Thursday, March 22, 2007

Reflections on the Tragic Life of Dr. Mohammed Mossadeq

Not long ago, while the drums of war with Iran were beaten more loudly than they are today, I took the time to read Musaddiq and the Struggle For Power in Iran by Homa Katouzian, a fellow at Saint Anthony College, Oxford. This is a book that requires thoughtful reading to really be enjoyed. At heart, it is an elegy for the Iran that could have, and ought have, been a normal country. If you choose to read it, you'll have to bear with Katouzian when he occasionally delves into the intricacies of Iranian politics, and when his diction is, as it can be, not that of a native English-speaker.

Mohammed Mossadeq was born in 1882, as the son of an official in the Iranian Finance Ministry, and a princess of the Qajar Dynasty, the dynasty that was supplanted by the Pahlavis. He began undergraduate work at the Sci-Po in Paris, studied in Lausanne, and then became the first Iranian to obtain a Doctorate in Jurisprudence, which he did at the University of Neuchâtel. His dissertation was on comparisons of Iranian (read Islamic) and Western European law. He considered obtaining Swiss citizenship, and finding work as an attorney in Switzerland, but eventually his family and country drew him back to Iran.

Upon returning to
Iran, Mossadeq, whose family had substantial land-holdings, was soon drawn into politics and elected to the Iranian parliament, and was pretty soon made the governor of far away Azerbaijan Province after he tried to change some practices that he felt were corrupt. To abbreviate the years of political turmoil that followed in Iran:

  • Iran had granted the an oil company partly owned by the British government a sixty year concession to extract oil at a time when nobody in the Iranian government understood what petroleum really was, a deal reminiscent of the Dutch buying Manhattan from unwitting Indians for 60 guilders. The more the Iranians understood how disadvantageous the terms of the concession were, the more they pined to renegotiate its terms.

  • The Shah of Iran understood that the British were not going to voluntarily relinquish or renegotiate the concession, under which the British government incidentally earned greater tax revenues from the extraction and sale of Iranian oil than the government of Iran. He could not expect much support from the superpowers of his day; the French had undertaken not to meddle in British colonies, as the British had to not meddle in French colonies, the United States was strongly isolationist, and the Soviet Union suffered under a regime of psychopaths. This pretty much only left Nazi Germany as a potential ally, which, after the Diktat of Versailles, hardly felt that it owed the French or British anything, and thus the ouvertures began. As Katouzian writes, Tehran's Central Railway Station was decked out in swastikas, and the Shah even renamed his country, which had been known as Persia for a good two thousand years, "Iran," in order to imply that Iranians were kindred "Aryans."
  • (In the Middle Eastern political tradition your enemy’s enemy is your friend. When the Reagan administration secretly sold direly needed weapons to Khomeini‘s Iran, none of its political opponents suggested that Reagan was enthralled by Khomeini's dress codes. Similarly, anyone who knows what most Iranians look like would deem the notion that the Shah had fallen for the notion that blue-eyed blonds constitute a "master race" completely absurd. Iran is and has for millennia been a multi-racial and multi-religious society. The Book of Esther in the Bible relates one such story.)
  • When the Second World War broke out, the Shah understood all too well that the more the Germans took his British and Russians rivals down a few notches, the better his position stood to become. The British weren't pleased by this epiphany, and forcibly removed the Shah from his own country into exile in a remote part of South Africa. As a replacement, they installed his 21 year old son fresh from a Swiss boarding school n the Peacock Throne. Russian and British armies occupied Iran for the duration of the war. Churchill's laconic justification for this invasion without any legal justification in international law was inter arma silent leges, that is when weapons speak, the laws remain silent.
  • At the end of the Second World War, Britain was badly strapped for cash, so badly that food was rationed for several years after the war ended. British politicians were hardly keen on slaying a goose that, for them, was laying golden eggs, regardless of the justice of the Iranians' demand that the oil concessions be renegotiated.
Something had to give; the Iranian parliament elected Mossadeq, who was intent on turning Iran into a modern democracy and ridding itself of its dependency on foreigners, to be Iran's Prime Minister. Katouzian writes that Mossadeq's reputation for unblemished personal integrity accounted for his election as did, I suspect, his Western education, his love for his country, and reputation as a devout Muslim. In 1951 Mossadeq unilaterally nationalized Iran's petroleum assets, which is when things, as they say, "became interesting." The British organized a boycott of the Iranian oil that Iran had "stolen" from the British by all the major oil companies, which began to badly hurt Iran's finances; Mossadeq in turn expelled the British embassy lest its diplomats organize a coup. The most he would offer the British was to have a neutral tribunal at the Hague determine what compensation was due the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), now known to us as BP.

Mossadeq remained adamant that Iran would only control its destiny once it completely controlled its oil. Some went so far as to suggest - wrongly, I believe - that Mossadeq had concluded that for him, no deal was better than any deal, because as long as he could rally his country around nationalizing its oil, and avenging slights at the hands of foreign powers both real and imagined, his popularity was guaranteed, something that stood to change if and when his government had to make hard decisions further down the road.

The Truman administration sympathized with Mossadeq's position, and felt that Britain's unwillingness to renegotiate the concession wasn't helpful as the Cold War began to heat up. Although Katouzian doesn't mention this, many in the Truman administration's State Department were generally not unsympathetic to the New Deal, and quite happy to see a huge British conglomerate be taken down a notch or two, but came to believe that Mossadeq didn't really understand the ramifications of his demands; that he was pursuing pie in the sky.

