12 April 2021

Monday, 11:12



"The German intelligence service has determined the specific aims of the acts of sabotage in Baku" - historian Boris Orishev




n the eve of the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, new, previously little-known pages of this war are opening, in particular concerning Azerbaijan. In August 1941, just a month after the start of the war, when Hitler's army was advancing rapidly, the Soviet leadership sent its 5th Army to Iran through the territory of the Azerbaijan and Turkmen SSR. The Soviet troops remained in Iranian provinces until May 1946. What could force the Soviets in the midst of the enemy's offensive to send significant forces to a country that was not at war with the USSR? Could the Second World War have come to the territory of Azerbaijan (then Azerbaijan SSR) from the south through Iran?

With these and other issues related to joint military operations by Soviet and British troops codenamed Operation Countenance, R+ turned to Boris Orishev, a historian and author of the book "In August of 1941. 1,418 Days of the Great War".

- There are different versions as to why the USSR and Britain decided so quickly to take control of Iran. According to one of them, Persian National Socialists were to come to power in Iran as a result of a coup. The head of Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach, personally worked on the training of Iranian National Socialists long before the war.

- Among the Iranian army officers there was a pro-German group, which was unofficially led by the commander of the Esfahan Division, General Feyzollah Zahidi. This group had some plans for power, and it was possible to expect any hostile action from them. But the fact is that Iranian Shah Reza himself dealt a blow to the group in 1940 and arrested several officers. Zahidi was arrested for cooperation with German intelligence and deported by the British in 1943. In general, there were very strong pro-German sentiments in Iran. When World War II began, two thirds of Iranian parliamentarians spoke out in favour of the country's neutrality and the remaining MPs for an alliance with the Third Reich. Iran's official neutrality did not prevent the German intelligence service from carrying out tremendous work in this country. The German secret service SD under the command of an experienced Franz Mayer and the Abwehr military intelligence service headed by Berthold Schulze-Holthus operated in Iran. They created an extensive network of pro-German underground there. They worked in parallel and, admittedly, very effectively.

- The German National Socialists regarded Persians as a close race, and it was the Germans who developed the Iranian economy, taught in universities and trained the military. Berlin proclaimed the Persians as real Aryans and issued a special decree exempting them from the Nuremberg racial laws.

- When the German troops successfully advanced in the south of the USSR in 1942, the German intelligence service in Iran managed to unite a variety of local Iranian national socialists, right-wing and pro-German forces, including the nationalist organization of officers Nehzat-e Melli (National Movement), into a single party called Melliyun-e Iran (Iranian nationalists). Proponents of this party were readying themselves to take up arms and side with Germany. They had a plan of action ready: which contacts to establish with tribes in the provinces, in particular Qashqais, and how to win over other peoples. I should note that wide strata of Iranians sympathized with Nazi Germany. But the Shah defeated the coup that was being prepared, and the pro-German forces went underground. Berlin, on the one hand, supported Reza Shah, and on the other, it was preparing a more decisive person to replace him and act as an ally of the Germans. They tried to establish contact with Reza Shah's son Mohammad and even wanted to bribe him by giving him a Mersedes car. But nothing happened.

- What is known about the plans of sabotage in the Azerbaijan SSR? Throughout the USSR aviation fuel was produced only in Baku. The press describes at least one case where two parachutists were dropped off a plane that invaded the territory of the Azerbaijan SSR from Iran. Did the Germans really prepare subversive groups and build secret airfields in Iranian territory?

- German intelligence had identified specific targets of sabotage in Baku. Shortly before the war, Schulze-Holthus visited the Soviet Union as a tourist and was in the Azerbaijani capital. So he found all the strategic facilities of Baku on the map: oil pipelines, oil tanks, reservoirs and so on. But the USSR knew who Schulze-Holthus actually was and watched him carefully. Of course, Azerbaijan was penetrated by German saboteurs from Iran, but the Soviet secret service worked so skilfully that they failed to commit any act of sabotage. However, there was sabotage during the war in respect of Lend-Lease aid to the USSR by allies. They blew up tunnels and roads, but such cases were few.

By the way, the security of allied military supplies through Iranian territory was the main strategic goal of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran.

- But the Shah of Iran opposed the Soviet-British military operation. The Iranian army even resisted the Red Army and the British military...

- The Iranian army put up little resistance despite its very comfortable positions. Casualties among the Soviet troops totalled about 50 people killed and one thousand wounded, among Britons - 60 people were killed. The Iranian army had one thousand people killed.

But it is the total losses, which also include those killed in accidents. The Soviet and British troops moved into Iranian territory in a very short period of time and reached Tehran. Here it is necessary to consider that the Shah of Iran understood the impossibility of containing an offensive by two powerful foreign armies. He understood that in the event of fierce resistance his army would be defeated and the economy would collapse. So the Shah only imitated resistance. And he did it in order to have a reason to justify himself before Hitler in the future. Judging by how the German offensive was developing in 1941, the Shah was confident that the German troops would capture the USSR.

