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Patriot of Persia: Interview with Christopher de Bellaigue

By Fariba Amini (originally published by

Only the pen of a Macaulay or the brush of a Vereshchagin could adequately portray the rapidly shifting scenes attending the downfall of this ancient nation,-scenes in which two powerful and presumably enlightened Christian countries played fast and loose with truth, honor, decency and law, one, at least, hesitating not even at the most barbarous cruelties to accomplish its political design to put Persia beyond hope of self-regeneration. -- The Strangling of Persia,W. Morgan Shuster, April 1912

Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup
By Christopher de Bellaigue (published February 2012)
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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. He will be speaking on the subject of his new book at the Royal Geographical Society on February 14, sponsored by the Iran Society and Iran Heritage Foundation.

I thank him for granting me his very first interview about his book:

The title of your book is interesting. 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. As I say in the preface, 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. I must say that there will never be a last word on Mossadegh. People will continue to write about him.

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.

Have you by any chance read Darioush Bayandor’s book, Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeqe Revisited. Do you agree with him? He considers the role of the clergy and the Iranian players to have been more important than that of the outside forces.

I did see Bayandor’s book. I read it with interest but I tend not to agree with the crux of it. Bayandor’s approach as far as I can tell is centered on reevaluating the role of Iranians. The foreign involvement is portrayed differently. I think it is fine to listen to other voices offering another argument. But I do think that the events of August 1953 were ultimately a military coup instigated and orchestrated by foreigners. It was notKhod- joush as you say in Persian in my opinion at all.

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.

You really have written a full biography of Mossadegh. We know that he came from a prominent family, he was a Qajar from his mother’s side, but he basically went against that nobility. What really shaped this man? You talk about the most influential person in his life being his mother, but what were some of the other factors, elements or events that shaped him?

I tried to identify every element that shaped him in his early life. I am sure that I have missed a lot. The person who had the most obvious influence on him was his mother no doubt. Naturally, the Constitutional Revolution was an event that influenced him. He was ambivalent at the time but it shaped him considerably, particularly his attitude towards the monarchy. I think his time in Europe was absolutely seminal in shaping his way of thinking in terms of his ideas towards government, towards religion in public life, towards the independence of nations. Then he went back to Persia and he combined what he had learned from the West with the life in Persia. He never wanted to become a European or be a European intellectual. He always remained very much an Iranian. He had a very strong sense of his Iranian-ness and managed to combine the two. All these elements came together to create the man. And then of course, there are the personal elements which shaped his character: Responsibility at a very young age, his relations with his maternal uncle, Farmanfarma, who was a notorious Anglophile. And the long dark years of Reza Shah and the tragic personal experience of watching his youngest daughter fall into mental illness due to his own incarceration.

By the same token, the Shah was also educated not far from Neuchâtel in Switzerland. But he became a different person. What contributed to his character? His experience was different than that of Mossadegh. What do you attribute that to?

You are absolutely right. They came from totally different viewpoints as we know. The Shah was the representative of a new dynasty and he had to live up to the standards that had been set by his father. He was unsure of himself. I have sympathy for the Shah’s predicament. Mossadegh, on the other hand, was sure of his own position and standing among his compatriots. The self-confidence he showed connecting with his constituents or the people around him was very different from the uncertainty of the Shah.

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?

I think Ali Rahnama has done some very good work on this subject. His argument seems valid. 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 of 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; though how long that would have taken I don’t know. Mossadegh himself didn’t know how long he would remain in power. During this period he wanted to step down on several occasions. He was surrounded by younger dynamic men who would have been candidates to take his place. I think the majority of them, like Hossein Fatemi, were either hardcore republicans or moving in that direction. 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 that 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 this would last very long or that Mossadegh would last very long. During his trip to America, he genuinely wanted to do a deal. But Eden summarily dismissed the proposals. After that, Mossadegh had the opportunity to test British, to test their appetite for a deal. It is hard for us to know for sure how sincere the British were in their pursuit of compromise. They were certainly trying to convince the Americans of their good intentions so that later on they could enlist the Americans’ help in more aggressive measures. But I do think that Mossadegh missed an opportunity. If he had shown more openness to a deal in the latter days of his premiership it is hard to imagine that he would have lost American good will to the extent that they went along with a coup.

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.

Mossadegh was cordial towards the Shah and always referred to him as “Your Majesty.” But on page 266 of your book, the Shah in reply to a French journalist asking how Mossadegh was doing said, “He is happy where he is. He eats well and, at eighty- six, engages in his favourite sport, riding donkeys. What more could he wish for?”There was a time when Mohammad Reza Shah was also respectful towards his PM. What made him change? Does power change people?

I am not an expert on the Shah. I studied him a bit. Mossadegh was convinced that the Shah wanted him out of office and even dead. He might have kept the Shah close to him. He did not respect the Shah as a person but respected the idea of a Monarchy for Iran, so that meant respecting the person of the monarch. But in the end their relationship broke down to the point where the Shah went along with the coup plan.

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. Particularly, for a country like Britain, you would have to spend all your time apologizing! There is a point when apologies lose their value unless they are part of an endeavor to achieve reconciliation. We know that the MI6 records are off limits. I can only say that if we were to see those records, they would not be very flattering.

On page 274 of the book, you mention that Roosevelt went to see Churchill on his way back from Tehran. Churchill was recovering from a stroke. Churchill told him, “If I had been but a few years ago 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; this is a year after the Coup. They all look jolly. What went through the mind of these politicians? I know you are not a psychiatrist, but what do you think when you look at this picture?

I don’t know what was going through their mind but I think the British felt that Mossadegh had done something wrong and 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. The Americans had a different opinion, that Mossadegh was driving the country into the arms of the Soviets.

Mossadegh was anti- Soviet but the British used their propaganda to bring the Americans on board claiming that he was cozying up to the Soviets. Is that right?

The British definitely played on that. They had a very profound sense of Iranian history. Diplomats who went to Iran were well versed in the history of British involvement in Iran. They never seriously believed that any Iranian statesmen would cozy up to the Soviets. The Tudeh did have some support in Iran but it was not mass based. These were fear mongering stories. Across the Muslim world you find this. There is already a mass ideology - Islam - and doesn’t mix well with the mass ideology of Communism.

You mention Ann (Nancy) Lambton in two separate chapters. I have always been very curious about her. She had a lot of knowledge and understood and wrote about Iranian history. She lived in Iran and traveled by foot. Why would someone who was not just an ordinary scholar-who was not pretentious like Zaehner or even Wilbur-want a true democrat out of office? What can you tell us about her?

She is an absolutely fascinating figure and an enigma. She kept her cards close to her chest. She never talked about her involvement. She had an inspirational role early on. It would be wrong to say that she was the mastermind of the coup. But at the same time, she recommended that Robin Zaehner come to Tehran and use his contacts to undermine the government. She recommended Mossadegh’s removal. I think we have to try to put ourselves in her shoes. She was admirable in so many ways but ultimately she was working for what she believed was the British interest. But as we now know, coercion tends to destroy whatever good may come from diplomacy.

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.

Related Story: Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a very British Coup - Public Lecture and Book Launch in London

... Payvand News - 02/12/12 ... --

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