From Worker Street to Mosaddegh Street: The Struggle over the Collective Memory of Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddegh

Raz Zimmt examines the discourse surrounding the intention of the Tehran City Council to name a street after former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, reflecting the tension between an Islamic-religious identity and a secular-national identity that characterizes Iranian society.
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Mosaddegh Dead End, from Twitter
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Mosaddegh Dead End, from Twitter


A recent proposal by the Tehran City Council to rename a street in the city in memory of former Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh (1951-1953) generated a vociferous debate on social media, rekindling a decades-long dispute over his character and legacy. Mosaddegh led the historic struggle to nationalize the petroleum industry in the early 1950s, and this discourse is part of the public debate on the path of the Islamic Republic, reflecting a characteristic tension in Iranian society between Islamic-religious identity and national-secular identity.

In early March 2018, Hojjat Nazari, a member of Tehran’s city council, announced that the city’s Culture and Society Committee had decided to change the name of Worker Street (خیابان کارگر) to Mosaddegh Street.[1] This decision may well be an outcome of the municipal elections held together with the presidential elections in May 2017. For the first time in 14 years, the list of candidates affiliated with the reformist camp won a landslide victory, and now holds all 21 seats on Tehran’s city council.

The proposal to name a street in Tehran in honor of Mosaddegh reawakened the historical debate over the legacy of the former prime minister. Mosaddegh was deposed in August 1953 in a military coup instigated with assistance from the CIA, and the debate over his legacy is rooted in the Islamic Revolution. Several leaders of the revolution, some of whom had been his students during the period of the National Front in the 1950s, promoted Mosaddegh as a national hero, and the main street of Tehran, previously named for the royal house of Pahlavi, was renamed in his honor. However, when the clerics took power in the early 1980s, the attitude toward Mosaddegh, his character and legacy changed. The clerics blurred his presence in Iran’s historical memory, in order to highlight their own contribution to the movement for nationalizing the petroleum industry. In 1981, Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the revolution, declared that Mosaddegh was not a Muslim;[2] shortly thereafter the name of Mosaddegh Street was changed to Vali Asr Street to honor the Hidden Imam of the Shi‘i tradition.

The discourse on SNS in response to the proposal to rename Worker Street for Mosaddegh gave voice to the political debate in Iran between supporters of the regime on the conservative right and its opponents, including advocates for change from the reformist camp. While the former continue to take a reticent stand toward Mosaddegh, and blame him for the rift between himself and the clerics who supported him at the beginning of the struggle to nationalize the petroleum industry, reformists and opponents of the regime present him as a national hero and symbol of the historical aspiration of Iranian citizens for freedom and democracy.

Indeed, Iranian users identified as critics of the regime referred to the Tehran City Council’s proposal as a positive step aimed at restoring Mosaddegh’s status in collective memory. Nevertheless, some of them were reluctant to rename Worker Street for Mosaddegh and suggested, for example, renaming either the street honoring Ayatollah Sayyid Abu al-Qasem Kashani, the senior cleric who was a political partner of Mosaddegh in his early days, or the one named for Khalid Islambouli, who assassinated former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.[3]

Objections to the proposal came from users affiliated with the conservative right, who shared their responses with the hashtag: “Mosaddegh Dead End (بن#‏‎_‎بست‎_‎مصدق).” They claimed that the Tehran City Council’s proposal contradicted the position of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic revolution, and its sole purpose was to cover up the failures of the Tehran municipality. Several users argued that it would have been better for the city council to devote its efforts to solving the severe hardships of the city’s citizens rather than changing street names. “After the city council renames Worker Street to Mosaddegh Street, the problem of air pollution and transportation in Tehran will be solved,” one user tweeted.[4]

The conservative camp also took advantage of the Tehran municipality’s proposal in order to attack the reformist opponents who control the city council, claiming that this proposal reflects their ostensibly elitist and bourgeois tendencies and their supposed identification with the middle and upper classes over the weaker and working class. One user argued that the proposal was another instance of “crushing the poor and workers under the wheels of development by the liberals and technocrats among the reformers.”[5] Television presenter and radical blogger Vahid Yaminpour tweeted that the decision to rename the only street honoring workers reflects the intellectual tendencies of the reformists, a statement designed to emphasize the gaps between them and the working class.[6] In response, some users accused Yaminpour of cynically exploiting the decision of the Tehran City Council for political purposes. One argued that if Yaminpour really supported the workers, he would protest the violation of their rights and oppression by the authorities.[7] Another user wondered whether the critics of the decision would have defended the workers in the same way if the street’s name was being changed to honor a casualty of the Iran-Iraq war or one of the Iranian fighters killed in the Syrian military campaign.[8]

Supporters of the regime on the conservative right also took advantage of the renewed public debate over the former prime minister to express their anti-American outlook, and claimed that the United States cannot be trusted because it turned its back on Mosaddegh after initially supporting him. This claim is frequently made by leaders of the Iranian regime and its supporters, especially in view of the escalation of rhetoric between the US and Iran since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. “Instead of naming a street for Mosaddegh, name a dead end alley for him, so that no one forgets that the path of trusting in the US leads to a dead end,” tweeted one user.[9]

The public discourse on the legacy of Mohammad Mosaddegh is a good reflection of the internal differences in Iran between supporters of the regime on the religious-conservative right, who object to him and seek to continue blurring his memory in order to emphasize the centrality of the religious establishment in national memory, and supporters of the reformists, who regard him as a symbol of national freedom, the rule of law, and democracy. The discourse also reflects the tension between the national-secular identity and the religious-Islamic identity that characterizes Iranian society, and is revealed in the ways the various sides attempt to shape collective memory. In the meantime, it is clear that someone is attentive to the discourse on social media: the Tehran City Council recently decided to rename Petroleum Street for the former prime minister, rather than Worker Street.

 


[1] “Clarification on changing the name ‘The Worker North” to “Mosaddegh,” ISNA, March 3, 2018.

[2] Miriam Nissimov, “Mosaddiq and the August 1953 Coup: Sixty Years After,” Iran Pulse, Number 61, 23 October 2013.

[3] @pouriazeraati, Twitter, March 15, 2018. Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[4] @miss_helma, Twitter, March 15, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[5] @hossein6857, Twitter, March 15, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[6] @yaminpour, Twitter, March 15, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[7] @AhmadPo, Twitter, March 15, 2018.  Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[8] @Kayvan_Saedy, Twitter, March 15, 2018. Last accessed April 12, 2018.

[9] @akbarzadeh_h, Twitter, March 15, 2018. Last accessed April 12, 2018.