By the end of 1952, it had become clear that the Mossadeq government in Iran was incapable of reaching an oil settlement with interested Western countries; was reaching a dangerous and advanced stage of illegal, deficit financing; was disregarding the Iranian constitution in prolonging Premier Mohammed Mossadeq’s tenure of office; was motivated mainly by Mossadeq’s desire for personal power; was governed by irresponsible policies based on emotion; had weakened the Shah and the Iranian Army to a dangerous degree; and had cooperated closely with the Tudeh (Communist) Party of Iran. In view of these factors, it was estimated that Iran was in real danger of falling behind the Iron Curtain; if that happened it would mean a victory for the Soviets in the Cold War and a major setback for the West in the Middle East. No remedial action other than the covert action plan set forth below could be found to improve the existing state of affairs.
It was the aim of the TPAJAX project to cause the fall of the Mossadeq government to reestablish the prestige and power of the Shah; and to replace the Mossadeq government with one which would govern Iran according to constructive policies. Specifically, the aim was to bring to power a government which would reach an equitable oil settlement, enabling Iran to become economically sound and financially solvent, and which would vigorously prosecute the dangerously strong Communist Party.
- Donald Wilbur. Clandestine service History: Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran.
The CIA’s official history of their role in Operation Ajax, a document titled “Clandestine Service History: Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran”. I’m Greg Campbell, and you’re listening to the Pivotal History podcast episode 3: Part Two, Operation Ajax.
The quote with which I opened this episode, which constitutes the first two paragraphs of the CIA’s official history of Operation Ajax, puts forward many allegations and justifications for the covert operations to follow. As we go through this episode, covering the period from Mossadeq becoming the prominent figure in Iranian politics in 1949 through the start of the coup planning in 1952, I’ll do my best to deconstruct these allegations and explore to what extent these specific concerns were founded, or believed to be founded, by the various key decision makers at the time.
But before I dive into this part two of my multipart series exploring the 1953 CIA sponsored coup in Iran, let me blitz through a brief summary of what I covered in the last episode:
Starting with a brief history of Iran from about 1800, I talked about the geopolitical pressures squeezing Iran from both sides: The Russians, and later Soviets from the North, and the British, through their colonial holdings in India, from the East. I talked about the corrupt Qajar dynasty, the Shah’s of which sought to fund their lavish lifestyles through the selling of concessions to foreign nations and individuals. Specifically, I talked about the D’Arcy concession, which granted a British foreign national a complete monopoly on, amongst other things, Iran’s petroleum. I talked about how this D’Arcy concession culminated in the discovery of the world’s largest oil field, how the British government then purchased the concession from the original holder, William D’Arcy, and how the newly formed Anglo Persian Oil Company moved quickly and on a massive scale to build the infrastructure needed to extract the oil, including constructing the world’s largest refinery on the island of Abadan in the Persian golf.
Against this backdrop of immense wealth extraction by the British I talked about the rising discontent on the part of the Iranian people, who watched as the various concessions granted by the Qajar dynasty pillaged their country, leaving them in abject poverty. This discontent coalesced into open resistance against the Shah, which culminating first in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, and then, when the newly established Iranian parliament, the Majlis, proved dysfunctional in the face of resistance and obstruction by the Shah and Britain, the establishment turned to a saviour on horseback – Reza Pahlavi – who served as the strongman in a coup against the Qajars. Reza quickly consolidated his power and established himself as the first Shah of a new dynastic line.
Importantly I covered the evidence that Reza was not the organic nationalist he was portrayed to be, and how the British hand was ever-present, including organizing and guiding the very coup that placed Reza into the political spotlight. In spite of Reza’s reforms, including a highly effective campaign of modernization, I detailed how Reza never strayed far from the path desired by his British handlers, and how he was used as a tool by the British to maintain their control over the exploitation of Iran’s oil. This collaboration between Reza and the British including arranging for a 30 year extension to the D’Arcy concession.
And I talked about how, like most geopolitical puppets, Reza’s usefulness to the British eventually ran out during World War Two, resulting in Reza’s abdication and the crowning of his son, Mohammad, as the new Shah. The youth and general weakness of this new Shah, coupled with the ever increasing discontent amongst the Iranian people, led to the Majlis finally finding its voice. The voice found was that of Mohammed Mossadeq, a man as incorruptible as he was determined and unafraid.
I finished the last episode by talking about the attempts of the new Shah to have the Majlis pass the latest amendment to the D’Arcy concession, an amendment aimed at ensuring continued domination and profiteering by the British. It was the use of overt and blatant election rigging and bribery by both the Shah and the British in the 1949 elections that finally unified the Iranian opposition into the new National Front political party headed by Mossadeq and determined to put an end to Britain’s control of Iran’s oil once and for all.
And this is where I’ll pick up the story. It’s late in 1949. Mohammed Mossadeq has just taken the reins of the newly formed National Front and is determined not only to block the Supplemental Agreement desired by the British, but also to renegotiate the concession in its entirely to ensure a just outcome for the Iranian people.
Background: Makeup of the National Front
In the wake of the rigged 1949 elections and subsequent Palace Garden Sit-in, in which Mossadeq and nineteen other prominent dissidents had forced the Shah to agree to new elections, the National Front, with Mossadeq at the helm, came to the forefront of Iranian politics.
The National Front was very much a conglomerate of various groups, unions, political parties, and religious elements, all brought together by a common desire to end the subjugation of Iran to Britain. These different groups, divergent on many issues, were driven together by one key galvanizing idea: To renegotiate the oil concession under which the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) operated. Specifically, all opposed the ratification of the so-called Supplemental Agreement, which would in essence simply have ensured the persistence of the status quo, meaning continued exploitation of Iran by the British.
It’s important to reiterate that the National Front wasn’t one political entity. It was a bunch of political and non-political entities held tenuously together by a shared determination to seek an oil agreement equitable and beneficial to the Iranian people.
In particular, there were two groups which, though they aligned with the National Front on the oil question, diverged from the mainline National Front view, or certainly the view of Mossadeq, on most other issues. It’s a case of political necessity making for strange bedfellows.
The first group was Tudeh, which I talked about at some length in the last episode. By the time period we’re covering now, the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Tudeh had been thoroughly coopted by the Soviets, and it’s fair to characterize Tudeh as a predominately communist group. The key asset Tudeh brought to the table was its almost complete control of the extensive array of trade unions operating in Iran. It was Tudeh that had the organizational clout and influence to effect massive general strikes and civil resistance within Iran. This had been seen in spades during the 1946 oil strike, which Tudeh had organized and executed.
For their part, Tudeh, while aligning with Mossadeq on the oil question, had reservations about the rest of his policies, and about Mossadeq himself, believing Mossadeq to be an American puppet. The distrust was mutual. Mossadeq, while welcoming the support of Tudeh, will spend years walking the delicate line of garnering the support of Tudeh while not allowing their communist ideology to infiltrate into the broader National Front organization.
The second group tenuously allied with Mossadeq and the National Front was the clergy. The clergy had a clear goal: They wanted to increase their power, and for some the ultimate goal was the transformation of Iran into an Islamic state under Sharia Law.
At the time, the key cleric in Iran was Ayatollah Kashani. Kinzer does a good job briefly describing Ayatollah Kashani and his politics in “All the Shah’s Men”:
Kashani was fiercely anti-Western, hated liberal ideas, and believed that Muslims should obey secular laws only if they were in harmony with the Islamic legal tradition known as sharia. If he was a nationalist, it was only in a limited sense; he wanted Iranians to control their own affairs but also imagined that once the infidels were pushed out, Iran would become part of a pan-Islamic commonwealth that would challenge both the Western and communist blocs. Yet, like mullahs who had supported the Constitutional Revolution nearly half a century before, he saw the anti-British campaign as a sacred duty. In pursuit of that duty he plunged into politics, building his own faction in the Majlis and working tirelessly to mobilize the masses to Mossadeq’s cause.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 75-76.
It’s important here to belabour the point of just how fundamentalist Kashani was, given the role he will play in the story moving forward. Kashani was indeed a most dangerous bed-fellow. From Abrahamian’s “The Coup”:
Kashani had tenuous ties with Fedayan-e Islam (Devotees of Islam) – one of the first real fundamentalist groups in the Islamic world. Formed in 1944… members of the Fedayan-e Islam stood out because of two marked features. First, they demanded full implementation of shari’a (Islamic law) in both private and public life. Obsessed with issues of crime, alcohol, and women, they presented Islam as the “solution” to all of Iran’s problems. “Criminals,” the Fedayan insisted, “should not be coddled in ‘rest homes’ but should have their hands cut off, and if they persisted in their sins should be executed.” Second, they were willing to assassinate anyone they deemed to be un- or anti-Islamic. In 1946 they had knifed to death… the country’s lead historian, because he had questioned the (Shia) account of early Islam… In 1949, a few weeks after the palace sit-in, the Fedayan shot to death… the court minister, with the charge of being an apostate.
- Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 57.
As Mossadeq achieved political power in Iran, appeasing the religious faction without having the National Front devolve into a religious movement became a delicate balancing act. Mossadeq considered laws banning alcohol and also banning Christian missionaries as ways of placating Ayatollah Kashani while blocking the more drastic reforms sought by the Ayatollah.
It’s a fine line that Mossadeq had to walk: He needed the popular support that both Tudeh and Ayatollah Kashani could mobilize, and yet he must prevent either group from coopting the National Front for their own respective socialist or religious agendas.
Fall 1949 – Mar. 1951: General Razmara as Prime Minister
As the National Front organized into a somewhat unified political force in Iran, the Shah used his powers to try to find a new Prime Minister that would be able to get the Supplemental Agreement passed, and mount an effective resistance to the growing power and assertiveness of the National Front.
The Shah at the insistence of the British, eventually settled on General Ali Razmara. Ansari in “Modern Iran Since 1797” provides the most balanced summary of General Razmara I could find:
The Shah, having appointed a series of pliant prime ministers, was singularly unable to either harness or curtail the public mood. The Prime Minister, Ali Mansur, had resigned in June 1950 rather than submit the Supplemental Oil Agreement to the Majlis. Faced with a political stalemate, and a growing crisis in the streets fanned by Tudah Party activists and nationalists, the Shah decided to turn to his chief of staff, General Ali Ramzara. Razmara’s premiership is marred by controversy, regarded as he is by many nationalists as a traitor to his country…. A career soldier, whose rise through the ranks had been dramatic, Ramzara possessed an instinctive dislike for what he considered the emotive and irrational dimensions of nationalist rhetoric. A rift with Britain might make for good politics, but it was bad statecraft. On his appointment he suffered from two stigmas which were to critically affect his ability for political manoeuvre. First was his somewhat arbitrary appointment to the premiership by the Shah without approval of the Majlis, while more damning was the general perception that his appointment had been approved by the British and American ambassadors…
…Ramaza was well aware of the political mood in the country, but also realized that a political conflict with Britain could have disasterous results… Ramzara was left with the unenviable task of arguing against nationalization, and pointing to its myriad of difficulties, confirming in the eyes of many his position as a British stooge. If he had hoped for any support from the (Shah), Ramzara was to be disappointed. In fact relations between Ramzara and the Shah had been tense, despite Ramzara’s previously unequivocal support for the royalist cause. Having earlier urged the Shah to emulate his father, Prime Minister Ramzara found the constant interference of the court in the political affairs of the country a persistent nuisance, and consequently sought to curtail it. The Shah, for his part, was not overly enamoured with his military rival, and feared that his authority might be superseded.
