A look at the short-lived 1953 Syria-Iran Friendship Pact

A pact signed by Iranian Premier Mohammad Mosaddegh and Syrian President Fawzi Selu quickly soured after the two leaders were toppled. Relations remained icy until Khomeini came to power in 1979.

Mohammed Mossadegh speaks during his trial on November 11, 1953, before the Military Tribunal of Tehran.
Mohammed Mossadegh speaks during his trial on November 11, 1953, before the Military Tribunal of Tehran.

A look at the short-lived 1953 Syria-Iran Friendship Pact

In May 1953, Syria and Iran signed something that has been miraculously dropped from modern political discourse: a friendship agreement.

Nobody seems to remember it, and it amounted to nothing, not least because its two signatories—Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and Syria’s President Fawzi Selu, who was head of state, serving as premier and front-man for Colonel Adib al-Shishakli—were soon toppled from power.

But before that, the two men were briefly key players in the story of the complex and challenging diplomacy between their two great nations of the Middle East at a time when relations between the countries were at their closest.

Hindsight reveals this to have been a moment of opportunity that is perhaps under-represented in the narrative of both countries and the region. Al Majalla looks at that part of their national stories now, in what was a move toward secularism from the shahs of Iran, when Syria too was leading in that direction, before 1979 brought the Islamic Revolution to Tehran on change that reverberated across the Middle East.

Mosaddegh was a popular figure in Syria. He was admired for standing up to the United States and trying to dismantle British control over Iranian oil. But his demise came about later that year, in August, in a coup famously engineered by Washington’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Just six months later, al-Shishakli was also toppled in a military coup in Damascus. Ironically, the architect of the Iranian coup of 1953 was a CIA intelligence officer, Kermit Roosevelt, who would go on to try to pull off another coup in Syria in 1957. But that one did not work as well, having been ill-planned, and it led to the suspension of relations between Syria and the US.

Long before Roosevelt, British diplomat Walter Smart served in Iran and played a crucial role in the 1921 coup that established the Pahlavi dynasty, which remained in power until it was toppled in 1979. It began with Reza Shah in power, first as premier, then as king, or “shahenshah”, meaning king of kings.

After Smart’s successful stint in Iran, he would serve as British consul in Aleppo and Damascus during the Great Syrian Revolt of 1926-1927 before being transferred to the British embassy in Cairo.

Mohammed Reza sought Syria's help in ending Palestinian support for opponents of the Iranian monarchy. When that failed, al-Assad put his full weight behind the France-based Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Khomeini

Other overlaps

There were plenty of other overlaps in Syrian-Iranian relations prior to 1979, but they were largely unconnected. The shared history provided by Smart and later the CIA stands out, and it begins with a leader keen on affecting change.

Reza Shah was an ardent reformer inspired by Turkish President Kemal Ataturk. His efforts to reshape Iranian society impressed Syrian intellectuals, including a Damascus member of parliament, Fakhri al-Barudi, who was inspired by the shah's ban on the hijab and chador. The MP penned a 1928 treatise entitled Between Veiling and Unveiling, calling on Syrians to follow Turkey and Iran toward secularism.

The influence of Reza Shah reached far beyond that, although quite unintentionally. At the start of World War II, he refused to abide by Western dictates and did not sever relations with Nazi Germany. Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill responded swiftly, calling for a joint Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August 1941.

The Iranian capital was bombed, and Reza Shah was overthrown and replaced by his son Mohammad Reza, who promised to be far more cooperative with the British. It was one single event which sent shockwaves throughout Syria's political elite, muzzling Nazi supporters while prompting independents to rally rank-and-file behind the Allies.

In the summer of 1941, the British invaded Syria to eject the pro-Nazi Vichy regime in Damascus, and in September 1941, appointed Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hasani as president of Syria. He was sworn in on the very same day as the enthronement of the shah, drawing parallels for all to see. The fate of the ex-shah was a reminder of what would come to those who opposed London. He was exiled to British-controlled Mauritius and then to South Africa, where he died a lonely man in 1944. 

Read more: Syria has long been a battleground for foreign powers

War and change

His son had only visited Damascus once in March 1939 while travelling to Cairo to marry his first wife, Princess Fawzia, the sister of King Farouk. As crown prince, he was given a royal welcome by then-president Hashem al-Atasi, who held a banquet in his honour and decorated the young prince with the Order of Merit of the Syrian Republic.

Sami Moubayed archive
The young Shah in Damascus with Foreign Minister Fayez al-Khoury in March 1939.

Iran took part in Syria's first industrial fair in the mid-1930s, and in its first women's congress held at the historic Azm Palace, although the Iranian consulate did not open until Sheikh Taj became president in 1941.

Three years later, President Shukri al-Quwatli wrote to the Shah, seeking his support for Syria's independence from France. In 1946, the two countries jointly appealed to the newly formed United Nations Security Council. The shah was seeking eviction of Russian troops that had been based in his country since 1941, al-Quwatli the same for French occupying forces since 1920.

Syria's UN representative, Fares al-Khoury, would go on to lobby his Iranian counterpart Hassan Taqizadeh to vote with Arab states against the Palestine Partition Plan when raised at the General Assembly in 1947. Iran had been part of the 11-member United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, or UNSCOP, which had been in Palestine prior to the war of 1948. Although Tehran opposed partition, it would eventually become the second Muslim government to recognise Israel after May 1948, when it was formed.

Attempts at rapprochement

Relations would remain cordial, edging on lukewarm, in the months following the Palestine War until al-Shishakli came to power in the early 1950s. He wanted a rapprochement, appointing celebrated Syrian writer Shakib al-Jabiri as Syrian consul to Tehran. The Pahlavis had taken an interest in Syrian intellectuals. Two of them had been awarded the highest orders of Iran by his father, the dean of the medical faculty, Murshed Khater, and the president of Damascus University, Husni Sabah.

Then came 1953's Friendship Agreement, although this moment of promise did not last long. Icy relations between Iran and Syria would continue until President Hafez al-Assad made a landmark state visit to Tehran in December 1975. It lasted for four days, and the president tried to talk the shah into distancing himself from Israel.

Sami Moubayed archive
President Hafez al-Assad with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Tehran in 1975.

Meanwhile, Reza sought Syria's help in ending Palestinian support for opponents of the Iranian monarchy. When that failed, al-Assad put his full weight behind the France-based Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Khomeini, who returned triumphantly to Tehran in the 1979 revolution.

Syria had provided Khomeini's entourage with passports to move around freely in Europe prior to the revolution, and days into it, senior Damascus officials landed in Tehran, including Information Minister Ahmad Iskandar Ahmad, followed by Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam in August 1979. They congratulated Khomeini and thanked him for expelling the Israeli diplomatic mission and giving its premises to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. 

When the Iran hostage crisis broke out, al-Assad sent one of his senior advisers, Adib al-Daoudi, to serve as a special envoy for UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, with a mandate to negotiate the release of the Americans—a crisis that gripped the world and did not come to a close until January 1981.

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