Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue
|Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue
|Reviewer: George Care
|Summary: An account of the life of Muhammad Mussadegh who became Prime Minister of Iran after the Second World War. This 72 year-old man presided over the nationalisation of his countries oil resources. Consequently the British and American Intelligence services launched a coup to remove him. Very useful reading for those wanting background on the current Iranian situation.
|Date: February 2013
A good historian will take a single important fact and make good use of it to expound his general thesis. De Bellaigue demonstrates this masterfully when he states, Between 1876 and 1915 a quarter of the world changed ownership, with a half a dozen European states taking the lion’s share. Persia, however, during this time was judged to be too poor to be worth occupying. It had, for instance, only a few miles of railway track. Secondly, Russia and Britain both had schemes for control but their mutual animosity gave the Persians room for manoeuvre. The latter were skilled at playing each off against the other and obtaining concessions. However, the conflict sharpened over the control of a critical resource, oil. This was controlled upon the outbreak of the First World War by the major share held in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later to become BP, held by the British. It was Muhammad Mossadegh, one of the first liberals of the Middle East was determined that this resource beneath his native land had to belong to his own people.
In an engaging story de Bellaigue, a journalist and fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford who reads Farsi and has an Iranian wife, introduces us to a cast of Shahs, soldiers, plotters and politicians including some as well-known as Churchill, Curzon and Reza Shah. Curzon knew Persia well having previously travelled the area exploring its ancient archaeology. He rode on horseback in his wretchedly metal-corseted back in preparation for his own career. He became Viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905 but connived to exclude Persia from the Versailles conference after World War 1 with the intention of making an Anglo-Persian agreement the summit of his career - protecting the oil fields in Aberdan and watching the Afghan frontier.
Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty had wanted the oil for the Navy, to ensure that Dreadnoughts could travel faster and refuel at sea. However, Britain had only coal and wanted a major stake in the oil of Persia and to guarantee the future dominance of the fleet. Whilst perhaps not as haughty as Curzon, Churchill was later to disparagingly refer to Mossadegh who had become Iranian prime minister in the early 1950's as Mussy Duck.
In a key chapter on eclipsing the Qajar Shahs, the rulers of Persia before the Phavlavi family, Christopher de Bellaigue writes some beautifully crisp sentences. Six foot three of glowering ambition, Reza Khan crushed the shell of Qajar power. He wrote no foreign language and barely his own; his culture was cards and wenching, though later he acquired the genteel vices of opium and extortion. Reza Kahn was a ferocious dictator, a strong man and a Cossack whose power base was the army, who was to remove one Shah dynasty and sideline the majes - the parliament - and establish himself as head of another. Muhammad Mossadegh opposed him with great courage and integrity and was eventually incarcerated as a result. This increased the faith of the populace in Mossadegh. However, in sixteen years he was to have built a railway across the country, improved education and treated the Jews with respect. He also managed to befriend Attaturk, curry favour with Hitler and increase oil production. Critical journalists, poets, sometimes the innocent or uninvolved, had their throats cut.
By the eve of the Second World War, Iran as it had now become, was flooded with German agents and nearly half the country's trade was with Nazi Germany. It is not surprising that when the Wehrmacht invaded Russia and headed towards the Caucasus the British and their new Russian allies invaded Iran and it was not long before the autocratic Reza Khan was removed leaving the loyal, patriotic and aristocratic trained lawyer, Mossadegh a path to power after the war. The first liberal of the Middle East, he set out to repair the bruised feelings of his compatriots and much of this revolved around the oil concession. It is at this point where the rising force of the Tudeh communists encouraged Mossadegh in nationalising what was now Britain's largest overseas asset, that de Bellaigue's engaging narrative meets its climax.
Churchill had just been returned to power, himself a sick man, viewed the awkward aged and neurotic prime minister of Iran as a lunatic. Also the fact that the assertive democratically inclined Mossadegh introduced many social reforms, sick benefits and protection of peasants from landlords made Churchill's advisors squirm. Eisenhower thought that Iran was being delivered to the Soviets. Hence a coup was organised by the secret services of Britain and America that removed the most enlightened leader that the country had ever had and after several hiccups placed the Pahlavi Shah back in charge on his reactionary peacock throne.
This account of a very British coup, largely carried out by the CIA is written with careful insight into the complexities of the various power groups involved. It is written in a deft style and yet exposes the characters of the many participants with compelling irony. There are some twenty excellent black and white photographs and detailed notes with a useful bibliography. Published now in paperback, the truth behind these events is available to a wider readership. The West might now long for Iran to be lead by a man with such deep respect for justice. As he once told the Shah, Good days and bad days go past, what stays is a good name or a bad name.
Many thanks to Vintage Books for providing the book.
If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaiteand A Senseless Squalid War: Voices From Palestine 1890s - 1948 by Norman Rose.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue at Amazon.com.
Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue is in the Top Ten History Books of 2013.
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