S/P–NSC files, lot 62 D 1, NSC 107 Series
Study Prepared by the Staff of the
National Security Council1
The Position of the United States With Respect to Iran
1. To assess the position of the United States with respect to Iran, with particular reference to possible future developments in Iran affecting United States security interests.
Basic United States Position
2. Because of its resources, strategic location, vulnerability to armed attack and exposure to political subversion, Iran must be regarded as a continuing objective in the Soviet program of expansion. If Iran should come under Soviet domination, the independence of all other countries of the Middle East would be threatened. Specifically the USSR could (1) control or limit the availability of a Middle Eastern oil reservoir upon which the economy of Western Europe depends; (2) acquire advance bases for subversive activities or actual attack against a vast contiguous area including Turkey, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula (hence the Suez Canal), Afghanistan, and Pakistan; (3) obtain a base hundreds of miles nearer to potential US–UK lines of defense in the Middle East than any held at present; (4) control continental air routes crossing Iran, threaten those traversing adjacent areas, and menace shipping in the Persian Gulf; and (5) undermine the will of most Middle Eastern countries to resist Soviet aggression. In addition to these developments affecting the Middle East, the loss of another free country to communist domination at this time would damage the global position of the United States and other members of the Western community by weakening the determination of threatened nations everywhere to resist communism.[Page 12]
3. Loss of Iranian oil production and of the refinery at Abadan would seriously affect Western economic and military interests, particularly as regards the level of industrial activity in Western Europe. The effect of this loss on the volume of petroleum products available for Western Europe could be overcome in a reasonable length of time by developing reserves and building refineries elsewhere, but the financial effects, in the loss of the British investment and in the increased dollar requirements of Western Europe, could be overcome only slowly, if at all. The loss of Abadan would also deprive the West of the principal source of aviation gasoline and fuel oil in the Eastern Hemisphere, with consequent effect upon air and naval activity in the region.
4. The primary objective of our policy toward Iran is to prevent the domination of that country by the USSR and to strengthen Iran’s association with the free world. Corollary aims are (1) to encourage relations between Iran and other countries calculated to elicit United Nations support for its continued independence; (2) to assist the Iranian Government in maintaining conditions of internal security, thereby increasing respect for Iranian sovereignty, strengthening the stability of the government, avoiding a pretext for overt Soviet intervention, and making indirect Soviet aggression through internal subversion more difficult; and (3) to foster social reform and an expanding economy with the purpose of alleviating discontent and strengthening allegiance to the central government.
Evaluation of Current Policy
5. Our objective of preventing domination of Iran by the USSR has so far been achieved by means of political action. Iran, after first following a policy of procrastination, evasion and compromise when confronted by an aggressive Soviet attitude, has for the past three years, with strong United States and United Kingdom encouragement and support, been able to maintain its independence in the face of persistent Soviet pressure. The United States has informed Iranian authorities that it is prepared, so long as the Iranian Government demonstrates a willingness to stand up for its independence against external pressure, to support Iran not only by words but also by appropriate acts. We have told the Iranians that we are not in a position to make any commitment as to our action if the Soviet Union should take aggressive measures against Iran, but have pointed out our obligations under the United Nations Charter. In response to Iranian inquiries, we have authorized the Embassy in Tehran to say that in the event of war with the Soviet Union involving both Iran and the United States, Iran may count on all assistance compatible with United States resources and commitments [Page 13] in a global conflict. The Secretary of State informed the Shah on November 18, 1949 that our interest was not limited to the area of our formal treaty obligations. The Shah was assured that our interest in Iran would be great indeed if trouble should come.2
6. Past United States efforts to assist Iran internally have included two military missions now advising the Iranian Army and the Gendarmérie, support of Iran’s efforts to secure financial aid through appropriate agencies (such as the World Bank) for well-justified economic development projects, encouragement and advice in connection with the Iranian Government’s consideration of political and economic reforms designed to strengthen popular loyalty to the central government, and the provision of surplus light military equipment on credit for internal security and legitimate defense purposes. Iran has also been included in the Mutual Defense Assistance Program and is now receiving military aid on a grant basis. The purpose of this aid is to assist in the maintenance of internal security, to increase the confidence of the Iranian Government and people in their ability to defend themselves, to give concrete evidence of American interest in the security of Iran, and to enable the Iranian forces, in the event of war, to carry out certain limited defensive operations in furtherance of over-all strategic plans of the free world.
7. With the approval of the President and in conjunction with the Export-Import Bank, the Department of State is initiating a new program designed to overcome some of the existing weaknesses of the Iranian Governmental and economic structure and provide impetus for the economic and social development of the country. This program includes the following elements:
- An Export-Import Bank loan of $25,000,000 for road building and agricultural improvement. Failure of Iran to accept this credit would increase our reliance on IBRD credits and United States Government grants as levers to induce the Iranian Government to put its economic house in order.
