How did the headlines change from “Arming the Shah” to “Iran Sends Drone Trainers to Crimea to Aid Russian Military”? It’s perplexing, isn’t it?
The relationship between Russia and Iran has been turbulent and fraught with controversy – even conflict. Stalin refused to withdraw Soviet troops from the country after World War II, leading to a debate in the Security Council of the United Nations, the first test for the infant organization.
Despite the residual ‘bad blood’, however, in January 1966, the Iran and the Soviet Union signed an agreement for the construction of a steel mill in Isfahan, Iran, a gas pipeline to the Soviet Union, and a machine tool plant. The USSR was to advance credits of $286 million at 2.5 percent interest over a 12 year period to facilitate financing.
Later, Iran’s revolutionary leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, labeled Russia the Lesser Satan and said that Iran should not support side during the on-going Cold War.
More recently, in defiance of their government’s policy, Iran International (a privately-owned UK news entity) reports:
. . . videos on social media appeared to show police dispersing protesters chanting “Death to Putin” outside the Ukrainian embassy in Tehran. . . . those assembled also chanted “Russian Embassy Is Den of Spies,” “Death to Warmongers and Putin Supporters,” “Putin Murders, the Stupid Ones Support,””Long Live Ukraine,” and “Long Live Peace.”
Trying to make sense of everything that’s contradictory may seem like enough to make your head spin. But actually it’s just about political and economic expediency. We can make sense of it if we’re willing to dig a little deeper.
Russia, Britain, and Iran: The Great Game
Iran has long been geopolitically and strategically significant. Remember the Great Game, the political and diplomatic confrontation between Britain and Russia during the 19th century. Britain feared that Russia planned to invade India and that an invasion was the goal of Russia’s expansion in Central Asia. Russia, on the other hand, feared the expansion of British interests in Central Asia.
Regarding Iran, the British believed that a large-scale infusion of capital was the best way to secure British control over the country, and, thus, to guard the gates of India. Conversely, the Russians were concerned with cementing their dominance over the administration of northern Persia and expanding southward toward warm water ports in the Persian Gulf. Constant interference from both meant that the continuing development of Iranian cities was subject to the activities and needs of these two imperialist rivals.
In 1907, the Anglo-Russian Entente divided the country into three spheres, with northern and central Iran, including Tehran and Isfahan, in the Russian sphere. Southeast Iran was in the British zone. The territory in-between was neutral and included the area where Iranian oil was first discovered in 1908.
Despite this agreement, Iran was never “officially” colonized. Still, the country was formally occupied in 1941 with the onset of World War II and the permanent billeting of British and Soviet troops. The Americans arrived in 1942-1943 to expedite the delivery of supplies to the Soviet Union through a Persian Corridor.
1945 – 1947: The Russian Grab for Control is Defeated
As World War II neared its end, traditional rivalries flared, and conflict between the Allied forces intensified. Despite some friction, United States and British interests eventually coincided. An implicit partnership developed with the two allies jointly opposing Soviet activities in Iran.
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 supported a separatist movement in the northern province of Azerbaijan, establishing a “puppet Kurdish state” as well. These activities (along with on-going concern over communist 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.
Such interference was unacceptable to both Iran and the United States. Not only did Iran border the Soviet Union, in an area targeted by the US for “forward defense,” but the country possessed vast oil resources considered vital to the West’s campaign against ‘international communism’.
Soviet troop strength in Iran was not insignificant. Estimates allowed for 30,000 in Azerbaijan and 75,000 in northern Iran, compared to 5,000 British troops and 6,000 American troops in the rest of the country. The total number of Soviet troops was at least three times that of the Iranian Army.
In addition to military force, Stalin also reapplied previously employed techniques of economic penetration. He seized Azerbaijan’s fertile grain fields, directing and controlling the area’s vast wheat harvest. This had a critical impact since the province ordinarily supplied enough grain for its own consumption and, additionally, provided almost half of Tehran’s yearly needs. As a consequence of Stalin’s actions, the Western allies were required to import wheat in order to prevent starvation in parts of southern Iran.
Similar tactics affected other goods. For example, Iran was forced to export shoes manufactured in Azerbaijani factories to the Soviet Union, making it necessary to import higher priced shoes for Iran’s own population in return.
In the end, the Americans saw Soviet actions geostrategically, and also as an implicit threat to the oil fields of the Middle East, a matter affecting national security. The conflict over oil became quite explicit when the Soviets demanded an oil concession in northern Iran.
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 USSR left Iran in May 1946 after the Iranians promised them an oil concession. There was a caveat: the concession was subject to approval by the Iranian Majles. In December 1946, Stalin suffered a diplomatic defeat when the Majles refused to approve the concession.
To show support for the shah’s government, the US decided “that a limited amount of armaments not to exceed $10 million in value would be sold to Iran. The United States would also give favorable consideration to the credits necessary to furnish such arms.”
Based on the American showing of support, the Iranian government sent security forces into Azerbaijan, finally suppressing a Soviet-sponsored revolt. Over the next three years, the shah embraced American assistance as a means of eliminating the Soviet presence in his country, preserving the integrity of Iran’s borders and solidifying support for his policies internally.
It wasn’t long, though, before American popularity took a big hit. You can read all about the CIA and Mohammad Mossadeq in these Cold War Studies posts: Gaming Cold War Iran: Mosaddegh, Kashani and Iranian Oil; Early Cold War Years: Nationalizing Iran’s Oil
The US Loses Influence and the Shah Turns to the Soviets
A 1964 US-Iran military sales agreement provided for up to $50 million a year of weaponry (increased to $100 million after 2 years). However, there were strings attached. The US was concerned that Iran’s military purchases were interfering with the country’s economic and social progress, so sales were contingent on an annual review of Iran’s economic development and social programs, a policy that the shah perceived to be unwarranted interference in his country’s domestic affairs. There were other differences also.
When US and Iranian interests diverged, the shah decided he would have to act on his own by diversifying sources of foreign aid.
In an unprecedented move, in 1967-1968, the shah obtained some military equipment from the Soviet Union. He also went forward with a prior agreement for the USSR to construct a steel mill in Isfahan.
‘Besties’ Again: The USSR and the Isfahan Steel Mill
In January 1966, Iran and the Soviet Union had signed an agreement which provided that the USSR would advance credits of $286 million at 2.5 percent interest over a twelve year period for the construction of a steel mill, a gas pipeline to the Soviet Union, and a machine tool plant.
A site for the steel mill was quickly agreed upon (near the Zayendeh River on the outskirts of Isfahan) and the facility was named Aryamehr. It was built using the latest technology, with Soviet engineers and technicians supervising both construction and the installation of machinery and equipment obtained from the USSR.
The complex employed 1,300 Russian engineers and technicians, 900 Iranian engineers and technicians, and 33,000 other Iranians, including 8,000 specialists.
Business was to be conducted in both Russian and Persian, so three years of language classes were provided for the technicians and other specialists.
Since essential ingredients for its industrial processes came directly to the site, new rail lines were constructed.
A cement block factory in the vicinity of the plant provided some of the required materials for the construction of housing for staff and workers.
The plant increased mining activity in the Isfahan region and, in addition to steel, produced secondary products which were beneficial to the city’s chemical industries.
The agreement also called for the construction of a mechanical engineering facility in the Isfahan area which was projected to have an annual output of 25,000 to 30,000 tons of metal products.
Overall, the total cost of the mill was estimated at $1.4 billion, an amount which includes the housing project and associated mining operations.
Shortly after the first blast furnace came into operation in January 1972, production was rated at 750,000 tons per year. A later agreement with the Soviets (August 10, 1972) provided a basis for increasing capacity to 2 million tons and later to 4 million tons annually.
As mentioned above, a planned community, Aryashahr, was constructed to house workers and their families. The first stage called for the building of 200 multiple family units which were to provide housing for 50,000 inhabitants. A later phase would increase the number of residents to 300,000 and the number of dwellings to 800.
In addition to housing, Aryashahr, a modern community built in the Soviet manner, would allow for 4,200 hectares of greenspace, two schools, a dispensary, and a large 400 room hotel.
In sum, the Russians provided a turnkey operation with workers housed in a self-contained complex, a distance from the center of Isfahan. Buses were used to transport advisers and specialists for downtown shopping and other excursions.
In all instances, workers were supervised and there was little opportunity for the (supposedly) improper and highly visible activities that the Americans living in Isfahan later became known for.
Interestingly, many Isfahanis were not even aware of the Russian presence — or even of the mill’s existence. R.K. Ramazani says that
Ruffled political relations between Iran and the Soviet Union pushed the news of the Aryamehr Steel Mill off the front pages of Iranian newspapers.
Back to the Americans
For some insight into the American presence in Iran, you’ll find the following post helpful: Cold War Iran: Bell Helicopter and Grumman. You may remember that the shah of Iran purchased 80 F-14 fighter jets from the Grumman Aerospace Corporation. At the time, the early 1970s, the F-14s were the most expensive fighters ever built, because they carried the Phoenix weapons system, the only system capable of reaching the high-flying Soviet Migs that the shah was convinced threatened his country. The $2 billion dollar sale amounts $10.11 billion in 2015 dollars.
Neither East, Nor West, Islamic Republic
Since the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979, Iran’s foreign policy motto has been “Neither East, Nor West, Islamic Republic.” Nevertheless, faced with the economic consequences of American sanctions, Iran has once again put aside its historic rivalry with Russia.
Today, along with China and perhaps India, Russia seems central to Iran’s “Look East” policy.
As early as 2015, Russia and Iran set an extremely unrealistic target for trade of between $10 and $15 billion dollars per year. This economic cooperation is said to be driven by political will rather than economics.
While, at first, Russia was helping Iran counter US sanctions, it appears that now, Iran is helping Russia counter western support for Ukraine. Ukraine has reported a large number of Russian attacks using Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones in recent weeks, and just this week, The New York Times reported that “Iran has sent trainers to occupied Ukraine to help Russians overcome problems with the fleet of drones that they purchased from Tehran.” There are also reports that Iran will be supplying surface to surface missiles to the Russians.
According to Reuters:
Chafing under Western economic sanctions, Iran’s rulers are keen to strengthen strategic ties to Russia against an emerging, U.S.-backed Gulf Arab-Israeli bloc that could shift the Middle East balance of power further away from the Islamic Republic.
Clearly Iran and Russia have a deepening relationship. But as the review of Iran’s friendships over the years has shown, the country can be a fickle friend. Whether under the shah, or as the Islamic Republic, Iran tends to act in its own self interest. Perhaps they should come up with a new motto. Something like “Expediency First.”
Cold War Cities: Taipei, Isfahan, Havana: Competitive Grand Strategy and Urban Change (Lisa Reynolds Wolfe)
“Arming the Shah” (Washington Post – 1/20/1980)
“Iran Sends Drone Trainers to Crimea to Aid Russian Military” (New York Times – 10/18/2022)
Iran’s” Neither East Nor West” Slogan Today – ISPI https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/irans-neither-east-nor-west-slogan-today-22234
Featured Photo by KYRYLO TYMOSHENKO (Flickr)
Unmanned drones, believed to be Iranian-made, killed at least eight people in the capital and the northern city of Sumy, and struck critical infrastructure, with power outages reported in hundreds of towns and villages.