Louise L’Estrange Fawcett, Iran and the Cold War: The Azerbaijani Crisis of 1946 (Cambridge, 1992).

One is immediately drawn to the jacket photograph of Louise Fawcett’s study of the Azerbaijani crisis of 1946, depicting Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill posing for photographers at the Tehran Conference in December 1943. This meeting of the Big Three, one of the most obscure events of World War II, elicits only a brief description in most historical accounts of the period. Yet the “forgotten summit” was an important episode in US-Iranian diplomatic history. Prior to this, the US refused to be a signatory to the Tripartite Agreement of January 1942 between Iran, the Soviet Union and Great Britain, but at the Tehran Conference Roosevelt, together with Stalin and Churchill, formally recognized the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran. [1]

The jacket photograph recalls the climactic scene in a Soviet thriller, Tehran ’43: A Nazi assassin, posing as a photographer, is thwarted at the last second in his attempt to kill the three Allied leaders as they posed for this famous group portrait. In real life, the Soviets warned the American delegation at the conference of such a plot by Nazi-oriented Iranians and Nazi agents. [2] Interestingly, the movie conspicuously omits any Iranian roles in the affair, instead highlighting the unfettered movements of Western spies through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways in Tehran’s bazaar. The jacket photograph also conveys this idea of Iranian innocence, the country’s fate instead being entirely in the hands of foreign powers.

Iran has indeed been invaded, occupied, used and abused by outside powers, but Iranians themselves are not as innocent as they would like to believe, and one of Louise Fawcett’s objectives is to establish “the role played by the Iranians themselves” in the Azerbaijan crisis. Reza Shah had developed a close alliance with Germany. Even after the Soviet-British occupation of 1941, many Iranians sympathized and collaborated with the Nazis, among them Fazlollah Zahedi, whom the CIA later helped install as prime minister after the coup of August 1953. Bahram Shahrokh, the Shah’s future propaganda director, was a trainee of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. This widespread pro-German sentiment Fawcett too quickly dismisses. Iranian politicians cleverly manipulated and also cooperated with Soviet, British and US officials throughout this period.

The first part of Fawcett’s book, which stresses again and again “the extent to which events in Azerbaijan were the product of local conditions as opposed to external intervention,” is a welcome departure from previous literature. Fawcett does a commendable job of providing detailed descriptions of Azerbaijani and Iranian leaders and their movements. One comes away with the sense that the resolution of the Azerbaijani crisis had less to do with American brinkmanship, as many accounts would have us believe, and more with Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam’s adept political maneuvering.

Iran and the Cold War is a fine piece of scholarship, and well-written. The first half of the book, detailing Azerbaijani politics, is indispensable for any researcher looking for an English-language source on local Iranian politics, particularly with regard to the Tudeh Party and the Azerbaijani Democratic Party. The second half of the book looks at the external dimension of the crisis. Fawcett’s scathing portrait of British attitudes and actions in Iran may be related to the fact that the British have declassified far more government files than their US counterparts, and have also made public blunt and incriminating Foreign Office minutes.

The book’s conclusion, unfortunately, is not really a conclusion, but rather an epilogue. Fawcett detracts from her most important point about the Iranian role in the crisis by focusing on the new US role in Iranian affairs, the decline of British influence and the differing extent to which oil influenced the policies of Britain, the US and the Soviet Union. As one of the few Western scholars in the field with sufficient proficiency in Farsi to make extensive use of primary sources, Fawcett has produced the most extensive study on the Azerbaijani crisis to date, although now that official Soviet files have been opened up, there is still room for further research.


[1] Fawcett inconsistently refers to the agreement as the “Declaration on Iran,” the “Declaration Concerning Iran,” the “Tehran Declaration” and the “Allied Declaration.”
[2] See Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929-1969 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973), p. 135.

How to cite this article:

Moyara de Moraes Ruehsen "Fawcett, Iran and the Cold War," Middle East Report 183 (July/August 1993).

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