Credit: Ian Speller, National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
From “Contemporary British History, Vol.17, No.1 (Spring 2003), pp.39–66”
This article examines the British response to the crisis that resulted from the Iranian decision to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. The British government contemplated the use of military force from the outset of the crisis and a series of plans were developed. Unfortunately, in a manner similar to the Suez Crisis five years later, the military were unable to provide a suitable response until political considerations had made the use of force unattractive. Despite this, the Foreign Secretary, the Minister of Defence and the Chiefs of Staff continued to press for an armed response. This article uses newly released archival sources to examine the military plans and preparations and to analyse the way in which these interacted with political considerations to undermine the British position in Iran.
On 30 April 1951 the Iranian Majlis (parliament) passed a law nationalising the oil refinery on Abadan, an island on the Iranian side of the Shatt al Arab, the waterway that divides Iran and Iraq and flows into the Persian Gulf. The refinery and its facilities were the property of the AngloIranian Oil Company (AIOC), in which the British government was the majority shareholder. At this time the oil refinery at Abadan was the largest in the world, and the Iranian oil field was the most productive in the Middle East. Abadan and the oil fields of southern Iran provided a major source of supply for Britain, and AIOC profits and tax revenue provided the British government with a valuable source of income and scarce foreign currency. The refinery at Abadan was seen by the British as an asset of strategic importance, and its nationalisation caused outrage and consternation in Britain. In the crisis that followed the Attlee administration investigated the possible use of military force but in the end decided against this course of action, instead referring the case first to the International Court of Justice and later to the United Nations (UN), without success. As a result British AIOC employees withdrew from Abadan and the Iranian government took control of the refinery. The consequent loss of British prestige has been linked to later difficulties throughout the Middle East
and ultimately to another nationalisation crisis, that of the Suez Canal in 1956.
In 1951 Britain possessed an army over 400,000 strong, had the second largest navy in the world and an air force more than capable of securing air superiority against the weak Iranian armed forces. Both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of Defence were in favour of military intervention to secure Abadan. The leader of the Conservative Party, Winston Churchill, believed that all that was required to settle the matter was ‘a splutter of musketry’. Against this background the non-use of military force during the Abadan crisis in 1951 is as interesting and instructive as is its use five years later against Egypt. The Abadan crisis was a key event in post-war British foreign policy. It is surprising, therefore, that in comparison with the 1956 Suez crisis, it has received relatively little scholarly attention.  The crisis revealed much about the state of the British armed forces in 1951 and the way in which military forces could both support and undermine political options. This article uses newly released archive material to analyse the crisis from this angle, examining the various plans for military intervention and exploring the way in which military limitations influenced the political process.
Genesis of the Crisis A detailed examination of the background to this crisis and of the political
and diplomatic manoeuvrings that occurred is beyond the scope of this study. These issues have been addressed elsewhere. However, a basic introduction is required in order to understand the context in which military planning took place. British interest in Iranian oil dated back to 1901 when the first concession to drill for oil in Iran was granted. In 1908 major reserves were discovered in the south and by 1913 these were being carried by pipeline to a refinery on the island of Abadan. In 1933 the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company negotiated a 60-year concession to extract oil and built up the facilities at Abadan into the largest refinery in the world. By 1951 the AIOC had 70,000 Iranian and 4,500 British employees. Working conditions for the former, while better than those of most Iranians, were in no way comparable to the far superior conditions enjoyed by their European counterparts. This was the cause of resentment in Iran and of moral discomfort amongst some Labour politicians.
