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A Crass and Consequential Error

Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/Harry S. Truman Library
Mossadegh (right) with President Harry Truman during a visit to the US while he was prime minister of Iran, 1951

Such dismissiveness toward Iran was the leitmotif of Mossadegh’s life: the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 that turned his country into little more than a protectorate; the humiliating oil deals; the summary Allied occupation of 1941 that led the Shah to abdicate in favor of his young son Mohammed Reza; the contempt after 1945 for an Iran seen as a hapless cold-war pawn. Mossadegh, who kept a small ivory of Gandhi in his room at Ahmadabad (the man in pajamas contemplating the man of the loincloth), was, as de Bellaigue notes, part of a generation of Western-educated Asians who returned home “to sell freedom to their compatriots.”

The British responded with disquisitions on the Oriental mind. In Iran they did not get it. As George McGhee, a US diplomat who negotiated with Mossadegh, remarked, nationalist movements in Iran and Egypt were “examples of a much wider movement in men’s minds.” He urged on the British Foreign Office a change in postwar Middle Eastern strategic policy. The aim: to ensure “that it is recognised by these countries that they are being treated as equals and partners.” His appeal fell on deaf ears—in London and, after November 1952, in the Eisenhower White House.

Mossadegh had emerged from the war as the preeminent advocate of Iranian patriotic and democratic ideals. By now in his sixties, he had endured imprisonment by Reza in 1940—Mossadegh’s violent arrest sent his daughter, Khadijeh, into a depressive spiral from which she never recovered—and knew well the “yawning sense of inadequacy” of Reza’s son, a ruler less than half his age. This young Pahlavi, looking abroad for support, was scarcely the man to confront what the majlis now called the “usurping” AIOC. The oil company’s predations were a growing target of the clergy led by the rabble-rousing Ayatollah Abolqassem Kashani (exiled by the Shah in 1949 only to return eighteen months later) and the well-organized Communists of the Tudeh (“the Masses”) party.

National fury rose over British rejection of a proposed 50–50 profit-sharing agreement; Mossadegh spent much of 1950 meeting with elected deputies at the majlis. On November 25, 1950, members of the parliamentary oil commission called for nationalization. The Shah’s prime minister retorted that this was impossible. Kashani’s Warriors of Islam responded by killing him. On March 14, 1951, nationalization was voted into law. A little over a month later Mossadegh was thrust by the majlis into the role of prime minister. One reporter described “the most extraordinary scenes of pride.” Another wrote: “Long live the memory of those glorious days.”

The days proved numbered. De Bellaigue, fluent in Farsi, draws on previously unused Iranian sources to bring Mossadegh to vivid life. As the plotting of the coup gathers pace, he also demonstrates a deft hand in describing broad political trends and the personal foibles of the main protagonists. British authorities rebuffed the author’s efforts to gain access to MI6 records of the coup—deemed too sensitive sixty-nine years after the event. But the CIA has been forthcoming and the broad lines are clear. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a remarkable cable quoted by de Bellaigue, got it right. Postwar Britain, he noted, “stands on the verge of bankruptcy.” He continued: “Therefore, in my judgment, the cardinal purpose of British policy is not to prevent Iran from going Commie; the cardinal point is to preserve what they believe to be the last remaining bulwark of British solvency.”

Britain loathed Mossadegh because it wanted its Iranian oil money back. The United States was focused on a distinct issue, communism. North Korea crossed the 38th parallel in June 1950. Truman declared: “If we just stand by, they’ll move into Iran and they’ll take over the whole Middle East.”

Mossadegh, drawn to America even as he despised Britain, believed this divergence in goals afforded a chance to drive a wedge between the allies. With greater focus, he might have done so. But it seems he never made up his own mind about what might be an acceptable deal. As financial pressure grew from what amounted to a British-orchestrated boycott of Iranian oil, the prime minister busied himself, in the Persian phrase for doomed missions, “riding Satan’s donkey.” De Bellaigue writes, “He was unable to strike that balance, between interests and ideals, of which a true politician is made.”

There were opportunities. On a remarkable forty-nine-day trip to the United States in the second half of 1951, Mossadegh came close to winning over America. Time magazine named him Man of the Year. Moving between the United Nations and Washington, the prime minister stressed the common ground between Iran’s struggle and that of the colonists of 1776: his nation, too, wanted free from “the chains of British imperialism.” Iran, he noted, “has stationed no gunboats in the Thames.” Some, like McGhee, were sympathetic. Truman and Acheson also saw the perils of British gunboat diplomacy.

Indeed, without the rightward lurches in British and US politics of 1952, which brought Churchill and Eisenhower to power, the coup plot might never have coalesced. Churchill blamed his predecessor, Clement Attlee, for the biggest fall in British stature “since the loss of the American colonies nearly 200 years ago.” Eisenhower declared that, to defeat communism, “longstanding American concepts of fair play must be reconsidered.” The Dulles brothers took over at the CIA and the State Department: neither needed “much persuasion that Mossadegh was a dangerous madman tipping his country into the abyss.” Britain had passed the mantle to America: its post-imperial grievances met the new superpower’s fears. It was easy enough for Britain to talk up the Communist threat—never really persuasive in God-fearing Iran. The Eisenhower administration heard what it wanted to hear.

