Modern History and Politics: Empire and Nationhood: The United States, Great Britain, and Iranian Oil, 1950-1954

By Amuzegar, Jahangir | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Modern History and Politics: Empire and Nationhood: The United States, Great Britain, and Iranian Oil, 1950-1954


Amuzegar, Jahangir, The Middle East Journal


Empire and Nationhood: The United States, Great Britain, and Iranian Oil, 1950-1954, by Mary Ann Heiss. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. x + 238 pages. Notes to p. 304. Bibl. to p. 318. Index to p. 328. $49.50 cloth; $19.50 paper.

Reviewed by Jahangir Amuzegar

The principal objective of this study is to explore the connection between the Iranian oil nationalization crisis of the early 1950s and postwar developments in the United States and Great Britain. The author's main thesis is that, in the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute, Washington's role changed from concerned bystander to facilitator, to mediator, and finally to a British ally in toppling the government of Prime Minister Muhammad Mussadiq (1951-53). Mary Ann Heiss' objective is faithfully served and her thesis is meticulously authenticated by detailed references to all available and relevant cables, reports, correspondences, and documents exchanged between the British and American embassies in Tehran and the British Foreign Office and the US State Department. The author's four main premises are essentially indisputable: (1) To prevent the loss of the Middle East to the Soviet Union, Washington had no choice but to prop up Britain's position in Iran. (2) Anglo-American early policy differences on oil nationalization emanated from the fact that Washington saw, and the British failed to see, the issue as a goal in itself rather than a mere desire for greater oil revenues. (3) Insurmountable differences surrounding the Anglo-Iranian dispute were due partly to a "clash of cultures" by which the leaders in Whitehall and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) (including plebeian Herbert Morrison) refused to accept Mussadiq as their equal, and the old nobleman, in turn, demonized the British at every occasion for everything bad that happened in Iran. (4) The nationalization crisis played a major role in shaping future events in Iran and the region, and served as a turning point for Anglo-American relations in the area and the world.

Beyond these four widely accepted premises and the book's equally non-controversial thesis, Empire and Nationhood offers few new revelations. The study is particularly and conspicuously silent on the one missing piece of the puzzle in the 45-year history of the oil nationalization-the planning and execution details of the 1953 AngloAmerican coup against Mussadiq. The author's assertion that there is no "comprehensive" history of the Iranian oil nationalization crisis available on the market may be partially true because of the still classified documents in the British Foreign Office, and the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) admitted destruction of papers relating to the 1953 coup. Yet her claim that Empire and Nationhood seeks to address the subject "in all its dimensions" (p. i) is somewhat misleading because she hardly touches upon extensive accounts of backdoor deliberations, maneuvers, position shifts, and political infighting within Mussadiq's own kitchen cabinet, the National Front's inner circle, the Majlis' opposing factions, and the imperial Court's entourage. To have a fairly comprehensive grasp of these developments would have required access to the Iranian press reports, domestic publications and Iranian government documents in Farsi which she admittedly lacked.

Nonetheless, the book makes a truly valuable contribution by presenting documentary evidence that questions the validity of a number of enduring myths in the Iranian nationalization folklore. At the top of the list is the myth that the British knew the Middle East, its leaders, and the eastern mentality better than "gullible" Americans, and that they knew how best to treat Mussadiq and the Iranian government if only Washington "idealists" would let them proceed. …

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