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Blood, Power, and Hypocrisy: The Murder of Robert Imbrie and American Relations with Pehlavi Iran, 1924

  • Michael P. Zirinsky (a1)

On Friday, July 18, 1924, Robert W. Imbrie, United States Consul in Tehran— and personal friend and special agent of Allen W. Dulles, Chief of the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs Division—was brutally killed. Imbrie was beaten to death by a mob led by members of the Muslim clergy and including many members of the Iranian Army. In the weeks preceding July 18, there had been several outbreaks of anti-Bahai violence. Imbrie and Melvin Seymour had gone that morning to investigate a miraculous watering place in central Tehran that figured in the anti-Bahai excitement. According to contemporary accounts, a Bahai had been struck blind after drinking from the source when he refused to make an offering in the name of the Shi'i saints; his sight miraculously had been restored after he had repented and made the donation.

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1 Research for this paper was undertaken with materials preserved by the National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C. Among the more important papers are Record Group 59, State Department records pertaining to Iran (records for the period before 1930 are on microfilm; records for the period 1930–1949 are at the National Archives Building, Washington); RG 59, file 1231ml, the personnel record of Robert W. Imbrie; and RG 84, the post records of the Iran Legation and Embassy and of the consulates. Also consulted were the archives of the British Foreign Office (at the Public Record Office, Kew; henceforth FO), the Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (at the Quai d'orsay; henceforth QO), the records of the Presbyterian mission in Iran (at the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia), and the papers of Allen W. Dulles (at the Seeley G. Mudd Library, Princeton).

2 LaGorce, John Oliver, Vice President of the National Geographic Society, denied that lmbrie would have caused offense to Iranians, New York Times, August 4, 1924. The NGS no longer has any record of the incident.Millspaugh, Arthur C., in The American Task in Persia (New York, 1925), pp. 216 and 223, also cites Imbrie's photography as having incited the crowd. Despite much evidence that Iranians loved to be photographed, the collective memory of Americans in Tehran held that Imbrie was killed because he photographed a religious event. In the 1950s, the American Embassy routinely warned Americans not to photograph religious events, citing the Imbrie murder as evidence of what might happen (personal information of the author).Also note that Nicolson, Harold, British Councellor of Legation in Tehran, 1925–1927, “had an ineradicable … view that Persians resent being photographed,” according to his wife, Sackville-West, V., Twelve Days (London, 1928), pp. 99100. On Seymour, see RG 59, 391.1113—Hall, J. N.

3 Statement of Melvin Seymour, RG 59, 1231m1, 218; also see FO 371, 10155/E6607, Ovey, Tehran, July 31, 1924; and E6707, Ovey, Tehran, July 19, 1924.

4 Depositions of witnesses contained in RG 59, 1231ml, 201, 218; FO 371, 10155/E6707, Ovey, Tehran, July 19, 1924.

5 RG 59, 1231ml, 255, letter of Katherine Gillespie Imbrie to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, Tehran, August 14, 1924.

6 Statement and autopsy report of DrPackard, Harry P., July 19–20, 1924, RG 59, 1231ml, 201.

7 RG 59, 1231ml, 290, August 31, 1924.

8 FO 371, 10146/E7152, Tehran, August 1, 1924; Fraser preferred to believe that Reza's enemies had provoked the incident, but he was clear that there were “among the crowd individuals who had been directly incited to promote attacks on foreigners.”

9 New York Times, July 20, 1924;Imbrie, Robert Whitney, Behind the Wheel of a War Ambulance (New York, 1918);Imbrie, Katherine, “Data Relating to the Assassination of…. Robert Whitney Imbrie…” (NP., 1939).

10 September 7, 1924.

11 RG 59, 125.972, 1–3, 20 (Imbrie's telegrams and dispatches from Viborg); see also RG 59, 861.00, 8852, in which Imbrie called for an external remedy to regenerate Russia, March 29, 1919, Dispatch #3; also see the minutes of Sir L. Oliphant, July 29, 1924, FO 371, 10155/E6504.

