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No happy ending
U.S. special negotiator in the oil nationalization affair looks back and into the future

By Fariba Amini
February 21, 2003
The Iranian

"He had, I discovered later, a delightfully childlike way of sitting in a chair with his legs tucked under him, making him more of a Lob character than ever, with many and changing moods. I remember him sitting with the President and me after lunch in Blair House, his legs under him, when he dropped a gay animation and, suddenly looking old and pathetic, leaned toward the President. 'Mr. President,' he said, ' I am speaking for a very poor country -- a country all desert -- just sand, a few camels, a few sheep... ' 'Yes', I interrupted, 'and with your oil, rather like Texas!' He burst into a delightful laugh and the whole act broke up, finished. It was a gambit that had not worked."

I had called this number several times during the course of the last few months, always hearing a message on the answering machine. When someone finally picked up the phone a few days ago, I was thrilled, yet anxious. I meekly asked the gentleman on the phone, "I am sorry for this question, but is your father still living?" With his reply, "yes", I was overjoyed. He then said, "my father is 90-years old and he has had a couple of strokes but he still comprehends everything, though his speech is blurred at times. I asked him whether he would grant me an interview. He asked his father, while I held the phone excitedly. "Yes he would be glad to." At that moment, I was ecstatic to know that in a few days I would be talking to a living historical figure.

When I arrived in Middleburg, a small town, some 30 miles from Washington DC, I knew I had come back to a place that I called my home for 14 years. Middleburg is Virginia's horse country, where old and new money meet; where people like John F. Kennedy had his farm, and where there is much history, dating as far back as the American Revolution. Cattle and horses are kept in large and small farms and the town is occupied by both Black and White folk who have lived there for generations.

As I arrived at the home of Ambassador George McGhee, I noticed the humbleness of a modest brick house on a 90-acre land. It is there that almost fifty years ago, McGhee, the chief negotiator representing President Harry Truman, had as his guest of honor another famous person, Premier Mohammad Mossadegh.

When I arrived at their house, Ambassador McGhee's son opened the door and very graciously let me into a warm, pleasant room filled with memorabilia from all over the Middle East. Ambassador McGhee tried to get up to greet me but I insisted that he not. He spoke with difficulty, yet with extreme awareness and politeness. He read my questions carefully and tried to answer as clearly as possible.

He began with the inevitable: the beginning of it all:

"I was born in Waco, Texas, in 1912 and went to the University of Oklahoma where I studied geology emphasizing on oil. At first I could not pass the exams and failed. Then my mother sent me books every week and told me to read one book per week to open my horizon. I did, and eventually got a scholarship to study at Oxford and became a Rhodes scholar. It was there that I was introduced to European history and became acquainted with British history and culture.

"Because of my background in oil and my interest in politics, and having worked in the State Department, I was called by President Harry Truman to intervene in the negotiations with the British regarding their dispute with Iran on the question of oil nationalization. It was indeed a challenging task, which did not stop me from getting involved."

In my possession I had one of McGhee's books, Envoy to the Middle World, and he looked at it with interest, reading pages from chapters on Iran and talks with Mossadegh, trying to refresh his memory. At times, when he could not remember a specific person or event, he would say, "everything has been written here, in this book."

I asked him about Dr. Mossadegh. What did he remember? "He was very friendly," he said, "a very generous man. You know he came here to this farm and talked to my farm manger and spoke about the differences in the agriculture in Iran with the US. I liked him and he liked us. I was happy to have had him here and was glad to be back there with him. He was trying to be friendly to us... Much has been written about Mossadegh, who was a most interesting character.

"Tall, gaunt, always half-smiling. He had developed a reputation for emotional outbursts of crying in public and for his preference for doing business in bed. He never cried in my presence, perhaps because our meetings were not in the public eye and not worth the effort. Almost all of my talks with Mossadegh took place with only Vernon Walters present, the two of us sitting on opposite sides of the foot of Mossadegh's bed.

"These conversations involved countless jokes and sallies on his part, which would be followed by Mossadegh's convulsive laughter. One could not help but like him. He was, I considered, an intelligent man and essentially a sincere Iranian patriot, whose reasoning was influenced by his age (he was about seventy in 1951) and warped by his extreme suspicion of everything British."

McGhee then went back to the book and read from another paragraph: "I do not believe that Mossadegh 'formed an alliance with the Soviet Union' as my friend, Kermit Roosevelt charges in his recent book, Countercoup. The USSR obviously tried to take advantage, through the Communist Tudeh Party in Iran, of the disorder created by Mossadegh, and the National Front party was probably glad to accept the support of the Tudeh Party when they found it useful.

"Mossadegh, however, was fully aware of the Soviet threat to Iran. He was the one member of the Majlis who had had the courage to force cancellation of the Soviet oil concession in the north of Iran in 1947. Mossadegh was, in my view, first and foremost a loyal Iranian."

