Newark, Del. (Special to Informed Comment: Feature) – On August 19, seventy years ago, the legitimate government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh was toppled in a coup jointly orchestrated by U.S. and British intelligence agencies and their Iranian collaborators. This article was first published in Persian in Iran in the journal Iran-e-Farda in February 1981. Every year, on the anniversary of the Coup in Iran, I write an article but this time, in memory of my late brother who passed away on October 16, 2023, I have decided to have his article translated.
– Fariba Amini
Distortion in History
By Mohammad Amini*
Fifty years after his passing, misinformation about Mohammad Mossadegh is still prevalent. There is an assertion that Mossadegh repeatedly rejected pragmatic solutions put forth by the United States and the United Kingdom to resolve the crisis, causing Iran’s economy to collapse and paving the way for the coup. This is one of the widely accepted misconceptions. The first error is to refer to Mossadegh’s 80-hour talks with George C. McGhee, the US Assistant Secretary of State.
In October 1951, Mossadegh traveled to New York to speak up for Iran’s rights before the UN Security Council. Then he went to Washington, where, on the advice of Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, he agreed to American mediation between Iran and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and then he sat down to talk to McGhee. The truth is that following Lord Herbert Stanley Morrison’s speech in the House of Commons, and then Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s letter to President Truman complaining about why he had invited Britain’s “oil thief” to the White House, it was clear that the British government had no intention of reconciling with Mossadegh.
Of course, Mossadegh was unaware of these issues and sat down to negotiate with the Americans in good faith. Unfair historians have claimed that Mossadegh, at the conclusion of his negotiations with McGhee, “rejected all reasonable American offers to return victorious to his country”. On the contrary, by the time the talks were over, according to Dean Acheson, it appeared that Mossadegh had agreed to all his proposals.
“Mossadegh also appeared willing to have it operated by a “neutral” company-for instance, a Dutch company. Sometimes he would seem agreeable to the presence of a few Englishmen, sometimes not. Working from these premises the three [McGhee and his two assistants at the State Department] devised an ingenious scheme by which Anglo-Iranian would get Iranian oil for export on a basis that represented the same fifty-fifty profit division between government and company in effect elsewhere in the Persian Gulf […] Thinking that we had the makings of a deal, I set out for a series of foreign ministers’, NATO, and General Assembly meetings in Europe […] Rowan [economic minister at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C.] decreed that Mossadegh, leading the attack on British foreign investments, had to fail, to be crushed and punished. This adamant British attitude ruled out further discussion or search for face-saving formulas of retreat for Mossadegh.”
Acheson added that “Nitze and McGhee ended the negotiations on the ground that Mossadegh had never been definite enough on price to give the British a proposal capable of development”. However, Acheson was well aware that Mossadegh had discovered that these were mere ruses and that the failure of negotiations was due to the Anglo-Persian Company’s defiance and Churchill’s support, rather than the fluctuating price of oil: “they told me that Mossadegh never believed them. He knew that the British wanted a fight to the finish, and he took the declaration of a fight to the finish with dignity.” During an interview for the Truman Library’s oral history project, in response to a question about whether the British were obstinate, George McGhee stated:
“Very. Anglo-Iranian [Company] was run by William Frasier, a Scotch accountant who didn’t understand the modern world. His failure to understand the political forces in Iran helped create a very difficult problem for them. The company and the U.K. faced the possibility of a grave loss at a time when they badly needed the income from Iranian oil; so they played their hand pretty close. They missed a great opportunity. We warned them that we were offering fifty-fifty. They could perhaps have had a settlement at fifty-fifty, but they wouldn’t offer it […] In the midst of the impasse, I suggested that Harriman go out together with a Britisher (the U.K. named Lord Stokes) to attempt to bridge the gap between the Iranian Government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but they were unable to do so.”
The truth is that twenty days after Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister, the British government and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company submitted a lawsuit to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to stop the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry, which was approved by the majority of the Iranian National Assembly. So, it was clear that four months after filing this lawsuit and during Mossadegh’s visit to the United States, the British government and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company had no desire to reconcile with Iran.
Here, it’s important to clear up some misunderstandings about the British complaint to the International Court of Justice.
On May 26, 1951, the British government filed a complaint against Iran to the International Court of Justice.
On June 22, 1951, The Hague Tribunal set September 3 for the submission of the British Memoir and December 3 for the Iranian Counter-Memoir. Britain went even further, asking the Tribunal, on the same day, to stop “the dispossession” of the Anglo-Persian Company in Iran. The Tribunal decided to address this matter on June 30. Some historians have claimed that three Iranian parliament members rushed to The Hague in response to the same issue. This claim is made either out of ignorance of historical facts or to discredit Mossadegh. The Iranian government never responded to the British complaint, and there is no evidence of Iran’s response in The Hague Tribunal’s archives (in the section that relates to Iran’s case, pages 700-765). In July 1952, Ali Shayegan, Hasan Sadr, and Ali Asghar Parsa went to The Hague in response to an injunction order, not a British complaint. Ali Shaygan, a member of parliament, provided a report detailing the trip’s motivations after his return. On February 4, 1952, one week before the court deadline was set to expire, Hossein Navab, Iran’s ambassador to the Netherlands, presented Iran’s statement to The Hague Tribunal, denying the court’s jurisdiction over the British complaint. The court granted Iran’s petition, which was based on the oil concession agreement of 1933 between Iran and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Mossadegh’s trip to The Hague was not to appear at court but rather to declare that the tribunal lacked the authority to hear and decide the complaint.
