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171. Memorandum of Discussion at the 135th Meeting of the National Security Council1

SUBJECT

  • Discussion at the 135th Meeting of the National Security Council on Wednesday, March 4, 1953

Present at the 135th meeting of the Council were the President of the United States, presiding, the Vice President of the United States, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Director for Mutual Security. Also present were the Secretary of the Treasury, the Director, Bureau of the Budget, General Vandenberg for the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of Central Intelligence, the Administrative Assistant to the President for National Security Matters, the Special Assistant to the President for Cold War Operations, the Military Liaison Officer, the Executive Secretary, NSC, and the Deputy Executive Secretary, NSC.

There follows a general account of the main positions taken and the chief points made at this meeting.

[Omitted here is discussion of Stalin’s illness and its implications for U.S. policy]

[Page 475]

2. Developments in Iran Affecting U.S. Security (NSC 136/1)2

When the Council turned to this item on the agenda Mr. Cutler sketched briefly current United States policy on Iran as set forth in NSC 136/1. He further informed the Council that the Senior NSC Staff had discussed this policy and the situation in Iran at its meeting on the previous Monday.3 At that time the Staff had requested that the Director of Central Intelligence and the Secretaries of State and Defense be prepared to answer certain questions and to set forth the situation when the Council met on Wednesday.

Mr. Dulles then proceeded to brief the Council on the developments of the past two or three days in Iran. Mr. Dulles said that there was little doubt that the Shah had once more missed an opportunity to take control of the situation, and that the present prospects were that Mossadegh would remain in control for the immediate future though with diminished power and prestige. It could be predicted that he would set about destroying what remained of the Shah’s position and would attempt also to “get” Kashani. It was also explained that, for reasons of its own, the Tudeh Party was at the moment supporting Mossadegh. Nevertheless, the true Communist position, said Mr. Dulles, could be deduced from a broadcast of the secret Communist radio in northern Iran. Its report on recent events was violently anti-Shah, but, unlike the position taken by the Tudeh Party officially, this radio also attacked Mossadegh as a vile servant of the Shah and warned him that if he were to survive he must join with the people of Iran and act with and for them against the Shah.

The probable consequences of the events of the last few days, concluded Mr. Dulles, would be a dictatorship in Iran under Mossadegh. As long as the latter lives there was but little danger, but if he were to be assassinated or otherwise to disappear from power, a political vacuum would occur in Iran and the Communists might easily take over. The consequences of such a take-over were then outlined in all their seriousness by Mr. Dulles. Not only would the free world be deprived of the enormous assets represented by Iranian oil production and reserves, but the Russians would secure these assets and thus henceforth be free of any anxiety about their petroleum situation. Worse still, Mr. Dulles pointed out, if Iran succumbed to the Communists there was little doubt that in short order the other areas of the Middle East, with some 60% of the world’s oil reserves, would fall into Communist control.

[Page 476]

The President then asked the members of the Council what they could suggest as to what the United States might do now to avert the crisis. Was there any feasible course of action to save the situation in Iran?

In reply, Secretary Dulles said that for a long time now he had been unable to perceive any serious obstacle to the loss of Iran to the free world if the Soviets were really determined to take it. We do not have sufficient troops to put into the area in order to prevent a Communist take-over, and the Soviets had played their game in Iran very cleverly and with a good sense of timing. Nevertheless, continued Secretary Dulles, he believed it was possible to gain time if we followed certain courses of action. The real problem, it seemed to him, was what to do with the time thus gained, in view of the apparent hopelessness of Iran’s ultimate fate. Perhaps, he suggested, the Joint Chiefs of Staff might provide some answer as to what we could do with the time we could save.

In commencing his outline of these courses of action, Secretary Dulles noted that all three courses were hazardous and all of them subject to change in case Mossadegh was assassinated. The first course of action suggested by Secretary Dulles was to recall Ambassador Henderson before he was dismissed by Mossadegh. In view of his intervention on behalf of the Shah, which Secretary Dulles thought the only sensible course to pursue, the Ambassador’s influence with Mossadegh was probably now hopelessly impaired, and it might therefore be best to recall him before he was kicked out.

The second course of action proposed by the Secretary of State was for the United States to disassociate itself, regarding Iran, from the British in an effort to regain popularity on the merits of a policy of our own. This subject, he added, he desired to discuss with the President and Foreign Secretary Eden. But, he said, it was well known that our unpopularity in Iran is largely a derivation of British unpopularity and our previous association in the minds of Iranians with unpopular British policies. The trouble with such a course of action as this was whether we should not lose more by going it alone, in the face of British opposition in many other areas of the world, than we should gain in Iran itself.

