Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup
- Christopher de Bellaigue
- Harper Collins
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Louis M. Peck
- June 8, 2012
The author examines the causes and lasting consequences of the overthrow of Muhammad Mossadegh, prime minister of Iran, in the early 1950s.
Reviewed by Louis Peck
He was Time’s “Man of the Year” in 1951. With his distinctive long nose and billiard ball-like pate, he was recognized nearly worldwide — “the first bit of meat to come the way of cartoonists” since World War II, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden observed at the time.
Muhummad Mossadegh — “Mussy Duck” as Eden’s boss, Winston Churchill, disparagingly referred to him — governed Iran as prime minister for a two-and-a-half- year period until his ouster in a coup d’etat in August 1953. If the coup had its roots in Britain’s loss of worldwide prestige and, more immediately, its anger at Mossadegh’s efforts to nationalize the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., his overthrow was directly engineered by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — at a time when, with the Korean War winding down, the foreign policy architects of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were certain that Iran was the next target for a communist takeover.
Fifty years later, it is clear that the latter threat was vastly overstated: There is no evidence that Mossadegh harbored communist sympathies and, in fact, he viewed the Iranian communist movement with deep suspicion, Christopher de Bellaigue writes in Patriot of Persia. Even as the coup was being hatched (the prime CIA operative was Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt), Churchill himself privately observed that there was little prospect that Iran would fall into communist hands.
In de Bellaigue’s view, the lasting tragedy of this particular episode in the history of Cold War adventurism is that it led to a progression of events that haunts the United States to this day. “In the long run, [the coup] did great harm to western interests,” Bellaigue writes at the outset of this well-researched and detailed, if often uneven, book. “It was the start of a U.S. policy in support of shoddy Middle Eastern despots, which suffered its first defeat in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the Shah, and unraveled further with the Arab Spring of 2011.”
In fact, de Bellaigue sees Mossadegh — whose personal probity and respect for individual rights and liberties were rare for his time, particularly for someone from his region — as a forerunner of the Arab Spring, and a missed opportunity for the United States and other Western powers. “Mossadegh was the first liberal leader of the modern Middle East,” Bellaigue declares of a man who sprung from Persian nobility, and who received much of his early education in Paris and Switzerland.
This is not the first effort in recent years to provide an account of Mossadegh’s nearly 90-year life and, more specifically, the events and forces that led to his ouster from power. (Mossadegh subsequently spent nearly 14 years in prison and internal exile prior to his death in 1967.) But de Bellaigue — the Tehran correspondent for The Economist magazine who is married to an Iranian and who spends part of each year in Iran — clearly sees his biography filling a void. “Nowhere have the man and his fullness been brought out,” he says of Mossadegh, blaming this in part on “the wall that modern politics has interposed between Iran and the West.”
In an unusually direct swipe at another author, de Bellaigue notes that the “standard popular account of the coup was penned by [New York Times] journalist Stephen Kinzer, who does not read Persian. That is a bit like writing about Pearl Harbor knowing only Japanese.” Kinzer’s account, All the Shah’s Men, appeared nearly a decade ago. But if de Bellaigue’s account appears to have made wide use of a multitude of available sources in various languages, his book is not without its flaws.
Efforts to tie Mossadegh’s career and times to more recent events are largely limited to brief prologue and epilogue chapters — leaving more than 260 pages in between, into which de Bellaigue densely packs not only a detailed biography of Mossadegh, but an account of nearly 200 years of Persian/Iranian history. The author fails to take advantage of opportunities to increase the book’s relevancy — to say nothing of its potential interest to the reader — by intertwining the lessons of the more distant past with recent history. After all, the Shah whom Mossadegh confronted in the early 1950s was the same insecure but repressive ruler whom supporters of an Islamic republic ousted a quarter of a century later, and a couple of key officials in Mossadegh’s regime later served under Khomeini in the early days of Iran’s Islamic republic.
For those not already versed in the history of the region, the book can be slow going, as the reader tries to keep tabs on a large array of unfamiliar names and political cross- currents. Specific dates are relatively sparse in the narrative, occasionally prompting the reader to stop and try to figure out the precise year in which a key event occurred so as to better place it in historical context. On the flip side, a major strength of the book is that it does not seek to lionize the protagonist.
De Bellaigue, an Englishman, makes no secret of his disdain for the actions of his homeland during the century leading up to Mossadegh’s ouster, and is hardly more charitable toward the United States, whose initial uncertainty and benign neglect was transformed into complicity with its British cousins. “Few foreign interventions in the Middle East have been as ignoble as the coup of 1953, and few Middle Eastern leaders have less deserved our hostility than … Mossadegh,” de Bellaigue writes, adding, “Nationalism had been a force for decades, but he was the first to try to build a modern Middle East state on the basis of collective and individual liberties.” But de Bellaigue portrays the architect of that state as an eccentric, often mercurial personality who failed to follow through on some key opportunities for compromise, and who therefore was ultimately “instrumental” in bringing about his own downfall, notwithstanding the culpability of the Western powers.
The ultimate irony of the piece is that Mossadegh — who shared a widespread Persian/ Iranian view of the British as a “malignant force” in the country’s affairs — in the end unwisely counted on the support of none other than the United States.
“In trying to thwart British designs with the help of Britain’s greatest ally,” de Bellaigue writes, “Mossadegh showed more chutzpah than wisdom.” But, a half-century later, it is the United States that is arguably still paying the price.
A lifelong history buff, Louis Peck has been a Washington-based journalist for nearly 35 years, including nearly two decades as editor-in-chief of National Journal’s daily publication on Congress. He is currently on the journalism faculty of the Boston University Washington Academic Center.