June 25, 2012


Why weren't they grateful?: a review of Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue (Pankaj Mishra, 6/21/12, London Review of Books)

Asian intellectuals and activists had begun to challenge the arbitrary power of Western imperialists and their native allies in the late 19th century. The first generation contained polemicists like al-Afghani, who gathered energetic but disorganised young anti-imperialists around him in Kabul, Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran. The next generation produced men like Mossadegh, who had been exposed to Western ways or trained in Western-style institutions and were better equipped to provide their increasingly restless compatriots with a coherent ideology and politics of anticolonial nationalism.

In Christopher de Bellaigue's politically astute biography, Mossadegh is not the 'dizzy old wizard' and 'tantrum-throwing Scheherazade' of countless Anglo-American memoirs and press reports, but a member of 'that generation of Western-educated Asians who returned home, primly moustachioed, to sell freedom to their compatriots': 'Beholden to the same mistress, La Patrie, these Turks, Arabs, Persians and Indians went on to lead the anticolonial movements that transformed the map of the world.' Mossadegh was more democratically minded than Atatürk, for example: de Bellaigue calls him the 'first liberal leader of the modern Middle East' - his 'conception of liberty was as sophisticated as any in Europe or America'. But he was less successful than his heroes, Gandhi and Nehru; he was nearly seventy, an elderly hypochondriac, by the time he became Iran's prime minister in 1951. It was his misfortune to be a liberal democrat at a time when, as Nehru remarked, looking on as British gunboats directed the course of Egyptian politics, 'democracy for an Eastern country seems to mean only one thing: to carry out the behests of the imperialist ruling power.' Though more focused and resourceful than al-Afghani, secular-minded moderates like Mossadegh were often easy victims of imperialist skulduggery. They never had more than a few token allies in the West and at home were despised by the hardliners, who later assumed the postcolonial task of building up national dignity and strength. Khomeini, for one, always spoke contemptuously of Mossadegh's failure to protect Iran from the West.

Both liberal and radical Iranians could cite instances of the country's humiliation by the West in the 19th century, when it had been dominated by the British and the Russians. The events of the early 20th century further undermined its political autonomy at a time when its political institutions were being liberalised (a parliament had been established as a result of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-7). In the First World War, Britain and Russia first occupied and then divided the country in order to keep the Ottoman-German armies at bay. The end of the war brought no respite. The Red Army threatened from the north and Britain, already parcelling out the Ottoman Empire's territories, saw an opportunity to annex Iran. Lord Curzon, now foreign secretary and convinced, as Harold Nicolson put it, that 'God had personally selected the British upper class as an instrument of the Divine Will,' drew up an Anglo-Persian agreement which was almost entirely destructive of Iranian sovereignty.

Mossadegh is said to have wept when he heard about the agreement. In despair he resolved to spend the rest of his life in Europe. As it turned out, Curzon, never an accurate reader of the native pulse, had misjudged the Iranian mood. The agreement was denounced; pro-British members of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, were physically attacked. Facing such opposition, Curzon grew more obdurate: 'These people have got to be taught at whatever cost to them that they cannot get on without us. I don't at all mind their noses being rubbed in the dust.' Despite Curzon's stubbornness, Iranian revulsion finally sank the Anglo-Persian agreement. But another inequitable arrangement already bound Iran to Britain. Presciently buying government shares in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1913, Winston Churchill had managed to ensure that 84 per cent of its profits came to Britain. In 1933, Reza Khan, a self-educated soldier who had made use of the postwar chaos to grab power and found a new ruling dynasty (much to Mossadegh's disgust), negotiated a new agreement with APOC, which turned out to be remarkably like the old one. During the Second World War, British and Russian troops again occupied the country, and the British replaced the rashly pro-German shah with his son Muhammad Reza.

In these years, British policy was infused with what de Bellaigue calls, without exaggeration, 'a profound contempt for Persia and its people', which provided the spark not only for modern Iranian nationalism but also for the seemingly irremovable suspicion of Britain as a 'malignant force'. When in 1978 the shah called Khomeini a British agent, he intended it as a vicious slander; it backfired, triggering the first of the mass protests against him. APOC, renamed the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1935, grossed profits of $3 billion between 1913 and 1951, but only $624 million of that remained in Iran. In 1947, the British government earned £15 million in tax on the company's profits alone, while the Iranian government received only half that sum in royalties. The company also excluded Iranians from management and barred Tehran from inspecting its accounts.

Growing anti-British sentiment finally forced Muhammad Reza to appoint Mossadegh as prime minister early in 1951. The country's nationalists by now included secularists as well as religious parties and the communist as well as non-communist left. Mossadegh, who, de Bellaigue writes, 'was the first and only Iranian statesman to command all nationalist strains', moved quickly to nationalise the oil industry. Tens of thousands lined the streets to cheer the officials sent from Tehran to take over the British oil facilities in Abadan, kissing the dust-caked cars - one of which belonged to Mehdi Bazargan, who would later become the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The American ambassador reported that Mossadegh was backed by 95 per cent of the population, and the shah told the visiting diplomat Averell Harriman that he dared not say a word in public against the nationalisation. Mossadegh felt himself to be carried along on the wings of history. 'Hundreds of millions of Asian people, after centuries of colonial exploitation, have now gained their independence and freedom,' he said at the UN in October 1951: Europeans had acknowledged Indian, Indonesian and Pakistani claims to sovereignty and national dignity - why did they continue to ignore Iran?

He was supported by a broad coalition of new Asian countries. Even the delegate from Taiwan, which had been given its seat in the UN at the expense of Mao's People's Republic of China, reminded the British that 'the day has passed when the control of the Iranian oil industry can be shared with foreign companies.' Other postcolonial regimes would soon nationalise their oil industries, thereby acquiring control of international prices and exposing Western economies to severe shocks. But the British, enraged by Mossadegh's impertinence and desperately needing the revenues from what was Britain's biggest single overseas investment, wouldn't listen.

Britain could no longer afford its empire but, as de Bellaigue points out, in many places, 'particularly in Iran, red-faced men went around in tailcoats as if nothing had changed.' 
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Posted by at June 25, 2012 5:06 AM

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