Memorandum by the Adviser on Political Relations (Murray)25

The attached memorandum is a summary of the thoughts of NE26 and myself regarding the general bases and direction of our policy toward Iran, which we should like to submit for your consideration. If you approve, we shall guide our actions accordingly and shall send appropriate instructions to our Minister at Tehran. I have also in mind the possible desirability of asking the planning organizations under Mr. Pasvolsky27 to give special attention to Iranian problems along the lines indicated.

Briefly, the memorandum sets forth the following points:

The past and present attitudes of Great Britain and Russia toward Iran, together with the current weakness of the Iranian Government and disorganization of the country’s internal structure, justify fears that Iran may prove a danger point when we come to the post-war settlement.
The best hope of avoiding trouble in this regard lies in strengthening Iran to a point at which she will be able to stand on her own feet and in assuring both of the interested Great Powers that neither one need fear the acquisition by the other of a predominant position in Iran.
The United States is the only nation which may be able to render effective assistance to Iran without rousing the fears and opposition of Great Britain or Russia, or of the Iranians themselves.
Since we have a vital interest in the fulfillment of the principles of the Atlantic Charter28 and the establishment of foundations for a lasting peace throughout the world, it is to the advantage of the United States to exert itself to see that Iran’s integrity and independence are maintained and that she becomes prosperous and stable.
Therefore, the United States should adopt a policy of positive action in Iran with a view to facilitating not only the war operations of the United Nations but also a sound post-war development of the country which would eliminate the need or excuse for the establishment of any sort of “protectorate”.

Wallace Murray

Memorandum by Mr. John D. Jernegan of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs

American Policy in Iran

This Government has come during the past year or more to play a relatively active part in Iranian affairs. In the past, the United States has had no important political interests in Iran and has been seriously concerned with events in that country only from time to time. Our recent activity, therefore, is rather a new departure and has arisen primarily out of our participation in the war and natural concern that political matters in all theaters of war operations should develop favorably with respect to the United Nations. Iran has been, and is, important in this connection because of its value as a supply route to Russia, its strategic location and its vast production of petroleum products. When occasion has arisen to set forth our policy, we have based it upon the foregoing considerations, and I feel that they constitute ample justification for the attitude we have adopted.

I believe, however, that it is worthwhile at this time to put down on paper certain much broader considerations which, it seems to me, should likewise impel us to follow a positive policy in Iran, not only while the prosecution of the war is still foremost in our minds but also in the period when victory is in our grasp and we come to the conclusion of the peace.

I should like to suggest that Iran constitutes a test case for the good faith of the United Nations and their ability to work out among themselves an adjustment of ambitions, rights and interests which will be fair not only to the Great Powers of our coalition but also to the small nations associated with us or brought into our sphere by circumstances. Certainly, nowhere else in the Middle East is there to be found so clear-cut [Page 332] a conflict of interests between two of the United Nations, so ancient a tradition of rivalry, and so great a temptation for the Great Powers concerned to give precedence to their own selfish interests over the high principles enunciated in the Atlantic Charter.

For considerably more than one hundred years, Russia has been pressing down upon Iran from the north, repeatedly threatening new annexations of territory, repeatedly attempting in one way or another to dominate Iran. Three times in the present century alone Russian troops have entered Iranian territory against the will of the Iranian people.

For the same period of time, Great Britain has opposed the Russian movement southward, fearing for her position in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean and especially fearful of the potential threat to India. British troops have been on Iranian soil at least twice since the turn of the century and British influence has been exerted over and over again to counter the Russian expansion.

Although Russian policy has been fundamentally aggressive and British policy fundamentally defensive in character, the result in both cases has been interference with the internal affairs of Iran, amounting at times to a virtually complete negation of Iranian sovereignty and independence. It is superfluous to point out that this has created an ingrained distrust of both powers in the Iranian people and has not been without effect upon the attitude of the other weak peoples of the Middle East.

If this were merely history, it would be of no importance. Unfortunately, there are signs that history may be in the process of repeating itself. The basic factors are unchanged: Russia is still without a warm-water port; Britain still clings to her predominant position in the Middle East and east of Suez. Even if we assume the eventual independence of India and Burma and a British withdrawal from Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, there is every reason to suppose that Britain would not welcome an advance into that area by Russia.

Once again Russian and British troops are in Iran, the former in the north, the latter in the south and center. It is true that their presence is made necessary by imperative considerations of military expediency and that their withdrawal at the conclusion of the war has been solemnly promised, but I need not recall the hundreds of instances in which the forces of a Great Power have entered the territory of a weaker nation for one purpose and have remained, indefinitely, for other purposes.