At this point the President interrupted Secretary Dulles’ outline to state his firm belief that in such countries as Syria and Iraq, America was hated even more than Britain, because of the policy which we had been pursuing toward Israel. Had anyone ever thought, continued the President, of saying to these other Middle Eastern states that they ought to make a coalition with us as a means of withstanding an assault by the Russians on them across the mountain ranges which separated them from the Soviets?

[Page 477]

Secretary Dulles then asked if, before answering the President’s question, he could go on to make his third and last point on courses of action to gain time in Iran.

The third course, he said, was to go ahead and purchase oil from the National Iranian Oil Company, supply that company with the technicians it needed, and furthermore to give material support to the Mossadegh regime. This completed, said Secretary Dulles, the courses of action which seemed open to us to gain time in the emergency. We were not obliged to take all three of the courses he outlined, but one or more of them seemed to him the best way to gain time. Unless, however, the Defense people really believed that it was desirable to gain time and had specific reasons for this view, Secretary Dulles again expressed doubts as to the genuine desirability of pursuing any of these courses of action except, perhaps, to recall Ambassador Henderson. The reason for his doubt, he said, was that the losses we might anticipate in other parts of the world were likely to overweigh any gain in Iran.

The President said he understood why Secretary Dulles hesitated about these courses of action, but thought it possible that the British themselves might be persuaded by the course of events lately to agree to an independent policy vis-à-vis Iran by the United States.

Mr. Stassen inquired if we had not just been given an important reason to gain time in Iran. In view of Stalin’s illness and probable death, was it not absolutely requisite that the United States assume a firm and steady stand everywhere throughout the world? Soviet policy was bound to be somewhat confused and hesitant in the immediate future, and it was incumbent upon the United States to take advantage of this fact.

Secretary Dulles replied that he believed that Mossadegh might well last another year or two, and that he had not meant to suggest that the United States should formally disengage itself from concern with Iran.

Secretary Wilson inquired whether we were not in fact in partnership with the British in Iran, and whether the British were not the senior partner.

Secretary Dulles answered that this had been the case until fairly lately, but that the British had now been thrown out.

The President added that we do have to respect the enormous investment which the British had in Iran, and that we must moreover recognize that their latest proposals, unlike earlier ones to the Iranians, had been wholly reasonable. It was certainly possible, he added, for the United States to do what it thought necessary to do in Iran, but we certainly don’t want a break with the British.

[Page 478]

With this statement Secretary Wilson expressed strong agreement.

In commenting on the President’s statement, Secretary Dulles pointed out his fear that it was now too late to hope that any reasonable concession by the British to the Iranians could result in a settlement. The only thing which would produce a settlement would be a complete British capitulation.

Secretary Humphrey inquired whether he was to understand that Secretary Dulles was already convinced that Russia would ultimately secure Iran in any event, or, in other words, that we are going to lose that country.

Secretary Dulles replied in the affirmative, and Mr. Cutler pointed out that this, of course, meant that with the loss of Iran we would lose the neighboring countries of the Middle East and that the loss would be terribly serious.

The President commented that we could not move forces of our own into Iran, but this did not imply to him the necessity of sacrificing the other Middle Eastern states, because it was possible to get United States troops into some of these countries. The difficulty in trying to do this in Iran was the probability that an attempt on our part to do so would result in Soviet invocation of its treaty of friendship and non-aggression with Iran. We would then find ourselves at war with Russia.

Mr. Cutler again pleaded the wisdom of an American policy in Iran independent of the British, and suggested that it might even be wise for the United States to buy out the British oil company.

The President replied that he had long believed that this should be done, but he could see no way of convincing Congress that it was the part of wisdom for the United States Government or any American oil company to buy the bankrupt Anglo-Iranian.

Mr. Stassen noted that it might well be possible for the United States to get its money back once Iranian oil began to flow again.

But the President observed that at the moment at least there was no market for Iranian oil, and that to obtain one would require cutbacks in production in other oil-producing areas.

Reverting to the President’s worries about the attitude of Congress, Mr. Cutler inquired how Congress would like it if the United States stood idly by and let Iran fall into the hands of the Soviet Union.

It was generally agreed that Congress would take a poor view of this eventuality.

