UNO Wins the First Round
On Iran UNO faced a hard choice — to risk sudden death for a principle or to attempt appeasement. It took the risk... and won
Maclean’s Ottawa Editor
NEW YORK—The United Nations Security Council gathered for its first meeting here in a gloom even deeper than anyone would admit at the time.
Everyone you talked to was glum and cynical. Typical was the story that went round about the early adjournment on the first day, so disappointing to the schoolboys who had queued all night to see history being made. The gossip was that the adjournment was a last minute decision. They’d discovered that name calling was sure to begin as soon as the Iranian complaint came up, so they’d thought it more decent to let 24 hours intervene between the lofty platitudes of welcome and the scurrilous realities of debate.
Two short weeks later the clouds were turned inside out. For the first time since the earliest days at San Francisco you could find real cheerfulness among the men who were trying to make UNO work. They were looking at their handiwork with pride and with a hope they’d professed but hardly felt in the previous year.
UNO had weathered a crisis—not by backing away from it, Geneva-fashion, but by meeting it head on. And in spite of the Soviet-Iranian treaty and all it implied, they still felt that new as it was, physically impotent as it was, UNO had won through.
Actually it didn’t look as dramatic as that sounds. These delegates are not glamorous. James Byrnes, the U. S. Secretary of State, looks more like the Carolina lawyer he used to be than the world statesman he is. Sir Alexander Cadogan, for Britain, and Andrei
Gromyko, for Ruasia, are both foreign service types— cool, correct, preserving the externals of courtesy no matter what they’re saying to each other.
None of them raised his voice to utter those harsh words that have been quoted around the world; he just spoke them quietly in neat little bundles for the translator. Even when Gromyko walked out, he held to the curiously slow-motion performance that translation imposes. He announced his intention in Russian, then sat down while it was put first into French, then into English, before he rose and stalked out by the far door.
They’re Playing for Keeps
YET THROUGH all the dull formalism the tension could be felt. It was like watching a chess game played for very high stakes—and in this Iranian debate the stakes were high indeed for all concerned.
For the Soviet Union it was part of the oldest dream of Russian foreign policy, a southward drive to warmwater ports, to the Dardanelles and the Persian Gulf. Czars had tried for these objectives for centuries and failed.
For Britain it awakened a fear as old as the British Empire, fear for the “British lifeline” through the Mediterranean. Today the “lifeline” means far more than the short route to India; it means access to the only dependable fuel supply of the Royal Navy. Almost all the British oil reserves are in Iran and neighboring Iraq. An enemy in the Mediterranean, strong enough to seize the oil fields and pipo lines of Asia Minor, could cripple the British Navy at a blow.
United States had a stake in this too. Harold Ickes, wartime oil controller, says the U. S. hasn’t enough oil reserves to take her through another war, or even a
generation of peace at present rates of consumption. So the American Navy, too, has a security interest in Iranian oil.
But though all these things are true, it is not true that the Iranian debate in UNO was just a squabble over oil. Oil had very little to do with it, and that little was on the Soviet side.
When, 18 months ago, the Iranian Government suddenly declared all negotiations for oil concessions at an end until foreign troops had left Iranian soil, two American oil companies and one British were pretty annoyed. They’d spent a full year negotiating concessions and were about to sign a contract.
But| neither the British nor the American Govern-
ment would back them up. Both took the position
that the refusal of oil Continued on page 78
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concessions was an absolute right of the Iranian Government. The oil companies had to swallow their losses.
The outcry against the refusal came from the Soviet Government, whose sudden demand for oil concessions in northern Iran had thrown the Iranian Government into a panic, and had precipitated the general ban on all oil negotiations. So vigorous and so effective was the Soviet protest, in fact, that the then Prime Minister of Iran was forced to resign, and the present Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam — relatively pro-Russian - took office.
Lest he yield to Russian demands, though, the Iranian Parliament took a drastic step. In December, 1944, it passed two laws, both amendments to the Iranian constitution. One made it unlawful to conduct any negotiation for oil concessions while foreign troops remained on Iranian soil, and set an eight-year prison term for anyone carrying on such negotiations. The other decreed that no elections should be held until all foreign troops had left Iran. Parliament then dissolved.
That’s where the matter stood up to April 5, when the Soviet-Iranian treaty setting up a joint oil company was announced in Teheran.
Big Three Agreed on Oil
Incidentally, it’s not true either that Britain and the United States oppose oil concessions for the Soviet Union in Iran. At Yalta and repeatedly thereafter, they have assured Moscow that they’ve no objection to any agreement the U. S. S. It. might reach with the Government of Iran. We were told officially at Hunter College, the Security Council’s meeting place, that these assurances are still valid.
