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An Alternative History

January 23, 2007
dawnofcoldwarWashington D.C.- dawnofcoldwarWashington D.C.- On March 24th 1946, at 1:30 pm, a wire from the Kremlin arrives to the commander of the Soviet troops deployed in the Northwest region of Iran known as Iranian Azerbaijan. Joseph Stalin orders his soldiers to withdraw immediately. By 8:00 pm that same evening the Red Army is on its way back north, directed to Moscow.

“Normally,” says historian Jamil Hasanli, “it takes between two to four weeks for a withdrawal order to actually take place.” The directive sent by Stalin, that spring day of 1946, must have sounded of particular urgency to the troops on the ground.
Dr. Jamil Hasanli comes from Azerbaijan. He is a member of the country’s parliament and a well respected Professor of International Relations at the University of Baku in Azerbaijan.

In his latest book, At the Dawn of the Cold War, Dr. Hasanli addresses the crisis over Iranian Azerbaijan province as one of the first theaters of Soviet-American conflict, marking the beginning of the Cold War.

“As a rule, the beginning of the Cold War has been traced to Europe,” Dr. Hasanli explained recently at a conference in Washington D.C. For a long time the frontier that separated the Soviet Union and the United States ran across Europe.  Additionally, the majority of Universities and Research Centers that study the Cold War are based in Europe and the US. These factors have greatly contributed to the prevalence of a Eurocentric approach to studying the Cold War.

Dr. Hasanli, however, is convinced that the historiography on the Cold War has been missing a point. “With a degree of certainty” the Professor at Baku University says, “I can now state the Cold War originated in the East.”

The Azerbaijan province of Iran, which the Azerbaijanis prefer to call Southern Azerbaijan, is, in Dr. Hasanli’s opinion, one of the decisive grounds in the emergence of the conflict between the two superpowers. The border between Iran and Azerbaijan, which assigned this portion of territory to Teheran (or the Azerbaijan portion to the Tsarist Russian Empire,) was established in 1828 with the Treaty of Turkmanchay that put an end to the Russian – Persian War.

In the period between 1945 and1946 the delicate equilibrium of this area became threatened once again. The Soviets saw Iranian Azerbaijan province as a target with a dual potential; on one hand gaining control of the region would have helped secure better access to oil and protect Baku’s oil fields. On the other hand, and most importantly, Iranian Azerbaijan would have represented one important step in the expansionist policies pursued by Stalin.

The United States and Britain perceived such aggressive stance of the USSR as a threat of further communist expansion. For the Azeri population the possibility of reunification was a matter of national identity and common faith.

Events started unfolding in the summer of 1945. As Dr. Hasanli explains, “The Soviets Politburo made secret decisions about the Azerbaijani separatist movements in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan,” and started funding and supporting them. Such move proved to be a success, as the Soviets found an available nucleus of indigenous movements that wanted to separate from Iran and re-unite the Azeri population under one flag.

In late 1945, as tensions mounted, the United States Secretary of State James Byrnes talked to the Ambassador of Iran, trying to convince the Iranian leadership to grant more freedom to the Azeris, so as to calm down the unrest and to try discrediting the Soviet attempt at annexing the region. However, according to Dr. Hasanli the Shah did not follow through and dismissed the pressures from the Americans.

On March 2nd 1946, the USSR was to pull out of the Azerbaijan province, but failed to do so. “This had an explosive effect,” Dr. Hasanli says. In short, the Soviets’ interests in the oil fields of Baku were so significant and the border of Iran so close to that city, that Moscow was determined to make its presence felt by keeping its troops on the ground in Southern Azerbaijan.

In his book, the author asserts that after Soviet Union’s refusal to withdraw, Iranian Prime Minister Ahmad Ghavam visited Moscow and engaged in talks with Stalin and his Foreign Minister Molotov asking the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Iran. Stalin tried to convince him to overthrow the monarch instead, and declare a republic in Iran. At first Ghavam seemed intrigued by the suggestion, but soon after started backtracking and openly asked Molotov not to speak on the issue in the presence of the interpreter. He returned to Teheran empty-handed, not being able to obtain a troop withdrawal commitment from the Soviets.

The situation in Iran was growing increasingly tense. The American ambassador to Teheran had written to Washington saying that the Shah and the Prime Minister were very worried and were getting ready to flee. The United States government reacted with great concern. “They saw the situation as a realistic attempt by the Soviets to possibly gain control of the oil fields in Southern Iran, the Kurdistan region, Northern Iraq and Eastern Turkey,” Jamil Hasanli explains.

Charles Bohlen, an expert on Soviet Union and later US ambassador to Moscow in the 1950s, was still convinced that the White House had the power to block Soviet Union’s expansion plans. He advised President Truman to threat Moscow with the use of the atomic bomb.

Although currently no evidence exists in the American archives that this ever happened, but Dr. Hasanli insists that he has come into the possession of one important document from the USSR archive that proves his chronology of events.

According to him, the truth of the matter is; Soviet supplies were still pouring into the Iranian Azerbaijan province on March 24th, up until the point when the order of withdrawal was wired from Moscow. The troops started pulling out that very same night. Something major must have happened then, the Baku University historian believes.
Dr. Hasanli’s book At the Dawn of the Cold War is a thick manuscript with detailed accounts of those years, where he reviews the history of Iranian Azerbaijan’s independence movement, the Soviet struggle for oil in Iran, and the American and British reactions to these events. Hasanli delved deeply into Soviet and Azerbaijani archives as well as what he found analyzing declassified top-secret materials from American, British and Iranian sources.

The Soviets’ rigid bureaucratic organization has been Hasanli’s fortune. Because these documents dealt with Azerbaijan, as a rule the Soviets duplicated a copy for the Azerbaijan’s Communist Party leadership. Without those duplicates, most of the Scholars’ research would have probably been impossible, since most of the archives in Russia are inaccessible to this day. “This has allowed us to take a unique journey through the instances of this crisis,” Dr. Hasanli emphasizes.

Dr. Jamil Hasanli takes the Azerbaijani perspective on the issue and makes no secret of it. With his effort to re-direct the debate on the Cold War and its beginning to the East and specifically to the crisis over Iranian Azerbaijan, he attempts to bring back issues of nationality and minorities’ rights into the discourse on the confrontation between the two blocks.

“Because the Cold War has always been seen as dealing with greater policy issues, often the problems of national interest and nationalities have been overlooked,” the historians points out. The day that the Soviets retreated, marking the defeat of Iranian Azeri separatist movement, he says, “was the beginning of tragedy in the lives of many Azeris.”

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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