- Ansari, Modern Iran Since 1797, pg 208-209.
A colder assessment of General Ramzara is provided by the editor’s introduction to “Mossadeq’s Memoirs”. According to Katouzian, General Ramzara was an:
…intelligent, educated, efficient, extremely hard-working, physically strong, mentally agile, ruthless and amoral military politician, bent on imposing his personal rule at all costs to implement policies he firmly believed to be Iran’s only route to social and economic greatness – a mistake that all reforming tyrants have made in modern history. It was almost a full repeat performance from Reza Khan’s handbook: to win the total loyalty of the army, pacify or obtain the support of all foreign powers, charm, bribe, or frighten many into his line, convince the Right that he was their only choice, convince the Left that he was their only possible ally and intervening agent, make as few personal enemies as possible, and pull down a weak and isolated Shah from his throne.
- Katouzian, Intro to Mossadeq’s Memoirs, pg 29.
As Katouzian points out in the above quote, the Shah had good reason to fear a strong willed, ruthless, and intelligent military leader – this was exactly the type of character his father Reza had been when he had overthrown the Qajar dynasty. And yet, the Shah was under enormous pressure to find a political leader who could get the Supplemental Agreement through the Majlis. To what extent Ramzara was indeed a blatant tool used by the British is up for debate. Certainly he was appointed Prime Minister on the express condition that he would put the Supplemental Agreement before the Majlis, something his predecessors had been unwilling to do for fear of the backlash sure to result. And, certainly the British approved of his appointment, and may even have been the ones to push the Shah to make the unilateral appointment, bypassing the Majlis.
Regardless, the entire situation placed Ramzara in an almost impossible position. He was opposed both by the Shah, who feared Ramzara would marginalize or even replace him, and he was opposed by the nationalists to whom the Supplemental Agreement was an absolute non-starter. Try as Ramzara might to find some kind of common ground, through negotiation, bribery, threats, and combinations of all three, the nationalists would not bend. They insisted on both a 50/50 profit sharing split, and some form of nationalization of the oil fields. For their part, the British would eventually bend on the profit sharing, but would not entertain any proposals involving any form of nationalization whatsoever. The oil fields would remain in control of Britain, period.
At around the same time that General Ramzara became prime minister, the Majlis formed a committee, known as the Oil Committee to study the issue and make recommendations. With popular support Mossadeq was appointed head of the Committee, and his fellow National Front deputies dominated the remaining seats. It was a foregone conclusion that the Committee, when it eventually made recommendations, would not bend to British demands. Again from the introduction to Mossadeq’s Memoirs, Katouzian describes the final rejection of the Supplemental Agreement:
In November 1950 (so that’s five months after Ramzara is appointment prime minister), the Majlis Oil Committee, headed by Mossadeq, finally recommended the rejection of the Supplemental Agreement to which Ramzara’s government was fully committed. The General tactfully withdrew the bill, partly to avoid a complete loss of face, and partly in the hope he would manage to extract a better deal from AIOC. But the Committee insisted on a debate in the full house, and the Agreement Bill was explicitly rejected by it in late December.
- Katouzian, Introduction to Mossadeq’s Memoirs, pg 29-30.
Ramzara’s time was running out. With Britain refusing to given him any latitude on negotiating the changes demanded by the National Front, and with the masses in a state of increasing agitation, emboldened by the newly found political clout, something had to give. Kinzer describes the rising tension as follows:
Confrontation now seemed inevitable. The prospect thrilled Iranian nationalists, who believed that history was finally giving them a chance to pull their country out from under the rule of British imperialists. In January 1951 they called a rally to launch a mass-based campaign aimed at forcing the nationalization of Anglo-Iranian. A huge crown turned out. The first speakers were from the National Front, and they were duly cheered as they laid out their case. That was just the beginning. After the politicians were finished, a succession of mullahs came to the podium to proclaim that every good muslim had a sacred duty to support nationalization. The last of them read a fatwa asserting that from his place in paradise, the Prophet Mohammad himself had condemned the Razmara government for selling Iran’s birthright to infidel foreigners.
Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 77-78.
Jan. 1951: Armco Deal Between US and Saudi Arabia
As if to intentionally add fuel to the fire, at around this same time, January 1951, the American oil company Arabian American Oil Company, better know as Armco, signed a landmark amendment to their oil concession agreement in Saudi Arabia. Armco agreed to split profits 50/50 with the government of Saudi Arabia.
The British went into reaction mode. They knew that this new development left them little choice but to offer a similar deal to the Iranians. The irony here is that had AIOC agreed to such a profit sharing arrangement back in 1949 or 50, they likely would have gotten the agreement through the Majlis, thus eliminating the conditions which gave rise to Mossadeq and the demands for nationalization.
Though the British will subsequently indicate privately to Ramzara that they are open to some form of profit sharing similar to the Armco deal, it’s too late. The British have waited too long, and the idea of true nationalization has taken root in Iran. Ideas like this, once rooted, are not easily quashed.
Mar. 1951: Razmara Assassinated, Committee Recommends Nationalization
On March 3rd, 1951 Ramzara appeared before the Majlis to argue that nationalization would be illegal, and would effective destroy Iran’s economy. His speech, the talking points of which were provided to Ramzara by the British Ambassador in Iran, was not received well. Protests erupted and calls for nationalization morph into calls for death to the British.
Ansari in “Modern Iran Since 1797” picks up the story:
On March 7, 1951, while attending the funeral of an Ayatollah in Tehran’s royal mosque, Razmara was assassinated by a member of the Fedayan-e Islam, following calls by Ayatollah Kashani for all “sincere Muslims and patriotic citizens to fight against the enemies of Islam and Iran by joining the nationalization struggle.” The assassination, far from being denounced as an act of criminality was hailed as a triumph against British imperialism by lawmakers and mob leaders alike. Even the (royal) court expressed a collective sigh of relief at the elimination of the hapless premier. Indeed the popular reaction to Razmara’s murder remains astonishing, and can only be understood, if not justified, in the context of the tremendous upsurge in nationalist feeling throughout the country – a feeling which, as the assassination now indicated, had been firmly wedded to religion. Nationalism, far from being inconsequential and ephemeral, as the British consistently argued, had become sanctified and was now to all intents and purposes part of a holy struggle. It was a potent marriage. Razmara was not only a traitor to his country but, by the same token, to his religion. The assassin… was hailed as a national hero and granted a parliamentary pardon,. None of the (Ayatollah’s) were willing to accept the invitation to deliver the sermon at Razmara’s funeral… Mossadeq went on the record to say that “the bullet which was fired… not only saved Persia from a great danger but it also saved the whole of the East.”
- Ansari, Modern Iran Since 1797, pg 209-210.
Think about this for a second. The Prime Minister was just assassination, and not only do the people and major political leaders openly celebrate the assassination, but the assassin who proudly confesses to the crime is pardoned and walks free. This gives us a sense of how raw the Iranian emotions were running after decades of perceived British exploitation.
The very next day Mossadeq’s Oil Committee voted to recommend the nationalization of AIOC. The motion to nationalization was to be put to the Majlis for a vote. The motion read in its entirely as follows: “For the happiness and prosperity of the Iranian nation and for the purpose of securing world peace, it is hereby resolved that the oil industry throughout all parts of the country, without exception, be nationalized; that is to say, all operations of exploration, extraction, and exportation shall be carried out by the government.”
The British ambassador was determined to block the vote in the Majlis. Pressure was placed on the Shah to dissolve the Majlis completely, but, probably in fear for his life, the Shah refused to do so. The British ambassador went to plan B, as described by Kinzer in “All the Shah’s Men”:
At the British embassy, Ambassador Shepard still believed that he had a chance to hold back the flood. He launched a campaign to persuade Majlis members to stay home on the day of the nationalization vote, thereby preventing quorum… He sent a message to the Shah urging him to use “all his influence” with the monarchist and conservative deputies.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 79.
This last ditch effort for the British ambassador to stop the nationalization bill from being passed by denying quorum to the Majlis was a failure. 96 deputies showed up for the vote and approved the bill unanimously. A few days later the senate, half of whose members were appointed by the Shah, does the same. Nationalization, at least in theory, was now Iranian law, though an actual path forward to implement nationalization remained lacking.
In the meantime, following Ramzara’s assassination, Hussein Ala had been appointed Prime Minister to try and contain matters until the British and Shah could arrange for a more dominating advocate to assume the premiership. Ala was most certainly not the choice of the people, and events will quickly spin well beyond his ability to control.
Apr. 1951: British Response to Razmara’s Assassination
For their part the British were furious with the turn of events, and they acted immediately. In one of his first public statements, the new British foreign minister urged Britain to adopt a military posture towards Iran, and to start moving troops and ships into the region to protect their interests. Indeed by mid-April there were three British frigates and two cruisers visible off Abadan in an explicit show of force. It does not have the desired effect, and unrest in Abadan grew.
Apr. 1951: Oil Strike
And then AIOC did something so monumentally stupid, given the existing tensions, that one has to interpret it as a deliberate provocation to justify military intervention. AIOC reduced living allowances for all Iranian workers. This was just the icing on the cake, coming on top of the simmer tensions around nationalization, the promised improved working conditions from the last oil strike that were never delivered on, and the anger over the long-rumoured, but never proven, smuggling of Iranian oil by the company through secret pipelines.
With Tudeh’s coordination, the oil workers went on strike. Martial law was declared. Abrahamian picks up the story:
The crisis came to a head on April 12-16 when the military governor tried to arrest strike leaders and ordered troops to shoot into union rallies in Abadan and Bandar Mashur. These rallies demanded the nationalization of the oil industry in addition to better wages and living conditions. Two women and one child were killed in Bandar Mashur; nine workers in Abadan – another thirty were wounded. The shootings turned the Abadan crowd into an angry mob that killed three Britains – two engineers and one sailor – and chased another thirty-five into the city’s main cinema. Military reinforcements managed to “extract” them, but the angry crowd – led by company apprentices and technical students – ransacked the cinema and took over the technical college and student hostel. Much of the British community fled the city. The Army used fourteen tanks, six armoured cars, and forty trucks full of soldiers to secure the city… A company official reported to London that the strikers were convinced that by prolonging the strike they were helping the campaign to nationalize the oil industry…
The strike did not end until April 25th… Workers returned to work when the company promised to rescind the (living allowance) decision and to raise minimum wage.
- Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 68-71.
Apr. 1951: Oil Nationalization Bill, Election of Mossadeq as PM
While the strike had been going on, Mossadeq and his Oil Committee had been busy drafting a detailed plan to implement nationalization. Their plan envisioned an orderly and gradual handover of the operations at Abadan and other facilities, with Iranian technicians gradually replacing foreign ones. It also included provisions to set aside 25% of future profits to compensate AIOC for their lost property. You have to remember: AIOC, acting as largely a proxy of the British government, had made massive investments to build the extraction and refining capabilities in Iran. The resultant infrastructure was incredibly valuable, and it was clear that there must be some obligation to compensate AIOC for the seizure of its property.
