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

George Middleton

British Charge d'Affaires

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Narrator: Sir George Middleton
Date: October 16, 1985
Place: London, England
Interviewer: Habib Ladjevardi

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Q. Can you sort of recall the events which were taking shape in July, 1952, when Mossadegh wanted to take over the portfolio of minister of war, and the Shah was not inclined to pass this on to him, and Mossadegh resigned. What discussions ... what took place? How did it happen that Qavam was the one chosen to come back and try to take power?

A. Well, I think that, not surprisingly, the strains on Mossadegh were beginning to tell. And he was becoming more and more Messianic, if you like. More and more, he was the only person who could handle the situation, in his own view. He was becoming less and less amenable to outside influence, argument, or anything else. The economic situation was certainly getting a great deal worse. The political one could not remain unresolved forever. The Shah was more and more disinclined to take action. He was also aware that his own position was getting weaker and weaker.

Mossadegh. Yes, I think Mossadegh realized that he ... there had to be a dictatorship, and he was the dictator. He would take the lot over.

I think before July '52 -- a little bit earlier that year -- there had been discussions -- one can't pinpoint actual individuals or days, but it all comes back into a sort of general amalgam of different conversations -- where possibly Seyyed Zia, certainly Qavam and others, had suggested that the Shah would have to call on the army at some stage. To inaugurate a, maybe temporary, but nothing is very temporary ... a very strong government that would restore order, get industrial relations going again, get the treasury working.

And the Shah had said, in probably early '52, that he was not sure that he could count on the police. And he'd said that in conversation ... possibly with the American ambassador or someone. And there even doubts as to how far ... until almost certainly the end of ... the beginning of '52, the Shah was perfectly convinced that he could at any time call on the army, and there'd be no problems.

But that position started to erode quite rapidly in '52. I should say that by July there was no single, very stable element to exercise authority. The Shah was aware, I'm sure.... He'd wanted to send Ashraf away; he wanted to send Sorraya and the children away. He'd been told that if he did, it would be the beginning of real trouble. He'd be seen to be pulling out and running. And at that point there could be serious outbreaks of disorder, which ... largely, I should think, organized by the Tudeh, but which would nevertheless have been quite spontaneous, because to see the monarch running away would have been terrible.

There was Mossadegh.... There had to be ... there had to be the installation of a strong man.... We never thought it would be Khomeini <Zahedi ?>, but that is the way it was happening all the time.

Q. But then, I'm interested to see ... <by> what process it was decided to bring Qavam rather than ... I don't know -- someone else.

A. I think, again, he was the most astute elder statesman available. He was also willing ... to try. By then, very few people wanted to stick their necks out. Had I been a senior Iranian politician, I would not have stuck my neck out at that stage. There were too many uncertainties ... there was too much.... The one real source of authority, the Shah, was unwilling to exercise it. You had to be either pretty foolhardy, or fairly elderly and fairly crafty, and you had to be a Qavam to be willing to undertake it -- not many people would have.

Certainly Seyyed Zia -- no question at all of his wanting to get into that sort of a mess.

Q. And how do you assess the fact that he to let go so quickly? I mean, there were only two or three days.

A. Three days, I think, something like that. Well, because there was no hope of getting a vote in the Majles of any kind.

Q. How about the crowds and the uprising?

A. Oh yes. It was all pretty well orchestrated. I don't ... see, it was a terrible vacuum. Who else could have come ... there was no one. Had there been a strong alternative leader, I think the crowds, which were very volatile in Tehran anyway, might not have been there. But it's the feeling that all that had been done until then: the reassertion of the power of the Majles, which hadn't been seen since whatever it was -- 1906 or something like that -- was about to be overthrown again. And I think another sort of Razmara complex -- that the Shah would appoint a dictator, who would go in by force and take over.