- The strengthening of the staffs of the existing American diplomatic and consular posts in Iran and the opening of a new consulate at Isfahan.
- A substantially enlarged program of information and cultural relations in Iran.
- A military aid program within the capabilities of the Iranian armed forces to absorb.
- A technical assistance program using Point Four funds concentrating on public health, rural extension, education, etc., at the village level.
- Seeking the cooperation of the United Kingdom to enable Iran to utilize its sterling receipts from petroleum for essential development of the country, including conversion of such sterling into dollars, as may be required, for essential imports and serving of dollar obligations for development purposes.
8. A major source of economic stagnation and political discontent in Iran has been the failure of the Iranian Government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company to reach an agreement on a supplementary concession agreement. The belief is widespread in Iran that the company is unfairly exploiting the country by refusing to offer reasonable and equitable royalties and its entire operation is resented as a closed corporation exploiting Iranian wealth but beyond the reach of Iranian custom or law.
9. This has resulted in strong antagonism against the British, and, among the less educated, against all foreigners, and has led many Iranians to believe that the Western powers are not seriously interested in the welfare and independence of the country but are concerned only with exploiting its primary resources for their own purposes. The present Iranian leaders do not associate the United States with the policies of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. They, however, want the United States to side with them in the dispute and force the Company to meet their terms. Nationalization, which is currently under discussion in the Iranian Parliament, is not impossible and if it did occur would subsequently make it easier for the USSR to influence the distribution of the oil. The United States should use its utmost influence to persuade the British to offer, and the Iranian government to accept, an equitable concession agreement. Failure to reach such agreement carries with it such undesirable consequences that no opportunity should be lost to impart to both governments our sense of urgency in this matter.
10. Iran has expressed serious dissatisfaction with the limited nature of the military assistance we are prepared to furnish and even greater dissatisfaction at our past failure to provide substantial direct economic assistance. The Iranian Government has repeatedly stressed the desirability of a closer defense relationship with the United States, preferably through the mechanism of a regional defense arrangement for the Near East similar to the North Atlantic Treaty. Our refusal to commit ourselves in this respect has been a further source of Iranian uneasiness and discontent. These factors have occasionally in the past given rise to a belief in Iran that the United States is not seriously interested in the welfare and independence of the country and would abandon it to Russian aggression if matters came to a showdown. There is a danger that such an attitude will recur unless the United States continues to take a course designed to convince the Iranians of its genuine [Page 15] interest in Iranian independence. There is a belief in influential Iranian quarters that the Iranian Government in its westward orientation policy has gone too far and has placed Iran in an extremely vulnerable position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union without obtaining anything in return to help Iran protect itself. This attitude combined with recent ostensibly friendly gestures by the USSR3 have started a trend towards Iran’s reversion to its historical policy of playing one power off against the other and maintaining a precarious neutrality. The new program of American assistance and guidance outlined above is designed to counteract this trend in Iranian thinking. Likewise, the firm policy adopted by the United States in Korea has helped to convince the Iranians of United States determination to oppose aggression even though the United States has no formal security arrangements with the country attacked. Reverses in Korea, on the other hand, tend to make many Iranians doubtful of United States ability to render effective assistance, a feeling not lessened by Iran’s proximity to the Soviet Union.
Possible Future Developments
11. Although the USSR will continue to apply strong political and psychological pressures against Iran in an effort to force the government of that country into submission, it is considered unlikely that the Soviet Union would be willing to resort to direct armed intervention by organized USSR military forces at this time. Nevertheless the possibility of such armed intervention cannot be entirely ruled out. In the absence of such armed intervention Iran is probably capable of maintaining successful resistance to Soviet pressure and could be expected to maintain its alignment with the free world provided it has confidence in United States and United Kingdom support and can produce competent political leadership able to overcome the existing feeling of frustration and hopelessness among the mass of the people and to implement the planned economic and social reforms, delay in the execution of which is now seriously threatening the internal stability of the country. Since these conditions necessary for the maintenance of Iran’s westward orientation and resistance to Soviet pressure may not continue to exist, it is possible that the United States may be faced in the future with one or more of the following contingencies:[Page 16]
First Contingency: The Iranian Government adopts a policy of “neutrality” in the “cold war” and seeks a modus vivendi with the Soviet Union.
12. Continuing deterioration of the situation in Iran has created a feeling of hopelessness and a public psychology inherently dangerous from the point of view of Iran’s determination to resist Soviet pressures. Present Soviet tactics in Iran are designed to convince the Iranians that they have nothing to fear from the USSR and it seems certain that in their search for security many Iranians are impressed by the present “friendly” policy of the Soviets. Unless the United States can convince them of the real issue at stake, they will insist on a government in power not unsympathetic to Soviet approaches. Such a government, fearing overt Soviet action and feeling that it has been left alone to its fate, might seek some sort of understanding with the Soviet Union, possibly along the lines of the agreement of 1946. Such an understanding would permit Soviet economic exploitation, amnesty to political prisoners, legalization of the Tudeh Party and its eventual participation in the government, and would open the door to a gradual taking over of the country by local communist and Soviet agents.
