Two major events of the Cold War period, which happened to overlap almost perfectly, were the Korean War of 1950-1953 and the Mossadegh era and oil nationalization movement in Iran. Over six decades later, both Iran and North Korea remain distressed — underachieving, repressive, economically weakened, undemocratic, and at high tension with their neighbors and the international community.
Old scores remain unsettled. The threat of conflict persists with Iran and North Korea’s common rival — the United States. The Korean War never really ended, while the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran after 1979 stagnates in utter disrepair. Succeeding generations, consequently, are gifted these unresolved matters courtesy of the continuum of time.
After the overthrow of Mossadegh, the August 31st issue of Newsweek magazine ran two articles on Iran. The first, “Shah Returns in Triumph As Army Kicks Out Mossadegh”, covered the recent military coup. The second piece speculated on whether Iran, despite the new Western-backed regime in power, might still go Communist, or, as the cover banner read, “Will Iran Be Another Korea?”. Iran, it turned out, would remain safe from Communism — but not from despotism •
Iran Significance: Will It Be Another Korea?
“Another Korea” has passed into the language of geopolitics. It means a border region lying between two great rival powers or groups–a region that neither side can tolerate being dominated by the other. In that sense, Iran emerged as “another Korea” many decades before the unhappy Far Eastern peninsula attained its present prominence.
For geography has given Iran a strategic importance even greater than that of Korea. Possession of Iran by Russia’s enemies would bring hostile forces to within a few miles of the biggest Soviet oil fields. These forces could debouch readily along the Black and Caspian Seas, the inland bodies of water that flank the heart of the Muscovite empire. On the other hand, Russian possession of Iran would bring the Kremlin’s power to the Persian Gulf and thence to the Indian Ocean. The Middle East would be threatened on one side and the Indian subcontinent on the other.
The history of Iran during modern times, therefore, has been the history of the struggle between Russia and the powers that happened to be dominant east of the Suez. Both sides have had schemes to dominate Iran. But in the end a perhaps natural equilibrium of force has asserted itself and Iran has remained a buffer state–poverty-stricken, corrupt, misgoverned, but free.
Napoleon dreamt of using Iran to strike at the British in India. The Germans hoped to turn the tables in the same way in both world wars. But the strongest rivalry has been between the British and Russians. In 1907 this rivalry was temporarily suspended by an agreement giving Moscow predominant influence in the north and London the same powers in the south.
Red Loophole: In 1921 the Soviets signed a treaty with Iran abandoning many of the Czarist privileges, but retaining the right to send troops into Iran in case the country was threatened by the aggression of another power. The treaty is still very much in force. During the second world war, northern Iran was occupied by the Russians, the rest of the country by the British. The Soviets withdrew in 1946 only under severe pressure from the United Nations.
Now a new power has entered the Middle Eastern scene: the United States. This partly springs from the assumption by the U.S. of some of Britain’s strategic possibilities. More important, it proceeds from American development of the vast oil resources of the Arab states. The accompanying map shows how the region is dotted with oil fields, pipelines, and refineries. Thus Iran is now not only a buffer in the sense of military strategy. It is also a buffer in that it lies between areas containing oil reserves that are vital both to the Russians and the West.
Will Iran now become a second Korea instead of a buffer? The events of the past week have undoubtedly left the situation on a knife edge of uncertainty. No one expects the Russians gracefully to accept a government in Iran that is so manifestly anti-Communist and anti-Russian as the present regime.
What will the Soviets do? Experts consider it likely that they will first try diplomatic pressure–such as demanding that the Zahedi regime [Premier Fazlollah Zahedi] continue negotiations begun by Mossadegh in which Moscow demanded great concessions from the Iranians. [?] Some moves of unpredictable violence are to be expected from the Iranian Communists. And there always looms the threat of overt Russian intervention from across the border.
Will the West intervene if Iran seems to be going Communist? There is little question but that in the last extremity, it will have to. Forces available are the two British divisions, plus auxiliary forces, stationed in the Suez Canal Zone. Airborne units could quickly be transferred from the Suez to the advance base at Habbaniya, near Baghdad. The United States could support such action with air power from Dhahran and other Middle Eastern and African bases. Turkey is an important factor in all calculations. The American-constructed strategic highway from the Mediterranean toward the Caucasus has enhanced Turkey’s power in the event of Russian moves against Iran.
However, many forces militate against Iran becoming a battleground. Russians, Americans, and British alike realize that the chips really would be down in the event of armed conflict in Iran. The stakes would be much higher than in Korea and the danger of a local struggle erupting until world war proportionately greater. Perhaps the best hope for the continuance of Iran’s position as a buffer lies in the nature of the Iranians themselves. They have developed over the centuries and almost inbred chicanery that enables them to upset the best-laid plans of the rival foreign powers.