First steps in the middle east - how concerns about communism and orientalist perceptions shaped U.S. policy towards Iran in the 1950s

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

25 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Sources

3. The United States, Britain and Iran: An Overview

4. Short Biography of Muhammad Musaddiq

5. The Concept of Orientalism and American Orientalism

6. Perception, Misperception and Orientalism

7. The Limits of Misperception

8. The Characterization of Musaddiq in recent Literature

9. Conclusion

10. Bibliography

1. Introduction

No area seems to be of more importance in the field of foreign policy and diplomatic history today than the so called Middle East. The continuing clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian suicide bombers, the difficult challenge of stabilizing a newly elected government in Iraq and the growing tension between Iran and the international community concerning the issue of nuclear power are just a few examples which illustrate the urgency to look at origins of these conflicts. As an example for this essay, I have chosen the case of Iran. I will focus on the very beginning of the involvement of the United States in the Middle East, and I will demonstrate what kind of issues and perceptions played an essential role in the determination of U.S. policy towards Iran.

Although I do not attempt to find causes for the current situation, some of the factors I will identify in this essay might also serve as an explanation for the current conflict with Iran. Yet, this is not my primary intention and further research and empirical data will be required to investigate connections to the contemporary situation with Iran.

However, I will argue that the way US policymakers viewed their Iranian counterparts did not change fundamentally for many decades at least regarding the country of Iran if not more countries in the Middle East. I downplay this aspect because a lot more research is needed to support this argument and it would extend beyond the scope of this essay. Mostly the dealings with Iran and its premier Muhammad Musaddiq in the early 1950s at the time of the Anglo-Iranian oil crises will be of relevance.

The essence of my argument is that even though strategic thinking and the fear of a communist takeover of Iran played a role in negotiating with Iran, the reason why Musaddiq was toppled by the CIA and the British MI-6 was because Western diplomats had a so called “orientalist” mindset and perceived him as too weak and irrational as to fight off Soviet attacks and propaganda which could have led to an eventual takeover of Iran by Soviet forces. In order to pre-empt that, the United States and Britain collaborated to bring down Musaddiq and install a shah regime that would, on the one hand be more favourable to Western oil interests, and on the other hand more resistant regarding possible Soviet invasion efforts. The details surrounding the coup are of less importance. What is relevant for this essay is the decision that Musaddiq had to be removed and why this decision was made.

2. Sources

For writing this essay I have for the most part relied on the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) Volume X documents on Iran between 1952 and 1954 assembled and released by the Department of State. It is among other sources a broad collection of memos to and from U.S. officials of all ranks and meetings between White House officials and State Department representatives. Especially important and revealing are the memos sent by the respective ambassadors of the United States in Iran to the State Department with analysis and reports of negotiations between him and Iranian officials including prime minister Musaddiq. With such sensitive and in part top secret information doubts about proper declassification remain. Although the FRUS volume is filled with interesting material scholars such as Peter Hahn continue to be sceptical as to what other information rests locked away and whether or not the declassified documents become public unaltered. In his feature review Glasnost in America he discusses the declassification of the volume on Iran which was released after a delay of thirty-five years. Hahn concludes that “the basic credibility of FRUS was called into question by academic historians, members of Congress, and others” after the publication of the volume on Iran, “from which evidence of covert operations against Mohammad Mossadegh[1] was so thoroughly sanitized.” He goes on to quote Warren I. Cohen, chairman of the State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Documentation, a consulting body comprised of nonofficial historians, who called the volume “a fraud, a gross distortion.”[2] Even though there seems to be some controversy over the reliability of the FRUS papers they still provide a well enough collection of documents about the crises in Iran and the U.S. involvement in it.[3]

Equally important for my research were the traditional primary sources of the involved U.S. officials reflecting upon the Iran crises in retrospective. Additional helpful information was drawn from many secondary sources such as monographies and articles which provided well-researched details and identified multiple primary sources for this paper.