That’s the background, or part of it, to the dispute that was the focus of the UNO’s first meetings here. But none of it came up in the debate. If the Soviet troops are withdrawn by May 6, as promised, it never will come up.
The issue before the Security Council was much simpler, so simple that people in the democracies might wonder what the argument was about. It hinged entirely upon the right of each party to a dispute, whatever his size or status, to he heard before judgment on the dispute is taken.
Iran had taken the initiative in bringing the dispute before the Security Council, with a letter stating that Soviet troops were still in Iran despite the treaty obligation to remove them by March 2, and “furthermore, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
is continuing to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran through the medium of Soviet agents, officials and armed forces.”
“Interference” had been pretty drastic—nothing less than a refusal to allow the Iranian Government to send its own troops to quell disorders in its own northern territory. The troops were actually on the train when Soviet orders came through to turn them back, and they were turned back. This was the kind of thing which Iran said was still going on.
It’s perhaps some tribute to the UNO that even the sending of the letter, drawing the dispute to the Security Council’s attention, spurred the Soviet Union to action. The Iranian Premier had been in Moscow in February, trying to arrange for the removal of Soviet troops by the treaty dead line, March 2. He had several meetings with Molotov and one or two with Stalin. But the negotiations broke down. Moscow stipulated that the troops would be evacuated only on two conditions:
1— That the border province of Azerbaijan, where a new pro-Soviet Party had assumed power by coup d’état while Soviet troops were occupying the province, should enjoy “local autonomy”;
2— That the oil of northern Iran should be handed over to a joint stock company of which the Soviet Union would own 51% of the stock and the Iranian Government 49%;.
Qavam rejected these proposals and went home. That’s where matters stood when the Iranian complaint was addressed to the Security Council.
New Soviet Offer
But on March 24, the day before the Council met, the Soviet Union took further steps. According to the official statement of the Iranian Government the new Soviet Ambassador called on Premier Qavam with three memoranda.
One stated that Soviet troops were being evacuated from Iran, commencing on that day, and the evacuation would be complete in five or six weeks. A second memorandum, said the Iranian Government, “related to the formation of a joint Iranian-Soviet corporation for the extraction of oil,” while the third dealt with Azerbaijan, and suggested a form of “autonomous government.” In other words, the same two proposals that the Iranian Premier had rejected in Moscow a month before.
In the written memorandum about troop withdrawal, no conditions or qualifications were specified. But Qavam says the Soviet Ambassador called back a few hours later and, on the basis of a telegram he’d had from Moscow, repeated the evacuation pledge
orally with an additional phrase: “unless unforeseen circumstances arise.” When Qavam objected that the withdrawal should be unconditional, and asked for explanations of the “unforeseen circumstances” joker, “the Soviet Ambassador did not give a convincing reply.”
That was Sunday, March 24. The Security Council met next day to hear welcoming speeches. On Tuesday the 26th it took up the agenda, on which item 4 was the Iranian complaint.
Soviet Ambassador Gromyko took the floor at once. The Iranian affair was “not fitting to be placed on the agenda,” because “negotiations between the Soviet Government and the Government of Iran have resulted in an agreement Hater he changed the word to ‘understanding’) regarding the evacuation of Soviet troops still in that country.”
Secretary Byrnes, with Sir Alexander Cadogan supporting him, suggested it might be well to hear from the Iranian representative his version of what happened.
Said Mr. Gromyko: “There is no reason for doubting the exactitude of the statement made on behalf of the Soviet Government. I must state categorically that I cannot accept the declaration made that the Soviet statement is open to doubt. There is no justification for doubt as regards the veracity of the statement of the Soviet Government.”
People who knew Russia well were convinced that this meant unbreakable deadlock. They’d never known the Soviet Government to take a backward step publicly or admit to having been wrong.
One diplomat, lately back from .Moscow, tells an anecdote that’s rather revealing on this attitude: One time his embassy asked some Russian officials in to see the Charles Laughton film, “Henry the Eighth.” The Russians weren’t amused, they were shocked.
“Don’t you think it’s dangerous,” one of them asked gravely, “to make fun of authority?”
And here, in open council, was a direct affront not merely to “authority” in general but to the sacred authority of the Kremlin itself. Here was an assembly refusing to take the word of the Soviet Government until it had heard the other side’s version.
