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

This panel is the second 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, much about the secret deals and spying remains to be exposed. As the papers make clear, it is often hard 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.

This panel’s focus is Russian and Soviet intelligence agents in Iran. The first paper will analyze the enigmatic figure of Seraia Shapshal (1873-1961), a Russian citizen who became highly influential at the highest levels of the Qajar court: although Edward G. Browne branded him as a “Russian spy,” his Russian contemporaries – both diplomats and intelligence officers – treated him with great suspicion. The second paper will argue that the real person behind the well-known Soviet writer Haji-Murat Magometovich Muguev is the Russian Intelligence officer Boris Afanasievich Muguev. He served as a translator in the Expeditionary Cavalry Corps of General N.N.Baratov in Iran during WWI and took part in the famous 1916 cavalry raid by V.D.Gamalei's Cossack detachment into Mesopotamia -- and later reflected these experiences in his literary works. The third paper will trace the paths of two young Iranian women who studied in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s and then engaged in clandestine work for the communist cause back in Iran: they lived modest lives, secretly passing information or smuggled documents while working in the open to improve living conditions for the Iranian people. The fourth presentation will compare the controversial story of the legendary Soviet spy Gevork Vartanian (1924-2012) who is credited with foiling the Nazi plot to assassinate Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt during the 1943 Tehran Allies conference – as it is reflected in the notable Soviet-French movie Tehran-43 (1981) and as it emerges from multiple interviews, documentaries and publications.


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This presentation treats the controversial story of the legendary Soviet spy Gevork Vartanian (1924-2012) who is credited with foiling the Nazi plot to assassinate, or abduct, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt during the 1943 Tehran Allies conference. Vartanian and Gohar, his wife of 66 years, were exceptionally successful foreign intelligence agents. Starting with Iran, they worked in more than 80 countries. The paper will compare the images inspired by them in the notable Soviet-French movie Tehran-43 (1981) to the facts as they emerge from multiple interviews, documentaries, and publications.

Tehran-43 presents an assassination attempt paralleled by a romance between the Soviet agent Andrei and the French-Russian woman Marie. The movie features Alain Delon (as a French detective in 1980) and a hit song by Charles Aznavour, "Une Vie D'amour." Gevork and Gohar treated the movie with gentle humor. Gohar commented: “We were different [from the movie heroes] and foiled the German agents without Alain Delon.” Her husband explained that the Nazi attempt to reach the British embassy through the underground water canals was real though the movie had “too much shooting and [other] nonsense.”

Vartanian was inspired by the example of his father, a Soviet agent who in 1930 was moved from the Soviet Union to Iran. In 1940, at 16, Gevork became agent “Amir.” In several years, his group of Soviet ex-patriot youths known as “light cavalry” (moving on bikes), reportedly exposed more than 400 German agents. Gohar joined the group at 15. In 1943, Vartanian allegedly outplayed Otto Skorzeny, Nazi master-terrorist, in the operation “Long jump” targeting the three leaders. Vartanian’s group (possibly cooperating with the British) uncovered the advance group of German agents who were sending radio signals to Berlin. After the Germans realized that the initial stage of their operation had failed, they canceled it.

In 1986, the Vartanians permanently returned to the Soviet Union. In 2000, their name was made public and quickly became famous. Russian foreign intelligence has taken great pride in their devoted service. In 2007, Celia Sandys, the granddaughter of Winston Churchill, paid a highly publicized visit to Vartanian and expressed her gratitude for having saved her grandfather’s life. In 2012, the news about Vartanian’s death made international headlines. Elegant, sophisticated and charming, in love since the early 1940s, and still surrounded by an aura of mystery, Gevork and Gohar have achieved a fame overshadowing that of their romantic movie counterparts.

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Late Imperial Russia’s multifaceted presence in Persia retains many fascinating life-stories of its perpetrators, who quite often exerted crucial influence on the course of the very history of Russian-Iranian relations of the time. Russian ‘peaceful penetration’ into Persia designed by ministers Witte and Kuropatkin was secured by the activities within mainly four domains of Russian state influence in Persia: the military, diplomatic service, academic scholarship and Russian Orthodox Church missionary activities. Each of these domains had its own institutionally developed Persian Studies, the representatives of which, consciously or unwittingly, exploited the power/knowledge nexus to the limit, hence were at the spearhead of Russian influence in Persia. However, among them there was a personage who can be ascribed to neither of the above-mentioned domains, although he was in the thick of the political and military intelligence activities of Imperial Russia in early twentieth-century Persia.