3. The United States, Britain and Iran: An Overview

Although there certainly have been contacts between Iran and the United States prior to World War II in the form of missionaries and private businessmen most of the literature on the U.S.-Iranian relationship agrees that official diplomacy between the two nations began to take shape in the course of the forming of an anti-Axis alliance during the war. Before the war Iran and most of the Middle East for that matter was beyond the horizon for U.S. policymakers. On the one hand the United States simply had no interest in the Middle East for centuries and on the other hand the region was dominated by the European powers especially Great Britain. Iran became more significant in 1941 when a supply route to the Soviet Union needed to be established and Iran’s pro-German policies posed a potential threat which called for an Allied occupation of the country. Iran was then divided into three zones with the Soviets in the north, the British in the south, and the Iranian in the center. American forces entered Iran in 1942 only to assist the movement of war supplies to the Soviet Union. After the invasion Iran collapsed into confusion and disorder. The Iranians became increasingly dissatisfied with the British and feared Soviet control. After the war was over it was agreed that all occupation forces would leave the country. But the Soviet army refused to leave their northern zone which led to the questioning of Stalin’s intentions. After a fierce debate and immense pressure by the United States and the U.N. Security Council the Soviet forces left Iran. An agreement with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) ended another hot debate over wartime oil production. Since then, Iran attempted to become gradually independent from its British occupiers, always fearing another Soviet intervention from the north.[4]

There is a whole scholarly debate over how and why the United States became so deeply involved in Iranian affairs. Some aspects of this debate will be of concern here also but it would be too lengthy to name every detail of this discussion. In essence the debate is about whether the United States decided to dedicate itself more intensively to Iran due to security concerns and the vast Iranian oil resources which were needed for the reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan or whether it was Iran that little by little pulled the United States into its sphere because it wanted to have a third neutral power to shield them from Britain and the Soviet Union. Of course the one does not rule out the other and it probably was a combination of the two. Both strains of thought will be elaborated on once they become relevant for the purpose of this essay.[5]

Oil became increasingly important for the United States but also for Europe and Japan as they shifted their source of energy from coal to oil between 1950 and 1960 enhancing their dependence on foreign sources of oil. Cold War realities such as spreading one’s value system and increasing one’s sphere of influence in the world, in part through the access to strategic raw materials, came into play in the Middle East. The fear of losing the resources of a neutral country to the adversary was common on both sides. By the early 1950s US companies controlled much of the Mideast oil flow: An exclusive hold on Saudi Arabian oil and a partial interest in the exploration rights of all other territories on the western side of the Persian Gulf. The only major producing area still closed to American influence was the Iranian oil fields which remained the exclusive property of the British owned AIOC, now British Petroleum (BP).[6]

In the case of Iran this meant that once the premiership of Muhammad Musaddiq decided to nationalize its oil and therefore stop all concessions previously agreed upon to the AIOC Iran had become such a location where it was unclear what would happen to its resources. Since Iran shared a border with the Soviet Union it became an urgent matter for the United States to prevent communist forces fill this vacuum left by Britain. Since the American oil companies were the only influence the United States had on Iranian affairs, they largely relied upon them to accomplish specific foreign policy objectives such as avoiding oil shortages in Europe and Japan, bolstering Iran’s economy and preventing Iran from slipping within the Soviet orbit. The importance of the Middle East policy and the support by the US government for private businesses expanding their role in the MidEast is underlined by the fact that the Truman and Eisenhower administrations even altered their antitrust programs so that the oil companies would not be hampered by the new anti-trust laws.[7] Within the context of Cold War politics (China Loss, Korean War, Chinese in Tibet, Ho Chi Minh striving for control in Vienam, McCarthy fuelling the Communist hysteria at home), the fragility of Iran on the border of the Soviet Union became the magnifier for the Cold War much like Berlin would become years later.

4. Short Biography of Muhammad Musaddiq

Before going into detail about the negotiations between the different U.S. policymakers and Muhammad Musaddiq it is helpful to give a brief overview of Musaddiq’s life before he became premier. Since he becomes the main focus of all characterizations and interpretations in the official memos to and from the State Department it is necessary to provide some information about his education and environment in which his character was molded. Muhammad Musaddiq was born into a wealthy Iranian landowning family in Tehran on May 19th, 1882. While his father was a high-ranking financial administrator and introduced Musaddiq to the basics of political and administrative responsibilities many biographies on him consider the impact by his mother more important. After all his father died when he was ten years old leaving not a lot of time to influence Musaddiq in any profound way. The effect his mother must have had on him could be seen in public debates and speeches by him where he would frequently quote from her wisdom. One of her quotations-‘The weight of individuals in society is determined by amount of hardship they endure for the sake of the people’-seemed to have become Musaddiq’s life-long guide to the practice of international diplomacy and national premiership.[8] This might help to explain the way Musaddiq dealt with his counterparts and will be elaborated upon later in this essay.

