Vernon Walters’ Mossadegh Stories
Veteran Diplomat, CIA Man Amuses Crowd (1974)

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | March 25, 2021                        

Vernon A. Walters (1917-2002) Vernon Anthony Walters (1917-2002) was a distinguished career government official whose duties spanned military, diplomatic and intelligence spheres.

Serving ten U.S. Presidents in a wide variety of posts, he was most notably Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (1972-1976) and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1985-1989).

Walters was fluent in seven foreign languages, and served as interpreter for Pres. Harry Truman and other top U.S. diplomats during their talks with the French-speaking Iranian Premier, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1951.

He recalled this period in his 1978 memoir, Silent Missions, which contained gossipy, demeaning anecdotes about Mossadegh’s looks, temperament and persona during oil negotiations.

Walters had already tried out most of those stories before a live audience while giving an off-the-record speech as DDCI in 1974. The Mossadegh-related tales and wisecracks, excerpted below, largely mirrored what he put in his book a few years later, only set to a laugh track. Presumably they have some historical value as well, despite being uncorroborated by Walters’ own detailed memorandums on the discussions.

September 16, 1974

International Affairs Institute | Fort Meade, Maryland
Lt. Gen. Vernon Walters Speech

Averell Harriman, Vernon Walters and Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh

One of the other odd people I had to deal with at one time was Mr. Mossadegh, who was the Prime Minister of Iran.

I went there with Mr. Harriman. [Averell Harriman] He was sent by President Truman to try and mediate the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute, and this was really a lesson in some of the things, you know, that were mind-boggling to an American, who thinks of policy as being something carefully worked out and everything else, because at one time Mossadegh was demanding more money per barrel than oil was selling for in the Persian Gulf.

And Mr. Harriman in exasperation said, “Dr. Mossadegh, if we’re going to talk about these things seriously, we must have agreement about certain fundamental principles.”

And Mossadegh said, “Such as what?”

And Mr. Harriman said: “Such as nothing can be larger than the sum of its parts. We can’t give you more per barrel than oil is selling for, and they’ll buy it in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.”

Mossadegh said, “That’s false.”

Mr. Harriman said, “False?” Did he say false?” I said, “Yes, he said false.” [Laughter]

He said, “Explain yourself.”

“Well,” said Mossadegh, “consider the fox. His tail is often much longer than he is.”

And that made a reasonable argument to him as to why you could get more than the sum of the thing. [Laughter]

Another one, (when) Mr. Harriman would point out that something that he was doing would cause frightful trouble to Iran — this was all done in French because he didn’t want any Persian interpreters to know what he was offering. All of these discussions were held in French.

And one of his favorite phrases when you’d point something bad out to him, he’d say “Tant pis pour nous” — which I translated loosely as “To hell with us. Down the drain we go.” And that seemed a perfectly acceptable option.

And then I got involved in translating for the British and him. And at one point the British negotiator was a rich — a millionaire laborite, Richard Stokes, and he was talking with Mossadegh — and again this was going on in French and I was translating it — and Mossadegh said: “The trouble with you is that you’re a Catholic; that’s why we can’t come to an agreement.”

And Stokes said, “What has that got to do with this?”

And Mossadegh said: “Well, you see, in your religion you don’t have any divorce, but in ours all you’ve got to do is say three times to your wife ‘I divorce thee’ and she’s divorced. And you don’t understand that we have divorced the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.” [Laughter]

And Stokes was equal to the occasion. He said, “Dr. Mossadegh, quite true. But remember, you still have to pay her alimony until she remarries.” [Laughter]

You know, these things sound crazy but they’re the basis on which some of these decisions and some of these things are done, and it sounds absolutely outlandish and mind-boggling to us but a lot of these people reason this way. I mean, there is a sense of humor in all this and everything.

But the point I’m trying to get is that all of their decisions are not made on the basis of cold, calm, quiet study of something; there is a much higher emotional content than is normally the case with us, and the atmospherics of these things are very important.

When Mossadegh came here — Mossadegh was deaf in one ear and I had great trouble hearing him, and he’d always receive Mr. Harriman sitting in bed with a Mao-type camel hair tunic buttoned up to this. And when you went into the room he’d greet you with a flutter like this and you could tell what kind of a day you were going to have. If you got a real cheery flutter, it was going to be all right. If you got sort of a languid one, you were in for trouble.

And Mossadegh had defeated Lenin. Lenin once said you’ve got to take a step backward in order to take two forward. But Mossadegh had perfected the art of taking a step forward in order to take two backwards. [Laughter] You would negotiate all day with him to get him from B to C, and when you came in the next day, he wasn’t at C, he wasn’t even at B, he was back at A. And this was a very exasperating business.

I remember he came over here and I was assigned to him, and everybody went through a phase of “I can settle the Iranian oil problem” — the State Department, the White House, the Defense Department — everybody.

And I was talking with Mossadegh with Ambassador McGhee, who was the head of Greek-Turkish-Iranian Affairs in the Department of State, in the Waldorf Astoria. [George McGhee] But in order to maintain his thing of a simple underdeveloped country he had a camp bed moved into a luxury suite in the Waldorf Astoria so (he) could be photographed in this camp bed, showing that he was living a very proletarian existence in the rich, prosperous United States.

So Mr. McGhee had to go back to Washington, and — I might as well tell you his name — Ambassador Ernie Gross, who was American Ambassador to the United Nations, decided that he could solve the Iranian oil problem. [Ernest Gross]

So he came to me and he said, “Colonel Walters, I want you to make an appointment for Dr. Mossadegh this afternoon.” Well, I knew that the State Department didn’t want anybody else dabbling in, but he was an Ambassador and what could I do? So I made the appointment. And by this time Mossadegh was convinced he’d come (to) the United Nations, that the United Nations was a tool of British imperialism which was going to tell him to give back this oil, and he was very upset with the United Nations.