Of course, the idea that AIOC, after the nationalization, would do anything other than trash the place on the way out and toss the Iranians the keys, was a pipe dream. The last thing AIOC was going to do is facilitate an orderly handover, given the circumstances.
The British attempted to head off Mossadeq’s new nationalization implementation bill by turning once again, as they had in 1921, to Sayyed Zia. Remember him? He’s the guy who acted as the political frontman for the British sponsored coup back in 1921 that ultimately resulted in Reza being crowned Shah. Well, now Zia is back. Kinzer tells the story:
Ambassador Shepherd (remember he’s the British ambassador to Iran) believed he could bring the situation back under control if Iran had a new and more decisively pro-British prime minister. He insisted that the Shah nominate Sayyed Zia, and the Shah dutifully agreed. The Majlis scheduled a vote on his nomination for April 28. That morning, Shepherd issued a statement asserting that His Majesty’s government would not negotiate anything under threat of nationalization. With this show of strength and his friend Sayyed Zia at the head of government, he calculated, events would begin moving in a different direction.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 81.
So clearly this British ambassador was somehow, perhaps willingly, blind to the realities on the ground. There was no way, having come so far, that the Iranians were going to simply going to roll over and accept a known British operative becoming Prime Minister and reversing the nationalization bill.
Regardless, on April 28th, 1951, the Majlis convened to debate and vote on the nomination of Zia as prime minister in the wake of the forced resignation of the ineffective Hussein Ala by the Shah and British. And it was here that the British and the Shah made a fatal miscalculation. Here’s how Mossadeq describes the events in his memoirs:
When I asked some deputies about the reason behind the prime minister’s unexpected resignation (and that’s the resignation of Hussein Ala), I was told the chums (i.e. the British) had decided that little could be done by that prime minister and others like him, and that they would like to bring Sayyed Zia to power. Sayyed was, at that very moment, having an audience with the Shah, waiting for the Majlis to support him for nomination.
Most deputies believed that, as in the 1921 coup, Sayyed Zia’s premiership would result in wholesale arrests and persecutions. But they neither dared to put someone else up, nor did the circumstances permit the nomination of the candidate of foreign powers.
The discussion got under way, and the exchange of views went on for quite some time. Then, in order to speed matters in Sayyed favour, a deputy who – a few days before the assassination of former premier Razmara – had met me at my house to bring me the Shah’s offer of premiership, suggested my name, certain that I would turn it down. I agreed instantly. This relieved the deputies from their predicament, and they all clapped and congratulated me.
- Mossadeq, Mossadeq’s Memoirs, pg 265.
So essentially what happened here is that Mossadeq, at least twice in the recent past, had refused the nomination to the premiership. The mere act of offering the premiership to Mossadeq had the effect of conferring legitimacy on both the Shah and whoever the new prime minister was. After all, the Shah had offered the premiership to the champion of the people, but when that champion refused to serve what choice did the Shah have but to turn to an alternate. It is most definitely not that case that the Shah actually wanted Mossadeq to come into power. As a side note, at this time the Shah is most certainly not on the top of his game, and is suffering severe pain from an intestinal tumour he will have removed in the coming days.
So what was different this time? Why did Mossadeq suddenly accept the premiership when offered? Well, part of the reason is contained in the quote above: There was fear that allowing Sayyed Zia would result in a replay of 1921 with wholesale arrests of dissidents like Mossadeq. As stated in “Mossadeq’s Memoirs”:
If Sayyed Zia had become prime minister there would have been no Majlis left… He would have had me arrested and sent into exile along with others, and in one word, fenced up the country so there would not be the slightest noise from anyone of anywhere to distract him from finishing his task.
- Mossadeq, Mossadeq’s Memoirs, pg 265.
But Mossadeq was savvy enough to also see in this turn of events a unique opportunity of leverage that he could use to fast-track the passage of his bill to implement nationalization. From Kinzer:
When the speaker asked who wished to begin the debate, Mossadeq sat quiet and expressionless. A prominent right wing deputy named Jamal Emami, who was on the British payroll, took the floor instead. Emami did not even mention Sayyed Zia. Instead he launched into a bitter attack on Mossadeq, pillorying him for having plunged the Majlis into immobility and paralyzed the whole country with his constant carping. If the old man wanted a real challenge, Emami said scornfully, he should try being prime minister himself and see how difficult the job was. Mossadeq had several times turned aside suggestions that he take over government, and Emami said he knew the reason why: Mossadeq was one of those irresponsible windbags who delight in making speeches about how wrong everyone else is, but never offer anything positive.
The chamber fell silent as Emami finished speaking. Mossadeq waited for a long moment and then rose to his feet. Speaking slowly and deliberately, he said that he was honoured and grateful for the suggestion that he become prime minister and would in all humility accept. Everyone was stunned, Emami most of all. Soon the shock turned into pandemonium. A formal motion was made that Mossadeq be named prime minister, and the speaker called for an immediate vote. It passed by a margin of seventy-nine to twelve.
Sensing he held the power of the moment, Mossadeq said that he would serve as prime minister only if the Majlis also voted to approve an act he had drawn up to implement the nationalization of Anglo-Iranian. Under its provisions, a parliamentary committee would audit Anglo-Iranian’s books, weigh the claims of both sides for compensation, begin sending Iranians abroad to learn the skills of running an oil industry, and draw up articles of incorporation for a new National Iranian Oil Company. The Majlis approved it unanimously that very afternoon.
The unthinkable had happened. Mossadeq, the symbol of Iranian nationalism and resistance to royal power, had suddenly arrived at the pinnacle of power. It was a moment of exhilaration but also of profound uncertainty. Everyone understood that a clash of titans was approaching.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 82.
Mossadeq proved incredibly astute in making his premiership a package deal with the passage of the oil nationalization bill. Left to normal processes the bill would most certainly have floundered, subject to filibustering and undermined by all manner of unscrupulous behaviour. By ensuring its safe passage through the Majlis in a single day, Mossadeq had outmaneuvered the British and the Shah, and placed both on the defensive.
Spring 1951: Shah Despondent
In the case of the Shah, Mossadeq manages to get him almost completely sidelined, or rather the Shah, in one of his typical fits of depression and morose, sidelines himself. George McGhee, an assistant secretary in the U.S State Department, upon having an audience with the Shah at around this time commented that:
I had been with the Shah about a year and a half earlier during his much-publicized official visit to Washington. He had then been a proud, erect young man, insistent that his requests be taken seriously. As I saw him in the darkened audience chamber in which he received me, lounging on a sofa, he was a dejected, almost broken man. I sensed that he feared he too might be assassinated…
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 90.
McGhee then asked the Shah if he could avert nationalization.
The Shah said he couldn’t do it. He pleaded that we not ask him to do it. He couldn’t even form a government. Everyone was afraid. There were enemies everywhere… He looked lost, as if he thought the whole affair hopeless. I left him alone in his darkened room. I will always remember his sad, brooding face… The spectre of death and impending chaos hung gloomily over Tehran like a dark cloud. I was sad when I said goodbye.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 90.
While the Shah may have been out of the picture as an organizer of effective resistance to Mossadeq’s plans to implementation nationalization, the same, as we’ll see soon, can’t be said for the British.
Jun. 1951: Nationalization is Implemented
Having secured the premiership and passage of the nationalization bill, Mossadeq wasted little time. By the middle of June 1951, the implementation of nationalization was well underway with Iranian officials having started to take over the physical installations of the AIOC outside of Abadan, with the newly formed National Iranian Oil Company subsuming those assets.
On June 20th, the managing director of NIOC flew to Abadan to assert his authority. His initial demand to the British still running the refinery was simple: All captains of British tankers must, before setting sail, henceforth provide receipts indicating how much oil they’re carrying. Even this demand was too much for British pride, and they refused it outright. As far as the British were concerned, the oil was still the legal property of Anglo-Iranian, and as such they were under no obligation to the new Iranian corporation. The Iranians don’t see it that way, and when the matter came to a head, Britain responded, this from Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men:
When the Iranians insisted, Sir William Fraser (and he’s the chairman of the AIOC) issued an order of his own from London. Tanker captains were to pump back all the oil in their holds and leave Abadan.
Iran had, until that moment been the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, supplying 90 percent of Europe’s petroleum. Now, since it owned not a single tanker, it could not export a drop. That was fine with Fraser, who still believed he could bend the Iranians to his will. (Said Fraser) “When they need money they will come crawling to us on their bellies.”
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 94.
The tension between AIOC and Iranian officials increased further when, as part of the nationalization process, Iranian officials came into the possession of a myriad of documents detailing the extent of British interference in internal Iranian affairs. Now, it wasn’t like the Iranians didn’t already know about British interference in their politics. But still, the psychological impact that results from seeing the truth in black and white is many times profound. I’ll again use Kinzer to tell the story:
On June 28th Mossadeq issued an appeal to British technicians and managers at Abadan. He told them that Iran was “anxious to benefit” from their expertise and promised that if they stayed at their jobs, “our country will welcome you warmly.” Fraser, determined that Iran not be able to run the refinery by itself, responded by ordering most of the company’s British employees to leave Iran.
With Iranians already in control of the Anglo-Iranian office in Kermanshah, the next step was for them to take over the Abadan and Tehran offices. They did so during the last days of June. The head of the Abadan office had wisely moved his sensitive papers to the local British consulate, which the Iranians could not enter. Richard Seddon, head of the Tehran office, was not as quick. When a delegation of Iranians arrived to search his home, they found many files still there, including some burning in a fireplace. An official of Iran’s foreign ministry who was present that night summarized what they found:
Although compromising documents had allegedly been removed, enough papers were left behind to make it easy for Mossadeq to prove that AIOC had interfered in all aspects of Iranian political life. The documents revealed that the company had influenced senators, Majlis deputies and former cabinet minsters, and that those who had opposed it had been subtly forced out of office. Newspapers had been paid to publish articles alleging that many of the National Front's leaders were actually stooges of the AIOC. Among the documents was evidence that former Prime Minster Ali Manseur had begged AIOC to allow him to remain in office, promising in return to appoint a new finance minster more agreeable to the company. Another set of letters revealed that AIOC had helped Bahram Sharogh to become director of Iran's Radio and Propaganda Department, and that on a trip to London he had been recruited to serve the company. There were also directives and reports of influencing on guilds, through the Mayor of Tehran, to rise against those in the bazaar who supported the National Front.
The government quickly made these documents public, and many Iranians took them as further proof of the oil company’s perfidy. Mossadeq said they proved that Anglo-Iranian had engaged in a “sinister and inadmissible” campaign to subvert Iranian democracy. Majlis deputies were driven to new levels of anticolonial outrage. So were news commentators, one of whom wrote in a Tehran newspaper: “Now that the curtain is lifted and the real identity of traitors posing as newspaper men, Majlis deputies, governors, and even prime ministers is laid bare, these men should be riddled with bullets and their carcasses thrown to the dogs.”
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 96-97.
So the British were not just relying on a single strategy, but instead they attacked the problem of Iranian resistance from multiple angles. Infiltration of the Iranian political system from local municipal politicians through to cabinet minsters and even prime ministers was augmented by a broad-spectrum cooption of Iran’s media outlets in an attempt to manufacture public opinion. Various factions within Iranian society, potentially sympathetic to the British cause, were identified and groomed for use in future unrest. And, the threat of overwhelming and overt military force, coupled with a looming systematic destruction of the Iranian economy was used to cause fear and agitation within the populace. All of this worked to the same goal: To break the unity of the Iranian resistance, and revert the Iranian society back to the status quo.
The documents uncovered in the AIOC offices provided Iranians with a glimpse into the inner workings of British colonialism in Iran. The result was a wave of anger which swept through all segments of Iranian society. The will of the Iranians to resist at all costs was stiffened. And a stiff resolve they would need. This will not be a short struggle, and the British will do everything they can to break the Iranians.
Jul. 1951: On the Precipice of Invasion
One of the easiest things Britain could do, in addition to their application of economic pressure by making it impossible for Iran to refine or export oil, was to apply military pressure.
Indeed at this point in 1951, the Americans had become increasingly concerned that a military intervention may be exactly the option that the British would turn to next. The Americans, throughout this period were, with some apparent sincerity, trying to broker a reasonable and fair deal between Britain and Iran. Their Ambassador in Iran had been sending regular messages to the Department of State to keep them apprised of the degrading situation, and rising instability, and also of his failure to securing any willingness to compromise on the key issue of nationalization from either Iran or Britain.
And the Americans weren’t wrong to be worried about military intervention on the part of Britain. It turned out that since May the British had been hard at work on something called Operation Buccaneer. Described by Abrahamian in “The Coup”:
The British military, meanwhile, drew up a detailed plan for the occupation of Abadan. Code named “Buccaneer,” the contingency plan spelled out how six battalions would need only twenty-four hours to invade from Iraq and occupy the Abadan refinery… The operation “risked excessive dangers.” It could tempt the Soviets to invade Azerbaijan. It could spark another general strike. It could leads to acts of sabotage in the refinery and oilfields.
- Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 112.
Now, it’s possible to make too much of the plan for Operation Buccaneer. After all, coming up with contingency plans for the use of force to achieve objectives is what militaries do as a matter of course. I’m sure somewhere at the Pentagon are detailed plans for a U.S. invasion of Canada, but that doesn’t mean the Americans have their eye on the great white north. And yet, in this case, it seems like Operation Buchaneer was more than just the pipe dream of some generals off in a closet somewhere. The plan to invade Abadan was elevated for approval to the highest level – Prime Minister Attlee and his successor Churchill – and in addition several battalions of troops were staged in Iraq in case they were needed.
In reality, the most likely reason the British shied away from enacting Buccaneer was the steadfast resistance from the Truman administration and US State Department. Behind the scenes, British diplomates had been pressuring to US State Department to come out in unequivocal support of Britain’s rights to the Iranian oil. According to the British foreign office, it was the ambiguous position of the Americans that had emboldened and enabled Mossadeq’s campaign of nationalization.
The question is why did the Americans not show steadfast support for British actions? There are two major explanations, each holding a different weight in the mind of the various men in the decision making apparatus of the US government. To some, there was a question of basic fairness and justice. The level of exploitation practiced by the AIOC, coupled with the overt colonialist practices, had turned many American statesmen against the British position.
Background: Communist Threat and Evolving American Attitudes
But more important in 1951, the dawn of the cold war, was fear over the reaction of the Soviets. Two years ago, in 1949, the Soviets had detonated their first nuclear bomb, and were now embarking on an all out arms race with the Americans. Communist ideology was racing around the globe, and country after country was falling in communist revolution, including in China where Mao ZeDong’s communist forces had prevailed in a bitter civil war.
American policy makers were rightly concerned about prompting any direct confrontation with the Soviets. It was all too easy to see how a British invasion of Iran’s south would quite possibly trigger a Soviet invasion of Iran’s north, bringing Britain, a key US ally, into direct conflict with the Soviets. In such an event, the US would be forced to assist the British, potentially kicking off World War III. Such a danger already existed on the Korean peninsula, where the US had just embroiled itself in the Korean War.
Add to this the recent circulation in policy circles of National Security Council Paper NSC-68, which set American policy for the first part of the cold war. NSC-68 was a landmark analysis of the state of the world at the dawn of the 1950s, and how the United States should respond to the emerging communist threat. That document recommended to American policy makers a massive military arms buildup of both the conventional and nuclear arsenals of the US military, and a determined opposition to communism anywhere in the world it appeared.
Then you’ve go the recently formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), envisioned as the central mechanism which the US and Britain, along with their other allies, would use to organize opposition and deterrence against the Soviet Union. It was a time when the United States was reluctant to entertain major policy breaks with Britain, lest this send a message of disunity amongst NATO allies to the Soviet adversary.
It is against this back drop that decisions were being made about how the United States would handle the unraveling situation in Iran. While the U.S. didn’t want to publicly break with its British allies, it also saw any British military action as a non-starter given the potential Soviet response. Yet, at the same time, there was a notion in at least some of the American diplomates, that the British had adopted an unreasonable position, and should be pushed to accept nationalization, or at least some flavour of it.
And then there’s another level of complexity: For the British, and for some Americans who agreed with the British position, the existence of Tudeh in Iran, and its tentative support for the National Front, provided a way of reframing British actions: The real issue, they argued, was not about protecting a lucrative and exploitive oil concession, but rather the issue was one of protecting Iran from being taken over by communist insiders. In essence, the fight against communism was being used as a cloak that some people wrapped themselves in to justify continued domination of Iran by Britain for their own selfish purposes. But you can’t apply that allegation of misrepresented motivations to everyone. For some key characters in our story, the overriding fear of the Soviets was fully internalized. For those people, support for unity with the British was an honest believed necessity.
The difficulty is figuring out which motives drive the various key characters in our story. We can make some generalization. In general, it was well understood inside Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, and also inside the CIA, soon to become a key organization in our story, that the communist threat in Iran was not existential. Indeed, a settlement of the oil question in Iran’s favour would undoubtedly have acted as bulwark against any further increase in communist influence. Conversely, continued tension and the commiserate economic devestation by prolonging the conflict with Britain would have the opposite effect, providing fertile ground for communist ideology to take root in Iran.
While this reality was understood within the circles of the intelligence services, this information was not propagated out to the political leadership unfiltered. The briefings to senior politicians were usually focussed on highlighting the internal communist threat and any possible affiliation between the National Front and Tudeh. Thus, the intelligence agencies, in general, were not impartially reporting realities, but instead they filtered the information through a particular lens to bring into focus certain desired conclusions, namely that the National Front, with its tolerance for Tudeh, must be broken and eliminated as part of a coherent response to a perceived Soviet threat.
Jul. 1951: Harriman’s Arrival
It is against this backdrop that the US decided to assert themselves directly into events, with the goal of finding a negotiated solution to the oil crisis. They made clear to the British in no uncertain terms, that the United States would not support any armed intervention in Iran. To attempt to bring the matter to peaceful resolution, the US State Department turned to one of their heavy hitters: Avril Harriman. In addition to being a former ambassador to both the Soviet Union and Britain, Harriman was also a successful businessman, future presidential candidate, and a member of the so-called “wise-men”, the six most powerful statesmen in the post WWII period who shaped American policy during that turbulent time.
Harriman’s mission was clear: Find a negotiated settlement to the oil crisis in Iran. Despite Harriman’s credentials and clout, this will not be an easy task.
Harriman’s troubles began even before he arrived. The British ambassador, upon hearing the news of Harriman’s mission to Iran, held a press conference in which he berated the American mission as pointless, asserting that Britain was not requesting mediation in the matter.
Harriman’s arrival proved even more ominous. He arrived in Tehran to the sound of 10,000 angry protesters, and street violence so extreme that 16 people were killed and almost 300 injured. While Western media was quick to label the unrest as being organic and directed against Harriman, there are reasons to potentially temper this account of events. First, Harriman’s arrival on July 15th coincided with the anniversary of the 1946 general strike, celebrated each year by Tudeh. That was the real reason for most of those 10,000 people being in the streets. Second, that such an event would devolve into violence, was not without precedence, though the degree to which things got out of hand in 1951 far exceeded previous years. And third, Mossadeq’s own interior minister appeared to have intentionally provoked the violence on this occasion, acting contrary to Mossadeq’s orders not to use deadly force, an insubordination which resulted in Mossadeq firing him before the day is out.
Regardless, it’s an inauspicious start to the his mission, and no doubt had an impact on Harriman’s mindset heading into negotiations the next day.
Background: The Issue of “Control” in Negotiations
Now, before we talk about the negotiations, one interesting question to consider is that of control. You see, control was the central and irreconcilable issue of the upcoming negotiations. As described by Abrahamian:
Nationalization initiated a zero-sum struggle. For Mossadeq and Iran, nationalization meant national sovereignty, and national sovereignty meant control over the exploration, extraction, and exportation of oil. For Britain and the AIOC, nationalization meant the exact opposite. It meant loss of control over the exploration, extraction, and exportation of the same oil. Political conflicts usually leave room for compromise; this left little such room. Either control had to be in the hands of Iran – as Mossadeq insisted. Or, as Britain equally adamantly insisted, control should remain in its own hands. If the struggle had been over profit sharing, compromise could have been reached… But since this struggle was over ultimate control, not over bread-and-butter issues, compromise was near impossible.
- Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 82.
The irony is that, had AIOC agreed to the 50/50 profit sharing arrangement a year ago in 1950, prior to Mossadeq’s ascension, Iran would likely have accepted and AIOC could have retained control. But a year later in 1951, the idea of nationalization, and with it control, is so firmly entrenched in Iran that the Iranians are as immovable as the British on the matter.
And so the positions of both Iran and Britain heading into negotiations are clear, though intractable.
Jul. 1951: The Harriman Negotiations
What is more difficult to pinpoint is the position of Harriman as he entered the negotiations. Clearly Harriman was extensively briefed prior to his departure, and the US State Department would have given him some idea of which outcomes were to be considered acceptable. But what were Harriman’s marching orders? Abrahamian describes them as follows:
The British delegate at the UN later wrote that Harriman, before departing, had extensive meetings at the State Department with representatives of the American oil industry anxious to maintain a “tough policy” and pursue a “common front” on the Iranian crisis. They were concerned that “too many concessions in Persia” would have adverse “repercussions in other oil producing countries” including Venezuela. He added that… Harriman left for Tehran “firmly supporting” the line that the AIOC must retain both “control” and the 50/50 principal… The British embassy in Washington assured London that although Harriman was reticent in public… he in private (was) 100 percent behind Britain.
- Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 114-115.
Now, in fairness to Harriman, since I’ve accused him of heading into the negotiations with a pro-British bias, once in Iran he did express some sympathy with the Iranian position and frustration with the aloofness of the British.
In a cable back to Secretary of State Acheson, Harriman complained:
In spite of the fact that the British consider oil interest in Iran their greatest overseas asset, no minister has visited Iran as far as I can find out, except Churchill and Eden on wartime business. Oil company directors have rarely come. Situation that has developed here is tragic example of absentee management combined with world-wide growth of nationalism in undeveloped countries. There is no doubt the Iranians are ready to make sacrifices in oil income to be rid of what they consider to be British colonial practices. Large groups are in mood to face consequences to achieve this objective. It is clear that British reporting and recommendations from here have not been realistic, and it seems essential that a member of British government find out for himself what is going on there.
Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 107.
Such frustration was heightened when Harriman decided to go see Abadan for himself. From Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men, Harriman:
…toured Abadan and sent a cable to Truman reporting that the slums he saw were “shocking for housing employees of a large Western oil company.” In later cables he complained that the British held “a complete nineteenth century colonial attitude toward Iran.” Instead of negotiating seriously, they issued only “rash statements” and “impulsive expressions of resentment” about what they considered the theft of their property in Iran. “I frankly feel that if the British government does not cooperate… it will make the success of my mission extremely doubtful if not impossible.”
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 109.
For forty days Harriman attempted to convince Mossadeq to settle for something less than control. But Mossadeq wouldn’t budge. In desperation, and determined to avoid failure, Harriman started thinking outside the box. From Kinzer:
Unable to move Mossadeq through persuasion, Harriman decided to try influencing him indirectly. First he asked the Shah for help, but the Shah told him frankly that in the face of public opinion, there was no way he could say a word against nationalization. Then he (Harriman) called Iranian reports to a news conference, and when they arrived, he began reading a statement that called on Iran to confront the crisis with “reason as well as enthusiasm.” As soon as those words were out of his mouth, one journalist jumped to his feet and shouted, “We and the Iranian people all support Premier Mossadeq and the oil nationalization!” The others began cheering and then marched out of the room. Harriman was left alone, shaking his head.
In pondering the question of who could influence Mossadeq and the masses, Harriman next came up with an outlandish idea: he would call on Ayatollah Kashani, the firebrand mullah who had become one of Iran’s most powerful public figures…
Harriman arrived at Kashani’s door and was brought into a darkly curtained room where the holy man sat motionless. After removing his shoes, seating himself on a carpet, and expressing his respect, he said he hoped Kashani agreed that the oil crisis could be resolved by some kind of agreement between Iran and Britain. Perhaps, he ventured, Kashani could help persuade Mossadeq to accept a British emissary. As soon as these first few sentences were translated, Kashani erupted with a stream of invective, the gist of which was that no self-respecting Iranian would ever meet with British “dogs” and that the United States had turned itself into Iran’s enemy by suggesting it. As for Iran’s oil, it could remain in the ground for all he cared. “If Mossadeq yields,” he concluded, “his blood will flow like Ramzara’s.”
Not satisfied with the threat, the Ayatollah had another for Harriman himself. He asked if Harriman had heard of Major Embry, and when Harriman said he had not, Kashani explained, “He was an American who came to Iran in 1911 or 1912. He dabbled in oil, which was none of his business, and aroused the hatred of the people. One day, walking in Tehran, he was shot down in the street, but he was not killed. They took him to the hospital. The enraged mob followed him to the hospital, burst into the hospital and butchered him on the operating table. Do you understand?”
- Kinser, All the Shah’s Men, pg 106-107.
Well, you’ve got to hand it to Harriman for trying literally everything to convince Mossadeq to give up the idea of control over Iran’s oil.
But Mossadeq was simply not going to budge. Mossadeq’s position was simple: He will only negotiate on three points: The continued sale of Iranian oil to Britain to meet its domestic needs, the transfer of British technicians from the AIOC to the NIOC, and the amount of money Iran should pay Britain for nationalizing their assets.
Jul. – Sep. 1951: British Ratchet Up the Tension
The departure of Harriman following the failure of his mission in Iran also marked the beginning of a new phase of resistance to Iranian nationalism for the British. British Ambassador Shepherd briefed the British Foreign Office:
My personal view is that there is now no more chance of reaching a reasonable agreement with Mossadeq than ever there was and that the moment has come for us to try and get him out… What the breakdown of negotiations means is that we have no (repeat no) future hope of reaching a reasonable settlement with the present Persian government. The departure of Mr. Harriman from Tehran shows there is no further hope from mediation.
Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 122.
At around the same time that Harriman left Iran, AIOC shut the Abadan refinery as the storage tanks were now full, and no tankers could sail since the British were still refusing the Iranian demand for receipts tracking the quantity of oil exported. In addition, on August 22, 1951, the British took several other punitive measures designed to put pressure, not only on everyday Iranians, but also the political class. The export to Iran of key British commodities like sugar and steel were prohibited. All British personnel, save a core of 300 administrators in Abadan were removed from Iran. And Iran’s assets held in British banks were frozen.
With the departure of the British, the Iranians moved to bring in foreign technicians to run the refinery. There were two problems with this.
First, the British had extensively sabotaged and disabled many key components of the refinery, ensuring that, even if Iran had technicians, it would be difficult to bring production back online.
Second, the British mounted an effective operation to ensure no such foreign technicians would reach Iran. From Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men:
The National Iranian Oil Company placed advertisements in several European newspapers and specialized journals announcing it wished to hire such technicians. British diplomates set out to assure that none would make it to Abadan. They persuaded Sweden, Austria, France, and Switzerland to deny exit visas to interested applicants. In Germany, which was still under Allied occupation, they asked the government to “refuse the grant of passports to German nationals intending to travel to Persia” unless they could prove they were not oil specialists; the Germans were in no position to resist. An American firm publicly offered the Iranian government help “to recruit 2,500 American technicians to run the oil industry,” but withdrew the offer after being warned by the State Department that it was “contrary to British interests and embarrassing to the United States.”
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 115.
Just in case Iran was somehow successful in scraping together enough qualified people to run the refinery, British moved to ensure that any oil refined would be unable to leave Iran. AIOC placed ads in the major newspapers of 33 countries around the world, including the Wall Street Journal and the Economist. The advert read as follows:
Announcement by Anglo-Iranian Oil Company Limited
It has been brought to the Company’s notice that the Government of Iran in disregard of its solemn obligations to the Company, of the recent Order of the International Court of Justice, and of its international obligations, attempts to sell crude oil and oil products derived from the area covered by the Convention of 29th April, 1933.
The Company is confident that no oil company of repute or any tanker owners or any brokers of standing will countenance any direct or indirect participation in the unlawful actions of the Iranian Government. Should, however, any concerns or individuals enter into transactions with the Iranian Government in regard to the oil products concerned, they are warned that this Company will take all such action as may be necessary to protect its rights in any country.
Now, technically it would be illegal for the British Navy to go around intercepting ships on the high seas, absent a declaration of war or UN security council resolution. But, given the current state of affairs, there were not a lot of companies owning vastly expensive tankers willing to take that chance.
And the few tanker companies that were willing to risk British wrath and run the quasi-blockade, soon found themselves under immense diplomatic pressure. As it turns out, the British were intercepting and reading all telegrams to/from the NIOC, and this allowed the British to become aware of, and head off, any potential tanker deals while those deals were still in the planning phases.
And, of course, during this entire time period, given the British influence and infiltration of the Iranian media, they continued to run propaganda aimed at destabilizing the Mossadeq government, and splintering the National Front.
Finally Mossadeq had enough. Kermit Roosevelt, who we’ll introduce later in our story as the head of the CIA team which will run the coup in 1953, describes the situation thusly in his book “Countercoup”:
In September 1951 the Iranian Prime Minster notified all British employees of AIOC that they were to be expelled from Iran. On September 27 of that year he instructed Iranian troops to occupy the Abadan refinery. At first the British seemed likely to reply by force. They had sent a cruiser, the Mauritius, to join other smaller vessels and to lie off the Iranian shore. It required U.S. pleas, plus Soviet threats, to dissuade the Labour government from having the Mauritius shell Abadan,
- Roosevelt, Countercoup, pg 101.
It is at this time that US Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided the time had come to replace the current ambassador in Iran. Ambassador Grady had become, in the eyes of many, and especially the British, a liability, given his history of sympathy for the nationalist movement in Iran. Given the rising tensions which threatened to break out into open military confrontation and given the possibility that such a confrontation which would draw in both the Soviets and Americans, someone more attuned to the geopolitical cold war game of chess was needed. Acheson brought in Loy Henderson.
Henderson was the quintessential diplomatic cold warrior of the 1950’s, and indeed Henderson had warned strongly about the Soviet threat back before and during the second world war, even as the Soviets were allied with the U.S. In Henderson’s world, all geopolitics must be viewed through the lens of the cold war. And for the record I’m not saying he was wrong. My personal opinion is that Henderson saw the realities of the communist threat long before his peers, and at great cost to himself and his reputation voiced his concerns.
But, with Henderson’s arrival in Tehran, came the possibility of the US more directly involving itself in the oil crisis. In Henderson’s world, while he would probably have preferred an outcome in Iran that was equitable to both Iran and Britain, that was a secondary concern. His primary concern was to ensure that the Soviet’s were not able to use the instability in Iran to expand their influence. Resistance to the spread of communism was first and foremost what Henderson was committed to; everything else, including fairness, was a distant second.
Oct. 1951: UN Security Council Complaint
At around the same time, in October of 1951, the British, with their quasi-embargo in place, decided to take their case to the UN Security Council. If the British received a finding from the UN Security Council, their hands would be untied, and they’d be able to enforce a real embargo on the Iranian oil industry.
There are those who presciently warned against taking the case before the UN. From Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men:
Americans warned against this. Henry Grady, by then already a former ambassador, told a London newspaper that the British were foolishly giving Iranians “a great forum to tell the world how their oil company has oppressed the Iranian people, and to show that Western capitalism is tending to control, and possibly destroy, other countries in the underdeveloped part of the world.”
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 117
Grady, it turns out, was spot on. Mossadeq chose to seize the moment and fly to New York to present Iran’s case to the Security Council himself. The symbolism of the frail old man, arguably the most compelling and eloquent figure produced by modern Iran, standing in defiance of oppression at the hands of an old colonial empire, made a compelling underdog story too good for the media to pass up.
No sooner did Mossadeq arrive in New York than he became something of a household name in the U.S. Media coverage was mixed but, in general, more and more Americans came to see Mossadeq as a freedom fighter, not the illogical communist the British were painting him as.
Mossadeq opened the first day of debate at the United Nations Security Council on October 15th, 1951, starting with the following summary of the Iranian position:
My countrymen lack the bare necessities of existence. Their standard of living is probably one of the lowest in the world. Our greatest natural asset is oil. This should be the source of work and food for the population of Iran. Its exploitation should properly be our national industry and the revenue from it should go to improve our conditions of life. As now organized, however, the petroleum industry has contributed practically nothing to the well-being of the people or to the technical progress or industrial development of my country. The evidence for that statement is that after fifty years of exploitation by a foreign company, we still do not have enough Iranian technicians and must call in foreign experts.
