If you’ve read the book reviews for the new Mossadegh biography Patriot of Persia by Christopher de Bellaigue, you may have noticed that many seem affected by this...unseemly, sneering undertone. For some reason, certain writers cannot resist the chance to take unnecessary pot-shots at the deceased Premier.
Like others of their kind, a recent Washington Post review by journalist Tara Bahrampour obscures the bigger picture with meaningless pseudo-sarcasm, while missing the mark on some historical accuracies. Part of this is due to the source being reviewed — de Bellaigue’s otherwise excellent book happens to be marred by instances of its own missteps and unfortunate characterizations. And none of this is unique to Ms. Bahrampour — nearly every reviewer — even the most sympathetic among them, got at least a little tripped up on superficial nonsense.
Tara Bahrampour has been a staff writer for The Washington Post since 2004, and is the author of the memoir To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America (1999). Born in Iran to an Iranian father and American mother, they fled the country after the 1979 revolution for America when she was eleven. As they are not relevant to her professional biography, her facial features, body dimensions, and personal idiosyncracies need not be analyzed. It’s a courtesy not always granted by journalists to their subjects, especially when they are long dead and unable to defend themselves.
Letter to the Editor
July 23, 2012
Amid snide, superfluous innuendo about his physical appearance, Tara Bahrampour ascribes Premier Mohammad Mossadegh’s downfall to the sins of “pride”, “hubris” and “rigidity”. These are better descriptors of the British visage. Though Iran was prepared to compensate the company and make a wide variety of concessions, oil nationalization remained intolerable to Britain, who refused to even consider allowing the refineries to fall under Iranian control. As the former British diplomat and Anglo-Iranian Oil Company executive L.P. Elwell Sutton detailed in Persian Oil (1955), no viable “compromise” was ever in reach for Iran to accept.
The insinuation of ‘dictatorial’ conceit on Mossadegh’s part is similarly flawed. Again and again, the democratically elected, pro-bono Prime Minister sought – and consistently received – Parliament’s overwhelming vote of confidence. He voluntarily resigned in July 1952, only to be swept back into office days later, after a massive wave of popular protest demanded his return. By October, U.S. intelligence agencies reported to Truman, “Mossadeq’s popular prestige makes him still the dominant political force in Iran.”
The Mossadegh Project
“Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup” by Christopher de Bellaigue
By Tara Bahrampour
July 21, 2012
In 1998, at a Q&A session at a university in Tehran, a student stood up and addressed Mohammad Khatami, the reformist cleric who had recently been elected president in a landslide. We are your army, she told him; just say the word, and we will pour into the streets for you. Khatami replied that reform must happen gradually, within existing frameworks. His approach failed to satisfy the students that day, and it ultimately failed to inoculate Iran against the hardline administration that followed his.
Little wonder that Iranians today continue to mourn the 1953 downfall of Mohammad Mossadegh, the melodramatic, pajama-clad prime minister who is widely considered the most visionary and broad-minded leader in Iran’s modern history. Little wonder that pictures of this balding, droopy-eyed old nobleman are held aloft whenever Iranians rise up to demand greater freedoms and fair elections. To them, Mossadegh is still the personification of these ideals. If not for the CIA-backed coup that removed him, many Iranians believe, he could have saved them from decades of dictatorship and demagoguery.
Perhaps. In a new biography, “Patriot of Persia,” Christopher de Bellaigue, Tehran correspondent for the Economist, sympathizes with Mossadegh in his attempt to bring democracy to Iran but does not let him off the hook for its failure. The book presents a nuanced portrait of an enigmatic man whose brilliance and fairmindedness fatally collided with his pride and rigidity. It also provides context for the dismal state of U.S.-Iran relations today.
During and after World War II, Iran was a frothy cauldron of competing interests that included monarchists, communists and nationalists as well as Soviets, Britons and Americans seeking influence in the oil-rich Persian Gulf state. The Axis-leaning Reza Shah had been removed by the British in 1941, replaced with his weak and inexperienced son. “There was no party machine in Iran in the 1950s,” Bellaigue writes. “Politics was about personalities and Mossadegh was the biggest of them all.”
