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From Enemy to “Good Neighbour” The Partnership Between Moscow and Teheran in the Age of Détente

From Enemy to “Good Neighbour”
The Partnership Between Moscow and Teheran in the Age of Détente


In the sixties the emphasis on Cold War dynamics gradually shifted from military containment towards development, and superpower competition assumed the form of a confrontation between models of progress and growth. [1] For the United States, the early sixties marked the launch of a new form of cultural, political, social and economic hegemony in the shape of the idea of development (used both as a vehicle to contrast with Soviet offensives in the Third World and as a way to renew the image of the US). Economic growth and political reformism were regarded as instruments to harness the changes produced by the process of decolonisation and to “immunise” the Third World against the “disease” of communism. For its part, the USSR pursued a policy aimed at inducing the new nations emerging out of decolonisation to appreciate the undeniable advantages of the Soviet model. The country’s rapid industrialisation, the explicit endorsement of authoritarian leaderships and its model of economic planning were all elements that played in favour of the Kremlin and that fuelled a confident Soviet approach to the Third World. [2] From the mid-sixties these dynamics intertwined with the change in the intensity and language of Cold War competition. A new phase of decreased tension was inaugurated and the two superpowers managed to reach agreements and, more broadly, to establish a constructive dialogue on a broad range of issues. [3] It is within this framework that we can locate the analysis of the economic and, to a lesser extent, military collaboration between one of Washington’s key Cold War allies, Pahlavi Iran, and the Soviet Union, from the normalisation of 1962 to the collapse of the Pahlavi regime in 1979.

Iran represents an interesting case study, not only because of its close ties with Washington, but also due to its geostrategic position. From the beginning of the Cold War the country was, together with Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan, part of the so-called “Northern Tier”. [4] Bordering the Soviet Union, non-Arab countries in a predominantly Arab Greater Middle East, these three key regional actors were always regarded by the Soviets as crucially important to their security and geopolitical interests.
Their particular position has often been overlooked by the literature, which has tended to prioritise their relations with Washington, locating the few analyses of their dealings with the USSR within the wider context of Soviet policy in the Middle East. Their inclusion in this regional scenario has meant scant attention has been paid to their ties with Moscow and to the policy that the Soviet Union pursued towards them during the Cold War.

These are just a few of the premises of the present work, which traces back the origins of the normalisation between the USSR and Teheran in the early sixties. The article also situates their improving relations in the framework of a phase of easing of international tensions that started from the mid-sixties, known as the détente , up until the moment of renewed conflict in the late seventies. Drawing on the extensive literature related to Iranian foreign policy during the Cold War as well as on official American papers, this article emphasises, on the one hand, the interests both Moscow and Teheran had in launching and enhancing the mutually beneficial cooperation and, on the other, the link between the development of the partnership and the rise and fall of détente in a decade crucial for the redefinition of the role played by the Middle East in the global arena. In addition to this, the study tries to give a concise view of the evolution of the relations after the collapse of the Shah and in the first stages of the newly established Islamic Republic.

Towards the Normalisation : Domestic and International Conditions

In September 1962, after decades of mistrust and faltering diplomacy, the USSR and Iran normalised their relations following an Iranian formal commitment against the establishment of any foreign missile bases in Iran. [5]

On the international level, the normalisation of the relations between Iran and Soviet Union occurred in the more general context of redefinition of superpower competition. A few weeks prior to the normalisation, the Cuban Missile Crisis clearly indicated that the terms of confrontation, as they had been conceived in the fifties, were no longer valid. Besides paving the way for nuclear diplomacy, the Cuban crisis also stressed the change underway in the American strategic doctrine, centred on a reduction of the importance of tactical nuclear weapons and, therefore, of missile bases. The decision of the Kennedy Administration to dismantle the IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile) Jupiter in Turkey and Italy in exchange for the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba was a sign of the reassessment of the role of tactical nuclear weapons in the Cold War confrontation. [6] Moreover, the increase in the production of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and of Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) made the missile bases less and less crucial to the American military strategy against Moscow, while intelligence and surveillance were acquiring relevance. This trend significantly increased the role of allied countries ; especially those that shared a border with the Soviet Union, as Washington relied heavily upon their collaboration for control over Moscow’s arsenal.

This revision of American strategic thinking was paralleled by a readjustment of the Soviet military doctrine in the Greater Middle East, with significant consequences for Moscow’s policy towards Iran. In contrast with the support for the neutralist nationalism of the fifties, in these years Moscow undertook a campaign aimed at boosting its military presence in the region. In order to make this penetration possible and effective in the Middle Eastern area, one fundamental step was necessary : normalisation of relations with the southern neighbours of Iran and Turkey. Easing the tensions with the main members of the Northern Tier would allow Moscow to reduce its involvement in the South and concentrate its action on its regional allies, whose importance had been significantly increased by the new Soviet dynamism.

If, for Moscow, international and regional strategic conditions were the basis of the normalisation, for Teheran domestic factors played a dominant role. Iranian commitment in September 1962 occurred, in fact, during a particularly delicate phase for the regime, which was slowly re-emerging from a period of political instability and financial crisis that had made the intervention of the International Monetary Fund necessary at the beginning of the decade. Despite the remarkable growth in oil revenue, which reached the level of 380 million dollars in 1963, Iranian economic conditions were still defined by Western analysts as being “stagnant” and in need of foreign assistance. [7] From this perspective the normalisation of relations with Moscow was seen by the Iranian authorities as a strategy to reduce the anti-regime campaign that the Soviet Union had been carrying out since the late fifties and to find new political and financial support for the reformist project that the Shah would launch a few months later under the name “White Revolution”. The Soviet willingness to support Iran, which would materialise with the construction of a steel mill in Isfahan was, thus, another crucial element that led to normalisation, deeply intertwined with the project of national rebirth developed by the Shah as a way to enhance his domestic and international position.

With regard to this second aspect, the top priority of the Iranian monarch was made evident by the competition with Arab nationalism. The breaking of diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1960, Nasser’s pan-Arab appeals, and the growing threat represented by the new regime in Baghdad, constituted, according to the Shah, major risks compared to the Soviet Union. The normalisation with Moscow allowed Teheran to stabilise the situation on its Northern border in order to focus attention on the perceived menaces coming from its Southern flank.

Play-Acting Cold War Roles and Building Stable Relationships

The normalisation of October 1962 marked the beginning of a new phase of collaboration between Moscow and Teheran. A first, fundamental, effect was the relinquishment by the Soviet Union of its fierce anti-regime rhetoric. From 1963 on, the Soviet Union opted for more and more open support for the Shah, praising the progressive aspects of his modernising project, especially with regard to the land reform. At the same time Moscow showed growing signs of detachment from the Iranian Communist Party, the Tudeh. The Soviet leaders set the polemics aside, limiting their criticism of the harsh repression of the Tudeh carried out by the regime to sporadic complaints and thereby significantly contributing to its loss of consensus and effectiveness. In reaction to this policy, the Tudeh started to look with growing sympathy towards China. As in other cases, Chinese Communism became an alternative and appealing model, uncontaminated by the effects of détente and able to win the support of part of the Iranian youth and the intelligentsia. In synthesis, as argued by Galia Golan after the normalisation, from the early sixties on, Soviet policy was based on the endorsement of the regime in power, having lost any interest in the promotion of its overthrow. [8]

Notwithstanding the significant consequences of the normalisation on a political level, it was on the economic front that the effects of the new climate in bilateral relations were most evident. During the sixties, Iran became the second greatest recipient of Soviet economic aid and the third biggest commercial partner of Moscow in the Third World, after Egypt and India. The exchange between Iran and USSR from 1965 to 1969 grew sevenfold compared to the 1953-1958 period, and the country received credits from Moscow worth approximately 1 billion dollars between the late sixties and 1978. [9]

The first agreement that followed the normalisation was concluded in July 1963. It was for the development of a hydroelectric project on the Aras River, on the border between Iran and the Soviet Union. In November, the two parties concluded another agreement on transit that, together with the opening of a new route through the Volga in June 1964, laid the basis for stable and regular trade relations.

On top of these promising and relevant signs, between 1965 and 1966 the economic collaboration between Moscow and Teheran took an unprecedented step forward. In the summer of 1965 the two parties started to negotiate the concession of a 286 million dollar credit to Iran, one of the most major loans ever agreed by the Soviet Union to a Third World country. According to the agreement, whose terms were finalised the following winter, Moscow would finance a series of projects for Iranian development, including the construction of a steel mill in Isfahan. The loan would be mainly repaid through the supply of Iranian natural gas. [10] As emphasised by Andrew Johns, “the deal marked the beginning of a ‘flurry of commercial activity’ between Iran and Eastern Europe […] that signalled the Shah’s determination not to allow Iran to be taken for granted by the United States.” [11]

The steel mill was completed in 1973, two years later than expected, at a total cost of 750 million dollars. Despite the difficulties and the delays it was a major success for Iran, visible proof of the modernisation project the Shah had been promoting since the early sixties. In a report released by the CIA in April 1966, the construction of the steel mill was presented as the final achievement of what had become a question of honour as much as a symbol of modernisation and redemption from colonialism. [12] The following year the trade agreement concluded in 1964 was renewed and extended by a five-year agreement worth more than 540 million dollars that led to a significant increase in commercial trade between Iran and the Soviet Bloc.

The strengthening of commercial relations between Iran and the Soviet Union was based not only on political reasons, but also on the natural complementarity of the two production systems. During the sixties Iran went through a phase of unprecedented growth, also thanks to the launch of a massive plan for state-guided industrialisation. [13] The Soviet Union, together with the other countries of the Eastern Bloc, offered Iran new markets for the manufactured goods produced by the infant Iranian industry and, at the same time, made significant investments in the country’s project of modernisation. The result of this profitable combination allowed Teheran to increase its export to the Soviet Union and to Moscow from 20 to 70 million dollars per year and to find one of the first purchasers in the Third World for its machinery and equipment. [14]
American reaction to this evolution was initially based on prudence but with clear signs of appreciation. In a report to the State Department, the analyst at the Intelligence and Research Bureau, Tom Hughes commented on the new strong economic cooperation between Moscow and Teheran in positive, if cautious, terms : “The USSR” – he affirmed – “represents itself a ‘good neighbour’, and the aid, trade and cultural contacts [between Teheran and] the Soviet Union would in time lead to a political reorientation that would transform CENTO [Central Treaty Organization] into an empty shell”. [15]

From Economic Collaboration to Military Partnership

From the end of 1965, however, American acceptance of the partnership had to face an unexpected turn of events : the Iranian-Soviet negotiations for an arms package deal. Teheran’s decision to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the Soviet collaborative attitude not only risked jeopardising the military collaboration between the Pahlavi regime and the US, but also placed the strengthening of the relations with Moscow into the more insidious and delicate ground of the superpower conflict in the area.

The issue almost immediately attracted the attention of the high-level officials within the Johnson administration, producing a reaction of firmness, intended to communicate to the Shah the limits of his more independent posture. In July 1966 President Johnson directly addressed the sovereign, in an attempt to dissuade him from signing a military agreement with the Soviets : “If Iran should turn to the communist nations for arms” – the President warned – “we will not be so short-sighted as to turn from our close relationship, but I do fear the impairment of our military assistance program”. [16]

The strongly pro-Pahlavi ambassador in Teheran, Armin Meyer, provided a further confirmation of a firm American stance. In a message of August 1966 to the State Department, the diplomat argued that the Shah was not in a position to
“pick what he wanted from the US and buy the rest from others, including the Russians, namely that there were security limitations as well as political repercussions that he had to take into account”. [17]

His message contained, however, some considerations that revealed certain flexibility, especially in the long-term perspective.
“Diversification per se is not against the long run political interests of the United States” – Meyer concluded – “indeed, if the disengagement of the Shah from his hitherto excessive intimacy and dependence upon the United States is not carried too far, it may have significant advantages for the US”. [18]

On the Iranian side, as stressed by Galia Golan, the motivation behind the deal was, “apparently more political than economic, designed most likely not so much to diversify arms suppliers but rather to put pressure on the United States to be more forthcoming in its supplies”. [19]

The agreement, in synthesis, represented a proof of independence, intended to show to its main ally, to its regional adversaries and to the domestic opposition, Iran’s ability to act with confidence on the global scene and, to some extent, outside the rules of bipolar competition.

The Soviets, for their part, did not intend to supply sophisticated weapons systems, limiting sales to APCs (Armoured Personnel Carrier), trucks and some anti-aircraft weapons, as further confirmation of the predominantly political relevance of the agreement that, far from threatening undisputed American leadership in arms sales to Iran, was meant as a signal of increased Soviet and Iranian assertiveness.

In late January of 1967 the terms of the deal between Moscow and Teheran became public : the Shah concluded a military agreement with the Soviet Union worth nearly 100 million dollars but renounced his initial interest in procuring Soviet surface-to-air missiles. The agreement, that included the purchase of trucks, anti-aircraft guns, and other unsophisticated weaponry, was the first arms deal between Moscow and a state member of a Western military pact. The deal produced an immediate hardening of internal American debate on the terms and the purpose of US assistance to the Third World allied countries, but the curtailment of the military assistance programme mentioned by Johnson did not materialise.

From 1966 to 1970 Moscow sold approximately 344 million worth of military hardware to Iran. Even though it accounted for only 12 per cent of Iran’s military imports, as compared to the 85 per cent share bought from Washington, the military collaboration stood as a proof of the closer relations the two countries managed to build in the fifteen years that preceded the revolution.

The Evolution during the Seventies and the Revolution of 1979

The trend established in the sixties continued to bear fruit in the following decade. In the years before the collapse of the regime, the Soviet Union represented the largest market for the export of Iranian manufactured goods. At the same time Iran became the largest market in the Middle East for Soviet non-military production. Moreover, with over three thousand Soviet advisers in Iran, the largest contingent of Soviet technicians in the Third World, the extent of Soviet scientific and technical assistance became undisputed. [20] The framework of this collaboration is well synthesised by Richard Herrmann, who has argued : “The dual character of Soviet policy towards the Shah’s regime is easier to describe than it is to explain. Positive Soviet-Iranian relations developed, despite continuing American dependence on Iran as a strategic ‘pillar’. They also developed in spite of Soviet support for Nasser in the 1960s, for Iraq in the early 1970s, and for the other regional adversaries of the Shah, such as the rebels in Dhofar.” [21]

The good state of relations did not prevent some sources of conflict from emerging throughout the decade, especially when regional dynamics came into the picture. More specifically, a moment of tension arose in 1972 when Moscow signed a Treaty of Friendship with one of the main Iranian regional antagonists : Iraq. This treaty was among various factors that induced Iran to conclude, a few months later, a major arms deal with Washington to counterbalance the Moscow-Baghdad axis. Another source of strain was growing Iranian dynamism in the Gulf after British withdrawal in 1971 and the country’s support to the conservative pro-Western regimes, perceived by Moscow to be a threat to the Soviet position and interests in the Middle East.

Despite the importance of these irritants, by far the most disturbing element in Iranian-Soviet relations in the seventies was represented by Teheran’s role in the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq. The logistical support provided by the Iranian regime to the separatist groups, endorsed and financially encouraged by Washington, significantly frustrated Iraqi efforts, backed by Moscow, to suppress the revolt.

Though able to place some strain on Soviet-Iranian collaboration, these irritants never put into doubt the reciprocal benefits of the partnership, which continued throughout the decade. As pointed out by Amin Saikal, “By 1978 […] Moscow’s political, economic, and cultural relations with Tehran stood at an all-time high”. [22]

As was also the case for the Iranian allies among the Western countries, the collaboration with the Shah contributed to a late acknowledgment of the domestic crisis underway. In April 1978 the two parties concluded an agreement for the construction of a new pipeline and all signs indicated continued support for the Shah. It was only in the late autumn of 1978 that the Soviet leaders realised that the Shah’s regime would not survive the turmoil that had been spreading for months.

Moscow’s first reaction to the unexpected alteration in the Iranian domestic situation and to the downfall of the Shah in January 1979 was a sudden shift in policy : the Kremlin revitalised its support for the Tudeh Party and, in an attempt to ingratiate itself with the new regime in power, relaunched with increased intensity its anti-American campaign. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that Moscow’s efforts (and hopes) to take advantage of the revolution through their political proxies in the country and through the common hostility towards Washington were bound to be disappointed. Right from the early stages of its political life the Islamic Republic made no secret of its revolutionary determination to assert its independence from both the East and the West. As a further confirmation of its intention not to establish closer political relations with Moscow, in early 1983 the Khomeini regime outlawed the Tudeh, eliminating any chance of seeing a Soviet-friendly regime established in Teheran.

For its part, the USSR tried to profit from the outbreak of regional hostility between Iran and Iraq, in the immediate aftermath of the establishment of the Islamic Republic. During the war, despite an official policy of neutrality, the Kremlin found continuation of the war to be in its interest and with this aim, supplied arms directly to the Iraqis and indirectly to Iran, through Syria, Libya, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and North Korea. Moscow’s ambiguous policy during the Iran-Iraq war and Iranian opposition to Soviet international policies, first and foremost to Moscow’s intervention in Afghanistan, did not prevent the two countries from maintaining diplomatic relations and a relatively important commercial partnership throughout the eighties.

As the article has underlined, the decision of the Iranian government to normalise its relations with Moscow was the product not only of domestic pressures, but also of a phase of strategic reassessment carried out by both the superpowers. The initiative was taken by Teheran in conformity with the changes underway both in the American and in the Soviet strategic doctrines and with the interests of Washington in the region. As a result, the military agreement between Iran and the Soviet Union, as much as their economic collaboration, did not impair Iranian alignment with the US, nor was it a threat to Western interests in the area, a success celebrated by the American Ambassador in Iran, Armin Meyer, who expressed deep appreciation for “the less dependent and less aligned posture of Iran”. [23]

For his part, the Shah chose the terrain of the relations with the Eastern bloc and, particularly, with the Soviet Union, to enhance his position domestically, to demonstrate his autonomy and to widen the set of options at his disposal in order to promote his regional agenda, a strategy made possible also by the new international climate. For Moscow the collaboration represented and was presented as one of the numerous successes of the Soviet involvement in the Third World in the seventies, and as an occasion to establish mutually beneficial relations with a country outside its sphere of influence and formally allied with Washington.

The collapse of the Pahlavi regime seemed to offer the Kremlin the chance to further improve the state of the relations with its southern neighbour. Moscow’s expectations were to be short-lived and, though able to remove one of America’s staunchest allies, the revolution failed to produce the shift in the regional balance of power that Moscow had initially hoped for. The new regime in power in Teheran consistently distanced itself both from the ‘Great Satan’, the United States, and from the ‘Little Satan’, the Soviet Union. The initial hopes Moscow nourished of establishing an understanding with Khomeini and his entourage were soon destroyed by the fierce anti-communist policy pursued by the Islamic Republic. The failure of the Soviet projects for the new Iran, however, did leave some room for collaboration, just as there had been under the Shah. The policy the two countries pursued during the eighties represents further confirmation of the pragmatism and political flexibility they had displayed in the pre-revolutionary period which, despite the mutated circumstances, continued to govern their approach to being neighbours, even after the watershed of 1979.

[1] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War : Third World Interventions and the Making of our Times, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 34.

[2] On Third World countries’ fascination for the Soviet model see David C. Engerman, “The Romance of Economic Development and New Histories of the Cold War”, Diplomatic History, 28/1, 2004, p. 23-56.

[3] On this phase of the Cold War see, among others, John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment : a Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, New York ; London, Oxford University Press, 1982, chap. 7.

