Iran as a Twentieth Century Victim: 1900 Through the Aftermath of World War II
by Dr. Stephen J Sniegoski
In the first half of the twentieth century, Russia and Britain forced Iran to relinquish its sovereign rights, and the Iranian people suffered severely as a consequence. As many as 10 million Iranians perished in WWI from famine and disease which was largely Britain’s fault.
Iran was once a great power, and though invaded by Greeks, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols and exploited by imperialist powers in the modern era, it has continued to assert its national identity and its people have developed a special sensitivity to interference with its sovereign rights.
(In the outside world Iran was known as “Persia” until 1935, although people within the country used the term “Iran.” This article will use the term “Iran” except when using actual names or quoting from other sources.) This concern on the part of Iran does not represent some overwrought sensitivity but is actually a realistic assessment of its history over the past century, as this article will delineate. While professing idealistic principles in international relations, European powers ignored these principles in their violations of Iran’s sovereign rights, which in at least one case led to human suffering on par with the most tragic events of the twentieth century.
During the nineteenth century, Russia and Britain competed for power and influence in Central Asia, in what was known as the Great Game. Needless to say, it was neither great nor a game for those countries, such as Iran, which were treated like pawns on a chessboard by the two great powers. By the turn of the twentieth century, Russia had come to dominate the northern part of Iran while Britain dominated the south. The two powers formalized this division in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which segmented Iran into three parts—a Russian zone in the north, in which Russia was to have exclusive political and economic control; a British zone in the southeast, in which Britain had the sole right to exercise political and economic control; and a neutral “buffer” zone in the rest of the country, in which both the British and the Russians shared power.
This agreement was intended to put an end to open conflict between the two powers and establish stability in the country. With the dramatic rise in power of Germany in Europe, which was also starting to penetrate Central Asia, Britain and Russia realized that it was necessary if not to completely put away their rivalry, then at least to lessen tensions. This development, however, did not bode well for Iranian sovereignty since the formal division made it appear that the imperial control would be lasting.
This foreign domination essentially meant that the resources of Iran were under the control of the two imperial powers and that the purpose of whatever economic development took place was primarily for the benefit of those powers and not the Iranian state or people. The central government in Tehran did not even have the power to select its own ministers without the approval of the British and Russian consulates.
While Iran had traditionally been an absolute monarchy, revolutionary agitation in 1905 forced the Shah to allow for a relatively free press and accept a constitution reducing his power. The elected parliament, the Majlis, would formally have considerable power, although in actuality government decisions had to be amenable to the two dominant powers who essentially controlled what took place within their respective zones and heavily influenced developments elsewhere in the country.
Both Britain, with some qualifications, and Russia looked negatively on this new liberal political body, preferring to deal with a small number of people who could more easily be coerced or bribed to advance their imperialist goals, which very likely went against public opinion in Iran that shaped the new parliamentary body. Although the imperial powers could, if they exerted themselves, overcome opposition from the Majlis, it did make things more troublesome.
In 1911, Iran’s nascent constitutional government appointed an American, E. Morgan Shuster, a noted lawyer, civil servant, and financial expert, to help organize the country’s finances, which were in a perilous situation at that time due largely to heavy indebtedness to Russia and Britain. While his proposed reforms were embraced by the Iranians, they were vehemently opposed by the two European powers who feared that these might serve to reduce Iranian dependence on them.
Almost immediately upon arriving in Iran, Shuster became involved in a dispute with Russia over customs policy, in which he requested, and was given, plenary powers by the parliament. At Russia’s behest, backed up by its moving troops to Tehran (which was within the Russian zone), he was ultimately forced to leave Iran in January 1912. Upon his return to the United States, he wrote a heated indictment of Russian and British exploitation of Iran, titled “The Strangling of Persia,” which he dedicated to “The Persian People.” In a much-quoted passage, Shuster summed up the malicious impact of the two Great Powers thus: “[I]t was obvious that the people of Persia deserve much better than what they are getting, that they wanted us to succeed, but it was the British and the Russians who were determined not to let us succeed.”
