Recently I came across a remarkable book entitled Patriot of Persia – Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup. Written by Christopher de Bellaigue, it is simply brimming with interesting details. For the major part of the last 100 years, until the revolution launched by Ayatollah Khomeini, the people of Iran have had a pretty raw deal. What is worse, they continue to be treated by the West as the pariahs of the Middle East. Iran, the land of Cyrus the Great, was the home of one of the world’s grand civilisations. Nevertheless, Sir Harold Nicolson – British diplomat and author of 24 books, among which was the oft quoted Diplomacy published in 1939 – had the most disparaging things to say about the country and its people. To an extent he helped to mould public opinion in Whitehall and influenced British foreign policy towards that country. Born in Tehran, he was posted as British charge d’affairs to Iran in 1923. The Persians were always treated with a certain aloof condescension, as if nobody wanted to touch them with a barge pole. The problem was that they had something that the West wanted. And this meant that the country was ripe for plunder.
Top of the list of exploiters were Britain and Russia. In 1907, when the two countries made a deal to divide Iran into ‘spheres of influence,’ it was apparent to the rest of Europe that what the British were after was Persian oil. At the outbreak of the First World War, one of England’s top racist politicians Winston Churchill, (who years later tortured President Barack Obama’s grandfather in Kenya,) had secured for Britain a majority shareholding in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This yielded for London twice the revenue that accrued to Tehran. To the American political observer, it certainly looked as if the land of the once great Achaemenid Empire was being administrated from Whitehall for the benefit of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
Iran was governed between the two World Wars by a brutal and hardnosed dictator named Reza Khan who established the Pahlavi dynasty. Under his ruthless rule the people of Iran suffered great hardship and poverty. Fortunately for the masses, he decided to flirt with the Nazis which hastened his swift departure into exile. The British then installed his son who was quite happy to honour the existing oil treaty and with the help of the CIA, spawned the dreaded secret police known as Savak, who at its peak had 60,000 agents. While Tehran became the Paris of the East, people in the rest of the country groaned under the capricious rule of the Shahenshah. Then the aristocrat Muhammad Mossadegh arrived on the scene. ‘Iranian oil is for the Iranians’ he maintained. Mossadegh was scrupulously honest and incorruptible. Bellaigue narrates a charming story of the time when Mossadegh’s wife was arrested for driving the wrong way down a one-way street. When she protested to him, he telephoned the chief of police and ordered him to promote the constable who had arrested her.
The Shah was not amused. In 1940, Mossadegh spent five months in solitary confinement. By 1949 anti-British sentiment had reached fever pitch. The results of a shamelessly rigged election were rejected by the nationalists. The Shah, still acting under British orders, appointed an army general as prime minister who rejected the demand for nationalisation. The fellow was promptly assassinated by the Warriors of Islam. Finally Mossadegh took over, nationalised Persian oil, was removed from power in a CIA plot, incarcerated and exiled. When an objective history of modern Iran is written he will be remembered as Iran’s greatest nationalist.