Persian Capers: Foreign Intelligence and Spying in Iran in the 19th-20th Centuries. Part I.

This panel is the first part of a sequence of two panels structured around the notion that secret intrigues and intelligence played at least as significant a role in the modern history of Iran’s relationship with foreign powers -- including Britain, Russia and Germany -- as did public diplomatic encounters. Whereas the history of Iran's relations with these countries has been significantly explored, many details of the secret deals and spying remain to be exposed. As the papers make clear, it is often difficult to draw a line between what is “open” and secret, myth and reality, in great power diplomacy. Even though the papers bring in a number of new, predominantly archival, sources on Iranian history, there will always remain an element of mystery in the clandestine activities of foreigners in Iran. The papers in these panels engage these issues from a variety of perspectives -- examining individual spies and intelligence operations -- and together they paint a rich tableau of the multifaceted role British, Russian/Soviet and German nationals have played in modern Iranian history.

This panel centers on the diplomatic intrigues of Russians/Soviets, British and Germans. The first paper will focus on the British side of the deadly attack on the Russian embassy in Tehran in 1829 and will argue that a “wrong gambit” of the Russian envoy, Alexander Griboedov, in close alliance with his British counterpart, Col. John Kinneir MacDonald, was among the main reasons leading to the tragic demise of both men. The second paper considers the WWII period and will demonstrate that the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941 was purely the result of secret British-Soviet intrigues and the rivalry of the two powers for influence in Iran. The third paper will explain how Soviet intelligence outplayed its German counterpart and won the Kurds’ support prior to and during the Soviet invasion of northern Iran in August 1941. The fourth paper will expose the “slick intrigues” of British officials in 1946, including hidden dealings, deceits and promises, as they struggled to undermine Tudeh influence among the striking Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) workers.


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In May 1946, a few hundred Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) workers under the leadership of the Tudeh Party went on strike, sparking a serious energy and labour crisis in Iran. This was the first open instance that the Tudeh directly challenged British interests in the country. The Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran had run into complications after the Red Army decided to remain longer, purportedly to protect the newly formed governments in Tabriz and Mahabad. The war in Europe had ended, with Britain emerging exhausted, and economically drained. The Tudeh had been a reliable anti-Fascist front during the occupation but had now become a player to be reckoned with. Coupled with the party’s close alignment with the Soviets, their influence amongst the oil workers was regarded as a considerable threat.

Lasting well in to October, the strikes and long disputes are a fairly well remembered episode in recent Iranian history. And although a conclusion was eventually reached, the intrigues the British and AIOC made have not been told. My paper will shine the spotlight on how the British officials broke the Tudeh in the south mainly through hidden dealings, lies and promises. Privately the British acknowledged Tudeh influence and recommendations but knew that it was absolutely necessary to crush the party’s influence and prominence. The British implemented a multi-pronged approach against the Tudeh. They initially tried to counter Tudeh-inspired demands by getting the AIOC to (un)subtly mimic them. These somewhat tame solutions eventually gave in to more backhanded dealings when they began secretly negotiating and making various promises with local players. Finally when these methods proved ineffective, the British looked to more covert methods such as counter propaganda, counterfeiting Tudeh pamphlets, and more aggressive solutions such as getting Tehran to arrest Tudeh ringleaders, and moving British troops closer to protect the oil.

This episode during the Khuzistan strikes provides a unique insight into the more clandestine methods and closed dealings the British made to counter threats and further interests. I will show this by a close examination and analysis of the Foreign Office and British Embassy correspondence from the period of the strikes. This clear clash with their public persona of wanting to protect Iranian sovereignty and independence reveals a penchant for intrigue and subterfuge. This paper will provide an exclusive behind the scenes look into British actions and policies in Iran.

