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A Democracy Ahead of Its Time

Posted on Jul 24, 2012

By Tara Bahrampour

“Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup”
A book by Christopher de Bellaigue

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 hard-line 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 in 1953, 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 fair-mindedness fatally collided with his pride and rigidity. It also provides context for the dismal state of U.S.-Iran relations today.

book cover


Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup

By Christopher de Bellaigue


Harper, 310 pages


Buy the book

During and after World War II, Iran was a frothy cauldron of competing interests that included monarchists, communists and nationalists as well as Soviets, British 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, 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 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 other concessionaire states would follow, announced a blockade of Iranian oil. Over the next two and a half years, Mossadegh and the British attempted to negotiate but never agreed to each other’s terms, while the United States tried to play middleman.

To see long excerpts from “Patriot of Persia” at Google Books, click here.

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.”


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