This collection of 10,000 pages in 13 volumes has been selected with the intention of examining in detail the political developments within Iran and the changes in Iranian policy that resulted from movements in the balance of power during the Second World War. It forms the first part of a forthcoming series tracing the political development of modern Iran through contemporary documents.
The period 1941–1946 is a significant and complex one. These key documents draw together despatches, letters, telegrams, reports, minutes and records of meetings from many disparate British Government files to give a full record of Iran during the period of World War II, detailing Iran’s relations with Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Turkey and the USA during this critical period.
The documents begin by tracing the tensions surrounding the tolerance shown by Shah Reza Pahlevi to Axis activities in Iran and the pressures and events that led to his abdication in favour of his son, Mohamed Reza Pahlevi. The part played by the new Shah is documented against a background of the political intrigues of the ruling élites, elections to the Majlis during a period which saw no fewer than nine Prime Ministers, and ultimately the loss of control of Central Government over the regions.
Extensive coverage is given to Allied concerns over the protection of supply routes to the USSR, British concerns for the protection and security of her oil interests, propaganda planning as food shortages led to riots and disturbances and a resultant increase in anti-British sentiment, providing an opportunity the Soviet Union was quick to exploit. Anglo-Soviet tensions are described as the Soviet Union sought to extend its influence in the north, for example by preventing Government troops from entering Azerbaijan to quell the riots of 1946. In May 1946 the documents decribe the much-disputed withdrawal of Soviet troops finally taking place, allowing Iran to emerge from the war as a fully independent nation, and shedding light on the nature of British–US–Soviet relations at the start of the Cold War.
W. Churchill, Prime Minister, London to Foreign Secretary , 25 October 1942
“I cannot help feeling that this is a squalid business. We have overrun Persia by force and made her into an ally. All we do for her is to wheedle and extract such few arms as her troops have. Why should we now make a fight for this small packet of rifles, and even threaten force? This policy of disarming his army will offend the Shah very much. We ought, on the contrary, to try and build up the Persian army and offer instructors and make them into a more effective fighting force.”
Colonel R. Schomberg, British Legation, Tehran, 1 May 1943
“ …Here, in Persia, things go from bad to worse…The fact is there is no government at all. We took away the old shah, who, with all his faults (and they were many), did govern…The old Shah had established security in the land. That has gone: the roads in the tribal areas are as unsafe as of yore. No one trusts the rogues who form the cabinet. The currency is suspect. There is no food, as most of it is hoarded, and the elegant method of western democracy and the interested apathy of the Persian government are never going to induce the owners to disgorge.
Prices are fabulous…This means death to the large bulk of the people… We blandly say to the unhappy ill-clad under-nourished population.. that they have their own government and must carry on, after we have put as many spanners in the machinery as we very well can...
There is then the future of Persia to be considered. It can only be Bolshevism or British Imperialism. I see no via media …”
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Saadabad, to Prime Minister W. Churchill, 3 August 1943
“…I am convinced that the time is now ripe for a much clearer policy towards Iran, a firm confident, understanding conducive to the safeguarding of our mutual vital interests. … I feel sure that with the cordial friendship of your government much can be achieved at a critical juncture to afford relief to Iran and to enable her to reap the benefit of the very considerable contribution she has unstintingly made to the allied cause.”
Prime Minister W. Churchill, London to President Roosevelt, Washington, 21 May 1944
“…General [Hurley] seems to have some ideas about British imperialism which I confess make me rub my eyes. He makes out, for example, that there is an irrepressible conflict between imperialism and democracy. I make bold, however, to suggest that British imperialism has spread and is spreading democracy more widely than any other system of government since the beginning of time…It is true that we, like the United States, are inevitably concerned about our strategic supplies of oil…From the same security point of view, we have responsibilities which we cannot at present abandon for the western frontier of India and the eastern frontier of Iraq. Apart from this, we have the same wartime interest as the United States in the safety of the trans-Persian supply route to Russia. For all these reasons we want a strong and friendly Government in Persia and have no wish to see foreign zones of influence. In short we are certainly no less interested than the United States in encouraging Persian independence, political efficiency and national reform…”
Sir R. Bullard, British Ambassador, Tehran to Foreign Office, 11 July, 1945
“There are many signs that the Russians are making a tremendous effort to obtain virtual mastery over this country before the moment of evacuation arrives…I have as yet no confirmation of recent reports that Tudeh are forming Soviets in Resht, Tobriz and elsewhere in the north but their complete independence of control is shown by the fact, witnessed recently by our press attaché… that Tudeh agents wearing arm bands setting out their functions search all vehicles leaving for the south and confiscate all rice found in them.”