As bad as it was for Iran at the beginning of the twentieth century, things would become infinitely worse during World War I. Hoping to avoid entanglement in the war, Iran declared its neutrality on November 1, 1914. (The British and Russians had entered the war against Germany and Austria two months earlier.) Nevertheless, the country became a battleground between Russia and Britain (who were allies), and Turkey (a German ally) and its local Muslim supporters. And when the Turks were not in the country, the two European powers were involved in fighting against tribes and groups of nationalists who were stirred into action by the war and the occupiers’ wartime depredations.
Author: Mohammad Gholi Majd
Paperback: 162 pages
Publisher: University Press Of America (August 2003)
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According to historian Mohammed Gholi Majd: “World War One was unquestionably the greatest calamity in the history of Persia, far surpassing anything that happened before. It was in WWI that Persia suffered its worst tragedy in its entire history, losing some 40% of its population to famine and disease, a calamity that was entirely due to the occupation of Persia by the Russian and British armies, and about which little is known. Persia was the greatest victim of WWI: no country had suffered so much in absolute and relative terms. As I have shown in another study there are indications that 10 million Persians were lost to starvation and disease. Persia was the victim of one of the largest genocide [sic] of the twentieth century. (Majd, “Persia in World War I and Its Conquest by Great Britain,” 2003, pp. 3-4)
As many as eight to ten million Persians perished because of starvation and disease during the famine of 1917-1919, making it the greatest calamity in Persia’s history.
What caused a famine of such horrific proportions? The Russians and, even more so, the British used Iran as a base for their war effort; and Majd finds the British to be principally responsible for the famine. Local transportation, land and river, was taken over by the British for the movement of war materials, which meant that farmers had a difficult time marketing their produce inside Iran. At the same time, significant amounts of food were purchased or confiscated by the British to supply British troops, both within Iran and in the Middle East region as a whole. Moreover, Britain prohibited Iran from importing food from its neighbors—India and Mesopotamia (Iraq), where grain was plentiful–and from the United States. The British used various reasons, including the alleged sabotage of an oil pipeline, to justify the withholding of most oil revenue to the Iranian government (Iran had recently become a major oil producer) during the war years, which reduced the ability of Iran to purchase food. (Majd, “The Great Famine & Genocide in Iran: 1917-1919,” Second Edition, Chapters 5-7.)
It seems unlikely, however, that the British intentionally sought to commit genocide against the Iranian population, as Majd sometimes implies, but rather that the British were solely concerned about their own war effort, pursuing it at the expense of the Iranian people, who died off in the process. But there is no need to debate British intent, or their degree of culpability, to illustrate the point that Iran endured appalling suffering from the actions of other countries during World War I. The same could be said if the death figures Majd provides are excessive and did not actually exceed Holocaust-like levels, though Majd’s analysis of population statistics, which indicate a huge decline in population between 1910 and 1920, seems to substantiate his numbers. (Majd, “Great Famine & Genocide in Iran: 1917-1919,” pp. 77-87)
Furthermore, Majd does show that other observers noted that Iranian civilians perished as a result of the war in massive numbers, if not necessarily in the astronomically high numbers that Majd arrives at. A report submitted by the Iranian delegation to the General Assembly of the League of Nations, dated December 6, 1920, states: “At the beginning of the war of 1914-1918, the Persian government, anxious to continue its historic traditions, solemnly declared its neutrality . . . . Despite her neutrality, Persia has been a battlefield during the world cataclysm. Her richest provinces in the north and north-east have been ravaged, divided and disorganized by the Turco-Russian forces. Many are the ruins which cover Persian territory from Makou (a town lying in the extreme north of Persian province Azerbaijan), to the very south. Towns and villages have been pillaged and burned, and hundreds of thousands of men were compelled to say a lasting farewell