Iranian Oral History Project | Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies

George Middleton

British Charge d'Affaires


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Transcript Text

Transcript 1 of 3

Narrator: Sir George Middleton
Date: October 14, 1985
Place: London, England
Interviewer: Habib Ladjevardi

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Q. Sir George, if we could begin by asking you to just give a little bit of a personal background about yourself.

A. Well, I was basically brought up in France in the first part of my career. I then had to learn English, which I succeeded in doing. I was at school in Layton <?>, England, then Oxford University. Then I did a doctorate in Germany and a doctorate in Spain. Then my father decided I'd better start working.

So I went into the diplomatic service. And served in South America, North America, Italy, Poland, Rumania -- where the war caught up with me, and I was interned in Italy. And back on my old run of Europe and North America. At the end of the war, I was at the embassy in Washington. And then came back to London to be head of personnel and administration. Which was interesting after the war, because one was taking parachute colonels and turning them into vice-consuls.

And having done about three and a half years of that, it was time to go abroad again, and it was almost impossible to find any place to send me. Because I had read the personal files of all the heads of missions, and when my name was suggested, they said, "That fellow? Never! He's read my file." Then we found a bachelor who had no history. He was ambassador in Iran. And that's how I became a Middle Easterner. And I never got out again.

Q. Who was the ambassador at that time?

A. Sir Francis Shepherd <sp?> was ambassador at that time. As I say, he was a bachelor with an impeccable history, I'd say. Nothing of ... his personal file was about a millimeter thick. And when they said, "Will you have Middleton as your Number Two?", he said, "Never heard of him. Why not?" And that was it.

Shortly afterwards, he was moved. And of course the Iranian government refused to receive another ambassador, so I was left in charge of the embassy for the next 18 months or so, until the rupture in relations on the 1st of November, '52.

Q. Let me ask you this: before you left London for Tehran, what were really your sources of data and information? And what sort of impressions did you have about Iran and the people, the political conditions which you would be meeting once you got there?

A. Ridiculous as it may seem, I had virtually none, because I had been European and American all my career until then. Let's say, for the previous 20 years. I was in Australia -- on holiday in Australia -- when I got the news that I was going to Tehran. So I went to the local bookstore, bought everything I could find, including a Persian grammar, sailed from Melbourne to Abadan, in a BP tanker, and all I learned was in those four weeks reading on an empty tanker.

And at least picked up enough Farsi to be able to say, "How do you do?" and "What time of day is it?" and so on, when I got there. So, it was really learning the hard way by jumping straight into the deep end of the swimming pool.

I suppose that anyone with sort of a broad European culture has a fairly good idea of Persian history -- he must have -- it's part of our history, as well. And, having been brought up in France, I was perfectly familiar with CLettres PersanesD and all the rest of it. For that matter, Omar Khayyam was a part of the English heritage, almost, now. And, as my minister on various occasions, Anthony Eden, was a Persian scholar, one picked up a little. He always claimed that he read Hafiz before going to sleep, and so, if only to look like one's minister, one pretended that one also read Hafiz before going to sleep at night.

But it was.... No, I would say, on the political conditions, not an awful lot.

Q. When did you actually arrive?

A. I arrived there in January, '51.

Q. '51 -- so, Razmara was....

A. Razmara ... he was still ... he became prime minister just afterwards. He became prime minister, didn't he, about the first of February, or something like that? I think. He was murdered when I was there.

Q. That's right. He had become prime minister the year before.

A. He'd become prime minister the end of '50. <unclear>

Q. Early in '50. And then he was prime minister for about a year.

A. About a year... and so, ...

Q. He was murdered in '51.

A. In '51, that's right. It happened when I was there.

No. What one.... One went there, obviously having been briefed by one's government, what one.... Well, I had an ambassador ... as the Number Two, as the councillor of the embassy, I had a fairly good idea of what our objective was. It was basically to maintain good relations with Iran, to ensure that we still had access to crude oil, and -- what was very important to us in those days -- was that that crude oil was paid for in Sterling. So really: maintain good relations, maintain access to oil, maintain that oil, if possible, in Sterling. That was the three obvious <?>.

And, of course, it was a time of a change of government in Britain, anyway. Halfway through the oil crisis, we changed from a Socialist government to a Conservative one. Though I don't think that that changed a great deal, in the sense that perhaps, in a way, I should say the Conservative government had a better feeling of the historical background. Certainly the Socialists were far more aggressive. They were the ones that wanted military intervention.

And it's recorded in cabinet papers. It was Morris Knudson and company who wanted.... As good Socialists, they were willing to get on their horses and go charging across Khuzestan, and occupying oil fields, and things like that, which with the change of government, I'm glad to say, all became a bit more ... a bit cooler. A bit calmer.

