The Communist Danger in Persia
Britain Suggests Joint Covert Action (Oct. 1952)

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | March 28, 2019                     

“The Western Powers could support and encourage a dictator, but no suitable figure has yet appeared.”
— Britain to U.S., Oct. 1952

It’s long been known that Britain initiated the idea of cooperating with America to change out the regime in Iran, emphasizing the urgency of preventing a Communist takeover. When a new volume of previously classified State Department documents was released in 2017, a far more explicit account was finally divulged.

Britain’s audacious overture suggesting imminent covert action emerged during the waning days of the Truman administration with a report titled “The Communist Danger in Persia”, delivered through its Embassy in Washington on October 8, 1952.

The British report was thoroughly examined, complete with recommended edits, in a memorandum sent to fellow career diplomat H. Freeman Matthews. Although the State Department’s Henry Byroade was the sender, the Office of the Historian notes that it was drafted by John Stutesman, GTI’s Officer in Charge of Iranian Affairs, and cleared by John D. Jernegan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs. It was also copied to Paul Nitze, Robert Joyce, James Cowles Hart Bonbright, and the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt, Jr.

The memo shows that while the United States was considering backing Premier Mohammad Mossadegh at the time, it was also quite amenable to considering far less diplomatic options. So when the British paper concluded with a four page annex on “Covert Activities”, the U.S. received the suggestion with sedate interest. Although every word of this section remains classified, the partially redacted U.S. analysis does provide a glimpse of its contents.

This included a salacious “Big Bluff” scheme involving allowing the Soviets to believe that a potential Tudeh coup would be responded to with British intervention in the south. The U.S. swiftly nixed this gambit—as a handwritten note in the margins warned, “Big Bluff should not be played.”

Yet the British proposition of a coup was so intriguing that, in addition to the aforementioned analysis, a meeting was commenced with three British diplomats from the Embassy and five U.S. officials—three State Department men and two from the Central Intelligence Agency (one of whom was Kermit Roosevelt, the other name remains classified).

British diplomat Bernard Burrows (1910-2002) One of the American participants, John D. Jernegan, wrote up a report on the Oct. 22nd meeting, though he quoted only himself and British diplomat Bernard Burrows. Burrows helped explain “British thinking behind the paper”, describing it as an assortment of hypotheses unvetted by the Foreign Office. The two parties agreed to refine it into an agreed upon text and follow up later. In the space of about a month, they would meet to discuss the proposed coup three times in total.

“Workwise,” Burrows wrote in his memoir Diplomat in a Changing World of his time in Washington, “the major events in which I was chiefly involved were the Korean War and the events in Iran which led to the overthrow of Mosaddeq and the return of the Shah.”

Part II: Proposal to Organize a Coup d’état in Iran


[Undated British document]

I. Analysis.

1. Present Situation.

(a) The events of the last 18 months in Persia have seriously undermined the authority of the Government as a whole and particularly of the Shah and the army.

(b) The Tudeh Party have profited by this to extend their influence, which is now considerable.

(c) The Government itself shows signs of dividing into two or more factions competing for power.


This situation carries a serious danger of a bid by the Tudeh to attain power.

2. Possible Openings for the Tudeh.

(a) A coup planned in advance and aimed at the seizure of vital points in Tehran.

(b) An extemporised coup following a breakdown in the discipline of the armed forces.

(c) The exploitation of a tactical defeat of the armed forces to secure the legalisation of the party and other measures desired by them; to be followed by their accession to power.

(d) A tactical alliance between one faction of the National Front and the Tudeh, leading to increased penetration by, and the ultimate predominance of, the latter.

Not all the provinces would follow the lead of Tehran, particularly if the Tudeh had come to power after a coup d’état: but the loss of the areas of resistance might not seriously damage Persia’s political and economic structure.


It seems likely that the Tudeh would come to power as a result of a tactical alliance with one section of the National Front.

3. Persian Action to Forestall these developments.

(a) A re-establishment of the authority of the Government and the armed forces and a reduction in Tudeh influence by the suppression of the party’s cover organisations etc. Such a policy would have to be accompanied by a convincing attempt to carry out social reforms.

