Bulgaria and Iran: partners over the centuries

Bulgaria and Iran: partners over the centuries

Iranians boast great culutral heritage (source: Pixabay, CC00

The history of Bulgarian-Iranian diplomatic relations is the subject of research by the diplomat Angel Orbetsov

Angel Orbetsov

This article was published in Book 4 for 2020 of the Bulgarian historical journal “Anamnesis”

The interest towards the history of Bulgarian-Iranian relations is determined by several  factors. First, the two countries are among the most ancient on their continents and are  centers of cultures with an influence beyond their borders. Between their peoples there  were centuries-old connections facilitated by geographical proximity, dating back to  antiquity and continuing to the present day. 

Secondly, if we do not consider the Ottoman Empire, Iran was the first Asian country to  establish diplomatic relations with the Principality of Bulgaria in the distant year 1897, and  according to this indicator it ranks immediately after the great powers and neighboring  countries. After that the relations went through various stages, including Iranian  diplomatic presence in our country with interruptions and accreditations from neighboring  countries, as well as the functioning of the first Bulgarian legation in Tehran in the period  1939-41. Relations were severed during World War II, but their restoration about 20 years  later marked the beginning of a rapid development that outlived the dramatic events in  both countries – the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the democratic changes in Bulgaria  in 1989-90 and the reorientation of the Bulgarian foreign policy and the developments on  the Iranian nuclear issue since the beginning of the 21st century. 

Third, the history of our bilateral relations with Iran has never been the subject of  deliberate academic research. A short, chronologically arranged material is contained in  the monograph of Maria Mateeva and Hristo Tepavicharov ”Diplomatic Relations of  Bulgaria 1878-1988” (Sofia, 1989), from which a schematic idea of diplomatic relations is  obtained. Due to the referential and undetailed nature of that study, it cannot be expected 

to cover the bilateral relations in all their aspects – political, economic, cultural, people to-people contacts, nor to address some problematic issues, especially in the initial  period, which need to be revealed through research and comparison of available sources. 

On the occasion of the two latest round anniversaries of the diplomatic relations (115 and  120 years) a number of events – conferences, seminars and exhibitions were organized  in Sofia and Tehran by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and their diplomatic institutes, as  well as academic units of both countries [1]. Along with the presented reports and the  displayed documents, summarized in several collections [2], both sides showed strong  interest in the history of the bilateral relations and how to benefit from it in order to  strengthen bilateral friendship regardless of the international situation. In particular, the 

need to set up a bilateral commission to examine the validity of the accepted date for the  establishment of diplomatic relations was discussed. 

I would like to draw attention to two interesting moments in the history of Bulgarian-Iranian  relations. The first concerns the problem of their establishment and the functioning of the  first Iranian diplomatic mission in the Principality of Bulgaria. The recognized date of  establishment of relations, November 15, 1897, is based on the only relevant document  available in the Bulgarian archives – a letter from our diplomatic agent in Constantinople,  Dr. Markov, to the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Konstantin Stoilov,  confirming that Iranian Ambassador Mahmoud Khan was informed about the consent of  the princely government to accept Mirza Hossein Khan as a diplomatic agent (Appendix  1)[3]. The motives and the idea behind the decision of the Iranian government under the  new ruler Mozaffar ad-Din Shah to appoint a diplomatic representative in Bulgaria may  come to light when examining the Iranian archives. The logical explanation on the basis  of the information gathered so far is that the Iranian side had assessed its hitherto consular presence in the Principality as insufficient for the protection of the interests of its  subjects. Bilateral agenda included the implementation of the Bulgarian-British  agreement concluded in June 1897 to settle the issue with the Iranian subjects in the  Principality [4] and the request of the Iranian side to appoint a new consul in Ruse [5],  where the Iranian subjects were the most numerous. 

There are no documents left about the inauguration of Hossein Khan, but there is indirect  evidence that this happened before the end of January 1898. However, he was soon  recalled due to illness and his post remained vacant for some time. The issue was further  addressed during the visit of the first dragoman (translator) to the Iranian embassy in  Constantinople, Ohanes Khan, who in July 1899 visited Sofia coming from Belgrade,  where he was tasked with presenting an Iranian order of merit to the Serbian king. The  Iranian diplomat met with Prime Minister Dimitar Grekov, also Foreign Minister, and stated  the Iranian government’s intention to appoint a new agent. [7] In 1900, Montazam os Saltaneh took over as diplomatic agent in Sofia and contributed to the preparation of the  first transit visit of the Iranian Shah to Bulgaria. In 1901 Montazam os-Saltaneh was  replaced by Sadiq ol-Molk, and in December 1902 Iranian diplomats left the Principality,  handing over the protection of Iranian interests to the Belgian diplomatic agent in Bulgaria.  [8] 

