Posts Tagged Great Britain

Kept secret from “The Crown”?

Suez 1956Have you seen (or binge-watched) the Netflix series The Crown? And wondered whether this conversation or that reenactment is “true” to the historical record? For example, did British prime minister Anthony Eden really hope to keep Queen Elizabeth II in the dark about Suez? (He almost does just that in The Crown.) And why, when he comes clean to her about the secret “collusion” with Israel and France, are we shown a lighter setting fire to a document? I tell the secret-within-the-secret, of the cover-up, and how David Ben-Gurion kept it—and used it.

“How True is The Crown on the Suez Cover-Up?” appears at Mosaic Magazine. Read here.

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    The fantasy of an international Jerusalem

    This article first appeared at Mosaic Magazine, here.

    In the uproar over President Trump’s announcement of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, one constant refrain has been the insistence that, by longstanding international consensus, the city’s status has yet to be decided. In the portentous words of the recent UN General Assembly resolution protesting the American action, “Jerusalem is a final-status issue to be resolved through negotiations in line with relevant United Nations resolutions.”

    The most “relevant” of those prior resolutions was the November 1947 resolution proposing partition of Palestine and envisaging, in addition to two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish, an entirely separate status for Jerusalem as a city belonging to no state but instead administered by a “special international regime.”

    One might have thought that the wholesale Arab rejection of the entire partition plan, in all of its parts, would also have put paid to the idea of an internationalized Jerusalem. Evidently, however, this fantasy is too convenient to lie dormant forever.

    That is why it’s useful to know that, almost exactly three decades before the 1947 UN plan, internationalization of Jerusalem was killed—and killed decisively. Who killed it? Thereby hangs a tale, but here is a hint: it was neither the Arabs, nor the Jews.

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    Two-and-a-half weeks ago, Jerusalem marked the 100th anniversary of the surrender of the city to British General Edmund Allenby. On December 11, 1917, Allenby crowned his military success in wresting Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks and their German ally in a ceremony that resonates to this day.

    In a show of seeming humility, Allenby entered the city’s Jaffa Gate on foot, without flags or musical fanfare. Mounting the platform at the entrance to the Citadel (the Tower of David), he then read a straightforward proclamation: the city would be placed under martial law, and the status quo in regard to the holy places would remain in place. After shaking hands with a selection of Jerusalem’s notables, he departed, having spent all of a quarter-hour in the city.

    The Illustrated London News carried a photograph, later famous, of Allenby striding on foot into Jerusalem; it depicted the scene as the conqueror’s “simple and reverent entry into Jerusalem.” In fact, the photo op had been carefully stage-managed to create a propaganda point against the German enemy. Kaiser Wilhelm II, upon visiting Jerusalem in 1898, had entered on a white steed, banners flying. So, three weeks before Allenby arrived there, he received this instruction from his superior, General William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff:

    In the event of JERUSALEM being occupied, it would be of considerable political importance if you, on officially entering the city, dismount at the city gate and enter on foot. German emperor rode in and the saying went ’round [that] “a better man than he walked.” Advantage of contrast in conduct will be obvious.

    It was obvious indeed, and well-documented in British propaganda photos and films. This is why, even now, the victors’ procession and Allenby’s declaration take pride of place in the memory of that December 1917 day. Two weeks ago in the Old City of Jerusalem, before an enthusiastic audience of hundreds, both the procession and the proclamation were reenacted.

    But another event also took place on that same day in 1917, away from the cameras but just as noteworthy. Indeed, that second event offers the best explanation for why internationalization of Jerusalem never stood a chance in 1947, or at any time since.

    When Jerusalem fell, the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 was still in force. That agreement, for the partition of the Ottoman empire, had been reached by the major Allied powers: Britain, France, and Russia. Because of the October Revolution, just weeks before Jerusalem’s capture, Russia had dropped out, but that still left Britain and France (as well as Italy, which jumped late into the alliance).

    Since Britain and France both laid claim to Palestine, and wanted to forestall a clash in advance of its conquest, they had decided to share it. By agreement, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and the zone between them were to have an “international administration,” the form of which would be decided through Allied consultation. Sykes-Picot was thus the very first plan for the internationalization of Jerusalem.

