Tehran 1943 I: International Actors, Transnational Actions

When the Allied leaders—Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin—met in Tehran in November 1943 to forge a common strategy against Nazi Germany, it is often forgotten that Iran was itself an important terrain of the war. As the delegates met in Tehran, the war boiled around them. While the conference is a central event in international diplomatic history, much about it—particularly its Iranian context—is not known. Iran’s proximity to the vital battlefields of southern Russia (Stalingrad), and its long border with the Soviet Union, transformed it into a highly mobile wartime space. It became both a transfer zone for Allied war material and a place of safety for war refugees. These included groups of Polish, Ukrainian and Russian Jews, as well as refugees of all kinds, who found sanctuary in Iran after 1939. Moreover, the occupation mixed Iranians of diverse backgrounds with Allied diplomats, engineers, military personnel and workers from international aid organizations. This project demonstrates that the 1940s were not a forgotten decade but a generative period for Iran’s political and economic modernity. In three interconnected panels, participants explore the 1940s in Iran as a global moment in Iranian, Middle Eastern and European history. The panels assert the historical importance of Tehran as a site for the unfolding of twentieth-century global history with regard to both the Second World War and the Cold War that followed.

The first panel, “Tehran 1943 I: International Actors, Transnational Actions,” starts with the Tehran conference of November-December 1943 in order to open up new regional and international frameworks for studying Iran’s place and actions in the war. Jennifer Jenkins explores the transnational conditions of the Allied invasion and the wartime diplomacy which cemented the Alliance of the Big Three on Tehran’s terrain. Lydia Wytenbroek explores the role played by American nurses and medical missionaries in Iran during the war, highlighting the importance of international health work in the Allied occupation. Ida Meftahi looks at the Allied occupation through the lens of recreation and performance, detailing the “performative politics” of the American, British and Soviet occupiers and their interface with an expanding Iranian public. Sabrina Guerrieri’s paper brings several themes together in her investigation of the career of the UN representative Nasrollah Entezam, placing the discussion on Iranian sovereignty in the emerging context of international institutions such as the United Nations.


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The Presbyterian Mission to Iran was established in the mid-nineteenth century with the primary goal of evangelism. However, missionaries quickly realized the spiritual utility of medicine and began to provide medical care through ad hoc dispensaries and clinics. These provisional medical services were replaced by modern hospitals at the turn of the twentieth century. By 1943, American medical missionaries had been active in Iran for over a century and were operating six hospitals and six nursing schools. They had come to define themselves as central contributors to the expansion of hospital-based health care in the country. In the interwar period, they had developed institutions that offered high-quality surgical services. The war transformed American medical missionaries’ perceptions of their ability to offer first-rate medical care. After being exposed to British and American military medicine in Iran during the war years, some American missionary nurses and physicians began to argue that mission medicine was no longer feasible. Furthermore, the experience of war radically altered the work of medical missionaries in Iran. The influx of refugees to Iran from Eastern Europe required American medical missionaries to shift their focus from surgery to emergency and public health services, including the provision of adequate nutrition and measures to prevent the spread of epidemics. As more and more patients sought health care, American missionary physicians and nurses became overworked. They also found it increasingly difficult to obtain medicines and supplies during the war and often had to improvise with the materials that were available, which contributed to their inability to maintain high standards of medical care. This paper explores the impact and challenges that American medical missionaries faced during the war years. Drawing on missionary letters, medical reports and hospital statistics, I argue that the war restricted American missionary medicine in Iran and transformed American medical missionaries perceptions’ of their ability to offer first-rate care.

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On July 5th 1943, the Iranian government expressed in a memorandum to the American, British, and Soviet governments, its desire to become a signatory to the United Nations (UN) Declaration of January 1st 1942. The request was granted upon certain prerequisites, foremost in which Iran was to give up its neutrality and declare war on Germany and the Axis powers. Shortly after this condition was met, the Tehran Conference of 1943—housing Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—took place. In the “Declaration of the Three Powers Regarding Iran,” the three leaders stated their shared “desire for the maintenance of the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Iran.” The cause of ‘independence,’ ‘sovereignty,’ and ‘territorial integrity,’ proved no less prominent twenty-five years later at the Tehran Conference of 1968, the first UN International Conference of Human Rights. By then, the political complexion of the UN had been revolutionized from an organization intended to preserve empire, to one dedicated to its dismantling. One related consequence was the shift in the understanding of human rights from a model that favoured the individual, to one that primarily emphasized state sovereignty via economic development and the collective rights of the nation.

