Iranian riflemen guard a refinery belonging to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, 1940s.

Indian riflemen guard a refinery belonging to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, 1940s.

Iran: Cold War Crucible

During the Second World War, Britain, the US and the Soviet Union worked together in oil-rich Iran. But cooperation was to degenerate into suspicion and hostility. 

One of the first major conflicts of the Cold War broke out in Azerbaijan, the northernmost province of Iran. Bordering the Soviet Union and divided from Soviet Azerbaijan, the regional capital Tabriz was an important gateway between the two countries. From Baku, capital of Soviet Azerbaijan, socialist ideas were brought in to Iran, inspiring the foundation of the Persian Communist Party in 1920. In 1945 the Azerbaijan Democratic Party, backed by the Red Army, declared autonomy from Tehran and established an independent government. Soviet soldiers had been stationed in Iran alongside the British since 1941. They had not only overstayed their welcome but had sparked an international crisis. Brought before the United Nations in 1946, the Azerbaijan crisis was one of the first issues heard by the Security Council. How did Iran become the first arena of conflict between the major powers?

Historians have long made a causal connection between the start of the Cold War and the British-Soviet occupation of Iran. Yet general understanding of the Second World War is confined mainly to Europe, the Pacific and South-east Asia. While the German occupation of much of Europe is well known, the Allied invasion and occupation of Iran is not. Yet a focus on the occupation of Iran by British and Soviet troops is overdue. It is far more than a mere sideshow: it was the crucible in which the origins of the Cold War first formed.

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