In their fight against IS, Iraqi Kurds have received support from US, Iran, and Israel, among others. This is not the first time the Kurds have thrown their lot with these three countries, however. Forty years ago in 1974 the Kurds, the United States, Iran, and Israel also faced a common enemy. The enemy was the Baathist regime in Iraq.
In 1970 the Baath government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani had agreed on an autonomy plan for Iraqi Kurdistan. However, Baghdad stalled on implementing the agreement and in 1974 unilaterally decreed a Kurdish autonomous region on its own terms. When Barzani turned down the plan, the Iraqi military launched an offensive against the Kurds. There were at least four reasons that brought US, Iran, and Israel together to back Kurdish aspirations in Iraq.
First, the United States considered Iraq a client state of the Soviet Union and thus a threat to its interests in the Middle East. Thus, even though Iraq exported oil to the rest of the world and traded heavily with Western Europe, its military and economic ties to the Soviet Union made containing or weakening it a central goal of the American policy. This task was placed in part on the shoulders of Mohammad Reza Shah, the autocratic monarch of Iran.
Second, Mohammad Reza Shah had been challenging Iraq’s sovereignty over Shat Al-Arab waterway. The 1933 treaty had placed the border on Iran’s shoreline. The Shah wanted Iraq to sign a new treaty that would place the border on the river’s thalweg, thus giving Iran sovereign access to its important Khoramshahr port. Iran under Mohamad Reza Shah was one of the two “pillars” of the United States policy in the Persian Gulf (the other pillar being Saudi Arabia). The United States relied on the Shah to police the Persian Gulf and help with containment of Soviet Union and its ally, Iraq. For these reasons, the Shah was given carte blanche by the Nixon-Kissinger team to buy a large array of sophisticated weapons from the United States. The Shah used its modern military and American support not only to become the policeman of the Gulf but also to put pressure on Iraq. The challenge had the additional effect of refocusing Iraq’s attention away from Israel.
Third, in the mid-1970s, Iraq had remained a concern for Israel for several reasons. Iraq was an enthusiastic participant in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and while Syria and Egypt were indirectly negotiating with Israel under the auspices of the United States, Iraq had remained a defiant foe with a large military. Furthermore, Iraq was the only major Arab country that followed a largely independent foreign policy. Gulf monarchies and Jordan had allied themselves closely with the United States. The oil rich, “socialist”, republican Iraq was therefore could attract the support of
Arab masses still hopeful for independence from superpowers and justice for Palestinians and thus represent a threat to Israel’s expansionist policies as well as the stability of conservative Arab monarchies.
Fourth, any meaningful Kurdish autonomy in Iraq would have emboldened the neighboring Kurdish populations inside Iran and Turkey, encouraging them to launch their own military campaigns and thus weakening United States and Israel’s allies, Iran and Turkey. Thus, any military support for Iraqi Kurds had to enable the Kurds to fight a war of attrition but deny them the ability to defeat the Iraqi military.
The plan, hatched by Henry Kissinger, was for United States, Iran, and Israel to provide weapons, logistical support, intelligence, and military advice to Iraqi Kurds. Some of the weapons may have been supplied by Egypt from its old stockpile of Soviet made arms in order to confuse and throw off the Iraqis regarding the true intentions of the Soviet Union. United States provided money and intelligence in addition to promises to Barazani of continuing American commitment to the Kurdish cause in Iraq. Shah of Iran provided funding in addition to logistical support, and Israelis provided military advice. The result was that in 1974 the Kurdish forces managed to pin down a sizable Iraqi force. The pressure was sufficient enough to force the Iraqi regime to offer Iran a favorable resolution of their border disputes. The Shah and Saddam Hussein met in Algiers in early 1975. In return for Iraq’s compromise over Shat Al Arab border, support for the Kurdish forces was withdrawn and soon thereafter, the Iraqi military was able to overwhelm the Kurds. Some of the Kurdish population and their leaders, including Barzani, fled to Iran before the Shah sealed the border. The Kurdish refugees subsisted in half dozen camps near Iran-Iraq border before they were transferred a thousand miles to northeastern Iran. Barazani lived near Iran’s capital, Tehran as the Shah’s “guest” and then traveled to US for cancer treatment where he died in 1979.
Clearly, Kurds were only to be used to achieve the national and regional goals of their benefactors and nothing more. Indeed, the House Pike Committee investigating US intelligence agencies documented as much, accusing the US of indifference to the faith of the Iraqi Kurds from the start.
August 19 is the anniversary of the 1953 CIA-MI6 coup in Iran. The coup overthrew a government with remarkable commitment to the norms of liberal democracy. The faith of Premier Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh has rightfully received a good deal of scholarly and journalistic attention. He was tried for treason, imprisoned for three years, and died under house arrest in March of 1967. The stories of two of his comrades, Dr. Hussain Fatemi and Brigadier General Mahmoud Afshartous, however, have received little attention outside of the Farsi press. They paid with their lives for their defense of the popular movement Dr. Mossadegh had come to symbolize. Their deaths represents the brutality and pettiness of Mohammad Reza Shah and his domestic and foreign collaborators.
