Book Excerpt: 'Patriot of Persia' by Christopher de Bellaigue

Picture dated 20 November 1953 of Iranian ex-Premier Mohammed Mossadegh using his hand to make a point during one of his frequent interruptions of court proceedings in Tehran's military tribunal, trying him for treason. (STF/AFP/Getty Images)

Author Christopher de Bellaigue will read from and discuss his latest book Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup at Asia Society New York on Tuesday, May 15. For those who can't attend in person, a live webcast will be available at at 6:30 pm ET.

Following is the book's prologue, entitled "Father of a Nation."

I have an Iranian friend who is too young to remember Mossadegh, but her parents were in public life and were close to him. When my friend was a small child and Mossadegh was living out his last years under house arrest, he sent her sweets. Her mother picked the wrappers from the floor, flattened them, and put them somewhere safe. Now my friend is a middle-aged woman with two strapping sons, but she has kept the sweet wrappers. They are like a sign, planted in the soft soil of her childhood, showing what she owes to whom.

When Mossadegh was prime minister in the early 1950s, and the world was coming down around his ears, a grizzled villager called Ayub found himself in the great man’s presence. Mossadegh was lying on his famous iron bed, which had been moved to the balcony on account of the heat. Ayub felt awkward and embarrassed until suddenly the prime minister seized him with his surprisingly strong arms and embraced him. Ayub had never met Mossadegh before. His eyes filled with tears and he was unable to speak for emotion. Iran was not a place where prime ministers embraced peasants.

A lot of sentimentality surrounds Muhammad Mossadegh, and at first sight there is something startling about this. Mossadegh was a peculiar man. He was quite bald and had a long, drooping, rather bent nose, and thin, sensual lips, and he fainted and howled in public. He was a shameless hypochondriac and quite often threatened to die. He seemed always to have been ancient — from around the age of forty, when the last of his hair abstracted itself from his head, he looked a decade older than he really was. He ran Iran, which is a big and complicated country, wearing a pair of pajamas.

In many western countries, eccentrics are barred from high office by the innate caution of the party machine. There was no party machine in Iran in the 1950s; politics was about personalities and Mossadegh was the biggest of them all. Far from disbar him from the public’s affection, advanced age meant respect and a license to behave oddly. Mossadegh used these advantages to bamboozle his enemies and captivate his friends. Winston Churchill considered "Mussy Duck," as he called him, to be a lunatic. To millions of his compatriots, Mossadegh personified their country more completely than anyone else. Quite simply, he was Iran.

He started life conventionally enough, a product of the Persian upper class, in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In the 1920s and 1930s he achieved fame with a struggle against royal despotism which almost cost him his life. Mossadegh became notorious around the world in 1951, when he dared to nationalize Britain’s biggest overseas asset, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. He went on to lead the most enlightened government his country has ever known. The British wanted revenge and they enlisted the help of the United States on the grounds that Mossadegh was a communist stooge. On August 19, 1953, he was overthrown by a conspiracy hatched by the American and British secret services in favor of the Shah. He was banished to his estate and became a non-person under the Shah’s new dictatorship. The father of the nation had been cast aside, but he was impossible to forget.

"Father of the Nation" — many Middle Eastern rulers have claimed this title for themselves. It exempts them from popular scrutiny, indulges their every beastly act. "Don’t give me grief for knocking my people about," the dictator chides, "for one occasionally has to be cruel to be kind." Mossadegh was remarkable in his region in that he did not feel the need to be cruel. He was not a soldier, deriving prestige from the pips on his shoulders and the shine on his shoes. He did not borrow his authority, like a mullah, from God. It was all his own.

He was more than a politician, and less than one. As a reader of his public, he was unrivaled. But he spent his life running fleeing from office and his refusal to compromise his principles for the political good was pure obstinacy and pride. He was an old-fashioned hero and this explains another, rather surprising element in his renown. Mossadegh did not end up a political winner. The 1953 coup was a catastrophe which slammed him to the floor, and from which Iran never fully recovered. But Iranians are kind towards heroes who fall. It depends on the manner of the fall, because a valiant defeat against overwhelming odds at the hands of a malignant evil is regarded as victory on a higher, metaphysical plane. The epics are full of such heroes, and the story of Islam would not be complete without them.

Mossadegh was instrumental in his own downfall. His judgment failed him at the zenith of events, for it is a captain’s job to steer his ship into calmer waters and Mossadegh was driven on by his obsession, into the teeth of the storm. The Shah lived to tell the tale, and he had pretensions to captaincy of his own. With America’s help he built a magnificent ship which turned out to be made of paper and was swamped by the first wave.

Years later, the United States would recognize publicly that, in toppling Mossadegh, they had made a terrible mistake, for in the process they stifled values that were in sympathy with their own. In 2000, Madeleine Albright, President Clinton’s secretary of state, acknowledged that in 1953 the United States played a "significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular prime minister, Muhammad Mossadegh," and that this had clearly been "a setback for Iran’s political development."

Mossadegh was the first liberal leader of the modern Middle East. He was a rationalist who hated obscurantism and believed in the primacy of the law. His understanding of freedom was exceptional in Iran and the wider region. Indeed, the West would have liked him more if he had been less committed to freedom. He would not back down from his demand for economic independence from Britain. He would not lock up communists to please Washington.