The occupation of a sovereign and neutral state by the Allies, besides receiving contemporary criticism, has been much debated by scholars, and documents in Volume 1 trace this important issue in considerable detail. Because of Iran’s strategic position in maintaining the flow of war supplies to Russia, and the presence of a considerable number of Germans, Italians and Japanese (some of whom were pursuing legitimate business), combined with the Shah’s sympathetic attitude towards the Axis powers, the decision was taken by the Soviet Union and Great Britain that Iran could not be left to fall under Axis influence...
A series of crises of internal security proved to be a dominant theme in 1942. The Axis nationals had not as yet been successfully removed from Iran and the Japanese Legation remained open in 1942. A planned coup, the ‘Isfahan Plot’, was uncovered in November involving large-scale sabotage and the encouragement of tribal revolts. However, when General Zahedi, among other key figures, was arrested in December 1942, riots and demonstrations broke out in Tehran. The Soviet manipulation of the situation in the north contributed to the chaos, for example by supplying arms to Kurdish factions in the hope they would be used against the Turks...
Intrigues and internal plots against the state continued in 1943, but these were set against a deepening crisis of government. These political problems, caused by inflation and shortages, led to the extreme unpopularity of the British in Iran, while the Soviets were acquiring prestige. The British Government decided to stop supporting the Soviet Union in propaganda terms, and overt Anglo-Soviet rivalry began to dominate policy. When elections to the Majlis were held there was much lobbying by the British, in the strong belief that as long as WWII lasted they were entitled to use their influence to prevent the election of elements which were directly associated with the enemy. There seemed much confusion over election procedure as well as concerns over Russian interference, but there was an excitement in the new permissiveness and several new parties fielded candidates including the Tudeh (Proletariat) Party; Melat (Nation) Party; Hamrahan (Socialist) Party; New Iran Group (Royalist) Party; Iran Javan (Young Iran) Party; and Mihan Parestan (“Patriot”) Party…
Although no single outstanding event marks 1944, there was continued Soviet support for internal agitation, with particular attention directed against Seyyid Zia and his new party, as well as the encouragement of separatist tendencies, especially through undermining of the police and gendarmerie in Azerbaijan. When the press attachée of the British Embassy attempted to tour through Kurdistan to assess its separatist tendencies in October, she was briefly arrested by Soviet authorities. Disturbances in Kurdistan in October 1944 resulted in a crisis when the Russians refused to allow the Iranian central government to send troops to Kurdish areas on the Turkish frontier. The volatile situation was monitored by the British in some detail – the British Consul undertook a tour of western Azerbaijan, for instance, in the midst of these troubles. However, such was the Soviet control of the region that they were able to force the expulsion of local officials in the north who were opposed to the Tudeh Party, the nurturing of which was a key platform of Soviet policy, with Stalin’s support. The Tudeh were now in such ascendancy that it was they who issued passes to cross the frontier, not the military authorities nor the Persian governor…
Increasingly the unruly northern provinces moved away from the authority of the central government, culminating in a declaration of independence by the Azerbaijan National Committee in December 1945. The rebels were well-armed, and the Iranian government, fearing the revolt would spread, made strenuous efforts, including at the Moscow Conference, to garner international support. For a time the Azerbaijan National Committee effectively ruled the region, with Russia in the background. Finally sufficient pressure was exerted on the Soviet Union, including American charges of obstruction, and Soviet support was withdrawn…
The despatch of the foreign presence remained the major concern for the Iranian government in 1946. In early January the Iranian Prime Minister formally raised the issue of the Allied withdrawal with the British Ambassador. The British Government sought international support to help evict the Russians, pressing the Americans and pointing out that any reneging on the terms of the 1943 treaty would be seen to undermine the moral position of the Allies. However, the Iranians were unable to press the Soviets to evacuate their troops from the northern zone, and, against British advice, decided to bring the matter to the attention of the Security Council of the United Nations, although this was dropped in early May. The Russian departure was finally begun in April, and completed during May 1946, coinciding with the completion of an agreement for an oil concession between the two governments. However, this was not ratified by the Majlis, which was to prove significant later. Perhaps most important of all for Iran itself was the passage of the Oil Nationalisation Bill through the Majlis, introduced by Dr Mussadeq, which laid the foundation for the future Anglo-Iranian crisis with its profound effect on the oil industry throughout the world…