Q. So you say most of the, sort of, political knowledge that's required, you acquired once you got to Tehran?

A. Political.... I was aware, of course, like everyone else, of the economic and, if you like, the oil background. I had been on the ... busy on oil all through the war, so I'd known all the American, British and other oil companies. And when I was on the Civil Affairs Committee at the Pentagon in Washington, I was a member of the POL, the Persian Oil and Lubricants Committee. I'd been through all the various crises -- every morning it was a disaster, every evening was fine. Day after day.

And so, I knew some of the politics of oil. And something of the technology of oil -- the supply problem. But what you learn on a military committee, and what you have to apply later in diplomatic-political life, is quite different, of course.

Q. Would you say that was a reason for your choice? For the post?

A. I suppose it must have had some influence, yes. I'd been in ... involved in oil. I'd been involved in oil in Poland, in Argentina, and so on. I'd been in oil countries. And I'd spent three or four years in the United States, and familiar with that side of the picture. Very important.

Q. At the embassy, how are the responsibilities divided between the ambassador and ...?

A. Well, the ambassador is the ambassador and, of course, he's the head of the mission, and he alone speaks with the voice of his government. Under him, he usually has a Number Two, who is usually a political advisor; an economic or commerical advisor; and quite often a cultural one, if there's a cultural mission, like the British Council, or anything else -- or an American center there. And then the rest are variously language experts -- almost everyone, I'm glad to say, at the British Embassy in Tehran in those days spoke Farsi.

And really the ambassador sits as the judge in these matters, and he alone delivers judgment or speaks for his government. When he goes, it falls upon Number Two. And of course there's a military attache -- military and air attaches. Only we didn't have a naval attache.

Q. Was there an intelligence officer, too, at the time, or does that come later?

A. There were specialist officers, yes, who covered that aspect of things. Who were known and declared to the Iranian government. I mean, there were no secret operations conducted. In fact, in a friendly country, we would never do that.

Q. Because I was told by one of your colleagues that, in later years, the man who was in charge of intelligence would have regular audiences with the Shah, and I was wondering if during that time there was such a post and such a relationship.

A. Not really. The man who was a specialist in Iranian affairs, and spoke Farsi, <unclear> -- not that speaking Farsi made any difference -- yes, he saw ... he was occasionally received by the Shah, and privately.

But it's not really the style of British diplomacy. We don't really like intelligence officers talking to the head of government or head of state. If they wish to talk to other intelligence officers, that's their business -- that's what they're there for. But personally, as ambassador, I would not want an intelligence offficer running around.

<interruption for telephone>

As I was saying about the role of an intelligence officer, I.... When it comes to operational matters: his Iranian contacts, and one thing and another, then he's on his own, and I suppose the average ambassador doesn't want to know about the details....

When it comes to policy, talking to heads of government, heads of state, then, in my view (and I would almost certainly insist upon it), it's the head of the mission, it's the ambassador, who's entitled to know what's going on. And it's really his job and not anybody else's. Even in economic matters -- one would not expect the economics man to start negotiations or anything without the head of mission knowing, and being fully informed. I think this is very important.

It is slightly different in the United States, where there is perhaps more rivalry, more free enterprise, between the intelligence side and the political side. Especially as the political side, ambassadors, are not always professionals -- they can be political appointees. Whereas, in the British foreign service, the vast majority, almost a hundred percent, of ambassadors are professionals. It makes a slightly different approach.

Q. Now, to get back to when you arrived in Iran. At that moment, was there a feeling of crisis as far as oil negotiations were concerned? I mean, did you have any inkling at the time that things would lead within a few months to nationalization, and such a change in Iranian -- in government policies, and so on?

A. No, I don't think so. My first stop was in Abadan, where I spent the first two days there, with the oil company, and the general manager, and so on. And in those days it was Eric Drake. And, yes, one felt a feeling of tension. One felt a feeling that there was a good deal of political unrest. I don't think it was particularly labor unrest, but political unrest. And the supplementary agreement had been hanging around and hanging around.

And, from the point of view of the management of the oil company, it was very hard to know where they were going to be in six months or a year. And, as it's an industry which requires long-term planning and long-term investment, yes, one could sense a certain unhappiness in Abadan.

And then, of course, when I got to Tehran, there was the whole question.... I started reading and being briefed, and then of course the whole thing became very clear very soon. And matters were moving very fast the whole time, not only in Iran, but outside.

Because ... I can't remember without reference the exact timing, but the ARAMCO deal had just about been signed, with that absolutely splendid formula of 50-50. One of the most brilliant pieces of public relations ever done, because no one ever said what 100 was! But it was a wonderful idea. It was like the man who abolished first, second, and third class, and had economy, tourist, and so on. Vocabulary can be very important. And 50-50 was ... it meant that everyone, all oil-producing states, were looking for something new.