If Mossadegh had seen in time that the price of American friendship and aid was some fig leaf for the AIOC, he might have contrived some workable political space in 1951. As it was, the Anglo-American plot to oust him gathered pace.

There is a troubling mystery with de Bellaigue’s book. Its subtitle in Britain is “Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup.” In the United States it is “Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup.” This looks like an unfortunate marketing ploy. The US subtitle is right. Britain laid the groundwork; America delivered overthrow. De Bellaigue’s description of the initial plotting of Nancy Lambton, an “austere bluestocking,” and Robin Zaehner, a British agent “with a taste for gin, opium and the homoerotic verses of Rimbaud,” is brilliant. Iranian newspapers were bought, tribal divisions probed. Zaehner, asked by a visiting correspondent to Tehran in 1952 what he should read, suggested Alice Through the Looking Glass. The West’s nuclear negotiators can take comfort: they are not the first to be enmeshed in Iran’s political labyrinth.

Mossadegh, at its tangled center, was increasingly alone. He fell out with Ayatollah Kashani, who felt ill-used after supporting nationalization and backing the prime minister when the Shah tried to oust him in July 1952. He had no truck with the Communists of the Tudeh party. His contempt for the Shah was evident, his control of the military partial at best. As on the international stage, he would not pick allies at home. Only the people remained. Mossadegh felt a mystical bond; in large measure it was reciprocated. A messianic streak stirred in the septuagenarian. De Bellaigue writes that Mossadegh “was not a dictator in the sense of a tyrant lusting after power, but he shared the dictator’s sense of his own indispensability.” He was prepared to dissolve the majlis—and did so in a last-ditch attempt to hang on—but not curtail press freedom or authorize violence. Part visionary and part fusspot, writes de Bellaigue: that seems about right.

The plotters had these advantages: the prime minister’s eroded political base, his dithering, and his delusions. They went to work. British diplomats had been expelled from Iran and the embassy closed on October 17, 1952; the leading role passed to Americans. Chief among them was Kermit Roosevelt, “an Ivy Leaguer of private means urging cloak-and-dagger operations.” The favorite tune of the CIA officers in Tehran was “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”: they rode their luck. Roosevelt cozied up to the Shah and got him to fire Mossadegh; he identified a senior general named Fazlullah Zahedi as the man to replace him; deployed agents provocateurs to stir up the Communist threat; dispersed money to the mullahs and the army and newspaper editors. To all of which the prime minister responded by insisting that in a “constitutional country there is no law that is higher than the will of the people.”

That popular support might still have saved him. The coup of August 15, 1953, was a disaster. The Shah fled to Rome in so much haste he forgot to put on his socks. Then Mossadegh dithered. Holed up in his house at 109 Palace Street, he talked on and on about the law. He refused to execute the coup plotters. The Shah was contemplating a new life in the United States, Iran was a republic in all but name—and Mossadegh was nowhere to be seen.

Loy Henderson, the American ambassador, met with him on August 18. He said the United States regarded the Shah as head of state and Zahedi as lawful prime minister. Mossadegh vowed to fight on. In reality he dozed. Roosevelt, scenting victory in defeat, goaded the crowds, got his thugs to smash the windows of mosques, and worked on the monarchist loyalties of the police and army. It must be said that if the coup was an Anglo-American plot, it also involved very Persian self-sacrifice and chaos. Ultimately, writes de Bellaigue, Mossadegh “tied himself up with his own principles. Then he lay down to die.” His description of the denouement at 109 Palace Street and Mossadegh’s unlikely escape is particularly strong.

Mossadegh survived for another fourteen years but his ideals collapsed immediately. Henderson urged the restored Shah to pursue an “undemocratic” Iran. Mohammed Reza was more than happy to oblige for the next twenty-six years.

Hope always seems to beckon in Iran only to be dashed. In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini co-opted the constitutionalist successors of Mossadegh—like Mehdi Bazargan, the first postrevolutionary prime minister—but then crushed their liberal aspirations and insisted on God’s authority to rule. The mullahs ended up trashing Mossadegh, whom they had briefly honored, as the Shah had before them.

In 2009, as Iranians rose to protest a stolen election, the opposition leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, with two million people in the streets behind him, hesitated rather as Mossadegh dithered in 1953. Instead of moving forward, Iran circles about: a CIA agent seized in Tehran in 1979 observed that he and other hostages were “surrogates for the CIA of 1953,” and in 2012 Iran’s stop-and-go nuclear program smacks of an attempt to assert Iran’s stature after past humiliations. As James Buchan has observed, “lachrymose intransigence” is the Islamic Republic’s favored mode. It does not get Iran very far.

The United States and the West bear significant responsibility for all those lost Middle Eastern decades since 1953. “Everything should be in proportion with the need,” Mossadegh wrote in his doctoral thesis. The coup was disproportionate. It was reckless and damaging, “that which should not have happened,” in the words of one observer. De Bellaigue’s powerful portrait is also a timely reminder that further Western recklessness toward Iran, at a time of a further “movement in men’s minds” across the Middle East, would only pile tragedy upon tragedy and again put off the day when Iranians’ quest for constitutional liberty can be realized.

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