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A Crass and Consequential Error

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Abbas/Magnum Photos
A portrait of Muhammad Mossadegh held above thousands of protesters at Tehran University during the Iranian Revolution, January 1979

Muhammad Mossadegh, the Iranian prime minister overthrown by US and British agents in 1953, was a man who declined a salary, returned gifts, and collected tax arrears from his beloved mother. Frugality was allied to punctiliousness in this droopy-nosed aristocrat who enraged the West by insisting that Iran, not Britain, should own, sell, and profit from Iranian oil. A member of the princely Qajar family, he retained a noblesse-oblige gentility even as he became the symbol of postwar Iranian assertiveness. He fainted, he swooned—and was often pajama-clad. When he saw a hole, he had an irrepressible inclination to dig deeper. High principle trumped judicious compromise too often for Mossadegh to be a successful politician.

Yet even his wavering US-backed nemesis, Muhammad Reza Shah, called him “our Demosthenes.” An ascetic with an extravagant sense of mission, a lawyerly man who lived by Voltaire’s “I may disagree with what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it,” Mossadegh was, as Christopher de Bellaigue puts it in Patriot of Persia, “a cussed contrarian.” Just what he amounted to in his brilliant prickliness, and how his quixotic defiance mirrored the Iranian psyche, remain important questions six decades after the United States ousted this European-educated constitutionalist and declared its preference for Middle Eastern strongmen. Mossadeghism failed. Iran never found a stable reconciliation of patriotism, democracy, and faith. Its persecution complex, fostered by British contempt and cemented by an Anglo-American coup in 1953, endured. Just as ownership of oil once was the vehicle of Iranian nationalist ambition, so the vexed nuclear program is today under the mullahs who exploited the blowback from 1953.

Such persistent failure and confrontation raise a question: Could it have been otherwise with Iran? An elegiac tone runs through de Bellaigue’s rich portrait of Mossadegh. He quotes the ousted prime minister, after the coup, saying, “If I am murdered, it will be more useful for the country and the people than if I stay alive”—and notes that even Mossadegh’s “thoughts of death were quintessentially Persian.” Martyrdom is a persistent theme in a Shia nation that teems for a month every year with flagellants mourning the Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, slaughtered by the caliph in 680 but recalled with all the ardor of a recent passion. In fact Mossadegh survived for fourteen years in the Shah’s nascent police state, first as a nonperson in prison and then confined to his country estate at Ahmadabad. He died at eighty-four, long after the many contemporaries who had fretted over his frailty.

De Bellaigue allows himself to speculate on what might have been:

Mossadegh’s Iran would have tilted to the West in foreign affairs, bound by oil to the free world and by wary friendship to the US, but remaining polite to the big neighbor to the north. In home affairs, it would have been democratic to a degree unthinkable in any Middle Eastern country of the time except Israel—a constitutional monarchy in a world of dictatorships, dependencies and uniformed neo-democracies.

As for social affairs, “secularism and personal liberty would have been the lodestones, and the hejab and alcohol a matter for personal conscience.”

This tantalizing scenario seems a faithful reflection of the man; but of course we will never know. Two years after Mossadegh’s nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) in 1951, the CIA unloosed Kermit Roosevelt and his fellow American agents on Tehran to oust him. The operation, code-named TPAJAX, carried forward to a bloody denouement what Britain’s MI6 had first plotted. The objectives of a rising America and a declining Britain diverged; they overlapped just sufficiently for both to do their worst. Mossadegh, even if he had been spared such execrable meddling, may not have been able to control the swirling currents of communism, Islamism, monarchism, and militarist despotism that the CIA fanned. Iran was fragile, and Mossadegh’s constitutionalism was a nuanced idea in an environment where bazaar toughs with nicknames like Brainless Shaban whipped up crowds.

Still, what we do know is enough to lament the path not taken and to label Operation Ajax a singular disaster. It reinstated the feckless Shah, who had complained to Loy Henderson, the American ambassador, “What can I do? I am helpless.” It turned him into the despot of the Peacock Throne, propped up by the US-trained SAVAK secret police. It quashed Iran’s strong democratic stirrings. It embedded a fathomless Iranian suspicion that would find expression in the seizure of US diplomats after the 1979 revolution. It did nothing to halt British decline, as was evident three years later at Suez. It thrust the United States into the unhappy business of support for Middle Eastern tyrants able, they claimed, to deliver oil and stability—a strategic position at odds with American values that spurred Islamist hostility and was also one of the targets of the hypocrisy-exposing Arab Spring. It set Iran on a self-defeating zigzag between embrace of the West (the Shah) and embrace of the Prophet (the postrevolutionary theocracy), a path that has led to isolation and the alienation of most Iranians from their repressive polity. As de Bellaigue writes, “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 Muhammed Mossadegh.”

Mossadegh al-Saltaneh was born in 1882 into a branch of the Qajar aristocracy that controlled the country’s revenue administration, an office he would later describe as synonymous with “thief.” His mother was a cousin of the Qajar Shah, his father a former finance minister forty years her senior. Marriage, as de Bellaigue notes with typical economy, was a way of “allying families, producing heirs and pleasing God”—precepts followed by Mossadegh himself when he wed the daughter of a senior cleric, a union that would last sixty-four years.