Razmara was suspected of being that person. Instant opposition appeared. No one, but no one, was willing to ... I don't think he'd find a team of ministers -- minister of the interior or minister of economy -- I don't think he could find anyone who was willing to support him. And by then, I imagine that the reports he was getting from the police and the army were not altogether reassuring.

Q. Apparently there was some discussion about perhaps bringing the Qajar Dynasty back.

A. Oh, there's always been....

Q. ....that particular point.

A. That particular point, yes. No, I think that was.... Oh yes, it was always there. I'm trying to remember which of them it was -- there were not many repectable ones available, but I think what it shows is that that had been there for some while, and the real sort of political bankruptcy of the Pahlavis. Really, because ... well, the Qajars were history -- there was no great Qajar figure around. A couple of Zands around still, but I mean it was really, more than anything else, the bankruptcy of the Pahlavis.

Q. There was, I believe, a Hamid Qajar here in London.

A. Yes, there was a Hamid Qajar here, that's right.

Q. How serious a consideration was that? Was that something in passing, or was there really...? I mean, you were in Tehran, were you asked for your opinion as to ...?

A. No, no. You couldn't. I mean, that would have been treason, practically. But, no, I think it was the feeling that the Shah had to go, the Pahlavis had to go, and here was the ... a symbol of legitimacy who could come back. Not politically colored in any way, particularly. But I suppose one, you know, one could go back and look for a Stuart in this country or a descendant of George Washington, or something, in America. In times of great crisis, you tend to go back to legitimacy.

Q. There was Prince Abdorreza, who had just come back from Harvard a few years before, and he was involved with the Plan Organization, and so forth.

A. He was indeed, yes.

Q. There were some rumors that Mossadegh ... that he had his own ambitions and that Mossadegh was opposed to his sort of becoming ... replacing the Shah. How much truth is there in that?

A. Well, he was highly Americanized and, in a way, denationalized, and I think that.... Yes, Mossadegh had met him. I think he had been in Tehran, he had been in Tehran, he had met him -- and I think neither liked the other at all. One was the modern technologically-educated Iranian, the other was the old hill-farmer still beating away on his prejudices.

Yes. I remember him. He had ... I'm trying to remember ... put a face to him.... Because I used to hear from him at intervals, and get Nowruz cards, and things, for a long time, from him. He sent me a carpet once as a consolation prize for being thrown out, I think.

Q. So there wasn't anything serious... <unclear>

A. No, no. I think that the mere fact that people were talking of finding a Qadjar to take over was really the sign that the Pahlavi had proved ineffective....

Q. How about Ali Reza? Did you meet him or know much of him?

A. No.

Q. He seemed.... He had a reputation of being a strong figure, didn't he?

A. He had a reputation of being a strong figure, yes. I hardly knew him, but ... I don't think ... I don't think any of them had a hope, then. I really don't. Because the Toilers' Party and the Tudeh, and so on, had really totally discredited the idea of monarchy. I'm not sure that ... and it never came back.

Almost the last nail in the coffin was Persepolis. Because this was sort of Louis XIV folly.

Q. You mean in 197- ?

A. Yes, whenever it was, yes. This was almost the last thing. It was a proof that the Pahlavi Dynasty was frivolous; it was not serious.

Q. Were you there? Were you invited?

A. No, no. Oh, no. Lots of my friends were, but.... The French, I think, really overdid it -- too much icing on the cake -- and it was the final proof that they were not ... not serious people. They had become absolutely bemused and corrupted by the idea of the divine right of kings.

Hell, there'd never been such a feeling of divine right of kings since <unclear> when.... You know, you can think you're the chosen of God on earth, but you shouldn't really start thinking you're God. When you do, you're in trouble.

Q. Did you ever meet that police chief that was ... eventually killed -- Afshartous?

A. No, I don't think I did, no. No.

The assassinations, or <unclear> attempts on the Shah, there was Razmara, there was Hazeri, who was assassinated ...
Q. Hajir?