Musaddiq grew up during a time when there was growing hostility in the country. The most dominant and influential group for him was the anti-shah policy movement regarding the trade concessions to European powers. This is where the statesman Musaddiq and his vision for Iran was born. Although he was still a child when the Tobacco-Régie movement (1890-91) began to unite people for a common cause to fight the concessions of a tobacco monopoly to a foreign company he experienced the anti-dependency feelings first hand. Thus as he got older he became opposed to any foreign concession-whether in the form of shipping rights in Lake Urmiyyeh, the proposed concession of North Iran’s oil to the Soviet Union, the 1933 oil concession to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company or the concession of Caspian fishing rights to a Russian company.[9] The success of the Tobacco-Regié movement was unprecedented in the history of Iran. For the first time there was something equal to a popular organized movement with a clear defined campaign and goal. These experiences were witnessed by Musaddiq as he became financial administrator himself, thus following in his father’s footsteps. He pursued his higher education in France and Switzerland and received a doctorate in law from the University of Neuchâtel. At the end of World War I Musaddiq campaigned against British economic and political influence. In 1924 he was elected to the Majlis, the Iranian parliament where he opposed any kind of British influence on Iran from the beginning. Since the AIOC was the most visible sign of British subjugation of Iran Musaddiq consistently targeted the AIOC and its relationship to the ruling elite at that time. In 1946 when the Iranian government debated the possibility to grant the Soviet Union 51% of the oil share it was Musaddiq who passionately objected and led the opponents of the deal to victory. He became the “driving force behind the nationalist sentiment that oil, Iran’s greatest natural resource, should be developed by Iranians themselves for the benefit of their own country.”[10] Therefore it was only consequential that one of Musaddiq’s first moves was to nationalize the Iranian oil after he had become prime minister in 1951.


[1] Many different versions of spelling the name Musaddiq will occur throughout the citations of this essay. This is in part due to the language barrier of many scholars and/or their misinformation on the correct usage of Arabic/Persian letters. In my essay I will use the version of ‘Musaddiq’ but in quotations I will cite the original version of the name used by the respective author.

[2] Peter L. Hahn, Glasnost in America. In Diplomatic History 16 (1992), p. 633.

[3] For more on the discussion about the Iran Volume X see Bradford Perkins, Report of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation. In Perspectives 28 (October 1990), p. 8.

[4] Stephen L. McFarland: A Peripheral View of the Origins of the Cold War: The Crises in Iran, 1941-1947. In Diplomatic History 4 (1980), p. 335/336.

[5] For more on the debate regarding the origins of the U.S. involvement in Iran see Bruce R. Kuniholm: The Origins of the Cold War in the Near East. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1980. p. 383-431; the article by Efraim Karsh examining both sides Cold War, post-Cold War: does it make a difference for the Middle East? In Review of International Studies 23 (1997), p. 271-291.

[6] Burton I. Kaufman: Mideast Multinational Oil, U.S. Foreign Policy, and Antitrust: the 1950s. In Journal of American History 63 (March 1977), p. 939.

[7] For more on the anti-trust policy debate regarding the US oil cartel see the whole article of Burton I. Kaufman.

[8] Homa Katouzian: Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran. I.B. Tauris & Co., London, 1990. p. 2.

[9] Ibid.: p. 3.

[10] James A. Bill/WM. Roger Louis [edit.]: Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil. I.B. Tauris & Co., London, 1988. p. 3.

Excerpt out of 25 pages


First steps in the middle east - how concerns about communism and orientalist perceptions shaped U.S. policy towards Iran in the 1950s
Free University of Berlin  (John F. Kennedy Institut)
Rise to Power: US Foreign Policy in the 20th Century
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First, Iran, Rise, Power, Foreign, Policy, Century
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Michael Schmid (Author), 2006, First steps in the middle east - how concerns about communism and orientalist perceptions shaped U.S. policy towards Iran in the 1950s, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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