In those days, there was a curious debate in the Majlis, as Iran's parliament is known. The British may be ruthless, unpleasant, and exploitative, some members of the Majlis argued, while the Americans distinguished themselves by their basic decency and their intent to help all sides reach a fair deal. Nevertheless, they continued, the Americans were so naïv, even clueless to the point of incompetence, about the Middle East, that they argued it would be in Iran's best interests to continue to deal with the capable if predatory British rather than the kindly but naïv Americans.

The impasse, and Mossadeq's intransigence, came to an end under the Eisenhower administration, when Mossadeq was ejected from power in a coup approved by the Dulles brothers, former Wall Street attorneys who left their offices of Secretary of State and Director of the CIA with a history of deeming third world politicians at odds with their former corporate clients to be part of a "global Communist conspiracy," even if the evidence was scant or non-existent, and of then having the government of the United States rid them of such troublesome politicians. Jacobo Arbenz is another who suffered a similar fate.

The coup restored the reluctant Shah to his throne; Mossadeq first spent some years in solitary confinement, and then even more years under house arrest. Nor were these the only tragedies he endured; a child of his developed severe life-long psychiatric problems, which Mossadeq described as "the cruelest fate that can befall a parent." American oil companies got part of what had previously been an exclusively British pie; the hapless AIOC was left with less than the Iranians had at one point offered it. But the real losers were the Iranians; instead of living in a fledgling democracy that aspired to imitate the West, without forsaking its traditions, they found themselves living in an increasingly corrupt regime maintained in power by the Western democracies, with a secret police schooled in the fine art of torture by Israeli advisors.

Katouzian writes, but doesn't consider the ramifications of the fact, that the American government was so disgusted by what it had wrought that within a few years it sought to overthrow the Shah, only to have the British betray the plot to the Shah. This is inconsistent with the notion that it was "all about oil," just as Eisenhower's giving the French, British and Israelis an ultimatum to end their invasion of Suez or face his awesome wrath belies the notion that he was indiscriminately opposed to third world leaders redressing grievances with their former colonial masters.

I somewhat disagree with Katouzian is in my judgement of the Mossadeq. Katouzian concludes that Mossadeq had his flaws and imperfections, but that things could have worked out if only outside powers had not intervened. He correctly writes that Mossadeq could be quite rigid, even intransigent, in this thinking, perhaps a bit of a puritan. This is where I think he underestimates the mistakes that Mossadeq made: politics, after all, is the art of the possible; when Mossadeq made high, perhaps almost unattainable, demands of the British and American negotiators but neglected to thoroughly ensure that he was coup-proof, he did his fellow Iranians no service.

I also think that Katouzian doesn't quite do the consequences that Mossadeq's politics stood to have on Iran's neighbors justice; just south of Iran there were a number of sheikdoms that sat on huge oil deposits, and at the time had largely nomadic populations. By framing the debate over the extraction of the region's oil in highly emotional "us versus them" proposition, he risked inflaming the passions in these countries, and pushing them into the Soviet camp. Half of
Yemen eventually went Communist, and Oman would have as well, had it not been for the Shah's and Queen's men. The specter of the neighborhood going to hell at least partly explains, I think, why Iran's elite acquiesced to Mossadeq's overthrow.

I think a leader who would have been willing to make unpleasant, and perhaps even humiliating compromises, dictated by the political realities of the day, in order to negotiate a better deal on a better day, would have left Iran in a much better position that a leader who demanded everything, and got nothing. Iran suffered the tragedies of first having a leader who cared too much about justice, and then a leader who cared too little about justice. Fiat justitia et pereat mundus (may justice prevail and must the world perish) is a neither a dictum of Shari'a law nor the Code Napoléon, but rather a sarcastic gibe by a medieval king.

Like every other country, Iran is not perfect; this book describes how it went from being a normal country in its day to a (reluctant) dictatorship, and then convulsed into the Islamic Republic of Iran. There is a parallel for this in English history; without Charles I, who asserted his divine rights as a king, and buttressed his claims in his infamous Star Chamber, Oliver Cromwell would never have come to be the Lord Protector of England, Commander of the New Model Army, praised by John Milton, and, to this day, an epithet among the Irish. Were it not for the Shah and his fearsome secret police, the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards would never have attained the prominence they did. Regimes that truck heavily in religious zealotry are neither new nor exclusive to the Middle East, and not infrequently result as a reaction to iniquitous governments. Generally if left to their own devices, such regimes, like teenagers caught in the tempests of puberty, become less strident with time. Under Oliver Cromwell, all theaters were closed as immoral and decadent; yet England and English literature recovered.

If you’re interested by the history of modern Iran, and are skeptical of the Manichean understanding of Iran (ironic isn't it that Manichaeism is a philosophy of Iranian origin?) which some right-wing nuts are promoting, or have lingering doubts whether a book that raves about reading a book describing the doings of a sexual predator (Reading Lolita in Tehran) is the most informative and unbiased introduction to contemporary Iran, you'll enjoy Katouzian's biography. I suspect it was written for Iranians and academics; as such, it's a good introduction to the history of Iran by an Iranian historian. Another advantage of the book is that rather than being focused on a single episode or a single aspect of Iran's history in the 20th century, it is a sort of Bildungsroman of a man and country with, alas, a tragic ending.

Links: Some Iranian exiles run a website dedicated to memory of Mossadeq.

And Katouzian's book.

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