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The Qarani Affair and Iranian Politics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 April 2009

Mark J. Gasiorowski
Political Science Department, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La. 70803, U.S.A.


On 27 February 1958, General Valiollah Qarani, commander of the Iranian army's intelligence staff (G-2), was arrested on charges of engaging in political activity, a practice that was forbidden at the time for all Iranian government employees. Dozens of other Iranians from a variety of political persuasions were also arrested or interrogated by the security forces in connection with Qarani's arrest. In a brief flurry of newspaper stories and official statements, it was alleged that Qarani and his collaborators had been conspiring with an unnamed foreign power—generally understood to be the United States—against the Shah's regime. Qarani was tried in the summer of 1958 and given a three-year prison term. He remained on the margins of Iranian political life until 1979, when he served briefly as chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces in the first postrevolutionary government. He was assassinated in April 1979 by the mysterious Islamic terrorist group Forqan.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1993

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Author's note: I thank Peter Avery, Fakhreddin Azimi, James Bill, John Bowling, Houchang Chehabi, Richard Cottam, Jo-Ann Hart, Ezzat Heydari, Homa Katouzian, Habib Ladjevardi, Ibrahim Pourhadi, William Rountree, Abbas Samii, Hossein Shahbazi, Andrew Weir, Dennis Wright, the interviewees identified below, several other people who preferred to remain unnamed, and four anonymous reviewers for their generous comments or other assistance.

1 Brief accounts also appear in Avery, Peter, Modern Iran (New York: Praeger, 1965), 475Google Scholar; Zonis, Marvin, The Political Elite of Iran (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), 54Google Scholar; Cottam, Richard W., Nationalism in Iran, Updated Through 1978 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979), 314–15, 362Google Scholar; Katouzian, Homa, The Political Economy of Modern Iran: Despotism and Pseudo-Modernism (New York: New York University Press, 1981), 199, 209–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bill, James A., The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 127–28Google Scholar; Fardust, Husayn, Ẓuhūr va Saqūṭ-e Salṭanat-i Pahlavī: Khaṭīrat-i Ḥusayn Fardust (Tehran: Iṭṭilaʿat, 1989), 132–33Google Scholar; and Katouzian, Homa, Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power in Iran (London: I. B. Tauris, 1991), 214–15Google Scholar

2 This study is based on personal interviews with participants or close observers of the Qarani affair; on U.S. State Department and Defense Department documents from the U.S. National Archives (USNA), Record Group 59, Boxes 3811 and 1814, or obtained by the author under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); on oral histories prepared by the Harvard University Iranian Oral History Project (IOHP); and on British embassy documents from the Public Records Office (PRO) in London. Several of my interviewees asked that I not reveal their names. Material from the latter four sources is identified below with the notations “USNA,” “FOIA,” “IOHP,” and “PRO.” Documents attributed to “U.S. Embassy“ are from the Tehran embassy, except where noted. I have made every effort to corroborate information from these sources. Important information that I could not corroborate independently is either qualified in the text or identified in the notes as the product of a single source.

3 On Mosaddeq and his overthrow, see Cottam, Nationalism in Iran; Gasiorowski, Mark J., “The 1953 Coup d'Etat in Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 19 (08 1987):261–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Louis, William Roger and Bill, James A., ed., Musaddiq, Iranian Nationalism, and Oil (London: I. B. Tauris, 1988)Google Scholar; and Azimi, Fakhreddin, Iran: The Crisis of Democracy, 1941-1953 (London: St. Martin's, 1989)Google Scholar.

4 U.S. Embassy, “Arrests of Nationalists,” 24 09 1957 (FOIA)Google Scholar; idem, Further Developments in Recent Arrests of Nationalists,” 24 09 1957Google Scholar. On the National Resistance Movement, see idem, “A Survey of the Nationalist Movement in Iran since the Fall of Mosadeq,” 8 05 1957 (FOIA)Google Scholar; and Chehabi, H. E., Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism: The Liberation Movement of Iran under the Shah and Khomeini (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

5 On the Tudeh, see Zabih, Sepehr, The Communist Movement in Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966)Google Scholar; and Abrahamian, Ervand, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982), chaps. 68Google Scholar.

6 On the security forces and their importance to the Shah's regime, see Gasiorowski, Mark J., U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building a Client State in Iran (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), 151–58Google Scholar.

