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Sunday 17 March 2013

Review:Christopher de Bellaigue, Patriot of Persia - Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup

The title is surprisingly misleading: it was an American coup, directed by Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt dispensing an awful lot of dollars. The British were no longer up to the task of toppling governments unaided, though they still hoped to be the main beneficiaries of the 1953 coup which toppled Mossadegh. The British wanted back Anglo-Iranian Oil, nationalised by Mossadegh's government. They didn't get it, though they did get to share the post-coup oil concessions with the American companies - the big winners. Roosevelt got good value for his dollars.

The British still regarded the Middle East as theirs to control and in Iran they had only recently been - along with the Soviet Union - joint military occupiers for the duration of World War Two. But they were now on their way down. They had been kicked out of Palestine in 1948 - see my immediately preceding review on this Blog - and in 1956 the refusal of the Americans to support them meant that they were kicked out of Suez.

To this day, the Brits still want to intervene in the Middle East at every available opportunity, but they can now only do so on American coat tails. Mr Blair would not have got his war in Iraq if President Bush hadn't wanted one.

De Bellaigue's book is a bit awkward in structure, rather like the man who is its central character. It isn't a hagiography and the author is quite clear that Mossadegh could have avoided his fate. He did not see how much in his favour were the formulas crafted by a Truman Administration, sympathetic to Iranian aspirations to free themselves from quasi-colonial dependence but trying at the same time to save British face. De Bellaigue is equally clear that both the British and Americans failed to appreciate that Mossadegh's ideals were much more aligned with liberal democratic values than with Soviet ones or those of the Shah's supporters. The eventual  obsession with Soviet expansion meant that  the Shah's regime after Mossadegh became unpleasantly authoritarian with a vicious security apparatus, the Savak, as its American- and Israeli-trained guardian. ( In those days, Private Eye always referred to the Shah as the Shit of Persia).

Mossadegh emerges as an eccentric character who found his mission as a champion of national self-determination. His roots were in the old ruling class; his education partly Western and secular; his values liberal ( opponents usually got off very lightly by Iranian standards); and his politics veering between the democratic and - later in life - the populist or Messianic.

I liked this book because of its complexity. De Bellaigue has some straightforward Bad Guys - the arrogant and stupid British executives at Anglo Iranian oil, notably - but the rest of the cast are in shades of grey rather than black and white.

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