[Marxism] A new Mossadegh biography

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jun 13 09:58:42 MDT 2012


Why weren’t they grateful?
Pankaj Mishra

Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by 
Christopher de Bellaigue
Bodley Head, 310 pp, £20.00, February, ISBN 978 1 84792 108 6

In 1890, an itinerant Muslim activist called Jamal al-din 
al-Afghani was in Iran when its then ruler, Naser al-Din Shah 
Qajar, granted a tobacco concession to a British businessman 
called G.F. Talbot, effectively granting him a monopoly on its 
purchase, sale and export. Al-Afghani pointed out, to a chorus of 
approval from secular-minded intellectuals as well as conservative 
merchants, that tobacco growers would now be at the mercy of 
infidels, and the livelihoods of small dealers destroyed. He set 
up pressure groups in Tehran – a political innovation in the 
country – which sent anonymous letters to officials and 
distributed leaflets and placards calling on Iranians to revolt. 
Angry protests erupted in major cities the following spring. 
Helped by the recently introduced telegraph, the mass 
demonstrations of the Tobacco Protest, as it came to be called, 
were as carefully co-ordinated as they would be in Khomeini’s 
Islamic Revolution a hundred years later, when cassette-tapes 
played a similar role and women participated in large numbers.

Al-Afghani also wrote to Ayatollah Mirza Hassan Shirazi in Najaf, 
giving the greatly influential but apolitical Shiite cleric an 
early lesson in the ‘structural adjustments’ that Western 
financiers would come to enforce in poor countries: ‘What shall 
cause thee to understand what is the Bank?’ he asked. ‘It means 
the complete handing over of the reins of government to the enemy 
of Islam, the enslaving of the people to that enemy, the 
surrendering of them and of all dominion and authority into the 
hands of the foreign foe.’ Al-Afghani may have been exaggerating. 
But he knew from his experiences in India and Egypt how quickly 
the West’s seemingly innocuous traders and bankers could turn into 
diplomats and soldiers. The feckless shah had already compromised 
Iran’s relative immunity to Europe’s informal imperialists. In 
1872, with the country starved of capital and suffering from a 
massive budget deficit, he had granted a monopoly in the 
construction of railways, roads, factories, dams and mines to 
another British citizen, Baron Reuter (founder of the news 
agency). Even Lord Curzon was appalled twenty years later when he 
was told the terms, describing it as ‘the most complete surrender 
of the entire resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has 
ever been dreamed of much less accomplished in history’. Protests 
by Russia, Iran’s neighbour and Britain’s great rival in the 
region, sank this particular arrangement; Reuter anyway had other 
irons in the fire.

Coming only eight years after the British occupation of Egypt, the 
award of the tobacco concession struck al-Afghani as ominous. 
Expelled from Iran by the shah, he kept up a barrage of letters to 
leading Shiite clerics in the shrine cities of Mesopotamia, asking 
them to rouse themselves out of their apathy and move against the 
shah. A few months later, Shirazi wrote his first ever letter to 
the shah on a political subject, denouncing foreign banks and 
their growing power over the Muslim population as well as the 
commercial concessions given to Europeans. The shah, desperate to 
keep the ulema on his side, sent intermediaries to plead with 
Shirazi. Far from relenting, the cleric issued a fatwa effectively 
making it un-Islamic to smoke until the monopoly was withdrawn. He 
was astonishingly successful – even the shah’s palace became a 
smoke-free zone. Finally, the shah capitulated to an alliance 
between intellectuals, clergy and native merchants and, in January 
1892, cancelled the tobacco concession.