to their beloved homes and to find death from hunger and cold far from their native provinces. At Teheran, a city of about 500,000 inhabitants, 90,000 persons died of famine for want of bread; since the big lines of communication were cut by the invaders. All the governments which followed each other during the war were faced with insurmountable difficulties which arose from the violation of Persian neutrality. The food providing provinces of Persia –such as Mazenderan, Gilan, Azerbaijan, Hamadan and Kirmanshahan—which were rich in corn, rice and other cereals, were unable to produce anything, owing to the lack of labour and the want of security: famine, that pitiless scourge, ruled over the greater part of the country and spread ruin and death among its people . . . . It is with deep emotion that we mention the high figure of our loss in man-power—a cruel loss of 300,000 men, massacred by the sword of the invader.” (Majd, “Great Famine & Genocide in Iran: 1917-1919,” p. 8)
In his 1934 biography of the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, Harold Nicolson, who had served as a British diplomat in Iran during the 1920s, wrote: “Persia, during the war, had been exposed to violations and sufferings not endured by any other neutral country.” (Majd, “Great Famine & Genocide in Iran,” p. 8, quoted from Nicolson, “George Curzon: The Last Phase,” 1934, p. 129)In a memorandum of August 13, 1941, the Chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, Wallace Smith Murray, wrote: “During the late World War, despite Iran’s declared neutrality, she was invaded by both the Great Powers, which resulted in untold misery to the Persian people. It is estimated that during the famine of 1917-1918, caused by the chaotic conditions of the country, approximately one third of the population perished.” (Majd, “Great Famine & Genocide in Iran,” p. 8).
In a note to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, dated August 21, 1941, which includes Iran’s reply to the Anglo-Russian ultimatum of August 16, 1941, the Iranian minister to Washington, Mohammad Schayesteh, wrote: “The Iranians remember with sorrow the great misfortunes of the last war, the unbelievable number of the population which died as a result of famine and epidemics caused by foreign interference in Iran.”(Majd, “Great Famine & Genocide in Iran,”pp. 8-9)
That virtually no one in the United States, and much of the overall West, would know about the famine in Iran is quite understandable. Britain controlled the news about the war and most of the American elite that shaped the news tended to be Anglophile. Once America entered the war, Britain was an ally. And World War I was considered a great moral crusade. It was the war to make the world safe for democracy; it was the war to save civilization. It was, in short, a Manichean war of good versus evil. Atrocities—real, exaggerated, or imagined–could only be attributed to members of the Central Powers. Thus, Germans supposedly engaged in the raping of nuns, the crucifixion of priests and the bayoneting of babies in their invasion and occupation of Belgium. And much was made of the Turks engaging in mass murder against the Armenians—an atrocity that has, in recent decades, been de-emphasized and debated in the United States as Turkey has become an American ally.
As the partisanship of World War I died down, no one in the United States really knew or cared much about the strange, faraway country of Iran. And Britain remained a close ally of America’s in the fight against the Axis and during the Cold War. Today as the American government and an American media (both heavily influenced by the Israel lobby) have presented U.S. war policy in the Middle East in a good versus evil dichotomy, the depiction of Iran as the victim at any time in its history would not mesh with current policy needs.
With the revolution in Russia in March 1917, the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky would forswear all concessions made to Tsarist Russia in Iran. The armistice agreement between Bolshevik Russia and the Central Powers was concluded on December 15, 1917, which included the provision that Russia would evacuate its forces from Iran, which did take place. (Martin Sicker, “The Bear and the Lion: Soviet Imperialism and Iran,”1988, p. 29.)
With the fall of the Central Powers in November 1918, however, Bolshevik Russia would state that the terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, which ended Russia’s war with those countries, were null and void, though continuing to profess that it did not have designs on Iran. Some of its actions, however, as we shall see, would soon belie this pledge of non-interference.
