Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup

Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup
Christopher de Bellaigue
Bodley Head, 320pp, £20

Christopher de Bellaigue must have mixed feelings as he surveys newspaper headlines predicting conflict over Iran's nuclear programme. On the one hand, it makes his study of Iran's prime minister between 1951 and 1953 extraordinarily well timed. On the other, having lived in Iran, become fluent in the language and married into an Iranian family, the pangs of concern he feels are likely to go beyond the merely academic.

He should still celebrate, though. Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very Brit­ish Coup is a useful primer on a period of Iranian history that remains essential to understanding a nation whose role in world politics remains brightly spotlit. One can only hope that a copy will find its way on to William Hague's desk and that he reads it.

Ordinary people in Britain and the United States are largely ignorant of the havoc wreaked on their behalf on the people of countries such as Iran - countries that escaped colonisation but were subject to, as de Bellaigue has it, the "poisoned ambiguity of a relationship that was never defined".

Despite being born into a dissolute aristocracy, Mossadegh had a keen sense of probity and matured, after a period study in Europe, into an incorruptible public servant: a fine example of noblesse oblige. The attempt by Lord Curzon to engineer a treaty that would have made Iran a protectorate of the British empire in all but name, mainly by bribing senior office-holders, was a defining moment in his early career. Defending the country from the predations of foreigners became his raison d'être - though, on more than one occasion, the intensity of his disappointment at Iran's debasement forced him out of politics altogether.

When he did re-emerge, it was to take issue with the unfairness of the concession granted to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, later BP) to exploit the vast oil reserves of south-western Iran. Iranian oil was crucial to the Allied war effort and profits from the wells doubled as reconstruction got under way at the end of the 1940s. But the terms of the deal were tremendously advantageous to the British. Tax paid to HM Treasury by AIOC far exceeded the portion sent to Tehran. It helped finance the welfare state at a time when Iran remained mired in poverty and underdevelopment.

As a deputy in Iran's parliament, Mossadegh began to draw up plans for the nationalisation of Iran's oil industry and the expulsion of AIOC. He was stalwart in opposing schemes that improved the deal but still granted the lion's share of revenue to the British and his popularity grew. When he was finally appointed prime minister by his democratically elected peers, he was able to kick the British out. The new Iran enjoyed a free press, income redistribution and administrative reform but also suffered inflation, fiscal collapse, foreign intrigue and, finally, the bloody coup of 1953.

This was planned and executed by British and American officials and their Iranian allies. Churchill had demanded that "Mussy Duck" cease being a problem and Eisenhower fell enthusiastically into line. Spies, fixers and agents provocateurs saw that it came to pass in a few torrid days. Mossadegh's removal paved the way for a more relaxed approach to sharing the spoils of oil, as well as despotic, western-oriented rule by the monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The rest of the story is better known. In his epilogue, de Bellaigue takes in the Syrian phase of the Arab spring but ignores the current nuclear crisis. Perhaps he feels the point will be made less effectively if it is spelled out. But the lesson from this book must be that intervention, whatever form it takes, leaves a long and unpredictable legacy. The 1953 coup was, after all, greeted as a brilliant strategic victory in Britain and the US. Yet it, more than any other incident in Iran's recent history, informs the sense of injustice that will see Iranians from across the political spectrum line up behind any leader when he opposes the west on a point of principle, nuclear or otherwise.

David Shariatmadari is a comment editor at the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex