The lessons to be learnt for today from Britain’s 1951 Iran crisis

The 1951 crisis had been triggered that June by Mohammad Mosaddeq’s takeover of the Iranian operations of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. 

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As the title of his last book was intended to remind us, Boris Johnson wants us to believe he has “The Churchill Factor”. He has – he thinks – the qualities that made Churchill the right man for the premiership in 1940. But given the ominous backdrop to Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street, arguably the better comparison is with 1951, when Churchill defeated Clement Attlee and inherited an Iranian crisis on his return to No 10. The episode doesn’t merit a mention in Johnson’s book. But since it shares some uncanny similarities to recent events in the Strait of Hormuz and helps explain Iran’s tense relationship with Britain, a summary of what happened nearly 70 years ago deserves to find its way into the prime ministerial red box.

The 1951 crisis had been triggered that June by Mohammad Mosaddeq’s takeover of the Iranian operations of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British-owned firm that had enjoyed generous exploration rights in the country for over 40 years. As Attlee had nationalised the mines, the electricity utilities, the railways and long-distance haulage, it was hard for him to criticise what Mosaddeq had done.

By the time the crisis broke in 1951, the Labour government had become moribund. Mosaddeq played on its hypocrisy and paralysis artfully, waiting for the day that parliament was dissolved to announce that he was expelling the British employees of the company still working in the country. Attlee, knowing he was on the way out, did nothing to respond. A disgruntled MI6 officer put it in terms that will sound familiar: “In the last crucial days there was nobody at the helm.”

Attlee was hamstrung partly because he lacked President Truman’s support. Today is not the first time that the UK and the US have disagreed over Iran. But in 1951, it was the British who were trying to beat the Iranians into submission by attempting to stop anyone from buying their oil. On his arrival in Downing Street Churchill stuck to this strategy – identical to the one the Trump administration is pursuing.

The Iranians’ easy seizure of the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero on 19 July has drawn attention to the Royal Navy’s weakness. But even at a time when it could boast some 280 frigates and destroyers, rather than today’s miserable 19, British policy rested on legal action, rather than a maritime blockade. Anglo-Iranian threatened to sue anyone who docked in an Iranian port and tried to ship oil the company insisted was its property.

There is a possibility that Churchill sanctioned other, more nefarious, activity, which also has a resonance today. When, midway through 1952 a Swiss-chartered tanker called the Rose Mary loaded 800 tons of Iranian oil, she mysteriously developed engine trouble off Aden, then a British colony. Her captain feared he was going to be bombed by the RAF planes that had begun circling overhead and made for the port. There his ship was impounded and Anglo-Iranian issued a writ.

To be effective, blockades depend on international solidarity, which by late 1952 seemed to be breaking down. In the dying days of the Truman administration, there came a sign that US policy itself was softening. On 6 December 1952 the State Department announced it would now leave the decision over whether or not to buy Iranian oil to companies, though it warned of the “legal risks involved”. Perhaps it was pure coincidence that the Rose Mary case, which had been adjourned since June, then came to the high court in Aden the following week. The British judge quickly found for Anglo-Iranian.

While the Rose Mary judgment bought the British breathing space, it was clear that the blockade’s days were numbered. They managed to convince the new Eisenhower administration that Mosaddeq was secretly a communist and the time had come to oust him. A CIA-led coup, which relied heavily on British assets and insight, duly removed Mosaddeq in August 1953.

Appreciating how the Iranians view that coup is vital if we are to avoid the present crisis from escalating further. For as its details became public – culminating in the leak of the CIA’s history of its operation nearly 20 years ago – it nourished the Iranian suspicion that Britain is a powerful and malign influence behind the scenes. “Behind the curtain, there’s always an Englishman,” as the Persian saying goes.

This helps explain why, after the Royal Marines seized a tanker full of Iranian oil off Gibraltar on 4 July, it was inconceivable that the Iranians would simply take it on the chin. “If we let Britain treat us unjustly now, others will follow suit,” an Iranian politician said this week. Under headlines like “The British: We are humiliated”, the country’s press has reported our reaction to the Revolutionary Guards’ seizure of the Stena Impero with glee.

Since it comes at a time when the British feel peculiarly vulnerable, this coverage seems deliberately provocative. In fact, it is a sign of a regime trumpeting a small victory against an old enemy in order to save face at home.

The main lesson that the British government has drawn from this embarrassing episode is that it is unwise to follow Donald Trump’s aggressive Iran policy too closely if we cannot muster the means to protect ourselves.But by apprehending the Stena Impero in international waters, the Iranians have given the British an opportunity to paint a tit-for-tat response as an assault on a far more important principle. That was why Jeremy Hunt described Iran’s action as piracy and why he hopes a European coalition can safeguard free passage through the Strait of Hormuz. So far the Europeans appear to be willing to help: on 22 July the French minister of defence issued a statement that supported the UK.

Finally, there’s an irony here that the new Prime Minister is likely to appreciate. At a time when some nurse nagging doubts about declining British weight and influence, we can console ourselves that the Iranians at least continue to see “Global Britain” as a great power, for better or worse. 

James Barr is a historian of the Middle East and a visiting fellow at King’s College, London

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation