Persian Paradox

The following article was published by Time magazine, Monday September 08, 1941:

"Over a suburb of Teheran, Iran's capital, suddenly appeared four Soviet bombers one day last week and dropped six bombs which exploded a half-mile from the home of U.S. Legation Secretary James S. Moose Jr. Within 30 minutes the Cabinet of new Premier Ali Furanghi ordered Iranian troops to cease resistance to the Anglo-Russian advances. The order took a while to filter through. Next day hard-of-hearing Russians bombed Kazvin, set afire thousands of gallons of gasoline Russia could have used. But 1,500 miles to the east on a mountaintop at Simla, General Sir Archibald Wavell, commanding the Indian Army and the British share of the Iranian operation, could collapse his figurative telescope, order himself a great big literal drink. Because:

1. The Allies now had a Burma Road to Russia.

2. Russia was given her first concrete evidence that Britain was an actual ally. Diminished was the possibility that Russia might make a separate peace with Hitler out of distrust of the democracies.

3. One more hole in the dike around the Axis was plugged.

4. Empire troops could cooperate in the defense of the Caucasus oil field if the Germans pass the Dnieper.

5. Four thousand German "specialists" were hustled away from contact with the inflammable tribes of India's Northwest Frontier.*

6. Britain's oil supplies in the East were safeguarded.

Beside the Götterdämmerung thunders of the Russo-German War, the 80-hour campaign to achieve all these desirable things sounded like the popping of a little corn. Down either side the Caspian came the Cossacks—horsed, mechanized and propellered. Their western column rapidly took Tabriz; their eastern the port of Bandar Shah (see map). To the south the British crossed from Iraq and made sure of the richest single oil field in existence; their warships in the Persian Gulf squashed Iran's minuscule Navy, sinking two sloops, capturing seven Axis ships. Indian troops landed at Bandar Shahpur and, after a brief brush, made sure of the world's largest oil-cracking plant, at Abadan. Not needed were more Indian troops poised on the border of Baluchistan, where shaving the head and varnishing the skull is the poor man's pith helmet.

Fighting on the same side again, Britain and Russia were delighted to have Iran, and with so little trouble. But there was one party to the taking who could not have shared their delight, and that was Iran's 65-year-old Shah in Shah ("King of Kings").

Last week the Shah held aloof from any official notice that his country was occupied. All that officially happened was that Premier Ali Mansur, to whom the Anglo-Russian ultimatum demanding the Nazis' expulsion had been handed, turned down the ultimatum and ordered resistance. Twenty-four hours later Ali Furanghi was in and the war was off. This week he was arranging peace terms.

Ali Furanghi is a prominent Iranian. Prime Minister once before, thrice Foreign Minister, onetime Ambassador to Turkey and onetime President of the Council of the League of Nations, he is a historian and economist of considerable local note. But he does not give the orders in Iran. The Shah does.

Minus Times Minus Equals Plus. If ever a man had reason to be bewitched, bothered and bewildered by recent history's queer swerves, it was His Majesty Reza Shah Pahlavi. For 20 long years he had played with London, played with Moscow and never lost a trick. Actually he never played both ends against the middle, for he never needed to. During most of the 20 years, London and Moscow felt towards each other much as Georgia's Governor Eugene Talmadge feels towards Negro Ph.D.s and vice versa. But now, somehow, crazily, incredibly, these two irreconcilables stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the soil of his beloved Iran, using it for a meeting ground of mutual assistance. Within his lifetime the Shah has seen some strange quirks in Russo-British-Iranian relations, but never one like this.

Flashback. Scion of an Army-officer family, the Shah was born in 1876 in the Firuzkuh district east of Teheran. Iran was Persia then; and in the '80s Russia, which had steadily picked off Persia's northern provinces, conspicuously strengthened her position at Teheran by organizing under Tsarist officers the Persian Cossack Brigade, most effective military force in the country. This rough & tough outfit Reza, a youngster of 24, joined as a trooper in 1900.

