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"Patriot of Persia" ~ Who was the real culprit behind Mossadegh's downfall - by Christopher de Bellaigue
by Fariba Amini
Mohammad Mossadegh — Iran’s charismatic Prime Minister—and the coup that brought him down in 1953 stand at the center of modern Iranian history. British journalist and writer, Christopher de Bellaigue, has written a new book on this remarkable figure titled Patriot of Persia, which counts as the first real biography of Mossadegh in English by a non-Iranian. De Bellaigue, who is married to an Iranian artist and who has lived in Iran, has written about the country and the wider Middle East for the Economist, the Financial Times, the Independent, and the New York Review of Books. He is also the author of In the Rose Garden of Martyrs which was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature‘s Ondaatje Prize, and, more recently of Rebel Land, which deals with the memories of the Armenian genocide in today’s eastern Turkey.
It is commonly believed that it was more the Americans who carried out the coup but, as you tell the story, the foundations were really laid by the British. In your book you put great emphasis on Great Britain’s role. Is it correct to come to this conclusion?
Let me begin by saying that I don’t consider my book to be the final word on Mossadegh, but since I read Persian and I had access to some Persian sources, I would want to think of my book as an accurate portrayal of the man, but certainly it is not the last word. I don’t even think of my book as a scholarly book; I just hope it is a good one.
In the U.S., the title is a bit different: The title is “A tragic Anglo-American coup.” I think I try to show balance. Great many people have written about the episode from the American perspective, and naturally the apology made by Madeleine Albright focuses the attention on the American role and involvement, but I think I lay it out a bit more explicitly that it was really a British idea and that it was the British who instigated the idea of deposing Mossadegh and that they got the American support when they couldn’t do the job.
What distinguishes your book from so many other ones written about Mossadegh?
I think when you write about someone’s life, you can either dislike them or like and feel admiration for them. I certainly feel admiration for Mossadegh. I am fascinated by him partly for the reasons that anyone interested in Iran would be interested in him, and partly because of my fascination with the conflict between the two countries to which I feel the strongest bond. So I was immediately drawn to him for two reasons, his personality and the conflict between the two countries. A lot of valuable work has been done on the subject; but I don’t think we have ever had a fully rounded biography in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, where you follow someone from the cradle to the grave. A lot of lavish biographies have been written about famous people in the Middle East but not Mossadegh. It also happened that I was living in Iran and had some access to the archives and other Persian sources. I was able to gather together some secondary and firsthand material that had not been used before.
You say in your introduction: “As an Englishman who is married to an Iranian and spends part of the year in Tehran, I learned long ago to suspend all patriotic urges when writing about Iran. Approaching Mossadegh has necessitated even more rigour because of his famous loathing of Britain, and his desire to end British meddling. In Mossadegh’s time, millions of Iranians attributed to the British an almost boundless capacity for mischief. Although Mossadegh’s hatred of Britain clouded his judgment, I regret to say that it rested on sure foundations. Mossadegh saw the hidden hand of the British everywhere because that is where it was.” As a British national, you are defending this man. Is that the case?
I happen to be British, but of course it affects me to read and to hear and to learn about my government’s role in Persian politics. Yes, I am sympathetic to the man. When you read about Mossadegh, it is as if you are reading about your grandfather. There was something grandfatherly about him. But at the same time, it is not that I am defending him. I am trying to show the man as he was, with his many positive characteristics as well as his flaws, to set the record straight. I wanted to write as honestly as I could, to bring out what where his virtues and his flaws were, without any agenda. I have tried to be fair. I know many Iranians will find that a British person writing about him is ridiculous.
As you know, Iranians have a tendency to blame “others” for whatever happens to them. Yet you say that Iranians have a legitimate reason to point fingers at the British not just in the 1950s but long before that. Can you elaborate?
Yes, I do believe the British were very much involved in the internal affairs of Persia or Iran. In the book I try to show Iran’s fascination with the Great Britain and the paranoia that came with it. There is an element of paranoia but at the same time there is a very real foundation for suspicion. Someone like Iraj Pezekshzad [in his masterpiece novel, Dayee Jan Napoleon; translated as My Uncle Napoleon] deals with this on a comic level. That fascination and obsession can get in the way of good judgment, particularly when it comes to politics. At the same time, if you read the history of British involvement in Iran, there is much justification for Iranian suspicion.