Born in 1882 to an aristocratic family, Mossadegh studied law in France and Switzerland and participated in Iran’s constitutional revolution in 1906. By the time he was elected prime minister, in 1951, he had been involved in Iranian politics for half a century and was admired by Iranians for his experience and integrity.
He made waves around the world when he nationalized Iran’s oil industry in 1951. Time magazine named him Man of the Year, and Britain was furious. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum) had under Reza Shah negotiated an oil concession that essentially treated Iran like a colony. When Mossadegh canceled it, Britain, fearing that other concessionaire states would follow, announced a blockade of Iranian oil. Over the next 2 ½ years, Mossadegh and the British attempted to negotiate but never agreed to each other’s terms, while the United States tried to play middleman.
Bellaigue describes the cultural clash between buttoned-down U.S. and British diplomats and Mossadegh, a hypochondriac known for throwing weeping fits and conducting business from his bed: “He had no weakness for girls, boys, money, wine, the pipe or Karl Marx. Any of these vices would have made him more understandable . . . but to his western interlocutors he was a riddle. They found him in his camel’s wool aba, or cackling on his haunches in bed, or lying low with his hands fluttering up and down under his neck.”
Nor did they understand his dismissal of economic considerations in favor of moral ones. “For Mossadegh, the nation’s oil represented life, hope, freedom,” Bellaigue writes, and as such he declared it would be better to leave it underground rather than let it be controlled by outsiders.
At many points in the negotiations, Mossadegh could have agreed to a compromise that would have salvaged both British and Iranian pride. “Mossadegh had earned the trust of the Iranian people with his pursuit of nationalization, and the great mass of them would have accepted whatever concessions he deemed necessary for an honourable resolution,” Bellaigue writes. “The tragedy is that he never asked them to do so.”
But his fatal mistake may have been his failure to accurately read the Americans. The United States did not share Britain’s outrage over oil and empire, but the Eisenhower administration, which took office in 1953, viewed geopolitics through the lens of the Soviet threat. British diplomats seized upon this, painting Iran as an unstable state teetering toward communism. Mossadegh had no intention of letting this happen, but instead of reassuring the Americans, he made idle threats about asking the Soviet Union for financial help, seemingly unaware of the danger of toying with a jittery superpower. “He was not a dictator in the sense of a tyrant lusting after power,” Bellaigue writes, “but he shared the dictator’s sense of his own indispensability.”
The Anglo-American coup against Mossadegh later that year was a chaotic affair, marked by cinematic parades of street thugs and prostitutes who had been paid by the coup plotters and tanks shelling Mossadegh’s house as he escaped by scaling neighborhood walls. The coup reportedly cost the United States $1 million, it succeeded against improbable odds, and it blackened the Americans’ reputation in Iran.
“Almost overnight, the US had gone from being a force for good to the Shah’s accomplice in injustice and oppression,” Bellaigue writes. Anger over the coup festered for the next 26 years and laid the seeds for the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran.
Along with nationalizing oil, Mossadegh had passed land reforms, introduced social security and rent control, and strengthened the separation of powers. Bellaigue imagines Iran’s trajectory had Mossadegh continued in power: an enlightened government that tilted toward the West in foreign affairs. “Mossadegh’s Iran might have become a positive example for other countries, and the region’s human development [might have] accelerated, for his dream was substantially the same as the dream that became manifest with the Arab Spring of 2011.”
But Mossadegh’s Iran may not have been politically mature enough for his leadership. Most ordinary Iranians at the time had little education and no experience with democracy; theirs was a populace easily swayed by emotion and fearmongering, with a political elite accustomed to cronyism. Mossadegh behaved largely in a civilized manner and expected everyone else to do so. They did not. He also assumed he was untouchable; he was not. Portrayed by Bellaigue as a classic tragic hero, he let hubris stand in the way of the big picture, “unable to strike that balance, between interests and ideals, of which a true politician is made.”
Iranians today, with their high levels of education, burgeoning middle class and bitter experience with radicalism and isolationism, are in many ways better prepared than they were 60 years ago for a leader with a clear mandate who doesn’t mind breaking some eggs to make a democratic omelet. They don’t have one, though, so they keep those pictures of Mossadegh in their closets, ready to march their fallen hero back out to the streets anytime they get the chance.