Although Iran plays a considerable role in the world’s petroleum supply and has produced a total of three hundred fifteen million tons over a period of fifty years, its entire gain, according to accounts of the former company, has been only one hundred ten million pounds sterling. To give you an idea of Iran’s profits from this enormous industry, I may say that in 1948, according to accounts of the former Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, its net revenue amounted to sixty-one million pounds; but from these profits Iran received only nine million pounds, although twenty-eight million pounds went into the United Kingdom treasury in income tax alone…
I must add here that the population living in the oil region of southern Iran and around Abadan, where there is the largest oil refinery in the world, is suffering in conditions of absolute misery without even the barest necessities of life. If the exploitation of our oil industry continues in the future as it has in the past, if we are to tolerate a situation in which the Iranian plays the part of a mere manual worker… and if foreign exploiters continue to appropriate practically all of the income, then our people will remain forever in a state of poverty and misery. These are the reasons that have prompted the Iranian parliament – the Majlis and the Senate – to vote unanimously in favour of nationalizing the oil industry.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 123-124.
During the series of Security Council sessions on the issue Mossadeq more directly attacked British actions and motivations in a way the resonated with his listeners. Summarized by Kinzer:
… Mossadeq remained the man of the hour. In his sweeping indictment before the Security Council, he found words that stung his adversary and delighted his countless admirers. He began his second day at the microphone by ridiculing the British for trying “to persuade world opinion that the lamb has devoured the wolf.”
“The government of the United Kingdom has made abundantly clear that it has no interest in negotiating, and has instead used every illegitimate means of economic, psychological, and military pressure that it could lay its hand on to break our will… Having first concentrated its warships along our coasts and paratroopers in nearby bases, it makes a great parade of its love for peace.”
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 125-126.
Now, with rhetoric like that, you can understand how Mossadeq proved quite successful in swaying his listeners.
The British were apparently tone-deaf to the increasing sympathy garnered by the Iranians. The summary of their position, submitted to the UN Security Council prior to its meeting to discuss the matter, read in part as follows:
The Iranian government, for obvious reasons of their own, perpetually represent the Anglo Iranian Oil Company as a gang of unscrupulous blood-suckers whose one idea is to drain the Iranian nation of any wealth that it may possess. This accusation is simply not true.
(The British position then goes into a long explanation of the financial contributions the oil industry has made to the betterment of Iran, including the trickle down effects not included in the royalty payments, things like increased customs collection and taxation on imported goods needed for the oil industry, etc. The British position paper then continues:)
Quite apart from its financial contributions to the Iranian economy, the record of the company in Iran has been one which must arouse the greatest admiration from the social point of view and should be taken as a model of the form of development which would bring benefits to the economically less developed areas of the world…
They have organized every kind of vocational training for their employees in Iran. They have built, staffed, and equipped three hospitals and 35 dispensaries. They have also founded 30 elementary and secondary schools…
It is thanks to the Company that tens of thousands of Iranian workmen at present enjoy housing conditions and education facilities, and health and other social services, on a scale which the working people of Iran enjoy in no other part of the country…
The plain fact is that, by a series of insensate actions, the Iranian government are causing a great enterprise, the proper functioning of which is of immense benefit not only to the United Kingdom and Iran, but also the whole Free World, to grind to a stop; and that unless this process is promptly checked, the whole of the Free World will be much poorer and weaker, including the denuded Iranian people themselves.
After all, what we have been trying to establish here in New York during the last six years (meaning since the founding of the UN) is a Free World, that is to say, a world in which the big and powerful nations do not bully the small and poor ones, but equally one in which the small and poor ones have their own responsibility to respect international agreements, and do not, by their own unilateral action, pursue a negative and indeed isolationist course.
OK. So we’ve heard the official summaries on both sides. It’s hard for me to take much issue with the complaints of the Iranians, as I think they’re well founded and there is much documented evidence to support their view of an exploitative relationship with Britain.
But what about Britain’s arguments? To me there are two that need to be addressed. First, the assertion that the Iranian worker and Iranian treasury was better off as a result of AIOC being in Iran. Second, the assertion that Iran had an obligation to abide by her international commitments, specifically the 1933 amendment to the D’Arcy concession.
Let’s start with the assertion that the average Iranian was better off as a result of the revenue resulting from AIOC. I think this was categorically true. The Iranian government, even with the pittance remitted to it in contrast to the overall profits being reaped, was still largely funding its economy on the back of AIOC. To argue otherwise is nonsensical.
However, the British argument only works if one pretends one is in a world of only binary choices: Either AIOC exploits Iran’s oil with the resultant, albeit small, amount of revenue for Iran, or the oil stays in the ground and Iran gets nothing.
But there was of course a third obvious choice, exactly the one the Iranians were pursuing. That is that the Iranians themselves pump the oil, vastly increasing the revenue to their treasury. As a result, the British argument about how the Iranians owe their prosperity to the British is not compelling.
The second assertion that Iran had a duty to fulfill its treaty obligations is perhaps more founded. Relations between governments, just like individuals simply cannot function in a positive, bi-lateral manner if the parties involved in an contract cannot trust that the other side will abide by the contract. The breach of a contract requires some kind of response to make whole the victimized party.
I have some sympathy with this argument, but, and this is one of the reason I’ve gone through all the earlier history around the original D’Arcy concession and Reza Shah’s 1933 Agreement. Starting with the D’Arcy concession, recall that in that case, an autocratic ruler sold his countryman’s birthright for some quick cash to essentially fund his harem. To what extent is a country committed in perpetuity to a contract made against their will by a dictator, especially when the opposing party knows full well how unfair the contract is? I think there is some serious grey area here.
It’s potentially even worse when it comes to the 1933 Agreement passed with Reza Shah’s personal intervention. If you recall, even the lead Iranian negotiator at the time was at a loss for how the Shah, having apparently agitated the entire situation, suddenly seemed to give Britain all they wanted and more, with nothing substantial in return. If it was true that Reza, as he had been in the 1921 revolution, continued to be a frontman used by the British for their own ends, then Reza’s 1933 Agreement was not an agreement between Britain and Iran, but rather, in effect, between Britain and Britain. Were Iranians bound by such an agreement? I think if I was placed in the shoes of the average Iranian I would say most certainly not.
I actually think the strongest argument that the British make is somewhat buried in their summation. There is a paragraph that says the following:
Furthermore, under the 1933 Concession, the whole of the Company’s assets in Iran will automatically become the property of the Iranian government when the Concession ends in 1993.
There can be no doubt that the British government and the other owners of AIOC had spent massive amounts of money to build the infrastructure in Iran to extract, refine, and export the oil. These investments were made in the belief that, not only would the investors be made whole, but that they would receive substantial profits for risking their capital. To have Iran simply confiscate their assets would be, in my opinion, a grave injustice.
The Iranians also saw this reality. There was no real discussion in Iran about whether or not to compensate the British for the nationalized infrastructure. Instead the discussion was around placing a value and repayment timeline on that infrastructure. Clearly the Iranians would not be able to pay upfront. The initial nationalization implementation act, approved the same day Mossadeq became prime minister included a provision for 25% of all future profits to be put aside to compensate AIOC for their lost property.
But it makes sense that the British did not want to focus on this issue of compensation for lost property, as doing so would indicate tacit acceptance of that property being taken in the first place.
Regardless, after three days of sessions at the UN, so compelling was the Iranian case that even a watered down resolution simply calling on goodwill from both sides failed to get through the council. This was a huge diplomatic defeat for Britain.
As a side note, at around this time Britain also filed a very similar case with the World Court in the Hague. The resultant proceedings, which didn’t conclude until almost a year later in July 1952 were essentially a replay of what happened at the UN, with the Court ruling 9-5 in favour of Iran.
With the Security Council session completed, Mossadeq accepted an invitation to go to Washington for direct talks with President Truman. The talks, while cordial, did not end any differently from all the other American attempts to mediate the dispute. Mossadeq would simply not move from his position that AIOC must be nationalized, and that Iran must control her own oil industry.
Background: Were the Americans an Honest Broker?
There’s an interesting side question here about the motivations of the Americans at this time. We’ve already talked about the honestly held conviction by some in America that a continued crisis in Iran would lead to Iran becoming more dependant on the Soviet Union, an outcome that must be avoided at all costs.
But, for those American statesmen who held that view, would not the surest way of ensuring that Iran remained stable and democratic have been to ensure its economy remained healthy? After all, communism has always relied on a large disenfranchised poor populating to provide the fertile grounds to spread its ideological seeds. Wouldn’t allowing Iran to nationalize, or even assisting them in the process, be the surest way to ensure a burgeoning middle class, prosperity, and with those things, a population inoculated against the scourge of international communism. This avenue, assured by allowing Iran to enter the world oil market for its own benefit, seems like the blindingly obvious course to take if the overriding fear was truly one of communist infiltration.
And yet, this avenue was never pursued with any vigour by those in Washington. Sure there was some lip service to the idea of helping the Iranians get back on their feet, but nothing specific ever happened, and as we’ve seen, when push came to shove, the Americans consistently sided with their British Allies. Why?
One valid reason for steadfast American support of the British, as I’ve discussed previously, was the conviction that NATO must remain a unified front against the Soviet threat, and that any break in the alliance on major foreign policy issues might be fatal. And I think there’s some merit to it.
But I also think there is more to the story, and that one must peer into the smokey backrooms where the political and corporate elites rubbed elbows and where public policy was often shaped hidden from public view.
Now, most histories of this time period, even one’s like Kinzer’s 2003 book “All the Shah’s Men” which I’ve quoted from extensively, presents the Truman administration through 1952 and into 1953 as supporting the concept of nationalization, much to the chagrin of the British. And to be fair, it is clear that it was indeed the resistance of the Truman administration that prevented the British from taking overt military action in Iran and simply quashing nationalization at the outset.
And it is also true that the Americans did pressure the British to be more reasonable in their demands, and to be more willing to compromise with the Iranians.
However, Abrahamian’s 2013 book “The Coup” uses a great deal of paper convincingly arguing the while Americans did want the British to accept more reasonable terms, and pressured them to do so, the Americans most certainly did not want to see true nationalization succeed in Iran. Why? What evidence can be martialed to support this view of America being in opposition, behind the scenes, to Iranian nationalization?
Well, I think the most obvious argument was the lead role of the Americans themselves in the covert operations and eventual coup used to prevent such a nationalization from succeeding.
But, Abrahamian does a good job providing the other evidence that America’s motives in Iran were not pure, but instead polluted by competing interests. Quoting from Abrahamian’s The Coup:
Even before Mossadeq’s election, McGhee, the assistant secretary of state, had rushed to Tehran to advise Britain to make “generous offers” to avoid such “undesirable consequences” as “nationalization”… He admits in his memoirs: “Both we and the British very much wanted to avoid nationalization of the AIOC concession. This would be bad for AIOC and Iran. It would jeopardize oil concessions held by the US, UK, and other firms around the world.”
…At the same time, McGhee told representatives of the main American oil companies, including Aramco, Gulf, Socony, and Standard Oil of New Jersey, that to “salvage” operating contracts and “protect concession rights in other parts of the world” it might be expedient to accept some semblance of nationalization. But, he assured them that the United States would not accept outright nationalization, since this would “have adverse consequences in other oil producing states.”
… The American companies expressed “fear that a soft American stance with respect to unilateral cancellation of concessions might weaken their own positions in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
- Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 91 – 92.