Through the use of these two historical bookends, from the Tehran of 1943 to the Tehran of 1968, this research investigates Iran’s involvement and contribution to history of the UN by tracing the work of the its five successive permanent representatives. Focusing on ‘sovereignty’ as an integral aspect of the UN project, attention is given to how was the concept was understood and articulated by the Iranian representatives and how it changed with both national and international historical developments. This talk will limit itself specifically to the inaugural contribution of Nasrollah Entezam (1900-1980) who besides being his countries intermittent foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, had a long career at the UN. He represented Iran at the founding conference of the UN at San Francisco in 1945, assumed leadership of Iran’s permanent mission in 1947, and subsequently became president of the fifth session of the General Assembly (GA) in 1950. During these stages of his career, he was deeply involved in the Special Committee on Palestine in 1947, the Korean Cease Fire group in 1950, and was at the head of the GA when it passed the Uniting for Peace resolution.

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From dance halls, cafés, and movies theatres, to military marching and political rallies on streets, the presence of the Allies in Iran and their interaction with each other as well as with local citizens during the WWII inhabited a variety of sites, theatrical actions, and performative practices. While their benevolent relations were performed in hosting each other in diplomatic garden parties, and jointly entertaining bored soldiers, their rivalry was manifest in their competition over investing in local artistic culture as well as in their reports on their close observation of each others' cultural undertakings. This paper looks at the recreation and performance as sites for tracing war time diplomacy and the competing activities and influences of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union in culture, between the years leading up to World War II and the initial years of the Cold War in Iran.

This research entails a close analysis of these powers’ artistic ventures (such as theatrical and musical performances), sportive and recreational activities ( including social dancing), as well as gatherings and festivities (including those relating to the ending of World War II as well as national celebrations of the respective countries). Drawing upon a variety of sources including interviews, archival materials and periodicals pertaining to the embassies and consulates of these countries and organizations with strong ties to them, including VOKS, the Iran-Soviet Friendship Association, the Iran-US Association, the British Council, and the Tudeh Party, this paper explores the production of the local political performative culture of Iran in relation to international diplomacy and the rivalry between the superpowers. Investigating the ways in which the Iranian political cultures of both the oppositional and the official were informed by this constellation of “local” and “international” conventions, techniques, and agendas, the paper further examines this important era’s lasting effects on twentieth-century Iranian performative and political culture.

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Iran held a particular place in the Second World War, a history which has been largely forgotten. However, as was clear at the Tehran 1943 conference, Iran was the only wartime place where the Allied Alliance was fully realized. It was the sole site which the three powers occupied jointly, and where they cooperated locally and in a face-to-face fashion. Given this background, it is not surprising that Tehran and Iran were also the location of the Cold War’s earliest tensions. While the 1943 conference is a celebrated event in international diplomatic history, much about its Iranian context is unknown. As my paper discusses, Tehran was many things in 1943. It was a place where populations, ideas, strategies, and goods intensely mixed. Given its proximity to the battlefield, but also its protection from it (through the Allied occupation), Iran was a place of sanctuary for refugees from the war and the Holocaust. It is often forgotten that Tehran played this role as a “sanctuary city,” and that the country had a place in wartime stories of survival.

My paper explores the Iranian context of the Tehran 1943 conference. I analyze the transnational conditions which led to the Allied invasion of Iran and the wartime diplomacy which cemented the Alliance of the Big Three on Tehran’s terrain. I also unpack the issue of seeing Tehran in wartime as a ‘sanctuary city’ for refugees and outline the connections between Iran and histories of Holocaust survival.