Nuclear Threats - Iran - 1946
“We’re going to drop it on you,” President Truman is reported to have said to Soviet ambassador Gromkyo in March 1946, as the Iran crisis came to a head. This direct threat is commonly quoted as the first nuclear ‘near miss,’ to the extent that Truman’s ultimatum has made its way into high school textbooks. The quotation is apocryphal at best. In the late 1970s, academics argued as to whether any ultimatum was issued at all. Certainly, there is no written record to confirm this, and Truman’s first public recollection of the ultimatum came in 1952, six years after the crisis. If any such demand was made, most historians now agree that the threat was to use conventional force. Yet the potential for escalation is obvious and the episode marks the first test of wills in what was to become the Cold War.
During the Second World War, Great Britain, the US and USSR agreed a joint occupation of Iran in order to exclude Germany and open a supply line to the USSR. Withdrawal was to take place six months after the end of hostilities and was set in 1945 by Bevin and Molotov for March 2nd 1946. In late 1945 the Tudeh party, an Azeri separatist movement, revolted against the Shah. Soviet occupation forces obstructed the movement of Iranian troops to the affected province, stirring American fears of the establishment of a Soviet puppet state in Northern Azerbaijan. In December, the US was able to pass a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for Soviet withdrawal, while at the same time bilateral discussions took place against a background of increasing tension and mistrust and the date for evacuation passed. A resolution came in the form of a Soviet –Iranian pact involving the creation of a joint oil company and troops departed in April 1946.
The crisis is often perceived as part of a larger American effort to carve out a sphere of influence in the Middle East in the years following the war. Yet the United States’ economic interests in Iran were at the time negligible – hardly enough to warrant direct intervention. The strategic value of Iranian oil was also in doubt. A report by the Joint Chiefs of Staff suggested that facilities in Iran and Iraq would swiftly be overrun by the Soviets in the event of war, leaving only Bahrain and Trucial Oman as secure suppliers to US forces in the region.
Those who argue that the impulse behind the crisis was strategic rather than economic, stemming mostly from Soviet suspicion of American ‘open door’ policies, seen as mere window dressing for imperialism, have difficulty in explaining the sudden hardening of Soviet attitudes in late 1945.
An alternative explanation suggests that the roots of the crisis can be found as much in competition between America and Britain as in incipient Cold War tension. US foreign policy in the aftermath of the War was directed not just at deterring the Soviet threat but at dismantling British imperial power (the abrupt cancellation of lend/lease arrangements with Britain is a good example.) Competition between all three powers in the region led to an American policy with a heavy military emphasis, designed to assure a strong role for US officials in the region, while shoring up the rule unsteady allies.
But Washington’s regional policy was also a direct threat to the Soviets. From the new home of Strategic Air Command in Dhahran, America could reach the Caucasus and the Ukraine and decimate Soviet industry, transplanted eastward away from the advancing Germans. This may have been part of US strategic calculation. A 1945 War Department report had made clear the necessity of immediate destruction of Soviet industry if a future confrontation was to be prevented from becoming a drawn out conflict. The Dhahran air base provided a means of securing strategic interests and at the same time effectively guaranteeing the Saudi regime without the encumbrance of an open-ended economic aid agreement.
Moscow’s reaction to the threat was to secure the air and land approaches to the vulnerable areas, which lay in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan. This move was interpreted by the US as part of a more general programme of Soviet expansion. Viewed through this prism, it became vital to nip Soviet aggression in the bud. America escalated the situation to a stand-off. In a classic example of what theorists call the ‘Security Dilemma,’ in which a spiral of mistrust leaves both sides no option but to increase incrementally their state of military preparedness, both the US and USSR misunderstood the other’s regional strategy as part of a larger plan. This turned a local drama into an international crisis, which, although not coming quite as close to the brink nuclear confrontation as some believe, foreshadowed closer calls to come.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|