    But as the war progressed in Palestine, British imperial forces did nearly all of the fighting and dying in battle against the Turks. Lloyd George, the British prime minister, recoiled at the idea of sharing a British conquest with the French. In April 1917, he told the British ambassador to Paris that “the French will have to accept our protectorate; we shall be there by conquest and shall remain.”

    The French, however, were just as determined to assert their rights under the Sykes-Picot accord. And so, when the victors’ procession entered Jerusalem on December 11, not only did it include a small French military contingent. It included François Georges-Picot, the French diplomat who had negotiated the agreement.

    Picot had just been named by his government as “High Commissioner of the French Republic in the Occupied Territories of Palestine and Syria.” He also had precise instructions from the French prime minister: “You will have to organize the occupied territories so as to ensure France an equal footing to that of England.” In November 1917, Picot proceeded to remind Allenby’s political officer, Brigadier General Gilbert Clayton, of these facts.

    “[O]ver a year ago,” Clayton would report Picot as saying, “it was agreed between the British and French governments that, pending the final settlement of the peace terms, any conquered portions of Palestine should be jointly administered.” Moreover, Clayton added, Picot himself operated “in the full conviction that he was to be the French representative in a joint Anglo-French provisional administration which was to govern occupied enemy territory in Palestine until the end of the war—when some sort of international arrangement would be made.”

    That is why Picot had set off for Jerusalem on the coattails of Allenby’s victorious army. But Allenby also had his orders. Chief of Staff Robertson had instructed him two weeks earlier that he must “not entertain any ideas of joint administration.” The way around the French was to keep Jerusalem and the rest of the country under a military regime as long as the war lasted. Since Allenby was the commander-in-chief, military rule meant Allenby’s own rule, exercised through any military governors he might appoint.

    And that’s just what Allenby announced in his famous proclamation on the steps of the Tower of David. Jerusalem, he told the assembled crowd, had been occupied “by my forces. I therefore here and now proclaim it to be under Martial Law, under which form of administration it will remain so long as military considerations make it necessary.”

    But just what did this mean? And did it exclude the French? After the ceremony adjourned in Jerusalem, Allenby, Picot, and the other chief participants retired to lunch at military headquarters just outside the city, near Ein Karem. Major T.E. Lawrence (that is, “Lawrence of Arabia”) attended as well, having come up from Aqaba at Allenby’s bidding. In his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence described the scene:

    On us fell a short space of quiet, to be shattered by Monsieur Picot, the French political representative permitted by Allenby to march beside Clayton in the entry, who said in his fluting voice: “And tomorrow, my dear general, I will take the necessary steps to set up civil government in this town.”

    It was the bravest word on record; a silence followed, as when they opened the seventh seal in heaven. Salad, chicken mayonnaise, and foie-gras sandwiches hung in our wet mouths unmunched, while we turned to Allenby and gaped. Even he seemed for the moment at a loss. We began to fear that the idol might betray a frailty. But his face grew red: he swallowed, his chin coming forward (in the way we loved), whilst he said, grimly, “In the military zone the only authority is that of the commander-in-chief—myself.” “But Sir Grey, Sir Edward Grey . . . ,” stammered M. Picot. [Grey, by that time Lord Grey, had been British foreign secretary in 1916, when the Sykes-Picot agreement was concluded.] He was cut short. “Sir Edward Grey referred to the civil government which will be established when I judge that the military situation permits.”

    It is widely acknowledged that Lawrence’s reliability as a witness to events out in the desert leaves much to be desired. But this episode occurred on Allenby’s side of the Jordan, and in the presence of other British officers. His account, then, however colorfully phrased, may be regarded as trustworthy.

    Indeed, Lawrence may even have softened the edges. Philip Chetwode, commander of a corps in Palestine, also attended the lunch; in a 1939 letter to another officer who had been there, and who was writing a biography of Allenby, Chetwode wrote:

    I wish to goodness you could put in what the Frenchman said to Allenby and what Allenby said to him, when the Frenchman said he was going to take over the civil administration of Jerusalem at once. However, that, of course, can never appear in a book.

    Since a version had already appeared in Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the bit of Allenby’s put-down that could “never appear in a book” might well have been gruffer still. (Louis Massignon, a French officer attached to Picot, wrote that “Allenby threatened Picot harshly with arrest if he interfered.”)