A. Yes, Hajir, who was assassinated. And one ... it doesn't seem to me entirely spontaneous. I would not have thought it was in the Iranian character to assassinate people without its being organized.

Q. Apparently Kashani's group, I mean the Fada'iyan-e Eslam, were....

A. I should think the Fada'iyan-e Eslam were probably ... must have been organized by then, to give the motivation for it, because it is not, I would have thought, in the Iranian character, the sort of violence you get in the streets here, or in Chicago, or anywhere else -- I would not have thought, on the whole. And I've seen ... I've sat in my ancient Rolls-Royce in the middle of large demonstrations and stone-throwing, and that sort of thing. And on the whole, it was not given to great physical violence.

It's always seemed to me something in the Persian character -- I say Persian, rather than Iranian -- the Persian character that physical aggression was a long way away from that character. They don't even touch ... they would hold hands, but that's about the limit to which it goes. There is a certain physical austerity in the Persian character. And it just seems to me totally alien to what would normally happen.

Q. How about Kashani? Did you ever meet Ayatollah Kashani?

A. I must have met him, yes, but I can't.... He was ... there were a couple of people at the embassy who knew him much better. We had a labor advisor who knew him quite well.

Q. Was there any attempt to try to sort of influence his way of thinking about things, and perhaps get his ... solicit his assistance in coming to a solution?

A. More on the purely industrial side than anything else. I gather that ... I seem to remember that the labor man had quite good relations with him. They used to have a lot of talks about Iranianization, education, and so on. And trying to look ahead, well, one could see in a quite short future, an industry which was at least 99% Iranian....

Q. This was with Kashani, that he had these talks?

A. With Kashani, yes. He was interested in the whole of that side of it.

Q. Who was this? Heard <sp?> was it, at that time? Or the labor man...?

A. Yes. I think it was Ed Heard <sp?>, yes. And he was our sort of contact-man with Kashani.

Q. Was the fact that he was sort of.... I mean, pretty soon after the July incident, both Kashani and Bagha'i broke from Dr. Mossadegh. That must have sort of been a hopeful sign to the British that erosion is finally ... taking place.

A. Oh, yes. Very much so. When Kashani and Bagha'i broke -- at this point, I think a lot of people thought: "This is it!" You know, "It's now going to go very fast." there was still a vacuum. No one had any ideas who the next person might be. It was one of the problems.

Q. How did the idea of General Zahedi gradually develop?

A. He'd been talked of for quite a long time. He'd put himself forward, more or less.

Q. He'd put himself forward?

A. He'd sought contacts with both the Americans and ourselves. He had arranged a fairly clandestine meeting with Sir Francis Shepherd. The Americans, I think, had refused to see him, but he'd seen one of the American political officers. Sir Francis Shepherd saw him, I saw him -- out in the country, and all the rest of it....

Q. How did he strike you? The first time you saw him?

A. He struck me as one of the rare people who knew what he wanted to do at that time.

Q. Really?

A. And was willing to have a program and go ahead. He seemed to be a man of considerable decision.

Q. How early did ... when did you actually see him?

A. Well, I ... let's see: Sir Francis Shepherd must have seen him -- I'd have to look up the record of the interview -- in lateish in '51. Something like September.

Q. '51?

A. <Yes.> I saw him ... it must have been early '52. I remember I was partridge-shooting, and I must have seen ... on the occasion of seeing him, I was shooting partridge.

Q. Would it be possible for you to describe this interview in detail? That is, the first time you saw.

A. I've got the full record ... I need to refresh my memory on it.

I think he was a man who was regarded as fairly unscrupulous. And ... but at least -- a rare quality then -- he knew where he wanted to go and what he was willing to do.

Q. What was that?

A. Hm?

Q. What was that?

A. To take over, with or without the support of the Majles, with, hopefully, the support of the police and the armed forces, and restore the budget, restore more normal working conditions.

