“A Remarkable Document”

How Denis Wright Got Wrong-Footed In Iran

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | June 29, 2023                    

How British Charge d’Affaires Denis Wright Got Wrong-Footed in Iran

Christmas Day, 1953: Denis Wright (1911-2005), the new British Charge d’Affaires, had been in Iran for only five days when two men purporting to be representatives of the Shah handed him a highly unorthodox directive on his behalf.

All “matters of high policy”, read the typed paper, must go directly through themselves only. The emissaries in question were:

1) Bahram Shahrokh, Director General of Propaganda, best known as the voice behind pro-Nazi propaganda broadcasts from Iran during World War II.

2) Ernest Perron, the Shah’s gay Swiss courtier/liason and close friend since childhood, who also lived in the royal palace.

Wright was arriving at a pivotal moment in Iran. In late summer, the government of Premier Mohammad Mossadegh, which broke relations with England in 1952, had been overthrown with British and American help. Now, Iran refused to accept any former British diplomats, only new blood.

Wright’s mission in Iran, as he put it, was to “establish good relations with the Persian authorities, assess the possibility of an oil settlement, prepare the way for an ambassador, and maintain a united front with the American embassy.” The last thing he needed was to be dropped into the middle of drama and palace intrigue.

It all began shortly after landing in Tehran on Dec. 21st. En route to the embassy, Wright learned from the Swiss envoy, Alfred Escher, that the Shah had arranged for him to meet Shahrokh and Perron for dinner the following evening. Though this was highly irregular, Wright reluctantly went along with it, sensing he had little alternative.

Shahrokh, who did all the talking, ended up probing Wright about an oil settlement they “seemed to think I carried in my back pocket” and insisted on a non-interference pledge from Britain. He tried to get him to criticize the new Premier, Fazlollah Zahedi, whom the Shah was considering dismissing. He also asked if Britain would object if the Shah sacked his Court Minister, Hossein Ala. This request, per Wright, “took my breath away”.

The pair approached Wright again on Dec. 25th—twice. The second time, at a Christmas party at his residence, they returned with the curious paper instructing Wright to break protocol.

Wright firmly objected to this attempt by the Shah to secretly go behind the backs of his Foreign Minister and Prime Minister. Compelled to notify the Foreign Office the next morning, he also gave word to Foreign Minister Abdollah Entezam, whom he took an instant liking to, and Premier Fazlollah Zahedi, whom London was still backing despite the Shah’s aversion toward him.

“I doubt whether the Shahinshah — the King of Kings — had ever had a brush off like this before”, Wright later recalled. Siding with Wright, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden noted in a cabinet memo that the Shah’s behavior, as usual, did not “do him much credit”.

When the Shah learned of this snub, he became “furious” with Wright and refused to meet with him. In fact, even U.S. Ambassador Loy Henderson was in hot water with the Shah, who wrongly assumed he played some part in the leak.

Henderson reported back to the State Dept. that during their Jan. 14, 1954 meeting, the Shah “displayed considerable venom” toward Zahedi:

“He then launched a vigorous attack upon Wright, the British Chargé d’Affaires. He said, “I do not know why the British should have sent as Chargé d’Affaires a person who is no diplomat. Wright has had no political experience. He seems to have been some kind of an economist.” The Shah further indicated that he expected to have nothing whatsoever to do with Wright. When I defended Wright His Majesty showed signs of temper and said it was not necessary for him to have relations with a mere Chargé d’Affaires. He is of course annoyed with Wright because he sent Perron, behind the back of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, to Wright for purposes of intrigue. Wright discussed the matter with the Foreign Minister who took it up with the Prime Minister, who, in turn, took it up with the Shah. I personally think Wright has done a noble job in this respect, but it would seem that for a time at least he has incurred the vindictive hostility of the Shah.”

Yet despite this disastrous start, things were eventually smoothed over. Diplomatic relations with Britain, severed since Oct. 1952, were formally resumed, and an oil settlement achieved with the Iran Oil Consortium Agreement.

The other plot twist: the Shah’s close confidantes, Perron and Shahrokh, were soon to become persona non grata. Unhappy with their handling of the whole affair, Perron was fired and banished from the palace, while Shahrokh was exiled from Iran entirely.