The Soviet motion to drop the Iranian item from the agenda was defeated, 9 to 2, Poland voting with
Russia. Thereupon, after reiteration of the same arguments, Mr. Gromyko moved that the matter be postponed until April 10—and this, he warned, would be regarded by Moscow as a “minimum demand.” If it were refused he would have to leave.
In the galleries some people seemed to think UNO would knuckle under. When the French delegate moved to appoint a subcommittee and adjourn until next day, the man behind me said, “Oh, oh—there’s Geneva taking over.” And indeed, they say that was the League of Nations’ major sin—never to face an issue, always to use the device of shelving it with a subcommittee.
But the cynic was wrong. The adjournment did take place, but only overnight. Next day the subcommittee came in to report failure. The postponement motion did go to a vote, it was defeated by the same 9-2 split, and Mr. Gromyko walked out.
But nobody paid any attention!
To anyone who saw San Francisco that was the most remarkable thing of all about that Wednesday afternoon. On that Monday in April last year, when Mr. Stettinius stubbornly led his legions to vote down the U.S.S.R. on the issue of admitting Argentina to UNO, the corridors were full of gloom. Highly responsible people were predicting, to anyone who asked, that the Russians would pack up and go home after such an affront. The topic on every lip was: “What will the Russians do?”
Now nobody gave a sign that he cared. The remaining 10 delegates went prosily on discussing a motion of the Egyptian delegate relative to their next step. Half an hour of this went by before the chairman, Dr. Quo, drew the attention of the council to the fact that “we now are only 10 members.” Delegates made no comment; the Egyptian motion went to a vote; the Ambassador of Iran, Hussein Ala, was called forward from the spectators’ seats and took his seat at the Council table, opposite the Russian’s empty chair.
At that moment the overriding objective of the British and American delegations was achieved. They hadn’t objected to postponement—in fact they decided next day to have a postponement, not as long a one as Moscow had requested, but long enough to send a message there and get an answer. But the Australian delegate was wrong when he implied that it was mere pigheadedness which led them to force
! Mr. Gromyko out first and then postpone. The whole situation changed,
, the whole objection to postponement in itself disappeared, once the Iranian Ambassador had said his say.
Not that the Anglo-Americans had any particular brief either for Hussein Ala personally, or for the Government whose envoy he was. Ernest Bevin had told the British Parliament in February that “from the point of view of i democracy, free elections and so on, we ! would not hold up Persia as any paragon of virtue.”
I But their point was, this is the only I Government Iran has. It’s the direct I and constitutional heir of the Govern! ment of Dictator Reza Shah; Qavam I has been Prime Minister off and on for ! years; Hussein Ala, formerly Minister ! of the Court, was acceptable enough to Joseph Stalin when he arranged the three-power pledge of Iranian independence at the Teheran conference, 1943; he had signed for Iran at Versailles and had been her delegate to Geneva. There was no reason to suppose he was unqualified to speak for his Government.
Speak he did—and gave the Soviet Union the lie direct. “No positive results have been achieved” by the negotiations which Mr. Gromyko had credited with achieving “agreement.” And in his longer communication to the Council a few days later, after communication with his Government, Mr. Ala made it more explicit:
“According to information from my Government, dispatched April 1 (a week after Mr. Gromyko’s announcement of the ‘agreement’), no understanding has been arrived at and no agreement has been made.”
So far as reporters could gather, the Security Council was not unduly worried by the contradiction in the two replies. The important thing was, first, that the right of a little power to speak had been firmly and unequivocally established. At San Francisco the Big Five had denied, formally, a little power charge that they’d be able to veto even the discussion of a dispute.
Secretary Byrnes said repeatedly that to prove the worth of that pledge was his first and major objective in New York. “We can’t do that,” he’d say to suggestions that discussion be postponed. He had no objection to postponing “after we’ve heard from Iran." But this question of postponement was obviously a matter of vital interest to Iran, and in such matters every member of UNO, Council member or not, had a right to take part in the discussion. Byrnes would tolerate no veto, however disguised, of that right.
He carried his point—carried it at the price, for all he knew, of smashing the organization. Britain, France, China and all the small powers except Australia and Poland felt the same way. Without that precedent UNO would I lose the confidence of the world, they felt; if it must smash on the issue, let it smash openly and not, as Mr. Byrnes put it, “die of sheer inefficiency and ineffectiveness.”
So they forced the issue, and they ; won. But it would have been an empty and bitter victory if nothing more had happened—if the U. S. S. R. had simply refused to answer the Council’s request for more information and for assurances that the troop withdrawal ending May 6 would be unconditional.
