In the New York Review of Books, Roger Cohen is way too credulous of Christopher de Bellaigue's claims that Iran might have evolved into a liberal democracy but for US and British intervention against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953:
De Bellaigue allows himself to speculate on what might have been:
Mossadegh’s Iran would have tilted to the West in foreign affairs, bound by oil to the free world and by wary friendship to the US, but remaining polite to the big neighbor to the north. In home affairs, it would have been democratic to a degree unthinkable in any Middle Eastern country of the time except Israel—a constitutional monarchy in a world of dictatorships, dependencies and uniformed neo-democracies.
As for social affairs, “secularism and personal liberty would have been the lodestones, and the hejab and alcohol a matter for personal conscience.”
This tantalizing scenario seems a faithful reflection of the man; but of course we will never know.
Let's not get carried away here! Liberal democracy is never a one-man job. It's been a long time since the anti-Mossadegh coup of 1953, there have been many subsequent opportunities to choose liberal democracy, and they have all gone unchosen. Mossadegh exists in the historical memory as an opportunity for Iranians to blame their own failures on imperialist intervention.
Which is exactly why the coup of 1953 was such a bad idea. Absent the coup, liberal-minded Iranians would have to look within, would have to self-criticize, and would specifically have to deal intellectually and politically with their reactionary religious establishment. (The mullahs today like to cite the 1953 coup as a great crime against Iran which justifies their reach for nuclear weapons - but at the time, let's not forget, the clerics welcomed the coup, because they hated Mossadegh even more than they hated the West.)
The 1953 coup is not the cause of Iran's problems. It's the never-failing source of Iran's excuses - and that is bad enough.