Wright considered this “remarkable document” significant enough to retell this story repeatedly in writing decades later, and to read it aloud in its entirety in a 1984 audio interview. The version below is my transcript of his reading, along with his asides in the brackets preceded by his name.

British Foreign Office | IRAN 1951-1954
Iran Oil Consortium | Archive (1953-1954)

[December 25, 1953]

All matters of diplomatic routine, including the oil matter, should be discussed by you with the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Mr. Entezam). [Abdollah Entezam] All matters of high policy, i.e. matters above or outside the diplomatic routine should be presented to His Majesty [Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] through Monsieur Perron and myself jointly. [Ernest Perron. “Myself” must be Bahram Shahrokh.]

Since, however, the oil matter is of preliminary importance [Wright: “I think he really meant by that *primary* importance, but it’s preliminary importance...”] in the relations of the two countries, His Majesty wishes that, after you have made your studies and reported to your Government, and have received suggestions on the manner the oil matter should be or could be settled, that you inform through this channel (Perron and myself) His Majesty in advance. And before you present them to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, you await His Majesty’s approval or counter proposals. Thus His Majesty wishes to avoid any serious difficulties arising from the negotiations.

His Majesty accepts the principles suggested by your Government:

(1) that the principle of compensation to the AIOC [Wright: “That’s the Iranian oil company...”] should stand firm, subject to a generous treatment by your Government and

(2) that the profits of Persia in oil should not be higher than in other countries of the Middle East, though the formula must be face-saving for the Persian Government.

With regards to the nomination of your ambassador, His Majesty is not opposed to your approaching Mr. Entezam for an agrément, but His Majesty emphatically wishes that (1) this should be done without much publicity, and (2) that the Ambassador comes when oil negotiations have reached their final stage near a settlement.

His Majesty states as reasons the following:

(a) the Persian public opinion has already got used to Mr. Wright and regards him already with certain sympathy. [Wright: “I’d been there two days, I might add.”] Thus it would be much easier to conduct the negotiations with Mr. Wright without a new embarrassment. The Persians would thus keep favourably quiet until the results of the negotiations are known. [Wright and his team arrived in Iran on December 21st, so he’d actually been there for 5 days]

(b) His Majesty wishes to make the best use of the day when the new British Ambassador presents his credentials to His Majesty. His Majesty intends to speak very friendly words which would subsequently switch over the Persian public opinion to a friendly spirit vis-à-vis Britain. [This would be Roger Stevens, who became Ambassador in February 1954]

His Majesty wishes to add to this morning’s statement that in his conversations with Mr. Nixon, [Wright: “Nixon had been on a visit to Iran just before this, must have been in the winter of 1953”] His Majesty did not only strongly suggest non-interference in the internal affairs of Iran, but His Majesty also emphatically asked Mr. Nixon, i.e. the U.S. Government to coordinate her policy in and for Persia with the United Kingdom, for otherwise it would be only the Russians who would profit. His Majesty wishes to have the real views of your Government on this point, and would appreciate any suggestions your Government might have. [Vice President Richard Nixon was in Tehran Dec. 9-12]

On Sunday 27th December His Majesty will leave for a holiday of 10 to 12 days for Ramsar on the Caspian. [Caspian Sea] However a plane will stand ready for any message you may wish to convey to His Majesty through this channel.

[Annotations by Arash Norouzi. Comments by Denis Wright while reading the paper aloud in 1984 are preceded by his name.]

• Audio source below: Interview with Sir Denis Wright by Habib Ladjevardi for the Iranian Oral History Project at Harvard University, October 10, 1984. Tape 1 is cued to begin with Wright telling of his first steps in Iran and reading the bout de papier, which continues on Tape 2.

Other sources:

Britain and Iran 1790-1980: Collected Essays of Sir Denis Wright (2003)

• Denis Wright’s contribution to Travellers’ Tales (1999), “On Resuming Diplomatic Relations with Persia”.

• Denis Wright’s contribution to Anglo-Iranian Relations Since 1800 (2005), “Restoration of Diplomatic Relations”.

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Related links:

Relations Between the Shah and Her Majesty’s Embassy at Tehran | Denis Wright (Jan. 1954)

Loy Henderson Assures the Shah of British “Sincerity” (April 1954)

Anthony Eden’s Meeting With AIOC Chairman William Fraser on Iran Oil (1954)

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

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