A Crass and Consequential Error
Still, what we do know is enough to lament the path not taken and to label Operation Ajax a singular disaster. It reinstated the feckless Shah, who had complained to Loy Henderson, the American ambassador, “What can I do? I am helpless.” It turned him into the despot of the Peacock Throne, propped up by the US-trained SAVAK secret police. It quashed Iran’s strong democratic stirrings. It embedded a fathomless Iranian suspicion that would find expression in the seizure of US diplomats after the 1979 revolution. It did nothing to halt British decline, as was evident three years later at Suez. It thrust the United States into the unhappy business of support for Middle Eastern tyrants able, they claimed, to deliver oil and stability—a strategic position at odds with American values that spurred Islamist hostility and was also one of the targets of the hypocrisy-exposing Arab Spring.Enduring characteristics of Mossadeghism were coming into focus: a fierce probity and “pebbly pride”; sharp rejection of the quasi-colonial Western domination articulated by George Nathaniel Curzon, a former viceroy of India, who said of Persians, “These people have got to be taught at whatever cost to them that they cannot get on without us”; a constitutionalism that defended the monarchy (as a bulwark against godlessness and communism) but held that kings should reign rather than rule.At the very outset of Pahlavi rule, Mossadegh rose in the majlis to oppose the resolution abolishing the Qajars. Although “utterly disappointed” with the corrupt dynasty, he scorned its successor: “So, the prime minister becomes sultan,” he commented. “Is there such a thing as a constitutional country where the king also runs the nation’s affairs?” Why, he asked, “did you needlessly shed the blood of the martyrs on the road to freedom?”
Good questions: Iran has taken many false roads to a long-sought liberty since 1905. Ayatollah Khomeini, of course, promised freedom in 1979 when Reza’s son was ousted and he founded an Islamic republic. The promise came to naught. It is now clear that Mossadegh was the last Iranian leader to unite strands of religious and secular nationalism, faith and democracy, and so offer some chance of a reconciliation of the two. But Britain and then the United States were too blinded by his effrontery and too dismissive of the very notion of Iranian national ambition (although Washington demonstrated some understanding) to see more than a nuisance—Newsweek’s “Fainting Fanatic”—in Mossadegh. De Bellaigue writes, “Infusing British policy, the stink in the corner of the room, was a profound contempt for Persia and its people.” The United States, to its cost, would be infected by it.Oil exploration began in earnest in Iran in 1901 with the award of a concession to a British entrepreneur, William Knox D’Arcy. Here was the seed of what would become the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, then the AIOC, and ultimately the behemoth called BP. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, oversaw the deal in 1914 that gave Britain control of Iranian oil and ensured the Royal Navy a dependable supply on terms that left Tehran with only small revenues. Reza Shah renegotiated slightly better terms in 1933 but did little to alter Iran’s status as oil lackey of the Empire. Mossadegh was incensed. Iranian oil helped drive the Allied victory in World War II just as it had fueled the British warships in World War I. By 1950 Anglo-Iranian’s profit stood at £86 million. In the same year, Abadan, the Iranian town at the heart of the oil industry, “had only enough electricity to supply a single London street.” When it came to oil, “no one asked the Persians what they thought.” The paternalistic reasoning of the AIOC went something like this: give a little and the damn natives will want everything.Such dismissiveness toward Iran was the leitmotif of Mossadegh’s life: the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 that turned his country into little more than a protectorate; the humiliating oil deals; the summary Allied occupation of 1941 that led the Shah to abdicate in favor of his young son Mohammed Reza; the contempt after 1945 for an Iran seen as a hapless cold-war pawn. Mossadegh, who kept a small ivory of Gandhi in his room at Ahmadabad (the man in pajamas contemplating the man of the loincloth), was, as de Bellaigue notes, part of a generation of Western-educated Asians who returned home “to sell freedom to their compatriots.”