Largely because of this occupation of Iranian territory, the governmental machinery of Iran, and its economic structure, have been seriously weakened. This has become both a reason and an excuse for direct intervention by the Russian and British authorities in [Page 333] Iranian political matters. At the present moment, no Iranian Cabinet can survive without the direct support of the Allied powers. While it is obvious that the United Nations could not permit a hostile government to function at Tehran, it is equally obvious that the Iranian political and economic organization must be strengthened to a point at which it will be able to function efficiently by itself, if Iran is to survive as an independent nation. It is unnecessary to point out that a political vacuum is as impossible as a physical vacuum; if Iran falls into a state of anarchy, some power must assume responsibility for its government, and it may be assumed that the first to offer themselves for this task would be one or both of the present occupying powers.

Apart from the general situation in Iran, I believe we should be fully alive to the character of the present Russian occupation of the northern provinces. In Azerbaijan, the Soviet authorities have greatly restricted the operations of the Iranian civil authorities and have virtually immobilized the small Iranian military forces which they reluctantly permitted to return to the area. They have alternately encouraged and discouraged the restive Kurds, always a thorn in the flesh of the local government. More important still, they have been so successful in propagandizing the population that our Consul at Tabriz29 has reported that a soviet could be established overnight in Azerbaijan if the Russians gave the word. In this connection, it is well to remember that Azerbaijan is inhabited largely by a Turkish-speaking population whose cultural ties with Soviet Transcaucasia and Turkish Kurdistan are almost as strong as those with the rest of Iran. It is also the most important grain-producing area of Iran and would be a welcome addition to the food resources of Transcaucasia.

There are other items which might be mentioned: the strained relations between the Russian and British authorities in Iran; the suspicion with which the Russians appear to view every move made by the British or Americans, for example their obvious hesitancy in agreeing to our operation of the southern section of the Trans-Iranian railroad;30 the apparent attempt by the Russian government to weaken British influence by leaving the British to bear the brunt of Iran’s economic problems; the continued refusal of the Soviet authorities in Iran to permit transportation of grain from Azerbaijan to meet the urgent needs of Tehran; the impending move by the Russians to take over control of Iranian arms plants.31

On the British side, the blunt, uncompromising attitude which has characterized British policy towards Iran does not augur well for a [Page 334] future amicable adjustment of Anglo-Iranian relations. Nor is it reassuring to recall the recent British proposal to arrogate to the Allies power to modify the Iranian cabinet at will.

It may be that the situation outlined above represents nothing more than the inevitable result of the stress and strain of coalition warfare and that once the victory is won all parties will be glad to revert to their former positions, leaving Iranian sovereignty as intact as it was before the Anglo-Russian occupation. Both Britain and Russia have repeatedly promised to do so, and both powers, and Iran as well, have adhered to the principles of the Atlantic Charter.

I should like to submit, however, that the United States has a vital interest in seeing to it that the United Nations do live up to the Atlantic Charter and, consequently, in making it as easy as possible for them to do so.

What I have in mind is the situation which will arise when the war is won, or nearly won, and the time comes to think of British and Russian withdrawal from Iran, with consequent full rehabilitation of Iranian self-government. Have we not some reason to anticipate that the respective British and Russian forces may remain suspiciously eyeing each other, each proclaiming its entire willingness to withdraw as soon as the other has done so? Is it not possible that one or both powers will allege, perhaps with reason, that Iran is in such a state of confusion that she must be “protected” for a time? And is it probable that either would withdraw and allow the other to carry out this “protection”?

Carrying this thought one step further, if Russia should really harbor ambitions for expansion in Iran, is it not all too likely that she would insist upon Iran’s need for Soviet guidance, and that she would violently oppose the interposition of another interested power in the role of tutor? And if Great Britain should give way on this, would not Britain all the more cling to her position in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, as protection against a future Russian thrust toward Suez, thus checking the progress which we hope to see in the direction of independence for all Near Eastern peoples?

I think we may assume that the Iranian Government has long since thought of all the foregoing considerations and that its ever-stronger appeal for American assistance is largely based upon them. So far, we have rested our response to this appeal primarily upon our interest in winning the war. I wonder if we should not also begin, privately, to base our response upon our interest in winning the peace? The United States, alone, is in a position to build up Iran to the point at which it will stand in need of neither British nor Russian assistance to maintain order in its own house. If we go at this task whole [Page 335] heartedly, we can hope to remove any excuse for a post-war occupation, partition, or tutelage of Iran. We can work to make Iran self-reliant and prosperous, open to the trade of all nations and a threat to none. In the meantime, we can so firmly establish disinterested American advisers32 in Iran that no peace conference could even consider a proposal to institute a Russian or British protectorate or to “recognize the predominance” of Russian or British interests. If Iran needs special assistance of a material character, we can provide it and so remove any cause for claims for compensation by other powers. We can forestall loans carrying with them control of the customs or other servitudes upon the Iranian Government. If railroads, ports, highways, public utilities, industries, are to be built, we can build them and turn them over to the Iranian people free of any strings.

