The “Bitter Pill” Method

Henry Villard Suggests “Showdown” With British

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | May 30, 2018                     

Henry Serrano Villard (1900-1996) During the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute, most records show that the U.S. viewed Iran as the more irresponsible party. This memo concentrating on the British and their “inept” handling of the matter is a rare exception.

It was written by career diplomat Henry S. Villard (1900-1996) of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff from 1951-1952, for the attention of his boss, Paul Nitze (1907-2004). Villard’s previous memo to Nitze concluded that oil nationalization was a “fait accompli” and warned of the danger of Iran being swallowed up by the Soviet Union.

Virtually none of the ideas presented here were ever implemented, of course. Had they been, perhaps history would have taken a different shape altogether.

U.S. State Department | IRAN Documents

47. Memorandum From Henry Villard of the Policy Planning Staff, Department of State, to the Chairman of the Policy Planning Staff (Nitze) [Paul Nitze]

Washington, September 26, 1951.


As I see it the Iranian situation now boils down to the following facts and conclusions:

1. The British have rejected our suggestions in regard to Mossadegh and discussion of the latest Iranian proposals. They persist in working for Mossadegh’s downfall and profess to have the Shah’s support of this aim. In this they are employing tactics they have always employed in Iran and which were a principal cause for the drastic nationalization laws. British intrigue is the surest way of increasing Iranian antagonism and preventing any sort of agreement. The economic measures employed against Iran have the same effect; they have resulted in retaliatory action against the remaining AIOC personnel and, by dooming any deals in foreign exchange, the probable closing of British banks in Iran. In other words, the British are steadfastly pursuing a policy which can only aggravate the situation and contains risks of the most serious kind.

2. Even if the British should succeed in overthrowing Mossadegh, it would prove a boomerang. In the eyes of the public Mossadegh would be a martyr to the cause and any successor known to be acceptable to the British could not last long. The Shah cannot be expected to move against Mossadegh. In the first place he lacks guts to do so. In the second place he is aware of the extreme unpopularity of such action. The removal of Mossadegh by the Shah could only result in an attempt to govern the country by armed force. Even this would probably be impossible in view of the unreliability of the Iranian armed forces in the face of angry public opinion. The British pretend to believe that public opinion is not a vital factor in controlling the situation, that only the so-called Teheran intelligentsia really counts, that feeling on the oil question ebbs and flows, and that opposition to the U.K. is only skin deep. This is completely contrary to our information and constitutes, I think, the most fundamental British mistake in their entire inept handling of the problem.

3. My own opinion is that it is no longer possible to reach an agreement which would permit the British to retain any semblance of the authority previously exercised in the Iranian oil industry. I have never believed in the likelihood of such an agreement, but matters have now gone so far that it seems essential to recognize the political objective of the Iranians as distinct from economic considerations. That objective is not to reach a negotiated settlement on the question of profits or management, but to drive out British influence in accordance with a literal interpretation of the Iranians’ communication to the ICJ: “in order to free themselves from the claws of a usurping company which for long years has served as a disturbing influence in economic, social and political fields in Iran.”1 Emotion—not logic—is the controlling factor, and the sooner the British realize they are not wanted in Iran, the sooner can we approach a possible solution.

4. It seems to me that the time has arrived for a show-down with the U.K. if anything is to be salvaged from the situation. I think we should tell the British that because of our deep concern in this crisis we must abandon our efforts to play the role of honest broker and take a strong stand. We should say that we propose that U.S. and other foreign technicians should be admitted to Iran to run the industry; that this would involve the complete removal of British personnel from the scene; and that an attempt should concurrently be made to work out a contract with Iran for the sale of oil to the U.K. This would be a virtual capitulation on the part of the British. But they are finished anyway, as the AIOC personnel will soon have left. On our part we should say that we would undertake to make the Iranians carry out the terms of a suitable sales contract.

It would be a bitter pill for the U.K., and I doubt that they can be made to swallow it, but the stakes are so high that unless we try something of this sort a whole chapter of dangers will presently open up.

Henry S. Villard

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

• “Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1950–1954, 888.2553/9–2651. Secret.” — U.S. State Department Office of the Historian

1 U.S. State Department Office of the Historian: “For statements made before the International Court of Justice in regard to the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute, see International Court of Justice, Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. Case (United Kingdom vs. Iran) Pleadings, Oral Arguments, Documents, Leyden. See also Document 76.”

76. Editorial Note

“Prime Minister Mosadeq departed for The Hague in May 1952 to await the judgment of the International Court of Justice with regard to its jurisdiction over the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute. The British had filed a complaint against the Iranian Government with the ICJ on May 26, 1951. In its judgment of July 22, 1952, the ICJfound it did not have jurisdiction in the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute for two reasons. First, ICJ jurisdiction depended upon the terms under which any country acceded to the International Court of Justice. In its declaration of October 1930, the Government of Iran, in the view of the ICJ, had made clear that the jurisdiction of the ICJ could relate only to disputes between Iran and other countries over the terms of treaties signed after the date of the declaration. The British had argued that the ICJ’s jurisdiction extended to the adjudication of disputes arising from all treaties signed by the Government of Iran at any time. As the ICJ rejected that argument, the U.K. Government could not invoke the most-favored-nation status accorded British nationals in Iran in the Treaty of 1857 to establish standing under the jurisdiction of the ICJ. Secondly, the ICJ rejected the British argument that the agreement reached between the Government of Iran and the AIOC of April 29, 1933, constituted a treaty between the United Kingdom and the Government of Iran. Despite the fact that the U.K. took the dispute between the AIOC and the Government of Iran to the League of Nations and thus facilitated the agreement of April 29, 1933, that agreement, according to the ICJ, still constituted a simple concessionary agreement between Iran and a company and thus the U.K. had no standing.

For the full text of the ICJ’s judgment, see “Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. Case (United Kingdom v. Iran) Preliminary Objection, Judgment of July 22nd, 1952”, International Court of Justice, Reports of Judgments, Advisory Opinions and Orders, Leyden, 1952, pages 93–115. Coinciding nearly to the day of Qavam’s resignation and Mosadeq’s reinstatement as Prime Minister on July 21, 1952, the Department of State commented in telegram 585 to London, July 26, that “The Hague Court decision coinciding with Mosadeq’s return to power will further strengthen his public position.” Document 99.”

What Went Wrong in Iran? | Amb. Henry Grady Tells All (1952)
What Went Wrong in Iran? | Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 5, 1952


Related links:

Iranian Situation (Henry S. Villard to Paul Nitze) | May 24, 1951

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

Ernest Gross Advises British To Revise Approach on Iran | October 2, 1951

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

Facebook  Twitter  YouTube  Tumblr   Instagram