In 1950 the AIOC made profits of £170 million, of which the British government took thirty per cent in tax. Under the 1933 concession the Iranian government received royalties of between 15 and 20 per cent. In 1950 the Iranian oil fields yielded 32.1 million tons of crude oil compared to 26.2 million tons in the US-dominated Saudi Arabian fields. However, Saudi Arabia received an estimated $112 million in direct payment from oil companies compared to only $44.9 million for the Iranian government. Inevitably this inequitable situation caused resentment in Iran and brought pressure to renegotiate the 1933 agreement. The result was a Supplemental Oil Agreement in 1949, agreed between the Iranian government and the AIOC. Under this Supplemental Agreement royalties were to increase to a maximum of 30 per cent. Unfortunately for the AIOC, before this agreement was ratified by the Majlis the Arabian-American Oil Company operating in Saudi Arabia concluded a deal based on a equal 50:50 split of profits between the company and the Saudi government. By early November 1950 the Iranians were aware of this deal and refused to contemplate anything other than an equivalent agreement. At the same time, a growing and very vocal body of opinion demanded nationalisation of what was seen as a key national asset. Neither the AIOC nor the UK government was willing to give way on either issue until it was too late. Strikes and riots were not uncommon at Abadan. In 1946 the British had deployed an Indian brigade and a Royal Navy cruiser to nearby Basra in Iraq when a general strike halted oil production and threatened the safety of AIOC staff. In the tense political atmosphere that existed in Iran at this time disturbances were inevitable. Political violence occurred across the country and in February 1951 the Prime Minister Ali Razmara was assassinated by religious extremists. Abadan was hit by a series of strikes amid agitation by nationalists and the communist Tudeh Party. Serious rioting on 12 April
resulted in the death of three British subjects with six more injured. The following day the British Chiefs of Staff, the professional heads of the army, air force and navy, decided to send the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Gambia to the Gulf as a precautionary measure. Fortunately, Iranian troops were able to restore order in Abadan but the potential requirement for military intervention in order to protect British lives was to figure prominently in future British planning.
The dominant Iranian figure in this crisis was Dr Mohammed Mussaddiq. Mussaddiq was the ageing but charismatic leader of the nationalist National Front. Characterised by many British observers (including both the Ambassador in Tehran and the Foreign Secretary in London) as a madman or a lunatic he proved to be neither. Mussaddiq became Prime Minister on 19 April 1951 on the basis of his nationalistic appeal and powerful performances in the Majlis. Within 12 days a Nationalisation Law had been passed by the Majlis and signed by the Shah and on 2 May the act of nationalisation passed into Iranian law. The Nationalisation Law cancelled the 1933 concession and nationalised AIOC oil assets. The British government referred the case to the International Court of Justice at the Hague on the basis that the Iranians had broken a
treaty entered into freely and had refused to discuss or negotiate the dispute under the arbitration articles provided for in the 1933 agreement. In his memoirs Attlee claimed that it was not the act of nationalisation that he objected to but the fact that it had occurred without negotiation or appropriate compensation. Attlee also claimed that ‘any attempt to coerce the Persian Government by the use of force was out of the question’. This was disingenuous. In reality the British considered the use of military force from the outset of the crisis and a series of plans were devised.
The British Armed Forces
In April 1951 the British Army was large by national standards. It had 202,000 regular troops supported by 223,500 National Servicemen and 7,500 women. Despite this, few troops could be made available for operations against Iran. With major commitments in Germany and Korea and involvement in the Malayan emergency and other imperial responsibilities the army was badly overstretched. The loss to Britain of the Indian Army with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 removed one of the key elements of British power beyond Europe. The resulting problem of overstretch caused the period of National Service (conscription) to be increased from 12 months to 18 months in 1949 and then to two years in 1950. Unfortunately, the requirement to train National Service
personnel tied down a significant proportion of the regular army. In 1950
the Imperial strategic reserve had consisted of the 29th Infantry Brigade Group and the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade. After the outbreak of war in Korea the 29th Infantry Brigade was sent to the Far East and was thus unavailable for operations against Iran.
The 16th Independent Parachute Brigade was formed in 1948 after it had been decided to disband the 6th Airborne Division. In 1947 an airborne division was formed by the reservist Territorial Army but the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade was the only airborne force in the regular army and available at short notice. The Chiefs of Staff decided to deploy the brigade to Cyprus in May 1951. Initially the brigade was deployed to the Middle East in order to be ready to replace troops sent to Iran from Egypt. The Chiefs of Staff informed their subordinates in the Middle East that most of the brigade’s troops were unfit for airborne operations, having received insufficient training. At most one or two companies could be employed, perhaps to seize Abadan airfield. Indeed, the transport aircraft accumulated by RAF Transport Command in readiness for any operation concentrated in the Suez Canal Zone and not with the airborne troops at Cyprus. Later military plans included the Parachute Brigade amongst the forces to be deployed to Abadan; however, this was in an infantry rather than a parachute role.
