Perhaps. In a new biography, “Patriot of Persia,” Christopher de Bellaigue, Tehran correspondent for the Economist, sympathizes with Mossadegh in his attempt to bring democracy to Iran but does not let him off the hook for its failure. The book presents a nuanced portrait of an enigmatic man whose brilliance and fairmindedness fatally collided with his pride and rigidity. It also provides context for the dismal state of U.S.-Iran relations today.
During and after World War II, Iran was a frothy cauldron of competing interests that included monarchists, communists and nationalists as well as Soviets, Britons and Americans seeking influence in the oil-rich Persian Gulf state. The Axis-leaning Reza Shah had been removed by the British in 1941, replaced with his weak and inexperienced son. “There was no party machine in Iran in the 1950s,” Bellaigue writes. “Politics was about personalities and Mossadegh was the biggest of them all.”
Born in 1882 to an aristocratic family, Mossadegh studied law in France and Switzerland and participated in Iran’s constitutional revolution in 1906. By the time he was elected prime minister, in 1951, he had been involved in Iranian politics for half a century and was admired by Iranians for his experience and integrity.
He made waves around the world when he nationalized Iran’s oil industry in 1951. Time magazine named him Man of the Year, and Britain was furious. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum) had under Reza Shah negotiated an oil concession that essentially treated Iran like a colony. When Mossadegh canceled it, Britain, fearing that other concessionaire states would follow, announced a blockade of Iranian oil. Over the next 21
2 years, Mossadegh and the British attempted to negotiate but never agreed to each other’s terms, while the United States tried to play middleman.
Bellaigue describes the cultural clash between buttoned-down U.S. and British diplomats and Mossadegh, a hypochondriac known for throwing weeping fits and conducting business from his bed: “He had no weakness for girls, boys, money, wine, the pipe or Karl Marx. Any of these vices would have made him more understandable . . . but to his western interlocutors he was a riddle. They found him in his camel’s wool aba, or cackling on his haunches in bed, or lying low with his hands fluttering up and down under his neck.”