Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup
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Review by Gene R. Garthwaite
Time chose Muhammad Mossadegh as its “Man of the Year” in 1951 with the caption: “He oiled the wheels of chaos.” Its profile added: “Around this dizzy old wizard swirled a crisis of human destiny.” Mossadegh’s role in the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP, after 1954) and its consequences threatened British and then US interests. Consequently, in August 1953, this democratically elected prime minister was brought down by a CIA/MI 6 staged coup, justified on the basis that Iran was about to slip behind the Iron Curtain. Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was restored to his throne, and now with unchecked autocratic power. This “successful” coup led to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and a cynicism regarding the US commitment to democracy—and not just in Iran.
Christopher de Bellaigue's Patriot of Persia relies on a range of sources, including difficult to access Persian ones. He narrates Mossadegh’s long life, 1882-1967, from birth through death, which reaches a climax during the post-WWII crisis that included the British unwillingness to modify their concessionary oil agreement, the Shah’s refusal to reign as a constitutional monarch, which would put him at loggerheads with Mossadegh when he became prime minister, and the larger Cold War context. Before the August 1953 coup itself, Mossadegh’s own National Front coalition had broken-up, now after it, isolated and defeated, Mossadegh was tried and lived out his life in internal exile.
A brief summary does not begin to do justice de Bellaigue’s clear narrative and analysis of complex and fast-changing developments. Moreover, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize Mossadegh—something that most Iranians, even scholars, shrink from doing—while de Bellaigue does apportion most of the blame on the Shah and the British. The author, moreover, excels in providing critical social, cultural, and political contexts. The importance of Mossadegh’s aristocratic family, in reality a vast extended kin network with essential links across the elites of the late 19th and 20th centuries, is masterfully recreated. Similarly, the author’s development of Mossadegh’s well-known idiosyncrasies, including manipulation of his illnesses/health and then age, is equally well told and convincing—important here, is Mossadegh’s intransigence in coming to any agreement with the British over oil or with the Shah over the constitution. The cultural changes, with significant impact on society and politics, add important depth to understanding this important, exciting history and Mossadegh’s role in it.
Finally, de Bellaigue’s depiction of Iran’s political culture from the late 19th and into the mid-20th century is simply a tour de force. Add to a political culture where the actors’ positions on issues were always in flux, with Britain’s attempts to maintain its failing imperial prestige, with US fear of giving advantage to the USSR early in the Cold War, with the Shah’s indecisiveness, with Mossadegh’s uncompromising commitment to the principles of constitutionalism, national sovereignty, and his own sense of moral probity, you get some sense of why 1953, the Mossadegh crisis, represents a loss, even tragedy, for all the parties involved.
Hardcover Book : 320 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers Llc ( May 15, 2012 )
Item #: 13-567394
Product Dimensions: 6.0 x 9.0 inches
Product Weight: 17.0 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)