Thursday, 15 May 2014

Ukraine 2014, Iran 1946. A different world?

The People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk remind me of a little-known incident in the early history of the Cold War when Stalin encouraged the creation of two separatist republics - in Iran.

Everyone is familiar with Stalin's imperial expansion westwards into Central Europe in the wake of the Second World War, but his attempt to extend the Soviet Union southwards into the Middle East around the same time is mostly forgotten.

In August 1941 the USSR and Great Britain invaded Iran after the country's ruler, Reza Shah, had shown pro-Nazi leanings. Iran had long been the focus of Russian and British competition for spheres of influence. During the wartime Allied occupation, Soviet agents sounded out local feeling in north-west Iran. There were in fact far more Azeris in Iranian Azerbaijan than Soviet Azerbaijan and there was also a sizeable Kurdish minority in the region. Many Iranian Azeris also sympathised with the pro-Communist Tudeh Party. The Soviets explored the possibility of provoking secessionist movements which would then allow them to absorb the region into the USSR. 

The Allies had agreed to evacuate Iran when the Second World War came to an end  and British and American forces duly left after the fall of Japan, but Stalin wanted to see if he could hold onto territory in the north-west. He encouraged local nationalists to establish two separatist states, the People's Republic of Azerbaijan and the (Kurdish-dominated) Republic of Mahabad, provoking the so-called Iran Crisis of 1946, one of the first major events of the Cold War. The "people's republics" were protected by Soviet troops and policed by Soviet secret agents.

Of course, Stalin had no interest in the well-being of local Kurds and Azeris. After all, in the 1930s he had deported Soviet Kurds en masse to Kazakhstan. His interest in north-west Iran had more to do with the area's potential oil wealth. If he could get hold of this without a land grab, then all well and good. Stalin now offered the Iranian prime minister Qavam a deal. In the words of the historian Vladislav Zubok:
Stalin and [his foreign minister] Molotov acted as a "good-cop, bad-cop" team: on the one hand they dangled before Qavam the promise to act as mediators between Tehran and the separatist regimes; on the other hand, they pressed the prime minister to grant oil concessions to the Soviet Union.
Soviet interference was provoking immense anger among Iranian nationalists. Qavam decided to outsmart Stalin and play for time. The deadline for foreign armies to evacuate Iran expired in early 1946 but Soviet troops did not budge from the north-west. However, the USSR was now clearly in breach of international agreements. Qavam went straight to the newly-formed United Nations, pleaded his case and won American backing. Stalin had not predicted the strength of US feeling on the issue. In the end, pressure from the Americans meant that Stalin gained nothing. The Soviet army withdrew from the republics but Stalin got no oil. Left to their fate, the separatist republics were soon crushed, the Azeri leaders fled to the USSR, and the Kurdish leaders were caught and hanged. Ultimately, all Stalin had achieved was to push Iran into the American sphere of influence, where it would stay until 1979; and even after 1979, Revolutionary Iran would refuse to ally with the Soviet Union.

Stalin's attempted blackmail of Turkey around the same time also backfired. In 1945 he demanded the Turks accept joint control of the Straits of the Dardanelles with the Soviet Union and dropped strong hints that if he didn't get the deal, he had his eyes on historic Georgian and Armenian lands in eastern Turkey (although here there were no attempts to set up separatist republics). This provoked massive protests in Istanbul, which the Soviet ambassador Vinogradov suggested should be presented to the West as evidence of a "fascist threat" (ring a bell?). However, Ankara refused to give in to Stalins demand's and turned to the USA. In 1952, Turkey joined NATO.

Finally, I can't resist quoting a paragraph from Vlasdislav Zubok's A Failed Empire: the Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev:
Stalin's methods reveal a recognizable pattern. Each time, the Soviet leader sided with expansion-minded subordinates and effectively mobilized jingoist sentiments in the Soviet bureaucracy. The Soviets acted uniltaterally, under the camouflage of secrecy and denial. They exploited the presence of the indigenous revolutionary and nationalist movements but preferred to create movements under their control in order to further their goals. Although Stalin preferred to stay within the framework of great power diplomacy, he constantly tested its limits. This pattern allowed Stalin to achieve impressive tactical victories in Central Europe and the Far East. The Kremlin ruler, however, did not realize that every such victory wasted Soviet postwar political capital in the United States. Ultimately, it exhausted the potential for Stalin's diplomacy.
It was a long time ago and a different world, but much of that description sounds oddly contemporary.


  1. Thanks for this. I may have read about the failed dismemberment of Iran before but have forgotten all the details. I do remember reading a story for children by a Soviet author set in Iran in the 1940s. The central character was a poor boy whose life was horrible under the Shah but improved, albeit for a short time, when Soviet troops entered. Standard Soviet children's fare.

  2. I knew the outline of these attempts to seize chunks of Iran and Turkey, but it was fascinating to look at the details. I was tempted to add Stalin's Marxist-Leninist rationalisaton for his retreat, which was quite funny. Of course, Stalin backed down for one very obvious reason: in 1946, the USA was the only power with nuclear weapons. The current crisis is also more dangerous because it involves Russia and Russian nationalism, rather than the Soviet Union and nationalism in the three rather small Transcaucasian republics (incidentally, the plan to take land in north-eastern Turkey was complicated by competing Armenian and Georgian claims on the same territory).

    It's also interesting to see the use of Soviet "anti-fascism" all present and correct, although Stalin had been using that label to smear his enemies for years (the German Social Democrats were the "left-wing of fascism"). What is rather more perplexing is the willingness of the Western media to take this sort of rhetorical posturing at face value in 2014.

    Somehow, I get the feeling that the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk may be even more short-lived than their Iranian cousins.