Dr. Hussain Fatemi was a newspaper editor and a founding member of the liberal National Front, formed in 1950 to end British influence in Iran through the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. He later became a Majlis deputy, a deputy premier, and a foreign minister.
In the unsuccessful first act of the Anglo-American coup, Dr. Fatemi was arrested, his family terrorized, and his house ransacked during early hours of August 15, 1953 by Imperial guardsmen. Once the first coup attempt failed and the Shah fled in disgrace, Fatemi wrote a series of scathing editorials about the Shah, calling him a deceitful servant of British imperialism. He also publicly spoke out against him in a pro-Mossadegh rally. After the overthrow of Mossadegh, Dr. Fatemi went into hiding until March 1954 when he was arrested. He was verbally abused and punched in the face inside the Jeep that was taking him to Tehran’s central police station by no other than the Imperial Guard’s commander and coup plotter, (and future head of Shah’s secret police, SAVAK), General Nematollah Nassiri. As he was leaving the police station in hand cuffs and surrounded by military officers, Dr. Fatemi was attacked by the notorious south Tehran purchased mob leader, Shaban Jafari (“Shaban the Brainless”) and his underlings. While military guards watched, Dr. Fatemi’s sister was seriously injured when she threw herself on her brother to protect him. She had heard about her brother’s arrest on the radio and rushed to the police station to be with him. Both were stabbed repeatedly.
Dr. Fatemi spent most of the next eight months under military guard in hospital where he was regularly sleep deprived. The stabbing had further aggravated Dr. Fatemi’s condition. Two years earlier he had been shot in the stomach from a close range by a member of “Fedayeen e Islam” (Devotees of Islam) and had not yet fully recovered. Later, he had to be taken to the sessions of his secret military trial on a stretcher and was given a one ten-minute visit with his wife, sister, and his eight-month old son. He was sentenced to death for treason by the military tribunal. The Shah intervened to deny Dr. Fatemi’s lawful request for consideration of his sentence by Iran’s Supreme Court. On the morning of November 10, 1954, while still ill and running a fever, Dr. Fatemi was executed by a firing squad. His last words were, “long live Mossadegh.” Dr. Fatemi was 37 years old. (1)
The 45-year-old Afshartous was member of the pro-Mossadegh Nationalist Officer’s Organization. Appointed by Mossadegh as Iran’s chief of police in February of 1953, Afshartous was given the task of cleaning up the Imperial armed forces from its many corrupt elements. Committed to strict enforcement of the law, he regularly ignore Palace’s interventions in security matters.
On 19 April 1953, Afshartous was kidnapped by elements linked to General Fazlolah Zahedi, the CIA-MI6 choice to replace Mossadegh and Dr. Mozafar Baghaie, a onetime supporter of Mossadegh with links to Tehran’s underworld who had now thrown his lot with imperialists. The plot had been hatched by the British intelligence. (2) According to the subsequent confessions of the kidnappers, the hope was that the disappearance of the country’s police chief would result in disturbances that would bring the government down and Afshartous could then be released. The public remained calmed, however, and thus Afshartous could not be released without discovery of those involved in his kidnapping. (3) Police searching for Afshartous found his body in a cave near Tehran. He had been tortured and strangled. He left behind a wife and two small children. Mozafar Baghaie and General Zahedi, who faced arrest, were given refugee inside Majlis by the Speaker, Ayatollah Kashani.
In November of 1953, with the coup government in control, those involved in the murder of General Afshartous were cleared and set free. One of the ringleaders, Huessein Khatibi, became Shah’s confidant.
- Afrasiabi, Bahram, Khaterat va Moberezat Doctor Hussein Fatemi, 2nd edition, 1991.
- Gasiorowski, Mark, The 1953 Coup D’etat in Iran, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3, Aug., 1987, p. 270.
- Mosavar Rahmany, Ghlam Reza, Kohneh Sarbaz, 1987, pp. 385-391.
Better-known story is what happened in the Arab Middle East. There the Anglo-French machinations planted the seeds of instability and conflict among the present day Arab states and between Arabs and Israelis. The British encouraged and assisted Arabs of the Ottoman Empire to rise against their Turkish masters who were allies of Germany and Austria, promising them in return their independence in a unified state. Simultaneously and in secret, the British were dividing the same territories between themselves and their wartime allies (The Sykes-Picot Agreement) and promising Palestine to European Zionists. After the end of the War, the British and the French established their control over these so-called Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. British and French diplomats drew boundaries of new states of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. For each, quasi-state institutions such as executive, judiciary, parliament, bureaucracy, and military were established. The intention of the two imperial powers was to create centralized states capable of maintaining order. Economic and military ties would insure that these future states would act as clients of their former colonial masters when granted formal independence.