(b) A coup d’état using the army and led either by a military or a National Front leader. There is little sign that any such leader can be found at present.

(c) A tribal outbreak (like that in 1946) in opposition to growing Communist influence in Tehran.

II. Possible Courses of Action.

4. (a) Whatever course is chosen absolute Anglo-United States solidarity is essential.

(b) The Western Powers could support and encourage a dictator, but no suitable figure has yet appeared.

(c) They could bring pressure to bear on the Shah but this is unlikely to be effective.

(d) They could encourage a tribal revolt. This would run counter to a policy of re-establishing the Government’s authority.

(e) They could launch a campaign of covert propaganda etc. aimed at stiffening the Government and increasing its anti-Tudeh activities.

(f) They could bring economic pressure, (since whatever the present state of Persia’s finances, she will certainly eventually need external help) in the following ways:—

i) By negotiating an oil settlement,

ii) By arranging financial assistance.

For either i) or ii) it is essential that there should be complete Anglo-United States solidarity. Otherwise the Persians will continue to attempt playing off one power against another, with loss of precious time.


Our most useful means of pressure is financial, (but depends on complete Anglo-United States solidarity and on making no offer of help in haste or without exacting conditions) accompanied by covert propaganda.

5. Persian-Soviet Relations.

(a) The Russians have shown no signs of wishing to intervene in the Persian crisis. Nevertheless they are vitally interested in the outcome and dispose a powerful instrument in the Tudeh party.

(b) In an attempt to prevent their intervening by force it might be desirable to reiterate the Western interest in Persia’s independence.

(c) Alternatively it might be possible to ‘neutralise’ Persia. This might weaken Russian support for the Tudeh, on the assumption that the prime Soviet interest in Persia is to prevent the spread of what is seen as aggressive western influence.

6. Possible action after the establishment of a Tudeh régime.

(a) Overt military intervention; under present circumstances this would be difficult to justify in the eyes of the world and might be very difficult from a military point of view.

(b) Action to encourage the southern tribes to revolt, thus denying large areas of Persia to Tudeh control. Such a revolt would not necessarily seriously embarrass the Central Government.

7. General Conclusion.

It is clear that there would be comparatively little hope of overturning a Tudeh régime once it had been established. It is therefore important to prevent its establishment and it is considered that the best way of so doing would be to urge and if possible to compel the present Persian Government to prevent a further expansion of Communist influence in Persia.

8. There are two controversial points upon which some decision is needed.

(a) Whether to attempt to forestall possible Soviet pressure on Persia by some formal gesture of support for Persian independence: or on the contrary to take such action as is compatible with our desire to see Persia remain outside the Soviet orbit, to allay Soviet suspicions of Western designs in Persia.

(b) Whether to make use of the centrifugal tendency of the Southern tribes, either before or after the establishment of a Tudeh or Tudeh-dominated régime. This idea seems at present to have more disadvantages than advantages. It should be emphasized that this analysis does not consider what action might be desirable in case of general war. In that case, use of the tribes might be very desirable, and would be more effective if it had not been previously tried.


Covert Activities

[4 pages not declassified]


• This undated, uncredited British report was presented to the U.S. on Oct. 8, 1952. It was included in Doc. 133 below as an attachment.
[Annotations by Arash Norouzi]

• Source: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951–1954 (2017)

133. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs (Byroade) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State (Matthews) [Henry Byroade to H. Freeman Matthews]

Washington, October 15, 1952.

SUBJECT: Comments on the British Paper entitled “The Communist Danger in Persia”


Although the British paper under reference appears generally factually correct and its basic conclusions are not unsound, there is a distinct impression in NEA that the paper does not come to grips with the true nature of the Iranian problem nor are the solutions proposed always realistic. [NEA = Bureau of Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs]

I. Analysis

1. Present Situation—Although this section is somewhat oversimplified, there is no point of fact or conclusion with which NEA does not agree.

2. Possible Openings for the Tudeh—NEA has no reason to dispute the facts presented or the conclusion, but suggests that the wording of the penultimate paragraph should be clarified.

