Cat o’ Nine Tales
May 21, 1951 — Max Lerner (New York Post)

The Mossadegh Project | January 31, 2022                     

Max Lerner (1902–1992) was a journalist, author, and lecturer who also wrote a topical column in The New York Post. The following was his first commentary on Iran, which had recently nationalized the British-owned oil industry.

The Oil And The Marsh

By Max Lerner

Max Lerner (1902–1992) The Iranians have now asked the British to talk about the oil that Iran is seizing. Being chauvinist, the new National Front government puts the invitation in terms of a command. But how can you hope to command an adversary to tell you how to run the oil properties you are seizing from him? That is exactly the comic-opera position of Iran’s government.

The British are helpless to resist the nationalization drive. But without the technical and managerial knowledge of how to run a modern industry worth between a half-billion and a billion dollars, the Iranians are also helpless.

With both sides stymied, there’s a good chance to talk.

*           *           *

This shows up both the strength and weakness of Middle East nationalism. Its strength is indisputable. What has happened in Asia should long ago have taught the Western Powers that there is a revolutionary ferment in the world, and that for most ordinary people it expresses itself in the fierce pride of a newly awakened nationalism.

The idiotic thing for the British to do would be to send troops to protect the holdings of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. I know, of course, that British national pride is a fact, too, and that it has been hard hit by the collapse of empire. But military force will succeed only in creating a chaos in Iran which would give Russia the legal ground for intervening.

*           *           *

No one can doubt the sovereign right of a government to reclaim and nationalize the oil of its country, provided it pays compensation for private and foreign rights. In fact, there is something healthy about the way the peoples of the Far East and Middle East are breaking the chains of colonialism to the West. I trust Africa will be next.

If Iran had a welfare-state, it would develop or hire the managerial talent to run the oil industry, which would become the center of a new industrial economy, with the profits being distributed to the people. But what Iran actually has is a governing group that has mismanaged everything it has touched, is riddled with corruption, and conceals its decay behind the mantle of nationalist fury and religious fanaticism.

*           *           *

In contrast to the case of Iran and its oil, there is the case of Israel and its marshland. The fighting between Syria and Israel has been over Israel's attempt to drain the Lake Huleh marsh. Since 1934 the Jews of Palestine have been waiting for the chance to dredge the marshland, divert the water to irrigate parched land reclaim what was once fertile area, and build settlements where now there is only waste. Now they have their chance. But not only have the Syrians answered with bullets but the UN Security Council has also answered with an order to Israel to stop the drainage project.

The key to the UN’s action, of course, is the effort to appease the oil-nationalizers of Iran and the other Arab states. Mohammed Mossadegh may not know how to run Iran’s oil industry, but he knows how to spread terror in the hearts of British and American diplomats at the UN. He knows that the 3 Atlantic Pact armies now depend on oil from the Abadan refineries. It is his trump-card and the Arab League is using it.

*           *           *

There is no easy way out of the impasse. But a few things ought to be clear. Nationalism has become a law of life especially for the colonial and feudal peoples of our world. It cannot be suppressed: it can only be recognized and channeled. But the Iranians must also recognize that a feudal colonial country cannot leap overnight into the mastery of a complex modern industry. A partnership agreement, in which the Iranians offer their oil and the British offer their technical experience, is the only possible solution. Anything else may lead not only to civil war but perhaps even to world war.

But there is something else in the Middle East to he recognized—a nationalism like that of Israel, which is neither feudal nor colonial, which is based on the whole technical heritage of the West, and which shows its intent not by seizing oil but by draining marshes. The Arab League may threaten to boycott trade with Israel. But it is a law of life that where people live close to each other they will trade. And even more, it is a law of life for men to wish to drain the swamps and irrigate the desert and settle the wasteland. You may shoot at such men, but in the end the life-force they represent will win.

The UN Security Council knows so much. Surely it should know that.

70th Anniversary of TIME’s Man of the Year Article
Challenge of the East: TIME's 1951 Man of the Year Mohammad Mossadegh


Related links:

What’s Wrong With Tears? | Max Lerner, New York Post, Oct. 3, 1951

Australian Woman Alleges Soviet Conspiracy In Iran (May 1951)

Boiling In Oil | The Vassar Chronicle, May 26, 1951

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

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