The Mossadegh Legacy:  Restructuring the National Front of Iran

By Ahmad Tajeddini

A dozen members of the National Front of Iran released a statement of purpose on November 20 with the heading “Announcing the Existence of the Sixth National Front.” Many of the signatories to the declaration are veteran political and human rights activists including Koroush Zaeim, Jamal Darrudi, and Ali Rashidi. The group issued a second statement two days later with the title “Restructuring to Fulfill Our Covenant in a Critical Situation.” 

“We don’t believe that ordinary Iranians should necessarily get involved in politics to realize their demands for democracy and human rights, because activists pay a big price for their beliefs and suffer at the hands of the [Islamic Republic] regime,” Mehran Bakhtiari, one of the signatories to the declaration said. “However, those who choose to join a political movement such as the National Front of Iran must do so with the full understanding that they cannot, on the one hand, gain political credibility through their association with the organization, and, on the other hand, help the intelligence agencies to prevent the National Front from achieving its political objectives. Therefore, the Sixth National Front of Iran ushers a new chapter in the long legacy of Dr. Mohammad Mossaddegh.”

Mr. Bakhtiari is implying that some of the leaders of the organization have been working with the intelligence agencies and that the Sixth National Front of Iran aims to sever those ties and function as an independent political entity.

The National Front of Iran is the oldest pro-democracy opposition group in Iran. It was founded in 1949 by Iran’s 35th Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967). The organization played a critical role in campaigning for the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. It, however, lost significant political ground after the 1953 coup d’etat which deposed the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and returned Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi to power. Despite its support for the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the front was banned by the regime in 1981. However, it is still active inside Iran.

Dr. Mossadegh and 19 other political figures founded the First National Front of Iran (March 1949 – July 1953.) The movement was not initially involved in efforts to nationalize the oil industry, but it played a crucial role in drafting and pushing the nationalization bill through the Majlis (Iranian Parliament) and the Senate. The organization was somewhat fragmented after 1951, and many of its founders turned against Mossadegh during his second term as the prime minister. The group stopped all its political activities after 1953.

The leadership of the Second National Front of Iran (July 21, 1960 – 1964) comprised 30 religious and secular figures including Mehdi Bazargan (the first prime minister of Iran after the Islamic Revolution from February 4 to

November 6, 1979.) It was during this period that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, publicly denounced the Shah and challenged his rule. The organization’s political activities at the time revolved mostly around international developments. The group aligned itself with the liberal policies of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

The National Front, however, suffered a major crisis after the defeat of the Islamists and the implementation of the Shah’s social and political programs. It split into two distinct groups namely the secular National Front of Iran and the religious Freedom Movement of Iran. Both factions were under the leadership of Dr. Mossadegh. The Second National Front of Iran dissolved in 1964.

Dr. Mossadegh helped to form the Third National Front of Iran in 1965. The Islamist faction was able to strengthen its position within the group during this period. However, the organization’s political influence waned after authorities arrested and imprisoned many of its members.

The movement was able to reinvent and reorganize itself in Europe and the U.S. Also, a younger generation of activists who were inspired by the political philosophies of the National Front of Iran and the Tudeh Party (Iranian Communist Party), engaged in armed struggle. Some members of the National Front and Freedom Movement and others from the political left received intelligence and military training in Egypt, Palestine, Algeria, and Cuba. Documents and testimonies which emerged after the Islamic Revolution revealed that foreign powers played a hand in organizing these operations.

The Fourth National Front was formed in 1977 shortly after U.S. President Jimmy Carter took office. Carter’s White House was pressuring the Shah to open up the political climate in Iran. The Shah engaged the leaders of the National Front of Iran to end the political crisis in the country. The organization’s central committee, however, passed a resolution banning any of its members from accepting the post of prime minister in the Shah’s government. Karim Sanjabi, the leader of the National Front at the time, left for Paris where he declared the monarchy illegal.

The organization expelled Shapour Bakhtiar (1914 – assassinated in 1991) after he accepted the post of prime minister (January 4 to February 11, 1970) in the Shah’s government. Although the National Front never advocated theocratic rule, it became a tool in the hands of the Islamists because of its close association with the religious Freedom Movement. The National Front drew sharp criticism from Khomeini for its objection to the Islamic penal code, after which the organization lost its power and influence. There were some groups outside the country which were influenced by the National Front but whose activities had no impact on the organization’s policies in Iran. 

After almost two decades of inactivity, Adib Boroumand, a long-time member of the National Front, revived the organization in 1993 and remained the chairman of its central council until his death in 2007. Many people in the organization didn’t agree with Mr. Boroumand’s politics, and after his death, the central committee fell into disarray due to intense infighting. The dispute between two of the most senior members of the council Kourosh Zaeim and Seyyed Hossein Mousavian polarized the organization. The disagreement reportedly stemmed from Mr. Zaeim believing that the National front should broaden its political platform, and Mr. Mousavian arguing that group should adhere to its original charter.

There are many conscientious, principled, courageous and dedicated people in the National Front of Iran. However, since its inception, the organization has always been led by a select group of individuals. There is a vast political, philosophical and ideological gap between the leadership and the members of the group. The National Front of Iran was formed around Dr. Mossadegh’s personality and shaped by his political vision, and that is perhaps the reason for the group’s leadership to have idealized him for the past 50 years. The latest attempt to restructure the group may breathe new life into the oldest pro-democracy political opposition in Iran.

Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi