Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Author: Christopher de Bellaigue

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Harper; FIRST US EDITION, 1ST PRINTING edition (May 15, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061844705
ISBN-13: 978-0061844706


Christopher de Bellaigue, a former contributor to The Economist, brings to light the fascinating story of one of the great anti-colonial heroes of the twentieth century: Muhammad Mossadegh, the great Iranian leader whose untimely demise resulted in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and a man who has been demonized, ridiculed, and misunderstood in the West while remaining an icon and an inspiration across the Middle East. Patriot of Persia, a new biography exploring his life and impact, opens a crucial new window into Mossadegh—whose role in the evolution of Iran’s political climate cannot be overemphasized—providing a resource that will prove equally invaluable to academics, newshounds, and activists as they struggle to understand Mideast politics, Iran, Ahmadinejad, and the future of the region—and the world.

Book Description

On August 19, 1953, the American and British intelligence agencies launched a desperate coup in Iran against a cussed, bedridden seventy-two-year-old man. His name was Muhammad Mossadegh, and his crimes had been to flirt with communism and to nationalize his country's oil industry, which for forty years had been in British hands. To Winston Churchill, the Iranian prime minister was a lunatic, determined to humiliate Britain. To President Dwight Eisenhower, he was delivering Iran to the Soviets. Mossadegh must go.

And so he did, in one of the most dramatic episodes in modern Middle Eastern history. But the countries that overthrew him would, in time, deeply regret their decision. Mossadegh was one of the first liberals of the Middle East, a man whose conception of liberty was as sophisticated as any in Europe or America. He wanted friendship with the West—but not slavish dependence. He would not compromise on Iran's right to control its own destiny. The West therefore sided against him and in favor of his great foe, Shah Muhammad-Reza Pahlavi.

Who was this political guerrilla of noble blood, who was so adored in the Middle East and so reviled in the West? Schooled in Europe of the Belle Epoque, Mossadegh was pitted against dictatorship at home, a struggle that almost cost him his life and had tragic consequences for his family. By the time of the Shah's accession in 1941, Mossadegh had become the nation's conscience, and he spent the rest of his life in conflict with a monarch whose despotic regime was eventually toppled in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Here, for the first time, is the political and personal life of a remarkable patriot, written by our foremost observer of Iran. Drawing on sources in Tehran and the West, Christopher de Bellaigue reveals a man who not only embodied his nation's struggle for freedom but also was one of the great eccentrics of modern times—and uncovers the coup that undid him. Above all, the life of Muhammad Mossadegh serves as a warning to today's occupants of the White House and Downing Street as they commit to further intervention in a volatile and unpredictable region.

Editorial Reviews

From Bookforum

The first major treatment of Mossadegh's life to hit the mainstream US book market . . . is concise, smoothly written, and ultimately absorbing: The kind of portrait that serves as much as an introduction to a country as it does to a man. —Suzy Hansen


“A compelling biography… Bellaigue…writes with economy and a lightly ironic touch…The result is a three-dimensional profile of Mossadegh that contrasts sharply with the heroic democrat mythologized by his supporters.” (Sohrab Ahmari, Wall Street Journal )

“Economist Tehran correspondent de Bellaigue uses plenty of local insight to provide general readers with an intriguing combination of biography, history and strategic study.” (Kirkus Reviews )

“…superbly researched…” (Huffington Post )

“…a major strength of the book is that it does not seek to lionize the protagonist.” (Washington Independent Review of Books )

“Brilliant…A sweeping new biography…also a rich portrait of Iran amid the revolutionary upheaval of anti-colonial reform movements…-the antecedent, in many ways, of today’s Middle East uprisings.” (The Daily )

“…thanks to veteran journalist Christopher de Bellaigue’s brisk, engaging 300-page biography, Mossadegh’s strange personality and at times baffling motives come into clearer focus.” (The Daily Beast )

“Superbly researched.” (Huffington Post )

“A timely book…elegantly written…feels both fresh and relevant…highlights the dangers of a foreign policy that ignores the perceptions of those with memories longer than our own.” (The Guardian )

“Superbly timed…portrays some fascinating, and often farcical, stories of political life in Iran” (Independent )

“Compelling… the West has handled its relationship with Iran as badly as possible… we have little leverage with its people…de Bellaigue’s book goes far to explain why.” (Max Hastings, Sunday Times (London) )

“De Bellaigue’s book is unsurpassed as a rounded portrait of Mossadegh.” (Times Literary Supplement (London) )

“Authoritative…a politically astute biography” (London Review of Books )

“Portrayed by Bellaigue as a classic tragic hero…the book presents a nuanced portrait of an enigmantic man whose brilliance and fairmindedness fatally collided with his pride and rigidity.” (Tara Bahrampour, Washington Post )

Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup

Reviewed by Louis Peck

He was Time’s “Man of the Year” in 1951. With his distinctive long nose and billiard ball-like pate, he was recognized nearly worldwide — “the first bit of meat to come the way of cartoonists” since World War II, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden observed at the time.

Muhummad Mossadegh — “Mussy Duck” as Eden’s boss, Winston Churchill, disparagingly referred to him — governed Iran as prime minister for a two-and-a-half- year period until his ouster in a coup d’etat in August 1953. If the coup had its roots in Britain’s loss of worldwide prestige and, more immediately, its anger at Mossadegh’s efforts to nationalize the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., his overthrow was directly engineered by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — at a time when, with the Korean War winding down, the foreign policy architects of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations were certain that Iran was the next target for a communist takeover.

Fifty years later, it is clear that the latter threat was vastly overstated: There is no evidence that Mossadegh harbored communist sympathies and, in fact, he viewed the Iranian communist movement with deep suspicion, Christopher de Bellaigue writes in Patriot of Persia. Even as the coup was being hatched (the prime CIA operative was Kermit Roosevelt, a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt), Churchill himself privately observed that there was little prospect that Iran would fall into communist hands.

In de Bellaigue’s view, the lasting tragedy of this particular episode in the history of Cold War adventurism is that it led to a progression of events that haunts the United States to this day. “In the long run, [the coup] did great harm to western interests,” Bellaigue writes at the outset of this well-researched and detailed, if often uneven, book. “It was the start of a U.S. policy in support of shoddy Middle Eastern despots, which suffered its first defeat in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the Shah, and unraveled further with the Arab Spring of 2011.”

In fact, de Bellaigue sees Mossadegh — whose personal probity and respect for individual rights and liberties were rare for his time, particularly for someone from his region — as a forerunner of the Arab Spring, and a missed opportunity for the United States and other Western powers. “Mossadegh was the first liberal leader of the modern Middle East,” Bellaigue declares of a man who sprung from Persian nobility, and who received much of his early education in Paris and Switzerland.

This is not the first effort in recent years to provide an account of Mossadegh’s nearly 90-year life and, more specifically, the events and forces that led to his ouster from power. (Mossadegh subsequently spent nearly 14 years in prison and internal exile prior to his death in 1967.) But de Bellaigue — the Tehran correspondent for The Economist magazine who is married to an Iranian and who spends part of each year in Iran — clearly sees his biography filling a void. “Nowhere have the man and his fullness been brought out,” he says of Mossadegh, blaming this in part on “the wall that modern politics has interposed between Iran and the West.”

In an unusually direct swipe at another author, de Bellaigue notes that the “standard popular account of the coup was penned by [New York Times] journalist Stephen Kinzer, who does not read Persian. That is a bit like writing about Pearl Harbor knowing only Japanese.” Kinzer’s account, All the Shah’s Men, appeared nearly a decade ago. But if de Bellaigue’s account appears to have made wide use of a multitude of available sources in various languages, his book is not without its flaws.

Efforts to tie Mossadegh’s career and times to more recent events are largely limited to brief prologue and epilogue chapters — leaving more than 260 pages in between, into which de Bellaigue densely packs not only a detailed biography of Mossadegh, but an account of nearly 200 years of Persian/Iranian history. The author fails to take advantage of opportunities to increase the book’s relevancy — to say nothing of its potential interest to the reader — by intertwining the lessons of the more distant past with recent history. After all, the Shah whom Mossadegh confronted in the early 1950s was the same insecure but repressive ruler whom supporters of an Islamic republic ousted a quarter of a century later, and a couple of key officials in Mossadegh’s regime later served under Khomeini in the early days of Iran’s Islamic republic.

For those not already versed in the history of the region, the book can be slow going, as the reader tries to keep tabs on a large array of unfamiliar names and political cross- currents. Specific dates are relatively sparse in the narrative, occasionally prompting the reader to stop and try to figure out the precise year in which a key event occurred so as to better place it in historical context. On the flip side, a major strength of the book is that it does not seek to lionize the protagonist.

De Bellaigue, an Englishman, makes no secret of his disdain for the actions of his homeland during the century leading up to Mossadegh’s ouster, and is hardly more charitable toward the United States, whose initial uncertainty and benign neglect was transformed into complicity with its British cousins. “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 … Mossadegh,” de Bellaigue writes, adding, “Nationalism had been a force for decades, but he was the first to try to build a modern Middle East state on the basis of collective and individual liberties.” But de Bellaigue portrays the architect of that state as an eccentric, often mercurial personality who failed to follow through on some key opportunities for compromise, and who therefore was ultimately “instrumental” in bringing about his own downfall, notwithstanding the culpability of the Western powers.

The ultimate irony of the piece is that Mossadegh — who shared a widespread Persian/ Iranian view of the British as a “malignant force” in the country’s affairs — in the end unwisely counted on the support of none other than the United States.

“In trying to thwart British designs with the help of Britain’s greatest ally,” de Bellaigue writes, “Mossadegh showed more chutzpah than wisdom.” But, a half-century later, it is the United States that is arguably still paying the price.

A lifelong history buff, Louis Peck has been a Washington-based journalist for nearly 35 years, including nearly two decades as editor-in-chief of National Journal’s daily publication on Congress. He is currently on the journalism faculty of the Boston University Washington Academic Center.

About the Author

Born in London in 1971, Christopher de Bellaigue has worked as a journalist in the Middle East and South Asia since 1994. His first book, IN THE ROSE GARDEN OF THE MARTYRS: A MEMOIR OF IRAN, was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. His second book, THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAN, was a collection of 14 essays on Iranian culture and politics, all of which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books. His most recent book, REBEL LAND: UNRAVELING THE RIDDLE OF HISTORY IN A TURKISH TOWN, was shortlisted for the prestigious Orwell Book Prize for political writing. Christopher de Bellaigue is the Tehran correspondent for The Economist and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Granta, Harper's, and The New York Review of Books. He lives in London with his wife and two children.

Link for Further Reading:

*'Patriot Of Persia' Revisits 1953 CIA Coup In Iran: