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How Iran-Soviet military alliance grew in final days of USSR

Details of co-operation between the Soviet Union and Iran on military and nuclear issues are revealed by newly uncovered diplomatic documents.

The alliance between the two countries grew especially strong in what were to become the Soviet Union’s final years before its break up in 1991, as shown by notes written from a Politburo meeting in March 1989 by Anatoly Chernyaev, the foreign policy adviser to the then Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Under the heading, “Military supplies to Iran”, he records Gorbachev as saying: “We need to have a word with the Czechs and Hungarians, and tell them, ‘Tehran has been trying to contact the USSR about this,’ and also ask them, ‘How about if we arrange this through you?’

“We need it because it will support our military industry, provide foreign currency, and establish military connections which can reinforce our general relationship.”

Nuclear energy is very important to Iran

Akbar Rafsanjani speaking to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989

A transcript of a meeting in the Kremlin later the same month records Gorbachev as telling Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s then foreign minister: “There are positive changes happening in Iran. The situation in the region is also improving, albeit slowly. All this creates a favourable environment for elevating the Soviet-Iranian co-operation to a higher level.

“We are interested in deepening bilateral economic co-operation in various areas, including military, in which the Iranians express a particular interest.”

The documents uncovered from a Soviet archive show that the USSR saw Syrian-Iranian relations as a way of advancing its influence in Iran.

The Soviets were also worried about whether they would maintain a strong alliance with Iran following the death of its spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, in June 1989. Khomeini had, earlier that year, invited Gorbachev to turn the USSR into an Islamic state, and, although the invitation was declined, the documents show that it did not seem to disrupt the country’s cordial diplomatic relations.

Just over two weeks after Khomeini’s death, Akbar Rafsanjani led a large delegation to Moscow as the acting commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces. He would become president of Iran just two months later.

The two countries made an agreement in June 1989 in which the Soviet Union committed to strengthening Iran’s defences, including the sale of military aircraft such as MiG-29 fighters and Su-24 bombers.

The transcript records Rafsanjani as telling Gorbachev at an early stage of the trip: “The scope of our co-operation can be rather big – industry, agriculture, maritime shipping, consular communications, culture, science etc. Never before have our countries had such big opportunities.”

Gorbachev described the talks as having “a bigger scope than was originally planned.”

Rafsanjani: “I have been in the Soviet Union for only 24 hours, and I already feel at home.”

The transcripts also record a discussion of possible Soviet help in Iran’s nuclear programme. Rafsanjani told Gorbachev: “Nuclear energy is very important to Iran. Under the former regime, there were plans to build 20 nuclear power stations, with the participation of Western companies.”

Referring to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, Rafsanjani continued: “After the revolution, all the contracts, apart from two, were cancelled. The West German firms have completed 80 per cent of the work.

“We prefer Soviet organisations to participate in the construction of one of the nuclear power stations. We ask you to give instructions to start working on this issue.”

Gorbachev simply replied: “Fine.”

According to the transcripts, the Soviets also agreed to help construct the underground in Tehran and upgrade a metal plant in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, to triple its steel production.

The two leaders also discussed construction of a rail line linking the USSR and Iran. Rafsanjani said that it would allow Soviet trains to reach the southern coast of Iran, while Iranian trains could reach Leningrad.

Discussion on co-operation between the two countries extended to space exploration, including plans for sharing Soviet satellite data for exploration of natural resources in Iran.

Gorbachev told Rafsanjani: “I am particularly interested in the possibility of co-operation in space. I hope that our ideological differences will not hinder the success of such co-operation.”

Rafsanjani even proposed to send his son for a space flight on a Soviet shuttle, “as a symbol of friendship between the Soviet Union and Iran”. Gorbachev said that he thought this was possible, and promised to look into it. However, as with the request for the USSR to become an Islamic state, it was ultimately diplomatically turned down.

Pavel Stroilov is a Russian journalist and political exile living in London, and author of ‘Behind the Desert Storm’. Additional reporting by Fiona O’Cleirigh.

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