It's a curious reflection that, some years later, when I was Resident in the Gulf, and went to see old Sheikh Shakhbut in Abu Dhabi. And one of the things I wanted to do was to get him to ... modernize the oil agreement. And of course he was a very, very -- and still is, I think he's still alive -- a very conservative creature. And he said, "What I've got, I keep. And if it says 'one shilling a barrel,' I want one shilling a barrel. I CrefuseD to change it!" That was when we were offering a lot more, by that time -- some years later.

But obviously things were changing very fast -- had to change. I think that the change of government in the middle of it all in Britain was not particularly helpful. It led to a certain break in thinking and in the negotiations. And I suppose, you know, unfortunately, the ... I think there was CeveryD possibility of an agreement, had there been a little bit more elasticity, a little bit more imagination, on both sides. I do not think that the breakdown, when it happened, was necessary.

Q. How about staying with affairs when Razmara was prime minister for a few more minutes. At that time, did you take seriously the idea that oil was going to be nationalized? Or did you consider this something that the minority of the political <?> was discussing? I mean, how seriously was that <?> taken at the time? That incident?

A. Well, I think it was taken seriously, depending on which quarter was ... some people did not take it seriously at all.

Q. You, yourself.

A. I thought it was certainly a possibility. It seemed a likelihood. Where I think the diplomats and the politicians were ill-informed by the technicians, who kept on assuring the other people that it would be impossible, because the Persians were incapable of running the industry. They would all blow up -- the most ridiculous things would happen. And not one word of this turned out to be true. But one is misled by experts, and when experts assure one of these sort of things, one has to believe a great deal....

Q. You mean, the people of the company were telling you ...?

A. People of the company, people outside, experts, were all saying, "They're quite incapable of running the industry."

Since there had been training programs in Abadan -- and very advanced ones -- for 20 or 30 years, it seemed curious that in all that time they'd not produced a few engineers -- which they of course had done. Also, as we know, it's very hard to blow up an oilfield -- in fact, it's virtually impossible. We tried it during the war in Rumania and places, and the amount of damage is absolutely minimal. So that I think we were misled by that sort of opinion.

And, of course, only half the reality was taking place in Iran. The other half was taking place in Washington and other places, in London, and so on. Because the jealousy between the major producers and marketers of oil was very fierce -- it always is. And I don't think it is a particular secret or anything to say that -- seeing BP get a bloody nose did not cause any pain to the other producers of oil at all. In fact, there was one less.

If I'd been president of a major oil company, it wouldn't have caused me any great pain. Some of them said, "Oh my God, if it happens to them, it'll happen to all of us!" So that they were a little bit nervous. They didn't want.... They were all talking very much more about the sanctity of contracts than they were about what might happen to the shareholders of BP. Which I think is.....

Q. If there had been a greater genuine concern by the other oil companies, perhaps things could have been <unclear>

A. Yes. Yes, I think so. I think there were so many false factors in the equation, I don't see how anyone can get to the answer.

First of all, there was a lot of jealousy -- commercial jealousy -- between the major people. Which was quite obvious once one got there. There was misinformation about whether the Iranians could run their own industry. Whether it required all this mysterious high technology. The answer is, "Of course they could." But we were told that they could not. There was certainly real fear on the British side that the dollar strain, if it changed from sterling to dollars, could be quite serious. Financially and politically. Those are the sort of factors.

Then also, of course, atomic energy was just coming in around. And I remember going to a seminar, round about 19 - -- just before going to Iran, round about 1950 -- at a very confidential level, in which we were seriously told that by 1980, I think it was -- or 1985 -- we wouldn't need oil. Just a little bit, for motorcars, because it was easier to transport, but that 45, 55, 65 percent of our energy would be met from atomic sources. And the rest from coal. And it would be nice to have some crude oil.

Of course there was also the idea in those days -- and it's only 30-odd, 35 years ago -- as to what was and was not available in crude oil resources in the world also proved totally wrong. I mean, at a dollar a barrel, there wasn't too much available in the world. But <at> 30 dollars a barrel, it comes out of Alaska, the North Sea, and even, which we were told was geologically impossible, Australia. Nothing is geologically impossible.

Q. There's a great sort of a mystery over this so-called proposal that Razmara was supposed to be carrying in his pocket at the time that he was assassinated. This has been told to me by some of his ministers, that he had said he had a proposal in his pocket, and "he'd never told us about it, and then he was assassinated." But in the Granada Series there was some reference to a so-called 50-50 proposal having been passed on to Razmara before he was assassinated. Could you put some light on this?

A. Yes. I think that we were still stuck with the text of the supplementary agreement. This was one of the problems. It had become a sort of holy text, and all we were doing was playing around with it.