Muhammad Mossadegh was at the time the precocious nine-year-old 
son of a high official working for the shah. Homa Katouzian, his 
previous biographer in English, ascribes his consistent opposition 
to ‘any concession to any foreign power’ to this early impression 
of popular anger at European encroachments on Iran’s sovereignty. 
Mossadegh, whose family belonged to the nobility and who was 
honoured as a child with the title, mussadiq al-saltaneh, 
‘certifier of the monarchy’, was an unlikely leader of Iran’s 
transition from dynastic monarchy to mass politics. But then he 
grew up during a period of unprecedented political ferment across 

Asian intellectuals and activists had begun to challenge the 
arbitrary power of Western imperialists and their native allies in 
the late 19th century. The first generation contained polemicists 
like al-Afghani, who gathered energetic but disorganised young 
anti-imperialists around him in Kabul, Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran. 
The next generation produced men like Mossadegh, who had been 
exposed to Western ways or trained in Western-style institutions 
and were better equipped to provide their increasingly restless 
compatriots with a coherent ideology and politics of anticolonial 

In Christopher de Bellaigue’s politically astute biography, 
Mossadegh is not the ‘dizzy old wizard’ and ‘tantrum-throwing 
Scheherazade’ of countless Anglo-American memoirs and press 
reports, but a member of ‘that generation of Western-educated 
Asians who returned home, primly moustachioed, to sell freedom to 
their compatriots’: ‘Beholden to the same mistress, La Patrie, 
these Turks, Arabs, Persians and Indians went on to lead the 
anticolonial movements that transformed the map of the world.’ 
Mossadegh was more democratically minded than Atatürk, for 
example: de Bellaigue calls him the ‘first liberal leader of the 
modern Middle East’ – his ‘conception of liberty was as 
sophisticated as any in Europe or America’. But he was less 
successful than his heroes, Gandhi and Nehru; he was nearly 
seventy, an elderly hypochondriac, by the time he became Iran’s 
prime minister in 1951. It was his misfortune to be a liberal 
democrat at a time when, as Nehru remarked, looking on as British 
gunboats directed the course of Egyptian politics, ‘democracy for 
an Eastern country seems to mean only one thing: to carry out the 
behests of the imperialist ruling power.’ Though more focused and 
resourceful than al-Afghani, secular-minded moderates like 
Mossadegh were often easy victims of imperialist skulduggery. They 
never had more than a few token allies in the West and at home 
were despised by the hardliners, who later assumed the 
postcolonial task of building up national dignity and strength. 
Khomeini, for one, always spoke contemptuously of Mossadegh’s 
failure to protect Iran from the West.

Both liberal and radical Iranians could cite instances of the 
country’s humiliation by the West in the 19th century, when it had 
been dominated by the British and the Russians. The events of the 
early 20th century further undermined its political autonomy at a 
time when its political institutions were being liberalised (a 
parliament had been established as a result of the Constitutional 
Revolution of 1905-7). In the First World War, Britain and Russia 
first occupied and then divided the country in order to keep the 
Ottoman-German armies at bay. The end of the war brought no 
respite. The Red Army threatened from the north and Britain, 
already parcelling out the Ottoman Empire’s territories, saw an 
opportunity to annex Iran. Lord Curzon, now foreign secretary and 
convinced, as Harold Nicolson put it, that ‘God had personally 
selected the British upper class as an instrument of the Divine 
Will,’ drew up an Anglo-Persian agreement which was almost 
entirely destructive of Iranian sovereignty.

Mossadegh is said to have wept when he heard about the agreement. 
In despair he resolved to spend the rest of his life in Europe. As 
it turned out, Curzon, never an accurate reader of the native 
pulse, had misjudged the Iranian mood. The agreement was 
denounced; pro-British members of the Majlis, the Iranian 
parliament, were physically attacked. Facing such opposition, 
Curzon grew more obdurate: ‘These people have got to be taught at 
whatever cost to them that they cannot get on without us. I don’t 
at all mind their noses being rubbed in the dust.’ Despite 
Curzon’s stubbornness, Iranian revulsion finally sank the 
Anglo-Persian agreement. But another inequitable arrangement 
already bound Iran to Britain. Presciently buying government 
shares in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1913, Winston 
Churchill had managed to ensure that 84 per cent of its profits 
came to Britain. In 1933, Reza Khan, a self-educated soldier who 
had made use of the postwar chaos to grab power and found a new 
ruling dynasty (much to Mossadegh’s disgust), negotiated a new 
agreement with APOC, which turned out to be remarkably like the 
old one. During the Second World War, British and Russian troops 
again occupied the country, and the British replaced the rashly 
pro-German shah with his son Muhammad Reza.

