British Must Make Grim Choice in Iran

Joseph Alsop — May 23, 1951

The Mossadegh Project | April 12, 2021                      

“The price of a policy of inaction, in short, is a gigantic change in the world balance of power, altering the whole Middle Eastern pattern, shaking the Western alliance to its foundation, and perhaps destroying it.”

Columnist Joseph Alsop (1910-1989)

Joseph Alsop (1910-1989), influential syndicated newpaper columnist, on the Iranian situation in his column for The New York Herald Tribune, Inc.

Betting Is Now About Even
British Will Move Into Iran

By Joseph Alsop

LONDON—As these words are written, the betting appears to be about even that the British will move troops to South Persia. At any rate, they are just about up against the grim choice between taking all the heavy risks of this step, or taking the consequences of outright expropriation of their Iranian oil resources.

Furthermore, the British cannot easily move troops without a minimum of American moral support — at least enough to see them through a charge of aggression before the United Nations. The future of the Western alliance, which America leads, also hangs upon the outcome in Persia. Hence this British choice is, at the same time, inescapably an American choice.

Until now, even the hardier spirits in the Foreign Office have only been talking about moving troops to “protect the lives of British nationals” in Persia. Now, however, the veils are dropping. It is almost certain that Sir Oliver Franks has already been instructed to talk with Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson about the more realistic problem of protecting the foundations of the British economy and the balance in the Middle East.

Events over the weekend forced this facing of facts, from which London has hitherto shrunk away almost as nervously as Washington. Last Saturday, the British ambassador at Tehran, Sir Francis Shepherd, rather desperately suggested to the Shah that he might form a more rational government. But it was too late for this expedient. On Sunday while the Prime Minister, Dr. Mossadegh, crouched in his barricaded room, his representative, Hussein Makki, told the Persian Parliament that the existing government would never negotiate the oil dispute with the British.

A miracle may of course rescue the British and American policy-makers from the dilemma on whose horns they have been wriggling like befuddled tadpoles. But since little short of a miracle can prevent the grim choice from being made shortly, it is now wise to examine its real nature.

No one in his senses can find much that is attractive about the first alternative—a movement of British troops to South Persia. Britain does not really have enough airborne forces for the job. Even to secure control of the minimum territory, Abadan island with its vital refinery, will be a dirty business, probably involving heavy losses of life on both sides. Such a crass imperialist act will make, to say the least, a bad impression elsewhere in the Middle and Far East.

It may touch off a Russian invasion of North Persia. It will quite probably give the Communist Tudeh party the desired chance to seize power at Tehran. It will perhaps result in a far more disagreeable repetition of the Korean pattern on Persian soil. It may, just conceivably, lead to a world war. The list of objections is formidable indeed.

But as usual, the choice now is not between bad and good, but between evil and more evil. If American influence or indifference deters the British government from protecting their oil resource, the following consequences will be almost unavoidable.

First, the British economy, which depends exclusively upon Middle Eastern oil, will receive a fatal blow. [exclusively?] The huge American investment in maintaining the British as a great power ally will be transformed into money down the drain. What has previously been done for Britain will be forgotten because America has not stood by her ally in this hour of need; and the Anglo-American partnership, the core of Western strength, will dissolve in a tempest of mutual recrimination.

Second, the economics of Western Europe and India will also be disrupted. And a cessation of the oil flow from Abadan will make it fantastically costly, and in wartime almost prohibitively difficult, to supply the fleets in the Mediterranean and the vital strategic air bases there.

Third, Persian success in expropriating British oil will set an example that will quickly be imitated in Egypt, in Iraq, and in every other nation in a remotely similar situation. There will be no controlling the chain reaction. Furthermore, the strain imposed on these weak governments by biting off so much more than they can chew will equally inevitably produce secondary political results of great violence.

Dr. Mossadegh and his followers think they are keeping one jump ahead of the Tudeh party by their handling of the oil issue. But it is even more likely that the Tudeh will be the ultimate beneficiary if Dr. Mossadegh now succeeds in his plans than if he is frustrated by forcible measures.

The price of a policy of inaction, in short, is a gigantic change in the world balance of power, altering the whole Middle Eastern pattern, shaking the Western alliance to its foundation, and perhaps destroying it. This is no Mexican oil squabble. This is the terrible game of power politics, being played for the greatest stakes.

Alternate titles:

The Grim Choice
Britain Can Risk War, Or Lose Her Oil
British Must Make Grim Choice in Iran
Anglo-U.S. Planners Face Grim Choice on Iran Oil
Joseph Alsop Discusses: Power Politics and Iran’s Oil
Iranian Oil Squabble Has Reached Critical Stage by Delay
Only Miracle May Balk Warlike Explosion in Iranian Situation
British Faced With Grim Choice in Iranian Oil Dispute: Strong Actions or Oil Losses
Iran Is Stake in Desperate Game — British Troops Looming as Highly Undesirable Trump Card
Grim Problem of Whether British Should Send Troops to Iran Is Inescapable — U.S. Choice as Well If American Influence Prevents Britain From Protecting Oil, Commonwealth Economy Could Be Wrecked — Anglo-U.S. Unity Might Suffer Fatal Blow


Related links:

It’s Time To Face Facts About Iran | Alsop Brothers, August 25, 1951

Desperate Situation in Iran Calls for Action: 3 Steps Suggested | Marquis Childs, May 25, 1951

U.S. Proposes Allied Backing of Mossadegh to Forestall Reds | Alsop Brothers, Aug. 13, 1952

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

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