With Soviet Russia’s official departure, Britain was now by default the overwhelmingly dominant foreign influence in Iran. By virtue of this monopoly power and bribery, Britain was able to get the Iranian government to sign the Anglo-Iranian Agreement of 1919, which essentially would make Iran a protectorate of Britain. In return for a loan of two million pounds for the development of Iran’s railroad system (and also financial inducements to leading government officials), the treaty would give Britain a monopoly over the supply of arms, military training, infrastructure construction, and advisers for Iran. It also would have the sole right to develop a committee to revise the Iranian tariff–which would, of course, be to Britain’s advantage. Influenced by popular outcries by all segments of the Iranian population, the Majlis refused to ratify the treaty. Nonetheless, the British acted as if the treaty were in effect, as they shaped the Iranian army and developed a tariff law that favored British imports.
It should be pointed out that, during this period of British dominance, Soviet Russia, though pulling out its troops and officially renouncing the imperialist concessions held by the Tsarist government, did not lack interest in Iran. The new Bolshevik government, with its professed belief of world revolution, sought to spread radical revolution to Asia, including Iran, which was illustrated by the First Congress of the Peoples of the East, which was held in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, in September 1920.
After the collapse of Tsarist Russia, an Azerbaijan Democratic Republic came into being on May 28, 1918 in what had been part of the Russian Empire. It would be invaded by Soviet Russia on April 25, 1920 and in three days would be under the complete control of Moscow, though Soviet Russia retained the fiction that although Azerbaijan had become a Soviet state, it had remained independent.
The Baku Congress brought together Communists and radical nationalist forces in Asia and discussed a united effort between the two groups in support of national revolutions against foreign imperialism, though the Communists saw this as a necessary stage for the ultimate sovietization of these lands. Iran, in large part because of its proximity to the Indian subcontinent, was seen by a number of Russian Bolshevik thinkers as the key to the spread of radical revolution in Asia. For example, Konstantin Troyanovsky, in his book “Vostok i Revolutsiya” (“The East and the Revolution”), published in 1918, wrote: “The Persian revolution may become the key to the revolution of the whole Orient, just as Egypt and the Suez Canal are the key to English domination in the Orient . . . . The political conquest of Persia . . . is what we must accomplish first of all. This precious key to all other revolutions in the Orient must be in our hands, come what may.” (Quoted in Shireen Hunter, “Islam in Russia: The Politics of Identity and Security,” 2004, 316-17)
Soviet policy toward Iran thus would essentially run on two tracks. One track, reflecting the Communist’s official repudiation of traditional Western imperialism, consisted of establishing good official state-to-state relations between the Soviet government and the Iranian government, in which the latter was formally treated as an equal, sovereign nation. The other track involved support for the revolutionary nationalist movements in northern Iran closest to Soviet Russia, the most important of which was the Persian Socialist Soviet Republic (widely known as the Soviet Republic of Gilan) in the Iranian province of Gilan, which lasted from June 1920 until September 1921.
The densely forested mountainous region of Gilan and Mazanderan provinces along the shores of the Caspian Sea had been beyond the control of the Iranian government for some time. It was here that the Jangal (Jungle or Forest) movement arose, which was anti-Western, pan-Islamic, socially radical and fought against both the foreign occupiers and the Iranian government in Tehran. It was led by a charismatic land owner and Muslim cleric, Mirza Kouchek Khan. The Soviet conquest of what had been the Russian portion of Azerbaijan would serve as a springboard for moving into northern Iran. The Soviet army, which had departed Iran in 1919, would reappear there in 1920 at about the same time as preparations were being made for the Baku conference.
The reason given for this military action was to apprehend the remnants of the counterrevolutionary White army of Admiral Deniken, which had fled Russia after being defeated in the Russian Civil War and found sanctuary under British protection in the Gilan port city of Enceli on the Caspian Sea, which was not yet under the control of the Jingali secessionists.Claiming that the White army remained a threat to Soviet Russia, the Soviet army attacked. Facing a much superior force, the British retreated and the Whites once again fled. The Soviet army then would move through Gilan province and link up with Kouchek Khan’s Jingali.