7 U.S. Embassy, “A Political Analysis of the Iranian Army,” 12 02 1957 (FOIA)Google Scholar.

8 Ibid., 12–17; idem, NIS 33 (Iran), Key Personalities,” 14 05 1959, 18 (FOIA)Google Scholar; idem, The Qarani Affair: A Recapitulation,” 25 03 1958, 2 (FOIA)Google Scholar. Bakhtiar began to plot against the Shah after he was dismissed as head of SAVAK in 03 1961Google Scholar. For a fascinating fictionalized account of this plot, see Villiers, Gérard de, SAS Contre CIA (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1965)Google Scholar.

9 U.S. Embassy, “Political Analysis of the Iranian Army,” 810Google Scholar; idem, Current Political Situation in Iran and Assessment of Future,” 4 09 1958, 5 (FOIA)Google Scholar; U.S. Embassy to Secretary of State, Airgram No. G-48, “Role of the Military—Iran,” 24 10 1959, 4 (FOIA)Google Scholar. The latter document estimates that as much as 20 percent of the entire Iranian officer corps was sympathetic to the National Front or the Tudeh in late 1959 (p. 10)Google Scholar.

10 See Gasiorowski, U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah, chap. 4.

11 This material is based on interviews with many U.S. officials who worked on Iran at this time. Fora clear statement of the need to push the Shah toward reform, see U.S. National Security Council, U.S. Policy toward Iran, NSC 5821/1, 15 11 1958 (USNA).

12 The New York Times, 2 01 1958, 5, and 25 02 1958, 2Google Scholar. This material is based on a confidential interview with a retired CIA officer who was working in Tehran at the time and followed these events closely. According to this officer, these covert operations were probably not authorized by CIA director Allen Dulles or CIA covert operations chief Richard Helms, who had little interest in promoting reform, but rather by a senior officer in the CIA's Middle East division. On Brewer's cooperation with the CIA at this time, see Said Aburish, K., Beirut Spy: The St. George Hotel Bar (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), which says of himGoogle Scholar: “No longer a great foreign correspondent, Sam had been reduced to a has-been mouthpiece for the CIA” (p. 17).

13 These organizations included Mozaffar Baqai's Toilers' party, the Pan-Iranist party, and Khalil Maleki's Third Force. See idem, “Meeting of the Toilers' Party,” 22 05 1957 (FOIA)Google Scholar; idem, “Report on the Formation of a New Party in Iran,” 2 03 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar; and idem, Iranian Government Critics and Opposition Leaders and the Status of the Latter,” 8 02 1960 (FOIA)Google Scholar.

14 Idem, Formation of the Freedom Society of Iran,” 3 09 1957 (FOIA); interview with Jafrudi, Kazem (Paris, 26 06 1991)Google Scholar. The three loyal Majlis deputies were Jafrudi, Mohamad Shahkar, and Manouchehr Teimurtash. According to Jafrudi, Arsanjani said nothing in party meetings about his activities with Qarani or anything else that threatened the Shah; he therefore had nothing to report in the one meeting he had with the Shah about the party.

15 interview with Holaku Rambod (Nice, France, 29 05 1991); Rambod interview (IOHP)Google Scholar.

16 U.S. Embassy, “Complaints of Two High Ranking Iranian Army Officers,” 15 11 1956 (FOIA)Google Scholar; idem, Qarani Affair”; interviews with Rambod and Ahmad Madani (Paris, 6 06 1991)Google Scholar. Although Qarani had been acquainted with Razmara, they were not particularly close (interview with Esfandiar Bozorgmehr, London, 212206 1991)Google Scholar. According to the CIA officer mentioned in n. 12, Qarani's plot was similar in many ways to Nasser's and a large amount of literature on Nasser was found in Qarani's home when he was arrested.

17 Qarani apparently wrote a report detailing the corruption of Bakhtiar, Kia, and Alavi-Moqadam, which the Shah then showed to these officers; see Bill, Eagle and the Lion, 127. This undoubtedly left these officers thirsting for revenge.

18 U.S. Embassy to Secretary of State, Airgram No. G-48, 89Google Scholar; U.S. Department of the Army, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, C-44, 14 04 1958 (FOIA); “Army Officers Plot,” 4 03 1958, FO/371/133009 (PRO); U.S. Embassy, “Qarani Affair,” 78Google Scholar; interviews with Madani and a top SAVAK official from this period. One top security official whose political views were similar to Qarani's was General Hassan Pakravan, a deputy to Bakhtiar at this time who later headed SAVAK for several years. Qarani and Pakravanwere also bitter rivals, however, and therefore were not likely to work together; see U.S. Embassy, “Complaints of Two High Ranking Iranian Army Officers.”

19 Encloses Notes on Past and Present Political Parties,” 16 08 1957, FO/371/127075 (PRO)Google Scholar; interviews with Rambod, Jafrudi, and the SAVAK official mentioned in n. 18; letter to the author from Ali Amini, 29 06 1991. Ironically, another one of Qarani's “brothers” in the Baradaran group was Prime Minister Eqbal, the main target of his political activity.