12 RG 59, 1231ml, 1–22; the British Government had reason to believe he had done “intelligence work in the Caucasus,” Oliphant, July 29, 1924, E6504.

13 Ravndal, G. Bie, Consul General, Istanbul, June 25, 1923, RG 59, 1231ml, 68; British accounts suggest that Imbrie's assignment was to combat Soviet influence at Ankara (“Mr. Dulles himself seems to regard the Kemalist movement as a genuine national revival and therefore deserving of American support,” Geddes, Washington, August 18, 1922, Dispatch #966), and to pave the way for American economic penetration of Anatolia, Sir H. Rumbold, Dispatch 715. Imbrie was instrumental in Admiral Chester's attempts to obtain a concession from the Nationalist Government, RG 59, 1231ml, 121, letter of Colby M. Chester, Rear Admiral United States Navy, Retired, July 22, 1924;Evans, Laurence, United States Policy and the Partition of Turkey, 1914–1924 (Baltimore, 1965), pp. 329–38, 344–48, and passim.DeNovo, John A., American Interests and Policies in the Middle East, 1900–1939 (Minneapolis, 1963), pp. 210–28.

14 RG 59, 1231ml, 75.

15 RG 59, 1231ml, 70.

16 RG 59, 1231ml, 75b.

17 RG 59, 1231ml, 48; Dulles came to know Imbrie in Istanbul, where Dulles was aide to Admiral Mark Lambert Bristol, U.S. High Commissioner to Turkey. As Director of Central Intelligence (1953–1961), Dulles was instrumental in the coup that overthrew the Iranian Government of Muhammad Mossadeq and established the dictatorship of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

18 As Millspaugh put it, “Had Major Imbrie been ordinarily discreet, he would not have been the incitement or the object of a mob attack. The mob did not seek him; he went under provocative appearances into a place and into conditions which had the elements of danger,” Task, p. 223.

19 RG 59, 1231ml, 82, 142. The British government was informed that the Anglo-Persian Oil Company believed that “Mr. Imbrie was murdered at Bolshevik instigation,” E6505.

20 RG 59, 1231ml, 157, 173, 183, 208, 249, 257, 264, 284, 315; testimony of Major Miles to the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, February 15, 1926, contained in box #1452.

21 RG 59, 1231Ml, 157, 169, 226, 239, 254, 264, 273, 278, 283, 283a, 291, 297, 306, 319, 332, 373, 396. Murray was Dulles's successor as chief of NEA; he was Ambassador to Iran during 1945–1946. The official U.S. government representative at the execution of Mortaza was the Legation translator, Allahyar Saleh, afterwards an important leader of the Iran Party, “the country's main secular nationalist organization” and a major part of Dr. Mossadeq's National Front; other early leaders of the Iran Party included Mehdi Bazargan and Karim Sanjabi; for this see Abrahamian, Ervand, Iran between Two Revolutions (Princeton, 1982), pp. 188–92; Saleh was a member of several Mossadeq cabinets, and he was Ambassador to the United States in 1952–1953; his report on the execution is in RG 84, American Legation, Tehran, Confidential Correspondence, 1924–1925, October 2, 1924.

22 House of Representatives, Report #985, 69th Congress, 1st session; RG 59, 1231ml, 518. Mrs. Imbrie had applied for $40,000.

23 RG 59, 391.113 Seymour, Melvin.

24 RG 59, 1231ml, 333, 352; New York Times, November 12, 1924. The additional money appropriated for Mrs. Imbrie came from this fund, RG 59, 1231ml, 518.

25 RG 59, 1231ml, 136, 165, 177, 180, 195, 209, 213, 264. The diplomatic archives preserve photographs of the several ceremonies held for the transfer of Imbrie's body to the United States. Imbrie is buried in Arlington National Cemetery; President Coolidge and Secretary of State Hughes attended the funeral, New York Times, September 30, 1924.

26 RG 84, Murray, Tehran, November 6, 1924, Dispatch #726; Murray, Tehran, November 30, 1924, Dispatch #772; report of British Military Attaché Colonel W. A. K. Fraser, Tehran, November 1, 1924, FO 371, 10146/E10258.