Yes, I think that the ARAMCO 50-50 having become public knowledge, that there was a move towards modifying the supplementary agreement in that regard. I think that.... Frankly, without looking it up, I can't remember what the broad outlines of that agreement were. But my recollection is that it was more of a profit-sharing arrangement than any other, and moved away a bit from.... There was a basic royalty, and then profit-sharing.

The problem with profit-sharing is that it can be structured in any way you like, from zero up to a large amount. Because, as we all know in the oil industry, you can take it at the extraction, you take it at refining, you can take it at transportation, or at the pump. It doesn't matter. You can take it anywhere. You can take it at all the other operations.

Most oil companies 30 years ago made no money on transportation. They made a great deal out of refining. Today, refining is a headache, and no one makes any money out of refining. Surplus, and we don't know what to do with it. At the pump, it's mostly governments that make money at the pump now, rather than oil companies.

But you can take profits anywhere, so how can you come to an agreement with the primary producer, saying you'll split the profits? Profits of what? I think this is where the thing became very complicated.

Really the only simple way in an industrial process is to take it at the point of sale. But you can hardly see the Iranian government splitting with a British government sales in a Yorkshire service station. This is the problem, I think. And this is why, you know, it's again a good public relations idea to move toward 50-50, but profit-sharing, and trying to define 100, perhaps calculating differently the 50-50 split, is almost intolerable. It's almost impossible.

Q. But the reason people talk about this agreement in Razmara's pocket is because they're assuming that, if that proposal had become public knowledge and had been presented to the Majles, perhaps it could have broken the deadlock as it was seen at that moment. Was there such an important proposal? Or was it just another in the series of proposals?

A. I think it was only another. I don't think it was, in itself, a new initiative. I think it was -- I'll come back to it -- I think it's only a refinement of the supplemental agreement. The general feeling as far as I'm aware -- certainly mine was -- that never, never would it get through the Majles.

I think if Razmara was murdered, it was because it was believed that if he had done a deal with the British, it would be ... the Majles would be dissolved, or something like that, and the agreement would just be declared. I think that one of the -- again, I'd have to refer -- but one of my recollections is that the deal would have involved a fairly substantial down payment as an advance on future financial adjustments, and so on.

And this, of course, would have been attractive because the Iranian government needed some money at the time. We're talking of figures which today seem ridiculous, but, you know, it was only a few million pounds, probably, which today, as I say, is nothing, but in those days it was quite a lot of money, multiplied by a factor of ten. And it would have helped, certainly.

Q. There was also some reference about financial aid being given to Razmara sort of under the table, if I may use that expression, which he was not acknowledging publicly.

A. Well, I think that a fairly simplistic view was taken on both sides of the negotiating table, that any agreement which would get the consent of the Majles would cost money. And that a lot of people would have to be made happy -- personally -- and I think this was misjudging the public emotion at the time. And certainly the Majles feeling. Yes. Fifty years earlier one could probably have bought an agreement, but I don't think in 1951 it was possible.

Q. I was referring more to sort of ... advances toward the government treasury....

A. Yes. I see. I think there undoubtedly was.

Q. How were they able to hide such ... if they were getting X million dollars, and it was going into the treasury, how could this be kept ...?

A. They never got it.

Q. They never....

A. They never got it. This was part of the proposal.

Q. I see. So Razmara, while he was prime minister, he never....

A. He never received it -- never received it.

Q. I see. OK.

A. It was also because, you see, this proposal came up again, by the time the ambassador had left, and I was in charge. It came up with Mossadegh. Because he said to me on one occasion, "Let me have five million pounds <or something, whatever it was>, and we can settle it all." And I said, "You must mean tomans." He said, "No, pounds. You have pounds. Give me pounds." I said, "What are you going to do with it, Prime Minister?" "I shall pay the police, and all the sort of things that haven't been done." And I said, "The police are not going to accept pound notes. They will have to have tomans. And it's going to be....

"There is an actual mechanical difficulty in changing one money into another money. It has to go through the treasury.... Nowadays, with added inflation, all sorts of things. You'd have to print the notes, and so on." And he....

One of the weaknesses of Mossadegh, of whom I was very fond, is of course he did not understand anything about finance. He was a charming, conservative farmer, who was growing apples, and being paid nothing per bushel, and seeing them sold in the streets at a dollar a pound. And he went mad. He said, "This cannot happen. I am being robbed. Not only I am being robbed, the nation is being robbed of something which is a non-renewable source of wealth and...."

And then we had one great discussion on the subject of (because he used to sell milk, too) the difference between having a cow, and being in the dairy business. And I was trying to explain that I wanted the milk in a bottle -- we didn't have cartons -- in a bottle at my doorstep every morning, pasteurized and ready to drink. And, in fact, I had a cow in the mountains, and it didn't make any difference, really, because someone else would have a cow -- there was competition.