In these years, British policy was infused with what de Bellaigue 
calls, without exaggeration, ‘a profound contempt for Persia and 
its people’, which provided the spark not only for modern Iranian 
nationalism but also for the seemingly irremovable suspicion of 
Britain as a ‘malignant force’. When in 1978 the shah called 
Khomeini a British agent, he intended it as a vicious slander; it 
backfired, triggering the first of the mass protests against him. 
APOC, renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1935, grossed 
profits of $3 billion between 1913 and 1951, but only $624 million 
of that remained in Iran. In 1947, the British government earned 
£15 million in tax on the company’s profits alone, while the 
Iranian government received only half that sum in royalties. The 
company also excluded Iranians from management and barred Tehran 
from inspecting its accounts.

Growing anti-British sentiment finally forced Muhammad Reza to 
appoint Mossadegh as prime minister early in 1951. The country’s 
nationalists by now included secularists as well as religious 
parties and the communist as well as non-communist left. 
Mossadegh, who, de Bellaigue writes, ‘was the first and only 
Iranian statesman to command all nationalist strains’, moved 
quickly to nationalise the oil industry. Tens of thousands lined 
the streets to cheer the officials sent from Tehran to take over 
the British oil facilities in Abadan, kissing the dust-caked cars 
– one of which belonged to Mehdi Bazargan, who would later become 
the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The 
American ambassador reported that Mossadegh was backed by 95 per 
cent of the population, and the shah told the visiting diplomat 
Averell Harriman that he dared not say a word in public against 
the nationalisation. Mossadegh felt himself to be carried along on 
the wings of history. ‘Hundreds of millions of Asian people, after 
centuries of colonial exploitation, have now gained their 
independence and freedom,’ he said at the UN in October 1951: 
Europeans had acknowledged Indian, Indonesian and Pakistani claims 
to sovereignty and national dignity – why did they continue to 
ignore Iran?

He was supported by a broad coalition of new Asian countries. Even 
the delegate from Taiwan, which had been given its seat in the UN 
at the expense of Mao’s People’s Republic of China, reminded the 
British that ‘the day has passed when the control of the Iranian 
oil industry can be shared with foreign companies.’ Other 
postcolonial regimes would soon nationalise their oil industries, 
thereby acquiring control of international prices and exposing 
Western economies to severe shocks. But the British, enraged by 
Mossadegh’s impertinence and desperately needing the revenues from 
what was Britain’s biggest single overseas investment, wouldn’t 

Britain could no longer afford its empire but, as de Bellaigue 
points out, in many places, ‘particularly in Iran, red-faced men 
went around in tailcoats as if nothing had changed.’ Many of them 
were on the board of directors of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company – 
and, as one of them confessed, were ‘helpless, niggling, without 
an idea between them, confused, hide-bound, small-minded, blind’. 
Still believing it ‘had done the Iranians a huge favour by finding 
and extracting oil’, Britain rejected a proposal, backed by the 
US, that the profits should be shared equally, and launched a 
devastatingly effective blockade of the Iranian economy. ‘If we 
bow to Tehran, we bow to Baghdad later,’ as the Express put it 
with Curzonian logic.