Everything had slowed down terrifically by 1952. So many people had not been paid -- civil servants hadn't been paid, police hadn't been paid, and so on. And he was willing to go in, seek substantial credits -- there were still 18 million Pounds on the table, which would have seen him through quite a bit of time. And the Americans, at that time, were willing to negotiate a line of credit for him.

And he was looking for a strong government, normality, and, of course, he was loyal to the Shah -- to the concept of the Shah. I'm not sure ... I think he thought the Shah was far too damn weak, and that he could do a better job. But he was loyal to the concept of the monarchy. Like a lot of people. Like Seyyed Zia, people like that. That as an institution, it should be preserved. And either the Shah, as a person, had to be reduced to a fairly decorative role, or he had to be strenghened so he would play the role of a strong constitutional monarch -- perhaps a bit more than a constitutional -- executive monarch, if you like.

I think there was a great fear among a lot of senior Iranians, and the upper classes, and so on, that really, the oil industry, the oil crisis, and so on, were one thing, but what they were really seeing -- and they were right -- was that the whole institutions of Iran were at threat. And that no one quite knew what would take its place if those institutions were destroyed.

And by the time it got to '52, I think this was a very profound feeling. Certainly ... openly speculating as to what would happen after the Pahlavis. <unclear>, but what happens after the Pahlavis? Without thinking of, you know, any of the things that have happened since then. That this was the end of an era, I think was widely felt by ... certainly by ... oh, quite early, in '52, certainly by July.

And it was this sort of very insecure feeling of the end of an era, end of an institution -- it's a very upsetting one, it's like being in a quicksand -- you don't know where you're going. Solutions come and go. None of them seem the right one. I imagine it felt like this in the French Revolution, or in the Russian Revolution of 1906, or something like that. You knew there was no stable realm <?>.

Q. Did you and the Americans talk to each other about your interest, your contacts with Zahedi? Was this somehting that...?

A. Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

Q. How about with the Shah? Did he ... was he aware?

A. He was aware. He was aware, yes. But I imagine he would have got more from Zahedi and the various intermediaries they had than directly from either the Americans or ourselves.

Q. But there was a direct link?

A. Oh, yes.

Q. Between Zahedi....

A. ...and the Shah. Oh, yes, I'm sure of that.

Q. Was his son, Ardeshir, a major player at the time?

A. Too young.

Q. I mean, he wasn't being an intermediary or anything like that?

A. Ardeshir Zahedi, when we met later, many years later, he said his only job was to climb up a tree, sit there, with another fellow he could see, 100 yards away, to say ... to warn them whether I was being followed when I came to see his father. I said, "I remember a lot of boys in trees." He said, "I was one of those boys."

Q. But it's amazing that there was such a long period during which Zahedi was being considered, and yet ... and it was in Persian newspapers that, you know, he's planning ... and so on, and yet Mossadegh didn't take any steps. He could have arrested them, he could have -- I don't know -- he could have shot them, he could have....

A. Arrested him, shot him, anything. But he, alas, moved into a dream world. I'm sorry to say it, because I had considerable respect and affection for him. But he really had become a megalomaniac ... he was....

Q. Mossadegh?

A. Mossadegh. He was very, very hard to have any contact -- intellectual contact -- with him....

Q. Could you describe one of the meetings, that would sort of lend ... sort of describe this conclusion you've come to? I mean, how was he behaving that you came to this conclusion?

A. Well, the conversations were getting longer and longer. Three hours would be quite normal, which for a prime minister is ridiculous. We would then start at any time from about 1900 onwards, and go into the whole thing -- we'd been ... we'd done it a hundred times. We'd then go into the wickedness of the oil company. We could never really get him to talk about where, what we could do next. I could never get him to concentrate on a single fact, such as -- by then, as I said, we had something like 18 million Pounds on the table.