- Why did the Soviet army use so many troops for the Iran operation? The Red Army was advancing almost from the entire Iranian-Soviet border.

- Apparently, the Soviet command had no confidence that they would not meet strong resistance in Iran. There is another important point: among the military that entered Iran there were a lot of Azerbaijanis. This was done because it was easy for the Azerbaijanis to navigate in this territory and establish contact with the local population. The arrival of the Soviet army, in which there were many Azerbaijanis, stimulated national movements in Iran. Azerbaijani provinces were socially and economically backward regions of Iran. This was a result of the policy of the Iranian authorities. The rights of southern Azerbaijanis were infringed. Therefore, some of the local population in Tabriz and other cities met the Soviet troops as liberators. Local Kurds also collaborated with the Soviet Army and worked as translators. Stalin could not decide on whom to rely in Iran - Azerbaijanis or Kurds. As a result, two states - the Democratic Republic of South Azerbaijan and the Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan - were established. It is clear that these national movements were mostly initiated by the arrival of the Red Army. After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the monarchy defeated these republics in a couple of months and began mass repression against its residents.

- Why did Stalin withdraw troops from Iran? The Soviet Army did not leave Poland, Hungary, East Germany and other countries...

- Iran is a special case. It is generally believed that the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union started from the solution to the Iranian issue. The Cold War began with the fact that Britain and its allies began to protest about the fact that despite the end of the Second World War, the Soviet troops continued to remain in Iran in 1946. Meanwhile, the USSR agreed with Iran on the production of Iranian oil by Soviet specialists. But after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the Iranian parliament refused to ratify the intergovernmental agreement. And the Soviet Union did not get access to Iranian oil.

- How do you see the course of events if the Germans had gained a victory at Stalingrad?

- It is difficult to assume what Iran would do, because they were very afraid of the USSR. By the way, the Soviet invasion was not occupation, because based on Articles 5 and 6 of the Soviet-Iranian treaty of 1921, the USSR had the right to send troops to Iranian territory if Moscow felt a threat to its security from Iran. And the actions of the British, who had no such agreement, looked like occupation.

We can say with great confidence that Turkey could act against the Soviet Union through Iranian territory. And the control of the Soviet troops over the northern regions of Iran was a warning and a chance to keep Ankara out of the war.

The military significance of Operation Countenance was that for the first time, Soviet troops acted against Germany on foreign territory, and secondly, it was the first joint military operation carried out with the British. Thirdly, security was provided in the southerly direction, which worried the Soviet leadership very much. Fourthly, the delivery of Lend-Lease equipment and products through Iran played a decisive role in the victory over fascism.

- According to some historians, during the negotiations on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler proposed that the USSR take control of Iran and Iraq. And he kept Egypt and oil-producing countries of North Africa...

- Access to the warm seas and the Indian Ocean has always been a dream of Russian leaders. In November 1940, during the talks in Berlin, Molotov was clearly invited to join the triple alliance and create a block of four: Berlin-Rome-Tokyo-Moscow. In this case, Central Asian countries - up to the Indian Ocean - would have fallen in the Soviet sphere of influence. Molotov did not refuse the offer. On Stalin's orders he just began to bargain, as this offer was not enough for Joseph Vissarionovich. At the talks, in principle, the parties could have agreed, but Hitler decided not to continue them and moved onto the blitzkrieg.

- Why was the Shah of Iran Reza overthrown during Operation Countenance?

- It is interesting that the allies had a plan to establish a republican government in Iran. The Shah understood it, and took a preventive measure - he abdicated and handed over the throne to his son, Mohammad Reza. Thus he kept the dynasty and came through this situation with fewer losses. As a result, a tripartite anti-Hitler alliance of the USSR, Iran and the United Kingdom was formed.

- But in 1930, the USSR had a plan to take over the northern regions of Iran and the eastern provinces of Turkey. There are maps of all towns, bridges and roads. It was identified in which cities regional councils and governing bodies, committees, etc. would be located.

- The Shah of Iran looked on the local communist party as the "fifth column", so he defeated it in advance. The communist leaders were in custody. There was no well-established communist party with cells. But there was a widespread network of Comintern agents. An important role in the success of the operation of Soviet troops was played by the sympathies of the population of Northern Iran with the Soviet Union.

- In 1943 Iranian Operation Countenance was joined by the USA, military equipment and products from which were the most important in supplies to the Soviet Union...

- The USA saw Iran as an important area for itself. The Soviet military administration in Iran had much better relations with the Americans than with the British. The Americans believed that after the war, the future would belong to the USA and the USSR and that the United Kingdom was a thing of the past. Therefore, Americans and citizens of the USSR in Iran had the most cordial relations and mutual sympathy. It was a time when the Cold War had not come yet.