Don’t you think that if Iranians and some of those around Mossadegh had not actively participated, the coup would not have happened? That is, those who betrayed him or left his side, namely some of the clerics and the Iranians who were paid off like the Rashidians and the rest?
It is one of those hypothetical questions. I think what brought Mossadegh to his downfall were a combinations of factors: the oil nationalization and his engagement in long negotiations, the qualities he possessed- that is a strong will combined with integrity and an attachment to principles were the ultimate tests. I don’t think the defection of Makki, Baghai and or Kashani or any of them were decisive in toppling his government. Mossadegh did not want to invite a civil war. He could have done that. But he did not want bloodshed. He did not want the country to collapse and ultimately that was a decision of principle he took, and the coup found new momentum. As far as I know Mossadegh never expressed regret in the way he handled things or his decision, although many Iranians would say that it was the wrong one.
In the chapter on Razmara, you say that Mossadegh knew about his assassination. Yet we know that Mossadegh had a non-violent character that he did not want to use force. How do you come to this conclusion? On what basis do you say that he knew of Razmara’s killing?
One could say that historically we are in the realm of speculation but, as I say in my book, there is strong reason to suspect that Mossadegh did know; several of his close confidantes had given their approval to the act. Mossadegh probably had foreknowledge. One has to remember that decisions were being taken in the heat of the moment and that many Iranians were under the impression that their country was on the brink of collapse. They were acting in extremis. But never do I suggest that Mossadegh advocated, advised or even encouraged Razmara’s murder.
Do you think that he was going to eventually call for a Republic even though he was at core in favor of a constitutional monarchy?
On the day of the coup, they were preparing for a Regency Council, which the Shah should according to the Constitution have been involved in setting up, and for obvious reasons was not. The country was moving towards a republic even if that was not what Mossadegh wanted. Even if we could imagine for a moment that Mossadegh had asked the Shah to return, it is hard to imagine the Shah doing so. His rule was effectively over and he was planning his life with Soraya in the U.S.
Many people argue that Mossadegh was stubborn and made the wrong moves in his negotiations with the Americans and the British and that it was really his fault that a compromise over the oil issue was not reached. Is that your belief too?
I think if Mossadegh had not had the qualities we have been discussing, Iran would not have been able to negotiate from a position of strength. When nationalization went through, the British did not take it seriously. They did not think that Mossadegh would last very long. During his trip to America, he genuinely wanted to do a deal. But Eden summarily dismissed the proposals.
How do you define “Mossadeghism” as you meniton in your book?
It was coined in the West to denote irrational, unstable Middle Eastern leaders who had no idea how the world worked and who liked poking their fingers into the eyes of the great powers. If Mossadeghism was allowed to grow and expand then it would not just be confined to the Abadan refinery but go further, to the Suez Canal and other economic possessions. Mossadeghism was never translated into Persian but to Iranians it meant personal and political integrity.
We have heard a few American politicians, most importantly Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, apologize for the U.S. government’s role in the coup. Have any British political figures ever apologized to the Iranian people for the British role?
I don’t think any British politician has ever publicly acknowledged their role. Having said that, I am skeptical about the usefulness of public apologies of this kind. There is a point when apologies lose their value unless they are part of an endeavor to achieve reconciliation.
You mention that Roosevelt went to see Churchill on his way back from Tehran. Churchill told him, “If I had been but a few years younger, I would have loved nothing better than to have served under your command in this great venture.” There is also a photo of four men sitting on the White House lawn -a year after the Coup. They all look jolly. What went through the mind of these politicians?
I think the British felt that if it were not for British engineering and money, the refineries would have never been built and that it did not belong to Iran. It was the end of the Empire and the two men were representatives of an earlier age. British supremacy was on its last legs so either of those men wanted to make the decline as smooth as it was possible. And Mossadegh was not part of the script.
How should Iranians remember Mossadegh today? What is the legacy he left behind?
He should be remembered as a good man, a man who wanted the best for his country. He had a vision. And even more than a leader, he was a good man. I think he is remembered in a positive way because he united the country around a goal that no one can argue with, or contend that it was motivated by self-interest. He wanted an independent, respected Iran, and that, at the end of the day, is what every Iranian wants.