On August 11, 1957, the Imperial Government of Iran and the Government of the United Soviet Socialist Republics signed an agreement “concerning the preparation of preliminary plans for the joint and equal utilization of the frontier parts of the rivers Aras and Atrak for irrigation and power generation”.
At the time, Iraq was a member of the Baghdad Pact, otherwise known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), along with Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. CENTO, formed in 1955, was modelled after NATO to promote member countries’ mutual cooperation, protection, and non-interference in each others’ affairs. The United States joined the organization in 1958 but was very interested in the region from an early date as a bulwark against the spread of international communism. The CENTO nations shared borders with southwestern USSR, and it was hoped that a strong alliance among them would contain the Soviet threat.
The United States had cultivated a long and friendly relationship with Iran as of 1957. Close relations existed with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who reigned from 1941 until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. He followed a modernizing, secularizing policy which made him a very valuable asset for the US during the Cold War. Iran was the largest, and possibly most powerful oil-producing country in the Middle East at the time, and over the next few years received more than a billion dollars in aid from the American government. A 1953 coup to remove Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq, who threatened to nationalize the 85%-British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), was organized by the US and Great Britain and carried out through the CIA, code-named Operation Ajax. Although initially unsuccessful, a second effort ultimately led to Mossadeq’s downfall.
So imagine the rise in Washington’s anxiety level on this day. Russia and Iran had established hydro-economic agreements in the 1920s, and the Shah had visited Moscow in 1956. Probably Russia hoped to weaken ties between Baghdad and Washington with this mutually beneficial treaty, but no significant change in relations resulted. Analysis of the agreement concluded that the Soviets also stood to gain financially from the river projects contemplated; sizeable tracts of land in Soviet-controlled Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan would receive irrigation as a result.
Image Credit: National Security Archive/George Washington University