I asked what he thought about the British and their role in the negotiations. He reminded that there were a lot of problems at the time between Britain, the U.S. and Iran regarding oil. Iranians had lots of oil and the U.S. tried to act as a go-between. "

Once again he referred to the book: "The view has been expressed that the Americans have been rather overdoing their pressure on us in regard to the IPC (Iraq Petroleum Company) and the AIOC (Anglo Iranian Oil Company) . The view has been expressed, though I (undesignated, succeeding pages having been removed from the record) do not myself subscribe to it, that the State Department may have been over much influenced by the American oil companies, who wish to see our companies driven into an uncompetitive position by constant pressure to raise their royalties and labor conditions. It has been further suggested that McGhee himself, as a former oil man, is not wholly immune from this feeling." (Quote from the British Foreign Office's confidential report at the British Archives)

The British had concluded that McGhee was becoming too lenient towards the Iranians and they were influencing him. The Ambassador refuted the idea and said, I was educated partly at Oxford, and was only acting as a fair negotiator in this whole affair, trying to be a judge for the benefit of the two parties.

When I asked him again what he thought of the accusations, he looked at me, skimmed through the book, and read: "In my talks with the British officials I expressed full appreciation of the importance to Britain of their oil rights in Iran. From our point of view the most important objective was internal Iranian political stability and the preservation of Iran as an independent nation. The loss of Iran to the free world would be incalculable. In that eventuality the oil would be, of course, lost too. Any solution to the oil crisis must take into the account the expressed desire of the Iranian people to nationalize their oil, which they considered a fait accompli, while retaining operating control of the AIOC."

Yet the accusations were made "characterizing me as anti-British", "a millionaire oil tycoon" and that I was telling the Iranians that the nationalization was a good idea. Then in an amusing way, he said, "do you think they were right?" "I don't think so," I said. I was trying to be an impartial party.

"For the next nine months following the Washington talks with [Sir Oliver] Franks , I was to be deeply involved in attempting to bring Iran and the AIOC together, including some seventy five hours of conversations with Prime Minister Mossadegh in New York and Washington, and in my farm in Middleburg. With other [State] Department officials I helped put together an offer to the British which I believed Mossadegh would accept, only to be turned down by the new Eden government."

Eden had decided that there was to be no compromise with Mossadegh under any circumstances. Eden said, "In my view no agreement would be better than a bad one." "Acheson said over the Paris line that Eden wouldn't buy it, that he thanked us for our efforts but that he couldn't accept our proposal and didn't want to negotiate any further. He asked us to tell Mossadegh that it's all off. There was silence as we grasped the fact that we had failed. To me it was almost the end of the world -- I attached so much importance to an agreement and honestly thought we had provided the British a basis for one."

McGhee later noted in his book, that he went to the Shoreham Hotel to see Mossadegh and as soon as he entered the room, the Prime Minister said: "You've come to send me home." "Yes" I said, "I'm sorry to have to tell you that we can't bridge the gap between you and the British. It's a great disappointment to us as it must be to you. It was a moment I will never forget. He accepted the result quietly with no recrimination."

After two years of intense negotiations which fell through, McGhee returned to his post in Turkey; Mossadegh was toppled and with him, the aspiration of a nation to have control over her destiny dissipated. In August 1953, Britain's MI6 with the backing of the CIA overthrew Mossadegh's democratically-elected government and brought Mohammad Reza Shah back to
his throne.

In 1961, McGhee returned to the State Department as the Chairman of the Policy Planning Council and shortly thereafter he was appointed as the US ambassador to Germany under the Kennedy Administration. After few more years in government, he returned to private life and served as the director of several US companies, Chairman of Saturday Review, as well as the trustee of four universities.

Leaving the past behind, I turned to some recent issues. I asked McGhee about current events, the probable war with Iraq and President Bush. His son told me that his father reads the Washington Post and The New York Times on a daily basis, watches the TV news - Peter Jennings and the McNeil Report. I was fascinated by what he had to say.

"When the first Gulf War came" McGhee said, "I was against the US involvement and told Bush Senior's officials that it would not be right. I said, 'For God's sake don't start a war.' But then when they did fight the Iraqis, I said 'For God's sake keep on going and finish the job.' You have plenty of men to do it. At that time we had the opportunity and we didn't take advantage of it. The 'big' man (Kissinger?) advised them against it. Now we might have another war under Bush, Junior," he added. "The situation is very different now and quite complicated."

"You know I am a Democrat and he is a Republican," McGhee said. "I am opposed to war. I don't think this situation calls for a war. You can control things without fighting. Plus, I believe the U.S. should not get involved without the allies, or NATO. The only way is for the army to surround Iraq and let it run its course. Maybe take over the air bases. Do not engage in a war in the cities. Wait and let the Iraqi people revolt against their government. Sit with them and make it difficult for Saddam. I think the war will have many repercussions, and many will be killed in the process. There will no doubt be a lot of casualties. It is better to wait. I don't see a happy ending."

He wanted to say more and continue the interview. I felt he was getting tired. But it seemed that he was charged up and now going back in time when he was a high official of the US government in a major world negotiation.

I shook his hand and thanked him for granting me the audience. He insisted on signing two of his books for me and did so in his fragile handwriting. As I left with a feeling of gratitude and sadness, I looked back solemnly at the house and the farm. I stood for a minute there and thought to myself, a part of history was made right here where the Ambassador met the Premier.

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72 photos: Mossadegh
Compiled by Jalil Bozorgmehr


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