    This didn’t exhaust Picot’s efforts, but the die had been cast. Ten days later, Picot complained that there had been no progress toward “Anglo-French civil administration,” and told a British interlocutor that “he would never have agreed to come out [to Palestine] if he had known.” Although Picot’s French Commission tried to (re)assert a “religious protectorate” over Catholic holy places (mostly in opposition to the Italians), there would be no “international administration” in Jerusalem, only exclusive British control.

    Moreover, while Allenby had invoked military necessity, the British soon developed a full-blown thesis as to why they, and only they, were qualified to rule Jerusalem. The British, they averred in brief, were purely neutral. As Lloyd George put it, “being of no particular faith [we are] the only power fit to rule Mohammedans, Jews, Roman Catholics, and all religions.”

    • •

    Thus did the first agreement to internationalize Jerusalem come to naught.

    Why is this significant today? Had Allenby wavered, and had some sort of joint administration come into being after World War I, it might have created institutions of international governance. These might have accumulated 30 years of experience by 1947, when the United Nations recommended the partition of Palestine and the internationalization of Jerusalem. Instead, during those decades, the British preferred to rule Jerusalem exactly as the Ottomans had done before them—namely, by dictate.

    In 1947, internationalization thus had no precedent, no bureaucratic foundation, and no mechanism for implementation. As in 1916, it wasn’t a true option, but a placeholder for indecision.

    In the century since Allenby entered Jerusalem, the city hasn’t known a single day of international administration. Indeed, it hasn’t had such a day in 3,000 years. The idea that it constitutes a kind of default solution for the future of Jerusalem is but one more example of a petrified piety. Internationalization became irrelevant over lunch a century ago, and it has remained so ever since.

    A Franciscan monk reads a French translation of Gen. Edmund Allenby's proclamation putting Jerusalem under martial law, December 11, 1917. Allenby at center; François Georges-Picot, on far right.

    Image: A Franciscan monk reads a French translation of Gen. Edmund Allenby’s proclamation putting Jerusalem under martial law, December 11, 1917. Allenby at center; François Georges-Picot, on far right. Matson Collection, Library of Congress.

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      Sykes-Picot and the Zionists

      This essay appeared at the website of The American Interest on May 19. It is based on a presentation made to the conference on “100 Years Since the Sykes-Picot Agreement,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, May 18, 2016.

      Many people presume that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which partitioned the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, advanced the Zionist project in Palestine. The Zionist movement celebrated Sir Mark Sykes as one of its own, so many have assumed that he must have designed the agreement to serve the Zionist interest. In the words of a Palestinian professor of history at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, “Sykes-Picot was a carefully-designed plan and prelude to the Balfour Declaration. The creation of Israel on Palestinian land would not have been possible without the Sykes-Picot agreement.” A former Israeli Ambassador has written that the Sykes-Picot agreement “politically and materially contribut[ed] to the realization of the Zionist vision.” He has even suggested that its anniversary belongs on the same Zionist calendar with the anniversaries of the Balfour Declaration and the UN partition resolution of 1947, as “milestones on the path to Jewish statehood.”

      This is exactly wrong. In his memoirs, Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who midwifed the Balfour Declaration, wrote of Sykes-Picot that it was “fatal to us…. The Sykes-Picot arrangement was not a full treaty; but it was sufficiently official to create the greatest single obstacle to our progress.” Sykes-Picot wasn’t a prelude to the Balfour Declaration, but an obstacle that had to be cleared to reach the Balfour Declaration. To understand that, all one has to do is look carefully at the map.

      But before that, a word on the purpose of Sykes-Picot. It was the Arab activist George Antonius who famously wrote of Sykes-Picot that it was “the product of greed at its worst.” But it was a product of fear as much as of greed, if not more so. The fear was that in the aftermath of war, Britain and France, old rivals, would clash disastrously over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot had the same logic as Yalta thirty years later: It proposed an orderly partition to keep wartime allies from plunging into a new conflict after victory. And a good case can be made that when it came to preventing clashes between two rivals, Sykes-Picot was much more effective than Yalta. Preserving the balance of power was its primary objective, and in that respect, Sykes-Picot achieved its purpose.