Seraia Markovich (Ben Mordehai) Shapshal (1873-1961) was a Russian citizen who graduated from the Karaite secondary school in the Crimean city of Simferopol and then from the St. Petersburg Faculty of Oriental Languages but failed to find a job in Russia. He arrived in Persia, as he put it himself later, on his own in 1901 with a single reference letter in his pocket which had been given to him by his university teacher, Professor Valentin Zhukovskii. He finally found his way to the highest layers of the Qajar court, significantly influencing Persian internal and external affairs, first, as a private tutor of the Crown Prince, Mohammad-Ali, and then, when the latter became the Shah of Persia, as his Court Minister and most intimate counsellor. Being, behind his back, called ‘Bloody Shapshal’ for his ruthlessness towards Iranian revolutionaries, he was also branded by Edward G. Browne as a ‘Russian spy’; however, Shapshal’s Russian contemporaries – both ‘pure’ diplomats and intelligence officers – would treat him with ultimate prudence, if not suspicion, quite often pointing out that Russkoe Delo (The Russian Cause) never was his priority.

Drawing on unpublished archival documents, the writings of his contemporaries and the scarce scholarship on him, the paper analyses Shapshal’s activities during the period 1894-1917 and identifies his true persona and place within the context of Russian-Iranian relationships of the time. The analysis is informed by the conceptualisation of the interplay of power/knowledge relations within human societies.

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The paper deals with the unknown facts related to the pages from the life of the Soviet writer Haji-Murat Magometovich Muguev. In his novels, stories, articles and verses have found a wide reflection the events closely tied with the Word War I in the Middle East, as well as the Civil War in Russia.

The article attempts to analyze the detected, unknown facts of his biography about that period in the life of the writer when he served as a translator in the Expeditionary Cavalry Corps of General N. N. Baratov in Iran, during the WWI. The comparison of this fact with the events, described by Haji-Murat Muguev in his well-known novel "To the Banks of Tigrus" (later it was reedited and republished by him under the new title "Baghdad Gates") – makes it possible to argue that Haji-Murat Muguev personally took part in the famous cavalry raid of V.D.Gamalei's Cossack detachment from Iran to Mesopotamia to join the British troops, in 1916.

As it turns out, long before the beginning of WWI, at the Intelligence Department, affiliated to the Staff of the Caucasus military district had been working as a clerk Afanasii Grigory'evich Muguev who had two sons. The eldest's name was Nicholas, and the younger's - Boris. Both of them worked in the same Department as Military Intelligence officers.

According to the member of the Intelligence Department from the Caucasus military district Staff-Captain K.N.Smirnov, who was closely familiar with A.G.Muguev, his son Boris Muguev later became known as a writer Haji-Murat Muguev. So, "Haji-Murat" became his literary pseudonym while, as it seems to us, this Moslem name was previously used by the Staff of the Caucasus military district as a cover for him to carry out his Intelligence mission in the Caucasus front. After all, it wasn't accidental that the invented name of his hero in his novel was the same as his own – Boris!

Thus, the analyses of the information, including a valuable archival source on his biography, as well as his novels dedicated to his military past, let us to argue that his name "Haji-Murat", like his middle name "Magometovich", was not only his literary pseudonym, but an assumed name of the Russian Intelligence officer Boris Afanasievich Muguev.

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This paper traces the paths of several young Iranian women who studied in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 40s and then engaged in clandestine work for the communist cause in Iran. These idealistic individuals represent the flip side of the “Great Game” of flamboyant master spies: they lived modest lives, secretly passing information and funds while working to improve living conditions at home. Their histories and the documentation preserved in the Russian archives, particularly personal correspondence, reveal a thirst for change, modernization and justice sometimes coupled with a longing for tradition. Zuleiha of Tehran was in her teens in the 1930s and dreamed of studying Orientalism in Moscow. She already knew Russian, as she had studied at the Soviet School in Tehran where her father taught. A veteran of the Gilan Revolution who had spent time in Iranian and tsarist prisons, Abdul Kasem convinced his daughter, in a series of fascinating and touching letters in Farsi and Russian, to study medicine in the USSR — a subject he argued would better enable her to help her country. In 1942, Zuleiha returned to Iran, where she struggled against local prejudices and a lack of resources to open her own clinic and care for her daughter, while at the same time passing information to Moscow through elaborately encoded letters. The double-layered, macaronic letters detail political activities in Iran, particularly of foreign powers, while simultaneously conveying Zuleiha’s hopes and anxieties to her friends and contacts in her studied Russian.
Ahtar also hailed from a politically active family in Tehran and was strongly influenced by her father: a celebrated revolutionary and Constitutionalist killed by the Cossack Brigade. Like Zuleiha, she studied medicine, both in Iran and the USSR. Politically active since her teens, she organized women’s organizations and student strikes in Iran while practicing as a midwife. After Reza Shah’s sweeping crackdown on Iranian communists in the early 1930s, Ahtar smuggled in much-needed cash and communist literature sewn into the lining of her suitcase. Ahtar’s family history reflects much of the evolution of political thought and internal contradictions in early 20th century Iran: Her grandfather was a well-known conservative mullah hanged by the Constitutionalists, a movement that the mullah’s son, Ahtar’s father, was later to join.
This paper presents these young women’s stories in the context of the Communist movement in Iran.