27 See, inter alia, Keddie, Nikki R., Roots of Revolution (New Haven, 1981), pp. 123; and Akhavi, Shahrough, Religion and Politics in Contemporary Iran: Clergy-State Relations in the Pahlavi Period (Albany, 1980), pp. 159.

28 Keddie, Roots, pp. 24–78; Algar, Hamid, Religion and State in Iran, 1785–1906 (Berkeley, 1969);Keddie, Nikki R., Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 1891–1892 (London, 1966);Fischer, Michael M. J., Iran from Religious Dispute to Revolution (Cambridge, 1980), pp. 1180; Akhavi, Religion, pp. 1–59; Keddie, Nikki R., ed., Religion and Politics in Iran: Shi'ism from Quietism to Revolution (New Haven, 1983), pp. 1124.

29 Kazemzadeh, Firuz, Russia and Britain in Persia, 1864–1914: A Study in Imperialism (New Haven, 1968);Sykes, Christopher, Wassmuss: The German Lawrence (London, 1936);General Arfa, Hassan, Under Five Shahs (London, 1964);Lenczowski, George, Russia and the West in Iran, 1918–1948: A Study in Big Power Rivalry (Ithaca, 1949); Keddie, Roots, pp. 79ff.

30 The records of this missionary activity are preserved at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

31 Ramazani, Rouhollah K., The Foreign Policy of Iran: A Developing Nation in World Affairs,1500–1941 (Charlottesville, 1966);Upton, Joseph, The History of Modern Iran: An Interpretation (Cambridge, 1960);Kazemzadeh, , Russia and Britain; W. Morgan Shuster, The Strangling of Persia (New York, 1912);Chubin, Shahram and Zabih, Sepehr, The Foreign Relations of Iran (Berkeley, 1974); Lenczowski, Russia; Ramazani, Rouhollah K., Iran's Foreign Policy, 1941–1973 (Charlottesville, 1974);Rubin, Barry, Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran (New York, 1980).

32 On Baskerville, see RG 84, Tabriz Consulate, January 1908–November 1910; Baskerville was shot in the back while advancing toward the anti-Constitutional forces besieging Tabriz. An account of the episode by Rezazadeh Shafaq, one of Baskerville's students who subsequently became a leader of the Iran Party and a member of the Majlis and of the Senate, is to be found in Saleh, Ali Pasha, Cultural Ties between Iran and the United States (Tehran, 1976), pp. 311–28.

33 Browne, Edward G., The Persian Revolution of 1905–1909 (Cambridge, 1910), pp. 269 and passim; Rubin, Paved, pp. 10–11; Shuster, Strangling.

34 Foreign Relations of the United States, 1919, Vol. II, pp. 700ff.

35 Millspaugh, Task; FRUS, 1927, Vol. III, pp. 523ff.; RG 59, 891.00, 1302; also see RG 59, 891.6363 Standard Oil, 16, a memorandum by A. C. Millspaugh, December 17, 1920, which suggests that Millspaugh was intimately involved in the negotiations for a northern Iranian oil concession in exchange for an American loan.

36 Keddie, Roots, pp. 79–93; Lenczowski, Russia; RG 84, Caldwell, Tehran, telegrams, February 22, 1921, and February 26, 1921.

37 Even Balfour, J. M., whose Recent Happenings in Persia (Edinburgh, 1922) was the first British book published about the coup, and who was highly critical of Lord Curzon's policy in Iran, maintained that “the movement was not engineered either by or with the knowledge of the British Legation,” p. 218.

38 See, for example, Ullman, Richard, Anglo-Soviet Relations, 1917–1923, Vol. III, The Anglo- Soviet Accord (Princeton, 1972), pp. 354–69, 383–89; and Ironside, Lord, ed., High Road to Command: The Diaries of Major General Sir Edmund Ironside, 1920–1922 (London, 1972).

