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Mystery report
It could have prevented the invasion of Iran in World War II

April 6, 2000
The Iranian

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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