Life After Razmara
CIA Probes “The Current Crisis In Iran” (1951)

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project
| August 10, 2017     


The Current Crisis In Iran | CIA estimate, March 16, 1951

March 7, 1951: General Haj Ali Razmara, the Prime Minister who had been appointed by the Shah only months earlier, is killed by a fanatic Muslim gunman while visiting a mosque. On top of the great political uncertainty this act of terrorism caused in Iran, his assassination was of profound concern to the United States, who had viewed Razmara as an important strategic ally.

The U.S. monitored the situation closely, and the following week, produced a National Intelligence Estimate, The Current Crisis In Iran. This paper has now been included in the State Department’s recently released Iran volume from 1951-1954, but it is not new to historians. The entire report was declassified way back in 1977.

Also of interest, however, is a memorandum about the report by none other than the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., prepared for CIA Director Allen Dulles. Roosevelt questioned many of the NIE’s conclusions, which was the consensus of the State Dept., the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the entire U.S. military, and, of course, the Central Intelligence Agency. Dulles was impressed enough with Roosevelt’s more hawkish commentary that he forwarded it on to others in the agency to read.

The contrarian Roosevelt memo was also included in the recent State Dept. release, yet it too, is not new — it had already been declassified in 2012. Transcripts of both documents, which are best read together (NIE first), are presented below.

As his critique shows, Kermit had been hungry for “vigorous action” in Iran even before Mossadegh came to power.






SPECIAL ESTIMATE

THE CURRENT CRISIS IN IRAN

THE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY

SE - 3 [Special Estimate 3]
Published 16 March 1951


DISTRIBUTION:

The President [Harry S. Truman]
National Security Council
Intelligence Advisory Committee

The intelligence organizations of the Departments of State, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Joint Staff [Joint Chiefs of Staff] participated in the preparation of this estimate. All members of the Intelligence Advisory Committee concurred in this estimate on 15 March.

CONCLUSIONS

1. The political situation in Iran has long been unstable. This instability has been increased by the assassination of Razmara, [Premier Ali Razmara] which has led to a new outburst of extreme nationalism, expressed in a vigorous demand for nationalization of oil resources of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. [AIOC]

2. We do not believe, however, that the situation is such that there is imminent danger of the government’s losing control, barring armed intervention by the USSR. This estimate is based on the following considerations:

     a. Available information indicates that the Iranian armed forces, including the gendarmérie and police, are adequate to maintain order. There is no evidence to suggest that they are not under effective control of the government.

     b. The extreme nationalists have only a very small representation in the Majlis. Their popular following, though large and widespread, is nevertheless unorganized.

     c. The illegal pro-Soviet Tudeh Party is not believed to be capable of taking advantage of the current tension to gain control of the government or even seriously to disrupt the government’s control.

     d. Although the main issue in the present crisis is nationalization of Iran’s oil resources and although this issue has evoked overwhelming popular support, responsible government officials, led by the Shah, [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi] are aware of the difficulties involved in nationalization. Given the cooperation of the British, they may be expected to make a real effort to find a face-saving settlement with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

3. Nevertheless, the possibility cannot be excluded that the situation may be aggravated and the crisis prolonged by an unyielding attitude on the part of the British, or by some unpredictable development such as assassination of the Shah. In such circumstances the opportunity might be created for an attempt by the Tudeh Party to seize power, or even for armed intervention by the USSR.

DISCUSSION

The Background of the Crisis

4. The assassination of Premier Razmara by a religious fanatic [Khalil Tahmassebi] on 7 March and the ensuing period of uncertainty are direct results of the agitation for nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which has been building up ever since the rejection by the Majlis in December 1950 of a revised concession agreement offered by the company. This agitation has been led by a very small group of ultra-nationalists in the Majlis known as the National Front. One of its leaders, the violently anti-British religious figure, Mulla Kashani, [sic—Mullah Kashani : Ayatollah Seyed Abolghassem Kashani] was reportedly implicated in the assassination, also by religious fanatics, of another high official in 1949. [Court minister and former Premier Abdol-Hossein Hazhir, murdered by Seyed Hossein Emami on Nov 4th, 1949]