And it was very expensive from the cow to the kitchen. A lot of things had to be done. He found this very hard to accept -- this sort of analogy. Then we got into profit again. I said, "You know, profit from the cow and the kitchen. Again it will be taken at the delivery, and the carton, it will be taken at all sorts of different places, not just ... at the cow." It was almost total incomprehension on both sides, I'm afraid.

And I suppose that, yes, there was a considerable fear that a bad ... what the oil companies regard as a bad example in Iran, would have very wide repercussions elsewhere. We'd already had Mexico -- nationalization in Mexico. And didn't want to see it happen ten more times.

Q. Again turning back to Razmara. At least among Iranian circles, there's still a great mystery about his assassination. And the same questions, or the same accusations, which were made at that time: that maybe the Court of the Shah, and Mr. Alam, had something to do with his assassination. Still in Iran -- what is it now? -- 35 years later, as I interview people they still make the same accusations and suspicions and so on. Is there anything you can tell me which would clear up the history a little better than it is right now?

Was there any kind of a conspiracy that you were aware of in assassinating Razmara?

A. Not that I'm aware of, at all, no. I can't remember whether Hossein Ala was minister of Court -- yes, he was minister of Court at that time, had been prime minister -- he certainly, as minister of Court, I do not think was capable of having thought up or organized such a thing.

Asadollah Alam is a little bit different. He, after all, was very, very close to the Shah, and a very powerful person. And more in touch than anyone else, I suppose, with the feeling in the Majles -- with ground-roots political feeling, if you like. But I can see no object in this coming from the Court or from Alam.

It was believed, rightly or wrongly, that the Court, and the Shah, and prime minister wanted the agreement -- wanted an agreement. For lots of reasons. The White Revolution had to go on. Financial stability was important. And an oil agreement was one of the ways of getting it. I don't really think that could have been the case. If anyone wanted to have him out of the way, it would be an extreme nationalist, who would not want an agreement.

And at a time when there was already some criticism of the Shah going on at the time ... and, I think, the view that a more ... a less autocratic form of government was desirable. I don't see any conspiracy by the Court or the Shah at all in this.

Q. What do you make of the argument that the Shah was ... never really felt comfortable with a strong figure, and that Razmara was certainly a strong figure, and the accusation that Razmara, in his mind, was sort of thinking of himself as a sort of Kemal Ataturk, or something like that?

A. That is the most credible explanation, if one wants one. But I very much doubt whether the Shah, or the Court, had the necessary will power to go from there to arrange an assassination. I do not think they were organized for that. I do not think they had the -- to put it in common English -- the guts to go ahead and do it -- or intestinal fortitude -- whatever one likes to call it.

Yes, the Shah certainly was not happy with a very strong character. He hated being pushed towards decisions. He liked to float along, and hope that somehow it would come right, and moving a little bit from right and left, and nationalists and less-nationalists, and everything would be fine. He was not a strong character, and therefore he certainly didn't want a strong character around him. Unless he'd been totally dominated. And there was no one to dominate him.

Q. How about Razmara himself? I've read many US Department documents, and some British documents; each of them accuse him -- Razmara -- of being a Russian tool, a British tool, English tool -- I mean, everybody seems to be sort of suspicious about this man. And to this day, we don't know really what were his allegiances, and whose side was he on. Would you have any thoughts on that?

A. That he was widely rumored (a popular and easy one) ... that he was a Russian tool -- I never believed it, I couldn't really see why he would be. The Russians, after all, were far more of an immediate threat after Azarbaijan and so on, than anyone else in the neighborhood.

No, I think that he was, as far as I know -- and I really didn't know him -- why he was the first person who was prepared, whatever he had secretly in his pocket, to push for the supplementary agreement, when most people thought it was virtually impossible to get it through the Majles, why he accepted that position, which he had, more or less, I don't know.

Whether he felt that the system of government where the prime minister was really not governing the country, unless he was a very strong one.... I think he thought he could govern the country. And that if he could get this out of the way, he could turn his attention to a great many other things. And that without the oil and the financial security of an oil agreement, he really could not start any reforms. Which, I think, would have gone, in their way, a lot further than some of the reforms that the Shah himself was anxious to carry out.

Whether he ever had the full confidence of the Shah, I don't know.

Q. Do you remember your reaction to the news that the assassination had taken place? Were you in Tehran at the time?

A. I was in Tehran at the time, yes. I remember very well.

Q. How did the news reach you -- radio or telephone or ...?

A. I was early in the morning, wasn't it?

Q. I don't know. He was going to a mosque for a memorial service.

A. He was going to a memorial service at a mosque, yes. I think I must have heard it at the embassy, almost immediately after. There was a huge crowd in the street, and of course one knew instantly from people in the street.