Soviet Russia provided arms and soldiers to help Kouchek Khan in his revolutionary endeavor. By the end of 1920, his military force was so successful that it was preparing to march on Tehran. (Ervand Abrahamian, “Iran between Two Revolutions,” 1982, p. 116)
Faced with this threat from the military forces of the Soviet Republic of Gilan, with its large Soviet Russian contingent, along with discontent and rebelliousness in other parts of the country, a crisis feeling developed in Tehran among Iranian supporters of the national government and the British. Concerned about the weakness of the existing Iranian government and its seeming inability to suppress Soviet-backed revolutionaries, the British supported a coup d’état by a military officer named Reza Khan who entered Tehran on February 21, 1921 with a force of 3000 soldiers and seized control of the government, assuring the Shah that he took this action to protect the monarchy from revolution.
Meanwhile, in the Soviet Republic of Gilan, strong differences arose between the non-Communist Jangali and the Iranian Communist Party, causing Mirza Kouchek Khan to quit the government and withdraw with his group back into the forest.
The Communists now were in charge and, influenced by ideologues from Soviet Russia, tried to establish a full-scale dictatorship of the proletariat that soon alienated much of the local population.
However, at this time higher level officials in Moscow, including Lenin, saw this open support for revolutionary action in northern Iran as premature and counterproductive to the long-term success of world revolution. They were especially interested in improving state-to-state relations with non-communist states in order to strengthen Soviet Russia; for example, the Soviets were negotiating a loan from Britain, which could be undermined by such overt revolutionary action. (Sicker, p.43)
This new position of the Soviet Union and that of the new government of Iran under Reza Shah harmonized and they made a treaty of friendship, as the latter nullified the highly unpopular 1919 treaty with Britain (which had never been ratified by the Majlis). In the Soviet-Iranian Treaty of 1921, the Soviet Union pledged to withdraw its military forces from Gilan and officially cancelled the Iranian debt and concessions to the Tsarist regime. As quid pro quo, Iran guaranteed that its territory would not be used for attacks on the Soviet state.
From the Iranian perspective, there was one discordant note in this otherwise favorable treaty, for it granted the Soviet Russia the right to intervene in Iran if it considered events there to be threatening to its own national security. Obviously, this could be used by Soviet Russia not only to defend itself from counterrevolutionary threats but for offensive reasons as well. The possibility that the Soviets might use this provision to justify an attack on Iran was disturbing to members of the Iranian government and they demanded an explanation from the Soviet government, but they were willing to accept an unwritten, oral response that the Soviet Union would not intervene unless there were some overt military threat to its security. (Sicker, p. 44-45)
Lacking the critical support from the Red Army, the Soviet Republic of Gilan fell to the military forces of the Iranian government. And after the fall of the Gilan, the Communist Party of Iran would follow the Soviet party line and support the strengthening of the central government in Tehran, which was now perceived as being beneficial to the Soviet Russia. (Abrahamian, “Iran between Two Revolutions,” p. 128). In 1923, for example, while Reza was Prime Minister, the Comintern had praised him for “his progressive and anti-imperialist orientation.” (Quoted in Sicker, p. 47) Though an anti-Communist, Reza, as a nationalist, temporarily served Soviet interests because he sought to reduce British influence in southern Iran and the Persian Gulf—and the Soviet Union then regarded Britain as its primary foe. Moreover, heavy trade existed between the Soviet Union and Iran, with the Soviets being Iran’s major trading partner until 1939. But while the Soviet Union put aside its interest in Iranian territory for the present, it had not been abandoned and would resurface during World War II.
