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James Barr on Anglo-American Tensions in the Post-war Middle East

Posted on 26th June 2019 by Mark Skinner

In his enlightening book A Line in the Sand, historian James Barr recounted the interwar carving up of the Middle East by Britain and France. Barr's latest work and Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month, Lords of the Desert, continues the story of power struggles in the region, and, in particular, Britain's uneasy relationship with the global might of the United States. In this exclusive essay, Barr introduces the nature of an alliance built on mutual suspicion and the pursuit of prestige.

Exactly forty years ago next month, in August 1979, advance copies of a controversial new book began to reach newspapers across the United States. It was called Countercoup and it told the now infamous story of how America and Britain had covertly conspired to overthrow Iran’s elected prime minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953. The title echoed the spin put on the coup at the time. It had been necessary to thwart Mosaddeq’s own effort to remove the shah: Iran’s monarch and the West’s chief ally in the country. 

By 1979 Anglo-American involvement in the coup was an open secret, otherwise the name beneath the title on the cover would not have rung a bell. For what made Countercoup so interesting was that it was a memoir. Its author was the now-retired CIA officer who had masterminded the operation. Grandson of one American president and cousin of another, this was Kermit Roosevelt, better known as Kim.

The timing of Kim Roosevelt’s decision to go public was no accident. Following months of upheaval in Teheran, that February the shah had fled to New York and the ayatollahs had seized power. As revolution turned Iran from ally into enemy of the United States, Roosevelt presumably felt that there was no longer any need to keep silent. Now running a consultancy in Washington, he may also have seen the exiled shah as a potential client. Given what really happened, the shah certainly receives an unduly flattering portrayal in the book. 

As a former CIA employee, Roosevelt was obliged to show the proofs to the Agency before publication. It said, late in the day, that explicit references to Britain’s secret intelligence service, MI6, would have to go. Perhaps because the text was already typeset Roosevelt decided to replace “MI6” with “AIOC”. This was the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British-run firm that had held the oil concession in Iran until 1951, when Mosaddeq nationalised its operations in Iran. As a result, when discussing the origins of the operation, Roosevelt now said that “the AIOC approached me as I passed through London”, in the autumn preceding the coup. In other words, the changes implicated the company. 

Somehow British Petroleum, as the AIOC had now become, got wind of what had happened. When the story finally made the newspapers several months later, a spokesman for the company said executives had read the book “in proof form” but declined to say how they had got hold of the text. BP warned Roosevelt and his publisher that it felt the references to AIOC were libellous. By now, however, the book had already been printed. Review copies had gone to the newspapers and it could be found on sale. 

Countercoup did not stay in the shops for long. After it was mocked for an obvious error in the picture section (where a photo captioned “Crowds fill the streets in support of the shah” showed people holding pictures of Stalin) the publisher decided to recall and pulp the print-run. It reckoned that less than a hundred copies, most of which had gone to reviewers, escaped the cull. These survivors are vanishingly rare. 

When a revised version appeared early the next year it looked almost identical. But the controversial references to the oil company had been expunged, and the blander phrase “British intelligence” inserted instead. The book would help form a highly misleading impression that America and Britain - dubbed the 'Great Satan' and 'Little Satan' by Khomeini - had always been conspirators in the Middle East.

As you will see if you read Lords of the Desert this was simply not the case. 

Oddly enough, some of the strongest evidence of a far more antagonistic Anglo-American relationship comes from Roosevelt’s first foray into publishing thirty years earlier – precisely seventy years ago this year. Compared to Countercoup, Roosevelt’s 1949 book Arabs, Oil and History is barely known, however. Yet it is of much greater historical value because it is an example of something that is highly unusual: a book written by a serving spy that describes his role in an operation undertaken to disrupt the interests of an ally: something that was extremely sensitive. 

The story is as follows. In May 1947 Roosevelt and his wife Polly arrived in Cairo, at the start of a visit to the Middle East that would last several months. Ostensibly he was a journalist with a commission to write a series of articles for Harpers’ Magazine. But that job was cover for his work for the Central Intelligence Group – which later that year became the CIA. 

Once again, Roosevelt’s timing was deliberate. That February the British government had announced that, having failed to broker an arrangement between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine, it intended to refer the issue to the United Nations. Publicly the British appeared to be edging towards abandoning the country they had carved out of the Ottoman Empire and ruled since 1918. But the Americans were suspicious. Their intelligence suggested that the British had a more devious plan. This was to help their long-standing ally King Abdullah of Jordan take over the Arab parts of Palestine, Syria, and oil-rich Iraq, then ruled by his twelve-year-old cousin. This plan was known as 'Greater Syria'. 

George Marshall was the US secretary of state at that time. Rightly unconvinced by weasel-worded British denials that they had nothing whatsoever to do with Abdullah’s 'Greater Syria' ambitions, he demanded more information from his diplomats and the country’s spies. 