      Palestine in Sykes-Picot map

      This fear of clashing allies is most manifest on the Sykes-Picot map in its treatment of Palestine. Sykes and Picot divided the Arab provinces of the empire by an east-west “line in the sand” across the Syrian desert. North of that line, there would be a “blue” zone of exclusive French control (including Beirut and Tripoli), and an Arab state (or states) under French protection (including Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Mosul). South of it, there would be a “red” zone of direct British control (including Basra and Baghdad), and an Arab state (or states) under British protection (mostly desert).

      The first thing one notices is that Palestine doesn’t fit neatly within the dualistic rubric of the French and British zones. This corner of the map is, in fact, divided five ways.

      • A wedge in the north of the country, including the tributaries of the Jordan above the Sea of Galilee and part of the northern shore of the lake, are solid blue, that is, under direct French control.
      • The eastern shore of the lake and the Golan are marked off as part of the Arab state under French protection.
      • The bulk of the country, including Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Gaza, is colored brown. According to the agreement, “In the brown area there shall be established an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other Allies [the reference is to Italy], and the representatives of the Shereef of Mecca.” (In an earlier joint memo in January 1916, Sykes and Picot wrote that “the chief of the Arabian confederation should have an equal voice in the administration of Palestine.”) The notion was that this would be an Anglo-French condominium, with a yet-undetermined measure of input from other allies.
      • The ports of Haifa and Acre, and the plain between them, are red, under direct British administration. Britain wanted this as an end point for a railroad from Baghdad to the Mediterranean.
      • Last but not least, the south of the country, including Hebron and Beer Sheba, as well as Transjordan, are to be part of the independent Arab state or confederation of states under British protection.

      The Sykes-Picot map thus constitutes the first partition plan for Palestine, into no fewer than five zones. Why so many pieces? Again, balance of power. Sykes had hoped to create a British-controlled land bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, but other Allied claims stood in the way. So the agreement regarding Palestine made concessions to the interests of almost every stakeholder: Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and the Sharif of Mecca.

      Almost everyone: missing from the list were the Zionists. Twenty years later, George Antonius would call Sykes-Picot a “shocking document.” It certainly shocked the Zionists in London in April 1917. That is when the British Zionist activist Harry Sacher got wind of it from a friendly journalist who picked up news of it from France. Sacher informed Chaim Weizmann, who was distressed to find that the agreement displayed not a single trace of consideration for Zionist aims. At this very time, Zionist leaders had been deep in discussion about Palestine with sympathetic British officials, including Sykes. Sachar wrote to Weizmann in disgust: “We have been lied to and deceived all along.”

      Weizmann was stunned by two aspects of the agreement. First, the Sykes-Picot partition thoroughly divided the Yishuv. Many of the most veteran Zionist settlements—Metullah, Rosh Pina, Yesod Hama’alah, Mishmar Hayarden—would be in the exclusively French zone, as would Safed. The internationalized brown zone would include Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Tiberias, as well as newer settlements such as Tel Aviv, Petah Tikvah, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, and Zichron Yaakov. Weizmann called this division a “Solomon’s judgment of the worst character, the child is cut in two and both halves mutilated.” Were Sykes-Picot implemented, he protested, “the Jewish colonizing effort of some thirty years [would be] annihilated.”

      Second, the agreement gave France a dominant role as far as the Jews were concerned. France would have full control of the Galilee settlements, and would be on equal par with Britain in Judaea and the coastal plain. Weizmann regarded France as wholly unsympathetic to Zionism; far from facilitating Zionist colonization, France would block it.

      So what was he to do? Weizmann’s immediate move was to show up at the Foreign Office and protest to Lord Robert Cecil, acting Foreign Secretary. Weizmann’s report of that meeting is the most thorough Zionist critique of Sykes-Picot. Weizmann denounced the proposed division between the Galilee and Judaea in emphatic terms. “We would always consider [this] as an unjust partition,” and the Galilee “would certainly constitute a Jewish irredenta…. There is little doubt that the suggested division of Palestine would raise an outcry which will ring through from one end of the world to the other.” As for international or dual control, in the brown area, “it would be fraught with gravest dangers….. Any enterprise in the country would have to be sanctioned by both governments and would lead constantly to jealousies.” According to Cecil, Weizmann even warned that “the Zionists throughout the world would regard a French administration in Palestine as… ‘a third destruction of the Temple.'”

      From April 1917, Weizmann devoted himself and his movement to overturning Sykes-Picot. The Zionists had one aim: to swap the Sykes-Picot partition plan for an exclusively British protectorate over the whole of Palestine. Only under a British protectorate, Weizmann rightly concluded, could the Jewish home project take root and flourish.

      And Weizmann succeeded: in regard to Palestine, he managed to overturn Sykes-Picot entirely. Or was it really his success? In fact, he had plenty of powerful partners. By the time Weizmann learned of Sykes-Picot, many British officials wanted to shred it. They thought Sykes had given away far too much to the French. In particular, they didn’t trust the French on the flank of the Suez canal, which was the imperial lifeline to India. And if the British and the ANZACs were going to do all the fighting and dying to liberate Palestine, why should Britain share it with anyone? As Lloyd George later wrote of the armies under Allenby: “The redemption of Palestine from the withering aggression of the Turk became like a pillar of flame to lead them on. The Sykes-Picot Agreement perished in its fire. It was not worth fighting for Canaan in order to condemn it to the fate of Agag and hew it in pieces before the Lord. Palestine, if recaptured, must be one and indivisible to renew its greatness as a living entity.”

      Sykes himself backtracked from the agreement, tried to get Picot to modify it, and helped formulate the Balfour Declaration. In 1919, the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolov wrote: “From the standpoint of Zionist interests in Palestine, [Sykes-Picot] justly met with severe criticism; but it was Sykes himself who criticized it most sharply and who with the change of circumstances dissociated himself from it entirely.”

      The Balfour Declaration was the crucial step in the unraveling the Palestine corner of the Sykes-Picot map. British military administration came next. The last nail in the coffin came in December 1918, when Lloyd George met Clemenceau in London. “Tell me what you want,” said Clemenceau. “I want Mosul,” said Lloyd George. “You shall have it. Anything else?” “Yes, I want Jerusalem too.” “You shall have it.” Exit France. Sykes-Picot formally and finally came undone when Britain received the exclusive mandate for all of Palestine. It is this exclusive British protectorate that eventually made Israel possible. Israel probably would never have been born, if the Sykes-Picot map had been implemented.

      So Sykes-Picot became a dead letter as regards Palestine no later than 1918, if not earlier. Has it left any legacy at all? The Sykes-Picot map proclaimed that no one actor could unilaterally determine the fate of the country. There were too many conflicting interests. During the mandate years, Britain had enough power to call the shots alone. But only twenty years after Sykes-Picot, partition again became the solution to solving clashing interests in Palestine. So it has been from the Peel plan of 1937, to the UN partition plan of 1947, and ever since. The idea of agreed partition is the lasting legacy of Sykes-Picot. Even Israel’s fifty-year control of the entire country from the Mediterranean sea to the Jordan river since 1967 hasn’t undone it. Other aspects of Sykes-Picot disappeared completely. The idea of an agreed partition of Palestine, proposed in 1916 but never realized, is likely to remain with us for some time to come.

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        Special Relationships

        This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 2.

        Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”

        John Kennedy and Golda Meir, 1962

        It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”

        The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.

        Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain.

        For example, last February he visited London and said this (Hague beaming at his side):

        When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain—our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship—there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that.

        In June, Kerry (again with Hague at his side) stressed the “special relationship,” which he declared to be “grounded in so much—our history, our values, our traditions. It is, without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship.”

        And in September, when Britain’s parliament voted down a motion to join the U.S. in the use of force in Syria, Kerry rushed to declare the “special relationship” intact:

        The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has often been described as special, essential. And it has been described thusly, quite simply, because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament, and it will be for long afterwards after that vote. Our bond, as William [Hague] has just said, is bigger than one vote; it’s bigger than one moment in history. It’s about values. It’s about rules of the road, rules by which human beings try to organize their societies and offer people maximum freedom and opportunity, respecting rights, and finding a balance in a very complicated world. And we have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain, and we are grateful for that.

        Quite early, the Obama administration earned a reputation in British public opinion for showing insufficient respect for the “special relationship,” and Kerry may see his mission as repairing that impression. But then the Obama administration stands no higher in Israeli public opinion, and Kerry sees no need to do any work of repair (and a few things he has said have heaped insult on injury).