5. Tension over the oil issue increased sharply in the period just preceding the assassination. The National Front stepped up its demands for nationalization, using that issue as a club to attack Razmara, whose attempts to provide strong government had run counter to its own attempts to gain a controlling influence. The National Front reportedly approached the British with an offer to drop the nationalization issue entirely if the British would help get rid of Razmara in favor of a more acceptable Premier. [highly implausible allegation] The British, irritated with Razmara’s failure to line up support for their position, delivered strong official warnings against any attempts at nationalization, meanwhile, however, indicating to Razmara that they were willing to grant a more generous concession agreement along the lines of that recently concluded by Saudi Arabia and the Arabian-American Oil Company. [50/50 arrangement] Razmara was persuaded to go before the Majlis Oil Commission with a statement prepared for him by the British emphasizing the practical difficulties of nationalization. In his presentation on 3 March, Razmara (to the irritation of the British) was careful to label the statement as one prepared by technical experts rather than his own. The statement, however, still brought down the wrath of the ultra-nationalists upon him and may well have furnished the immediate incentive (or pretext) for his murder.

The Development of the Crisis

6. The assassination produced no immediate repercussions. Tehran was quiet, with the public evidently unconcerned. The pro-Soviet Tudeh Party was evidently taken by surprise. The Shah, after briefly considering the invocation of martial law, decided against such a move and contented himself with the designation of an innocuous elder statesman as acting Premier. [Khalil Fahimi]

7. This situation, however, soon changed. On the evening of 8 March the Majlis Oil Commission, under pressure from the exultant ultra-nationalists, unanimously passes a resolution endorsing nationalization but asking a two-month extension for study of the practical problems involved. On the following morning the pro-Soviet element went into action with an anti-US and anti-UK demonstration outside the US Embassy, while in the afternoon Mulla Kashani [Ayatollah Kashani] held a mass meeting which, though orderly, was marked by inflammatory speeches denouncing the British and Razmara. The organization responsible for the murder, the Friends of Islam, [Feda’ian Islam (Self-Sacrificers of Islam)] threatened violence against other opponents of nationalization and indicated that reprisals would be forthcoming if the assassin were not released. Although the provinces apparently continued to be quiet, and the government’s control of the security forces was apparently unshaken, uneasiness in Tehran, particularly in political circles, mounted sharply. No one appeared capable of forming a strong government satisfactory to the Shah, and most of those who would normally have participated in such a government were deterred by fear of personal reprisal and by the sheer difficulty of coping with the question of nationalization. Proclamation of martial law would require approval of a demoralized Majlis, while dissolution of the Majlis involved a risk of increasing the tension. Under the circumstances, the Shah apparently decided to avoid a head-on clash with the ultra-nationalists, making do with a weak interim government until tension abated.

8. The situation has clarified somewhat during the last few days. Upon rejection by the Majlis on 11 March of the Shah’s first choice for interim Premier, the Shah persuaded his widely respected Minister of Court, former Ambassador to the US Ala, [Hossein Ala] to assume the premiership. Ala, who has been approved by both the Senate and the Majlis, is described as apparently “cheerful and optimistic” about what he regards as the task of effecting a reconciliation among the various factions, including Kashani’s. Meanwhile, the impending adjournment of Parliament for the Noruz holidays [Persian New Year — Norouz] offers a breathing spell, and it has been reported that the police have been quietly rounding up members of the reportedly small Friends of Islam group and of the Tudeh Party. At the same time, however, the unanimous Majlis vote in favor of the resolution on oil nationalization indicates that the National Front is determined to exploit its present psychological advantage. The Oil Commission has been granted a two-month extension to study the practical aspects of the problem. In addition, the warning note on nationalization which the UK has sent Iran may actually provoke rather than discourage further ultra-nationalist outbursts.

9. A major indication of the trend will be provided by Ala’s presentation of his proposed Cabinet to the Majlis on 18 March.


[Annotations by Arash Norouzi]

Click here for a .pdf file of the original CIA document, dated March 16, 1951.

• Declassified October 21, 1977

• “Source: Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 79S01011A, Box 3, Folder 3, SE–3, The Current Crisis in Iran. Secret.” — State Dept. Office of the Historian





15 March 1951

CONFIDENTIAL


MEMORANDUM FOR: DEPUTY DIRECTOR, PLANS [Allen Dulles]

SUBJECT: Comments on NIE Paper (The Current Crisis In Iran) dated 15 March 1951 [date apparently changed to 16th]

1. In accordance with the request you made to me this afternoon over the phone I am submitting to you our comments on the present NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] paper on the current crisis in Iran (15 March 1951). There is no need for me to point out that we are not in the estimating business and can comment only in the light of our operating experiences and requirements. As an operator I am bound to look at this paper with the question, “Will this paper help or hinder our program?” An estimator does not take quite that point of view! The following is offered therefore solely for your information.