While the Russians staked out their bailiwick in the north, the British did beautifully for themselves in the south. Oil had been smelled, and in 1901 for $20,000 bleak-brained Shah Muzaffar-ed-Din gave an English financial adventurer named William Knox D'Arcy a 60-year monopoly to explore and exploit all Persia for petroleum except the five northern provinces in the Russian stakeout.

Britain worried about possible Russian encroachments on India, and there was much talk about the Bear that Walks Like a Man. To lubricate diplomatic friction, in 1907 an agreement was solemnly signed which defined each country's sphere of influence in Persia. Britain was to influence in the southeast; Russia in the north. As for the poor Persians, their attitude was aptly summed up in a Punch cartoon of the period. It showed a Persian cat apprehensively sitting between a lion and a bear. "I will pat its head," says the bear, "and you shall stroke its tail." Pleads the cat: "But I have not been consulted!"

Ten years later the Tsar fell, and this ended the agreement. Britain's Foreign Secretary, the suavely arrogant Lord Curzon of Kecleston, then had a lovely dream. He dreamed of extending British control from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, thereby adding a magnificent frontier province to British India. The Mesopotamian campaign had slopped over into always neutral Persia, but in 1918 the British drove the Turks out and garrisoned Persia's strong places. The next year Shah Ahmad, even bleaker-brained than Shah Muzaffar, had no alternative but to submit to an agreement by which his country came under Britain's political and military control.

In 1920, however, Lord Curzon's lovely dream was rudely shattered. The Bolsheviks overran large chunks of northern Persia. Along the shores of the Caspian the British, assisted by the Persian Cossack Brigade, vainly tried to stop them. Those of the old Tsarist officers who were not killed, fled; the brigade started to fall apart.

The story is told that a British colonel at Kazvin, whither the anti-Bolshevik forces had retreated, spotted among the Cossack Brigade's remaining officers a striking six-foot Persian with hard grey eyes. His name was Reza Khan. The colonel knew him for a brave man and, in a last desperate attempt to keep the brigade together, he put him in command. Had he not done so, the future King of Kings might have died an unknown old horse bully.

Persia into Iran. But luck intervened. The U.S.S.R. decided against sovietizing northern Persia, fearing that Britain would grab the rest of the country. The British decided against grabbing the rest of the country, fearing that the U.S.S.R. would sovietize the north. For the time being, it was a standoff. Taking advantage of the lull, on Feb. 21, 1921, Colonel Reza Khan rode into Teheran at the head of 2,000 Persian Cossacks and took over.

Shah of Persia then was the squat, pillowy royal jerk, Ahmad (height 5 ft., 2 in.; weight 275 lb.), a member of the Kajar Dynasty which had leeched on the Persian people since the late 18th Century. Ahmad's most solemn edicts, when there were any, were not obeyed outside of Teheran. He was known as the Grocery Boy Shah because he once cornered his country's entire grain crop during a famine and sold it to his starving subjects at colossal prices.

The night boxes and gambling joints of France were Ahmad's sole passion. When he left Persia he took an alleged $200,000,000 worth of jewels with him; gave an Oriental carnival for the whole town of Nice which lasted a week, and every night banqueted a thousand guests. On every damsel who tickled his fancy he bestowed a handful of precious stones. In 1930, aged 32, Ahmad died of cirrhosis. Gossip said that he had a liver like an old Spanish saddle. Provision for eight wives was made in his will (executed by Manhattan's Guaranty Trust Co.), but two more turned up whom he had apparently mislaid.

Of such kidney was the ruler of Persia when Colonel Reza Khan took over. The treasury was empty, the Army little more than an armed rabble. Brigandage and tribal disaffection were rampant. The country's roads were hardly better than camel tracks, and so dreadful was transportation that fields of surplus wheat and barley might rot in one section while 600 miles away a bread famine would rage. The citizenry was saturated with corruption, ignorance and disease.

