Tehran-43: Wrecking the plan to kill Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill

Interview with Russian intelligence veteran Gevork Vartanyan.

The historic significance of the Big Three conference in Tehran, Iran, was enormous - at stake were the destinies of millions of people and the future of the world. The deadline for the opening of the second front was the main issue on the agenda.

Fully aware of this, the Nazi government instructed the German intelligence service, the Abwehr, to assassinate Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. The number one Nazi saboteur, Otto Skorzeny, planned an operation code-named Long Jump.

The security of the Soviet, American and British leaders was mostly the responsibility of Soviet troops and security agencies. Acting under the Russian-Persian Treaty of Friendship of 1921, the Soviet Union sent troops into Iran's northern regions in August 1941 to curb the operations of German agents. Britain deployed troops in the south of the country to guarantee the flow of British-American land-lease supplies to the U.S.S.R. from the Persian Gulf.

The conference itself was held in the Soviet Embassy. It was the perfect site for secret talks - a big mansion surrounded by a stone wall, with buildings of light-colored brick scattered across the park. One of these was converted into the U.S. president's residence.

For security reasons, Roosevelt accepted Stalin's invitation to stay there. The U.S. diplomatic mission in Tehran was located on the city's outskirts, while the Soviet and British embassies were (and still are) located across the street from one another. Soviet soldiers broke down the walls, blockaded the street with six-meter shields and built a temporary passage between the two diplomatic missions, guarded by anti-aircraft- and machine-gunners. Four rings of security surrounded the embassies. Nobody could break in.

If Roosevelt had stayed at the U.S. diplomatic mission, either he, or Stalin and Churchill, would have had to travel to the talks through Tehran's narrow streets, where Nazi agents could easily have concealed themselves in a crowd.

On his return to Washington D.C., Roosevelt said that he had stayed in the Soviet Embassy because Marshal Stalin told him about a German plot.

Nazi intelligence learnt of the time and place of the conference in mid-October in 1943, after cracking the American naval code. In 1966, Skorzeny confirmed that he had been instructed to abduct or kill the three leaders in Tehran.

Moscow received a cable about the plot against the allied leaders from Dmitry Medvedev's guerrillas operating in the Rovno forest [in Ukraine - ed.]. Among them was the legendary Soviet intelligence officer Nikolai Kuznetsov. Posing as a German Oberleutnant by the name of Paul Siebert, Kuznetsov became friendly with SS Sturmbannfuehrer Ulrich von Ortel, who even promised to introduce him to Skorzeny. Heavily inebriated, Ortel boasted that he was going to Iran for the meeting of the Big Three: "We will repeat the Abruzzi jump [a daring airborne operation in which Skorzeny rescued Mussolini - ed.]! But it will be the Long Jump! We will eliminate Stalin and Churchill and turn the tide of the war! We will abduct Roosevelt to help our Fuehrer to come to terms with America. We are flying in several groups. People are already being trained in a special school in Copenhagen."

Following this report the [intelligence] center made us responsible for security at the conference.

Tehran at that time was flooded with refugees from war-ravaged Europe. For the most part, these were wealthy people trying to escape the risks of the war. There were about 20,000 Germans in Iran, and Nazi agents were hiding among them. They were aided by the pre-war patronage extended to the Germans by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who openly sympathized with Hitler. The German field station in Iran, headed by Franz Meyer, was very powerful.

Long before the conference - from February 1940 to August 1941 - our group of seven intelligence officers had identified more than 400 Nazi agents. When our troops entered Iran, we arrested them all. Meyer went deep underground. It took us a long time to find him - he had grown a beard and dyed it, and was working as a grave-digger at an Armenian cemetery.

Our group was the first to locate the Nazi landing party - six radio operators - near the town of Qum, 60 km from Tehran. We followed them to Tehran, where the Nazi field station had readied a villa for their stay. They were travelling by camel, and were loaded with weapons.

While we were watching the group, we established that they had contacted Berlin by radio and recorded their communication. When we decrypted these radio messages, we learnt that the Germans were preparing to land a second group of subversives for a terrorist act - the assassination or abduction of the Big Three. The second group was supposed to be led by Skorzeny himself, who had already visited Tehran to study the situation on the spot. We had been following all his movements even then.

We arrested all the members of the first group and made them make contact with enemy intelligence under our supervision. It was tempting to seize Skorzeny himself, but the Big Three had already arrived in Tehran and we could not afford the risk. We deliberately gave a radio operator an opportunity to report the failure of the mission, and the Germans decided against sending the main group under Skorzeny to Tehran. In this way, the success of our group in locating the Nazi advance party and our subsequent actions thwarted an attempt to assassinate the Big Three.

After the conference, Stalin went with Kliment Voroshilov and Vyacheslav Molotov to the Shah's palace in order to thank Mohammad Reza Pahlavi for his hospitality. This was a very smart and important step, which had a big effect on Iranian society. It did not occur to either Roosevelt or Churchill to do so. The Shah was moved by Stalin's attention. When the Soviet leader entered the throne room, the Shah ran up to Stalin and tried to kiss his hand. But Stalin did not let him and raised him to his feet.

At that time, Stalin's authority in the world was absolute - everyone understood that the outcome of the war was being decided on the Soviet-German front. Both Roosevelt and Churchill admitted this. Churchill recalled in his memoirs that everyone stood up when Stalin entered the hall of the conference. He resolved not to do so again. Yet, when Stalin entered the hall on another occasion, some unknown force again brought Churchill to his feet.

Gevork Vartanyan was not even 16 when he went into intelligence. His farther was sent to Iran by Soviet intelligence in 1930 and worked there for 23 years.

Gevork was declassified only on December 20, 2000. He and his wife Goar, a member of his group, immediately received five decorations: the orders of the Great Patriotic War, Battle Red Banner and Red Star. The Gold Star Medal of the Hero of the Soviet Union was conferred on Gevork in 1984 for his performance during the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) and the Cold War. He received the Order for Services to the Fatherland when he turned 80.

Vartanyan believes that his biggest achievement was his and his wife's 45 year-long record of successful service and safe return home.

"We were lucky - we never met a single traitor. For us, underground agents, betrayal is the worst evil. If an agent observes all the security rules and behaves properly in society, no counter-intelligence will spot him or her. Like sappers, underground agents err only once."

Transcript by Yury Plutenko.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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