        President Obama does refer to the “special relationship” with Israel, but coming from him, the phrase means a bit less than it once did. That’s because he’s upgraded Britain to something even higher. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain in May 2011, he and British prime minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London Times that included this sentence: “Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.” (The headline: “Not Just Special, But An Essential Relationship.”) Suddenly, the word “essential” started cropping up in references to the relationship with Britain (see also two of the Kerry quotes above). “Essential” is now the new platinum card in relations with the United States, and Britain alone holds one. (That’s why having Britain on board the Iran deal was so important to the Obama administration, and it’s why Hague was assigned the role of setting Israel straight: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.” How pleased he must have been to categorize Israel among the world’s “anybodies.”)

        Still, while Obama may have promoted Britain, he didn’t demote Israel. And as John Kennedy made clear more than fifty years ago, the two belong in a league of their own. Just what makes a “special relationship”? It’s more than democracy—the world is full of democracies. It’s not “shared values,” since American values are widely shared around the world. What compels the United States openly to acknowledge two “special relationships” is that two foreign states embody old cultures to which the American public feels profoundly and uniquely indebted.

        Given that debt, the U.S. government assumes the obligation to show a bit of respect and work a little harder to make its case, when its biggest-knows-best policies impinge on the interests of those two states. When they dissent, as Britain did over Syria and Israel now does over Iran, it’s their privilege to do so and still win American praise as “special” friends who are entitled to speak their minds freely. For an example of how it’s done, see the Kerry quote above, following the British balk on Syria. So far, there’s no equivalent for Israel over Iran.

        The U.S. government’s recognition of a “special relationship” doesn’t create a fact, it acknowledges a debt felt deeply by the American people. John Kerry apparently doesn’t fully grasp that reality in regard to Israel. But then, little in his Mideast diplomacy suggests that reality constrains him anyway.

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        Kerry campaign ad in Jewish Forward, 2004

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          Miss Lambton’s advice

          Ann (Nancy) K.S. Lambton, the distinguished British historian of medieval and modern Iran, died on July 19 at the age of 96. Her obituaries tell some of her remarkable story as a pioneering scholar and a formidable personality. They are also interesting for what they omit, regarding her role in the idea of removing Mohammad Mossadegh from power in Iran.

          The Independent obit says nothing. The Times obit makes an all-too-brief allusion: “She was consulted by British officials on developments in Irano-British relations, especially during the crisis in 1951 when Iran’s Prime Minister, Muhammad Mussadiq, caused a furore by nationalising British oil interests in Iran.” Yet we are not told exactly what she proposed in these consultations. The Telegraph is more explicit: “Lambton’s insights into the strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s then prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, proved a valuable aid to Britain’s eventual success, in concert with America, in precipitating an end to Mossadegh’s premiership and in ensuring a continued, though reduced, British share in Iran’s oil production.” Yet we are not told just how she imparted these “insights,” or why they were “valuable.” The Guardian quotes a historian as saying her advice “marked the beginnings” of the 1953 coup, but does not explain what she advised or how she had such a profound effect. So what is the fuller story behind these allusions?

          In 1951, Ann Lambton was a Reader in Persian at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She had many connections in Whitehall, and her standing as an oracle on matters of Persian politics was unassailable. She had completed her doctorate in 1939 after a year of field work in Iran, and then spent the war years as press attaché in the British Legation (later Embassy) in Tehran, under the most seasoned of old hands, Sir Reader Bullard. She also came from a prominent landed family with assorted estates (including, yes, a Lambton Castle)—an advantage of pedigree that largely made up for what still was, in those days, a gender deficiency. When Nancy Lambton spoke, people listened—and when it came to Mohammad Mossadegh, she had strong views.

          The historian Wm. Roger Louis first went through the British archives on the Mossadegh affair just after they were opened in the early 1980s, and he has told the story three times, in two books and an article (most recently here). “Here the historian treads on patchy ground,” warns Louis. “The British archives have been carefully ‘weeded’ in order to protect identities and indeed to obscure the truth about British complicity.” But he came across the minutes of conversations between Lambton and a Foreign Office official who described her as someone who knew Iran “better than anyone else in this country.”