20 U.S. Embassy, “Qarani Affair,” 2; interviews with Madani and Hassan Nazih (Paris, 13 06 1991)Google Scholar.

21 Bozorgmehr interview. The idea may well have been broached initially by Arsanjani, who had been opposed to the Shah for many years and probably had more ambition and more strategic vision than Qarani.

22 Madani, Jafrudi, and Bozorgmehr interviews. Nureddin Alamoti and Shahab Ferdows of the Azadi party and Mohammad Derakhshesh were also to receive cabinet posts, according to Jafrudi. Although all of my informed sources insist that Amini was to become prime minister in the new government, Qarani might have taken this position for himself if he had succeeded. Arsanjani, Bozorgmehr, and Derakhshesh apparently approached Amini with a plan to oust Eqbal, but he refused to participate (Amini letter to the author). My sources generally believed that Qarani and his allies told Amini little or nothing about their activities to protect him in case they were discovered.

23 This characterization is based on my own assessment of the information I gathered. Most of my interviewees believe Qarani's plan was narrower in scope, involving some of these activities but not others. The secret nature of these activities made it hard for anyone to know their full scope and has made it impossible for me to determine the extent to which they were pursued and their relative importance in the overall plan.

24 For a good description of Qarani's potential supporters, see U.S. Embassy, “Qarani Affair,” 23Google Scholar. Qarani approached the National Resistance Movement in 1955 and met with Hassan Nazih and several other leaders (Nazih interview). He also maintained contact with Ahmad Madani and other officers who had established secret networks in the armed forces linked to the National Resistance Movement Madani interview). He even met with Khalil Maleki, leader of the opposition group Niru-ye Sevvom (Third Force); see Katouzian, Political Economy of Modern Iran, 209. Before Qarani was arrested, the National Resistance Movement apparently sent him a message through Mohammad Nasser Qashqai saying they would not support him (Qashqai interview, IOHP).

25 Rambod, Jafrudi, and Bozorgmehr interviews.

26 U.S. Embassy, “Complaints of Two High Ranking Iranian Army Officers”; idem, Recent Conversations with Iranian Politicians—January 9th through January 14th, 1957,” 17 01 1957 (FOIA)Google Scholar; letter from Fraser Wilkins to Owen T. Jones, 3 March 1958 (USNA). Qarani had spent several months in the United States in 1956 and met with a variety of U.S. officials. Although he probably did not discuss his political activities with these officials, he apparently came to believe that the United States was committed to promoting reform in Iran. When he returned to Iran he therefore pursued his activities with increased vigor. (Rambod and Jafrudi interviews.)

27 interview with the CIA officer mentioned in n. 12. According to this source, the CIA officer knew about Qarani's activities but did not discuss them with him because he had not been authorized to do so. Qarani also met with Fraser Wilkins, the second highest ranking member of the U.S. embassy staff, a few months before his arrest. Ambassador Seldon Chapin had sent Wilkins to meet with Qarani, presumably with State Department approval. Qarani told Wilkins very little about his activities, probably because he preferred to communicate with the United States through Bozorgmehr (see n. 28). The Shah later learned about Wilkins's meeting with Qarani and threatened to declare him persona non grata. Interview with Wilkins (Washington, 9 July 1985).

28 Bozorgmehr's CIA ties were described to me in interviews with three retired CIA officers who worked in Iran at this time. According to one of these officers, Bozorgmehr's Tudeh penetrations may have been the source through which the CIA learned the whereabouts of Khosrow Ruzbeh, information that was then given to SAVAK and resulted in Ruzbeh's arrest and execution. Bozorgmehr claims he met regularly in this period with the station chief, another CIA officer, and Ambassador Chapin (Bozorgmehr interview). Qarani probably preferred to communicate with the United States through Bozorgmehr because Bozorgmehr's U.S. connections were very close and because indirect contacts of this sort would have been easier for him to disavow.

29 Interviews with Bozorgmehr and one of the CIA officers mentioned in n. 28; U.S. Embassy, “Qarani Affair,” 4. There are several plausible reasons why U.S. officials did not inform the Shah. First, they may have wanted to watch Qarani to learn who he was working with and how likely he was to succeed. Second, they certainly did not want to jeopardize their relationships with Amini, Arsanjani, Bozorgmehr, and perhaps other Qarani associates by telling the Shah. Third, some U.S. officials may actually have wanted Qarani to succeed, or at least to come close enough to scare the Shah into undertaking reforms. I have been unable to determine which, if any, of these explanations were responsible for this decision and who actually made it.

