'For three years the Russians have been applying the old technique of utilising a disaffected minority for political ends, and now the world has been startled by news of an uprising.'
These words, from the December 1945 edition of The World Today, have a contemporary ring. They could almost apply to Ukraine but in fact the subject is Azerbaijan, in northern Iran. This largely forgotten conflict was a harbinger of the breakdown in relations between the Second World War allies which led to the Cold War.
In the closing months of the war Stalin’s conquering armies created a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe that was to last until 1989. Iran was a different case. In 1941, it had been occupied by the Allies – Britain in the south and the Soviet army in the north – to prevent Reza Shah throwing in his lot with the Nazis and to ensure a land bridge for Allied supplies for Stalin’s war effort. This was to be a temporary measure – the allies had agreed in 1943 to respect the territorial integrity of Iran and withdraw within six months of the war’s end.
Stalin, however, had other ideas. Under the protection of Soviet troops, the pro-communist Tudeh Party put down roots in Iranian Azerbaijan and an armed secessionist movement arose.
The historic territory of Azerbaijan had been split in 1828, with the then Shah of Iran ceding the northern part – including Baku, later to become the world capital of oil – to the Russian empire.
On both sides of the Soviet-Iranian border, the population spoke the same language and had the same culture. Britain and America were alarmed at Stalin’s refusal to withdraw, sensing that he was seeking to establish an Azerbaijani puppet regime in northern Iran, on the spurious grounds of defending their cultural and linguistic rights.When the Iranian government tried to send troops north to re-establish its authority, the Soviets blocked their way. In November, a so-called National Congress of Azerbaijan was formed to demand autonomy – not dissimilar to the rebel republics in eastern Ukraine that sprang up under Russian tutelage last year. The Kremlin responded with bluster to Iranian demands to fulfil Stalin’s promise to withdraw. Unrest in northern Iran was merely a ‘demonstration of the aspiration for the population of northern Iran for national autonomy within the limits of the Iranian state’ and had nothing to do with the presence of Soviet troops. The language used at the UN by the Soviet diplomat Andrei Vyshinsky, accusing Iran of ‘fascist propaganda’ and ‘pogrom activity’, bears a strong resemblance to charges levelled by Moscow today against the Ukrainian government. There were fears that Stalin would seek to annexe Iranian Azerbaijan. But the author of the World Today article thought differently. ‘The more likely explanation may be that the Russians desire to include northern Persia in the zones of security which they are endeavouring to establish on their frontiers; and that, with this object in view, they are seeking to assist the Tudeh Party to seize power in Azerbaijan and establish there an autonomous “democratic” government friendly to themselves.’ If they could do this, they might be content. In the end, strong lobbying by the Iranian prime minister, Ahmad Qavam, and pressure from the US and Britain forced the Kremlin to withdraw. Whether that history repeats itself in eastern Ukraine is still an open question.