So I went in with Ambassador Gross, and we got a very, very poor flutter [Laughter] and he said, “Dr. Mossadegh, I’m your friend. I want to help you,” and “I’m Ambassador Ernie Gross.”

And Mossadegh looked at him over this enormous nose that made Jimmy Durante’s look like an amputee [Laughter] and he said, “Ambassador? What are you Ambassador to?”

And Gross said, “Oh, I’m Ambassador to the United Nations.” With that, Mossadegh let out a shriek as though he had been stabbed with a butcher knife and went into a convulsive fit of weeping, repeating over and over “The United Nations. Oh! my God, the United Nations.”

Frankly, I’d seen a lot of quiet crocodile tears but I’d never seen this violent outburst before. So I said to Ambassador Gross, “I think we’d better leave.”

Well, he was horrified by what he’d set off, and he told Mossadegh he would come back when Mossadegh felt better, and went out the door. And outside in the corridor he looked at me and he said, “Does he do this often?” [Laughter]

And I told him the truth. I said, “I’ve seen lots of quiet crocodile tears but I have never seen a convulsive outburst like this.” He said, “You haven’t? Then you must never tell anybody he did it for me.” [Laughter]

I just want you to know what’s behind some of these things. You know, they all look much more organized and thought out than they really are.

I went to see him — the last day he was in Washington I had been to see him several times with people and it was clear we were not going to come to any solution. And finally on the last day he asked me to come up, and I thought, “I can see the headlines now: Obscure Lt. Colonel Solves Iranian Oil Problem[Laughter] I too had gotten caught up with the idea that I could talk sense in him. [Laughter]

So I went up to Dr. Mossadegh’s suite and we had Persian tea and (milled) around for a while, and he said, “Can I ask you something?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “May I kiss you goodbye?” [Laughter]

So I thought about it for a minute and I said, “If it’s only on the cheeks and nothing else is involved, go right ahead.” [Laughter]

So I said to him, “Don’t you realize you’re going back to Iran after all these three months of expectations of hope with nothing to sell?”

He looked at me and he said, “With the crazy fanatics I have in my country, don’t you realize how much safer I am going back with nothing to sell?”

(Well) in the middle of all this there was foxy thinking going on. But as I say, you know, we tend to think of all these political decisions as being made somewhat the way we make them, but they are not. And when we read and we listen and we hear what people are saying and we have other technical indications, these are not always the only basis on which these things are operated.

Now this has been a very confused, very disorderly, very unorganized presentation, very (nonconducive) to questions. But if you have any questions you’d like to ask me and if there is any time left — I’m not sure where I am in relation to time. You can ask me about questions from anything from Watergate to the texture of the green lasagna. [Laughter]

[Pause] I guess they figure that I told them everything I knew. [Laughter]


Q: (I don’t know if this will be of interest – maybe it might). Back in (1950’s) we had an Iranian – the oil problem ..... suddenly became (Assistant Secretary or Deputy) He wasn’t a diplomat, but within six weeks he had the problem solved. (Do you know how he did it?) [Apparently asking about Herbert Hoover, Jr. and the Iran Oil Consortium Agreement of 1954]

DDCI: Well, there had been a change in the government in Iran [Laughter] which was not unhelpful.

But you know the old story of the difference between diplomats and ladies, I’m sure, that when a lady says no, she means maybe; when she says maybe, she means yes; and if she says yes, she’s no lady. [Laughter] And when the diplomat says yes, he means maybe; and when he says maybe, he means maybe; and when he says no, he’s no diplomat. [Laughter]

A number of factors contributed. The Iranians had been trying to sell (this) oil, and, really, the cartel of the world oil companies was still working in those days and people just wouldn’t pay them.

I had a little experience of this. Mossadegh went to the World Court at The Hague, and I was sent there to work on (it). And I checked in at the Hotel (De Zaim), which was a nice old hotel in The Hague, and I had no trouble getting a room.

And I said, “What room is Dr. –” It was, at that time, the hotel in The Hague. And I said, “What room is Dr. Mossadegh in?”

They said, “Dr. Mossadegh is not in this hotel; there’s no room for him.”

I said: “There’s no room for him? But I arrived a few minutes ago without any reservation; there was room for me.”

He said to me, “(Mineer), this hotel belongs to the Royal Dutch (Shell Company).” [Laughter] “There is no room for Dr. Mossadegh in this hotel.” [Laughter]

I think it was a combination of a change of government and the fact the Iranians could not sell the oil simply because none of the great oil producers would buy it. The Iranians had no tankers in which to move it, and none of the great oil companies would touch it and had more or less made a compact that, though they competed among themselves, they’d have to hold the line or something terrible would happen, as has happened recently.

I don’t know the details of how he solved it, but I think it was a combination of various things that enabled him to do so.

Furthermore, Mr. Hoover is a very prestigious name, and foreigners are very sensitive to use of prestigious names. They’ll do something for somebody well-known that they may not do for somebody who is less well-known. There’s less sense of surrendering, according to the importance of the man you’re dealing with.

• Transcript declassified on October 30, 2002.
[Annotations by Arash Norouzi]


Related links:

Meeting With Premier Mossadegh at New York Hospital (Oct. 11, 1951)

Pres. Truman, Dean Acheson and Mossadegh Talk at Blair House (Oct. 23, 1951)

Pres. Truman and Mossadegh’s First Messages on Iran Oil Dispute (1951)

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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