Foreign Relations and Foreigners in Iran Under the Pahlavis

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals.


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In 1949 and 1950, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas travelled to the Middle East to examine why revolution was sweeping the region. Nicknamed “Marco-Polo Douglas” due to his passion for travel and exploration, his visit became the first of several travelogues. On both trips Douglas travelled extensively in Iran, developing a passion for the country and its people. He remained a high-profile advocate of democracy in Iran and staunch critic of American policy until his death in 1980.

This paper analyzes the development of Douglas’s vision towards Iran as well as his relations with numerous American and Iranian officials. His trips coincided with the transition of US foreign policy from support for democracy in Iran in the early 1940s, to fear of Communist encroachment and support for firm authoritarian rule. Against such a transition, Douglas argued that if the United States focused on democracy rather than the unpopular Shah, Iran could eventually become a modern developed state that naturally allied with the West. In siding with the Shah, Douglas warned that America was seriously “misunderstanding its problem in that part of the world,” and claimed that US policy would lead to “one of the greatest crises…in modern history.”

Douglas’s call for caution proved prescient as American support for the 1953 coup continues to hamper US policy in the region to this day. Moreover, prolonged American support for the Shah culminated in an uncontrollable revolution and the loss of Iran as a Western ally. His alternative approach, based on positive action rather than the negative stance of anti-Communism, called for a greater understanding of the people of Iran, its tribes, institutions, and culture. Social reconstruction, in particular land reform and mass education, he argued, could achieve American goals much better than support for authoritarianism. Regularly touted as a candidate for secretary of state, vice-president, and even the presidency, Douglas’s story highlights an alternative and important strain in American politics that steadfastly opposed American policy towards Iran in the 20th century. His strongly held beliefs were precisely those missing in US policy formulation between 1950 and 1979. Moreover, his assertion that Iran needed “to be known more intimately by the West” remains just as important today as America continues to struggle in its relations with Iran. Reexamining and building on Douglas’s views on Iran will be instructive to those interested in US-Iranian relations in both the 20th and 21st centuries.

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In May 1921 Reza Khan, the leader of the Iranian 1921 coup d'état later known as Rezā Shāh Pahlavi, decided to remove from office Seyyed Zia'eddin Tabatabaei, his partner in the coup d'état and Iranian Prime Minister. The pro-British Tabatabaei was invited by the British regime in Palestine to stay there during his exile, and he established an agricultural farm near the village of Beit Hanoun.
During the Second World War, Tabatabaei returned to Iran and appointed his friend Jamil Zand Irani as his representative in Palestine.
In October 1948, during Operation "Yo'av", the soldiers of the "Yiftach" Brigade took over the Tabatabaei farm. Following the battles the farm buildings were damaged and most of the owner's property disappeared.
In contrast to other refugees, Tabatabaei and Zand Irani decided to demand compensation from the Israeli government. Tabatabaei, then Mohammad-Reza Shāh's candidate for Prime Minister, arranged for an Iranian semi-official delegation to be sent to Israel . This delegation was to take care of the interests of Iranian citizens who had fled Palestine before the war and had become refugees in the Arab states, and more specifically--to look after Tabatabaei's interests.
Taking advantage of the chaos and lack of leadership of the new Israeli administration, the Iranian delegation succeeded in obtaining an Israeli approval for the return of Iranian refugees, for the restitution of their properties and compensation for their losses sustained during the war. These actions were the basis for the official Iranian recognition of the state of Israel, and the first step in the Israeli-Iranian relations.

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On the First of September 1962 a 7.1 Richter scale earthquake shuttered Iran's rural province of Qazvin, causing casualties of over 10,000 people. For the Israeli agriculture minister, Moshe Dayan, it could not have come in a worse time. He was supposed to arrive in the middle of September for meetings with his Iranian counterpart and the Shah to discuss Israel's offer to consult for the Shah's "White Revolution". The meeting had to be postponed due to the natural disaster, yet Dayan saw the destruction of hundreds of villages as an opportunity. He believed it was contingent for Israel to become much more involved in Iran's modernization project. In rebuilding the region he presumed Israel could demonstrate its know-how in planning and development, which would lead to stronger relations between the states and many future projects.
Ten days later two Israeli experts, one of them an architect, arrived at Qazvin at the expense of the State of Israel. Soon after, they met with the Iranian minister in charge of the region's reconstruction who approved their plans for rebuilding the villages on spot. The Israeli team started to build villages immediately. This pilot project led to a UN financed plan in which Israel sent a multi-disciplinary team of experts, architects among them, to prepare a comprehensive regional plan for the devastated area. The team modeled the Qazvin plan after a regional development plan recently completed in Israel, in which almost all team members took part.
Based on interviews with team members, state archival materials and contemporary newspapers' articles, this paper explores the project of planning and rebuilding Qazvin rural region by the Israeli team. It reveals that Israeli architects fully assimilated Israel's vision, a vision it shared with the Shah, to create a new and different Middle East – more modern, more Western, less Arab. Although the architects used a high modernist planning method created for Israel’s internal colonization, they did adjust their practice to locale and more importantly to the locals. Nonetheless the State of Israel was not only assisting the Shah's "mission civilicatrice" in Iran's rural region, it was also staking a foothold in Iran through architecture, using the architects as agents.

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The American Peace Corps operated in Iran from 1962 to 1976. By the end of the program, 1,748 Americans had served in Iran on educational, agricultural, environmental, and urban planning projects. Despite the significance of the Peace Corps in US-Iran relations, no scholarly studies have addressed this topic at length. Prominent works, such as Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s All You Need is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s (1998) and Fritz Fischer’s Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s (1998), mention the Iran case only in passing. Relying on US government and Peace Corps documents, oral histories and memoirs of Peace Corps volunteers and the Iranians with whom they worked, this paper will examine the motives, experiences, contributions and legacy of the Peace Corps in Iran. It will begin with a discussion of the projects that Peace Corps volunteers and their Iranian host communities tackled together during the 1960s and 1970s. The second section examines the testimonies and memoirs of Iran Peace Corps volunteers, as well as interviews with Iranians who developed personal and professional relationships with them. The conclusion explores the overall meaning of the Peace Corps experience to both Iranians and Americans, as well as what that legacy might mean today in terms of broader social, cultural, and diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S.

This paper argues that the experiences of American Peace Corps volunteers and the Iranians they served promoted a new spirit of dialogue and understanding between the two groups. Although not devoid of misunderstandings and resentments, this interaction between Americans and Iranians was free from military, financial, and political complications and emphasized person-to-person contacts. In looking at the Peace Corps experience in Iran, we can gain valuable insights into both Iranian and American culture and their interaction in the late twentieth century. American volunteers joined the organization out of a sincere desire to serve abroad and alleviate poverty and underdevelopment. However, their living conditions, work, and relationships with Iranians forced them to reevaluate previously held assumptions about so-called backward nations, creating a new understanding of the world and helping point American culture in new directions in its understanding of other societies. For some Peace Corps volunteers, service in Iran sparked a lifetime of study and travel to the Middle East and facilitated their careers as scholars and diplomats engaged with Iran and the broader region.