3. Persian Action to Forestall these Developments—It is NEA’s opinion that this section suffers from oversimplification and can be confused with section 4 as regards possible eventualities and possible courses of action. In this connection, it would be useful to review the six contingencies foreseen and studied in the Annex to NSC 107/1 dated June 20, 1951 and the existing Statement of Policy, 107/2, which is under current revision.1

II. Possible Courses of Action

4(a) There is real question whether “whatever course of action is chosen, absolute Anglo-United States solidarity is essential”. If this is taken to mean that prior consultation, general agreement and mutual understanding between the United States and United Kingdom are essential, NEA has no objection. However, if the sentence means that there is no circumstance in which the United States or the United Kingdom should carry out a course of action alone in Iran, there is ground for much discussion. It is entirely possible that the Anglo-Iranian dispute might reach such a phase of deadlock and animosity that it would be in the interest of the free world for the United States to remain capable of independent action vis-à-vis Iran.

4(b) If there is no implication that an anti-nationalist dictator could be successful, NEA has no objection to this statement. A “suitable figure” in NEA’s opinion must be someone capable of identifying himself with nationalist issues and emotions although he might gradually deflect the present course of nationalist fanaticism.

4(c) There is a tendency today utterly to disregard the Shah’s importance in the Iranian political scene. As a matter of fact, although he certainly does not exert any independent influence, he is of considerable usefulness to Dr. Mosadeq at this time as an ally. There is still reportedly considerable loyalty to the Shah in the armed forces, and, throughout Iran, there remains the ancient identification of the Central Government with the figure of the Great King. The Shah does not exert independent influence on the course of events but he is and will continue to be an important pawn in any political maneuvers.

4(d) NEA concurs in the belief that a tribal revolt prior to the establishment of a Tudeh regime would only create further chaos and would probably end only by serving communist interests in Iran.

4(e) It has been NEA’s understanding that a campaign of “covert propaganda aimed at stiffening the government and increasing its anti-Tudeh activities” has been in progress for some time. Certainly this course of action should be continued.

4(f) The British paper appears to avoid a fundamental problem in the Iranian situation which, in summary, is that any foreign financial aid to Iran necessarily affects the course of the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute. While the paper admits that Iran “will certainly eventually need external help” it insists “it is essential that there should be complete Anglo-United States solidarity”. If this “solidarity” supports a policy which resists giving “external help”, there is a paradox which should be pointed out in any discussions with the British. It is suggested that the British be asked to explain exactly what they mean in Paragraph 4(f).

There are possible courses of action which are not listed in the British paper, because they could not develop from a position of obvious and absolute Anglo-United States solidarity. Two such courses of action are listed below:

A. Without requiring commitments from Mosadeq regarding a settlement of the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute, the United States could support the Mosadeq Government with substantial financial aid and a program of economic development.

B. The United States Government could take a position that American or other concerns should no longer be discouraged from assisting in the operation of the Iranian oil industry or from purchasing Iranian oil products. This could be based upon a decision that government negotiation has failed to break a deadlock in the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute and free enterprise alone can bring commercial forces to bear upon both parties to the dispute, eventually proving that it is in the interest of both the Iranians and the British to make some arrangements whereby Iranian oil is sold to a large oil company, preferably the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

Another possible difficulty in maintaining solidarity could arise out of the fact that there is a quantity of evidence that many British officials believe that Mosadeq is the worst possible Premier Iran could have and that his ability to resist the Tudeh Party is nil. This is in complete contrast to a United States view that the nationalist Mosadeq Government constitutes at least a chance, perhaps the last one, to combat Tudeh rule and that although Mosadeq is admittedly very weak, there is no better alternative presently in sight. [This contradicts CIA reports from throughout the year — including the previous month — “assessing Mossadegh as “still the strongest political leader in Iran.”]

5. Persian-Soviet Relations

5(a) NEA concurs.

5(b) It does not seem to be useful in this fluid and vague situation to reassert “western interest in Persia’s independence”. On the contrary, this does not seem a good time to wring our hands publicly over Iranian developments, a move which would support Iranian vanity and irresponsibility and would not measurably affect Soviet decisions about aggression in Iran. In no circumstances, however, should the United States allow the Soviets to obtain an impression that communist pressure upon Iran would not produce dangerous reactions.

