DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Talk with Iranians about their country's recent history, and someone may well mention the year 1953. In that year, a CIA-sponsored coup overthrew Iran's prime minister. The writer Christopher de Bellaigue said the coup permanently changed Iran.
CHRISTOPHER DE BELLAIGUE: I think you can say that it's possible that the history of Iran would have been very different. A slow, hesitant but nevertheless robust period of reform would have taken the country towards something comparable to a liberal democracy.
GREENE: De Bellaigue is a British writer married to an Iranian. In 2009, as protests shook Iran, de Bellaigue was visiting Iranian archives. He was writing a book called "Patriot of Persia" about the prime minister overthrown in 1953. He talked about this with Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: So this man, Muhammad Mossadegh, you've got a picture of him on the cover of your book. Bluntly, he's an old man. He's hardly got any hair. A very long nose. What was it about this figure that made him so charismatic, so attractive to Iranians?
BELLAIGUE: I think the criteria by which Iranians judged their leaders was not their physical attractiveness or more superficial qualities of that kind, but this shining integrity that he had, this ability that he had, also, to connect with ordinary Iranians. He was a princeling by birth. But by the time he came to power, more egalitarian currents were swirling around the country. In many ways he personified those. He lived extremely simply. I think you could possibly compare him, in terms of the combination of eccentricity - both physical and also the way that he behaved, which could be extremely eccentric - he can be compared to Gandhi.
INSKEEP: What was eccentric about his behavior?
BELLAIGUE: He was a terrible hypochondriac. He would be transported by fainting. He would spend long periods of time in an iron bed in his house. During the period from 1951 to '53, when having nationalized the Iranian oil industry, he was visited by one after another of these foreign envoys, he wasn't always ill. That was one thing that he - it was almost a tactic that he used.
INSKEEP: Now, you said when he nationalized the Iranian oil industry. We're beginning to get to the reason that this man was ultimately overthrown in a coup.
BELLAIGUE: This is absolutely true. He came to power. Iran's oil industry had been developed. Oil had been discovered by British entrepreneurs, and ultimately the British crown had come in and become a shareholder in this company, the Anglo-Persian, later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.
And one should pause to acknowledge the role that British engineers and ingenuity had in this process. But it was a long process. And by the time the Iranians realized just how valuable this oil was, they came to the conclusion that they were being fleeced. And so a groundswell of opposition to the company arose, and by the time Mossadegh came to power, he had, in fact, engineered the passage of a nationalization bill through the parliament.
So he came to power having to deal with the results of that vote in parliament, which was how to live with the disapproval and the outright opposition of the British.
INSKEEP: And ultimately the Americans.
BELLAIGUE: The Americans were, to begin with, quite favorable towards Mossadegh because they thought that Mossadegh was acting as a bulwark against communism. And America, as we should remember, was exercised above all by its extreme fear of communism at the time.
The British argued that no, Mossadegh was in fact a stalking horse for the communists. He had friends who were communists. And they said that for as long as Mossadegh is allowed to stay in power, not only will our oil rights be trampled upon, but also the country will face the risk of falling into communist hands.
INSKEEP: The result here was a king who'd been relatively powerless before, who became very powerful and was a brutal ruler by many accounts for a quarter century, and then was replaced by an Islamic revolution that has had its own brand of brutality. That's quite a consequence from that coup in 1953.
BELLAIGUE: It is, and I don't think anyone at the time could have foreseen that. However, it is worth noting that there was a journalist from the New York Times called Kennett Love who wrote extremely evocative pieces about the coup at the time. He had a small part to play in the coup, because publicizing the cause of the new prime minister became central to the coup plotters' plans.
Later on, he wrote a paper in which he expressed his regret at that. And he effectively said, we have unlocked something that we didn't intend to unlock. We have associated ourselves with a regime that is increasingly distrusted and detested by the Iranians, and I fear for the future, both in terms of our own prestige and also in terms of Iran's future hopes of prosperity and happiness.
INSKEEP: Does the coup that overthrew Mossadegh still pollute the relationship between the United States and Iran?
BELLAIGUE: I think it has probably contributed. It was the first time that America, which had until then been regarded more or less as a friendly, neutral, relatively benevolent outside power. It was the first time that that image was severely damaged, and America went, overnight almost, from being this benevolent outsider, and gained an image that was almost entirely negative.
And that continued. But it's worth remembering, and something that I always find very telling, that when the American Embassy was taken over by the hostage takers at the beginning of the revolution...
INSKEEP: In 1979.
BELLAIGUE: In 1979. Those CIA officers who were interrogated by the Iranian so-called students at the time recalled later on that it felt to them as though these students were taking out on them, the CIA officers, the anger and the resentment that had been felt since 1953. It was as if the CIA officers were paying the price for the actions of their predecessors back in 1953.
INSKEEP: Can I just tell you that a few years ago, I was having dinner with an Iranian in Tehran, and he said, you know, if your country and my country are to get along, you Americans need to stop thinking about 1979 and the hostages. And my country needs to stop obsessing about 1953 and the coup.
BELLAIGUE: Well, I think your dinner companion has it absolutely right. I think new history has to be allowed to intervene, a new, more hopeful history, which is why the absence of proper political relations between the two countries, the absence of cultural and other encounters between them, means that when people think of the great events in the history of the two countries, they think of these running sores that are still so painful. New history has to come in, and occlude, and obscure these old events for them to be forgotten.
INSKEEP: Christopher de Bellaigue is the author of "Patriot of Persia," a biography of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh. Thanks very much.
BELLAIGUE: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.