13. Current United States measures in Iran are designed to prevent this first contingency. If nevertheless the contingency did occur, the United States could, in conjunction with the United Kingdom and with little risk in proportion to the possible gain, take positive steps, … to support pro-Western elements and affect Iran’s alignment with the free world. The alternative course of action, that of accepting without counter-action Iran’s reversion to an attitude of neutrality, would probably result in eventual loss of Iran with the consequences noted in paragraph 2 above.
Second Contingency: The overthrow of the present Iranian Government and the establishment of a pro-Soviet puppet government by subversive or other means not involving the use of Soviet military force.
14. The weakness of the Iranian Government and the growing activity of dissident elements, including the Tudeh Party (despite the fact that this party is outlawed and has to function underground) make this event a possibility. Several leading Iranians have expressed the view that communist overthrow of the government is not only possible but even probable unless steps are taken to improve the economic and social condition of the people and increase the efficiency of the government. The appointment of General Razmara, formerly Chief of Staff of the Iranian Army, as Prime Minister gave promise of improved leadership and direction; but up to [Page 17] the time of his assassination on March 7, 1951, his accomplishments had been singularly few.
15. The assassination of Prime Minister Razmara underlines the basic political instability of Iran and emphasizes once again the need for strong and vigorous leadership. It had been hoped at the time of his appointment in June 1950 that Razmara possessed the qualities and influence needed to give Iran forceful government. However, he proved unable to make headway against the selfish interests of the politicians who control the Iranian Parliament and at the time of his death, he had been obliged to resort to one compromise after another in order to stay in power.
16. His murder will greatly increase the existing political instability in Iran at least for a temporary period. The opportunities available to the communists will thus be enhanced and it therefore becomes more than ever necessary that there be firm direction of the government at almost any cost. The only source of the required type of leadership at the moment appears to be the Shah. He can only succeed with strong support from the United States and the United Kingdom. During the next few months the political situation will be extremely fluid and give rise to many difficulties.
17. If the second contingency occurred the United States would have three alternative courses of action:
- To accept the loss of Iran to the Soviet orbit. This would require a reversal of basic United States policy regarding the Mediterranean and Middle East and would mean acceptance of the consequences summarized in paragraph 2 above.
- To support, in conjunction with the United Kingdom, the legitimate government by all means short of commitment of United States military forces. This course of action would involve little risk and if successful would produce considerable gain at little cost. It would leave United States forces uncommitted in Iran and hence available for other and possibly more urgent missions.… On the other hand, should this course prove ineffective in restoring the legitimate government, the United States would have to accept loss of all or part of Iran or pass to the course of action noted in the following sub-paragraph.
- To support the legitimate government of Iran by measures which include, inter alia, the deployment of United States armed forces (1) as a show of force or (2) in sufficient strength to restore the legitimate government. A show of force could be limited to air and naval action, and might be successful in restoring the legitimate government and preserving Iran’s alignment with the West. However, United States armed forces in sufficient strength to restore the legitimate government might lead to progressively heavier commitments that the United States could not afford. In any event, United States armed forces in strength to restore the government will not be available in the foreseeable future. Commitment of United States forces even in a show of force might provoke military [Page 18] action by the USSR which could well lead to hostilities between the United States and the USSR.
Third Contingency: The establishment of pro-Soviet provincial governments in Iran by subversive or other means not involving the use of Soviet military force.
18. The provincial administration of Iran is still subject to a high degree of centralized control from Tehran, and the local communist leadership in northern Iran was largely broken up when Soviet forces retired in 1946. Therefore, even though renewed communist activity has been reported in some parts of the area, it is doubtful that communist leadership could be re-installed in the provincial administrations, in the absence of renewed entry of Soviet forces, unless the central government virtually ceased to function or was overthrown and replaced by a pro-Soviet puppet regime. Nevertheless, establishment of pro-Soviet provincial governments is by no means impossible if confusion and maladministration in the Iranian Government continue for an indefinite period and if political leadership is not greatly improved.
19. If this contingency did occur we would be faced with intensified Soviet subversive activities in the remaining free areas of Iran and in Near Eastern areas contiguous thereto and with an increased tendency on the part of Near Eastern countries to seek strengthened security arrangements with the Western powers. Should security arrangements considered satisfactory by them not be forthcoming, the Near Eastern countries might in time seek a compromise with the USSR.
