Abadan’s workers the same social infrastructure (e.g. schools, hospitals, roads, running water, etc.) that the AIOC’s British staff and their families enjoyed in their gated and well-guarded section of the city.
The newly elected British Labour government sent two warships to Abadan in support of the AIOC, but although their presence was significant they were ordered not to fire on the strikers. Instead the strike was put down by paid strike breakers from ethnic Arab tribes long at odds with the urbanised work force.
But the political climate in post-war Iran was far more sympathetic to the strikers than in 1919. Central to this was the resurrection of the Iranian Communists, now grouped together in a party known as the Tudeh (“Masses”). Although some of its older militants had been members of the ICP, the Tudeh was not simply a recreation of that party. It was initially “a united front for anti-fascist activities and constitutional rule” (Mazia Behrooz, Rebels With a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran) that emerged from the work of “The Fifty-Three”, a collection of left academics, writers and politicians imprisoned together under Reza Shah when war broke out.
By 1945 key positions within the Iranian trade unions were usually held by Tudeh militants. After the war the party moved on to the national scene. It even had three ministers in the 1946 coalition government, driving forward legislation that for the first time gave Iran a minimum wage and maternity leave. Had the Tudeh focused on these reforming initiatives, it might have become the major social democratic grouping in Iran and the bearer of the country’s post-war aspirations for national renewal.
But the pro-Soviet faction in the party saw Iranian developments through the prism of Soviet foreign policy, and following an ill-advised flirtation with revolutionary violence in Iran’s Azerbaijan province in late 1946, the party was once again banned, losing its foothold in government and increasing its isolation from the nationalists. Because of this the Tudeh underestimated the extent to which popular energies were now focused on the fight for control of the nation’s oil reserves.
Others moved to fill the gap. In 1949 Mossadegh and like-minded colleagues created the National Front, a reformist political party whose main aim was to establish a functioning democracy in Iran and gain control of Iranian oil resources by nationalising the AIOC’s operations in the country. Even the British Ambassador, unflinchingly supportive of the AIOC and dismissive of Iranian politicians, admitted that the National Front was “comparatively free from the taint of having amassed wealth and influence through the improper use of official positions”. The impetus for the formation of the National Front arose from a re-negotiation of the 1933 Agreement, which Majlis deputies had threatened to revoke.
Mossadegh led the Front in the 16th Majlis. But the AIOC’s creatures – the Shah and his new Prime Minister General Ali Razmara – ensured that Mossadegh was kept away from the executive. Razmara restored some of the Shah’s authority, not least by spreading huge amounts of bribe money around the Majlis to support the AIOC’s continued hold on Iranian oil. The cash was supplied by Ian Milne, the MI6 Head of Station in Tehran, who ran agents within the Majlis itself.
In February 1951 Mossadegh formally proposed the complete nationalisation of the AIOC. In March Razmara was assassinated. Without Razmara’s bribes the Majlis looked to other interests. Under great external pressure from an aroused populace, it voted to accept Mossadegh’s resolution and to nationalise the AIOC. After this the Shah had little option but to make Mossadegh Prime Minister in April 1951.
Mass support for Mossadegh was evident from the moment he took office. On 1st May a demonstration of 50,000 workers, peasants and members of the armed forces gathered outside the Majlis to support the nationalisation of the AIOC. Mossadegh sensed the national mood and reflected it.
Shortly after the decree was ratified, he declared:
We are nationalising the AIOC because it has systematically over several decades refused to engage in a constructive dialogue with us… Working hand in glove with the British government it has trampled on our national rights. Their conduct was one of unspeakable arrogance. Our battle for the end of the company’s domination has finally arrived and we shall triumph.
This was the beginning of an open confrontation between Iranian democratic nationalists and one of the last great remaining colonialist merchant ventures, the British equivalent of the American United Fruit Company in power, wealth, and ruthless determination to protect its profit margins. The previous year, 1950, the AIOC had made £170 million in profit from Iran, with only 12% going to the Iranian government. It had much to protect, and it was not shy in calling on its friends in the British government for assistance.