30 Qarani or Bozorgmehr also approached the British embassy on at least one occasion for “support and guidance”; see “Report on First Quarter of 1958,” 04 1958, FO/371/133003 (PRO). Their reasons for making this approach are not all clear to meGoogle Scholar.

31 The material in this and the next paragraph is based mainly on my interview with Bozorgmehr. For a description of these networks, see U.S. Embassy, “Qarani Affair,” 34Google Scholar. I have not been able to determine what roles Mohtadi, Shamlu, Behbehani, and Hejazi played in this effort. However, most of my interviewees believe they were involved in some way.

32 On the Tudeh military network, see Kazemi, Farhad, “The Military and Politics in Iran: The Uneasy Symbiosis,” in Towards a Modern Iran: Studies in Thought, Politics, and Society, ed. Kedourie, Elie and Haim, Sylvia G. (London: Frank Cass, 1980), 217–40Google Scholar; and U.S. Embassy, “Government Anti-Tudeh Campaign,” 26 11 1954 (USNA)Google Scholar. According to the SAVAK official mentioned in n. 18, Qarani was not involved in breaking up this network. However, as head of G-2 he would have learned a great deal about its organization and activities.

33 Bozorgmehr and Rambod interviews; U.S. Embassy, “Qarani Affair,” 34Google Scholar.

34 U.S. Embassy, “Qarani Affair,” 2; interviews with Madani and the CIA officer mentioned in n. 12. Bozorgmehr knew nothing about the provocation operation, though he concedes Qarani may have kept it from him (Bozorgmehr interview). Qarani may have told the Shah he would target the U.S. embassy and CIA station with this operation to see if they would plot against him. He may even have suggested that the Azadi party could be used in conjunction with this operation to test the loyalty of Arsanjani and his friends. Such actions would have appealed to the Shah and provided excellent cover for Qarani's approaches to U.S. officials and for the Azadi party's activities.

35 In my interview, Bozorgmehr gave a somewhat different account of the plan. First, certain Majlis deputies who were secretly working with Qarani would try to persuade the Shah to appoint Amini prime minister. If that failed, public disturbances would be staged to force the Shah to appoint Amini or, if he refused, to provide the pretext for a coup to install Amini. Once in power, Amini would try to force the Shah to become a constitutional monarch. If the Shah resisted he would be forced to abdicate. These activities were to occur during the Nau Rūz (Iranian New Year) holiday in March 1958. In my view this account underemphasizes Qarani's efforts to obtain U.S. support and overemphasizes his desire actually to oust the Shah.

36 U.S. Embassy, thens to Secretary of State, 3 February 1958 (USNA); Bozorgmehr interview; telephone interview with Rountree, 21 October 1991. Rountree and Dulles had stopped in Tehran before going to Athens. Bozorgmehr told me Dulles had tried unsuccessfully to meet with him in Tehran and that his contacts in the U.S. embassy had then suggested that he go to Athens to see Dulles (whom he never actually met). He and Qarani apparently decided to make this approach simply to reinforce their other efforts to obtain U.S. support. The SAVAK officer in Beirut was tipped off by a source in the Greek embassy after Bozorgmehr had stopped in for a visa, according to Bozorgmehr.

37 U.S. Embassy, “Qarani Affair,” 7; Bozorgmehr and Jafrudi interviews; U.S. Department of the Army, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 9 03 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar; U.S. Embassy to Secretary of State, Telegram No. 1748, 15 March 1958 (USNA); U.S. Department of the Army, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 23 03 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar; idem, USARMA Tehran to DEPTAR, C-44, 14 April 1958 (FOIA); idem, USARMA Tehran to DEPTAR, C-33, 1 March 1958 (FOIA); idem, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 2 March, 1958 (FOIA); U.S. Embassy, “Role of the Military,” 9; U.S. Embassy to Secretary of State, Telegram No. 1664, 2 March 1958 (FOIA); “Army Officers Plot” (PRO). Several of my sources believe Bozorgmehr implicated Qarani, as did British embassy officials; see “Withdrawal of Amini from Washington,” 11 03 1958, FO/371/133009 (PRO). Bozorgmehr denied this in my interview with himGoogle Scholar.

38 U.S. Embassy to Secretary of State, Telegram No. 1586, 20 03 1958 (USNA)Google Scholar; idem, Telegram No. 1664, 2 March 1958 (USNA); letter to the author from a retired CIA officer (regarding the Tehran Mosavvar article). This article discusses conversations among U.S. embassy officials held inside the embassy itself. The source of this information must have been an informant working within the embassy, presumably a member of the embassy's Iranian staff who was working for SAVAK. Bozorgmehr's CIA case officer had diplomatic cover in the embassy, but not as a third secretary.