And it wasn’t just oil concessions in other countries that the Americans were worried about. The status of everything from Chilean nitrates, Palestinian potash, and the Suez canal could be stake if the fires of nationalization were allowed to spread unchecked.
These concerns, and the reality in America of vested interests, is important to keep in mind as we move forward through the tumultuous time leading into the coup. It is these concerns, coupled with the need to maintain the solid solidarity amongst key NATO members, that does much to explain American actions.
Oct. 1951: Churchill Elected
Returning home having successfully faced down the British at the UN, Mossadeq was elevated to the level of a demigod across the entire region. Stopping in Egypt on his way home, Mossadeq was given a hero’s welcome and was celebrated in the streets. The scene was repeated upon his return to Iran.
Britain’s newly elected Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, disgusted by Mossadeq’s popularity, made the decision that, one way or another, Mossadeq had to go. From Kinzer:
Churchill had built his election campaign in part of the charge that Attlee “had scuttled and run from Abadan when a splutter of musketry would have ended the matter.” In one of his first acts after taking office, he sent his new foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, to meet Acheson. He directed Eden to press the Iran matter and “be stubborn even if the temperature rises.”
The change in Britain’s government would prove decisive for Iran. Attlee had done whatever he thought possible on behalf of Anglo Iranian, stopping only at the use of force. Churchill, who considered Mossadeq “an elderly lunatic bent on wrecking his country and handing it over to the Communists,” was willing and even eager to cross that line. The ferver with which Mossadeq was welcomed in Egypt proved to Churchill that he was not only a danger to Britain’s oil supply but also an intolerable symbol of anti-British sentiment around the world.
Britain’s policy toward Mossadeq toughened immediately. Foreign Secretary Eden told Acheson that the Americans had spent too much time appeasing (Mossadeq), and that inviting him to Washington had been a mistake. From now on, he declared, Britain would be interested only in deposing him.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 132.
The British efforts to get rid of Mossadeq proceeded through several phases. Initially, the British simply redoubled their efforts on their old tactics. First and foremost this meant using their assets in the Iranian and the world media to try and set the narrative and undermine Mossadeq. Abrahamian gives an overview of some of these propaganda operations:
To disseminate such views, the British press attache in Tehran sent his counterpart in Washington “a steady supply of suitable poison too venomous for the BBC.” The Washington attache reported American columnists made “quote good use of this poison.” He boasted how he even helped some of they write some of their pieces on Iran. Drew Pearson – the venerable dean of American journalism and lead columnist for the Washington Post – circulated a completely fabricated story about how Fatemi, Mossadeq’s right hand, had multiple convictions of embezzlement and jury tampering. “Do American’s… want such a crook to continue masterminding the whole Middle East oil crisis? …This man eventually will decide whether the American people go into World War III.”
Time, in a backhanded complement named Mossadeq Man of the Year, but went on to describe him as “obstinate”, “fanatical”, “menacing”, “weeping”, “simple-tracked”, “prone to tantrums”, and “an appalling caricature of a statesman”. “The fact… that Iranians accept Mossadeq’s suicidal policy is a measure of the hatred of the West – especially of Britain – in the Middle East… This old wizard in a mountainous land is, sad to relate, the Man of 1951.” The British press attache in Washington (and this Abrahamian got from Foreign Office telegrams) was tempted to “horrify” the American public by spreading rumours that Mossadeq reeked of opium and “indulged freely” in the drug.
Of course the British papers – including the highbrows – outdid the Americans in denigrating Mossadeq. The Observer described him as “an incorruptible fanatic,” a “confused but passionate old man impervious to common sense arguments and expediency,” and a “bewildered and desperately short-sighted politician with only one political idea in that gigantic head”.
As soon as the crisis erupted, the British embassy in Tehran requested the BBC in London to double its Persian-language service and to replace an uncooperative reporter in Iran… Launching a “propaganda” war, the BBC hammered away on how nationalization would inevitably impoverish the country by running to ground the refinery, giving power to incompetents, scaring off technicians, drying up needed royalties, and channeling revenues into the pockets of corrupt government officials. The Foreign Office forcefully complained whenever newspapers diverged from this official script – especially when they hinted that the “oil lobby” carried any weight within the State Department.
- Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 100-103.
So what we have here is really a continuation and escalation of the same propaganda war that had been waged previously by Britain against Iran, with one important difference: A new emphasis of attacking Mossadeq personally is added. You see this tactic used time and again, up to and including present day. Whenever a popular leader appears who captures the voice of a portion of the population, and who gives voice to their views in a charismatic way, that person will be relentlessly attacked.
Often the attack vector used is simple projection. The establishment will accuse the individual of exactly those crimes which establishment is busily committing. Accusing Mossadeq of being corrupt, and tampering with the electoral and legal systems, are examples of this.
As part of such propaganda operations it’s vital to silence dissident voices. The establishment must maintain the appearance of consensus amongst the so called experts who disseminate a consistent world view throughout the various publications. In the case of Iran in 1953, this meant simply controlling the newspapers, radio and television by silencing any journalists who deviated from the proclaimed truth. Then as now, the ability of the mainstream media to serve its function as the commons in which differing ideas compete to uncover truth gets squashed and dissenting voices are discredited and silenced. Back in 1953 this meant removing reporters who wouldn’t tow the line. Today we add to this the explicit censorship of social media.
Spring 1952: Weaponizing the Electoral Process
In addition to the escalated propaganda attack on Mossadeq, the second avenue used by the British was the outright interference and rigging of the 1952 elections in Iran. Now we’ve seen such interference by Britain in Iranian elections before, but this time there were two differences. First, the scale of the interference was massive in 1952, larger than what had been seen previously in Iran, and second, the interference was now occurring in a country with a newly awakened pride and nationalist spirit. What Iranians accepted in years gone by as just the way things worked was, in 1952, not going to fly.
Regardless, in the lead-up to the 1952 elections, British agents and dollars flooded through Iran buying candidates and deputies outright. The task was simplified by the lack of oversight in the regions outside Tehran and the major cities, and the ability of the local aristocracy and tribal leaders in those areas to control how the vote went. All those British pounds washing through Iran were put to good use to secure an anti-Mossadeq outcome in much of the rural heartland of Iran. Abrahamian describes the process:
Most constituencies in Iran were “rotten boroughs.” Elections in small towns and rural constituencies were determined partly by local magnates – especially big landlords and tribal chiefs, herding their peasants and tenants to the polls – and partly by provincial officials, including military commanders, packing the electoral boards, supervising the balloting, and announcing the results…
Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 131-132
Remember that elections in Iran would play out over many days or even weeks. And what started happening in 1952 was that the National Front dominated in the cities, from which results were received more quickly, but then, as the rural votes started coming in, the tide started shifting against the National Front and to the pro-British deputies. Now Mossadeq wasn’t stupid. He, and many Iranians, knew the game here. They knew that Britain was rigging the elections outside the city. This was one reason that, aside from oil nationalization, the other major component of Mossadeq’s first term as prime minister had been electoral reform. But, in 1952, the needed reforms had not yet gotten through the Majlis, and so the elections were proceeding under the old, easily corruptible rules.
As the people sensed that they were being robbed of their agency, violence against the obviously rigged elections broke out in several locations across Iran. Mossadeq, who needed to head for The Hague to defend Iran against another British lawsuit, this time at the World Court, suspended the elections after 80 of the 136 deputies were elected, the vast majority deputies from the cities, and a sufficient number for the Majlis to have quorum. This action of suspending the election effectively ensured that the National Front maintained control of the Majlis.
Now, the obvious criticism here is that Mossadeq himself had interfered in the electoral process by prematurely suspending the vote tallying. There is no denying this fact. And yet, when I place myself in his shoes, what was he supposed to do? Simply let the British steal the election?
However, Mossadeq’s action of suspending the election to ensure he remained in power was a gift for his adversaries and their propaganda campaign. Anti-democratic and autocratic were added to the list of anti-Mossadeq grievances expounded by Britain’s propaganda machine.
Jun. 1952: Britain Seizes Tanker
So at this point in the story the British have tried to oust Mossadeq using extensive propaganda and attempted election rigging, but to no avail. However, the propaganda coupled with the quasi-embargo that Britain had enforced on Iranian oil for over a year was starting to strain Iranian society. The economy was struggling, and the suffering of the Iranian people had increased.
However, the one bright light was the success of a handful of tankers, mainly from Argentina and Japan, to export some oil out of Abadan, in spite of the British threats. In June of 1952 the British are forced to respond to maintain their stranglehold on Iran’s economy. Kinzer tells the story as follows:
During the first half of 1952, tankers from Argentina and Japan managed to make their way into and out of Iranian ports despite Britain’s proclaimed embargo. Another brought four thousand tons of Abadan oil to Venice, and after an Italian court rejected Britain’s protest, Winston Churchill complained amount “what paltry friends and allies the Italians are.” Churchill realized that if he did not enforce the embargo more effectively, it would collapse.
In mid-June dock workers at the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Mushar welcomed the tanker Rose Mary, which had been chartered by a private Italian oil company that wanted to buy twenty million tons of Iranian crude over the next decade, The company had organized this “experimental voyage” to challenge Britain’s embargo. If the Rose Mary could make her way safely back to Italy, the embargo would be broken and Iran would be on the road to economic recovery.
…British warships… intercepted the Rose Mary and forced her to port to the British protectorate of Aden. In a court there, British lawyers argued that Anglo-Iranian was the legal owner of all Iranian oil and that therefore the Rose Mary was carrying stolen property. The verdict, which to no one’s surprise was in Britain’s favor, did not come for several months, but news that the Royal Navy was now intercepting tankers carrying Iranian oil was enough to scare off other customers…
Britain’s seizure of the Rose Mary was a devastating blow to Mossadeq and his government. No oil company would now do business with Iran, so the country’s main source of income was gone.
Mossadeq told Iranians that their campaign for national dignity required “deprivation, self-sacrifice and loyalty,” and although most agreed, they suffered nonetheless.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 137-138.
As an interesting side note, the Italian responsible for organizing the attempt at breaking the British blockage, Enrico Mattei, was later killed when his plane was bombed. A prominent Italian journalist who investigated Mattei’s death was also murdered, as were the police investigators who investigated the crime. It was Mattei who had coined the moniker the “seven sisters” in reference to the seven largest oil companies in the world, of which AIOC was one. Mattei had made it his mission to break the stranglehold of the seven sisters on the world’s oil supply, and one can theorize that the seven sisters did not appreciate his efforts in that area.
Returning to our story in 1952, in the aftermath of the Rose Mary’s seizure by the Royal Navy, Mossadeq’s government took steps to try and keep Iran solvent, including exporting textiles and foodstuffs, but obviously the revenue paled in comparison to the lost oil revenue.
July 1952: Mossadeq Resignation and July Uprising
It’s right at this time, in July of 1952, that Mossadeq moved to take control of the Iranian military from the Shah. Here’s how Mossadeq describes his motives in his memoirs:
Having come back from The Hague (and remember this is where Mossadeq, after prematurely ending the 1952 elections, had gone to defend Iran against a British suit in international court), I had to present my new cabinet to the Majlis. In order to avoid an open disagreement with the (royal) court over the interpretation of some articles of the Supplement to the Constitution, I decided to take charge of the ministry of war myself. The idea was to reduce the (royal) court’s interferences in public affairs, and let things proceed in the country’s interest… My motive was to make sure that government decisions were enforced in that department: the orders of his Majesty the Shah, who was not answerable to parliament, used to be enforced in that department because the army general staff was under royal supervision, whereas the government… had no power and authority there.