39 Ironside, p. 147.

40 FO 371, 6403/E4926.

41 FO 371, 6401/E2883.

42 Ironside, p. 117.

43 FO 371, 6427, file 787; FO 371, 10156/E6954; Nicolson, Harold, Curzon: The Last Phase (London, 1934), p. 144;Foreign Office List, 1923, 1926, 1927. Norman was retired at age 54; Bridgeman was 39. Dickson was alleged to be mentally unbalanced, but he was not permitted to remain in service even after his sanity ceased to be questioned. He had breached service etiquette by sharing his knowledge of British involvement in the coup with the American minister. All three men were retired on pensions. See also Lesueur, Emile, Les Anglais en Perse (Paris, n.d.—accessioned to the British Museum July 29, 1922); Lesueur, a professor in the Law School in Tehran at the time of the coup, specifically cites Smart as the instigator of the coup, pp. 148–53.

44 FO 371, 9024/E4612 (1923), and 10156/E9418 (1924) and passim. The role played by Sir Percy Loraine, British Minister in Tehran, in encouraging Reza Khan to believe that the British government regarded any action to depose the Qajars as purely an Iranian internal matter that London did not oppose, deserves investigation.

45 Keddie, Roots, pp. 79–112; Wilber, Donald, Riza Shah Pahlavi: The Resurrection and Reconstruction of Iran (Hicksville, 1975); Millspaugh, Task;Cottam, Richard W., Nationalism in Iran, 2nd ed. (Pittsburgh, 1979).

46 Ovey, Tehran, June 17, 1924, FO 371, 10128/E5861; on October 23, 1924, Ovey noted (E9753) that “the Americans set out on their quest to reform Persia financially and morally with an unwarranted optimism.”

47 RG 59, 891.51A; FRUS, 1927, Vol. III, pp. 547ff.;FO 371, 11498/E3779, Loraine, Tehran, May 25, 1926; E5058, Harold Nicolson, Tehran, August 14, 1926.

48 This also met the needs of British policy; see FO 371, 11498/E3779, Loraine, Tehran, May 25, 1926, and FO 371, 11499/E6223, Oliphant, FO October 21, 1926, which noted that the success of the Milispaugh mission “might stand us in good stead,” and that “Lord Curzon's wish for the success of the mission was brought out with considerable force.”

49 RG 84, Kornfeld, Tehran, March 18, 1924, Dispatch #422; Kornfeld, Tehran, March 23, 1924, Telegram #26; Kornfeld, Tehran, March 28, 1924, Dispatch #434; RG 59, 891.00, 1262, 1268. Modarres died in 1938, after having been imprisoned again by Reza Pahlavi in 1929. Iranian nationalist and religious opinion regards him as a martyr of the Pahlavi oppression, Keddie, Roots, pp. 93–94.

50 RG 59, 891.51A, 175, 180, 198; FRUS, 1927, Vol. III, pp. 531–35;Avery, Peter, Modern Iran (New York, 1965), p. 263.

51 Keddie, Roots, p. 91; Cottam, Nationalism, pp. 111–14.

52 Keddie, Roots, pp. 89–90;RG 59, 891.6363 Standard Oil, 327, 343, 366; RG 59, 891.00, 1260. Millspaugh reported on December 17, 1920, that “if he could tell the Persian Government that they could obtain a loan from the United States …. there would be no doubt of the oil concession being granted as well as other valuable concessions” (memorandum of conversation with the Persian Minister and the Councellor of Legation).

53 RG 59, 891.00, 1297, Imbrie, Tehran, July 14, 1924; FO 371, 10145/E6283, Ovey, Tehran, July 1,1924. The British Legation informed Whitehall that the most generally accepted rumor held Reza Khan responsible for the murder of Eshqi, July 18, 1924, FO 371, 10146/E6704.

54 RG 84, Kornfeld, Tehran, April 22, 1924, Dispatch #466; June 14, 1924, Dispatch #550; June 16, 1924, Dispatch #551; June 29, 1924, Dispatch #575; July 9, 1924, Dispatch #586.