No, I think one felt ... wondered who would take his place. One wondered what the next move.... I think people were very frightened of a Tudeh coup at that point. That was probably the biggest single fear. Because there was no other organized party in the country, really. I think among the western embassies, and so on, yes, the immediate feeling was that unless very strong measures were taken instantly, there would be a Tudeh coup. And that, of course, alarmed most people.

Q. What would have been, sort of the reaction of...? What sort of steps -- or action -- would the British ambassador take at a point like this? Would he sort of consult with the Shah to see who should be the next prime minister...?

A. Oh, no! Good gracious no!

Q. How would that work?

A. Well, no. What would happen, I think, immediately after that, and did happen, I think, most of the Western ambassadors would either meet, or talk, or telephone, have coffee together. Share their opinions: what happens next? And it's quite likely that the Shah would have sent for one or two of them, separately.

Q. Did he do that?

A. Yes. I think he saw ... I seem to remember him seeing the American, British, and, I think, the Russian, ambassadors -- separately.

Q. <unclear>

A. Yes. But I think he probably did.

In the situation in Iran 35 years ago, that would have been almost normal, after all. The memories of the war and the occupation were not far behind, and he certainly didn't want -- the Shah certainly did not want -- any further foreign interference in his country. If there was outside fear of a breakdown of government, it might make such interference a bit more likely, and his first ... He and his advisors, the first thing they would do, is assure certain ambassadors that everything was under control.

But, as I told you, I can't see him ever, in spite of all the bazaar rumors, saying, "Who do you think the next prime minister would be?" I don't ... the Shah would never have done that.

Q. Not even at that stage of his life?

A. I don't think so. No. I don't think so, not even at that stage.

Q. That's interesting.

A. Much more likely .... If anything of that kind happened, he was much more likely to have asked Hossein Ala to make some ... said, "Ask some of your foreign friends, some of the ambassadors, if they have any views." But he would never do it directly. I never <unclear}.

Q. Of course then, the appointment of Hossein Ala must have been rather reassuring, at least someone who....

A. Oh, yes. Old Westminster boy, and everything, yes. You know he was educated at Westminster School, here. I told the headmaster that -- my boy was there -- he wouldn't believe it. And I said, "Look at the records." He was.

No. He was a great man, and a great gentleman, but ... to expect him to become a dictator in a time of crisis was totally misreading his character and nature.

Q. This is....?

A. Ala.

Q. Ala, yes.

A. He ... was made to be what he was, which was confidential advisor to the sovereign. He was very good at that, because he had no great passions, he was a man of culture and moderation. And I would think a very good advisor to the sovereign. For the courtier is usually a bad prime minister. The courtiers spend too much time saying, "bafarma'id" <being subservient> and so on, for them to really hit the table hard and strongly.

Q. Was it obvious from the beginning that this would be sort of a caretaker government?

A. I would think so, yes. From the beginning.... He was not really a strong political character. There were many others coming along.

Q. Did you have any wishes as to who would ... sort of most help resolve the crisis, if ... he became prime minister?

A. No. No, I don't think so. I think we were too preoccupied with trying to get.... All one wanted was someone who was strong enough politically to be able to speak to the Majles and control the Majles when the time came to solve the oil crisis. I think we were feeling great relief that Ala had taken over as a caretaker government, because this was not Tudeh-ism.

Again, I think there was a great cloud of Tudeh hanging over everyone. Again, on looking back, one has no idea whether this was a bogeyman or true.

Q. I was going to ask you about that, because.....

A. I've always been of the opinion that it was more of a bogeyman than anything else, except that -- look at the facts and figures -- it's the most organized party, the only party with, if you like, real ingrained and firm convictions, which knew what they wanted to do, right or wrong. They had money. And they had grass-roots organization. No one else had. There were 300 other parties, all going in different directions. There was still a strong autonomous and provincial moverment.

I.... Yes, you see a Communist party with all the strength that a Communist party has when in a vacuum. It's the strongest party. Whether that necessarily means it'd take over, I don't know. The social structure of Iran in 1950 was not, I should have thought, really very favorable to a Communist takeover. A Communist takeover demands a certain structure which you can take over, and which commands the country. You only need a handful of people to do it. You can do it with a trades union, you can do it with all sorts of things.

But in a country which, at that time, was suffering from severe economic problems, where there were quite strong provincial and autonomous feelings still, with any fairly strong man who arose, 10 others got up and opposed him. It's not really a Communist scene, that one. You could have a very strong administration, where you could have three secretaries who come in and take the post office, and aviation, and something else, and you've got it done. That did not exist in Iran.

Q. What did you make of the oil strike in Abadan during Ala's premiership? Was that something purely technical in the sense that it was just some spontaneous grievances that were being vented, or did that have to do with the Communist...?