5(c) Since NEA does not believe that Soviet interests in Iran derive primarily from Russian suspicions of “aggressive western influence”, it seems naive to assume that the Russians would lessen their support of the Tudeh if the West showed an inclination also to restrict its interest in Iran. In fact, NEA considers that western withdrawal from Iran would only strengthen Soviet pressures there.

6. Possible Action After the Establishment of a Tudeh Regime

6(a) NEA concurs and adds a qualification that, at present, neither the United States nor the United Kingdom is willing to assume military responsibility for intervention in Iran in the event of communist aggression.2

6(b) It has always been a part of United States planning that in the event of a Tudeh coup, the United States and United Kingdom would respond militarily to a call for help by a legitimate Iranian Government. There is little doubt that the Shah, if extracted from Tehran and preferably Iran, would welcome an opportunity to call for such support and would be only too willing to establish a government-in-exile with a claim to legitimacy. The British paper does not explore this contingency nor the desirability of providing such a framework for action among the southern tribes of Iran. While a tribal rising might not “seriously embarrass” a central Tudeh government, it might prevent the communists from reaching the Persian Gulf and the oil fields.

7. General Conclusion

NEA questions whether there is any validity in the use of the verb “compel” in discussing means of influencing the Iranian Government “to prevent a further expansion of communist influence in Persia”. We know of no practicable way to “compel” the Iranian Government to do anything. Furthermore, it is not entirely certain that the best way to prevent a Tudeh coup is to urge the Iranian Government to take action. The best way in NEA’s view would be to negotiate an oil settlement and the next best would be to provide financial assistance.

8. The arguments against the statements of section 8(a) have been made above and NEA suggests a substitute paragraph:

8(a) “Whether to inform Dr. Mosadeq that we believe his government represents a nationalist bulwark against communism and that without requiring commitments regarding the oil dispute, financial aid will be forthcoming so long as he maintains control of the communists.”

8(b) If the tribes are to be used at all, it is our opinion that it should be done immediately after a Tudeh coup, before the new regime has time to consolidate its power. Otherwise, it is to be expected that the Tudeh will take effective steps to destroy the power of the tribes to resist. “Use” does not necessarily mean an attempt to overthrow the new government; it might merely mean denying certain southern regions to the Tudeh authorities and preserving the tribal organization and fighting potential against attempts to destroy them.


Covert Activities

The opening paragraph of the Annex summarizes the main paper and therefore includes the major points which have already been discussed. Sub-paragraph (d) is particularly in question in NEA, although, so far as it relates to liaison and collaboration [less than 1 line not declassified] it would obviously be very difficult to attempt such liaison in the absence of basic agreement on policies.

3. Suggestions for Covert Activity

In general, NEA has no objection to the points raised in this section of the British annex, except that for the reasons stated previously it would seem most unwise to allow “leakage” to reach the Russians indicating that the United States [less than 1 line not declassified] were prepared to “write off Persia”.3 This could easily set in movement events which would far out-weigh the dubious advantage to be gained from the impact of such “leakage” upon Mosadeq’s policies.

4. Since officers of NEA are not fully aware of the type of covert activity presently carried on in Iran, they are not in a position to decide whether any of these activities could be interpreted as “support to elements likely to provoke anarchy”. This is a point we should clarify with CIA.

5. NEA holds the view that the tribes of Iran should be stirred to activity by the United States and the United Kingdom only after a Tudeh coup, but without waiting for a general war, on the ground that if the Tudeh were given time to consolidate it could eliminate the tribes as a factor in the picture.4 Another point which is pertinent to section 5 concerns the United States Consulate at Isfahan where there is no CIA representative, a lack which could be made up if it is found desirable. [5½ lines not declassified]

5(b) Big Bluff

NEA holds considerable reservation regarding the advisability of the “big bluff”, not only for the reasons listed in the British paper but also because planning along this line leads logically to a conclusion that there is a solution to the Iranian problem in dividing Iran territorially between a Russian and a Western camp. This is a particularly dangerous basis for planning in view of both British and American reluctance, if not unwillingness, to accept military responsibility for the area.5

[Annotations by Arash Norouzi] Footnotes 1-5 below from the Office of the Historian.

