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World War II -- 60 Years After: The Anglo-Soviet Invasion Of Iran And Washington-Tehran Relations

On the eve of World War II, many Iranians contrasted the United States with Great Britain and the Soviet Union, seeing it as the one international actor that could help Iran gain control of its future. Moreover, the American role in forcing Soviet invaders to leave Iranian Azerbaijan after the war reinforced this positive image. Using information from U.S. State Department documents that were published in the "Foreign Relations of the United States" series, books and articles by participants, and several scholarly works, this article describes events 60 years ago that seemed to portend a different path for U.S.-Iran relations.

British and Soviet troops invaded Iran on 25 August 1941. At the time, and for many years afterward, the main reason given for this was that German influence in Iran at the start of World War II was pronounced. Reza Shah Pahlavi's reliance on German technology for his ambitious development plans worried the Allies, who feared the Germans might make Iran a base for operations against the Soviet Union. In addition, in the wake of the June 1941 German invasion of the USSR, the Allies needed Iran as a channel for supplies to the Soviet Union. Furthermore, London had the defense of India in mind, and it wanted to safeguard its oilfields and refineries in Iran. Research of the British intelligence archives in the 1980s, however, indicated that the degree of German influence in Iran might have been exaggerated to justify partially the Anglo-Soviet invasion.

Reza Shah abdicated in September 1941 and three years later he died as an exile in South Africa. He was replaced by his 22-year-old son, Mohammad Reza, who was so eager to prove his reliability to the Allies, and perhaps ensure Iran's post-war position, that he offered volunteers to fight in Europe.

In January 1942, Iran, the Soviet Union, and England signed the Tripartite Treaty, guaranteeing Iran's territorial sovereignty and political independence. Article 5 of the treaty stated: "The forces of the Allied powers shall be withdrawn from Iranian territory not later than six months after all hostilities between the Allied powers and Germany and her associates have been suspended."

Even prior to the signing of the Tripartite Treaty, the Soviet Union was assisting separatist movements in northern Iran. This worried the United States, Secretary of State Cordell Hull noted in his memoirs. He therefore decided to give Iran diplomatic support to "prevent the development of a situation in which an open threat to Iranian integrity might be presented." In March 1942 Iran was declared eligible for the lend-lease program. The United States began sending advisory teams and missions to Iran, and in December 1943 U.S. troops of the Persian Gulf Service Command began arriving to facilitate supplying the Soviet Union.

Personnel from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were stationed in Iran, too, and they noted Soviet ambitions. Major E. M. Wright of the OSS reported in January 1944 that the Soviets saw the Mashhad-Tehran-Sanandaj line (from the northeast to the northwest) as protection against attack from the south, saw the northern region as a potential source of oil, and desired a malleable Iranian government. Wright warned that the Soviets would try to establish hegemony over northern Iran.

Indications Of Soviet Ambitions

There were continuing signs that Moscow would not comply with a 2 March 1946 deadline for the withdrawal of its troops. In January 1945 Soviet troops arrested an Iranian gendarmerie commander in Mazandaran and disarmed his troops, leading the OSS to warn that Moscow was trying to prevent the Iranian government or U.S. advisers from operating in northern Iran.

Another indication of Soviet intentions was Moscow's support of independence and autonomy movements in northern Iran. The Soviets encouraged separatists in Iranian Azerbaijan, particularly the Firqeh-i Demokrat-i Azerbaijan (Democratic Party of Azerbaijan). This party was led by Jafar Pishevari -- a leader in the early days of Iran's Communist movement, a commissar in the 1920-21 Soviet Republic in Gilan Province, and a Comintern agent -- and his followers, members of the Communist Tudeh party, and Azerbaijani separatists. The Democrats demanded the use of the Azeri Turkish in the state schools and government offices, economic development of the region, and the establishment of provincial assemblies. They also began preparations for an armed uprising.

Moscow also encouraged Kurdish separatists. At the end of 1941, the Soviets invited a group of 30 Kurdish tribal leaders to Baku, and in August 1943 a Kurdish independence organization called the Komala-yi Zhiyan-i Kurdistan (Committee of Kurdish Youth) was created. In September 1945, Qazi Mohammad and several other Kurdish leaders were taken to Baku, where the Soviets encouraged them in their quest for autonomy and suggested the Kurds join the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. The premier of Soviet Azerbaijan, Jafar Bagirov, promised full Soviet support for the Kurdish claim to autonomy. The Soviets provided significant military equipment and training.

Several alarming incidents occurred in December 1945, just three months before the scheduled Soviet withdrawal. The Soviets demanded an end to restrictions on the Tudeh; stopped the transportation of agricultural goods from Azerbaijan to the south; and prevented the entry of government troops into Azerbaijan. These obstructive measures coincided with the pronouncements of the Autonomous Government of Azerbaijan and the independent Republic of Kurdistan. The Jungle Party (Hezb-i Jangali) in the Caspian provinces was created around this time, too.

The next month, the Soviet press and propaganda stressed the advantages to Iran of a rapprochement with the USSR and attacked the Iranian government. The Soviets attempted to influence public opinion through several Tehran newspapers that they owned and tried to curry favor with Iranian intellectuals by holding the First Congress of the Iranian Writers at the Soviet Embassy.