He did so because he believed that Greater Syria threatened a key American interest. At this same moment the Americans were hoping to build a pipeline across the Middle East that would bring oil found in Saudi Arabia by Aramco, then an American company, westwards to Europe, where it would fuel the recovery of the war-ravaged continent. This plan had a pleasing circularity to it. Europe’s purchase of Aramco’s oil would generate royalties for the Saudis and much-needed goodwill towards the United States, profits for the company and dividends for its American shareholders, and tax revenues for the US government, helping it to recoup the billions it was about the spend in Europe through the Marshall Plan. Since the pipeline would enable Aramco to undercut its British rivals, and its planned route took it through Jordan, Marshall assumed the reports of British backing for Abdullah were part of an effort to ensure that the pipeline was not constructed. 

At about the same time that Marshall called for more information about British intentions, Roosevelt decamped from Cairo to Beirut, from where he paid a visit to Baghdad. There he met the king’s uncle, who was not only the regent but had also been promised a key role in Abdullah’s plan, and delivered him a statement that the US government did not like what the Jordanian king was up to. “It’s not exactly a reporter’s job”, he wrote home to his mother, “but no one seems to care.”

Next stop: the Jordanian capital, Amman, for a meeting with the king himself. But Abdullah was tight-lipped and the meeting did not go well - probably, Roosevelt suspected, because he had been tipped off by the regent that the Americans opposed his scheme. But another meeting went far better - better perhaps, than even Roosevelt could have hoped. 

The basic art of espionage is not hand-to-hand combat, base jumping or marksmanship but elicitation - the skill of getting someone to say more than they should. There are a few well-worn techniques that spies use, having assessed the character of their target: making a deliberate error, in the hope it is corrected; feigning ignorance or deference when approaching the unappreciated expert or the grandee, or incredulity when dealing with the man who cannot resist proving others wrong; displaying empathy with the disillusioned or disaffected. Silence itself can work wonders, as you will know if ever you have been embarrassed into saying something to break it. 

It seems likely that it was feigned ignorance or deference on Roosevelt’s part that got his second interviewee to talk. Roosevelt did not name him in the book, but from the description of the “blowsy, kindly giant of a man” who had known Lawrence of Arabia it is clear that it was Alec Kirkbride, the British ambassador and Abdullah’s long-standing adviser, a man who was twenty years Roosevelt’s senior. “Abdullah is all right. A bit erratic of course, but a sound fellow at heart. And these Arabs need a king, you know,” he explained to the earnest young reporter, a little patronisingly, before continuing: “One kingdom for the whole area could stand up to Soviet penetration where three or four states can’t possibly. Abdullah’s the man to head it up.” 

“Abdullah’s the man to head it up.” This ran counter to everything the British had previously said, and gave Roosevelt what he needed: confirmation from a serving British official of support for the Jordanian king’s scheme. Roosevelt reported these remarks so that they could be used to embarrass London and create tension in Baghdad. There, the idea that the near penniless king of Jordan presumed to take over his far richer neighbour attracted derision, and in September the regent was obliged to dissociate himself publicly from the 'Greater Syria' plan. So too did King Abdullah soon afterwards, following pressure from a presumably red-faced Kirkbride. Jordan posed no obstacle to the construction of the pipeline, which started pumping oil in 1950. 

In one of the articles he wrote for Harpers’ Magazine, Roosevelt archly attributed the breakdown of Abdullah’s plan to “American representatives who had “correctly appraised the situation from the beginning”. He could not resist quoting the key conversation with Kirkbride when he then wrote his book. Its significance would have gone over the heads of all but a handful of British readers: to them, it was a mischievous reminder that they had been caught red-handed. 

You have to unravel and reconstruct Roosevelt’s itinerary and establish what conversations had happened when to understand the importance of the book – which is what I did while I was working on Lords of the Desert. Only having done this did it become apparent that Roosevelt had visited Amman during Ramadan in 1947 just after George Marshall had asked for more insight on British intentions and at a point when the British were still vehemently denying that they were doing anything to advance Abdullah’s grandiose ideas. The point of his mission, and the value of the book, then became clear.  

Whereas, by 1979, the CIA insisted on changes to Countercoup to avoid aggravating its British counterpart, in Arabs Oil and History Roosevelt was surprisingly open about Anglo-American tensions in the Middle East. He observed that “actually Americans and British in the Middle East get along rather badly.” He also offered a precise, and evergreen explanation as to why this was so. “Any power that has hoped to extend its domination over continents has learned that the domination of the Middle East is an essential step. And any power trying to resist continental expansion by another has learned in turn that the Middle East must be protected at all cost.”

Lords Of The Desert tells a fascinating part of this long-running story.  

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