• Source: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951–1954 (2017)

• “Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1950–1954, 888.2553/10–1552. Top Secret; Security Information. Drafted by Stutesman and cleared by Jernegan. Copies were sent to Joyce, Nitze, Bonbright, and Roosevelt. A handwritten note in the upper right-hand corner of the memorandum reads: “Comments passed on to Mr. Jernegan, 10/17/52—F.E.W.” All of the handwritten comments on the memorandum are in an unknown hand” — U.S. State Department Office of the Historian

1 See: The Position of the United States With Respect To Iran — National Security Council, June 27, 1951

2 “In the left margin next to this paragraph is a handwritten question mark.”

3 “In the left margin next to this sentence is a handwritten note that reads: “I agree.”

4 “In the left margin next to this sentence is a handwritten note that reads: “Yes.”

5 “In the left margin next to this paragraph is a handwritten note that reads: “Big Bluff should not be played.”

134. Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs (Jernegan) to the Deputy Under Secretary of State (Matthews) [John D. Jernegan to H. Freeman Matthews]

Washington, October 23, 1952.

SUBJECT: Discussion of British Paper on “The Communist Danger in Persia”

The first discussion with the British Embassy of the paper which they handed in on October 8 was held yesterday. Those participating on the British side were Mr. Burrows, [Bernard Burrows] Mr. Adam Watson, and Mr. Ronald Bailey. The Americans were Mr. Kermit Roosevelt [Chief, Near East and Africa Division, Directorate of Plans] and [name not declassified] of CIA, Mr. Beale of BNA, [Thomas Beale] Mr. Lampton Berry of S/P, Mr. Richards of GTI [Arthur L. Richards] and myself. [BNA = Office of British Commonwealth and Northern European Affairs. S/P = Policy Planning Staff. GTI = Office of Greek, Turkish, and Iranian Affairs]

Mr. Burrows provided a certain amount of background as to the British thinking behind the paper, which did not however do very much to fill out the bare bones of the document itself. The main points brought out in the course of the discussion may be summarized as follows:

1. The paper is to be regarded merely as a tentative compilation of thoughts and suggestions and not as an approved statement by the Foreign Office.

2. It seemed apparent that, at least so far as the British Embassy here is aware, the paper does not represent a first step toward revision of British policy toward Iran. So far as we could determine, all of the suggestions in the document must be read within the context of the existing British attitude toward the oil problem.

3. The suggestion in Paragraph 4(f) of the British paper that Mosadeq should be influenced by economic pressure through “negotiating an oil settlement” and “arranging financial assistance” merely means, according to Burrows, that if and when a settlement is negotiated or financial assistance is extended, conditions should be attached to require the Iranian Government to take suitable anti-communist measures. Burrows does not believe the Foreign Office is in fact considering the extension of financial assistance to Iran under any circumstances. He suggests that this item was included in the paper merely in order to list all possibilities, and he reminded us that for the past year the Department has had in mind the possibility that we might be forced to give financial aid to Iran even if an oil settlement were not reached. Since this possibility existed in the American mind, the Foreign Office had thought it well to mention it. (I confess I do not find this explanation very satisfying but I suppose we must accept it in view of the fact that Burrows could give no other.)

I commented that it seemed unrealistic to suggest that conditions regarding anti-communist moves should be attached to the negotiation of an oil settlement when it had so far been impossible to arrive at a settlement even without attaching conditions. After some discussion, however, both the British and we ourselves agreed that if he achieved a satisfactory oil settlement Dr. Mosadeq might be disposed to move against the Tudeh of his own volition, since he would be relieved of the Western pressure and would no longer need to be so cautious about antagonizing the Russians and their stooges. He would also no longer need the Tudeh as a “bogie” with which to scare the Western Powers.