The Long Telegram

In February 1946 the American Charge in Moscow, George Kennan, sent a cable in which he cited Iran as an example of Soviet expansionism: "Whenever it is considered timely and promising, efforts will be made to advance official limits of Soviet power. For the moment, these efforts are restricted to certain neighboring points conceived of here as being of immediate strategic necessity, such as Northern Iran, Turkey, possibly Bornholm. However, other points may at any time come into question, if and as Soviet political power is extended to new areas. Thus a "friendly" Persian Government might be asked to grant Russia a port on the Persian Gulf."

Kennan warned that the "inner central core" of other countries' Communist parties was made up of Comintern members, listing the northern Iranian regime as one whose "actual policies...[are] at disposal of USSR." Because Iran's government was seen as being unfriendly to the USSR, he wrote, "pressure will be brought for [its] removal from office." But perhaps the view that served to influence U.S. policies for so long was that the Soviet Union "can easily withdraw -- and usually does -- when strong resistance is encountered at any point. Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so."

As if to challenge the United States and provide an occasion to test Kennan's theory, Moscow announced on 2 March 1946, the deadline for withdrawal of its troops from Iran, that only a partial withdrawal had taken place. Three days later, when Iranian Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam returned from Moscow, he reported that Soviet leader Josef Stalin refused to back down on autonomy for Azerbaijan, saying that Soviet "honor" was involved. Stalin cited the 1921 Irano-Soviet Treaty as justification for the retention of troops. Moscow also demanded an oil concession, to which Qavam replied that Iranian law forbids the granting of a concession as long as the country is occupied.

On 5 April, Tehran and Moscow agreed that the Soviet troops would be withdrawn within six weeks of 24 March. An agreement for a joint Irano-Soviet oil venture was to be submitted to the legislature within seven months of 24 March. A new parliamentary election was approaching, and Qavam promised to pack the parliament with Tudeh representatives certain to vote for the agreement. The last Soviet troops left Iran by 5 May 1946.

Despite the withdrawal, the situation in Azerbaijan deteriorated. Reports of Soviet penetration of the provincial government and Democrat Party continued, and the number of Soviet railroad personnel on the line from Soviet Azerbaijan to Tabriz tripled.

The situation in the south was not much better. Moscow radio broadcasts criticized Anglo-Iranian Oil Company concessions in Khuzestan and accused British authorities of obstructing the Tudeh-dominated trade union. It took three weeks to resolve a May strike in the Agha Jari oilfield, and this encouraged other strikes. Perhaps the worst strike took place in mid-July in Abadan, after the Soviet Consul-General from Ahvaz visited the refinery. Tudeh agents encouraged hostilities between Iranians and local Arabs, resulting in a great deal of violence.

Prime Minister Qavam decided in late November to send troops to Azerbaijan to supervise elections. Contrary to their expectations, the central government troops met very little resistance when they arrived in Azerbaijan. The Democrat regime just faded away, and locals suddenly became anti-Democrat and pro-American. Former OSS officer Bob Rossow described looting, armed men roving the city, and vengeful shootings. He wrote that a mob captured Mohammad Beria, who ran "a sort of goon squad known as the Society of Friends of Soviet Azerbaijan," then "dragged him behind a jeep back and forth over the city, finally leaving his unrecognizable body in the middle of the public square."

Kurdish leader Qazi Muhammad, Sadr-i-Qazi, and Saif-i-Qazi surrendered to Iranian General Fazlollah Homayuni in December 1946. Some of the other Kurds fled to Iraq or the Soviet Union, but skirmishes with the Iranian Army continued in February and March 1947. By April most of the fugitives had reached Iraq, and the ones who had gone to the Soviet Union arrived in Iraqi territory by the late-1950s. The Qazi family was not so fortunate. On 23 January they were sentenced, in camera, to be shot. The Shah submitted to a plea by the U.S. ambassador to not have the Qazis shot, so on 31 March they were hanged.

Looking Back

Mohammad Reza Shah told U.S. Ambassador George Allen in December 1946 that a major factor in the rapid collapse of the Azerbaijan movement was the "conviction by all concerned (Soviets, Iranians, and Azerbaijanis) that the United States was solidly supporting Iranian sovereignty." Iranians were so happy about the outcome of the crisis, the monarch said, that they referred to Azerbaijan as the "Stalingrad of the Western democracies" and the "turn of the tides against Soviet aggression throughout the world."

This may be hyperbole, but scholars of Iran agree that it was an important moment in the two countries' relationship. For example, Richard Cottam wrote that on the eve of the war, "Iranians held an idealized vision of the United States," and they expected Americans to "do what they could to allow Iranians to gain control of their own destiny." Referring to U.S. support for Iran during the Azerbaijan crisis, Cottam adds, "there was to be a surprising reinforcement of the Iranian image of the United States and, it follows, even greater expectations after World War II."

Cottam notes that "Iranian disillusionment was inevitable." This may be so in retrospect, but bilateral relations at the time were overshadowed by the world war, the Cold War, and many other issues.