Churchill’s return to Downing Street in 1951 further emboldened 
the neo-imperialists: the Daily Mail exhorted the government to 
‘do something before the rot spreads further.’ An anti-Mossadegh 
consensus rapidly built up, even among liberals. In 1891, 
al-Afghani had challenged Reuter’s depiction of Iranians fighting 
for sovereignty as religious zealots, wondering if it had some 
connection with Britain’s commercial stake in Iran. In 1951, David 
Astor’s Observer was no less protective of British interests when 
it described Mossadegh as a ‘fanatic’ and a ‘tragic Frankenstein … 
obsessed with one xenophobic idea’.

‘There was disquiet across the white world,’ de Bellaigue writes, 
at Mossadegh’s ‘show of Oriental bad form’. The Foreign Office 
started a campaign to persuade the American public of the 
rightness of the British cause and the US press duly fell in with 
it. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal compared 
Mossadegh to Hitler, even though his occasionally authoritarian 
populism had to contend with a fractious parliament, and a growing 
internal opposition composed of merchants, landowners, royalists, 
the military and right-wing clerics (some of these would give the 
adventurers of the CIA and MI6 their opening). In The US Press and 
Iran: Foreign Policy and the Journalism of Deference (1988) 
William Dorman and Mansour Farhang show that no major American 
newspaper had ever spelled out Iran’s grievances against the AIOC. 
Rather, the Washington Post claimed that the people of Iran were 
not capable of being ‘grateful’. Looking back remorsefully, the 
New York Times correspondent in Tehran, Kennett Love, later 
described Mossadegh as a ‘reasonable man’ acting under 
‘unreasonable pressures’. But Love himself was subtly coerced into 
going along with what he called his ‘obtusely establishment’ 
editors in New York, and into collaborating with the US Embassy.

Having proclaimed the ‘American Century’, Henry Luce’s Time took a 
particular interest in commodity-rich Iran, arguing that the 
‘Russians may intervene, grab the oil, even unleash World War 
Three’. Already determined to overthrow Mossadegh, the British did 
not take long to exploit the growing American obsession with 
Soviet expansionism: Iran was to provide a test run on how to 
taint Asian nationalism by associating it with communism. They 
found a receptive audience in the Dulles brothers, the secretary 
of state and the head of the CIA in Eisenhower’s new 
administration in 1953.

Drawing on Persian sources, de Bellaigue gives an authoritative 
account of Operation Ajax, the CIA/ MI6 coup that toppled 
Mossadegh’s government and established Shah Reza Pahlavi as Iran’s 
unchallenged ruler in August 1953. The story of the Anglo-American 
destruction of Iran’s hopes of establishing a liberal modern state 
has been told many times, but the cautionary message of 1953 is 
still far from being absorbed. As early as 1964, Richard Cottam, a 
political officer in the US Embassy in the 1950s and later an Iran 
scholar, warned that the press and academic ‘distortions’ of the 
Mossadegh era bordered on the ‘grotesque, and until that era is 
seen in truer perspective there can be little hope for a 
sophisticated US foreign policy concerning Iran.’ (Or the whole 
Middle East, Cottam could have added.) The New York Times summed 
up the new imperial mood immediately after the coup: 
‘Underdeveloped countries with rich resources now have an object 
lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number 
which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism.’

Despite being told of it several times by Kennett Love, the Times 
declined to mention the CIA’s central role in Mossadegh’s 
overthrow – it was the then unknown agency’s first major operation 
of the Cold War. Welcoming the shah on his visit to the United 
States in 1954, the Times exulted: ‘Today Mossadegh is where he 
belongs – in jail. Oil is flowing again into the free markets of 
the world.’ Iran, it added, was moving ‘toward new and auspicious 
horizons’. The American press, which had been denouncing Mossadegh 
as the Iranian Führer, was now applauding the shah’s pharaonic 
modernisation schemes. This was at least in part a result of his 
hospitality to American media eminences, which, according to a 
list released by the revolutionaries in 1979, included Walter 
Cronkite, Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings and Mrs Arthur Sulzberger.