55 Keddie, Roots, pp. 48–52; RG 59, 891.00, 1297, Imbrie, Tehran, July 14, 1924; RG 59, 1231ml,203, 205. The British believed that “the Americans in Persia are usually looked upon as admirers of the Bahais,” FO 371, 10155/E6515. According to diplomatic accounts, the anti-Bahai agitation was attributed both to enemies of the government and to Reza Khan, FO 371, 10146/E6704.

56 RG 59, 891.00, 1297, Imbrie, Tehran, July 14, 1924, Dispatch #57. One should note the State Department's judgment of Imbrie as a reporter-writer: “His work falls down when it comes to sending in reports. He is not able to put his observations on paper,” Dulles, memorandum, September 19, 1923, RG 59, 123G711,48.

57 RG 59, 1231ml, 251. Susan Moody's obituary is in Baha'i World, 6 (19341936), 483–86.

58 Momen, Moojan, ed., The Babi and Baha'i Religions, 1844–1944: Some Contemporary Western Accounts (Oxford, 1981), p. 462.

59 Imbrie's decision to visit the site was so sudden that there was “no question of any premeditated assault,” Ovey, Tehran, July 29, 1924, FO 371, 10156/E7101.

60 RG 59, 891.00, 1298; also see the report of Major Miles to the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2, August 31, 1924, on board Trenton, RG 59, 1231ml, 290, which accepted this interpretation of the events leading up to Imbrie's murder; and Kornfeld, Tehran, September 29, 1924, RG 59, 891.00, 1229.

61 RG 59, 1231ml, 183, Kornfeld, Tehran, August 13, 1924: “The Prime Minister is a dictator whose power rests on his army. Whatever justice we obtain must come from him through his military courts. The only alternative is the Sheriat courts which in such a case as this would vindicate any Moslem regardless of evidence against him.” See also Murray, Tehran, November 2, 1924, RG 59, 1231ml, 333; FO 371, 10156/E8508, Kerman, August 1–15, 1924, lauding the army as standing for law, order, and strong government. Also see Bonzan, Lucien, French Minister at Tehran, August 21, 1924, QO, Perse, 18, pp. 223–24. Although British Minister Sir Percy Loraine reported approvingly on January 5, 1925, that Reza was “stronger and more popular than ever,” FO 371, 10840/E104, as late as July 31, 1924, Chargé Ovey reported that Reza “had lost power, prestige and popularity.” Ovey expected Reza to “essay a coup d'état,” but expected “chaos” to result because of Reza's “universal unpopularity and the lessened hold he now has over his army,” FO 371, 10146/E7105. Reza Khan, of course, also used the episode to strengthen his control over the army.

62 Acting Secretary Grew to Kornfeld (for Millspaugh), July 30, 1924, FRUS, 1927, Vol. III, pp. 532ff.; on September 18, 1924, Murray “urgently advised Millspaugh to give way in his demands,” RG 59, 891.51A, 191T.

63 RG 59, 1231ml, 183, Kornfeld, Tehran, August 13, 1924.

64 RG 59, 891.51A, 205, Murray, Tehran, October 6, 1924; Murray chose to describe this as “a signal victory for Dr. Millspaugh.” British accounts of the American Financial Mission are contained in FO 371, file 110/34(1924).

65 RG 59, 891.51, 351T et seq. Also see FO 371, file 44/34 (1924). Chargé Ovey reported that the oil question was “overshadowed by…. the murder of Major Imbrie,” September 12, 1924, E6282, to which the Foreign Office noted, “so ends another chapter in this tedious story of the northern oil concession,” Mallet, January 1, 1925.

66 DeNovo American Interests, pp. 283–86; Avery, Modern Iran, p. 258;Lenczowski, Russia, pp. 81–84; British Chargé Ovey believed that Standard Oil “probably instigated the Sinclair Oil scandal” in revenge for Sinclair's role in spoiling the Standard-APOC proposal for a northern oil concession, letter to Sir L. Oliphant, April 7, 1924, FO 371, 10126/E6282.

