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

Christopher de Bellaigue

In 1953, the American and British intelligence agencies launched a coup in Iran against a bedridden 72-year-old man. Muhammad Mossadegh's crimes had been to flirt with communism and to nationalize his country's oil industry, which for 40 years had been in British hands. Mossadegh must go.

Excerpted from Chapter 1: “The Unchanging East” (footnotes omitted) from Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup © 2010 by Christopher de Bellaigue. Published by HarperCollins . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 1: The Unchanging East

Muhammad Mossadegh was born in 1882, in the belle époque, one of the most dramatic eras of transformation the world has ever known. Huge numbers of people were moving from the countryside to the towns, and once-unimaginable strides were made in technology, medicine, education and hygiene. The bourgeoisie and the working class became dominant; the old aristocracies declined and the last vestiges of serfdom disappeared. These were the triumphs of modern thought, which would blow away the cobwebs of backwardness and superstition, and while they were concentrated in Europe and the United States, they had meaning for every nation. The world watched the western laboratory, with its physicists, tycoons and arms manufacturers, and waited to see if it would prosper or explode.

To begin with, witnesses of epochal change may be content to watch; then comes the impulse to take part. At the end of the nineteenth century, inquisitive people across the globe experienced such an impulse, and the result was a wave of emulative political and cultural movements, imported from the West but coloured by home-grown traditions, whose goal was the spread of human dignity, freedom and prosperity. Soon, these movements came up against strong barriers. They either jarred with local customs or with the interests of the European powers from which they derived inspiration – or both. This is when the trouble began.

Christian Europe had pulled ahead of the Muslim Middle East after the Renaissance and the Enlightenment transformed attitudes towards knowledge and power. With that came a fantasy of ownership – the idea that progress was Europe’s to bestow, and not the common destiny of mankind. The lines were calcified by imperialism and nationalism, outstanding features of the belle époque. Notions of racial and cultural superiority were not often challenged, even though they inhibited the exchange of ideas.

Back in the 1830s the British statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay had asserted the superiority of ‘a single shelf of a good European library’ over ‘the whole native literature of India and Arabia... it is, I believe, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.’ (Macaulay, it is almost superfluous to say, was not a reader of Indian languages or Arabic.) Well over a century later, Britain’s home secretary Herbert Morrison likened independence for the country’s African colonies to ‘giving a child of ten a latch- key, a bank account and a shotgun.’ Between these dates, in English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch, innumerable similar statements were uttered and defended, ingested and refined. What, if not the superiority of Europe over the rest of the world, could account for the God-given gift of empire? Some of the subject races – the imperialists were forever creating divisions, and then subdivisions – were susceptible to improvement. Others were not.

Ideas of inherent superiority were much weaker in the Muslim Middle East. There, the global exchange of ideas had for centuries found expression in multi-ethnic blocs such as the Ottoman Empire, which stretched from Arabia into south and eastern Europe, and where the only true barrier between people was neither race nor geography, but religion. So, it was strange for the inhabitants of the Muslim lands to be told, as they now were, that their culture and way of life were anachronisms needing to be modernised or thrown away. In the dark ages – as Eurocentric a designation as you could find; they were not dark in the Middle East – Muslim sages had advanced the learning of the ancients while Europe stagnated. Their rulers had built the world’s biggest and most developed cities, and their traders had traded at its furthest known extremities. Before that, the lands where Islam now flourished – Egypt; Mesopotamia; Persia – had been the cradles of civilisation itself.

Persia, heir to the great world empires that Herodotus had interpreted in terms of slightly appalled fascination, its poetic and artistic legacy picturesquely degraded, staggered on somewhere between the Ottoman Empire and British India. To the Europeans of the late nineteenth century, it was an object of curiosity and puzzlement, but rarely of pressing concern.

Persia’s ancient world empires had been very great. Five centuries before the birth of Christ, the Achaemenids ruled from the Nile to the Indus, and the later Parthian and Sassanian kingdoms would be Rome’s great rivals in the East. The Sassanians were finally subdued with the Arab invasions of the seventh century and the arrival of Islam. After that, the Persian-speaking area found its genius in a malleable, humorous, eminently exportable culture, a synthesis of Islam and older Iranian traditions that became the dominant cultural form over much of the Muslim world. The innovations of its poets, builders, scientists and craftsmen found expression as far afield as Central Asia, India and the Ottoman lands. Persian became an international language of culture; one of its best-loved exponents, the mystical poet Jalal ud-Din Rumi, was a Central Asian who spent most of his life in Turkey.

There was an imperial flourish in the seventeenth century, when the country’s Safavid shahs expanded the borders and promoted trade and partnership with the Europeans, and their wealth and splendour became axioms used by Shakespeare and Racine. But the Safavids degenerated into parricide and fanaticism and fell to yet another external assault. Persia was a failed state until the last years of the eighteenth century, when the eunuch Agha Muhammad Khan of the Qajar tribe united the country once more.

Agha Muhammad Khan’s nephew perpetuated the Qajar line, and the Qajars survived and multiplied, albeit not very gloriously. They managed to dominate most of the Persian plateau, corresponding roughly to the borders of modern Iran, but lost possessions in Khorasan (to the Afghans, backed by the British), and in the Caucasus (to a resurgent Russia). The Qajar shahs lorded it over a shrivelling empire and dreamed of regaining lost land and prestige. By the time of Mossadegh’s birth, the longest-serving of the Qajar monarchs, the shrewd, libidinous Nasser ud-Din, used venerable titles – ‘Centre of the Universe’, ‘Shadow of God’ – which seemed to mock his peripheral position in world affairs.

Feebleness and irrelevance did not guarantee a quiet life at the end of the nineteenth century, for while Persia continued to seem forbiddingly large and inaccessible, the rest of the world had become dramatically smaller. Explorers and cartographers had shed light in the most obscure, uninhabited corners. A global economy, financed by global capital, was joining producers to consumers in evermore complex webs of mastery and subservience. The primacy of Europe’s big powers in virtually every sphere was being entrenched by treaty and force of arms. Between 1876 and 1915 a quarter of the surface of the world changed ownership, with half a dozen European states taking the lion’s share.

There were three main reasons why Persia was not formally included in this epic transfer. The first was that it was too poor to justify the expense of annexation. The second was that the two imperial powers which showed most interest in Persian affairs, Russia and Britain, were constrained by mutual wariness from trying to swallow the country whole. Finally, the Persians nimbly played off the powers against each other, extracting concessions while keeping both at arm’s length.

The powers’ interest in Persia had begun as a side-effect of the Great Game they were playing for India and its riches. If the Russians were to realise their long-standing dream of seizing the subcontinent, they would have to subdue or cross Persia. The British were equally determined to make sure that Persia, and particularly its eastern reaches, bordering India, never fell into Russian hands.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Great Game became an elaborate stalemate played out over thousands of miles. From the north, imperial Russia spread its influence. From the Persian Gulf in the south, a British lake serving India, the British did the same. Maintaining substantial delegations in Tehran, the Persian capital, the powers exercised immense influence over the country’s affairs.

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