Without any notice to the British Government, on 25th September, the government of Iran announced that the remaining British staff in Abadan would be given seven days notice to leave Iran. This action marked the final severance of the British connection with Iranian oil. Though on 1st August 1951, as has been said, the plan for taking military action was withdrawn, however the expulsion notice of the Iranian Government of the British staff in Abadan, once more, revived the idea of military action within the British Government.

The British Government Cabinet, now concerned about the prospects of the forthcoming general election, contemplated taking military action. Herbert Morrison, the British Foreign Secretary, continued to be attracted by the prospect of using force to protect British interests. On 27th September 1951 the British Cabinet met. The Foreign Secretary presented a powerful case. Morrison mentioned to his Cabinet colleagues:

The British Government had acted with great reasonableness in the face of much provocation. If they allowed the remaining British staff to be thrown out, there would be repercussions throughout the world.25

It was the possibility of the Suez Canal going under Egyptian control and British legal rights in other parts of the world that the Foreign Secretary was having in mind. Morrison was fully aware of the international difficulties that the British would face at the United Nations and elsewhere, but he strongly wanted to use whatever means that existed, to prevent British personnel in Abadan from getting expelled.

The British military strike force was prepared to seize the island of Abadan, the site of the largest oil refinery in the world. Units of the British army, navy and air force grouped themselves around the eastern Mediterranean and in the Persian Gulf. When the Iranians protested by drawing attention to the Labour Government’s nationalisation programme in Britain, and pointed out that Iran was also entitled to nationalise its industry, as long as she compensated its owners, the Guardian replied by arguing that ‘this was altogether a different case, because it involved British property which had been acquired by an international agreement.’26 ‘In Teheran the government ordered all oil installations be blown up if any foreign forces attempted to land on Iranian soil.’27

Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister, however, was overwhelmingly against military intervention and took a firm stand against any form of use of force. He said to the Cabinet:

If we attempted to find a solution by force, we could not expect much support in the United Nations, and Asiatic Governments would be hostile to us. Military intervention might not topple the present government and might even strengthen Musaddiq’s position. On the other hand, if the Persians by their own mismanagement were to reduce the oil industry to chaos, then they might eventually recognise the desirability of British co-operation.28
Attlee continued by saying:
An occupation of Abadan Island would not necessarily bring about a change in Persian Government and might well unite the Persian people against this country, and neither the oil wells nor the refinery could be worked without the assistance of Persian workers. It would be humiliating to this country if the remaining British staff at Abadan were expelled, but this step would at least leave Dr. Musaddiq with the task of attempting to run the oil industry with inadequate facilities for refining oil and getting it away from Persia and he might then be driven to accept some form of agreement with this country.29

The Attorney General on 28th September 1951 in a communication made a serious attempt to deter the British Government from taking military action against Iran. ‘I think the International Court would not consider Persian expulsion orders as a justification for British forcible intervention in Abadan.’30 The Attorney General continued by stating that

It is more likely that His Majesty’s Government would have to defend British action before the Security Council and probably the General Assembly. If the Anglo-Iranian case comes to trial this action would prejudice us unless we had at least been to the Security Council. I think policy considerations must be ultimately the deciding factor.31

  1. PRO, London, CAB 128/20, CM 60 (51), Cabinet Minutes, 27th September 1951.
  2. H. ENAYAT, British Public Opinion and the Persian Oil Crisis from 1951 to 1954, M. Sc. Econ. Thesis, University of London, 1958, p. 91 in H. KATOUZIAN, Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., Publishers, 1990), p. 139
  3. A.W. FORD, The Anglo-Iranian Oil Dispute of 1951-1952: A Study in the Role of Law in the Relations of the States, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1954), p. 124.
  4. PRO, London, CAB 128/20, CM 60 (51), Cabinet Minutes, 27th September 1951.
  5. Ibid.
  6. PRO, London, FO 800/653, The General Political Correspondence of the Foreign Office, Sir P. Nicholas, to Secretary of State, Top Secret 28th September 1951.
  7. Ibid.

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