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This paper will reveal some previously unknown facts about the role of the USSR and Great Britain in the resignation of Reza Shah (1925-1941) in September 1941 in favour of his son Mohammad Reza (19411979).
The importance of the events of August September 1941 when the armies of the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded neutral Iran on a relatively hollow pretext is difficult to overestimate. These developments not only opened a new page in the history of Iran and its quest for freedom and democracy which ended up with the emergence of the National Front and the nationalization of Iranian oil. Yet, our knowledge about this period is still limited and full of blank spots. The lack of information about those events is largely determined by the fact that till the end of the Cold War they remained hostage to the ideological confrontation between the USSR and its allies, on one hand, and the West, on the other. None of these adversaries wanted to acknowledge that the occupation of Iran was the result of Soviet and British ambitions that had little to do with the neutralization of the Nazi threat in Iran. Doing so would have damaged their image on the post-World War II international arena.
However, with the fall of the USSR and the gradual declassification of the Soviet archival documents related to the period 1939 1945, new primary sources became available to the public. Now, they allow shedding more light on the Russian and British role in the events of August September 1941, the resignation of the first monarch in the Pahlavi dynasty and the ascendance of his son to the Iranian throne in September 1941. The recent studies of Russian archival documents show that the abdication of the Shah was purely the result of secret British-Soviet intrigues and the rivalry of the two powers for the influence in Iran. Both the British and Soviets mistrusted Reza Shah and strived to replace him with a more reliable and controllable figure. The British government intended to restore the Qajar dynasty whereas the Soviet authorities offered to establish a democratic republic in Iran. Both sides were insisting on their model of the future Iranian government. Under these circumstances, Mohammad Reza Shah suddenly became a compromise figure, and the Pahlavi dynasty was accidently saved.

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The paper will focus on the archival and published documents dealing with the British side of the event that is still very sensitive for the history of diplomacy in all three countries concerned: Russia, Iran and Britain, namely the attack of the Russian embassy in Tehran on 11 February 1829 and the massacre of its staff, including the newly appointed envoy, Alexander Griboedov.

The main reason has always been associated with Griboedov’s involvement in drafting the Turkmanchay Treaty, according to which Persia lost its important Caucasian territories, which caused the greatest national humiliation of Persia, while Griboedov became a symbol of Russian colonial policy in the region. His ambitions plans to establish in Georgia and the newly annexed lands the so-called Russian Trans-Caucasian Company, which would follow the patterns of the two existing Russian colonies in California and Siberia and even more so the English East India Company famous for its exceptionally independent status. These intentions were reflected in his proposal submitted to the Tsar only several months before the massacre.

My paper will argue that one of the main reasons for the Tehran tragedy was Griboedov’s close relationship with his British counterpart envoy, John Kinneir MacDonald, Colonel of the East India Company and his brother Captain Ronald MacDonald. They both enjoyed the support and patronage of John Malcolm, Governor of Bombay and his wife Charlotte, the sister of John MacDonald’s wife Amelia, both daughters of Alexander Campbell, commander-in-chief at Madras. This friendship with the British envoy, who was residing in Tabriz, reinforced the hostility towards Griboedov of MacDonald’s opponents in the British Legation in Tehran, namely the first secretary Henry Willock, his brother George and Dr John McNeill, the most influential British diplomat at the court of Fath Ali Shah.

It was the wrong gambit in this round of the Great Game, when two envoys representing rival states were playing against their compatriots in Tehran, Tabriz, London and St Petersburg, which brought both of them to the tragic endspiel, when the brothers Willock and McNeill overcame the brothers MacDonald, sisters Campbell and Griboedov.

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This paper analyzes the struggle of Soviet intelligence to neutralize German agents in Iranian Kurdistan during WWII. The author presents the reasons for the collapse of the German Command’s plans for winning the Kurds over to their side, arguing that among the leaders of the Kurdish national liberation movement, Soviet propaganda for Threatened Peoples was significantly more effective than Goebbels's thesis about the "revolutionary war" of the Third Reich for the freedom of the peoples of the East. Nazi theories purporting the shared Aryan origins of the Germans and the Persians offended the national dignity of the Kurds and undermined any potential for Nazi Germany to become attractive to those fighting for an independent Kurdistan. The countermeasures of Soviet intelligence also played an important role: well-trained agents were sent among the Kurdish tribes disseminate propaganda, and establish contacts with tribal leaders. These measures were taken immediately after the German invasion of the USSR.
This paper leverages materials previously unknown to historians, including documents from the Foreign Policy Archives of the Russian Federation and the Central Archives of the Ministry of Defense, in order to shed light on these events and to lift the veil on the secret intrigues of the Nazis in Iranian Kurdistan.