39 U.S. Embassy to Secretary of State, Telegram No. 1673, 3 03 1958 (USNA)Google Scholar; idem, Telegram No. 1702, 8 March 1958 (USNA); U.S. Department of the Army, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 9 03 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar. The text of the forged Dulles letter is in Fraser Wilkins to Owen T. Jones, 3 03 1958 (USNA)Google Scholar.

40 U.S. Department of the Army, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 9 03 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar; U.S. Embassy, “Qarani Affair,” 6; U.S. Embassy to Secretary of State, Telegram No. 1726, 13 03 1958Google Scholar; Bozorgmehr interview; U.S. Department of the Army, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 23 03 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar; idem, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 18 05 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar; idem, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 27 04 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar; “Military Attaché's Report on Iranian Army for 1958,” 29 01 1959Google Scholar, FO/371/140841 (PRO). Ironically, Qarani himself had promoted the idea of subsidizing the Pan-Iranists' offshoot; see U.S. Embassy, “Government-Sponsored Extreme Nationalist Political Grouping,” 26 03 1958 (USNA)Google Scholar.

41 I U.S. Department of the Army, USARMA Tehran to DEPTAR, 13 06 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar; idem, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 27 07 1958 (FOIA)Google Scholar; IOHP interview with Sadegh Amirazizi (head of the appeals court that tried Qarani). Qarani's defense counsel. General Ismail Shafai, withdrew from the appeals trial, charging that the trial was “phoney and fixed”; see U.S. Department of the Army, SANA Tehran to DEPTAR, 19 07 1958 (USNA)Google Scholar. Bozorgmehr moved to Geneva after he was released from prison and was eventually given a position in the Iranian delegation to the United Nations offices there.

42 Interviews with the CIA officer mentioned in n. 12, Madani, and Nazih; IOHP interviews with Amirazizi, Hassan Alavi-Kia, and Haj-Ali Kia; Le Monde, 232402 1964, 2; Iran Times, 22 06 1979, 2Google Scholar.

43 A fourth possibility is that Soviet officials convinced the Shah, as suggested by Katouzian, Musaddiq and the Struggle for Power, 215. This explanation seems implausible, mainly because the Shah would have been deeply suspicious of any information of this kind provided by the Soviets.

44 Two such scenarios come to mind. First, U.S. officials may have decided initially to watch Qarani's activities and then informed the Shah once these activities seemed threatening. Second, the Tehran CIA station chief, who by most accounts had little interest in promoting reform and was very close to Bakhtiar, may have informed the Shah without authority from Washington in the belief that Qarani represented a serious threat to the Shah or to Bakhtiar. Under both of these scenarios it would have been much less damaging to U.S. interests if the Shah had been informed about Qarani much earlier. These arguments notwithstanding, some observers believe U.S. officials did inform the Shah. See, for example, the reminiscences of Peter Avery in an interview with Shusha Guppy, 9–10 February 1985, 11, in the Oral History of Iran Collection of the Foundation for Iranian Studies.

45 Rambod (IOHP interview), Jafrudi, Madani, Bozorgmehr, and the SAVAK official mentioned in n. 18 (personal interviews) believe the British told the Shah about Qarani and that Kia or Bakhtiar played important roles as well; Amirazizi believes Kia told the Shah (IOHP interview). Bozorgmehr and the SAVAK official both emphasized to me the mutual antipathy between Qarani and Reporter and argued that Reporter himself had informed the Shah. In an IOHP interview made before he died, Kia did not admit that he had exposed Qarani but stated that Qarani should have been executed. For evidence that the British knew about Qarani's activities before he was arrested, see n. 30.

46 Interviews with the CIA officer mentioned in n. 12 and with several other U.S. officials working on Iran at this time; Gasiorowski, U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah, 118, 120; Ramazani, Rouhollah K., Iran's Foreign Policy, 1941–1973: A Study of Foreign Policy in Modernizing Nations (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975), chap. 12Google Scholar.

47 On the Imperial Inspectorate see U.S. Embassy, “New ‘Critical’ Role for Three Official Groups,“ 19 09 1977 (FOIA)Google Scholar.

48 New York Times, 29 10 1958, 4Google Scholar; Ramazani, Rouhollah K., “Iran's ‘White Revolution’: A Study in Political Development,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 5 (07 1974): 124–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar; U.S. Embassy, “The New Iran Party's First Year,” 31 12 1964 (FOIA)Google Scholar.

49 Interview with the CIA officer mentioned in n. 12.

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