“The Court has arrived at the conclusion that it has no jurisdiction to deal with the case submitted to it by the Application of the Government of the United Kingdom dated May 26th, 1951. It is unnecessary for the Court to consider any of the other objections raised to its jurisdiction. Since the Court is without jurisdiction in the present case, it need not examine any arguments put forward by the Iranian Government against the admissibility of the claims of the United Kingdom Government.”
Now, I’ll go back to the subject of Mossadegh’s “stubbornness” towards “the proposal” jointly made by the United States and the United Kingdom. The Churchill-Truman proposal was delivered to Mossadegh, in August 1952, a month after Britain’s defeat at The Hague Tribunal. According to McGhee, after the Washington talks failed in 1951, he had suggested that Stokes and Harriman mediate to resolve the issue and convince the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to take on the US offer. At the time, Britain hoped to win the case in court, so this proposal did not go anywhere; however, after Britain’s defeat in court, Churchill considered the US mediation.
Interestingly, the first paragraph of this proposal was to accept the World Court’s arbitration in dealing with this issue, even though the Court had voted just one month ago to have no jurisdiction in this matter. Truman and Churchill made a passing reference in their proposal to a letter Mossadegh had sent to the British government through the British Embassy in Tehran in August 1951, requesting that the oil embargo on Iran be lifted. Mossadegh’s reaction to this proposal, which was presented to the Iranian parliament, stemmed from his desire to defend Iran’s rights. He said that returning the case to the international court was unacceptable and that Iranian courts, which, after The Hague Court’s ruling, were the only ones authorized to hear the company’s claims, were ready to settle the two parties’ differences. He did, however, respond to Churchill and Truman by saying that Iran was even willing to accept the International Court’s proceedings in certain circumstances:
- To decide over the amount and compensation payments for the properties that the company had at the time of the nationalization of the oil industry in Iran, based on any laws, applied to the nationalization of industries in any countries, that the company is willing to accept. This will be the only compensation that Iran will pay, and the company will not have any other claim for compensation.
- To deal with lawsuits and resolving disputes between 1933 and 1947 according to the 1933 agreement, and between 1948 and April 30, 1951 (the date on which the oil industry nationalization law was approved), according to the 1933 agreement and the supplemental Gass-Golshaian agreement that the company signed and approved, but the Iranian government and parliament do not believe it is sufficient for the realization of Iran’s rights.
- To determine the amount of damage to the Iranian government because of the problems that the British government and the company have created for the sale of Iranian oil, as well as for the export of goods and Iran’s use of sterling funds.
- The payment of 49 million sterling calculated on the company’s 1950 balance sheet for the increase in royalties, taxes, and Iranian shares.
Mossadegh, who had accepted the US proposals more than a year before and had won The Hague Court case, had now presented some simple proposals to the British government. Of course, these proposals were not acceptable to a government that called Mossadegh “the thief of British oil.” Churchill and his administration had only one goal: to subdue Iran. Therefore, other proposals presented to Iran in late 1952 were not viable options. With Dwight Eisenhower’s victory in the US presidential election in November 1952, a campaign to depose Mossadegh was launched, and the events of March 1953, particularly the murder of General Afshartous in April 1953, were part of this campaign.
Donald Wilber, the lead US planner of the coup, in his report says: “British Intelligence representatives brought up the proposition of a joint political action to remove Prime Minister Mossadeq […] On the basis of the […] overture and other clear signs that determined opposition to Mossadeq was taking shape […], the US Government could no longer approve of the Mossadeq government […] it was authorized to consider operations which would contribute to the fall of the Mossadeq government.”
In the first few weeks following Eisenhower’s inauguration, the campaign to overthrow the Iranian government started. Two weeks after the US election, Christopher Woodhouse, MI6 agent in Tehran before the British embassy was closed, and Sam Falle, the head of the MI6 station in Iran, left for Washington DC to meet with their American colleagues. In a secret meeting on December 2, Kermit Roosevelt joined them, and then this group met with the US Secretary of State and the head of the CIA. At this meeting, Roosevelt was tasked with leading the operation to overthrow Mossadegh. To survey the area and prepare the necessary information, Roosevelt sent Miles Copeland, one of the unknown CIA officers, to Iran. On April 16, 1953, the Eisenhower’s administration prepared a relevant study titled “Factors Involved in the Overthrow of Mossadegh”, thanks to Copeland, Roosevelt, and their British counterparts, and the operation to overthrow Mossadegh officially began.
Therefore, those who believe that Mossadegh made a mistake by declining US-UK proposals in the final seven to eight months of his premiership and that his policy opened the door for the 1953 coup are either uninformed or aiming to reverse history. Because of the shift in US foreign policy under President Eisenhower, the British government, which had been considering overthrowing Mossadegh ever since he became prime minister, no longer felt the need to work with Iran to find solutions. The project to depose Mossadegh was underway, and he found himself alone, having lost many of his previous allies and being unable to stand up to the world’s most powerful intelligence organizations, as well as their Iranian associates.
*Mohamamd Amin Amini was a historian, a public intellectual and a formidable speaker of immense courage. Author of several books On Dr. Mossadegh and Ahmad Kasravi, he passed away in Irvine, California at the age of seventy-one. He was one of the founders of the Confederation of Iranian Students in the U.S. and the eldest son of Nosratollah Amini, a member of the National Front and the personal lawyer to Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.
This article was translated by Mehdi Mousavi, my friend and colleague.
 Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, New York, 1969, pp. 510-511.
 “Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. Case (United Kingdom v. Iran) Preliminary Objection, Judgment of July 22nd, 1952”, International Court of Justice, Reports of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders, Leyden, 1952, p. 114.
 Donald Wilber, Regime Change in Iran: Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran, Spokesman, 2006, pp. 19-20.