July 31, 2012

ORIGINAL SIN:

A Crass and Consequential Error : a review of Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue  (Roger Cohen, 8/16/12, NY Review of Books)

[E]ven his wavering US-backed nemesis, Muhammad Reza Shah, called him "our Demosthenes." An ascetic with an extravagant sense of mission, a lawyerly man who lived by Voltaire's "I may disagree with what you say, but I would defend to the death your right to say it," Mossadegh was, as Christopher de Bellaigue puts it in Patriot of Persia, "a cussed contrarian." Just what he amounted to in his brilliant prickliness, and how his quixotic defiance mirrored the Iranian psyche, remain important questions seven decades after the United States ousted this European-educated constitutionalist and declared its preference for Middle Eastern strongmen. Mossadeghism failed. Iran never found a stable reconciliation of patriotism, democracy, and faith. Its persecution complex, fostered by British contempt and cemented by an Anglo-American coup in 1953, endured. Just as ownership of oil once was the vehicle of Iranian nationalist ambition, so the vexed nuclear program is today under the mullahs who exploited the blowback from 1953.

Such persistent failure and confrontation raise a question: Could it have been otherwise with Iran? An elegiac tone runs through de Bellaigue's rich portrait of Mossadegh. He quotes the ousted prime minister, after the coup, saying, "If I am murdered, it will be more useful for the country and the people than if I stay alive"--and notes that even Mossadegh's "thoughts of death were quintessentially Persian." Martyrdom is a persistent theme in a Shia nation that teems for a month every year with flagellants mourning the Imam Hussein, the Prophet's grandson, slaughtered by the caliph in 680 but recalled with all the ardor of a recent passion. In fact Mossadegh survived for fourteen years in the Shah's nascent police state, first as a nonperson in prison and then confined to his country estate at Ahmadabad. He died at eighty-four, long after the many contemporaries who had fretted over his frailty.

De Bellaigue allows himself to speculate on what might have been:

Mossadegh's Iran would have tilted to the West in foreign affairs, bound by oil to the free world and by wary friendship to the US, but remaining polite to the big neighbor to the north. In home affairs, it would have been democratic to a degree unthinkable in any Middle Eastern country of the time except Israel--a constitutional monarchy in a world of dictatorships, dependencies and uniformed neo-democracies.

If the Wilsonian acquiesence to colonialism after WWI was generally a disaster, this was a specific Realist catastrophe.
Posted by at July 31, 2012 7:12 PM
  

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