In voiding the (never ratified) Anglo-Iranian Agreement of 1919, the Iranian government placated the British by requesting that British advisers remain behind to help reorganize the Iranian army and civilian administration. Moreover, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), which was partly owned by the British government and a major provider of oil for the British Navy, still controlled the oil industry in southern Iran. This was about as much influence as Britain could expect to exercise since being deeply in debt from World War I, the British government, pursuing a policy of economic austerity, removed its troops from Iran in 1921.
Reza Khan gradually consolidated his power, ultimately proclaiming himself monarch in 1926 under the name Reza Shah Pahlavi. Reza Shah sought to establish a modern, centralized state, with Kemal Atatürk’s Turkey serving as a model. His programs helped to bring about improvements in agriculture, public health, education, transportation and industry and women’s rights while curtailing the power of the Islamic religious leaders. In achieving these ends, however, Reza Shah exercised ruthless, dictatorial powers, turning Iraq into a despotic state.
In regard to foreign relations, Reza Shah sought a modern industrial third party state to serve as an economic counterweight to the Soviet Union and Britain, both of whom he regarded as threats to Iranian sovereignty, despite the existence of treaties of amity. His first choice was the United States, but it did not show much interest. After that he looked to Germany, which had shown interest in Iran since the first decade of the twentieth century.
Nazi Germany responded positively. Germany certainly sought profitable commercial relations with any country, especially one open to large scale investment such as Iran. Furthermore, Iran could provide the oil which Germany desperately needed. Moreover, economic connections could be used to enhance German political and military interests. Iran provided a strategic location from which German agents could stir up oppressed Muslim and other Third World nationalities under the control of the Soviet and British empires. Consequently, by the eve of World War II, Germany had become Iran’s largest trading partner. And an influx of German technicians and consultants had entered the country.
On September 4, 1939, three days after the war commenced, Iran officially declared its neutrality. And five days after Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on June 21, 1941, Iran reaffirmed its neutrality in the conflict.
Nonetheless, Soviet and the British troops invaded Iran on August 25, 1941, on the grounds that Iran was harboring German agents. Reza Shah appealed to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt under the idealistic Atlantic Charter, which Roosevelt (and Churchill) piously claimed would be the basis for the future world order, and which included such ideals as the protection of smaller and weaker countries from the powerful. The U.S., however, failed to respond positively to the Shah’s request and, without any outside support, the limited resistance put forth by Iran was overwhelmed by Soviet and British forces in less than a week.
Shortly after the invasion, Reza Shah, being perceived as pro-German, was pressured to abdicate and was replaced by his son Mohammed, only 21 years old, and a constitutional monarchy was reestablished. Political parties were allowed to operate and a multitude of parties arose reflecting various segments of the Iranian population. The removal of Reza Shah “unleashed pent-up social grievances” that could not be expressed during his reign. (Ervand Abrahamian, “Iran between Two Revolutions,”1982, p. 169) However, while elections took place, Iranian government officials were not allowed to interfere with the rule of the occupying powers.
While using the alleged existence of numerous German agents to justify the invasion, Britain and the Soviet Union had decided to occupy Iran for multiple reasons. Iran was a major producer of oil, which the Allies wanted to exploit and concomitantly prevent Germany from accessing. Furthermore, in a region seething with anti-colonial passions, Allied control of Iran would serve to protect India, which was an indispensable cog in the British Empire. And most importantly, Iran provided a secure conduit for sending vital war supplies to the beleaguered Soviet Union, which had very few other access routes, and none as viable.
Although Britain and Russia guaranteed Iran’s sovereignty, they took over most significant functions of the country, many of which had heretofore been in private hands. First, they exercised control of all political institutions in their respective zones. And important economic activities—such as banking, oil production, and transportation—fell under their dominion. Furthermore, the occupying powers commandeered food products, fuel, and other essentials, causing famine in the land—though nothing comparable to the human catastrophe that took place during World War I. Once again, Iran was being used as a mere instrument for the interests of foreign countries.