Lesser known is how the war changed the direction of Iran’s history. Iran suffered the ravages of the war as well. Ottoman and Russian forces fought against each other on its territory. In the north, where these battles took place and where greater portion of the population lived, an estimated quarter of the population perished as result of war related famines. In the years immediately following the end of World War I, British intervention was to have greater bearing on the direction of Iran’s political, social, and economic development than it ever had in the previous century.
For nearly one hundred years before 1914 Iran had been a pawn in the great game of imperial rivalry between Russia and Britain. The two empires competed for territory and economic concessions. By the turn of the 20th Century, Iran had no effective central government and either the British or Russians controlled its most important economic activities. Then in 1907, the two imperial powers secretly divided Iran into their own zones of Influence.
The first was discovery of oil in Iran. A British subject William Knox D’Arcy was granted concession in 1901. Oil was discovered in the southwest in 1908. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was then formed a year later in 1909. In 1912, the British Navy converted from coal to oil and in 1914, the British government purchased majority shares in the company. Now Iran’s oil powered the mighty British Navy and the British government committed itself to its continuing supply.
The second was the Bolshevik takeover in Russia in 1917. The revolutionary communist government was uninterested in entering into balance of power understandings with other European capitalist powers. This was evident not only by its anti-capitalist ideology and propaganda but also by its publicizing the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement. In addition, the Soviet government quickly terminated concessions and treaties of the Tsarist regime with Iran and withdrew Russian troops. Nevertheless, the British were concerned with the possibility of Soviet takeover of Iran while simultaneously the withdrawal of the Soviet Union made them the only foreign power capable of imposing its will on weak Iranian state.
Thirdly, with the withdrawal of Russian forces and cancellation of concessions and treaties, the liberal nationalists had found renewed hope for establishment of an independent and democratic state. Such state would have insisted on following an independent domestic and foreign policies, as did the Mossadegh government thirty years later, renouncing concessions to Britain, including the oil concession, and demanding withdrawal of British troops from Iran. Such development would have been disastrous for British plans in both Iran as well as the larger Middle East. It would have made British access to Iran’s oil subject to Iran’s domestic politics and Iran could no longer be relied on as a pro-British state willing to participate in any anti-communist alliances. At the regional level Iran’s independence and democracy could act as a successful model for the neighboring Arab states the British and French were to set up in order to use them to foster their long-term interests. The size of the crowds who came out to greet Dr. Mossadegh during his stop in Iraq in 1951could be an indirect evidence of such possibility.
For these reasons and with the Russian presence subsided, Britain moved quickly to establish direct control over Iran’s affairs. A treaty was signed with Iran’s pro-British government in 1919. The British would supply administrators for Iran’s bureaucracy. Iran’s Cossack Brigade, which was formed and commanded by the Russians in late 1800s and then abandoned in 1917, would be armed by Britain and lead by British officers. Iran would pay for these through a grant of a British loan. The attentive public saw the treaty as making Iran into a British protectorate and opposed it energetically.
Faced with growing opposition, the British abandoned the treaty and opted for indirect control. Reza Khan Mirpanj, a rising officer in the Cossack Brigade, was encouraged to take over the Capital, Tehran In March of 1921. In the next three years, Reza Khan held positions of Minister of War and Prime Minster before forcing the Parliament to declare him monarch of the new Pahlavi dynasty. Reza Khan crowned himself Reza Shah in 1925.
For the next sixteen years, Reza Shah carried out policies very similar to those favored by the British and the French in parts of the Middle East under their control, namely modernization from above and suppression of political freedoms and ethnic rights. Bureaucracy, judicial system, armed forces, and education modernized. Industries created and communications including the Trans Iranian Railroad built. Simultaneously, power was centralized, popular and ethnic outbreaks crushed, political parties outlawed, a 1931 law against “collectivism” targeted communist and socialist groups, freedom of the press repressed, and parliaments became a rubber stamp of the Palace. While Iran maintained trade relations with the Soviet Union and German economic presence grew rapidly, Oil industry, the government’s primary source of revenue, remained in the hands of the British, central authority was establish throughout Iran, and liberal nationalists and all other secular or religious groupings, be it revolutionary or reformist, were banished. A measure of Western satisfaction with Reza Shah was his appearance on the cover of the Time Magazine in 1938 and generally positive coverage of his rule.
As with the emerging Arab states under the French and the British tutelage, by the end of the 1930s, Iran had a government with a narrow base of popular support whose attentive public considered it foreign imposed. It was therefore reliant on its security forces for effective control and its primary source of revenue remained in the hands of a major foreign power. Furthermore, as in Iraq in 1941, when the government refused the imperial demands, it was subjected to yet another round of invasion and occupation. In 1941, citing Iran’s neutrality, Reza Shah refused British demands for expulsion of the sizable German economic personnel stationed in Iran. He also refused to allow resupply of Soviet Union through the Iranian territory. The British and Russians responded by invading Iran, removing the monarch from his thrown and sending him and his family to exile in South Africa.