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Reviewed by:
  • Anglo-American Relations and Cold War Oil: Crisis in Iran
  • Mark Gasiorowski
Steve Marsh , Anglo-American Relations and Cold War Oil: Crisis in Iran. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. x + 278 pp.

The Anglo-Iranian oil crisis of 1951–1953 and the coup d'état instigated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh were crucial events in the early Cold War. Numerous important books exploring various aspects of these events have appeared over the years, including those by Mostafa Elm and Ann Heiss on the oil crisis, by Homa Katouzian and Fakhreddin Azimi on Iranian domestic politics during the Mossadegh period, and by Stephen Kinzer on the coup, as well as anthologies edited by James Bill and William Roger Louis and by Malcolm Byrne and myself covering a variety of issues related to the oil crisis and the coup. Steve Marsh's book examines an important facet of these events that previously had received only cursory attention: the Anglo-American diplomacy surrounding the oil crisis. The book is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature.

Marsh has trolled exhaustively through the British and American diplomatic archives to produce a detailed account of the changing contours of Anglo-American negotiations during the oil crisis. He begins with an overview of the state of U.S.-British relations in the aftermath of World War II, focusing especially on the two countries' interests in the Middle East. These interests coincided in some ways and clashed in others. He then traces the bilateral tensions that developed as the oil crisis emerged in the late 1940s, culminating in Mossadegh's decision in May 1951 to nationalize Iran's British-controlled oil industry. The main focus of the book is on the period from May 1951 until August 1953, when CIA-sponsored forces overthrew Mossadegh. Marsh details the ebbs and flows of U.S.-British relations during this period, elucidating both the common interests that bound the two allies together and the divergent interests, worldviews, and personalities that produced frequent clashes over the oil crisis. He also shows how the actions of Mossadegh's government and U.S. and British oil companies affected Anglo-American relations and U.S. and British policy toward Iran.

Marsh's central theme is that the Anglo-American "special relationship" greatly constrained U.S.-British diplomacy over Iran. Although the two countries continually sought common ground, the relationship severely hindered their respective abilities to achieve a solution to the oil crisis. Marsh's emphasis on both the cohesive elements and the tensions inherent in U.S.-British relations provides important insights into U.S. and British policy toward Iran during this period, helping to explain why the United States distanced itself from Britain and even opposed key aspects of British policy. This emphasis also helps us understand why the United States, despite its frustration with Britain, did not simply impose a peaceful solution to the oil dispute and why Britain finally accepted such an unfavorable settlement in 1954. By highlighting the tensions in U.S.-British diplomacy over Iran, Marsh also shows how Mossadegh tried to play the two allies off against each other—and how he ultimately overplayed his hand in this dangerous game. Finally, Marsh's analysis provides a good account of [End Page 154] the inner workings of the special relationship during this crucial period, clarifying its bases, its strengths and weaknesses, its modes of operation, and its ultimate consequences for U.S. and British foreign policy.

Although this is an impressive book, it has two important weaknesses. First, it almost entirely ignores Britain's ceaseless covert efforts to undermine and overthrow Mossadegh. Marsh gives the impression that, apart from a tentative plan to invade Iran's oil-producing region in September 1951 (a plan that was vetoed by the United States), British policy toward Iran during this period consisted mainly of efforts to wear Mossadegh down by imposing economic sanctions against Iran and refusing to settle the oil dispute. Hence, in Marsh's depiction, Britain's posture toward the United States consisted largely of efforts to stall or obstruct U.S. initiatives to resolve the oil dispute in...