The Americans, and others, had fall-back and rescue missions, which he was aware of -- or at least his ministers were aware of. You could never get him down to concrete matters. It was all by then an almost obsessive view about the whole problem. And that the only way do it it <was> for everyone to go away, shut down the industry -- it doesn't matter -- finish it all. Everyone go away, and we'll be very happy growing melons.

Really ... he had become quite, quite obsessive. And the sheer length of these inconclusive meetings was terrible. Fairly exhausting, and totally inconclusive. Then one had, of course ... half the world press was sitting there at the time. There were the embargo on the sale of Iranian oil, and that sort of thing. It was very.... But none of this, none of this could be discussed.

Q. Why? He didn't want to discuss them?

A. He didn't want to discuss the oil. All he wanted to talk about was good and evil -- the wickedness of the oil company, the wickedness of all the foreign.... All the foreigners were against him, all of them. And ... no, he had rather lost control of his mental processes by July-August '52.

Q. I mean, there are people who say that what you describe as sort of his megalomania and loss of mental processes as, in fact, different objectives and points of view. He considered this as purely a political problem, while you people perhaps saw it as more economic and commercial -- that's the reason you could not ... communicate.

A. Well, one of the reasons one couldn't communicate, as I was saying, he could only see it in terms of good and evil, of black and white. He couldn't see it in terms of problems which possibly had solutions. All problems do. And obsessive to that degree. So that when one was instructed to try and talk about making credits available, and that sort of thing, it was irrelevant to him.

And I suspect that the conversations he had with the Shah must have been very difficult, also, because the practical problems of the day, the practical problems of a weakening economy, of troubles because people were not being paid, and salaries not being paid, were irrelevant to him. He had become -- I don't know what you'd say -- star-struck, in a way. He could only just see this one visible problem, get rid of everyone, give us our industry, "Go away."

Q. Were there any advisors around him which you could try to sort of present your point of view to him? Was Fatemi a figure yet, Hossein Fatemi? Was he...? Was he appointed foreign minister at that time?

A. He was appointed at that time, yes.

Q. What sort of man did you find him to be? He's become quite a sort of ... controversial, in some ways, historical figure at the moment. And it's interesting to ask someone who has actually met him to give an assessment of him.

A. Fatemi was more like a Moscow-trained ideologue, to me, than anything else. He actually knew the arguments. One felt he had had a sort of agit-prop education. Instead of just getting a lot of emotion -- hot or cold -- and very formless, he actually had a form on it. He knew what he was talking about. He had facts and figures. Therefore, basically a far more worthy opponent than pure sentiment, which is a very distressing thing to run against. You can appreciate the sentiment, but there's no way out of it.

Fatemi knew his facts and figures, and had solutions in mind. Most of them were probably unacceptable to the British at that time, but nevertheless, one could talk sense -- talk facts.

Q. So how is it that that didn't evolve into a solution?

A. Well, until (when did I leave? I left on the first of November) the middle of October -- very late -- there still seemed to be possibilities that we could get down to discussing concrete problems. I think probably, in looking back, time was not on anybody's side, because I think the political pressures were far too great. Or the emotional pressures were far too great. But, yes, one had ... somewhere between sort of July and October one had actually started to discuss a series of fairly practical answers to things. All the things like the extension of credits, back payments on account, 50/50 of something -- all started to be discussed in fairly reasonable terms again.

Q. So, we could perhaps end this interview if you could just describe the events preceding the breakage of diplomatic relations. I mean, what brought that on, and how was it communicated to you?

A. Well, I'm sorry to say that it had turned into ... long elements of farce at this time. There had been a series of exchanges of notes in which various deadlines were laid down for the payment of moneys due by the ex-oil company, and so on, which were then answered, saying, "We do not recognize any of these claims" and "What do you mean, ex-oil company?" and all the rest of it. What about their claims? There was great argument as to whether it could be built on a government-to-government basis. Whether....

A certain number of lawyers started to give advice. Whether the majority shareholding of the British government made it an intergovernmental one, or simply still a private commercial case between a government and a private company.

