Memorandum of Conversation, Presumably by the Chargé in Iran (Somerville)1

Participants: His Imperial Majesty the Shahinshah
Mr. Somerville, Chargé d’Affaires a.i.
Mr. Jernegan

His Majesty began the conversation by saying that Iran had lost a great deal of time in the past two years. He considered that Iran could not continue in the present fashion, accomplishing nothing and preparing itself for nothing. He felt that Iran with its poverty was [Page 118] ripe for communist penetration. Something had to be done and he, the Shah, could not do it alone. Iran needed a strong government and it needed foreign assistance. In reality Iran was in an even more serious danger than some of the European countries which were occupying the attention of the United States at the present time.

Mr. Jernegan remarked that Iran at least had the advantage of having no large and active communist party of the sort that was active in Italy and France. His Majesty agreed that this was the case, but pointed out that there was equally no strong anti-communist group in Iran. He appeared to feel that the whole situation in the country was so disorganized that a real communist drive would not be adequately resisted.

His Majesty went onto speak of the great need for economic development in Iran, as a preventive measure against popular dissatisfaction and communist penetration. In this connection he said there was great need for foreign financial aid. Mr. Jernegan said that he saw no reason why the Iranian Government could not obtain all the financial assistance it could utilize from the International Bank. He did not expect that the Bank would approve in one lump a sum of, say, $250 million, but he believed the Bank would be quite ready to grant yearly amounts corresponding to the real necessities of any realistic development plan. In other words, the Bank would probably be willing to approve a small amount for the first year or two, and then as the implementation of the plan developed, would approve progressively larger loans, so that in the end Iran would probably get the full amount required.

The Shah then went onto say that economic development was only one part of the problem. The Iranian state must be fully prepared to meet subversive activities on the part of the Soviet Union, including the introduction of armed forces disguised as Kurds, Azerbaijanis, etc. For this, the Iranian army must have adequate arms and other equipment. His Majesty compared Iran to the last third of the dam against Soviet aggression in this part of the world. The United States, he said, had taken steps to support Greece and Turkey, thus reinforcing two-thirds of the dam, and he could see no reason why Iran should not equally be supported since the fall of Iran would mean the fall of the Middle East and the destruction of the barrier set up in Greece and Turkey.

Mr. Jernegan said that he was aware of the discussions on this subject which had taken place between the Shah and Ambassador Allen. He had further discussed the matter briefly with Mr. Allen and with Ambassador Wiley2 during his trip out to Tehran. The first [Page 119] element to be considered was the fact that the Iranian Government as such had never made a request to the United States for special military assistance of the kind accorded Greece and Turkey. On the contrary, it seemed that at least some Iranian political leaders would prefer not to receive such special assistance. Mr. Jernegan had understood from Ambassador Wiley that he would be prepared to discuss the matter after his arrival in Tehran. In Mr. Jernegan’s opinion, it was not out of the question that Iran might receive appropriate aid, but it was a matter which would require careful consideration on the part of both governments. The Shah said that a great deal obviously depended on the analysis of the situation made by the United States Government—that is, it would make a difference whether the American Government considered that the Soviet Union would seize upon a pretext to invade Iran or to bring about a war, or whether we considered that the USSR would precipitate a war without any pretext. Likewise, the decision would depend on whether the United States itself was willing to go to war in case of necessity or intended to confine itself exclusively to paper protests regardless of what might transpire. If we were ready to fight to stop the Soviet Union, we should make that known promptly. If we were not ready, the Soviets would realize it very soon and would continue their aggressive policy no matter what we might say.

Speaking personally, Mr. Jernegan expressed the opinion that the Soviet Union did not wish to bring on a war and would refrain from any overt act which might precipitate a conflict. Mr. Jernegan did not think that the Red Army would cross the Iranian frontiers. He felt that the real danger for Iran lay in underground Russian penetration and possibly in the introduction of armed bands which would masquerade as Iranian but would be supported by the Soviet Union. The important thing for Iran, as well as for other countries in similar circumstances, was to maintain internal stability and be ready to nip in the bud any attempts at armed uprising instigated by the Soviets.

