Implications of War
CIA Emphasizes Risks of British Invasion of Iran

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | February 4, 2020                     

William Leonard Langer (1896-1977) Hoping to protect their former properties in Abadan after oil nationalization, Britain shared their estimate “Military Implications of the Entry of British Forces into Persian Territory” with the Americans, only to be dissuaded from this risky course.

The following memo covered the likely adverse reactions of war. It was written by William L. Langer (1896-1977) of Harvard University, a prominent historian, author and CIA veteran, who found the British view “too optimistic” by far.

Langer’s work with the Central Intelligence Agency dated back to World War II when it was still known as the OSS. He was the CIA’s first Director of the Office of National Estimates, occupying this post from Nov. 13, 1950 to Jan. 3, 1952.

CIA Documents on Iran, Mossadegh, 1953 Coup

33. Memorandum From the Assistant Director of the Office of National Estimates (Langer) to Director of Central Intelligence Smith [William Langer to Walter Bedell Smith]

Washington, June 20, 1951.


Comments on British Draft Document, JIC (51) 44, “Military Implications of the Entry of British Forces into Persian Territory”

1. The following are comments of the National Estimates Board on the British draft document JIC (51) 44, “Military Implications of the Entry of British Forces into Persian Territory.” [This report was “not found”]

2. The British JIC [Joint Intelligence Committee] estimates that armed intervention by British military forces would enable the UK to retain effective control of the oil fields in southern Iran and bring about the replacement of the present Iranian Government by a more moderate one that would be “prepared to negotiate” on the oil issue. We believe that the British JIC (a) is too optimistic concerning the Iranian political reaction to armed intervention in Iran, and (b) underestimates the adverse reaction of the United Nations in general and the Near and Middle Eastern countries in particular.

(a) In view of the recent upsurge of fanatical Iranian nationalism, we doubt that a more moderate Iranian Government would come to power. Although the Shah and some of the members of the parliament might be disposed to negotiate, Mossadeq and the National Front would be under heavy pressure from inflamed nationalist public opinion as well as from the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party to resist the British to the bitter end. In these circumstances, the Iranian armed forces might seriously damage the oil installations before the British could establish firm control of the area. Moreover, if the British proceeded with the occupation of the oil fields, the resulting panic and confusion are at least as likely to lead to virtual collapse of the central government as to the formation of a more moderate one. In such a situation the Tudeh Party might be able to seize control of the central government. If the USSR should in the meantime have occupied northern Iran, as the British JIC believes it likely, the Tudeh Party probably could count on enough Soviet assistance not only to maintain political control in Iran but also to make British operation of the oil fields increasingly difficult. While we agree with the British JIC that the USSR probably would not initiate a general war over Iran, we believe that one of the main reasons for this Soviet attitude would be Soviet expectation that British armed intervention in Iran would be likely to result in effective Soviet control of Iran without general war.

(b) While the British JIC recognizes that the reaction outside Iran would be adverse, we believe that it underestimates the seriousness of the adverse world reaction to British armed intervention. Iran might very well take the case to the United Nations, where it would of course be prosecuted by the Soviet bloc and supported by a number of basically pro-Western countries on the grounds that the British were violating their obligations under the United Nations Charter by resorting to military force to protect their legal rights in Iran. Certainly there would be a strong anti-British reaction in the Near and Middle East, particularly in Egypt and Iraq, from whose bases the UK intervention would have to be launched.

William L. Langer

[Annotations by Arash Norouzi]

• Source: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952-1954, Iran, 1951–1954 (2017)

• “Source: Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 79R00904A, Box 1, Folder 2, Memos for DCI (1951) (Substantive). Top Secret.” — U.S. State Department Office of the Historian

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Related links:

Role of the Haifa Refinery in the Iranian Crisis | CIA Memo, July 9, 1951

Iran: The Genie of the Lamp | The Morning News, June 22, 1951

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

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