The Persia of his youth languished under rulers given to taking the waters at Baden-Baden. But the nation’s indolent patience had limits. Rising prices stirred a rebellion in 1905. The first parliament, or majlis, a concession wrested from the Qajars, opened its doors in October 1906. The quest for some form of representative government in Iran is more than a century old; to imagine it will ever abate is folly.

A constitutionalist already convinced of the need to constrain the monarch through laws, Mossadegh was elected to the majlis, only to be barred on grounds of youth. When the monarch—a “perverted, cowardly, and vice-sodden monster,” in the words of his American financial adviser—bombarded parliament in 1908, Mossadegh set out to join the defense but his courage failed him. Although he could not abide the despot, he was at the same time, as de Bellaigue notes, “tied by his mother to the ruling house and shared the traditional Persian fear of chaos.” From an early age this subtle man with an abhorrence of violence defied facile categorization.

A European interlude followed, first on his own in Paris (de Bellaigue suggests he had a brief liaison there), then with his young family in the Swiss town of Neuchâtel, where he completed a doctorate in law. Mossadegh’s thesis sided with clerical modernizers, arguing that Islamic laws were historical phenomena that might be adapted as society changed. But he came out against imposing European institutions and laws on Iran because “the direct result of imitating Europe will be the spoliation of a country like Iran, for everything should be in proportion with the need.”

On his return, serving as deputy finance minister, he objected to Iran conceding legal jurisdiction over Christian residents to separate Christian authorities. “In order for a country to be independent,” he wrote, “it is necessary that it have jurisdiction over all its residents.” He was so zealous in pursuing a top ministry official for corruption that one observer suggested Mossadegh would “raze Caesarea for the sake of a handkerchief.”

Enduring characteristics of Mossadegh​ism were coming into focus: a fierce probity and “pebbly pride”; sharp rejection of the quasi-colonial Western domination articulated by George Nathaniel Curzon, a former viceroy of India, who said of Persians, “These people have got to be taught at whatever cost to them that they cannot get on without us”; a constitutionalism that defended the monarchy (as a bulwark against godlessness and communism) but held that kings should reign rather than rule.

As for religion, Mossadegh knew the central place of Islam in Persian identity. He was not especially religious himself. He inquired of his devout wife “what it is that you want from this God of yours, that you should disturb him night and day.” Yet he was drawn to the spirit of selfless sacrifice that he viewed as a high expression of Shiism. “Every Muslim,” he said, “should defend his country, and if he wins he will have endowed the country and the religion with a new spirit.” When, in 1925, a former Cossack calling himself Reza Pahlavi “crushed the shell of Qajar power” and embarked on a fast-forward secular modernization redolent of Atatürk, Mossadegh was appalled by what he saw as gratuitous insults to Islam like the outlawing of the chador in 1936.

Much else troubled him. Reza bulldozed houses to make Tehran look more Western, prompting Mossadegh to the acid observation that destruction of private property was illegal in the West. He admired some reforms—they included the abolition of titles (henceforth he was Muhammad Mossadegh)—but could not rid himself of the impression of “a grubby dictator got up in royal plumage.” At the very outset of Pahlavi rule, Mossadegh rose in the majlis to oppose the resolution abolishing the Qajars. Although “utterly disappointed” with the corrupt dynasty, he scorned its successor: “So, the prime minister becomes sultan,” he commented. “Is there such a thing as a constitutional country where the king also runs the nation’s affairs?” Why, he asked, “did you needlessly shed the blood of the martyrs on the road to freedom?”

Good questions: Iran has taken many false roads to a long-sought liberty since 1905. Ayatollah Khomeini, of course, promised freedom in 1979 when Reza’s son was ousted and he founded an Islamic republic. The promise came to naught. It is now clear that Mossadegh was the last Iranian leader to unite strands of religious and secular nationalism, faith and democracy, and so offer some chance of a reconciliation of the two. But Britain and then the United States were too blinded by his effrontery and too dismissive of the very notion of Iranian national ambition (although Washington demonstrated some understanding) to see more than a nuisance—Newsweek’s “Fainting Fanatic”—in Mossadegh. De Bellaigue writes, “Infusing British policy, the stink in the corner of the room, was a profound contempt for Persia and its people.” The United States, to its cost, would be infected by it.

Oil exploration began in earnest in Iran in 1901 with the award of a concession to a British entrepreneur, William Knox D’Arcy. Here was the seed of what would become the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, then the AIOC, and ultimately the behemoth called BP. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, oversaw the deal in 1914 that gave Britain control of Iranian oil and ensured the Royal Navy a dependable supply on terms that left Tehran with only small revenues. Reza Shah renegotiated slightly better terms in 1933 but did little to alter Iran’s status as oil lackey of the Empire. Mossadegh was incensed. Iranian oil helped drive the Allied victory in World War II just as it had fueled the British warships in World War I. By 1950 Anglo-Iranian’s profit stood at £86 million. In the same year, Abadan, the Iranian town at the heart of the oil industry, “had only enough electricity to supply a single London street.” When it came to oil, “no one asked the Persians what they thought.” The paternalistic reasoning of the AIOC went something like this: give a little and the damn natives will want everything.

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