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History, World War II and Its Aftermath

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Tehran Conference, AIOC, Iranian army, West Azerbaijan

Following Germany's invasion of the USSR in June 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union became allies. Both turned their attention to Iran. In addition to their suspicions about the role of German technicians in Iran, Britain and the USSR saw the newly opened Trans-Iranian Railroad as an attractive route for transporting supplies from the Persian Gulf to the Soviet Caucasus region. However, Iran's neutrality ruled out this option. In August 1941, after Reza Shah again refused to expel all German nationals, Britain and the USSR invaded Iran. They swiftly defeated the Iranian army, arrested Reza Shah and sent him into exile, and took control of Iran's communications and coveted railroad. In 1942 the United States, an ally of Britain and the USSR during the war, sent a military force to Iran to help maintain and operate sections of the railroad.

The British and Soviet authorities allowed Reza Shah's system of political and press repression to collapse and constitutional government to evolve with minimal interference. They permitted Reza Shah's son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to succeed to the throne after he promised to reign as a constitutional monarch. In January 1942 the two occupying powers signed an agreement with Iran to respect Iran's independence and to withdraw their troops from the country within six months of the war’s end. A U.S.-sponsored agreement at the 1943 Tehran Conference reaffirmed this commitment. In late 1945, however, the USSR refused to announce a timetable for its withdrawal from Iran's northwestern provinces of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan, where Soviet-supported autonomy movements had developed. Although the USSR withdrew its troops in May 1946, tensions continued for several months. The dispute, which became known as the Azerbaijan crisis, was the first case to be brought before the Security Council of the United Nations. This episode is considered one of the precipitating events of the emerging Cold War, the postwar rivalry between the United States and its allies and the USSR and its allies.

Meanwhile, Iran's political system became increasingly open. Political parties soon developed, and the 1944 Majlis elections were the first genuinely competitive elections in more than 20 years. Reformist parties were determined to prevent a return to authoritarian rule by the monarchy, while parties opposed to economic and social reforms tended to ally themselves with the shah. Foreign intervention remained a sensitive issue for all parties. Reformists accused conservative politicians of collaborating with foreigners to preserve their privileges. With foreign troops withdrawn and the Azerbaijan crisis resolved, British control of Iran's oil fields became the central issue regarding foreign intervention. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which was owned by the British government, continued to produce and market all Iranian oil under the terms of the 1901 concession. The AIOC provided a modest royalty payment, which was only a fraction of its annual profits, to the government of Iran. As early as the 1930s, some Iranians began advocating the nationalization of the country's oil fields; after 1946, this effort developed into a major popular movement.



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