That is why I made the suggestion in my royal audience on the morning of 17 July, 1952, and it did not meet with His Majesty’s approval. The Shah said something to the effect that “in that case tell me to pack my bag and leave the country”. Since I would never contemplate such a thing, I resigned informally forthwith and made for the door. His Majesty then blocked my way out by leaning against the door which was shut. I kept insisting that I wanted to leave and he went on trying to stop me until I had an attack and fainted. After I came round I was given leave to go, and was told that if I had not heard from him by 8.00 p.m. I should send a formal resignation. He also said that should anything unpleasant happen, he would expect my help and support, and I humbly replied that I had taken an oath of loyalty to him and would remain true to my word.
- Mossadeq, Mossadeq’s Memoirs, pg 340.
In another part of Mossadeq’s memoirs he talks specifically about how the military, then under control of the Shah, had interfered openly with the 1952 election, and that it was actively undermining his government. It was Mossadeq’s recognition that, without taking control of the military from those opposed to him, his government had no chance to govern successfully, that prompted him to force the issue. The Shah’s 8 p.m. deadline for decision came and went. Mossadeq heard nothing. His resignation speech read in part as follows:
In the course of recent events, I have come to the realization that I need a trustworthy war ministry to be able to bring to a successful conclusion the national struggle launched by the Iranian people. Since His Majesty has refused my request, I will resign and permit someone who enjoys royal confidence to form a new government and implement His Majesty’s policies. In the present situation, the struggle started by the Iranian people cannot be brought to a victorious conclusion.
- Abrahaminan, The Coup, pg 138.
This was a gamble by Mossadeq, but a calculated one. He knew that, with the confrontation with Britain over oil nationalization reaching a new level of belligerence, he needed control of the Iranian military in order to prevent foreign interference. Mossadeq was acutely aware that the Shah remained largely a tool of the British, and would be easily convinced by the British to stand down the Iranian forces if the British sought to assert themselves.
And so Mossadeq, at the absolute height of popular support had decided to force the Shah’s hand, and in so doing wrest from him control of the war ministry.
It was a risky gambit, and there was a chance that, if the Shah and British handled it delicately, they could have actually accomplished both the goal of getting Mossadeq, the one man capable of holding the National Front together, to fade into obscurity, and come to an oil agreement that stopped short of outright nationalization without provoking riots in the streets.
But it turns out that Mossadeq had read the situation perfectly. The British insisted that the Shah nominate Ahmad Qavam, a former Iranian Prime Minister known in Iran for his long history of carefully aligning himself with the British. Qavam was the opposite of Mossadeq, and he wasted no time kicking the beehive of nationalism. Kinzer describes the events as follows:
In the end the Shah succumbed to British pressure, as he was wont to do, and accepted Qavam. Foolishly believing that he had won a firm mandate, Qavam immediately began issuing harsh proclamations declaring that the day of retribution had come. He denounced Mossadeq for failing to resolve the oil crisis and for launching “a widespread campaign against a foreign state.” Iran, he declared, was about the change. “This helmsman is on a different course” he declared in his first statement as prime minister. Anyone who objected to his new policies would be arrested and delivered into “the heartless and pitiless hands of the law.”
Most Iranians did not realize that Mossadeq was really out of power until they heard Qavam deliver this proclamation over the radio.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 139.
The news that, not only was their beloved Mossadeq out, but that a true tyrant squarely in Britain’s pocket would be replacing him, was too much for the Iranian people, and triggered what later became known as the July uprising. On July 19, 20, and 21st protests in the streets of Tehran and other cities escalated to the point of tanks and troops being used to fire on the protestors. Dozens were killed. Protestors responded with barrages bricks and other projectiles aimed at the soldiers. Many soldiers were, at heart, pro-Mossadeq and the situation quickly devolved into isolated acts of insubordination and rumours of pending mutiny.
Rather than realizing that he had pushed to hard, to quickly, Qavam doubled down by making harsh statements against Ayatollah Kashani, and preparing to arrest the popular imam. This is another horrible miscalculation on Qavam’s part. The alliance between Mossadeq and Kashani had always been tenuous, and in July of 1952 it was on the verge of splintering. Qavam’s proclamation against Kashani forced the Ayatollah back into Mossadeq’s camp. Kashani issued a fatwa calling for all soldiers to join with the protestors in a holy war against the imperialists.
Tudeh, which like Kashani had never fully endorsed Mossadeq and only tacitly supported him, now threw in their lot against Qavam as well, organizing a general strike.
The Shah watched the developing chaos with despair. Finally, faced with imminent large scale mutiny within the Iranian military, the Shah caved. From Kinser:
Young military officers, appalled by the carnage, began talking of mutiny. The Shah had completely lost control. His only choice was to ask for Qavam’s resignation. Qavam submitted it at four o’clock that afternoon. Upon receiving it, the Shah sent for Mossadeq.
Their meeting was unexpectedly cordial. The Shah said he was now prepared to accept Mossadeq as Prime Minister and give him control of the war ministry. He asked if Mossadeq still wished to maintain the monarchy. Mossadeq assured him that he did, presuming of course that kings would accept the supremacy of elected leaders.
“You could go down in history as an immensely popular monarch if you cooperated with democratic and nationalist forces,” he told the Shah.
The next day the Majlis voted overwhelmingly to reelect Mossadeq as prime minister. Qavam’s term had lasted just four days. His fall on “Bloody Monday” (the day the many protestors were shot) was a huge almost unimaginable victory for Iranian nationalists. It was an even greater personal triumph for Mossadeq. Without having given a single speech or even stirred from his home, he had been returned to power by a grateful nation…
Mossadeq’s support was now so broad and fervent that he could probably have dismissed the Shah, proclaimed an end to the Pahlavi dynasty, and established a republic with himself as president if he wished. Instead he sent the Shah a peace offering.
- Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men, pg 140-141.
Mossadeq describes that peace offering to the Shah in his memoirs as follows:
…it looked probably that , because of its failure in the international institutions (meaning the UN Security Council and International Court at The Hague), the British government would intensify its struggle inside the country. Therefore, in order to forestall any attempts at poisoning His Majesty’s mind over the war ministry, I requested the Shah to introduce three generals who enjoyed his personal trust to act as my advisors in that department, so that there would be no more grounds for any misgivings… Furthermore, to put His Majesty’s mind completely at rest I wrote the following on the back of a copy of the Quran and sent it to him: “I would be the Quran’s enemy if I wished to act contrary to the constitution, or accept the presidency if they decided to amend it and change the country’s regime (from constitutional monarchy into a republic).” And I told whoever I saw that I neither wished to be Shah nor president, and would leave office the minute the oil conflict ended.
- Mossadeq, Mossadeq’s Memoirs, pg 341.
July 1952: Mossadeq Takes Control
Now, despite the olive branches that Mossadeq extended to the Shah, he wasn’t obtuse to the reality that the Shah was still very subject to the demands of the British, and the British were fuming over the setback of the July Uprising. As Kinser puts it “in the course of a single week they had gone from vague plotting to spectacular victory to utter defeat.” Mossadeq had throughly outmaneuvered their attempts to subvert the Iranian electoral process. He had defeated their two attempts to have the international organizations of the UN and international court intervene on Britain’s behalf. And now he knew that escalation of more subversive activities would be forthcoming. Mossadeq knows what he’s facing, and he takes drastic steps to consolidate the power he will need to withstand the coming onslaught. From Abrahamian:
Mossadeq followed up his victory with a series of hammer blows at the Shah. In addition to retaining the portfolio of the War Minister for himself, he renamed it the Defense Ministry; cut the military budget by 15 percent; appointed investigatory committees to look into past arms deals; retired 135 senior officers… Mossadeq then named (his) own men to head the police, the gendarmerie, and the customs guard. (He) also instructed these heads to communicate directly with the ministry and the general staff, not with the Shah. The long-standing practice had been for these heads of the armed services to have weekly face-to-face meetings with the Shah – bypassing both the ministry and the chief of general staff.
Mossadeq, moreover, trimmed the court budget and the special stipends allocated to the royal family; restricted the monarch’s access to foreign ambassadors; forced the Shah’s mother and twin sister, both of whom conspired with the opposition, to leave the country; … and, most serious of all, transferred the vast royal estates inherited from Reza Shah back to the state they had been between 1941 and 1949. Thus in one blow he drastically cut the patronage system enjoyed by the Shah. Furthermore, he ousted Hassan Imami, the royalist Majlis president, and obtained from Parliament special six-month powers to carry out not only the financial but also economic, legal, educational, and electoral reforms…
What is more, Mossadeq shuffled the cabinet, bringing in more trustworthy ministers… For the first time ever, the cabinet contained no (royal) court placemen… The Shah (was) so depressed he was contemplating abdication…
Armed with its six-month powers, the administration drafted an impressive array of reform bills… To overcome Senate opposition, Mossadeq who had never accepted its creation in 1949, persuaded the Majlis to cut the upper house’s term from six years to two – thus, in effect, promptly dissolving it.
- Abrahamian, The Coup, pg 143 – 146.
So, basically, Mossadeq resigned when he realized that he didn’t have the required control of the military and government apparatus to be successful. Then, when he was placed back into power with undeniable and overwhelming public support, he went for broke. He gutted the established system, completely sidelined the Shah, concentrated power in his own hands. He then moved quickly to essentially implement policies by circumventing the normal legislative process, though his changes would have to be approved through the normal channels within six months.
Looking at these moves, one can easily make the case that Mossadeq was turning into exactly the kind of autocratic ruler he had always so opposed. Moreover, he was certainly pushing beyond the accepted bounds placed on the prime minister by the constitution he had been such an adamant follower of for so many decades.
There are two explanations for Mossadeq suddenly moving in such a forceful way. First, one could argue that his popularity and power had finally gotten to his head, and he was being corrupted by those elements.
The second explanation, and the one I put stock in, is that Mossadeq knew full well that the fight was just getting started, and from here on out, the British would be taking the gloves off. His survival, and the survival of Iran’s nationalist movement, depended on having all the facets of the government and the military working together in lockstep, free from internal division and strife. The British, he knew, were masters at intrigue and stocking internal divisions to their advantage. What he would soon learn was that the Americans were just as skilled in such arts, and his inability to grasp that fact quickly enough will prove fatal.
And this is where I’ll leave the story for now. In the next episode we’ll see how Britain, having tried and failed to influence the Iranian oil crisis through propaganda and election rigging, now pivots to covert operations, ultimately engaging their ally the United Stated in planning and executing an armed coup. Mossadeq will have a few tricks up his sleeves in his epic resistance, but his very nature of kindness and goodwill will prove a key weapon exploited by his adversaries to bring about his own downfall.
I’m Greg Campbell, and you’ve been listening to the Pivotal History podcast.
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