For decades, the debate on Iran in the United States has been dominated by a legend in which an elderly aristocrat plays the central role. The legend is that in August 1953, a couple of CIA operatives organized a coup d’état that toppled a democratically elected government and paved the way for the seizure of power by the mullahs 26 years later. The hero of the legend is one Muhammad Mossadegh, who had been appointed prime minister by the shah for a second time in 1952.
The legend was born almost a decade after the events, when the CIA, its reputation in tatters after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, was desperately looking for some success story. Since dozens of books have already been written on it, one might wonder why Christopher de Bellaigue, a British journalist, thought it necessary to offer yet another. The answer is that the legend fails to fade away. Right now, it is cited by Obama-administration officials to justify the policy of a “stretched hand of friendship” toward the mullahs in Tehran.
De Bellaigue blames the “tragedy” on Republicans who were in power in Washington at the time of the coup: specifically, President Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers. Under the Republicans, “fair play had gone by the board at home, where Senator Joseph McCarthy was directing a persecution of suspected Communists,” and Eisenhower’s team had concluded that “it was a good moment for a muscular assertion of American values abroad.” The president and the Dulles brothers not only plotted against Mossadegh but also organized a propaganda campaign in Iran “to blacken the [Tudeh’s] name by showing that it was a creature of the Soviets.” (The Tudeh was Iran’s Communist party, which, according to its own leaders, was founded by Moscow in 1941 and controlled by the KGB to the very end.)
The point man for the coup was Kermit Roosevelt, who, if de Bellaigue is to be believed, was a genius in black arts: He arrived in Tehran on July 19 and overthrew Mossadegh just a month later. To assist him, the CIA had a few assets, including New York Times reporter Kenneth Love and an obscure UPI stringer of Iranian origin.
De Bellaigue’s anger is not directed only at the Republicans in Washington: Mossadegh’s Iranian opponents also get a thorough thrashing. While Mossadegh’s supporters are described as “the people,” his opponents are labeled “slum-dwellers.”
Our author simply cannot imagine that at least some ordinary Iranians might have disliked Mossadegh. Only “goons” and “mobsters” marched against him. When they burn buildings and shops, Mossadegh’s supporters are merely “showing popular anger.” But when Mossadegh’s opponents do the same thing, de Bellaigue calls their action “sedition.”
But what about the underlying truth of the matter? In fact, the Mossadegh legend is full of holes. Let’s start with the claim that, prior to the supposed CIA intervention, Iran had been a democracy. The truth is that Iran was not a democracy but a constitutional monarchy in which the king, known as the shah, wielded immense power, including the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister. By 1953, the shah, who had acceded to the throne in 1941, had appointed and dismissed ten prime ministers, among them Mossadegh. Between 1953 and 1979, when he left for exile, he was to appoint twelve more. None of those changes of prime minister was described as a coup d’état, because, fully constitutional, they did not alter the substance or the form of Iran as a nation-state. Even Mossadegh himself never challenged the shah’s right to dismiss him as prime minister: During his trial, he claimed that he had initially doubted the authenticity of the shah’s edict dismissing him. Nor did Mossadegh himself claim that the Americans had played a role in ending his tenure as prime minister.
De Bellaigue is at pains to portray Mossadegh as — in the words of the jacket copy — “one of the first liberals of the Middle East, a man whose conception of liberty was as sophisticated as any in Europe or America.” But the trouble is, there is nothing in Mossadegh’s career — spanning half a century, as provincial governor, cabinet minister, and finally prime minister — to portray him as even remotely a lover of liberty. De Bellaigue quotes Mossadegh as saying that a trusted leader is “that person whose every word is accepted and followed by the people.” To which de Bellaigue adds: “His understanding of democracy would always be coloured by traditional ideas of Muslim leadership, whereby the community chooses a man of outstanding virtue and follows him wherever he takes them.” Word for word, that could have been the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s definition of a true leader.
Mossadegh also made a habit of appearing in his street meetings with a copy of the Koran in hand. According to de Bellaigue, Mossadegh liked to say that “anyone forgetting Islam is base and dishonourable, and should be killed.”
During his premiership, Mossadegh demonstrated his dictatorial tendency to the full: Not once did he hold a full meeting of the council of ministers, ignoring the constitutional rule of collective responsibility. He dissolved the senate, the second chamber of the Iranian parliament, and shut down the Majlis, the lower house. He suspended a general election before all the seats had been decided and chose to rule with absolute power. He disbanded the high council of national currency and dismissed the supreme court. During much of his tenure, Tehran lived under a curfew while hundreds of his opponents were imprisoned. Toward the end of his premiership, almost all of his friends and allies had broken with him. Some even wrote to the secretary general of the United Nations to intervene to end Mossadegh’s dictatorship.
But was Mossadegh a man of the people, as de Bellaigue portrays him? Again, the author’s own account provides a different picture. A landowning prince and the great-great-grandson of a Qajar king, Mossadegh belonged to the so-called thousand families who owned Iran. He and all his children were able to undertake expensive studies in Switzerland and France. The children had French nannies and, when they fell sick, were sent to Paris or Geneva for treatment. (De Bellaigue even insinuates that Mossadegh might have had a French sweetheart, although that is improbable.) On the one occasion when Mossadegh was sent to internal exile, he took with him a whole retinue, including his cook.
Dean Acheson described Mossadegh as “a rich, reactionary, feudal-minded Persian inspired by a fanatical hatred of the British.” But even his supposed hatred of the British is open to question: His uncle Farmanfarma was Britain’s principal ally in Iran for almost four decades. In his memoirs, Mossadegh says that during his first posting, when he was governor of the province of Fars, he and the British consul “worked hand in hand like brothers.”
As a model of patriotism, too, Mossadegh is unconvincing. According to his own memoirs, at the end of his law studies in Switzerland, he had decided to stay there and acquire Swiss citizenship. He changed his mind when he was told that he would have to wait ten years for that privilege. At the same time, Farmanfarma secured a “good post” for him in Iran, tempting him back home.
De Bellaigue tries to portray the 1951–53 drama in Iran as a clash of British colonialism and Iranian nationalism. That claim, too, is hard to sustain. Iran was never a British colony. The Anglo-Iranian oil company was present in five remote localities, which did not amount to even half of 1 percent of the country’s territory, in one of Iran’s provinces. At its peak the company employed 118 British nationals. Thus the overwhelming majority of Iranians had never seen a single Brit in their lives.
Sadly, de Bellaigue seems to know nothing of the hundreds of books and thousands of essays that provide the Iranian narrative of these events. The assumption is that, mere objects in their own history, Iranians cannot offer a valid narrative. It seems that, in the writing of history, scholarly imperialism comes in two versions. In the first, an arrogant “white world” boasts about its historic mission to civilize “the natives,” and takes credit for whatever is good in the world. In the second, the “guilt version,” the “white world” is portrayed as the aggressor and thus responsible for whatever disaster happens to “the natives.” Both of these versions assume that, on their own, “the natives” cannot accomplish anything, right or wrong. The imperialism of arrogance and de Bellaigue’s imperialism of guilt are two faces of the same coin.
– Mr. Taheri is an Iranian-born journalist based in Europe and the author of The Persian Night: Iran under the Khomeinist Revolution.