It could have prevented the invasion of Iran in World War
April 6, 2000
Ambassador Anoshiravan Sepahbody, married to my mother's sister, was
an uncompromising patriot. In his youth, although a royalist and a close
relative of Nasserdin Shah Qajar, he supported the constitutional movement.
He was strongly opposed to the intrigues of foreign powers, namely Britain
and Russia through the valets of autocrat monarchs. His reputation ran
high in Iran as he had managed to expel a British diplomat who had beaten
an old Persian farmer with a stick, a tour de force in those days. Sepahbody
had joined the Foreign Ministry just before World War I. I met him first
in 1934 upon his return from his mission as ambassador to Bern and to the
League of Nations to become deputy foreign minister.
I was a child at that time and knew next to nothing about Iranian politics.
Both my mother and my father praised Sepahbody as a great public servant
and a shrewd, first class diplomat. I followed his career through letters
my aunt would send to my mother. That's how I learned that he had been
appointed as our ambassador to Moscow in 1935 and to Paris in 1937. In
1938 relations with France had been severed because of a slanderous article
against Reza Shah in the "Canard Enchainé," a French satirical
journal. Sepahbody was re-appointed to Paris after the French government
offered public apologies. (Read
my cousin's Farhad Sepahbody's article on the above affair)
With the start of World War II and the occupation of Paris by the Germans
in 1940, he moved to Vichy, the provisional capital of Maréchal
Petain's regime. Then he became ambassador to Turkey and remained in Ankara
until 1944. I met him as a young adult when I joined the Foreign Ministry
in 1945. There I could see first hand what sort of a man he was, especially
when he became Foreign Minister. He suffered from the intrigues of foreign
powers as they bribed politicians and journalists and often recollected
Reza Shah's inflexibility about patriotism. Contacts with foreigners outside
formal duties of one's job were strictly forbidden. Corruption was severely
punished. With the blessings of Reza Shah and by ways of his Italian connections,
in spite of strong British opposition, Sepahbody had managed to create
the first modern Iranian Navy. A feat Reza Shah had highly valued.
As a student in Beirut before and during World War II, I carried quite
ambivalent feelings about the former Shah. As many fellow students, I admired
him for his staunch patriotism and nationalism. Indeed, he had put an end
in the early thirties to the power of feudal landowners and tribal chiefs,
restored the authority of the central government, created modern institutions
such as a justice department, the police, hospitals, Tehran's University,
modern schools, railroads, etc. He had liberated women from the chador
and suppressed clerical influence in government. But he rapidly forgot
his democratic pledges and turned into an autocrat if not a dictator. He
had eliminated some of his most able ministers and forced landowners to
sell him at bargain prices some of their best lands. To balance the traditional
influences of Britain and Russia, he turned first towards the French and
later the Germans. Many of the students he had sent abroad to study somehow
resented that attitude.
In June 1941, following Hitler's attack against Russia, both Churchill
and Stalin considered Iran and its Trans-Iranian railway system as essential
for feeding war material to the Red Army. They demanded Iran to expel all
so-called German experts and allow the transportation of armament towards
Russia. Iran was neutral and the Shah hesitated to respond favorably. Finally
in early August 1941, British and Russian troops invaded Iran in a surprise
attack, destroyed its fleet, caused considerable casualties and forced
Reza Shah to abdicate in favor of his son. The Iranian navy was sunk by
the British in the dead of night, without prior warning just a few months
before Pearl Harbor! Something little remembered in the darker annals of
history. (Read Farhad
Sepahbody's "Sunrise at Abadan")
The students were still ambivalent. On the one hand they were not overly
distressed to see an autocrat fall, on the other, they felt ashamed to
see their homeland occupied by foreign armies. When I returned to Iran
in 1944, I was myself abashed at the poverty and the backwardness I witnessed.
A once booming economy was in shambles; the landowners and the tribal chieftains
had regained their power; modernization had totally stopped; the country
had reverted to the Middle Ages. Some who had rejoiced at the Allies' 1941
action, now bitterly regretted Reza Shah's deposition His forced abdication
turned the clock back. It seemed difficult to understand why he had not
heeded the Allies warnings in June and July 1941.
One day, I asked Anoshiravan Sepahbody about it. The story he told me
amazed me. He was Iran's ambassador in Ankara from 1940 to 1944. In early
July 1941, Ismet Inonu, then Turkey's President had urgently called him
and divulged that the British ambassador had mentioned the question of
Iran and the indifference of Tehran concerning the Allies warnings about
the German technicians in Iran. Inonu said to my uncle that in his opinion,
the Allies were dead serious and that he, as a friend of Iran, would advise
to oust the Germans forthwith and allow the use of the Trans-Iranian by
the British and Russians. My uncle replied that the Allies could use the
Dardanelles. Ismet Inonu's answer was simple: "Turkey's declaration
of neutrality had been formally accepted by the Allies since the beginning
of World War II in 1939; moreover, German soldiers had by now almost reached
the Black sea shores."
My uncle had immediately informed Tehran about Inonu's confidential
views, but had received no answer to his report. He always had a high opinion
of Reza Shah's political sharpness and the great attention he generally
paid to his reports. In addition a few years back, it was upon his recommendation
that Mussolini's intended alliance with Iran was cast aside by the Shah.
"Italy is too far and their forces will be incapable to help us in
case of conflict" Sepahbody had said to the Shah. One can imagine
the consequences for Iran had the Shah agreed to it. Thus, it was surprising
that Reza Shah did not heed Inonu's advice. Why did he not respond to the
Allies or at least discuss with them the ways to control the activities
of German experts working for the Iranian government?
It was crystal clear that the Allies were determined to use the Trans-Iranian
railway. Instead of working a compromise. Iran had apparently hardened
its position! As a result the Shah had been forced out. My uncle was at
a loss about what had happened inside the Iranian government. When he returned
from Turkey in 1944, he inquired about the confidential report he had sent
in July 1941. Usually such reports were immediately submitted to the Shah
by the foreign minister and/or the rime minister. In the summer of 1941,
the post of foreign minister was vacant and the prime minister, Ali Mansour
supervised the ministry. What had happened to the Inonu report? Nobody
remembered. Mansour himself professed that he had no recollections about
ever having seen it.
I have always separated facts from conspiracy theories. Years later,
in 1970, I remembered the incident. I was at the time under-secretary at
the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. I asked the head of the section of "classified
documents" of the archives department to look into the files. After
a prolonged search he found my uncle's urgent and confidential report.
It had not been shown to Reza Shah. The Prime Minister had initialed it
without comments and it had been automatically sent to the archives! Had
Reza Shah seen the report, perhaps Iran's invasion could have been avoided.
I was amazed and mulled over the reasons that have prompted the then PM
to disregard it.
We Iranians are fascinated by conspiracy theories. I remembered that
in the 30's Mansour was minister of roads and communications. The Shah
had ordered his arrest on corruption charges but after a lengthy ordeal
he had been acquitted. Had he acted on revenge or was he prompted by internal
and external pressure of those who wanted to get rid of Reza Shah? Indeed
the Shah had antagonized both the clergy, the feudal landowners and heads
of tribes; he also had turned against the British who had helped him in
the mid-twenties to become Shah; could it be that the prime minister was
an agent of the British? As for the Russians, Reza Shah had dismantled
the nascent Iranian communist party and thrown in jail 53 of its leaders.
Who knows? Personally, I would rather think that Mansour who was rushed
by precipitating events simply overlooked the report through negligence.
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