[4] The expression “Northern Tier” encompasses the group of countries, led by Iran and Turkey that, after World War II, were selected by the United States and the United Kingdom as a first defence against any Soviet penetration in the Middle East. In 1955 the group formed the so-called Baghdad Pact, later transformed into the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). On the relations between these countries and Moscow see Malcolm Yapp, “Soviet Relations with Countries of the Northern Tier”, in Adeed Dawisha and Karen Dawisha (eds.), The Soviet Union in the Middle East : Policies and Perspectives, London, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1982, and Alvin Z. Rubinstein, Soviet Policy Towards Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan : the Dynamics of Influence, New York, Praeger Publications, 1982. More specifically on the Iranian case, see Martin Sicker, The Bear and the Lion, Soviet Imperialism and Iran, New York, Praeger Publications, 1988. For a more complete analysis of the role of the Northern Tier countries in the Cold War, see Michael J. Cohen, Strategy and Politics in the Middle East, 1954-1960. Defending the Northern Tier, London, Frank Cass, 2005.

[5] On the pre-1962 period of Soviet–Iranian relations see Kristen Blake, The US–Soviet Confrontation in Iran, 1945-1962 : a Case in the Annals of the Cold War, Lanham, University Press of America, 2009.

[6] On the Cuban Missile Crisis see, among others, Melvyn P. Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind : the United States, the Soviet Union and the Cold War, New York, Nill and Wang, 2007, chap. 3.

[7] “Iranian-Soviet bloc economic cooperation”, Bureau of Intelligence Research Paper (hereafter INR paper), Tom Hughes to Secretary of State Rusk, 4th March 1964, “Iran, November 1963-December 1964”, Files of Robert Komer, National Security Files (hereafter NSF), Box 27, folder 3, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin (Texas) (hereafter LBJL).

[8] Galia Golan, Soviet Policies in the Middle East : from World War Two to Gorbachev, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 184.

[9] Data reported in G. Golan, Soviet Policies in the Middle East, op. cit., p. 179.

[10] Seven billion cubic metres per year in 1970, up to ten billion in 1976. The Soviet Union concluded an analogous agreement with Afghanistan.

[11] Andrew L. Johns, “The Johnson Administration, the Shah of Iran, and the Changing Pattern of US-Iranian Relations, 1965-1967 : ‘Tired of Being Treated like a Schoolboy’”, Journal of Cold War Studies, 9/2, 2007, p. 6-94, 77.

[12] “Impact of the New Industrial Aid Program to Iran”, CIA Special Report, 12nd April 1966, CIA Crest, National Archives and Record Administration, College Park (MD).

[13] On the goals of the Iranian Third Development Plan (1962-1967), see Robert E. Looney, “Origins of Pre-Revolutionary Iran’s Development Strategy”, Middle Eastern Studies, 22/1, 1986, p. 104-119.

[14] Data refers to 1967 and is reported in Ruhollah Ramazani, Iran’s Foreign Policy 1941-1973, a Study of Foreign Policy in Modernizing Nations, Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1974, p. 331.

[15] “Soviet-Iranian Steel Mill and Pipeline Agreement”, INR report from Tom Hughes to the Secretary of State Rusk, 23rd March 1966, NSF, Files of Robert Komer, Box 28, Folder 1, “Iran, 1965-March 1966”, LBJL.

[16] Letter from President Johnson to the Shah of Iran, 20th July 1966, NSF, Special Head of State Correspondence, Box 24, “Shah’s Correspondence”, vol II, LBJL.

[17] “The Current Reorientation of Iran’s Military Procurement”, A-89, from US Embassy in Teheran (Meyer) to the State Department, 16th August 1966, Box 1, Folder 22, Martin Herz Papers, Lauinger Library of Georgetown University, Special Collection Division, Washington DC (hereafter MHP).

[18] Ibid.

[19] G. Golan, Soviet Policy in the Middle East, op. cit., p. 180.

[20] Richard Herrmann, “The Role of Iran in Soviet Perceptions and Policy”, in Nikki R. Keddie and Mark Gasiorowki (eds.), Neither East Nor West : Iran, the Soviet Union and the United States, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1990, p. 63-99.

[21] Ibid. p. 71.

[22] Amin Saikal, “Soviet Foreign Policy in an Uncertain World”, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 481, 1985, p. 104-116.

[23] “The Current Reorientation of Iran’s Military Procurement”, MHP.

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