Morrison wanted to use force...

October 19, 1952 — Ian Colvin

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | June 12, 2021                     

Ian Goodhope Colvin was a British journalist and author who had worked as a foreign correspondent for The News Chronicle and The Daily Telegraph.

While reporting from Berlin in 1938-9, Sir Winston Churchill called him “the man who started the war” due to his close proximity to the events and influence on British ministers’ decision-making.

For this piece on the Iranian oil crisis, Colvin also claimed to have inside sources for his behind-the-scenes account of Britain’s diplomatic maneuvering.

Morrison wanted to use force...

THE truth comes out

They Wanted To Use Force In Persia

by Ian Colvin
London Express Service

It was one year ago that Britain lost the immensely valuable oil refineries in Abadan.

I will now tell you, for the first time, the astonishing story of how that shock-abandonment came to happen.

Let us go back to March 9, 1951. On that day Mr. Herbert Morrison became Foreign Secretary. Two days earlier Razmara, the Persian Prime Minister, had been murdered. [Ali Razmara]

The Persian Oil Commission had already demanded nationalisation of Persia’s oil.

Within a week the Senate in Teheran voted for nationalisation.

Serious rioting followed in Southern Persia. Three British engineers were killed by the mob.

On April 13, Mr. Morrison told the House of Commons:

“We reserve the right to act as we see fit to protect British lives and property.” [truncated quote]

But after that date the word “property” faded out of Mr. Morrison’s vocabulary. Why?

The Socialist Cabinet knew, as all the country knew, that the only guarantee of a fair settlement with Persia was for Britain to hold the oil refineries, if necessary by force.

The Socialists did, in fact, discuss possible military operations in Persia on several occasions. What was the line-up? Mr. Morrison was the strong–arm man; he was ready to use force. Mr. Shinwell, Minister of Defence was not squeamish either. [Emanuel Shinwell]


Among those who put forward the drawback to such action was Mr. Hugh Gaitskell.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer he was sensitive to possible reaction in America against any action which could be described as “British Imperialism”.

As a former Fuel Minister he could also describe the immense dangers of losing a quarter of British oil supplies overnight. Over weeks the Socialists leaders argued the problem. They were ready to consider almost any proposal to safeguard British oil.

£2,000,000 ‘BRIBE’

Huge bribes were privately suggested to grease Persian palms. The sum of £2,000,000 was mentioned. But the Treasury objected.

One Minister even considered how to engineer a clash with the Persian mob. Premier Attlee was against such adventures. [Clement Attlee] The views of the Tory leaders were sought.

Mr. Churchill was ready to give full support for strong action, if it was taken before it was too late. [Winston Churchill]

But the Socialist Ministers who opposed force finally won the day.

They feared an outbreak of communism in Persia. They feared the possibility of Russian intervention. They feared American reaction.

And the Chiefs of Staff Committee gave their stock advice to the Cabinet. Any military operation must be fully mounted and capable of being followed up. A brigade flung into Abadan would not be enough, they said. There must be two divisions handy. They did not like to go in without American backing. In the Summer the Oil crisis took on a startling likeness of Munich. The Cabinet finally decided to begin the withdrawal of women and children from Abadan.

At least one Minister protested against this step. He said it weakened Britain’s bargaining power because it seemed to foreshadow a complete withdrawal.

At the beginning of August Mr. Stokes flew out to Teheran, just as 13 years before Mr. Runciman had flown to Prague. [Walter Runciman’s Nazi appeasement mission in 1938] Runciman was a shipowner who knew little of Czechoslovakia. Stokes was an industrialist who knew Persia only slightly. Neither had diplomatic experience.


Stokes and Mossadeq got on well. They quoted proverbs at each other and were photographed together apparently on the warmest of terms. In a telephone box at White’s club in St. James’s — “Mr. Stokes loves Mossadeq.” The words are still visible today. At one moment it seemed that the Stokes approach was paying off.

An agreement was reached between him and Mossadeq. The agreement lasted 24 hours.

Then Kashani, leader of the Persian nationalists, vetoed it. [Ayatollah Kashani] Mossadeq knew then whose finger was on the trigger.

Mr. Stokes has written his own story of his Persian adventures which the Foreign Office has not yet published. But I know this: the words in White’s club still hold their meaning.

Mr. Stokes likes Mossadeq very much. He still thinks that a business man’s approach could get our oil back.

In the end, the Socialist Cabinet decided on the Asquithian policy of “wait and see.” The British Ambassador in Persia assured them that Mossadeq was on the brink of failing. They hoped that by hanging on they would retain their hold on Abadan — without force.

Should Mr. Morrison have offered to resign? Had he done so, his reputation at a statesman would have been secure.


Mr Morrison in that moment of crisis was too good a party man. The Socialist Cabinet could not have stood up to another resignation. So he preferred not to rock the boat.

Even then, British policy might have been succesful if it had been possible to shake Mossadeq. But I believe Mossadeq knew that there were disagreements between London and Washington.

Mr. George McGhee, Under-Secretary of State in the State Department, visited Persia in March 1951, and Mossadeq visited him in November. He may well have assured Mossadeq that America would not back Britain beyond a certain point. It was useful to Mossadeq to know exactly how far he could go with his separate diplomacy.


Even today the British Government has not been told exactly what passed between Mossadeq and McGhee.

Not one of the ex-Ministers with whom I have talked has criticised American action during those vital days.

Not Mr. Morrison, who is only now beginning to retrieve the reputation he lost over Persia, would criticise the State Department’s intervention.

But I say this: When the next upheavel occurs in Persia or the Middle East, Britain and America should not pursue separate diplomacy again.

Richard Stokes’ Second Thoughts on Iranian Oil (1951 Letter)
Richard Stokes' Letter to Clement Attlee, Aga Khan Concurs (1951)


Related links:

“If British paratroops move into Persia...” | Douglas Wilkie (1951)

Do We Fight in Iran? | The Kokomo Tribune, August 1, 1952

Do We Face War In Iran? | The Arizona Republic, May 16, 1951

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

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