Now it might be assumed that the Allies were fighting for the universal interests of all humanity (the “Good War” concept), and that this took precedence over Iranian sovereignty and its rights as a neutral—that Iran should have willingly acquiesced to this greater good. But it needs to be pointed out that the United States never accepted this concept when it was a weak country and the great powers of that day violated American neutral rights in order to purportedly advance some higher principles. The United States was not even willing to accept a curtailment of its right to trade with belligerents, much less accede to an occupation by foreign countries.
For example, republican France in the 1790s saw itself fighting for the rights of mankind and expected support (though not demanding direct military involvement) from its fellow republic, the United States, in its war of survival against the monarchical powers of Europe; but no such support was forthcoming, even though the two countries had a formal “perpetual” alliance concluded during the American Revolutionary War, in which France had played a major role in bringing about American independence. Instead, the United States, emphasizing its rights as a neutral, continued to trade with monarchical Britain and ultimately fought an undeclared naval war with France—the Quasi-War, 1798-1800—because of French naval efforts to interfere with that wartime trade.
Similarly, during the Napoleonic wars, Britain presented itself as fighting for ordered liberty and the independence of other countries against Napoleon’s tyrannical effort to control Europe, but the United States claimed the right to trade with France, opposing British naval interference, and ultimately going to war with Britain in 1812— a war that lasted until the end of 1814—thus from the British perspective, aiding Napoleon.
The Tehran Conference (28 November to 1 December 1943), which was the first of the major World War II conferences in which the leaders of the three main Allied powers– Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill—met together, focused on the broad issues of the war and the future peace, but also included a declaration that they all shared a “desire for the maintenance of the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Iran.”
Stalin, however, had somewhat different plans for Iran. As the German threat to the Soviet Union receded, the Soviets virtually sealed off the northern provinces from officials from Britain, the United States, and even Iran. After 1942 no member of the foreign media was allowed to enter the Soviet zone to report on conditions there. Moreover, the Soviet Union gave open support to the Communist Party of Iran, which used the press to promote pro-Soviet propaganda, a considerable proportion of which attacked the Iranian government in Tehran. It would justify its control of Iranian territory by citing the 1921 treaty with Iran that gave it the right to intervene in Iran in order to protect its own security. (Sicker, pp. 61-80)
When the war ended, the U.S. and Britain would withdraw their troops from Iran, but Soviet forces would remain. Moreover, the Soviet Union was organizing separatist movements in its northern zone that could be used to declare independence and join the Azerbaijan SSR
“Decree of the CC CPSU Politburo to Mir Bagirov CC Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, ‘Measures to Organize a Separatist Movement in Southern Azerbaijan and Other Provinces of Northern Iran'” July 06, 1945, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive,
“Secret Soviet Instructions on Measures to Carry out Special Assignments
Throughout Southern Azerbaijan and the Northern Provinces of Iran in an
Attempt to set the basis for a separatist movement in Northern Iran.,” July
14, 1945, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive,
Thus, the Soviets installed the Communist Cafer Pisaveri as the head of the secessionist Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, which declared its independence on December 12, 1945. Pisaveri had played a role in the Republic of Gilan of the post-World War I years and later found refuge in the Soviet Union during part of the interwar period. (Sicker, pp. 70-71) Pisaveri was Communist and, despite an Azeri nationalist inclination, saw the revolutionary government in Azerbaijan as the first step toward Communist revolution throughout the rest of Iran. (M. Reza Ghods, “Iran in the Twentieth Century,” 1989, p. 172)
Also supported by the Soviet Union, a Kurdish independence movement emerged in the region around the town of Mahabad in northwestern Iran, and in December 1945, a Kurdish Peoples Republic was established there under Soviet auspices. (p. 71, Sicker) The Kurdish Peoples Republic’s emphasis was on Kurdish nationalism rather than on Communism with the establishment of Kurdish as the national language. Although there was redistribution of unoccupied land, the republic lacked the social radicalism that would loom large in the Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan.