And then there was a deadline laid down -- and here I would have to go back on exactly the terms of it -- for the lifting of the embargo on Iranian oil, which of course, the AIOC -- or NIOC by then -- had bought in various ports around the world, with tankers being obtained. And all these had to be lifted by a certain date. We then started to exchange on the whole irate and not very constructive notes dealing with certain specific points, like embargoes on the sale of Iranian oil.

And then I was given a deadline for answers to two or three of these notes, or there would be a break in relations. I went to see the Shah, who said he hoped that this was not to happen, and that we could meet the deadlines. London could not meet the deadlines, and I was.... Then in a very vague way I was sent for by the ministry, went down to see little Afshar, who was head of the British Commonwealth section, and handed a note saying that in view of the unsatisfactory response of the British government, relations would be interrupted on such and such a date, and would I please leave in five days, or whatever it was. OK. And the Iranian mission in London was being withdrawn. That was fine.

Then after that there was complete hiatus while one went through all the technicalities of -- we named the Swiss, the Iranians named the Swedes or someone in London. After that, it's a question of packing baggage, and very little time for anything else while you pack up your files, pack up your baggage, send the children away, and all the rest of it. Arrange for laissez-passers, arrange to go to Baghdad. And this was, you know, about eight or nine days of absolutely desperate activity producing nothing very much.

And then we were asked to leave before dawn -- of course we had this large convoy of cars, of which I've shown you the photographs -- to avoid any public disorders. We were accompanied, of course, by the Swiss ambassador, who was in charge of British interests then.

And so, flying a large Swiss flag, we set off in a large convoy -- we'd sent most of the people out the night before -- on the road to Qazvin, and left before dawn. And had decided.... The servants had gone and everything else. I'd arranged to have sort of a picnic breakfast in a ditch on the road to Qazvin, where.... At which point, the sort of relief ... the tremendous pressures that months had taken off, and it had become a sort of picnic.

We were sitting there, and the Belgians arrived. And the Americans arrived, and the Italians arrived, and the French arrived. And finally, on the road to Qazvin there was a sort of huge diplomatic party, which was absurd. By then it was just about dawn -- very early -- very cold. And I remember one American arriving with about a gallon of dry martinis, the Belgians arriving with bacon and eggs, and all the rest of it.

And as we were all sort of saying good-bye, and about to set off -- and by then it must have been just after dawn -- a car from the ministry arrived. Oh, of course we had our military escort and a member of ... I forget who it was -- it wasn't Afshar -- it was one of the junior members of the ministry, to make sure we were OK. Very well done, very polite and nice. When a car arrives -- and I think it was Afshar inside -- with a message for me to deliver to the British people.

We then had our last sort of confrontation on the Qazvin road, and I said I was sorry, I could CnotD deliver a message to the British people. In fact, I couldn't even receive a message and the only people who could would be the Swiss, who were in charge of British interests. In any case, I certainly could not deliver a message to the British people. I was not an elected representative; I was nothing at all, I was an official -- an ex-offical, now that I was leaving.

And we had this fairly ridiculous exchange, handing envelopes up and down.

Q. Was this Meftah or Afshar?

A. Meftah I think. And finally ... I mean, of course, all these diplomats were around, they nearly all of them with cameras, and one thing and another -- verging on the ridiculous, I'm afraid. However, finally, I think about the nineteenth time, I let the envelope drop. And so, someone picked it up. And that was the end of that one, and off we went. Having drunk about two gallons of American dry martinis.

Q. Well, on that note....

A. But I was very sad, because I had a great affection for the country and the people, and wished I could have spent longer, learned the language properly, and I'd planned, you know, several happy years there. But it never happened. Nothing but good memories of it -- basically.

Q. Well, thank you very much for allowing me to record your memoirs.

A. Well, thank you.


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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
1430 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
 
ladjevar@fas.harvard.edu
617.495.4232 (tel)