On paper the Royal Navy was an extremely powerful force. In 1951–52 it possessed five battleships, 14 aircraft carriers, 26 cruisers, 111 destroyers and 162 frigates. It was superior in size and strength to any other navy except that of the United States. Unfortunately, many of these ships were held in reserve or conducting trials and training, including all of the battleships and all but four of the aircraft carriers. Like the army, the Royal Navy had a range of commitments around the globe that it was struggling to meet. In particular, the deployment of a large maritime force to the west coast of Korea reduced the availability of both ships and trained manpower elsewhere. Nevertheless, the ability of the navy to control the sea in the Persian Gulf was not seriously open to question given the meagre assets available to Iran. The ability to exploit that control and to project power from the sea was more problematic.
Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers could bombard targets in Abadan, but the circumstances in which they might be called to do so appeared limited. Bombarding the oil refinery or its environs could do little in itself to achieve government aims. The most likely job for naval forces was to land troops either on Abadan Island itself or on the south-west coast of Iran. Amphibious capabilities had been neglected since 1945. At the end of the war Britain had possessed an enormous amphibious fleet and had a knowledge and experience of amphibious operations rivalled only by the United States. Unfortunately a lack of priority saw the capability atrophy.
By 1951 the only amphibious force that Britain possessed was the
Amphibious Warfare Squadron based at Malta in the Mediterranean. This squadron was designed to be able to lift an infantry battalion group and was capable of expanding to lift a full brigade group at 30 days notice. In reality it was frequently under-manned and below its supposed complement of active ships and craft. The ships that it did possess were old and obsolescent and ill-suited to the requirements of rapid military intervention. The only military unit that trained for amphibious operations, No.3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, was fully occupied ashore in Malaya helping to fight communist insurgents. In any case, this unit had not received serious training in amphibious operations for some time. A small battalion sized unit, 41 (Independent) Commando, Royal Marines, had been raised in order to conduct raiding operations in Korea and had conducted numerous landings. However, employment in Korea meant that it was also unavailable for operations against Iran. The Royal Air Force (RAF) contribution to military operations in Iran was likely to fall into two basic categories. First, and most important, it would be responsible for transporting troops by air into the theatre of operations. Second, it might also be required to provide fighter cover and close air support to troops on the ground. The government do not appear to have contemplated bombing ‘strategic’ targets in mainland Iran and there is no mention of such activity in the various plans discussed by the Chiefs of Staff. Equally, the Chiefs do not appear to have been too concerned by the problem of gaining air superiority over southern Iran. The Imperial Iranian Air Force was small and was equipped with obsolete aircraft of Second World War vintage. The RAF had airfields at Bahrain and Sharjah, both of which were British administered territories in the Persian Gulf and also at Habbaniya and Shaiba in Iraq. The latter were reinforced during the crisis.
Even before the Nationalisation Law was passed the British Foreign Secretary, Herbert Morrison, had asked the Chiefs of Staff to examine the practical possibilities of taking military action in Abadan. In a letter dated 20 March he noted two potential constraints that would return to haunt British military planners in the months ahead. First, he was concerned that nationalist pressure within Iraq might limit the potential of staging military forces there and that they might have to be held in readiness elsewhere in the Gulf, further away from Abadan. Second, Morrison was also concerned that military action might provide the Soviet Union with an excuse to intervene in Iran under the terms of the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1921. The prolonged Soviet occupation of northern Azerbaijan at the end of the Second World War remained in people’s minds.
In response to Morrison’s request the Chiefs identified three alternative
forms of military action:
1. A show of force without actually entering Iranian territory.
2. The provision of forces to protect British lives and property in the refinery area at Abadan and to evacuate British nationals.
3. The defence of both Abadan and the South West Iranian oilfields against action by the Iranian government or mob violence.
