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Patriot of Persia

Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup

By Christopher De Bellaigue

300 pages

Published by Harper, New York and London 2012

When writing of non-Western societies in the past century or so, many Western European and North American historians and chroniclers adopt one of two attitudes.

The first attitude could be described as “the Imperialism of arrogance”. Here, we are told that whatever good that has happened in non-Western societies is due to the generous action of Western powers whose mission was to civilise export “ civilisation.” The people of those societies, referred to as “ natives”, could not have anything good on t heir own.

The second attitude, let’s call it the “Imperialism of guilt” claims that whatever bad happened to the “ natives” was the fault of the Western powers. The “natives” could never do any harm to themselves.

For decades, the debate on Iran in the United States and Western Europe has been dominated “ the Imperialism of guilt”. At the heart of this is a legend in which an elderly aristocrat plays the central role. The legend is that in August 1953, a couple of CIA operatives organised a coup d’etat that toppled a democratically elected government and paved the way for the seizure of power by the mullahs 26 years later. The hero of the legend is one Dr. Muhammad Mossadegh who had been appointed Prime Minister by the Shah for a second time in 1952.

The legend was born almost a decade after the events when the CIA, its reputation in tatters after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, was desperately looking for some success story.

However, the British intelligence service would not let American spooks claim all the glory. De Bellaigue tries to satisfy both sides. The American edition of his book bears the subtitle:” A Tragic Anglo-American Coup.” The British edition, however, has a more succinct subtitle: “ A Very British Coup”.

The point man for the coup was one Kermit Roosevelt who, if De Bellaigue is to be believed, was a genius in black arts. He arrived in Tehran on 19 July and overthrew Mossadegh just a month later before travelling to have lunch with Winston Churchill in London. To assist him, the CIA had a few assets, including the New York Times reporter Kenneth Love and an unknown UPI stringer of Iranian origin.

Mossadegh’s Iranian opponents get a thorough thrashing from De Bellaigue. While Mossadegh’s supporters are described as “the people” or “popular masses”, his opponents are labelled “slum-dwellers and thrash rising against a Cabinet of ministers with French PhDs.”

De Bellaigue cannot imagine that at least some ordinary Iranians might have disliked Mossadegh. Only “ goons and mobsters” marched against the “Doctor”.

When they burn buildings and shops, Mossadegh’ supporters are merely “showing popular anger.” But when Mossadegh’s opponents march against him, De Bellaigue calls their action “sedition.”

When supporting Mossadegh, Dr. Mozaffar Baghai is described as “a young nationalist”. But when the same Baghai turns against Mossadegh he gets a different adjective “rabble-rouser”. (In fact Baghai was Professor of Logic at Tehran University, a Member of Parliament and leader of the Social Democratic Toilers’ Party).

Mercifully, the Mossadegh legend, and its anti-American addendum, are as full of holes as Swiss cheese and De Bellaigue cannot ignore all of them.

Let’s start with the claim that prior to the supposed CIA intervention Iran had been a democracy.

The truth is that Iran was not a democracy but a constitutional monarchy in which the king, known as the Shah, had the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister. By 1953, the Shah who had acceded to the throne in 1941 had appointed and dismissed 10 prime ministers, among them Mossadegh.

And between 1953 and 1979, when he left for exile, he was to appoint 12 more. None of those changes of prime minister was described as a coup d’etat because, fully constitutional, they did not alter the substance or the form of Iran as a nation-state.

Interestingly, Mossadegh himself never challenged the Shah’s right to dismiss him as prime minister. During his trial he claimed that he had initially doubted the authenticity of the Shah’s edict dismissing him. Nor did Mossadegh himself claim that the Americans had played a role in ending his tenure as prime minister.

De Bellaigue is at pains to portray Mossadegh as “one of the first liberals of the Middle East, a man whose conception of liberty was as sophisticated as that of anyone’s in Europe or America.”

The trouble is that there is nothing in Mossadegh’s career, spanning half a century, as provincial governor, Cabinet minister and finally prime minister to portray him even remotely as a lover of liberty.

Here is how De Bellaigue quotes Mossadegh on the ideal leader who is “that person whose every word is accepted and followed by the people.”

De Bellaigue adds: “His understanding of democracy would always be coupled by traditional ideas of Muslim leadership whereby the community chooses a man of outstanding virtue- and follows him wherever he takes them.” Word by word, that could be the definition of “the ideal leader” by the late Ayatollah Khomeini who would have felt insulted had he been described as a democrat.

During his premiership, Mossadegh demonstrated his dictatorial tendency to the full. Not once did he hold a full meeting of the Council of Ministers, ignoring the constitutional rule of collective responsibility. He dissolved the Senate, the second chamber of the Iranian parliament, and shut down the Majlis, the lower house. He suspended a general election before all the seats had been decided and announced that he would rule with absolute power. He disbanded the High Council of National Currency and dismissed the Supreme Court. Towards the end of his premiership almost all of his friends and allies had broken with him. Some even wrote to the Secretary General of the United Nations to intervene to end Mossadegh’s dictatorship.

During much of his premiership, Tehran lived under a curfew while hundreds of opponents were imprisoned.

But was Mossadegh “a man of the people” as De Bellaigue claims? Again, his account provides a different picture. A landowning prince and the grandson of a Qajar king, Mossadegh belonged to the so-called 1000 families who owned Iran. He and all his children were able to undertake expensive studies in Switzerland and France. The children had French nannies and when they fell sick would be sent to Paris or Geneva for treatment. (De Bellaigue even insinuates that Mossadegh might have had a French sweetheart, although that is improbable.) On the one occasion that Mossadegh was sent to internal exile he took with him a whole retinue, including his special cook.

Dean Acheson described Mossadegh as “ a rich, reactionary, feudal-minded Persian inspired by a fanatical hatred of the British.”

However, even his supposed hatred of the British is open to question. His uncle Farmanfarma was Britain’s principal ally in Iran for almost four decades. In his memoirs, Mossadegh says that in his fist post as Governor of the province of Fars he and the British consul “worked hand in hand like brothers.”

As a model of patriotism, too, Mossadegh is unconvincing. According to his own memoirs, at the end of his law studies in Switzerland, he had decided to stay there and acquire Swiss citizenship. He changed his mind when he was told that he would have to wait 10 years for that privilege. At the same time, his uncle Farmanfarma secured a “ good post” for him in Iran, tempting him back home.

Mossadegh’s name is associated with the nationalisation of Iranian oil in 1951. However, he was not even a member of the parliament that passed the nationalisation act. The Shah appointed him Prime Minister to implement the act and, plagued by indecision and always a prey to the demons of demagoguery, he failed in that mission.

De Bellaigue tries to build the 1951-53 drama in Iran as a clash of British colonialism and Iranian nationalism. However, that claim, too, is hard to sustain. Iran was never a British colony. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was present in five remote localities that did not amount to even half of one per cent of the country’s territory, in one of Iran’s provinces. At its peak the company employed 118 British nationals. Thus the overwhelming majority of Iranians had never seen a single Brit in their lives. However, De Bellaigue labels Iranians as “natives” or “Orientals” facing “ the white world”. (Iranians, of course, do not consider themselves as “blacks” or even worthy oriental gentlemen!)

Sadly, De Bellaigue seems to know nothing of the hundreds of books and thousands of essays that provide the Iranian narrative of the events. The assumption is that, mere objects in their own history, Iranians cannot offer a valid narrative.

Mossadegh’s career spanned more than half a century. History may end up seeing him as a spoiled child who refused to grow up. His brand of negative populism may have been attractive many decades ago. Now, however, it sounds bizarre, to say the least.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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