4. There was some discussion of the British emphasis on “absolute Anglo-United States solidarity”. It appeared from what Burrows said that this meant in their minds just what it said. We did not belabor the point but I suggested there might be tactical advantages in maintaining at least the appearance of independent action in certain cases. No attempt was made, however, to arrive at a definition of the degree of solidarity which would be desirable. This is a point which I think should have further attention in the Department if we are to avoid (a) upsetting the British by rejecting their appeal for solidarity, or (b) tying ourselves hand and foot by agreement to a document which speaks of “absolute” or “monolithic” solidarity.

5. We stated our opposition to the ideas of (a) “neutralizing” Iran, (b) making a new statement of our interest in Iran’s independence, and (c) causing the Russians to believe that a Tudeh coup would be the signal for a British counter-coup in the south (the “big bluff”). I gathered that the British representatives were disposed to agree with us on all three points, although Burrows seemed attracted by the idea of neutralizing Iran. On this particular point I took the line that we would probably be very happy to see Iran neutralized, including the withdrawal of American aid missions, if it could be done but that we did not think it was feasible. We thought the Russians would simply seize the opportunity to step in and grab Iran for themselves. We also feared that neutralization, if successful, would encourage other Near Eastern and South Asian states to adopt a neutral position and, if unsuccessful, would be regarded as a betrayal of Iran and discourage other countries from standing firm against the Russians.

6. With regard to the suggestions of military intervention or tribal revolt after a Tudeh coup, we advanced the idea that such measures would be politically more feasible if there were a legitimate Iranian authority, some remnant of the former legal government, which would ask our assistance and call on the tribes to defend it. We also suggested the tribes should be encouraged and assisted to maintain control of their own territory against the assumed Tudeh central government as soon as such a government came into power, since otherwise the government would probably take steps to destroy their ability to resist and their future usefulness to us in the event of a general war would be destroyed. We emphasized that we did not at any time advocate aggressive action by the tribes, as they did not have the military capability to operate outside their own territory.

7. We also emphasized that we did not favor any movement by the tribes prior to the coming into power of a Tudeh government. Such a movement we argued would give the communists a good excuse to stage a coup and would risk the loss of all of Iran in return for the very uncertain prospect of holding only a portion of it.

8. The British put forward very strongly the view that the greatest danger of a communist take-over in Iran does not arise out of the country’s bad financial situation but rather Dr. Mosadeq’s unwillingness to take measures to check the growth of communist strength. Burrows argued that there are many things within the power of the Government to do which do not depend on money and which are simply not being done. Our objective, they said, should be to induce Mosadeq to take these measures, utilizing whatever means of persuasion or pressure we can find. On the American side, we agreed that money alone would not be the solution to the Iranian problem and that we should in fact do everything possible to create a more positive anti-communist attitude in the Iranian Government. However, we did think that finances have a very important effect on the situation. We pointed out that if the army were not paid it would in time disintegrate and thus destroy the last concrete barrier against the Tudeh.

Burrows said he would like to report our observations to London and get the Foreign Office reaction. [2 lines not declassified] It was agreed that in the meantime the Department would try to put down on paper some of its views on the more important points and to draft new paragraphs for insertion in the British paper, as a step toward a sort of “agreed text”. No time was set for the next meeting.

[Annotations by Arash Norouzi]

• Source: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951–1954 (2017)

• “Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1950–1954, 888.2553/10–2352. Top Secret; Security Information. Drafted by Jernegan. Copies were sent to Richards, Beale, Berry, and Roosevelt” — U.S. State Department Office of the Historian

The names above refer to Arthur L. Richards (Director, Office of Greek, Turkish, and Iranian Affairs), Thomas Beale (Office of British Commonwealth and Northern European Affairs), Burton Berry (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq), and Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. (Chief, Near East and Africa Division, Directorate of Plans, CIA).

The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable
The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable


Related links:

Campaign To Install Pro-Western Government In Iran | CIA, March 8, 1954

Estimate of the Political Strength of the Mosadeq Government (May 4, 1951)

Amb. Loy Henderson’s “Depressing” 2½-Hour Talk With Premier Mossadegh (July 28, 1952)

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

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