As World War II ended, Iran’s problems intensified. While the last American troops left the country on January 1, 1946, and Britain announced that it would meet a March 1 deadline, Moscow refused to withdraw its forces. Instead, the Soviets vowed continued support for a separatist movement in the northern province of Azerbaijan, establishing a “puppet Kurdish state” as well. These activities (along with on-going concern over Tudeh operations in other parts of the country) convinced the United States that the Soviets were scheming to take over part or even all of Iran.
Moscow’s perceived objective was to create a buffer zone in northern Iran while it established the conditions for permanent direct access to the Persian Gulf.
According to Barry Rubin in his book Paved With Good Intentions:
This involved the establishment in power of a puppet Tehran government ‘led by men under Soviet influence amenable to Russian demands and hostile to other foreign nations.’ Soviet propaganda seemed to further indicate that the Russians might be paving the way for a coup d’etat.
The Soviets were also demanding an oil concession in the north.
With American support, Iran complained to the United Nations Security Council about Moscow’s behavior. Soviet activity in the north violated the Russian-Iranian Treaty of 1921 which promised noninterference by the Soviets in the internal affairs of Iran. It also violated the Allied troop withdrawal agreement of 1943.
The Security Council agreed to observe the situation over time, but urged Iran and the Soviets to negotiate a settlement.
Persuaded that Soviet leverage was dominant, the US became convinced that military supplies and financial credits were the only means by which Iran could regain its independence.
Truman’s administration had previously been reluctant to increase aid to Iran, now both the military and the State Department felt there was no other choice.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff asserted that the protection of Iran was in the American national interest. Iran was of strategic importance to the US, both as a source of oil and as a defensive position to protect American-controlled oil wells in Saudi Arabia. It might also serve as a territorial “cushion” by preventing any Soviet attack from overrunning the Middle East.
The US committed to an Export-Import Bank loan, some military aid for defensive weapons, an enlarged American military advisory mission, and increased cultural exchanges. A 1948 military-aid program gave Iran $60 million in military equipment.
Still, a complete understanding with Iran’s leaders proved elusive.
The shah believed that the US would provide massive economic and military assistance.
The American intention, on the other hand, was to do only as much as necessary to prevent a Soviet takeover.
In other words, US officials believed that only token amounts of aid were required even though the shah was demanding large tanks, jet planes, and a 150,000 man army.
As mentioned in a previous post, a US-Iran Military Mission Agreement (ARMISH) was formally established in October 1947. The mission was a response to global stimuli as well as to the shah’s perceived requirements.
Importantly, the State Department recommended against any assistance that would contribute to an expansion of Iran’s military or police budget. Instead, the pressure was for social and economic reform.
State’s opposition was based on a July 1947 report — Report on Programs for the Development of Iran — prepared by the American consulting firm Morrison-Knudsen. Their analysis encouraged investment in agriculture and transportation as well as in a private Persian oil company. While they acknowledged the probability that Iran would receive both economic and military assistance from the US, the consultants preferred a focus based on the provision of technical advisers in agriculture, public health, education, and industrial training.
The US agreed to support an Iranian Seven Year Plan (funded by the World Bank and based on oil revenue) which was designed to expand capital-intensive development and commit to a preservation of the monarchy.
The Americans made clear that they would not support the shah’s extensive aid demands, particularly his vision of an expanded state-of-the-art military. As the US ambassador to Iran stated in a letter to Secretary of State Acheson in August 1949:
No one imagines that now or in future Iranian army could prevent Soviet invasion. As we understand it, object of MAP from military point of view is to insure internal security and to increase cost of invasion in terms of personnel and time required . . . .
It was now clear that (regardless of the shah’s expectations) Iran would have to depend on its own oil revenue for most development funding. Subsequently, the issue of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company gained critical importance.
Soon the politics of oil and the American strategy for dealing with the Soviet threat combined to create long-term tensions between the two countries.
Meanwhile, even limited military support proved a provocation. As one Iranian nationalist noted:
Why should a poor nation such as ours that has gone through years of poverty be armed to defend the selfish interests of the millionaires of America and England? This is the story of the wolf and the lamb? Why doesn’t the United States give us aid to help us improve our education, agriculture, and health . . . .
At the same time, the Soviet threat that had spurred the postwar security dialogue between the US and Iran receded when, in 1947, the Fifteenth Majles rejected the Soviet-Iranian oil proposal.