Although a hard-line anti-Communist, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was sympathetic to Iran’s desire to control its own oil resources. Unlike his more hysterical advisors he did not consider Mossadegh a Communist or a fellow traveller. However, Bevin’s health was failing and in early 1951 he was replaced by the dull political fixer Herbert Morrison. For Morrison, Iran was still “Persia”, an exotic oriental land which needed a firm guiding hand to ward off anarchy. He immediately created a “Persia Working Group” comprised of officials from MI6, the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Bank of England, to address the problem.
The Persia Working Group drew up a plan for direct British military intervention, codenamed Operation Buccaneer, to secure the Abadan facility. But plans for invasion could not proceed once US President Harry Truman made it clear that the British did not have American support. Truman, sceptical of the ability of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to make intelligent distinctions between Communism and radical nationalism, held Bevin’s view that Mossadegh was primarily a nationalist. It was clear to him, as the most revealing account of MI6 published to date concedes, that
despite British propaganda, the Mossadegh government was generally democratic, moderate, and seemed likely to succeed in establishing a middle-class hold over the state. (Stephen Dorril, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations).
Operation Buccaneer was shelved. For the Persia Working Group this meant that anti-Mossadegh operations had to go underground. This process was driven forward not just by Morrison and MI6 but by an alliance of right-wing “Orientalist” academics and FCO mandarins long accustomed to treating Iran like an imperial satrapy. Prominent amongst these were Professor Ann Lambton, Reader in Persian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, previously Press Attaché at the Tehran Embassy during the war. Lambton and FCO Assistant Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Eric Berthoud, who had worked for the AIOC for eight years before moving to Whitehall, agreed that the only way to remove the threat posed by Mossadegh was through “covert means”.
For years the MI6 station in Tehran had cultivated Iranians at all levels within the military and big business. The most useful of these “assets” were Shapoor Reporter, a British-Iranian businessman and close friend of the Shah who fed MI6 gossip from inside the Shah’s palace, and the infamous Rashidian brothers. The Rashidians were plugged into the highest levels of Iranian politics, business and the court. They were violently pro-British, sending their children to English public schools and keeping a permanent suite at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. MI6 paid them £10,000 a month. For this the Rashidians spread disinformation and smears about Mossadegh amongst the bazaar merchants of Tehran, whose leaders had the power to summon violent mobs on to the streets.
The Rashidians worked to the FCO’s Eastern Department and its Permanent Secretary Geoffrey Furlong. The Eastern Department now advanced the coup plan on several fronts – the academics of the Persia Working Group provided the BBC with news stories implying that Iranians were incapable of running the oil industry. The BBC worked closely with the AIOC’s information department, the Central Information Bureau, to disseminate their message within Iran and to suggest that those elements in Iranian society who had profited from the AIOC were about to lose their wealth and power. All strands of the anti-nationalisation operation ran through the AIOC’s Chief Executive in Tehran, Richard Seddon.
In July 1951 Iranian state security raided Seddon’s house and uncovered plans for the destabilisation of Mossadegh and lists of Iranians who were recipients of AIOC and MI6 bribe money. This led to all AIOC executives leaving the country in October 1951. Despite this, Mossadegh still sought a negotiated settlement with the British. But after the Conservatives came to power in October 1951, such a settlement became less and less likely. Faced with mounting evidence of the AIOC’s criminal conspiracy and of official British government collusion in plans for regime change, in October 1952 Mossadegh closed the British Embassy in Tehran.
An informal war against Iran was now declared. The new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had overseen the creation of the AIOC in 1908 and had profited personally from his own shares in the company. His instincts were strongly imperialist. When the Labour government, in its dying days, failed to land British troops at Abadan to disperse striking workers, Churchill had been aghast. In November 1951 he wrote in disgust to the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, that Labour had “scuttled and run from Abadan when a splutter of musketry would have ended the matter”.
Next time, Churchill would not hold back on the musketry.