Forward and Backward Peoples

July 2, 1951 — Max Lerner (New York Post)

The Mossadegh Project | February 24, 2022                     

Max Lerner (1902–1992) Max Lerner (1902–1992), was a well known journalist, teacher and author with a long running column in The New York Post.

In this vintage Cold War era commentary, Lerner expressed the prevailing narrative that the United States must act decisively to prevent weak states from succumbing to Communism.

Iran and The West

By Max Lerner

Iran has the oil-wells, and the British have the managerial and technical skills. And neither can produce oil without the other. That is the stalemate. The presence of British warships near the Abadan refineries is one of those throwbacks to old imperialist methods. In fact, a military threat of any kind is an archaic weapon, used mainly because of Churchillian jingoism at home, but wholly ineffectual compared with Britain’s real weapon which is the knowledge of how to get the oil out of the ground and how to run the world’s largest refinery.

*           *           *

Similarly Iran’s weakness is the lack of these skills. Dr. Moussadegh and the National Front have become the victims of their own propaganda strategy. [Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh] After inflaming the people against Britain and America, they now find that they have raised passions which tie down their own freedom of action. An agreement, for instance, for an equal division of the profits between the Iranian government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., which would probably be accepted by the British, might doom the Iranian cabinet. [A 50-50 arrangement, which would have forestalled nationalization, was never on the table]

Moussadegh now seems aggrieved that the British officials and technicians, having been told they will be eaten up, do not offer themselves enthusiastically as a delectable morsel. What did he expect? He is having to learn that if you use mass-hatreds and violence and the naked fact of state power you must be prepared to go to the end of the road you have chosen to travel.

On our side the American government has been quite right to maintain a poker-faced reluctance to help Iran smash the British bargaining position. The temptation may have been great at the start in some private oil company circles to offer their technical skills in place of the British, and no doubt Moussadegh hoped for it, but that kind of throat-cutting, between the two Anglo American partners would have been calamitous. Our offer to Britain to pool our own surplus to supply Europe’s needs, is proof that we will not allow the Arab countries to play the British and us off one against the other.

*           *           *

But I wonder whether we are fully aware of the forces loose in our world of which the whole Iranian episode is only a symbol. What has happened is that Western ideas have not penetrated the East, and are bringing deeply revolutionary consequences in their train. To the idea of nationalism has now been added the idea of nationalization of a people’s basic resources. And both have been brought to a white heat by fanaticism and by a passionate hatred of the West.

In the Far East it is the Communists who have made the most effective use of these popular passions. In Iran there is little chance that any Russian offer of aid would be accepted, and the Tudeh Party still has to do its work indirectly. But if nationalist feelings and social grievances find no other outlets soon, they will in time find an outlet in Communism.

What the Iranian wild men do not seem yet to have discovered is that a colonial economy seeking to become a modern economy must get capital and skills somewhere and somehow fanatical passions do not in themselves make a nation modern or strong. Iran may in time be able to train its own technicians, but it has not even started the fight against illiteracy. For the present it will have to come to some terms with the West.

It would, however, be stupid of both the British and the Americans to think that the problem in Iran is one of power politics. The great revolutionary appeal of Communism today is to the colonial, backward peoples. That is where our great revolutionary appeal should also be directed.

What we can offer to these peoples is great. We have the technical skills to lend them aid and teach them, without which they will never be able to stand on their own feet. We have high living standards and political freedom. We can insist that the growth of industry in the backward areas should carry with it a rise in living standards for the ordinary people of those areas, and an increase in freedom for them. Skills we export should serve the people, not the ruling groups. When we have established this fact, we need fear neither Communists nor rightist fanatics.

What Went Wrong in Iran? | Amb. Henry Grady Tells All (1952)
What Went Wrong in Iran? | Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 5, 1952


Related links:

The Oil And The Marsh | Max Lerner, New York Post, May 21, 1951

A Wise Decision | Miami Daily News, October 4, 1951

Mossadegh Holds Match To World Power Fuse | Kingsbury Smith, June 10, 1951

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

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