Philip Toynbee Dissects Mossadegh

October 20, 1951 — The Mercury

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | November 7, 2023                   

“...each time I left him I found myself possessed by the desire to write an encomium of his character and an endorsement of his policy.”

Philip Toynbee (1916-1981) was a well known British novelist who also worked as a foreign correspondent and book reviewer for The Observer. His father was famed historian Arnold J. Toynbee.

This confounding profile of Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadegh ran in The Mercury newspaper in Australia. Toynbee claimed to have had two long meetings with Mossadegh in September 1951, but offered no details on their interaction. On Oct. 7, The New York Times published his article Behind Iran’s Seething Nationalism.

Australian media archive


From Philip Toynbee—Exclusive to “The Mercury” in Tasmania

LONDON. — A year ago Dr. Mossadeq was considered an outlandish and grotesque figure even by a majority of educated Persians. He was the histrionic leader of a small and fractious parliamentary group known as the National Front—a group which appeared to have no better policy than one of turbulent opposition to whatever Government was in power.

EVEN on the oil question there were doubts about the position of the National Front, and some Persians claimed to believe that they were paid agents of the British.

Dr. Mossadeq himself was notorious for his well-timed fainting fits on the floor of Parliament, for his ready tears, and for his parliamentary technique of providing and withdrawing quorums according to his fancy. It was said of him by his Persian opponents that he would answer “No!” to every question except one, and that one was: “Would you like to be Prime Minister?”

One thing at least has emerged during the last year, and that is that this estimate of Mossadeq’s personality and position was a grossly mistaken one.

Even a year ago his group was potentially far more formidable than it seemed, in that every one of its members sat for the city of Teheran. Thus Mossadeq had an immediate weapon at hand in the inflammable crowds of the capital. He has used that weapon often, both before and after coming to power, and he is still using it today.

But since his nationalisation of the oil industry and his intransigent attitude towards the British, he has also acquired a far wider popularity throughout the country, even upsetting the hitherto impregnable local dominations of the many and powerful land deputies. A visit to the Persian provinces reveal a widespread personal devotion to the Prime Minister, which has been a rare phenomenon in recent Persian politics.

What sort of a man is he? It is a difficult question to answer, because he is a complex and contradictory figure, singularly lacking in self-awareness. On two occasions last month I spoke to him for more than an hour, and each time I left him I found myself possessed by the desire to write an encomium of his character and an endorsement of his policy.

In fact, he is almost magically persuasive. He has a captivating and natural courtesy, great personal charm, a sly and self-appreciative sense of humour, and an ability to present his case lucidly and convincingly.

Although I often asked him questions which might have offended him by their implications, he never raved or became excited. On reflection afterwards I often found his logic unsound and his optimism unwarranted. But I could not consider him either a megalomaniac or a fool.

I believe that he sees himself as a cross between Ghandi and Garibaldi. He is an old man, suffering for the meanest of his people, rising from his sick bed to do his duty, although longing with all his heart for the moment when he can lay his duties down and retire into delightful obscurity. Also, he is a militant nationalist, defying the foreign oppressor and freeing his people from the foreign yoke.

Blind To Facts

The picture is too simple and too flattering. I am convinced that Mossadeq enjoys power far more than he knows, and that he will only relinquish it with the most bitter reluctance. There is no doubt at all that he sincerely believes in the policy he has pursued, but he has also greatly enjoyed the limelight involved in his pursuit of it.

Again it is true that he makes some effort to imitate Gandhi in the comparative simplicity of his life. (His severe little cot looked a great deal less comfortable than my own hotel bed). He is not the Cadillac-and-caviar type of Persian millionaire. But a millionaire he is, and he has done no more than others of his class to improve the condition of his peasants at his own expense. As for his sickness, you can feel no doubt of is genuineness when you look into that grey, corrugated, exhausted face. Yet it is a sickness which is not incompatible with a life of frenzied energy. It is a genuine sickness, but it is also a convenient one—and in the case of this strange individual both these things are possible.

Again, Mossadeq is shrewd as a politician, but devastatingly naive as a statesman. He has constantly outwitted his opponents by the ingenuity of his political tactics, but when he talks about the eventual results of his own policy he is childishly optimistic, childishly blind to the painful facts. The truth is that he is not much interested in what happens after he has achieved his own clear purpose of nationalising the oil industry.

He would have preferred to have come to terms and to have arrived at a working agreement with the British satisfactory to his own and his country’s pride. But his own fame will rest on his role as a liberator, and the probable effects of his “liberation” disturb him alarmingly little.

Retrospectively, I find that I feel a genuine affection for Dr. Mossadeq, and a limited admiration for him. I cannot dismiss him as a hypocrite, but nor can I share his simple-minded self-approbation. He is certainly not a wicked man, or a contemptible one.

And I believe that one of the principal reasons for the tragic failure of Britain’s Persian policy, during the past six months has been our disastrous tunderestimation of Mossadeq’s character, abilities, and political power.

Mossadegh & Arbenz & Lumumba & Sukarno & Allende... shirts

Mossadegh & Arbenz & Lumumba & Sukarno & Allende... t-shirts

Vernon Walters Amuses Crowd With Mossadegh Stories (1974)


Related links:

Breakdown at Teheran Major Diplomatic Failure | Jay Franklin (Aug. 1951)

Manchester Guardian Changes Spelling: Mossadeq to Musaddiq (July 1951)

Bitter Pill For The British | The Baltimore Sun, October 3, 1951

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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