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A long history of interference in Iran

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Recent threats against Iran follow a history of imperialist interference. John Newsinger looks at how Britain and the US conspired to topple a popular Iranian government in the 1950s
Issue 1974
Mossadeq at his trial confronting his accusers
Mossadeq at his trial confronting his accusers

At a time when Tony Blair and his partners in crime are starting to prepare British public opinion for US bombing raids on Iran, it is worth remembering the last time a Labour government prepared for military action against Iran.

This was not New Labour, but Old Labour, in point of fact, the 1945-51 Attlee government.

What provoked the government to prepare for military intervention was, incredible though it might seem, the Iranian decision to nationalise the country’s oil industry.

Iran had been part of Britain’s informal empire since before the First World War. Although not occupied and ruled by the British in the way that India was, nevertheless Iranian governments accepted that they had to govern their country the way the British wanted.

Failure to toe the line would provoke economic sanctions or intervention, either open or covert.

The discovery of oil at the beginning of the 20th century made the country all the more important to the British Empire. By the end of the Second World War, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), today’s BP, was Britain’s largest overseas asset.

In effect the AIOC ran the Iranian oil industry in the interests of British capitalism, with Iran’s interests not so much coming second as not running at all.


In 1950, for example, the AIOC made £200 million in profit, but paid the Iranians only £16 million in royalties, profit sharing and taxes.

It paid considerably more in taxes to the British government (£50 million) than it did to the Iranian government. Moreover this imperialist rip-off was the work of a company which was 51 percent owned by the British state.

The Iranians’ sense of injustice was compounded by the fact that their oil cost more at home than it did in Britain. And, of course, British officials, businessmen and the like behaved with the same racist arrogance as they did throughout the British Empire.

At the end of April 1951 popular pressure forced the Shah, the British-backed ruler of Iran, to appoint a nationalist government with Mohammed Mossadeq as prime minister. On 1 May 1951 he announced the nationalisation of the oil industry.

The Labour government responded with outrage. As Emanuel Shinwell, the minister of defence, warned, “If Persia was allowed to get away with it, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries would be encouraged to try it on—the next thing might be an attempt to nationalise the Suez Canal.”

The foreign secretary, Peter Mandelson’s grandfather, Herbert Morrison, was strongly in favour of sending the troops in to seize the oilfields and overthrow Mossadeq.

He confessed to one official that he wished he “was Lord Palmerston”, longing for the days when a gunboat could be sent to intimidate the “natives”.

Like Shinwell, he warned the cabinet that “failure to exhibit firmness in this matter may prejudice our interests throughout the Middle East”. There were not the troops available to seize the oilfields though.

The Attlee government had already committed British troops to fight alongside the US in Korea, there was a brutal colonial war underway in Malaya and thousands of British troops were confronting the Egyptians who wanted their Canal Zone military bases back.

Instead, it was decided to seize the Abadan oil refinery in the appropriately named Operation Buccaneer. Hopefully this would bring about Mossadeq’s downfall.

What stopped this imperial adventure? Remarkably enough it was US opposition. The US was intent on undermining the British position throughout the Middle East and made clear that it would not support military action against Iran.

Attlee summed up the cabinet discussion, concluding that it was “the general view of the cabinet that, in the light of the United States’ attitude… force could not be used to hold the refinery… We could not afford to break with the United States on an issue of this kind.”

Once Labour lost power, Churchill’s Tory government cooperated with the US in covert action to overthrow Mossadeq.

Sanctions, introduced by Labour, had wrecked the Iranian economy and in August 1953 a CIA financed and organised coup (MI6 was a junior partner) was staged.

Mossadeq was overthrown and the Shah was installed as an absolute monarch, ruling through imprisonment, torture, execution and fear. There were no complaints about his regime’s methods from either the British or US governments.

The Iranian oil industry was placed in the hands of an international consortium in which the British found themselves with a much reduced 40 percent share as the US pushed them aside.

The US was replacing Britain as the dominant power in the Middle East and British governments were reluctantly beginning to realise that they were now US imperialism’s junior partner.

John Newsinger’s books include British Counterinsurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland

Mossadeq fainting from exhaustion
Mossadeq fainting from exhaustion

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