A ‘show of force’ could be carried out by despatching a suitable naval force to the northern Gulf. Such an action could be done at relatively short notice. However, the Chiefs considered that the impact would be greater if an infantry battalion was moved to the vicinity of Abadan. Unfortunately the nearest British-administered territories at Kuwait and Bahrain were some distance from the area in question and lacked the necessary facilities. Deployment to the RAF base at Shaiba (Iraq) would require the agreement of the Iraqi authorities. This might not be forthcoming. A plan already existed to cater for the protection of lives and property at Abadan. Code-named Accleton, this plan was based around the air-lift of an infantry brigade, minus one battalion, to Shaiba from whence they could rapidly move to Abadan should the situation demand it. The plan was designed to meet a local internal security problem and was based upon the assumption that Iranian forces would not oppose British intervention. It also assumed the availability of facilities in Iraq and could not be implemented satisfactorily without use of Shaiba. At their meeting on 27 March the Chiefs of Staff concluded that if these assumptions proved to be invalid then alternatives to Accleton would be required.
The Chiefs agreed that the protection of both Abadan and the oilfield area could not be afforded except at ‘serious cost to our global strategy both in peace and war’. Even with the cooperation of Iranian forces an entire division would be required. Without such cooperation a larger force would be necessary. They noted that even if British military action should secure Abadan and the oilfields there was no guarantee that this would ensure the continued supply of oil as this depended on Iranian labour which was unlikely to be forthcoming in the circumstances. In addition to this, they advised, British military action might lead to difficulties in the UN and provide the Soviet Union with an opportunity to intervene in Iran, and premature action could, by inflaming nationalist sentiment, actually endanger rather than protect British lives. At a meeting of the Cabinet Defence Committee on 2 April Morrison noted that it was too early to decide upon military action, except the move of certain naval units. It was therefore agreed that the Chiefs of Staff
would keep plans in a state of readiness but that the premature move of troops might cause a hostile reaction in Iran and across the Middle East. After serious rioting on 12 April, and in the absence of more overt preparations, the cruiser HMS Gambia and two frigates were deployed to the northern Gulf.
On 3 May, one day after nationalisation was proclaimed as Iranian law, Attlee informed the Cabinet that he had decided to appoint a small group of ministers to ‘watch the situation and to authorise action’ that could not await consideration by the full cabinet. This ‘Ministerial Committee on Persia’ would comprise the Prime Minister (Attlee), the Foreign Secretary (Morrison), the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Hugh Gaitskell), the Minister of Fuel and Power (Philip Noel-Baker) and the Minister of Defence (Emanuel Shinwell). Within this group both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of Defence were relatively hawkish. Shinwell agreed with Morrison that military action might become necessary. On 1 May he had informed the Chiefs of Staff that ‘the time might shortly come when it would be necessary to use strong arm tactics in Persia’. He believed that if the Iranians attempted to seize the oilfields without direct assistance from the Soviet Union then the UK should be ready to intervene with military force to protect the oilfields and associated areas. He was even willing to contemplate moving an army division from Germany to Iran for this purpose. The Chiefs were equally hawkish. On 9 May they informed the Ministerial Committee of their view that failure in Iran would undermine the whole British position in the Middle East and that they favoured taking a ‘tough line’ with Iran. However, they noted that the necessary military preparations might require partial mobilisation and the declaration of a state of emergency.
On 5 May Morrison outlined to Attlee four alternative responses to the act of nationalisation. First, Britain could freeze Iran’s Sterling balances, amounting to some £25 million, and cancel the Memorandum of Understanding under which Iran was provided with dollars in exchange for Sterling for certain purposes, including essential imports. Second, the AIOC could demand arbitration under Article 22 of the 1933 Concession Agreement. If the Iranian government refused this then the British could present the case before the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Third, the dispute could be taken to the UN Security Council. Finally, ‘in the last resort’, Britain could make a show of force. Morrison noted that there were serious drawbacks to each approach. At this point he would not recommend a show of military force as a means of resolving the dispute. Instead, he favoured sending an ambassador to Tehran to negotiate with the Iranian government.