The British responded with disquisitions on the Oriental mind. In Iran they did not get it. As George McGhee, a US diplomat who negotiated with Mossadegh, remarked, nationalist movements in Iran and Egypt were “examples of a much wider movement in men’s minds.” He urged on the British Foreign Office a change in postwar Middle Eastern strategic policy. The aim: to ensure “that it is recognised by these countries that they are being treated as equals and partners.” His appeal fell on deaf ears—in London and, after November 1952, in the Eisenhower White House.The days proved numbered. De Bellaigue, fluent in Farsi, draws on previously unused Iranian sources to bring Mossadegh to vivid life. As the plotting of the coup gathers pace, he also demonstrates a deft hand in describing broad political trends and the personal foibles of the main protagonists. British authorities rebuffed the author’s efforts to gain access to MI6 records of the coup—deemed too sensitive sixty-nine years after the event. But the CIA has been forthcoming and the broad lines are clear. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a remarkable cable quoted by de Bellaigue, got it right. Postwar Britain, he noted, “stands on the verge of bankruptcy.” He continued: “Therefore, in my judgment, the cardinal purpose of British policy is not to prevent Iran from going Commie; the cardinal point is to preserve what they believe to be the last remaining bulwark of British solvency.”Britain loathed Mossadegh because it wanted its Iranian oil money back. The United States was focused on a distinct issue, communism. North Korea crossed the 38th parallel in June 1950. Truman declared: “If we just stand by, they’ll move into Iran and they’ll take over the whole Middle East.”Indeed, without the rightward lurches in British and US politics of 1952, which brought Churchill and Eisenhower to power, the coup plot might never have coalesced. Churchill blamed his predecessor, Clement Attlee, for the biggest fall in British stature “since the loss of the American colonies nearly 200 years ago.” Eisenhower declared that, to defeat communism, “longstanding American concepts of fair play must be reconsidered.” The Dulles brothers took over at the CIA and the State Department: neither needed “much persuasion that Mossadegh was a dangerous madman tipping his country into the abyss.” Britain had passed the mantle to America: its post-imperial grievances met the new superpower’s fears. It was easy enough for Britain to talk up the Communist threat—never really persuasive in God-fearing Iran. The Eisenhower administration heard what it wanted to hear.There is a troubling mystery with de Bellaigue’s book. Its subtitle in Britain is “Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup.” In the United States it is “Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup.” This looks like an unfortunate marketing ploy. The US subtitle is right. Britain laid the groundwork; America delivered overthrow. De Bellaigue’s description of the initial plotting of Nancy Lambton, an “austere bluestocking,” and Robin Zaehner, a British agent “with a taste for gin, opium and the homoerotic verses of Rimbaud,” is brilliant. Iranian newspapers were bought, tribal divisions probed. Zaehner, asked by a visiting correspondent to Tehran in 1952 what he should read, suggested Alice Through the Looking Glass. The West’s nuclear negotiators can take comfort: they are not the first to be enmeshed in Iran’s political labyrinthThe plotters had these advantages: the prime minister’s eroded political base, his dithering, and his delusions. They went to work. British diplomats had been expelled from Iran and the embassy closed on October 17, 1952; the leading role passed to Americans. Chief among them was Kermit Roosevelt, “an Ivy Leaguer of private means urging cloak-and-dagger operations.” The favorite tune of the CIA officers in Tehran was “Luck Be a Lady Tonight”: they rode their luck. Roosevelt cozied up to the Shah and got him to fire Mossadegh; he identified a senior general named Fazlullah Zahedi as the man to replace him; deployed agents provocateurs to stir up the Communist threat; dispersed money to the mullahs and the army and newspaper editors. To all of which the prime minister responded by insisting that in a “constitutional country there is no law that is higher than the will of the people.”The United States and the West bear significant responsibility for all those lost Middle Eastern decades since 1953. “Everything should be in proportion with the need,” Mossadegh wrote in his doctoral thesis. The coup was disproportionate. It was reckless and damaging, “that which should not have happened,” in the words of one observer. De Bellaigue’s powerful portrait is also a timely reminder that further Western recklessness toward Iran, at a time of a further “movement in men’s minds” across the Middle East, would only pile tragedy upon tragedy and again put off the day when Iranians’ quest for constitutional liberty can be realized.