2. On paragraph 1 of the reference paper: We feel that the economic situation is at least as serious as the political and contributes at least as much to Iran’s instability. Moreover, we feel that this instability has been seriously increased by the assassination of Razmara. The demand for nationalization of oil resources is only one of the vigorous demands expressed in this outburst of extreme nationalism.

3. On paragraph 2: “Imminent” is the key word in the first sentence and if the reader capitalizes it and sees it in neon lights we would agree with this sentence. We feel, however, that the tone of the paper as a whole does not encourage him to read “imminent” in that sense. Frankly, we fear that this estimate may encourage a wait-and-see policy rather than the kind of vigorous action which we feel is required.

4. On paragraph 2 (a): Admittedly there have been no cables received to indicate that the armed forces are not able to maintain order but this, in our opinion, is a negative argument. Razmara, in our opinion, was the one man capable of controlling these forces and now that he is dead it is highly likely on the basis of all past experience that the armed forces will break up into rival cliques, making it extremely difficult for whatever government exists to control them. [Handwritten note here: “with the exception of the Shah, who potentially could do so but can not apply himself to the job.”]

5. On paragraph 2 (b): The opening statement in this paragraph is technically correct but is misleading. The extreme nationalists obviously have a considerable following as the recent vote on the oil issue has indicated. The second sentence quite correctly states that the nationalists have a large and widespread popular following but adds that it is “unorganized”, which can also be said about every political party or group in Iran with the exception of the Tudeh. At this moment there are leaders such as Kashani and Mossadeq; [Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh] they have a rallying cry, and a popular following. This could lead to a strong organization by Iranian standards.

6. On paragraph 2 (c): It is admitted by everyone concerned that we have little or no knowledge on the strength and capabilities of the Tudeh Party. We do know they are the best organized and only secure group in Iran. The statement in this paragraph has always been accepted as being true as long as a strong government was in power. With the death of Razmara we can no longer depend upon this cliche. Even if it is admitted that the Tudeh can not obtain control of the government, the statement that they can not “seriously. . . disrupt the government’s control” is open to serious question. [the word “can” was typed, with “not” added in by hand]

7. On paragraph 2 (d): In our opinion the statement that “responsible government officials . . . are aware of the difficulties involved in nationalism” is misleading. That some such as the Shah and Ala are against this drastic action is undoubtedly true. That some government officials are “aware” of the difficulties is also true but it does not necessarily follow that they will take any action. With the overwhelming vote in the Majlis there is little that the average Iranian politician can do. That there are many thinking Iranians who are against this precipitous action we also believe is true, but we doubt that at the moment they are in any position to act. We further believe that, in view of the xenophobic nature of the present Majlis, the British can not offer any compromise that would be accepted. [again, the word “can” was typed, with “not” added in by hand]

8. On paragraph 3: While no one can quibble with the statement that “the possibility cannot be excluded” we feel the tone of this paragraph is seriously misleading and that the situation may well be aggravated, not by the unyielding attitude of the British but by the inherent nature of the present crisis and that some unpredictable development such as further assassinations may lead to almost total collapse of the present government. Under these circumstances we can see no reason why the USSR would consider armed intervention when the situation is playing so directly into their hands.

KERMIT ROOSEVELT


[Annotations by Arash Norouzi]

Click here for a .pdf of the original CIA document, dated March 15, 1951.

• Declassified and approved for release September 14, 2012

• “Source: Central Intelligence Agency, DDO Files, Job 79–01228A, Box 11, Folder 14, Iran 1951–1953. Secret” — State Dept. Office of the Historian

• A handwritten comment on the routing and record sheet for the memo reads: “It is not our business to prepare estimates — maybe it is not for us even to comment on them, but knowing you are broad minded + tolerant, I send you Kim Roosevelt’s comment on the Iran paper. I am inclined to agree with his views.” The illegible signature belonged to its recipient, Allen W. Dulles, who forwarded it on March 17th.


Elections In Iran: Rigging, Bribery, Ballot Stuffing and Foreign Meddling
A Study of Electoral Methods in Iran | CIA Report, Nov. 1953






Related links:

Estimate of the Political Strength of the Mosadeq Government | State Dept. (May 1951)

IRAN: Time of the Assassin | TIME magazine, December 1, 1952

Max Thornburg: Notes For Discussion With Dean Acheson (July 5, 1951)



MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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