Emboldened by this support, the previously timid shah manifested 
signs of the syndrome al-Afghani had identified in one of his 
predecessors: ‘However bizarre it may seem, it is nevertheless a 
fact, that after each visit of the shah to Europe, he has 
increased in tyranny over his people.’ Certainly, the American 
press had little time for the views of ordinary Iranians, for 
whom, de Bellaigue points out, the US in 1953 had become ‘almost 
overnight’ the ‘shah’s accomplice in injustice and oppression’. 
American companies had been given a 40 per cent share of oil 
production after Mossadegh’s overthrow, and by the early 1960s 
Iranian intellectuals, many of them forced into exile, had begun 
to examine how it was, as Jalal al-e Ahmad wrote in Gharbzadegi 
(imperfectly translated as Weststruckness), that they had been 
completely ignored while other people ‘moved in and out of our 
midst and we awoke to find every oil derrick a spike impaling the 

Iranian hostility to the US grew, as the CIA did business with the 
executioners and torturers of the shah’s secret police. Finally 
erupting in 1979, it shocked American policymakers and 
opinion-formers, who sought to find an interpretation of current 
events through readings in ‘Islam’, as they would after 9/11. They 
were in no position to understand that, as with the Tobacco 
Protest of 1891 and the nationalist upsurge behind Mossadegh, a 
broad Iranian coalition had ranged itself against the shah and his 
foreign allies. Indeed, in the early days of the revolution, 
Mossadeghists like Bazargan looked just as strong as their 
socialist and Islamist allies. It was Jimmy Carter’s offer of 
asylum to the shah in 1979, and the retaliatory storming of the 
American Embassy in Tehran, that tipped the balance in favour of 
the Islamist revolutionaries.

Saddam Hussein’s brutal eight-year-long assault on Iran, cynically 
assisted by the US, entrenched the Islamic Republicans while 
burnishing the popular image of the Great Satan. Always under 
pressure, the liberalising reformers around Mohammad Khatami were 
further weakened by George W. Bush’s abrupt inclusion of Iran in 
his ‘axis of evil’. Since then, America’s invasions and 
occupations of Iran’s neighbours have confirmed Iran’s perception 
of the West as clumsily inept as well as guilty of what Khomeini 
called istikbar i jahani (‘global arrogance’).

War between Iran and the United States has never seemed more 
likely than in recent months, as American politicians and 
journalists dutifully endorse Binyamin Netanyahu’s bluster. There 
is little sign in the mainstream press here or in the US that 
anyone is paying attention to de Bellaigue and other knowledgable 
writers on Iran. A recent Guardian review of de Bellaigue’s book 
claimed that the shah ‘brought to Iran a prosperity, security and 
prestige unknown since the 17th century’. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an 
opportunistic tub-thumper whose support is dwindling and who 
suffers the supreme leader’s disapprobation, is routinely 
portrayed as the next Hitler.

Meanwhile liberal opinion ignores the effects that sanctions have 
on ordinary citizens, just as they did in the 1950s, and 
governments choose not to see that they offer a lifeline to a 
semi-discredited regime by radically shrinking the possibilities 
for any political or economic change – which is why the Green 
Movement strongly opposes them. The Iranian clerics may now linger 
on, like the Cuban revolutionaries, kept going by an American 
embargo. But Iranians can see more vividly the hypocrisy of 
America’s mollycoddling of Israel, the one country in the Middle 
East that is armed with nuclear weapons. They know, too, that the 
US made a nuclear deal with India as recently as 2005. Support for 
Iran’s right to pursue its nuclear programme cuts across the 
country’s political divisions. Aspiring regime-changers in the 
West remain blind to the undiminished potency of Iranian 
nationalism. More bizarrely and dangerously, they ignore the 
hardening attitudes of the country’s ruling class after a century 
of humiliation by the West. ‘We are not liberals like Allende and 
Mossadegh, whom the CIA can snuff out,’ Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 
now Iran’s supreme leader, warned during the hostage crisis in 
1979. So far he has been proved right.

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