          Lambton, the official reported in June 1951, “was of the decided opinion that it was impossible to do business” with Mossadegh, and that no concessions should be made to him. She urged “covert means” to undermine his position, consisting of support for Iranians who would speak out against him, and stirring opposition to him “from the bazaars upwards.” The official added: “Miss Lambton feels that without a campaign on the above lines it is not possible to create the sort of climate in Tehran which is necessary to change the regime.” He then relayed her practical recommendation: entrust the mission to Robert (Robin) Zaehner, a quixotic Oxford don and former intelligence agent, fully fluent in Persian, whom Lambton described as “the ideal man” for the job. On Lambton’s recommendation, the Foreign Office dispatched Zaehner to Tehran, where he put together a network of disaffected opponents of Mossadegh’s regime.

          This effort came to naught, partly because the Truman Administration still thought the British should deal with Mossadegh. In November 1951, Lambton complained: “The Americans do not have the experience or the psychological insight to understand Persia.” But she did not relent: “If only we keep steady, Dr. Mossadegh will fall. There may be a period of chaos, but ultimately a government with which we can deal will come back.” Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, added this note: “I agree with Miss Lambton. She has a remarkable first hand knowledge of Persians & their mentality.”

          Yet Mossadegh hung on, and a year later he shut down the British diplomatic mission. According to Lambton’s Foreign Office contact, she thought that the British policy of not making “unjustifiable concessions” to Mossadegh “would have been successful had it not been for American vacillations,” and she insisted that “it is still useless to accept any settlement” with Mossadegh, “because he would immediately renege.”

          This was the prevailing British view, and persistence ultimately paid off. In November 1952, Dwight Eisenhower was elected U.S. president, and the new team in Washington took a very different (and dimmer) view of Mossadegh. Anthony Eden met with the president-elect to discuss “the Persia question,” and the CIA’s Kermit Roosevelt and Donald Wilbur set in motion the wheels of the August 1953 coup—an American-led, joint CIA-MI6 production.

          “In that [first] minute [of June 1951],” writes historian Louis, “may thus be found the origins of the ‘Zaehner mission’ and the beginnings of the 1953 coup.” Louis asserts that “the archives, for better or worse, link Professor Lambton with the planning to undermine Musaddiq.” He notes that “Lambton herself, as if wary of future historians, rarely committed her thoughts on covert operations to writing. The quotations of her comments by various officials, however, are internally consistent and invariably reveal a hard-line attitude towards Musaddiq.”

          In the latest 2006 retelling of the tale by Louis, he has somewhat trimmed his estimate of Lambton’s role. “I have the impression from the minutes,” he writes in a footnote, “that the officials quoting [Lambton] sometimes wanted to invoke her authority to lend credibility to their own views.” Louis also adds that Lambton’s “views were entirely in line with those of other British authorities on Iran.” In other words, she was urging them to think or do something they already thought or wanted to do anyway, but for which they needed an authoritative footnote.

          But there can be no doubt that her advice bolstered the advocates of toughing it out and bringing Mossadegh down. The obits tend to downplay this story because the 1953 coup has come to be seen as some sort of original sin—as the root cause of the Islamic revolution that unfolded a full quarter-century later. But wherever one puts the 1953 coup in the great chain of causation, Lambton’s assessments at the time should inspire awe. Years of experience in Iran, exact knowledge of Persian, and wide travels within the country, all had led her to conclude that Mossadegh could be pushed out, as against the view that he had to be accommodated. She was right. Given the propensity of Western experts on Iran to get so many things wrong over the years, Lambton’s call is all the more remarkable.

          The present incumbents in power in Iran are careful to shut out Western Orientalists, not because they fear the situation in Iran will be misrepresented but because it might be accurately represented, exposing the weaknesses of their regime. The historian Ervand Abrahamian, mentioning Lambton (and Zaehner), writes that it should not be surprising that the coup “gave rise to conspiracy theories [among Iranians], including cloak and dagger stories of Orientalist professors moonlighting as spies, forgers, and even assassins. Reality—in this case—was stranger than fiction.” The reality is that it isn’t easy to hide one’s vulnerabilities from an intimate stranger such as Lambton. The fear of Orientalist professors, both there and here, has never been that they might get things wrong, but that they are very likely to get them right.

          Originally posted at Middle East Strategy at Harvard.

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