Reviewed by Tom Little
Muhammad Mossadegh was a true eccentric. As prime minister of Iran in the 1940s and early 1950s, he habitually conducted the affairs of state in his pyjamas, sometimes wearing two pairs at once, from the sturdy, cast-iron bed in his bedroom. He was descended from royalty, owned a string of properties across Tehran, studied and travelled extensively in Europe, and still managed to command the kind of popular support most public figures could only dream of.
Mossadegh was one of that very rare breed, a principled politican, and his determination to stand up to British meddling in his country’s internal affairs after WWII was to cost him his position and prestige. Tragically, however, it also brought to an end Iran’s chances of a democratic, stable and popular government. With British encouragement, the CIA engineered a coup to topple Mossadegh in August 1953 after he nationalised the country’s oil industry away from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company.
The coup may have (temporarily) allowed the British company to regain its stranglehold over Iran’s oil output but it ruined the reputation of the US in the eyes of many ordinary Iranians and is the cause of much of the bad blood between the two countries since.
To date, several books in English have looked at the 1953 coup, surely one of the critical moments of modern Iranian history, but few have chosen to look at Mossadagh himself. Journalist and author Christopher de Bellaigue, however, feels that “nowhere have the man and his fullness been brought out” and so, in Patriot of Persia, we have the first English-language account of Muhammad Mossadegh’s life in full.
De Bellaigue has an enviable knowledge of modern Iran, having studied Persian at university and subsequently reported from the country for The Economist. But Patriot of Persia is something of a departure for the author, whose previous two books were highly personal accounts of his experiences in the region: In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs looked at Iran, and he wrote brilliantly about his travels in Turkey’s Kurdish regions in Rebel Land.
Nevertheless, De Bellaigue makes excellent use of sources in English and Persian, and creates a tragic portrait of a man who was totally dedicated to his own country and paid a heavy price for it; his daughter Khadijeh suffered a mental breakdown after seeing him arrested in one of his many disputes with the Shah and, after the 1953 coup, his family lost almost everything they owned. Although Mossadegh was also a famous hypochondriac, there can be little doubt that his health suffered because of his tumultuous career in politics too.
Mossadegh once said, “good days and bad days go past. What stays is a good name or a bad name.” From Patriot of Persia, it is clear that for all his eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, Mossadegh unfailingly lived his life by this maxim.
Indeed, his refusal to compromise and his mistrust of those that he felt were serving foreign interests played no small part in his downfall. Even when he was put up on trial in the wake of the 1953 coup, he couldn’t resist needling his persecutors: De Bellaigue relates that Mossadegh continually interrupted the military officer leading the (fabricated) case against him to correct his pronunciation of simple words in Persian. Suffice to say this did him few favours, but he was still lucky to escape with three years in prison and his life.
The book touches fleetingly on Mossadegh’s reputation after the coup, and how he has come to be seen in the wake of the 1979 revolution, suggesting initially he was revered as a hero before being denounced by the Islamic Republic. It would have been fascinating to hear a little more on the subject, particularly how the man is regarded in Iran at the moment but, unfortunately, Patriot of Persia only offers a tantalising few paragraphs on the matter.
This is a minor gripe, however, and De Bellaigue shows himself to be amply capable of writing a fine historical biography, as engaging and moving as his previous two books. Patriot of Persia is a gripping portrait of a crucial figure in the history of the Middle East, whose legacy is still very much with us today.