At this point, Mr. Jackson said he believed that another possibility existed for saving the situation in Iran. He thought that if the United States could manage to secure a peace between Egypt and Israel, and that if the Roman Catholic Church, as seemed likely, would agree to the internationalization of the Holy Places in Jerusalem, and finally, if the [Page 479]British could be persuaded to go along, the Arab powers would fall in line and the United States would be able to create a position of reasonable strength in the whole Middle East area, including Iran.

The President said that Mr. Jackson was absolutely right, but, unhappily, what he proposed would take a long time, and we are in the midst of a crisis. “I’d pay a lot”, said the President, “for this peace between Egypt and Israel.”

Secretary Dulles added that this case was on the agenda for his forthcoming talks with Anthony Eden.

The President then reverted to Secretary Dulles’ third course of action, which involved giving material and financial support to Mossadegh.

That, said Secretary Dulles, would certainly give us time, but he would like to hear now from the Joint Chiefs of Staff as to the value of gaining time.

General Vandenberg responded by a statement that the only real reason for gaining time was to get the Middle East Defense Organization started. If the MEDO begins to function it might very well provide the stability that we so desperately needed in the Middle East. General Vandenberg, however, confirmed the President’s opinion that it would take a very long time to get US or UN troops in position in Iran. We do, however, have plans, he added, to send in a division of American forces if this is the policy adopted by the President. General Vandenberg estimated that it would take some fourteen days to transport one regimental combat team via Basra to a position in the defense perimeter of mountains which might be held in Southern Iran. As for the First Marine or 82nd Airborne divisions, his estimate was 45 to 60 days, which was probably too long. General Vandenberg did agree with the President that the mountain line above the Persian Gulf could be held, and the President thought this could even be done for a time with as little as one regimental combat team.

General Vandenberg warned, however, that there was now more serious question as to the loyalty of the Iranian armed forces to the Shah. The latter had had several opportunities to assure himself of the loyalty of his armed forces, but, as in other cases, had lost his opportunity. There was now a new Chief of Staff of the Army who was one of Mossadegh’s own choice.

Secretary Humphrey expressed himself as shocked to think that we were contemplating the loss of Iran in this fashion, and Mr. Cutler again inquired of the Secretary of State whether it would not be possible, in the forthcoming conversations with the British, to induce them to waive their claims and let the United States proceed to negotiate unilaterally with Iran. The British had lost their investment in Iran in any case, and a unilateral course of action by the United States was about the only thing which had not been tried.

[Page 480]

The President was impressed with this argument, and informed Secretary Dulles that he ought to try to work out a position with the British that would save their face but actually give the United States control of the situation and freedom to act along the lines suggested by Mr. Cutler.

Secretary Dulles answered that he had already talked about this to Mr. Eden in the course of his recent visit to London.4 He had found that the British did not anticipate any real crisis in Iran for a long time to come.

Secretary Humphrey interposed with the statement that the British always said that you could perfectly well take your time, and cited instances where their estimate had been wrong.

The President said that the latest illustration of their wrongness was in Egypt.

The Vice President said that there was yet another factor to be considered in discussing this problem with Mr. Eden. It was the Vice President’s opinion that greater rather than less hostility was to be expected from the Russians after Stalin’s death. It was quite likely, therefore, that they would increase their pressure in Iran to secure its control as rapidly as possible by a coup d’état. Such a course of action might constitute the miscalculation, which we all dreaded, which would cause the beginning of World War III. Could not the British be made to see this dangerous potentiality? We, not the Russians, insisted the Vice President, must make the next move.

Secretary Dulles complained that we are constantly slowed up by the British, French, and others of our allies, in actions which we feel it is vital to take in many parts of the world. They slow us up, we can’t move in time to avert the consequences of our tardiness. Perhaps something like a Supreme War Council is the only solution for this situation. At any rate, some mechanism should be found which would enable us to act in time at the critical moment.

The Vice President rejoined that if the next move on the world scene could be ours and not Russia’s, the whole situation in the world might change for the better.

The President said that if a real Soviet move against Iran actually comes, we shall have to face at this Council table the question of going to full mobilization. If we did not move at that time and in that eventuality, he feared that the United States would descend to the status of a second-rate power. “If”, said the President, “I had $500,000,000 of [Page 481]money to spend in secret, I would get $100,000,000 of it to Iran right now.”

The President then inquired of Secretary Dulles how soon it would be possible for the President and Secretary Dulles to sit down with Mr. Eden. Would it be possible this evening? We must find out immediately how the British really feel—whether they are ready to concede to us on this situation, or whether they are going to be stiff-necked. The question of unilateral action by the United States was clearly posed.

