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A Democracy Ahead of Its Time

Posted on Jul 24, 2012

By Tara Bahrampour

(Page 2)

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 U.S. 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.”

book cover


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

By Christopher de Bellaigue


Harper, 310 pages


Buy the book

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.

Tara Bahrampour is a staff writer for The Washington Post and author of “To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America.”

©2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

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