His Majesty asked why Mr. Jernegan believed that the Soviets were not prepared to bring on a war. In reply Mr. Jernegan advanced the view that the Soviets had not yet consolidated their hold over their satellites, the majority of whose people were still hostile to the communist system, that their own people in Russia were disinclined to embark on another war, that their economy had suffered very severely in the war just past, and would require a great deal of reconstruction still before they felt strong enough to wage war, and that the general tactics of Soviet diplomacy in the past two years was evidence that the USSR was still following a policy of seizing such advantages as [Page 120] it could obtain without undue risk but of retreating wherever it met firm opposition. In support of the latter point, Mr. Jernegan cited the examples of Iran and Greece. In the Azerbaijan case, the Soviet Union could have maintained its forces in Iran and maintained control of Azerbaijan if it had wished to take the risk of a major crisis, and similarly in Greece the Soviet Union, through its satellites, could probably have seized a substantial part of Greece if it had been merely a question of relative force. As had been the case in Azerbaijan, the Soviets in Greece could have mobilized large forces of pseudo Greeks under the banner of the so-called “Free Democratic Government of Greece”, and could probably have overcome the military resistance of the Greek army. In neither case had the USSR been willing to force the issue, presumably because it knew that such action would have clearly shown its aggressive intentions and might have provoked a powerful reaction on the part of other nations.

The Shah agreed that this might well be a true interpretation, but he added that if the USSR found itself blocked in all directions by the Western Powers, it might very well decide to precipitate a war now, rather than wait until Europe should recover and the balance of power turn definitively against the Soviets. He appeared to feel that Russia might at any moment attack without warning. He went on to say that dictatorial regimes, whether Nazi or Communist, had to win victories in order to maintain the support of their own people and continue in power. Mr. Jernegan observed that he thought there was a difference in this respect between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy on the one hand, and Communist Russia on the other. It was true that the two former had had to move forward always in order to maintain their own prestige, but the communist regime in Russia was of a somewhat different character. It had already survived one period of retreat, or quiescence. Following the revolutionary activity between 1917 and 1921, the USSR had found itself unable to progress in its revolutionary policy outside of Russia and had then turned its attention inward toward developing and building up its own economy and consolidating its regime. The Russian people seemed to be so firmly in the grasp of the communist government that the latter was free to make strategic retreats without fear of internal repercussions. It might be anticipated, therefore, that Moscow would similarly “pull in its horns” if at the present time it were confronted with superior strength and superior firmness on the part of the western democracies.

His Majesty said that he hoped this theory was the correct one, but indicated his belief that we should be prepared to meet any contingency.

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Referring to his desire to have a strong army, the Shah said that he did not envisage a really large force. He would be quite content with half the number of men which he understood Turkey planned to keep under arms. Specifically, he did not advocate an Iranian army of more than 150,000 men, whereas he believed the Turks had in mind a standing force of about 300,000. He thought his plans in this regard were very modest, in view of the fact, as he said, that Iran was really a larger and wealthier country than Turkey. Mr. Jernegan expressed his pleasure at the Shah’s realization of the desirability of keeping Iran’s armed forces on a reasonable scale. He pointed out that really large armed forces could be self-defeating, because it could be such a drain on the national economy as to increase the very poverty of the people, which His Majesty considered the greatest asset of Communism. As an example Mr. Jernegan pointed out that in Greece the country had reached a stage at which any increase in the armed forces required not merely a grant of dollars from the United States to finance the foreign exchange cost of the increase, but also an additional grant of dollars for the importation of consumer goods into Greece to be sold by the Greek Government to produce revenues in Greek currency to cover the internal expenditures involved in the increase in the armed forces.

Toward the close of the interview, His Majesty embarked on a general discussion of constitutional systems and the desirability of having a strong executive. While he did not say so specifically, it was apparent that he had in mind the desirability of strengthening his own power, in order to guard against and overcome the weakness and irresponsibility of the Iranian Majlis. He emphasized his belief that the Executive (by which he meant the Chief of State rather than the Chief of Government) should have the power to dissolve the legislature and call new elections whenever it appeared that the legislature might be acting in a fashion contrary to the wishes of the people. Mr. Somerville and Mr. Jernegan confined themselves to general observations on this subject.

Just before terminating the interview, the Shah reverted to the attitude of the Soviet Union and the objections which it raised to any American assistance to Iran. He said he knew the USSR would criticize any such assistance as being aggressive and imperialistic, and he added, smiling, that he hoped the new American Ambassador, Mr. Wiley, was a good imperialist. Mr. Jernegan remarked that Ambassador Wiley was a good anti-communist, if that was what His Majesty meant.

  1. Transmitted to the Department by Tehran in despatch 83, March 19.
  2. John C. Wiley, the Appointed Ambassador to Iran.