In addition to Accleton the military developed Plan Bracket. Both plans
were designed to protect British lives and property in Abadan and to secure the refinery and other AIOC installations on the basis of ‘more or less’ cooperative Iranian security forces. Accleton was based on the use of staging facilities in Iraq while Bracket catered for the more challenging situation where such facilities were not available. The Iranians were believed to have four infantry battalions on Abadan in addition to a naval and marine garrison of around 1200 men and around a dozen tanks and some armoured cars. The army reported that if there was organised military opposition then a larger UK force would be required and this was likely to mean that Britain would be unable to fulfil all of its NATO commitments and could even require a partial mobilisation of reserves.
Accleton and Bracket were rapidly superseded by a new plan, Jagged, which also presupposed cooperation or at least non-intervention by Iranian forces. If this were not the case the forces allocated to Jagged could conduct Plan Midget, designed to cover the evacuation of AIOC personnel in the face of Iranian hostility. If Iranian opposition made the transfer of troops to Abadan by air impossible then the leading battalion would fly to Bahrain before transferring to a Royal Navy cruiser for sea transport to Abadan. The second contingent would fly to Abadan once the airfield had been secured.
The Chiefs of Staff were happy that both Jagged and Midget were satisfactory plans and that they presented ‘no particular military difficulty’.
In the case of Midget this was a remarkably sanguine view. A single battalion packed into a cruiser would be capable of conducting an administrative landing at the port facilities at Abadan. However, although a cruiser could land small parties of troops in its own ships’ boats it could not carry the large numbers of specialist landing craft that would enable its embarked force to conduct a landing against serious armed opposition. In view of the presence on Abadan of large numbers of Iranian troops, including tanks, it appears that Midget was only viable if the Iranians were willing to allow British troops to establish themselves ashore without a fight.
Notes & References :
1. For example, see James Cable, Intervention at Abadan: Plan Buccaneer (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991) ch.11; Wm. Roger Louis, The British Empire in the Middle East
Downloaded by [University of Nebraska, Lincoln] at 18:11 11 June 2016 1945–1951: Arab Nationalism, the United States and Postwar Imperialism (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1984) p.668.
2. Cable, Intervention at Abadan, p.1.
3. The best general work on this topic is Wm. Roger Louis’s The British Empire in the Middle East (see note 1). However, the book is not devoted specifically to Abadan and necessarily provides incomplete coverage of the military planning process. The best work to date on the military aspects of the crisis is James Cable’s Intervention at Abadan (see note 1). Cable was a retired British diplomat and a notable writer on international relations and naval matters. Both books are meticulously researched but are restricted by the fact that many key documents relating to the crisis were not released for public viewing until 2002. As a result neither work can provide an accurate guide to all aspects of British military planning.
4. In addition to the sources already noted, see James Bill and Wm. Roger Louis (eds.),
Mussadiq, Iranian Nationalism and Oil (London: I.B Taurus, 1988); David Devereux, The Formulation of British Defence Policy Towards the Middle East, 1948–56 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990); Mark Curtis, Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945
(London: Zed Books, 1995); Bernard Donoughue and G.W. Jones, Herbert Morrison: Portrait of a Politician (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973).
5. Cable, Intervention at Abadan, p.9.
6. Curtis, Ambiguities of Power, p.88.
7. John Strachey, The End of Empire (London: Victor Gollancz, 1959) pp.162–3.
8. Louis, British Empire in the Middle East, pp.641–51.
9. Cable, Intervention at Abadan, p.25.
10. Sometimes spelled ‘Mossadeq’ or ‘Mossadegh’.
11. Louis, British Empire in the Middle East, p.657.
12. In 1951 Iran was the official name for that country. However, most Britons continued to use the traditional name ‘Persia’ and most British records refer to ‘Persia’ rather than ‘Iran’.
This article uses the official name throughout except for direct quotations and references to plans and reports where the original author’s preference is used.
13. C.R. Attlee, As it Happened (London: Heinemann, 1954), p.175.
14. D.L.A. Wade, ‘The Services in 1951–1952’, in H.G. Thursfield (ed.), Brassey’s Annual: The Armed Forces Year-Book, 1952 (London: William Clowes, 1952), p.15.
