Troubles in Iran Are Serious

May 15, 1951 — Walter Lippmann

The Mossadegh Project | August 30, 2022                      

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974)

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was an author, editor, commentator, two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, and co-founder of The New Republic magazine.

Soon after oil nationalization in Iran, the famed journalist took to his syndicated newspaper column “Today and Tomorrow” to convey the gravity of the situation to his readers.

Oil Situation in Iran Is Very Serious; Way Out Is Difficult

Oil Troubles in Iran Grave
For Britain and the U.S.


Although the troubles in Iran have been almost entirely obscured by the MacArthur controversy, they are very serious. [Pres. Truman fired Gen. MacArthur on April 11th] An indication of how serious they are is that The Economist, which is immensely influential, which is anti-Socialist in its internal policy and strongly pro-American in its foreign policy, published an editorial on May 5th which ended as follows: “The whole structure of Western policy is crucially at stake in Persia . . . it is imperative that America, like Britain, should back up its partner with full loyalty in action, however many doubts and hesitations may be felt and publicly expressed. Washington should realize that this is a test of the partnership that is likely to be decisive and cannot be evaded.”

Language so passionate as this is not usual in The Economist, and directed at the United States it is startling. How can it be explained? By what, presumably, lies behind the following passage in the same article: “The effect of American counsels so far has been to weaken rather than strengthen British resolution. Quite apart from the State Department’s tendency to misunderstand the passions that agitate the Middle East nationalists and the kind of measures needed to deal with them, it would be deplorable if Dr. Mossadegh should be acting in the belief that a team of American technicians would be quickly available to take over and run an industry expropriated from its British owners.”

This is a very ugly accusation. It is in substance that the Iranian government would not have risked expropriating and ousting the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. if it did not think that the American oil companies, which have no concessions in Iran, would step in and do for Iran what Iran cannot do for itself — namely operate the oil business.

If there is even a shadow of truth in this accusation, no time should be lost in dealing with it conclusively and convincingly. There should be no possibility of misunderstanding anywhere, least of all in Tehran, that if the oil industry of Southern Iran is to be conducted by any foreign company, it must be by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. on terms acceptable to Iran and to Britain.

No American company can be substituted for the British company. No Soviet company can be substituted for the British company, first because it would be illegal and entirely unacceptable to the United States as well as to Britain, and second, it is technically impossible because of the distance and the mountains to take the oil of Southern Iran to Russia.

There are, therefore, two choices open to Iran. One is to have Iran operate the oil business. Legally as a matter of sovereign power, Iran is entitled to do that. But as a matter of fact Iran cannot do that because she does not have the capital, the technicians, the business executives, the necessary machinery, the tankers, and the worldwide commercial organization which are necessary. The alternative open to Iran is to make a new deal, more favorable than the old contract, with the British company.

The question, then, is whether when all this has been made clear in Tehran to Dr. Mossadegh and his followers, Iran would, or in fact could, negotiate a new agreement. The government of Iran is near to the point of dissolution where it is an open question whether it is capable of enforcing the agreements it might negotiate. The situation is anarchical and there is a reign of terror.

Assuming then that we offer the British government our full support if it compels the Anglo-Iranian company to propose reasonable and generous terms, what would full support mean? Suppose that there is anarchy in the oil fields, and the negotiations have failed, what does Britain, with our support, do next?

In the old days the next step would have been to land troops in the oil fields.

These are not the old days. There is a treaty, signed Feb. 26, 1921, between Iran and the USSR which says in Article 6 that “if a third party should attempt to carry out a policy of usurpation by means of armed intervention in Persia, or if such power should desire to use Persian territory as a base of operations against Russia . . . . and if the Persian government should not be able to put a stop to such menace after having been once called upon to do so by Russia, Russia shall have the right to advance her troops into the Persian interior for the purpose of carrying out the military operations necessary for its defense.”

The treaty has an annex in the form of a letter dated December 12, 1921, from the diplomatic representative of the USSR in Teheran saying that Article 6 is “intended to apply only to cases in which preparations have been made for a considerable armed attack upon Russia or the Soviet Republics allied to her.”

It would seem to follow then that if British troops were landed with American support, Russia could claim the 1921 treaty gave her the right “to advance her troops into the Persian interior.” It would be difficult, probably impossible, for America and Britain to go to the Security Council and argue that the Russians were committing an act of aggression if the Russian troops did not move into Persia before the British troops had moved in.

The letter, which is an annex to the treaty, would have to be invoked. Britain would have to argue that a few troops to maintain order in southern Iran did not constitute “preparations” for “a considerable armed attack upon Russia or the Soviet republics allied to her.”

But the British argument would have to be addressed to the Russian government, which would certainly claim the right to decide under its treaty with Iran what was and what was not “preparations” for “a considerable armed attack” in view of the mobility of the United States strategic air force.

There is no escape, I think, from the conclusion that Britain could not intervene lawfully and prudently inside Iran unless she could negotiate an agreement with the Soviet Union — more or less in the spirit of the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907. That is not likely to happen even if it were judged to be the least unattractive of the real choices open to the West.

So we must hope that somehow — if the American attitude is clarified in Tehran and if the British terms of settlement are improved — that a new agreement will be reached without the use of troops.

Alternate titles:

Trouble in Iran Serious
Iran and the Powers
Structure of Western Policy Is At Stake — Two Choices Open to Iran in Oil Crisis
Troops to Iran Would Bring Reds In 1921 Agreement — Gives Soviet Russia Legal Right to Intervene
Oil Situation in Iran Is Very Serious; Way Out Is Difficult — Some British Sources Say Americans Have Encouraged Government To Expropriations


Related links:

Tension In Iran Eased By Dropping Of Sabotage Law | June 29, 1951

New Long-Range Policy on Iran Can Insure Good Will | Walter Lippmann, May 24, 1951

British Chickens Come Home At an Embarrassing Moment (March 27, 1951)

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

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