A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Tehran Conference 1943: 70 Years On

I'd planned to post this sooner, but gave precedence instead to my longish post remembering Ahmad Fuad Negm. Last week I had several posts on the First Cairo Conference, the first of three World War II leadership conferences held successively in the Middle East in November-December 1943, now marking their 70th anniversaries.

The Tehran Conference ran from November 27-December 2, its anniversry mostly coinciding with the past (US) holiday weekend.

To recap a bit for those who came in late: Soviet Premier Stalin had missed the Casablanca Conference in early 1943 because of the Battle of Stalingrad. The first Cairo Conference brought together Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. But Stalin had  nonaggression pact with Japan and feared a Pacific front in his rear while he was still fighting back the German invasion of the USSR, so he declined to attend in Cairo.

Churchill had met with Stalin in Moscow in 1942. Roosevelt had not yet met Stalin; both leaders felt a personal meeting important prior to the invasion of Western Europe, set for May, 1944. (It would take place in June.) Churchill, FDR, and their staffs proceeded to Tehran to meet Stalin.

Iran at this point was under Soviet and British occupation. When the war broke out the Shah, Reza Shah Pahlavi, had declared Iranian neutrality and barred Allied use of Iran's railways; the Allies saw him as flirting with the Axis and were seeking a warm-weather route for the resupply of the Soviet Union. With Turkey also neutral, and the Balkans under the Axis, none was available. In August of 1941, the Soviets and British launched a surprise attack from multiple directions. The Iranian forces collapsed, and the Allies demanded Reza Shah abdicate, but offered him a chance to save his dynasty: abdicate in favor of his 21-year-old heir, Muhammad Reza.  He did so, and in September 1941 he became Shah a bit before his 22nd birthday.

On November 27, 1943, the Churchill and Roosevelt parties flew separately to Tehran. Roosevelt's pilot took a direct route over the city of Jerusalem, circling over the city and pointing out landmarks for the President and his guests. They crossed Iraq and proceeded to follow the Abadan-Tehran road, where the party could see American Lend-Lease equipment being transported toward the USSR.

Only two years after the overthrow of Reza Shah, the Allies still had considerable concern about Axis agents and sympathizers in Iran.  Churchill complained later that his route from the airport to the British Legation was lined by Iranian Cavalry:
It was clearly shown to any evil people that somebody of consequence was coming, and which way. The men on horseback advertised the route, but could provide no protection at all.
Roosevelt, in contrast, had a diversion: an armored  procession ostentatiously proceeded to Tehran, while FDR landed at a different airfield, a Russian field at Gale Morghe south of Tehran. He was not met by an honor delegation and was taken directly in an Army car to the US Legation.

Roosevelt had declined a Soviet invitation to stay at their Legation,but the next day Stalin noted that the Soviet and British Legations were close to each other, but the US Legation was across town and Stalin's security people did not want to risk him traveling so far in the open. On the 28th Roosevelt moved into a separate structure in the Soviet compound though the bulk of the US delegation apparently stayed at the US Legation. Also on the 28th Roosevelt and Stalin held their first meeting,

That evening, through some miracle on the part of FDR's mess crew from Shangri-La (now Camp David: the mess crew were Filipino), who arrived at the new quarters at 4 pm, the President managed to host a dinner for Churchill and Stalin at 8:30.

Tomorrow: The young Shah meets the Big Three.

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