67 Ovey, Tehran, September 12, 1924, FO 371, 10126/E6282. The Iranian Government still hoped for some sort of northern contract, however, and opened contacts with a French consortium, Bonzon, Tehran, November 6, 1924, QO, Perse, 50, pp. 87–93. Nothing came of this initiative.

68 RG 59, 1231ml, 380, 433. There had been considerable debate among British officials as to the best course for British policy. On May 5, 1923, Sir Percy Loraine had requested that Whitehall support Reza Khan, arguing that to oppose him meant the “gradual collapse of our position and influence unless we uphold them and our friends by force.” In response to this, on May 9, 1923, G. P. Churchill of the Foreign Office argued that “if Reza Khan cannot be made to see the folly of his present course [attempting to extend central government control over Khuzistan], it is possible for us to exert pressure upon him by withholding that financial assistance without which he will be utterly incapable of maintaining his army,” FO 371, 9024/E4612. After the Imbrie murder, Whitehall still hoped that Sheikh Khazal could be maintained. The Foreign Office (Mallet) believed on October 29, 1924, that “If Reza Khan is forced by the U.S. Government to have the other two criminals executed, he will have considerable trouble with the mullahs.” Whitehall hoped that “the prospect of strained relations with America will make Reza Khan more ready to agree to our mediation in his quarrel with the Shaikh of Mohammerah,” FO 371, 10156/E9418. Events proved this analysis to be wishful thinking, and consequently Britain had little choice but to follow the policy advocated by Sir Percy Loraine, an “attitude of watchful inaction,” FO 371, 10840/E278, January 17, 1925.

69 Wilber, Riza Shah, pp. 89ff.; Avery, Modern Iran, p. 260; Keddie, Roots, p. 91.

70 RG 59, 891.6363 Standard Oil, 16, Murray, Tehran, September 19, 1924, cited in Alexander, Yonah and Nanes, Allan, eds., The United States and Iran: A Diplomatic History (Frederick, Maryland, 1980), pp. 48ff.;letter of Sir Percy Loraine to MrOliphant, L., December 17, 1923, FO 371, 10125/E544.

71 “Assassinat du Consul americain et les pétroles persanes,” Tehran, n.d., QO, Sér. Perse, E., Pétroles, 19231925, #50, pp. 70–72; this unsigned French Legation report suggested that Imbrie was working actively for the Sinclair interests, and that he was killed by those who wanted to prevent the ratification and exploitation of the Sinclair concession.

72 RG 59, 891.00, 1596, August 28, 1934.

73 See the letter of Secretary of State Hughes to DrSpeer, Robert E., Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., November 11, 1924, NE—123Iml, 317, Presbyterian Historical Society; also see FO 371, 10146/E9753, Ovey, Tehran, October 23, 1924.

74 QO, Perse, Pétroles, 1923–1925, #50, pp. 70–72; the French wondered at the discipline of the American press, which of course was almost entirely dependent on the State Department for information.

75 RG 59, 891.51A, 191T, September 18, 1924, and 205, October 6, 1924.

76 Kornfeld, Tehran, August 13, 1924, RG 59, 1231ml, 183.

77 RG 59, 1231ml, 353, October 16, 1924.

78 RG 59, 1231ml, 290, August 31, 1924; 291, September 3, 1924.

79 FO 371, 10128/E110, November 26, 1923.

80 FO 371, 10125/E544, letter of Loraine to Oliphant, December 17, 1923; FO 371, 10144/E1121, February 24, 1924.

81 FO 371, 10146/E7501, Ovey, Tehran, August 10, 1924.

82 FO 371, 10128/E9348.

83 Introduction to Iran (New York, 1947), p. 99.

84 The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (London, 1824, 1923).

85 RG 59, Tehran, December 13, 1924, Dispatch #787.

86 RG 59, 1231ml, 397.

87 RG 59, 1231ml, 226.

88 For an important critique of the “orientalist” tradition, see Edward, Said, Orientalism (New York, 1979).

89 RG 59, 1231ml.

90 RG 59, 1231ml, 239, 283, 313.

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