20. In this contingency the courses of action available to the United States are virtually the same as those discussed under the second contingency above, the principal difference being that support of the Iranian Government at its request would be for the purpose of enabling it to regain control of revolting provinces rather than of the central machinery of government. However, the risk of military involvement with the USSR would be increased for the United States if United States or United Kingdom forces, either as token forces or in strength, were deployed near the northern provinces, although it is entirely possible such deployment might serve as a deterrent.
Fourth Contingency: An overt invasion of Iran by the armed forces of the Soviet Union.
21. Information presently available does not indicate that overt Soviet attack with organized USSR military forces against Iran is probable at this time, especially since opportunities still remain for the USSR to gain its objectives in Iran short of overt attack. However, the possibility of such attack cannot be excluded, since the [Page 19] USSR has the military capability of launching an attack without warning and quickly overrunning Iran. While such an attack would in fact give rise to the risk of global war, it is possible, even though not probable, that the USSR, miscalculating the degree of risk involved, would launch an attack against Iran designed to attain Soviet objectives in that area without bringing on global war. It is also possible, but improbable, that the USSR would deliberately assume a risk of global war by attacking Iran.
22. It seems likely, in view of the repeated references to the 1921
Irano-Soviet Treaty of Friendship in the Soviet Protests to Iran in 1948
and 1950 over the presence in Iran of American military missions and oil
drillers, that the Soviets will, if they invade Iran, invoke Article 6
of this treaty as a justification for their action. According to the
Legal Adviser of the Department of State, the following conditions must
co-exist before the Soviet Union would be justified in sending troops
It is also the view of the Department’s legal advisers that if the USSR made out a case for co-existence of the above four conditions, and at the same time the government of Iran denied their co-existence and/or resisted the introduction of Soviet troops into Iran, the USSR would not be entitled under the United Nations Charter to introduce armed forces unilaterally into Iran on the basis of the treaty. It would be a violation of Charter obligations for the Soviet Union to take such action against the will and over the resistance of the Government of Iran. In such circumstances, the Soviet Government would be bound by the Charter to seek a peaceful adjustment of differences arising out of the 1921 treaty and, if necessary, to refer the matter to the United Nations for consideration.[Page 20]
23. In view of the above, the invocation of the treaty need leave no doubts in the free world as to the rights and wrongs of the matter and the misuse of its provisions by the Soviets to justify aggression could be made clear to world opinion. The Soviets can use the treaty as a pretext to becloud the issue and the United States should accordingly be on the alert to counter such moves.
24. In the event of overt Soviet attack on Iran, available United States courses of action would include:
- Opposing the aggression by political means short of the commitment of United States armed forces in Iran. This course would be less costly and would leave our forces available for other urgent tasks, including the contingency of global war. This course, however, would be unlikely to succeed.
- Opposing the aggression by all means short of global war, including deployment of United States and United Kingdom forces for localized opposition to the Soviet attack. This course would lead to hostilities between United States and USSR forces involving the risk of global war, while the commitment of United States forces in Iran would reduce United States capabilities for global war if it developed. However, this course, in so far as it prevented complete Soviet occupation of Iran, would provide an opportunity for the operation of political measures designed to stop the aggression short of global war.
- Taking action on the assumption that global war had automatically begun. However, it would be contrary to United States interests and traditions to regard a localized attack as the automatic “push-button” initiation of global war.
25. The present situation in Iran requires the continuation of basic United States policy with respect to the Mediterranean and the Middle East, including Iran, and the strengthening of measures in support of that policy, particularly measures designed to prevent Iran from assuming an attitude of neutrality in the “cold war”.
26. In the event Iran assumes an attitude of neutrality in the “cold war”, political steps by the United States and United Kingdom to restore Iranian alignment with the free world would be required.
27. In the event the present Iranian Government is replaced by a pro-Soviet puppet government through subversive measures not involving the use of the Soviet military forces, United States and United Kingdom support of the legitimate government would be required.
28. In the event pro-Soviet provincial governments are established in certain areas of Iran by subversive means not involving the use of Soviet military force, United States and United Kingdom support of the legitimate government, short of deployment of United States forces, is required.[Page 21]
29. Direct Soviet attack on Iran would not automatically initiate global war, but would in fact so greatly increase the risk of global war that the United States while taking measures to stop and localize the aggression would also have to proceed on the assumption that global war was probably imminent.
- Regarding the circulation and approval of this study, see footnote 1, infra.↩
- For documentation on the Shah’s visit to the United States, Nov. 16–Dec. 30, 1949, see Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. vi, pp. 471 ff.↩
- At the end of 1950 the Soviet Union negotiated a barter agreement with Iran, agreed to the release of several Iranian border guards held in the Soviet Union, and expressed an interest in opening discussions on stocks of Iranian gold taken from Iran in 1946. For documentation on the barter agreement, see Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. v, pp. 615 ff.↩