The Soviet Union and Iran, 1917-1991

Sharing a long border with the USSR, stretching from the Caucasus to Central Asia, Iran lived for most of the twentieth century in the shadow of its Communist neighbour to the north. Through two World Wars and the Cold War, Iran’s domestic politics and foreign policy were rarely free from Soviet influence and pressure. Indeed, the material and ideological power of the Soviet Union loomed large over not only the Iranian state, but also Iranian society.
More than two decades after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR, we are now beginning to examine Iran’s relations with the Soviet Union and the broader Communist world. The availability of Russian archival sources, as well as the declassification of American and British documents, allows us to examine the Soviet role in Iran’s diplomatic, political, economic and intellectual history, from the reign of Reza Shah to the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Historians have made progress in examining the early history of Soviet-Iranian relations in the inter-war period and the rise of the Iranian Left.However, we are only beginning to examine Soviet-Iranian relations in the period of the Cold War, from the 1946 Azerbaijan Crisis to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.
This panel brings together three papers spanning the longue durée of Soviet-Iranian relations both before and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. They are concerned broadly with understanding continuity and change in Soviet-Iranian relations under the Pahlavi monarchs and the Islamic Republic. The first paper employs a Foucauldian analysis to examine the role of the USSR’s Persian Studies in Soviet policy towards Iran from 1917 to 1941. The second paper provides the first detailed history of the failed attempt at Soviet-Iranian détente by Mohammad Reza Shah and Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. The third paper examines the ideological clash and consequent mistrust between the Islamic Republic and the Soviet Union from 1979 to 1991. Together, these three papers draw on American, British, Iranian and Soviet sources to make a contribution to the emerging scholarly literature on Soviet-Iranian relations and the global Cold War.
A fourth presentation, added by the conference organizers, addresses the Anglo-Soviet occupation of Iran during World War II.


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On 12 February 1959, the front page of The New York Times reported the sensational news that the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had made an abortive attempt to secretly negotiate a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union. A Soviet delegation had arrived in Tehran for talks with Mohammad Reza Shah on 29 January, but had left Iran empty handed on 11 February. At a time when the Soviet Union was confronting Britain and the United States over a brewing crisis in Berlin, it appeared as if the Shah was flirting with the idea of abandoning his Cold War allies in the West. By aligning Iran with the United States in the global Cold War, the Shah had turned to Washington to defend Iran’s long border with the Soviet Union, stretching from the Caucasus to Central Asia. The Truman administration had helped to push the Red Army out of northern Iran in 1946, while the Eisenhower administration had worked with the British to topple Prime Minister Mohammad Musaddiq in 1953 and restore the Shah to power. By the late 1950s, Iran had evolved into a fully-fledged U.S. client state in the global Cold War. What, then, was a Soviet diplomatic mission doing in Tehran in February 1959?
We still do not know what the Shah hoped to gain from these negotiations, why they were conducted in such secrecy, or why they ultimately failed. This article, relying on American, British and Iranian sources, suggests that the Shah was driven by a profound sense of insecurity to explore a Soviet offer of a non-aggression treaty. Deeply dissatisfied with the levels of American military and economic aid to Iran, and sceptical of Washington’s commitment to the security of his regime, the Shah pursued a pragmatic détente with the Soviet Union. This episode marked the Shah’s first tentative step towards a more independent posture in the global Cold War. Contrary to popular perceptions of the Shah as a mere instrument of American power, this article suggests that the Shah chafed under American patronage and that his vision for Iran’s place in the world, rooted in Iran’s glorious past, went far beyond the limits imposed by Iran’s geographical position on the southern border of the Soviet Union.

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A critical juncture in modern Iranian history, the Anglo-Soviet occupation of 1941 continues to reveal new clues and information about Iran and the two countries occupying it. For the first time, this paper will uncover the missing linkages between British propaganda, Iran and Iranians, and the Soviet Union. Furthermore, this research will provide a new angle to analyse their complex relationship, with the added complication of the United States’ growing presence.

Moving away from the assumption that their relationship deteriorated gradually over the course of the occupation, this paper re-examines British Foreign Office documents to paint a more complex picture. Although Moscow and London were jointly committed to fighting the presence of Nazi Germany in Iran, both soon became engaged in a rivalry over prominence. From the start of the joint occupation, both London and the British Legation in Tehran were deeply suspicious of their Soviet comrades and insecure of their position in the eyes of the local population. In addition to exercising diplomacy and the military to deal with the everyday matters of the occupation, Britain designed and implemented a propaganda campaign to fight a more delicate but no less important battle.

A detailed analysis will be provided on the British propaganda machine, under the direction of Reader Bullard, the British Minister in Tehran, and Ann Lambton, the Press Attaché. An understanding of how the apparatus operated, from information gathering to propaganda dissemination, will provide a fuller understanding of the nature of British policy, which will be analysed and critiqued alongside the diffusion of pro-British publicity.

Initially, British propaganda focused on improving the Allies’ position in the eyes of Iranians to ensure that they supported the occupation. However, as the dynamics between the Soviet Union and Britain changed and their relations became more strained, Britain concentrated its propaganda machine solely for its own image. When the Soviet Union and Britain became conflicting political patrons, propaganda came to include the promotion of certain political reforms and factions over others. This will be explored and expanded further in this study to analyse the subtler and more sinister hand of Britain in the manipulation of different political players for specific ends: from the maintenance of Britain’s position in Iran to countering Soviet prominence in Iran.

By examining British propaganda during this period, this paper will provide an important dimension of British influence during a crucial turning point in Iran’s political development.