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Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a…

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

by Christopher de Bellaigue

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Patriot of Persia: Muhammed Mossadegh and a very British coup by Christopher de Bellaigue

I was going to start this review by commenting that there were two misleading things about the title: the first is that this is in fact a biography of Mossadegh's life rather than an account of the coup, the second that the description of the coup itself focuses on the CIA role without any mention of UK involvement (although there is coverage of the British persuading the US that a coup was necessary). But as I looked for the touchstone I discovered that the US subtitle of the book is "MM and a tragic Anglo-American coup", different in both tone and content from the UK one.

Anyway, to the review. In some ways this has quite an old-fashioned approach to biography writing, literally starting with Mossadegh's birth and ending with his death, and packing the author's analysis quite closely around the facts of Mossadegh's life. This is exacerbated by de Bellaigue's style of writing, which is fabulously elliptical and impressionistic - especially in the early chapters I felt that other biographers would squeeze a paragraph out of the information he was putting into a sentence.

Six-foot-three of glowering, muscle-bound 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. ... Iran seethed as he started his ascent. Banditry and insurgency threatened the whole flimsy structure. It was one of those times when the Persian longing for a strongman capable of dragging the country back from the precipice seems like the summit of logic and good sense.

de Bellaigue loves a good anecdote, quote or nickname (Brainless Shaban, Icy Ramazan, Sugar-lip Zeynab) - anything that creates an image in the reader's mind. All this makes the book an enjoyable read, although there are a couple of downsides - because it's so elliptical there were times when I would have liked a statement to be more backed up with argument (eg, in above, 'the Persian longing for a strongman'?), and I occasionally worried that I was coming away with an impression of what had happened rather than detailed knowledge.

But in any case, the story is interesting and important. Overall it's a portrayal of Mossadegh himself, with plenty of complexity and contradictions. de Bellaigue shows us his strong adherence to his values and integrity, his love for political theatre, his vision but also his fussiness over details, and demonstrates how these made Mossadegh so popular among the Iranian people but also so frustrating to his political colleagues and opponents, and how it led him to miss opportunities to make compromises. de Bellaigue thinks, for example, that it would have been possible to reach an acceptable compromise with the British over Anglo-Iranian Oil (now BP) which would have met Iranian requirements and averted the coup. That doesn't mean that the book is not critical of the UK and US approaches, far from it. But reaching a compromise would actually have achieved Mossadegh's ends better than nobly standing above the fray. Certainly, without the coup, the modern Middle East could look very different.

Wealth distribution; a military under civilian control; modestly enhanced rights for women in the face of clerical unease; these were the most visible parts of a modernisation programme which would have brought Iran substantially closer to a secular, constitutional regime. The final year of Mossadegh's premiership is a salutary episode in modern Middle Eastern history - an opportunity spurned because of the British obsession with lost prestige and the American obsession with Communism. ( )
4 vote wandering_star | Jan 17, 2014 |
A very good, highly readable account, told almost completely from the Mossadegh point of view. Although it's title alludes to the coup of 1953, this is a very good account of Iranian politics in the first half of the twentieth century. The subject could have been very difficult to follow with the contrary nature of Iranian politics & the fluidity of events, but this account took it all in its stride. A good book on a very important figure in 20th century middle eastern politics. ( )
  aadyer | May 6, 2013 |
A highly readable biography about Iran's gray eminence Muhammad Mossadegh. Contrary to his noble family tradition and his relatives, Muhammad Mossadegh, trained as a lawyer in Switzerland, tried to install good government in corrupt and backward Persia. In a volatile environment, he tried to modernize his country, as minister in multiple government or in private opposition. Similar to another rich old boy in Britain, he was in the privileged position to decide whether he wanted to participate in politics. In contrast to Churchill, his chief weapon was inaction, of dramatically falling ill or going on hunger strike. His Schmerzensmann showmanship carried the public with him, forcing his political opponents to adopt some of his policies.

Unfortunately, the British corporate interests were not willing to play this game. Muhammad Mossadegh's altogether quite sensible demands were deemed unsuitable. In their short-term greed, the British corporations together with the American CIA undermined the secular movement in Iran because those secularists weren't as pliable as the puppet dictators. In the end, the undermining of the secular institutions and the support for the dictators meant that only the religious fanatics remained popular. The supreme irony is that the very conservative nature of Muhammad Mossadegh led him not to go effectively resist the CIA triggered putsch as fighting back would have handed control to the rabble. In all their difference, Mossadegh remained an aristocrat not a true man of the people.

Unfortunately, as recent events in Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Syria confirm, Great Britain and the United States still prefer to work with dictators or the military instead of with the quarrelsome secular forces which in the long run tends to benefit religious extremists. ( )
2 vote jcbrunner | Jan 31, 2013 |
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A biography of one of the first liberals in the Middle East and a remarkable patriot who embodied his nation's struggle for freedom, which led to his untimely demise and resulted in the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

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