Secretary Humphrey interjected several times his conviction that this was the propitious moment to strike a bargain with the British, who were in need of assistance from us, and Mr. Stassen added that we ought also to try to indicate that it is not an objective of United States policy to liquidate the British Empire. If the British and, for that matter, the French could be induced to believe this, they might prove more amenable to leadership by the Secretary of State.

Secretary Wilson said that there seemed to him to be two great things in the world to which the United States did not have an answer. One was the obvious collapse of colonialism; the other was Communism’s new tactics in exploiting nationalism and colonialism for its own purposes. In the old days, when dictatorships changed it was usually a matter of one faction of the right against another, and we had only to wait until the situation subsided. Nowadays, however, when a dictatorship of the right was replaced by a dictatorship of the left, a state would presently slide into Communism and was irrevocably lost to us.

Mr. Stassen had already stated, in reply to the President’s wish that he had money, that the Mutual Security Administration had available funds.

The President therefore turned to Mr. Stassen and asked him how much he could actually dig up.

Mr. Stassen replied that he could probably find as much as the situation required—five million, ten million, forty million—if Secretary Dulles decided that he could make headway by the use of such funds.

Apropos of a statement by the President, that he also wished that for a change he could read about mobs in these Middle Eastern states rioting and waving American flags, Mr. Jackson said that if the President wanted the mobs he was sure he could produce them.

The President said in any case it was a matter of great distress to him that we seemed unable to get some of the people in these downtrodden countries to like us instead of hating us.

At this point in the discussion Mr. Cutler interposed to read a four-point record of possible action by the Council on this particular item, which included an attempt to explore with the British the possibility of unilateral United States action in Iran.

[Page 482]

The President replied that it certainly seemed to him about time for the British to allow us to try our hand.

Mr. Jackson then said he had another point which he felt would contribute to an improvement of our position in the Middle East and about which he felt it was possible to do something. This was American action to remove the festering sore in the Middle East represented by the 800,000 Arab displaced persons in Israel.

Secretary Dulles agreed that this was indeed a festering sore, but pointed out that the Arab countries themselves were unwilling to absorb these 800,000 unfortunate people, since to do so would deprive them of a bargaining point in their dealings with the Israelis. Accordingly, said Secretary Dulles, he did not see what could be done about them.

Mr. Jackson replied that it would certainly be possible to resettle 200,000 of these refugees, and that all 800,000 could at least be fed.

The President added that it was not enough to feed them, but that he would be awfully glad if we could get some one of the Arab countries to take these people if we would pay a subsidy for each head.

After General Vandenberg had informed the Council that there was one point relevant to the military aspects of the Iranian problem, namely, the existence of a fair-sized British force in Iraq, Mr. Stassen inquired whether it was indeed the President’s view that some funds should be expended at once in Iran if the Secretary of State agreed.

The President replied that of course this was a gamble, but if upon examination it seemed a good gamble, he was prepared to take it.

The National Security Council:5

a. Discussed the subject in the light of an oral briefing by the Director of Central Intelligence.

b. Agreed that the following possible courses of action should be explored in anticipation of further Council action at the next regular or special meeting:

(1) Persuading the British to permit the United States to put the Iranian oil industry in operation, without prejudice to an ultimate settlement of the Anglo-Iranian controversy.

(2) The military feasibility of holding a line through the Zagros Mountain range.

(3) Replacement of Ambassador Henderson.

(4) Provision of limited economic aid to strengthen Mossadegh’s position.

[Page 483]

[Omitted here is discussion of basic national security policies and the NSC Status of Projects.]

S. Everett Gleason
Deputy Executive Secretary
  1. Source: Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, NSC Series, Box 4, 135th Meeting of the National Security Council. Top Secret; Security Information; Eyes Only. Drafted by Gleason on March 5. Printed with redactions in Foreign Relations, 1952–1954, vol. X, Iran, 1951–1954, pp. 692–701 (Document 312).
  2. Document 147.
  3. The record of the meeting of the Senior NSC Staff on March 2 is not printed. (National Archives, RG 59, S/PNSC Files, Lot 62 D 1, 1953—Record of Planning Board Meetings NSC Files)
  4. Dulles and Eden met on February 4 in London. (Memorandum of conversation; ibid., Central Files 1950–1954, 611.41/2–453)
  5. Paragraphs a and b constitute NSC Action No. 729. (Ibid., RG 273, Records of the National Security Council, Records of Actions, Box 95, NSC Actions 697–1001)