Through this horrible mess Reza Khan swept like God's wrath: first as War Minister, then as Premier, finally (1925) as Shah in Shah. He reorganized the Army on western lines, put down brigandage, overthrew rebel chieftains, stripped the mullahs of their judicial and political powers, drew up a code of civil law, hobbled child marriage by raising to 15 the age at which a girl might marry, removed the veils from the womenfolk and bettered their status in life, ran the royal Grocery Boy out of the land, fostered education, set up schools and colleges, tore down slums, erected beautiful buildings, updated agriculture, improved medical service and public health, founded Boy and Girl Scout movements, reconstructed roads and fomented trade and industry with all his being. His greatest accomplishment (next to getting Persia up on its feet) was the 870-mile railroad, which took eleven years to build, cost $160,000,000 and runs from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian.†

A fanatic nationalist, in 1935 he changed Persia's name to Iran, which had been its name as a nation even before the great days of Cyrus and Darius and Xerxes. Persia ("Pars") was merely one of Iran's provinces. In the same spirit, he chose to add Pahlavi to his name. It means "the Parthian." In classic times, the Parthians were famed mounted bowmen.

Critics and Defenders. A man so furiously vigorous and drastic as the Shah in Shah is bound to have detractors. They contend he is nothing more than another Oriental despot who has caused shoals of his enemies to be murdered, tortured, kidnapped, imprisoned. They claim he slaps Cabinet Ministers in the face, beats up priests, kicks irksome subjects in the crotch. (It is said that for tiresome gabbling he once booted even Crown Prince Mohammed Reza into a palace fountain.) Iran is ruled entirely by fear, they insist; bribery is still prevalent, taxation overpowering; Iran's 136-man National Assembly, the Majlis, and all Cabinets are solidly enstooged. By this time, they add, the One-Man New Deal has turned into a One-Man Corporative State, owning everything worth owning and, furthermore, smoking opium.

On the other hand there are astute Occidentals who have watched the Shah work over a period of years and admire him greatly. First of all they argue that it is unfair to apply Western standards to Iran, and then they point to some of the flowers of civilization which have blossomed in the West since 1933. They recall that, unlike Kamâl Atatürk, he had no elite of European-educated intellectuals to help him.‡ "Reza Khan made Iran out of nothing," they say and, knowing Persia and Persians, they insist that force was the only way. As for opium, 60% of the population smokes it. Descended from generations of opium smokers, it is said they are largely immune to its effects.

Kismet, etc. One of the first acts of the new Government after the 1921 ride-in to Teheran was to tear up the treaty the bleak-brained Ahmad had signed with the U.S.S.R. The Bolsheviks condemned the aggressive policy of the Tsar, promised never to interfere in Persia's internal affairs, but reserved the right to occupy it temporarily in the event another power used Persia for an attack on Soviet Russia.

As the Shah grew in power, his mistrust of British Imperialism grew with it and he began to spit in the Lion's eye. In 1931 he forbade Imperial Airways to fly over Iranian territory. Spit most staggering to the Lion was his sudden cancellation in 1932 of the old William Knox D'Arcy contract which had now burgeoned into the monster British Government-subsidized Anglo-Persian (later Anglo-Iranian) Oil Co. Iran was getting 16% of the net profits. The Shah wanted 21%. The British took the squabble before the League of Nations. The Shah got what he wanted; the British 30 more years on their concession. Things were great. He began hiring German technicians to work his railroads, install his industrial plants and operate them. He detested Communism, but kept up friendly relations with Russia. Then came August 1939 and the Russo-German Pact. Things were greater. The war started. His British oil royalties waxed. Russia and Germany bought more goods and products. Nothing could harm Iran now. More & more Germans entered the country.

But eleven weeks ago Adolf Hitler turned on Joseph Stalin. Last week the two ends the Shah thought would never meet closed in on him.


* With an Axis army on the Thracian border, Turkey last week worried lest the Nazis demand she eject all British and Russian "specialists" within her borders, then, if she did not, invade her and try to seize the Dardanelles.

† It has standard gauge track. Russia's has broad gauge.

‡ The Shah called in U.S. Economist ArthurChester Millspaugh to unsnarl the country's appalling financial tangle. For a time Iranian petitions began: "Oh, Allah! Oh, Shah! Oh, Dr. Millspaugh!".