I realize that objections can be raised to such a policy. Some which occur to me at the moment are: (a) it is unprecedented in our relations with the Middle East; (b) it impinges on a “sphere of influence” hitherto considered exclusively British and Russian; (c) there is no guarantee that it will succeed; (d) it might involve expenditure and loss of money; (e) if it came into public notice, it might arouse domestic criticism on the part of isolationists.

To answer these seriatim:

The present war and the problems of future peace for the United States are likewise unprecedented. We have now realized, and publicly stated over and over again, that we cannot be indifferent to the welfare of any part of the world, no matter how remote, because sooner or later it will affect our own peace.
The very fact that Iran has been a “sphere of influence” in dispute between two Great Powers, makes it all the more desirable that a third, disinterested, power should be called in to eliminate the dispute. Both Britain and Russia would be relieved of an anxiety and constant source of friction if each could be assured that the other would have no special position in the area, and it is not inconceivable that both would regard this assurance as worth whatever ambitions might be given up. In this connection, it seems hardly possible that either could suspect the United States of having imperialistic designs in a country so far removed from us and where we could never hope to employ military force against an adjacent Great Power.
If war cannot be waged without taking risks, I submit that the same is true of the making of peace. In any case, if we try and fail, we shall have lost nothing more than if we do not make the attempt. If the ambitions of Britain and Russia, their mutual distrust, or their established interests, are so strong that they would [Page 336] override a purely disinterested effort on our part to improve conditions in Iran, then we may assume that peace, in that part of the world, was doomed from the beginning.
The expenditures involved, even if all of them should be a total loss, would be insignificant by contrast with the cost of the present war, and infinitesimal beside the material and human cost of a failure to make a satisfactory peace throughout the world.
This objection will be met with in connection with any effort by the United States to participate in a cooperative post-war settlement, and we must be prepared to accept it. In the case of Iran, it could be countered by emphasis on the humanitarian aspects and should appeal to the normal American sympathy with anything savoring of assistance to the underdog. If properly presented, a policy of help for Iran might, indeed, receive the same sort of popular approval as has been accorded to our support of China.

Finally, I should like to reiterate the conviction previously expressed that if the principles of unselfish fair-dealing enunciated by the Atlantic Charter are ignored when it comes to Iran, or any other country in similar circumstances, the foundations of our peace will begin to crumble immediately. In my opinion, this is the overriding argument which should lead us to seize every opportunity to direct events in such a way that there will be no occasion for power politics or conflict of interests among the United Nations in their relations with Iran.

If this conclusion is sound, I believe that we should not only comply to the best of our ability with Iranian requests for advisers and supplies but should also take the initiative in suggesting the employment of American specialists and application of American methods in various fields; further, we should not be content merely to support or oppose British or Russian policies and demands in Iran, but should put forward positive suggestions of our own for the improvement of conditions. To this end, we should regard ourselves as at least equally responsible with the British and Russians for the solution of Iranian problems and need not, in any way, leave the initiative to them merely because they happen to be the occupying powers. Moreover, here in Washington we should actively enlist the cooperation of all appropriate agencies of the Federal Government in support of this policy, and we should not confine ourselves solely to steps whose close connection with the war effort can be clearly demonstrated. If necessary, we should make it clear to the other agencies that we regard measures to promote a satisfactory ultimate settlement in Iran as being only slightly less important than those immediately directed towards the winning of the war, and that we consider it most unwise to defer all such measures until the war is over.

  1. Addressed to the Assistant Secretary of State (Acheson), the Assistant Secretary of State (Berle), the Under Secretary of State (Welles) and the Secretary of State. Notation by John D. Jernegan of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs: “Approved by the Secretary and Mr. Welles. 2/17/43.”
  2. Division of Near Eastern Affairs.
  3. Leo Pasvolsky, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State; also chairman, Committee on Special Studies.
  4. Joint Declaration by President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill, August 14, 1941, Foreign Relations, 1941, vol. i, p. 367.
  5. Bertel E. Kuniholm.
  6. For correspondence on this subject, see pp. 437 ff.
  7. For correspondence on the Iranian arms plants, see pp. 628 ff.
  8. For correspondence on the American adviser program in Iran, see pp. 510 ff.