A. No, that I think was ... like nearly all such worker movements, it was very strongly influenced by Communists. Because, if one analyzed the working situation in Abadan, yes, any large work force has grievances, but they probably had fewer grievances than any work force in Iran at the time. They had most of the facilities of life, anything from, you know, reasonbly good housing, reasonably good education and hospitals, assured employment, and all the rest of it.

They had really fewer things: they wanted more say in management. I think they wanted more nationalization in the sense of more senior people in management, and so on, which is natural. But it was not an industrial dispute, really. Politically, yes, it was certainly.... I think there's little doubt that it was pushed ahead by Tudeh elements there.

Which again does not necessarily mean that it was ripe for a Tudeh takeover. They're clever people -- they exploit legitimate grievances. But sometimes, when those grievances are satisfied, they cease being Communists. Which I think is probably the way it was in Abadan at the time.

Q. What do you remember about the rise of Mossadegh to the occasion and his selection as prime minister, and your own reactions to events as they evolved?

A. Well, it had been coming along, of course. He was known as a sort of rather wild old man -- after all he was not young. He'd been in the government 35 years earlier, or something like that. And here was this somewhat eccentric gentleman coming out of the hills ... like a sort of Robinson Crusoe figure almost.

I must say I had a great affection for him. I spent goodness knows how many hours -- we did not need an interpreter because he spoke perfect French -- and I don't think I ever had.... Oh, we used to have tremendous arguments, but honestly he was a person that one could talk to. He was a highly civilized gentleman.

I always doubted his ability, ultimately, to rule the country. But at least he talked sense. He knew where he wanted to go; what he lacked was the technical knowledge to do it. If he'd come up with a well-structured financial plan, he could have got away with it. But he did not have the technical knowledge. And it's a sad thing when people come to power with no background -- they tend to lose.

I was in Egypt with Nasser. If Nasser had had the right technical knowledge, he'd have had a much more successful revolution than he had. But when he was sitting in the trenches of El Arish, he had not planned the government, not planned the philosophy of government. He simply saw corruption and got rid of it. And then said, "Well, God, I'm in power, what do I do now?" He didn't really know.

And I suspect that Mossadegh was ... again, he was against corruption, wanted to modernize the country. I think he had serious doubts about some of the reforms sponsored by the Shah. I think he could see the dangers of -- as a good farmer -- the depopulation of the agricultural countryside. He'd foreseen the sort of shantytowns which are one of the diseases of a country becoming industrialized. And therefore you have a dissatisfied urban proletariat with no roots and no technical background.

Q. Is this something he talked about?

A. Oh, yes. I always thought that you distribute the land, and the person who has a limited education and technical ability finds himself with a piece of paper. But he hasn't got water, seed, or marketing organization. And what the hell does he do with a piece of paper? After a time, he drifts into the town, with his children, and they become urban unemployed.

You see, when I was there, the population of Tehran was 750,000, something like that. What is it today -- 7 million? This is the sort of social consequences which need very careful planning and thought if one's to avoid <them> in the process of industrialization.

And it went ahead much too fast with too little thought. And I think that Mossadegh is a good.... I always regarded him as a good countryman, rather like a typical English Tory from Derbyshire or something like that. Basically his roots were in the land. And that's why he didn't really understand the oil industry.

But he didn't need to understand the oil industry. If he'd had a bit more technical background, I think he'd have been a very successful leader of the country.

Q. What did you think of his close associates? Which ones did you have any contact with?

A. Well, Kazemi was the one I saw most of, obviously. I thought they were. ...

Q. Kazemi ... Bagher Kazemi?

A. Yes. I thought, unfortunately, they were, on the whole, unqualified.

Q. Bagher Kazemi was one. Who else did you get to know while you were there ?

A. Oh, the Interior. ...

Q. Sadighi?

A. Yes. Sadighi.

Q. What was he like?

A. Well, mostly we were talking about security and so on. I should have thought a fairly good policeman, but I wouldn't have thought he was a man of great ability. Kazemi I thought was a bit thick in most things. I don't think he always understood what he was talking about, unfortunately. I don't wish to be rude about any of these people, but....

Had he had a first-class team, again, I think he had all the makings of being a great and successful leader at a difficult time. I think he and the Shah would have been almost the most difficult relationship to have sorted out, because each would have been very jealous of the privileges of the other. But, with a technocrat team behind him, I think he could have succeeded.

Q. Was there anyone in his group, or in his associates, that you had greater confidence in?

A. No, I had more confidence in ... I saw more of him than anyone else. And I had great confidence in him, ultimately, if we could only get around a table and talk seriously, we could come to an agreement. I thought that some of the senior employees, Iranian employees, at Abadan.... The senior man there was ... a senior Iranian?

