Man with a mission

Review of Patriot of Persia by Christopher de Bellaigue
Bodley Head, 310pp, £20

He was a Persian aristocrat who struggled to make his country a democracy. Given to mood swings and sulks worthy of Achilles, Mohammed Mossadegh was born in June 1882 just a month before Britain bombarded and occupied Egypt. His formidable mother, Najm al-Saltaneh, belonged to the family of Qajar Shahs who ruled Iran from 1794 to 1925 and instilled in him a strong noblesse oblige that matured into genuine dedication to democratic and constitutional government. During his childhood, the country barely governed itself, yielding important decisions to the Russian and British empires that held it in joint subjugation.
Mossadegh’s father, Mira Hedayatullah Vazir-Daftar, had been a minister of finance and was 40 years older than his wife. Five years after he died in the cholera epidemic of 1892, his widow used family connections to have 15-year-old Mohammed appointed chief revenue officer of Baluchistan and Khorasan provinces. Mohammed made enough money to buy land, which produced income for him to travel to France ten years later to study law. In the meantime, his mother arranged his marriage to a 19-year-old beauty named Zahra al-Saltaneh. Although less than passionate, the marriage lasted until Mossadegh’s death in 1967.
Mossadegh was involved on the periphery of demands for a constitution that in 1908 led to the establishment of Iran’s first elected majles or parliament. He continued his studies in law at Neuchatel in Switzerland, where his doctoral thesis posited Islamic laws as historical artefacts capable of evolution over time like other types of law. This displeased the clergy, despite his rejection of European laws being imposed on his eastern country. In 1914, the British government bought half of the private Anglo-Persian Oil Company that had rights to Iran’s oil. A secret understanding with easily bribed Iranian officials assured the Royal Navy of 20 years of cheap oil. Christopher de Bellaigue writes in this informative and sympathetic account of Mossadegh’s life, ‘No one asked the Persians what they thought.’ Nor would anyone else in the years to come.
In 1921, Britain engineered the coup that deposed the last Qajar Shah and set Colonel Reza Khan of Iran’s Cossack regiment on the throne. Mossadegh won parliamentary seats in most of the elections between the wars, and he was often in cabinet. He supported a constitutional monarchy like Britain’s, despite his distrust of the British, and rejected the absolute monarchy of Reza Shah. Reza arrested journalists and assassinated opponents, while attempting to modernise his country as Ataturk was doing next door in post-Ottoman Turkey. When Mossadegh took his seat in the 1926 majles, he refused to swear loyalty to Reza. Two years later, Reza fixed the elections to deny seats to troublemakers like Mossadegh. Mossadegh left public life for his farm.
In 1933, Reza Shah negotiated a new concession with Anglo-Persian that gave Iran only 16 per cent of oil revenues and no voice in the management while exempting the company from Iranian taxation. Britain and Russia occupied Iran in 1940, and Reza’s unpopularity made him a liability. The British replaced the man they had installed 12 years before with his more malleable son, Mohammed Reza. When the parliament of 1951 selected Mossadegh as prime minister, due to his overwhelming popularity, the young Shah accepted his appointment.
A few months later, Mossadegh nationalised Anglo-Persian. Clement Attlee, whose Labour government had no qualms about nationalisation in Britain, declared Iran’s action ‘illegal,’ withdrew foreign staff from the oil operations and declared an embargo on Iranian oil.
Mossadegh tried to ride it out, diversifying Iran’s economy and actually reducing the country’s current account deficit. He attempted to institute reforms – breaking up large landholdings, granting women the vote, creating a social security system and other measures that Bellaigue writes managed to antagonise every important institution in the country. Nonetheless, he remained popular with the people.
The people, however, let him down. With the British embassy empty, the CIA stepped in to stage the mass demonstrations of paid activists that looted and burned Mossadegh’s house and drove him from office. He was to Iran what Alexander Dubcek became to Czechoslovakia in 1968, a man who personified his nation’s demands for independence and justice while bringing on the foreign intervention that eliminated both for a generation. The US used the coup as a template for other coups, beginning in Guatemala in 1954. From the American point of view, both were successes that guaranteed long-term profits for its companies while ushering in reigns of terror for the local populace.
Many books, including Stephen Kinzer’s em>All the Shah’s Men and Counter-Coup by Kermit Roosevelt (who arranged the coup and dragged the timid Shah back to his country), have documented the story of Mossadegh’s overthrow. This excellent book tells Mossadegh’s story rather than the CIA’s and MI6’s. Bellaigue used his access to the Iranian files and his knowledge of Farsi to produce a book that will be required reading to understand a country that the Western world has embargoed yet again and is threatening to attack.