Although these secessionist regimes had substantial support from their inhabitants, at least in their early stages, archival evidence shows that the Soviet Union was directly behind the development of these governments and was necessary for their perpetuation.
“New Evidence on the Iran Crisis 1945-46,” http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/CWIHPBulletin12-13_p4_0.pdf
It should be observed that the Soviet Union was following its usual modus operandi toward the two secessionist states. In most of central and eastern Europe occupied by the Red Army after World War II, Communist regimes and societies were not established immediately but came into being by a gradual process, so that this would not indicate the lack of Soviet control of the two secessionist states nor the Soviet Union’s ultimate goal of sovietization.
The United States and Britain started to become deeply disturbed by the Soviet actions in northern Iran and supported efforts on the part of the Iranian government to reestablish its control in those break-away areas. However, when Iranian military forces tried to move into Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, they were blocked by Soviet forces.
On January 19, 1946, Iran lodged a complaint to the newly-established United Nations Security Council that the Soviet Union was aiding the Azeri and Kurdish secessionists and thus was illegally interfering in Iran’s internal affairs. The Soviet Union responded that it was simply acting in accord with the Soviet-Iranian Treaty of 1921, which gave it the right to intervene if there were threats coming from Iran, and thus it was legal for its military to remain there to protect Azerbaijan’s petroleum, which, it claimed, was endangered
After lengthy negotiations, the Iranian government and the Soviet Union made a sweeping agreement in which the Soviets would receive a 51% share of the petroleum in northern Iran in exchange for the withdrawal of its troops from Iran. The agreement also stated that the Soviets would establish joint petroleum companies with Iran and accept the secessionist uprisings as strictly Iranian domestic matters in which it would not interfere. The oil agreement, however, would not be put into effect until after its approval by the Iranian Majlis.
Believing that it had received what it wanted, the Soviet Union started to withdraw its troops from Iran on May 9, 1946. Without Soviet military support, the secessionist regimes, against which large-scale popular rebellions had broken out, surrendered to the Iranian government in December 1946. (M. Reza Ghods, “Iran in the Twentieth Century,” 1989, p. 175)
During this time period, elections took place in Iran and the newly-elected Majlis wasn’t able to come together effectively until 1947 to vote on the oil agreement with the Soviet Union. The U.S. government, fearful of Soviet control of Iranian petroleum, informed Iran that if it would reject the petroleum agreement, and the Soviet Union then pressured and made threats against it, America would come to its defense. With this pledge of protection, the Majlis refused to ratify the Soviet oil agreement on October 22, 1947 by the overwhelming vote of 102 to 2.
The Soviet Union essentially accepted this decision, although not without strong threats and some minor hostile acts toward Iran. The reason for Stalin not doing more is beyond the purview of this essay. But it can be briefly stated that Stalin, at that time, apparently did not want to intensify anti-Soviet feeling in the United States or Iran, because of the negative impact this would have on other objectives deemed more important than the petroleum agreement, and that the ultimate unpopularity of the secessionist governments in northern Iran would have made their restoration much more difficult than their initial creation.
The history of the twentieth century has clearly illustrated that Iran has been forced to relinquish its sovereign rights in order to serve the needs and desires of other, more powerful nations, often couched in the name of some universal good, and that it has suffered severely as a consequence. It is thus understandable why Iran would resist this approach at the present, and expect to have the same rights as those who would try to place restrictions on theirs, with the United States and Israel being the major countries currently taking this anti-Iranian stance.
Furthermore, while the past suffering of Jews is continually mentioned in the West and is often used to justify special privileges for Israel—for instance, its right to have a Jewish supremacist state and nuclear weapons—the past suffering of Iran caused by other countries is completely ignored and thus plays no part in international decision-making today.
Simple justice would seem to dictate that the United States change its current approach and allow all countries to have the same sovereign rights as guaranteed by international law—no more and no less.
ARTICLE ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MYCATBIRDSEAT