Over that long first week end, Friday to Wednesday, many people thought that’s what would happen. After all, the U. S. S. R. was pressing to extend her veto power in all directions, plug the few meagre leaks the Charter had left in it. Wednesday’s walkout had been a kind of unofficial veto on the whole Iranian enquiry. It was all too
easy to see why the U.S.S.R. might just sit the whole thing out until her own dead line, April 10, and it wasn’t so easy to see what the Council would do about this.
But the expected didn’t happen. The Soviet Union did reply. In fact it gave two replies, one in words and one in deeds.
The one in words was equivocal— the question of evacuating Soviet troops was “not connected” with the oil and Azerbaijan agreements, said the note in a not-too-clear sentence which could be interpreted in opposite ways.
But the Council wasn’t disposed to argue too closely. “We have to consider that phrase in relation to the question to which it is a reply,” one delegate remarked. To most of the Council it seemed, if not complete acquiescence, at least a substantial compliance with the Security Council’s request.
The compliance appeared the more substantial because of the Russians’ other answer—the answer in deeds. At last, on April 1, Red Army troops began to move not merely out of southern Iran but out of the disputed “autonomous” province of Azerbaijan — a movement reported not by Tass but by British and American consular officials in Tabriz, the capital of Azerbaijan. They hadn’t moved on March 2, the day the treaty stipulated. They hadn’t moved right up to the very eve of the Soviet reply to the Security Council’s note. But they were moving now, as the Council reconvened to consider its action.
All delegates except the Australian felt they had only one course before them—to accept the assurances implied in the U. S. S. R. letter, “taking note” of the words they interpreted as a pledge that the troop withdrawal would be unconditional. As Iran had requested, they left the matter on the agenda to be resumed at any time. But the Iranian himself had been satisfied with complete withdrawal by May 6, the Soviets’ own dead line; it seemed churlish to make any other stipulations. None were made—the whole matter was put over to May 6, when the parties report again.
Where does this leave us?
It’s too soon yet for a clear or final answer. The Soviet-Iranian treaty of April 5 gave Russia what she had been asking so far as oil is concerned—how it can be reconciled with the Iranian constitution is a problem for the Iranian Government. The treaty showed that Moscow had been putting a highly cynical interpretation on the word “unconditional,” to say the least. But in spite of this, Security Council delegates did not appear to feel their effort had been either wasted or frustrated. Some things were achieved in
that fortnight of debate, tangible and worth-while things—more, indeed, than most people had hoped of UNO at this early stage.
Even if only temporarily, UNO did reverse the direction of a flow of troops.
“I’m absolutely convinced,” said a man who knows both Iran and Russia very well,“that without United Nations Organization the Red Army would never have even started to move out. And they have started.”
Still more hopeful, though, is another point: UNO’s debate in New York showed that no power wants to have its affairs examined and unfavorably reported by the Council. Great powers, and not Russia alone, are hurrying with their good resolutions, to get their houses clean before the Security Council’s attention is drawn to them— Britain in Egypt and Trans-Jordan; France in Lebanon and Syria; the United States in Cuba.
At San Francisco and after it was conventional to say, “UNO will only preserve peace if there is mutual good will, a spirit of friendliness.” We have reason to pray now that this estimate was wrong, for the good will has not prevailed, the friendliness has not been shown. That unanimity of the great powers, recognized as the indispensable condition of success, has been woefully lacking.
But even if co-operation has not been noteworthy, competition has been moved, in some degree, from the military to the political field.
Intelligent Britons—and the Britons in UNO are very intelligent indeed— recognize their need to meet this competition. I put it to one of them one afternoon:
“Suppose the Soviet Union turned up one day with an amicable, bilateral agreement with Turkey for naval bases outside the Dardanelles? Or with Greece for bases in the Dodecanese Islands? It would be the same threat to the British supply line, potentially at least, as if they took the bases by force. What would you do about that?”
He thought it over for a minute and then said: “It would mean we had lost the war of ideas, that’s all. I don’t think we shall lose it, but I do think we shall have to start fighting it.
“All we can hope UNO to do is to bring these conflicts of interest under the rule of law. It can’t remove them. It can’t just suppress them and freeze the status quo. But it can hope to take out the element of coercion, the use and threat of force.
“Beyond that it’s up to us. We shall have to do something to raise the standard of living in the countries where we have the dominant influence, if we want to keep them friendly. Show them that our way is, in fact, the best way for human beings to live, as I believe it is.”