15. Anthony Farrar-Hockley, ‘The Post-War Army 1945–1963’, in David Chandler and Ian Beckett (eds.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p.332.
16. Britain’s other wartime airborne division, 1st Airborne Division, had been disbanded in 1945.
17. Peter Harclerode, Para! Fifty Years of the Parachute Regiment (London: Arms and Armour,1992) pp.210–13.
18. UK Public Records Office, Kew [henceforth PRO], DEFE 4/42, COS(51)82nd meeting, 18 May 1951.
19. PRO: AIR 20/8887, Telegram COS (ME) 468, Ministry of Defence, London, to General Headquarters, Middle East Land Forces [henceforth GHQ MELF], 18 May 1951.
20. Desmond Wettern, The Decline of British Seapower (London: Jane’s, 1982), p.395.
21. Although numbers varied a battalion group might include roughly 700 men plus a headquarters element and some supporting arms. A brigade group would consist of three battalions, a brigade headquarters and supporting arms and administrative elements.
22. In general see Ian Speller, The Role of Amphibious Warfare in British Defence Policy,
1945–1956 (London: Palgrave, 2001).
23. The Imperial Iranian Air Force was equipped with the obsolete Hawker Hurricane and Republic Thunderbolt fighters and with the Avro-Anson for general purpose duties and light bombing. See Thursfield (ed.), Armed Forces Year-Book, 1952, p.366.
24. During May and June No.6 Squadron, equipped with Vampire jet fighter/ground attack aircraft deployed to Shaiba in company with six rather inadequate propeller-driven Bristol Brigands from No.8 Squadron. The Brigands were later replaced by No.73 Squadron (Vampires) who deployed to Shaiba from Malta at which point No.6 Squadron re-deployed
Downloaded by [University of Nebraska, Lincoln] at 18:11 11 June 2016 to Habbaniya. See David Lee, Flight from the Middle East: A History of the Royal Air Force in the Arabian Peninsula and Adjacent Territories (London: HMSO, 1978), pp.55–6.
25. PRO: FO 371/91524; PRO: DEFE 5/29, COS(51)156, ‘Persian Oil Industry –
Nationalisation’, 20 Mar. 1951.
26. In 1941 an Anglo-Soviet force occupied Iran in order to secure a supply route through that country. Soviet forces remained in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan at the end of the war, and the two provinces were declared to be ‘autonomous areas of Iran’. Soviet troops only withdrew in March 1946 after Iran, supported by the United States, took the issue to the UN Security Council. See Devereux, Formulation of British Defence Policy, p.10.
27. PRO: AIR 20/6996, COS(51)52 meeting, 22 Mar. 1951; PRO: CAB 21/1982, COS(51)173, ‘Implications of Military Action in Persia’, 27 Mar. 1951.
28. PRO: CAB21/1982, COS(51)173, 27 Mar. 1951.
29. PRO: AIR 20/8032 and AIR 20/6996, GHQ MELF to Ministry of Defence, 24 Mar. 1951.
30. PRO: AIR 20/6996, COS(51)53rd meeting, 27 Mar. 1951.
31. PRO: CAB21/1982, COS(51)173, 27 Mar. 1951.
32. PRO: CAB 21/1982, DO(51)7th meeting, 2 Apr. 1951.
33. PRO: AIR 20/8032, COS(51)65th meeting, 13 Apr. 1951.
34. PRO: DEFE 4/42, COS(51)74th meeting, 1 May 1951.
35. PRO: AIR 8/1774, brief prepared by the Secretary, Chiefs of Staff Committee, ‘Persia: Advice Given by the Chiefs of Staff to Ministers Between March and September, 1951, 31 Oct. 1951.
36. PRO: AIR 20/9997, brief for Downing Street, 9 May 1951.
37. PRO: DEFE 4/42, COS(51)76th meeting, 4 May 1951; PRO: DEFE 4/42, COS(51)79th
meeting, 8 May 1951
38. PRO: DEFE 4/42, COS(51)81st meeting, 16 May 1951.