The plot to oust him was benighted. In the long run, it did great harm to western interests. It was the start of a U.S. policy in support of shoddy Middle Eastern despots, which suffered its first defeat in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolutionaries overthrew the Shah, and unraveled further with the Arab Spring of 2011. The undeclared logic of this policy was thus: "Middle Easterners cannot be trusted with independence and freedom; pro-American strongmen offer the best hope of stability." Saddam Hussein was such a strongman. So was Hosni Mubarak. The rogues’ gallery is long and well lit.

In his bellicose way, President George W. Bush tried to challenge this policy. More subtly, President Barack Obama did too. But it is the people of the Middle East, indifferent to the occupant of the White House, who will eventually shrug it off.

I first understood the importance of Mossadegh after I went to live in Iran in 2000. A political thaw was underway in the Islamic Republic, and while the ruling hardliners had little good to say about a secular, nationalist prime minister from the 1950s, he was a poster boy for many younger Iranians. A considerable number of books and articles were being published in Persian about him and his era. His hangdog face seemed to be everywhere. And yet he was spoken of with regret and even guilt, as well as reverence. Could more have been done to save him when the coup-makers closed in on August 19, 1953? Were the people, ultimately, complicit in his overthrow? Most important of all, why did his vision for Iran not materialize?

I was one of a tiny number of westerners in Tehran during the unrest which followed the contested election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, in 2009, and never in that torrid, terrible summer, as thousands of people did battle with their inestimably better-equipped adversaries, and were eventually crushed, was Mossadegh far from my mind. I researched this book as the capital smoldered and crackled — going to the historical institutes and taking notes, poring over newspaper archives — and the more I researched the past, the more I realized that events in the streets were a new battle in an old war. Democracy and authoritarianism faced each other. Nationalism and religion were the bugle calls. Mossadegh would have been at home.

In Iran, it is not always wise to acknowledge links between the present and the past. During one confrontation between protesters and the security forces, I found myself trapped in the house of Iraj Afshar, an eminent historian. We sat on his terrace and I asked him what he made of the events unfolding outside his gate. He smiled and invited me to admire his tomato plants.

Afshar was one of several distinguished historians who encouraged me to recount for a western audience this extraordinary life. I was also drawn by the continuities that Afshar did not acknowledge — the relevance of Mossadegh’s ideals to the aspirations of millions of others in the Middle East, and the warning that his story serves to any adventurer occupying the White House or Downing Street. As the region inches along its path to change, and the West asks itself how to react, our decision-makers must look at 1953 and vow: never again!

Mossadegh has not been neglected by historians writing in English. He has been the subject of fine political biographies. American scholars such as Mark Gasiorowski of Louisiana State University have painstakingly investigated the West’s machinations against him. But nowhere have the man and his fullness been brought out, and this is partly due to the wall that modern politics has interposed between Iran and the West. The standard popular account of the coup was penned by the journalist Stephen Kinzer, who does not read Persian. This is a bit like writing about Pearl Harbor knowing only Japanese.

As an Englishman who is married to an Iranian and spends part of the year in Tehran, I learned long ago to suspend all patriotic urges when writing about Iran. Approaching Mossadegh has necessitated even more rigor because of his famous loathing of Britain, and his desire to end British meddling. In Mossadegh’s time, millions of Iranians attributed to the British an almost boundless capacity for mischief. Although Mossadegh’s hatred of Britain clouded his judgment, I regret to say that it rested on sure foundations. Mossadegh saw the hidden hand of the British everywhere because that is where it was.

From an American perspective, the tragedy of Mossadegh is that the United States allowed itself to become Britain’s accomplice and triggerman. American agents overthrew him according to a British plan. Until then, Iranian nationalists such as Mossadegh had regarded the U.S. as a force for good in the world. This view clouded as evidence for U.S. involvement in the coup emerged, and by the time of the 1979 revolution it had been blocked out entirely. Nowadays, America and Britain are vilified in equal measure.

Mossadegh would have been highly amused by the idea of an Englishman writing his biography. I do not wish to invite sympathy, for my experiences in Iran have been mostly happy; however, living in a country where Anglophobia runs deep, I have sometimes felt as though I was bearing the cross of my forefathers’ misdemeanors. I have been forced onto the defensive, and on occasion felt positively browbeaten. Only once did I knowingly exploit the fear and loathing that Britain inspires, and now, in the interests of transparency, I must declare myself.

I have an old leather briefcase which I once took for repair to a dealer in leather goods near the British Embassy. When I went to pick it up, the same man said that I would have to pay double the quote he had given me. I objected but he stood firm. He would return my case only if I paid the higher price. Furious, I leaned across the counter and looked into his eyes. Then, pointing to the Union Jack fluttering a little way up the road, I said in as menacing a voice as I could muster, "It seems you have forgotten which embassy stands there at the top of your street."

It took a second or two for the man to register the threat. Then the color drained from his cheeks. "All right!" he said. "All right! Give me whatever you want! Just take your briefcase and go!"

Excerpted from Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue. Copyright © 2012 by Christopher de Bellaigue. Excerpted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

This post originally appeared on Asia Blog.