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…



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