Q. Fallah?

A. Yes.

Q. Reza Fallah.>

A. Yes. He had all the knowledge, and was a very good technician, and could have been a very useful technician. And he understood it all. He was not particularly politically motivated. And I think in the....

It was difficult, in all honesty, in 1950, '51, '52, to find technocrats with the necessary knowledge who were not politically motivated, because you don't want political motivation -- not too much political motivation -- in a situation of that kind, which was pre-revolutionary.

And, of course, most of the old-fashioned deputies, and so on, one spoke to, they had the Tudeh complex just as much as the western observers.

Q. They were afraid of a Tudeh takeover?

A. Yes. And seeing some of their privileges going, and so on. And then you had the old gang hanging around. I mean, again, what contribution people like the Gharagozlou's, and so on -- maintenance of the status quo was all they were looking for, and the glamour of the Court.

Q. Well, it seems, again watching this documentary put out by Granada, that very early on the British government decided that they could not deal with Mossadegh, and they were looking for a replacement. I was surprised by the brevity of the time that they gave, you know, him a chance.

A. Well, it wasn't all that short a time. He ... there was a.... The pressures on him were tremendous. The impatience of Anthony Eden was a major factor in this, I think. I think Anthony Eden was always looking for ... his Falklands, so to speak. What he needed was a natural victory somewhere. And this seemed to him to be the place where he could get it. He tried it later at Suez. Very sad. If there was ever a decision to hasten things unduly, I should think it was his almost psychological problems, that he had. He was already a sick man.

The history of the world so often depends on someone's digestion, or whatever, and this is, I think, one of the cases where....

Q. But it is true that by what? -- June '51? -- steps were being taken to destabilize Mossadegh and to build up an opposition, and so on?

A. I wouldn't have thought that.... No, not as early as that. It was well into '52 before, I think, I myself said that I thought he was now becoming almost psychotic and there was no further ... I'd spent about 50 hours, I think, with him by then. Trying to come to some common ground, somewhere. And absolutely -- it got worse and worse as time went on.

I think he was getting very impatient because the financial pressures, economic pressures, were getting very strong. The political pressures inside the Majles were getting stronger and stronger. And I think he was very frightened of a revolution which would have been contrary to his ideas, and much worse than anything that happened.

The Shah was getting less and less determined, less and less able to take a decision. Less and less able to talk to his prime minister. There was no policy -- that was one of the things.

I think the impatience of the British government was that when.... All the various people that went out there, whether it was Averell Harriman, whether it was all the other missions, and so on, they never got a clear idea from Mossadegh as to really the limits within which he was prepared to negotiate. And we never, even less, got an idea from the Shah as to which way he wanted to go. None at all.

I mean, you know, "Your Majesty, do you want this prime minister, or do you want another prime minister? Do you want an agreement or don't you want an agreement? Please tell us something, and we will endeavor to accomodate our policy with yours. Please tell us what your policy is. We want an oil agreement, but, at the moment at least, the parameters are too narrow for your government to be able to accomodate such an agreement... Let us try and set out, almost as mathematically as possible, what the problem is. Then we can talk about it."

And he, you know, he really was very, very difficult.

Q. As of when did the idea that Qavam could become prime minister take shape?

A. I can't remember offhand now who suggested Qavam and how that came along. It's a curious thing in Iran that one always goes back to tradition when anything happens, one always tries to pick out an almost historical character to put things right. And I thought that he was quite mad. I mean, you're going back to before the Pahlavis, before <?> -- you're going back to Persepolis, if you want to do this sort of thing. You can't do it.

No. A curious feeling that the return to old monarchical traditions of centralized obedience would work. I thought Qavam was absolutely mad, myself. He had less support politically than anyone I can think of at that time.

Q. But obviously he personally was interested in....

A. Of course. Of course, power interests anyone. But I should have thought he was totally unqualified. I think, then, ... if Qavam had come along ... I don't know if he'd have ... presumably he'd have called out the army and that sort of thing. At that time I really don't know what would have happened. I think it would have been.... There could have been bloodshed -- I think quite a lot. I think the army would have -- yes, would have been perfectly loyal at that time, chances are....

Q. In fact, he was appointed, and he could not....

A. Get a government....

Q. with the population.

A. He couldn't deal with it, no. But had it stuck at all, I think that he would have had the army out, yes. And then the question: would the army have come out? And if so, I think you would have had a sort of September, 1917 in Russia situation. I think there would have been bloodshed. And probably the best chance the Tudeh ever had, if Qavam had come back.

Q. Well, the one hour that you made available has come to an end...

A. Oh, God, yes, I've got to go along.

Q. I do hope that you...

A. Well, listen, when are you...?


Copyright 2003 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard University)
Dr. Habib Ladjevardi
Iranian Oral History Project
Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Harvard University
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Cambridge, MA 02138
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