Book Review:  Patriot of Persia (De Bellaigue)

Rev. Frank Julian Gelli

Posted Apr 26, 2012      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Book Review:  Patriot of Persia (De Bellaigue)

by Rev. Frank Julian Gelli

‘Perfidious! Perfidious! Perfidious!’  I imagine the dying Iranian ex-PM Muhammad Mossadegh muttering with his last breath. Almost pleonastic to call Britain ‘perfidious’, of course. What could ‘perfidious Albion’ be but…perfidious? Still, Mossadegh had good reasons to feel that way. Christopher de Bellaigue’s compelling book, Patriot of Persia, explains why.

Strolling in Tehran three years ago, I noticed Iranians are a bit paranoid about malignant foreign plots and conspiracies. You too might be if you had suffered what they did. In 1953 British-American stooges and spies concocted a military putsch that overthrew Mossadegh’s elected government. His crimes? Oil, unholy oil, what else? The brave statesman wanted Iran to own its wealth. So he nationalised the oil industry. Anglo-Iranian, the alien consortium, and the British powers that be swore revenge. Geddit?

De Bellaigue narrates the whole sordid, painful history with the briskness of a thriller. Mossadegh, an old, crafty valetudinarian ruling in pyjamas from his sickbed, is not sentimentalised. He was no Gandhi. Even prior to the coup that destroyed him, he abominated the British with a hatred that had something of the Manichean about it. ‘You don’t know how evil they are…how they sully everything they touch’, he told an American envoy. How ironic the Yanks, whom Mossadegh initially trusted, would soon be active partners in evil with the Brits. Well, les Anglo-Saxons are naturally perfidious, no?

If I was German, I guess I would enjoy this book even more than I do. Well-nigh all films and history and literature available on the planet regularly cast Germany as the eternal villain of the piece. Nazimania, someone called it. Institutionalised Germanophobia is another name for it. But here at last is a book, a true narrative (by a Brit!) in which the bad guys, the rotters, the inglorious bastards are not the customary Krauts but the normally spotless, righteous and benign Brits. Why not? A bit of a change, the priest is bound to say…

Patriot of Persia abounds in memorable characters. Like the Shah. Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Impressive name for the son of an upstart usurper, Reza Khan, the commander of a Cossack regiment who had appointed himself King of Kings after dethroning the last of the Qajar rulers, the adipose, useless Ahmad Shah. A sort of Persian Ataturk, the dynamic Reza Khan had striven to modernise his country but, surprise, surprise, he too had fallen foul of ultra-perfidious Albion. Suspected of pro-German leanings in WWII - ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’: can you blame Reza Khan? - the Brits had forced him out. His son, Reza Pahlavi, had been educated in Switzerland and admired America. Beautiful, unforgettable Sorayya, his second Queen (the adolescent Fr Frank was a bit in love with Sorayya, he confesses it), was even more oriented towards Europe.  De Bellaigue describes him fairly, I think, as ‘a tragic figure, sensitive and intelligent’ but not up to the job. Although later the Shah turned into a despot relying on his dreaded secret police, Savak, the impression is that his chief fault was weakness rather than wickedness. Another Louis XVI, perhaps? Alas, it seems rulers may be pardoned umpteen crimes, horrors and genocides, providing they are successfully ‘tough’. From Genghis Khan to Stalin, that is the melancholy moral.

Another outstanding character is Ayatollah Kashani. Shia Iran would not be what it is without this type of formidable cleric-politician and its many avatars. Islamic resurgent of Catholic Cardinal-statesmen like Wolsey, Richelieu and Mazarin, Kashani was no humble man. ‘All Muslims in the world acknowledge me as their leader’, he boasted, somewhat hyperbolically. The ‘warriors of Islam’, a body of militant followers, buttressed his authority. (Why call them ‘fanatic’, I wonder? Presumably they were just very keen – ahem, that’s religious fervour, is it not?) Kashani went along with Mossadegh on the nationalisation issue but then turned against him. That’s politics for you. Maybe another Ayatollah, Burujerdi, was right, as De Bellaigue observes, in fearing that clerics would jeopardise the people’s respect if they engaged too closely in politics. Pope John Paul II would have agreed, as the example of liberation theology illustrates, I trust.

A chief pretext for the military coup that toppled the legitimate PM was the scotching of a putatively imminent Communist revolution. Cast your mind back. 1953: cold war at its chilliest. Tudeh, the Iranian Communist party, was numerous, well-organised and well-represented in the armed forces. Technically illegal, Mossadegh tolerated the party, aware of its influence amongst the workers. CIA spooks well exploited that, even mustering thugs disguised as Communists. They attacked mullahs and mosques. Even spread rumours the PM was a Jew! (Years later the Shah had his minions insinuate Ayatollah Khomeini was an Indian: plus ca change…)

De Bellaigue points out how later documents belie the notion that the Tudeh Party was strong (and willing) enough to carry out a take-over. Ultimately, I suppose, that would have depended on Moscow’s decision. He also notes that Marxism in Iran could have succeeded only if it had incorporated ‘elements of Islam’ and so become something ‘other than Marxism’. Of course, all the Communist parties in the Muslims world, unlike their Western brothers, always carefully avoided attacking religion. It made sense. Anti-clericalism is a phenomenon virtually unknown in Islam, anyway. However, the young Marx of the ‘Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts’ might well have provided the opening for an integration of religion into Marxism. Too late for that now. A Marxist come-back looks like a resurrection too far.

Iranian history since the country’s conversion to Islam is replete with the cult of martyrs, with a passionate attachment to the figures of unlucky, tragic heroes like Imam Ali and especially of his son, that Imam Hossein whose sacrifice is re-enacted each year in the moving celebrations of Muharram. Muhammad Mossadegh’s own story cannot quite live up to those exalted standards. Though a sincere, practising Muslim, he championed no supernatural polity. Yes, as de Bellaigue reminds the reader, the old man’s memory ‘is safe in the heart of Iranians.’

If you wish to understand why Iranians today are rightfully wary of the West, read this book!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli - Father Frank’s Rants Number 486 - April 2012 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)