There are many ambiguities and inaccuracies in the discovered documentation from this  period, but enough evidence has been gathered in order to confirm the functioning of the  Iranian diplomatic mission in Bulgaria in 1898-1902, which allows to reconsider the thesis  adopted in Maria Mateeva’s research that an Iranian agency in Sofia was not opened,  and the said Iranian diplomats were accredited from Belgrade [9]. Probably such an  impression was created by the visit of Ohanes Khan from Belgrade to Sofia. The studied  Iranian documents, as well as materials from the Bulgarian press from this period also  confirm the existence of an Iranian agency in Sofia. [10] 

Of fundamental importance is the question of how we determine the date of the  establishment of diplomatic relations, provided that this is not marked by a specific act – an agreement, declaration or exchange of notes. Do we correctly take as a starting point 

the handing over of a note for granting an agrément for a diplomatic representative, given  the fact that long before that, the two countries maintained official relations through their  missions in Constantinople, and Iranian consuls functioned in the Principality of Bulgaria?  Indeed, some of the consuls were not recognized as such by the princely government,  but there were some to whom the relevant exequaturs were issued. The first were the  vice-consul in Varna Petar Suhora in 1879-80. [11] and the consul in Ruse Antoan  Yaldazci in 1880 [12], and since the beginning of the 90’s the honorary vice-consul in  Varna Agop Mavi had been very active [13]. 

The key to dating the beginning of diplomatic relations could be given by the exchanged  initial correspondence between Prince Alexander of Battenberg and the Iranian monarch  Nasser ad-Din Shah – an announcement of the Prince’s accession to the Bulgarian throne  in June 1879 and the congratulatory message of the Iranian Shah on this occasion. The  letter of the Prince has not been preserved, but a copy of the Shah’s greeting in Persian  from May-June 1880 is kept in the Iranian archives and has been displayed in the above 

mentioned exhibitions (Appendix 2). It confirms the receipt of the “good news of the entry  (of the prince) into the independent possession of the Bulgarian state” and congratulates  him on the “attributes of independence of the new government”; there is also talk of  strengthening friendly relations between the two countries. The receiving of the letter of 

congratulation is documented in the Bulgarian archives, although the document itself is  not available. [15] It is a matter of legal interpretation whether this incomplete  correspondence can be considered as Iran’s recognition of the independence of the  Principality of Bulgaria [16] and, accordingly, as the beginning of official relations between  the two countries. It is significant to note that the term “independence” is used in three  places in Nasser ed-Din Shah’s letter. Apart from paying homage to Prince Alexander,  the motives behind using that term may be sought in the historical confrontation between  Iran and the Ottoman Empire. The sensitivity of the Iranian monarchy to the subject  should also be taken into account, given its semi-colonial dependence on Britain and  Russia. 

The second moment is related to the opening and operation of the first Bulgarian  diplomatic mission in Tehran. A little known fact today is the transformation of Iran in the  1930s into a center of attraction for Bulgarian labor emigration. 

The intensive economic development of Iran undertaken during the time of Reza Shah  Pahlavi, and especially the large-scale infrastructure construction with the participation of  Western companies, attracted foreign labor, incl. Bulgarian workers. The main profile of  the Bulgarians in Iran were masons, builders and general workers, although there were  also painters, carpenters, mechanics and even engineers, decorators and entrepreneurs.  The largest contingent came from the central part of Northern Bulgaria – Dryanovo,  Gabrovo, Veliko Tarnovo, Sevlievo, Tryavna, known for its traditions in construction. [17]  From the correspondence with our Consulate General in Constantinople it is understood  that by 1937 1500-2000 Bulgarian subjects were working in Iran, who needed consular  services and protection of their interests. [18] 

This was the primary motivation for accrediting a Bulgarian diplomatic representative in  Iran – an issue that had been in the spotlight of Bulgarian diplomacy since the second 

half of the 1930s. Initially, the opening of a permanent consulate in Tehran and  accreditation of a minister plenipotentiary from a neighboring Bulgarian legation was  discussed [19], but subsequently, taking into account the opinion of Iranian diplomats in  third countries, the considerations for a Bulgarian diplomatic legation in Tehran with a  resident head of mission prevailed [20]. This task was entrusted to the 45-year-old  counsellor of our legation in Bucharest Dimitar Dafinov – one of the experienced  Bulgarian diplomats with higher education in Law from Sofia University, specializations in  France and Switzerland, with over 21 years of experience at the Ministry of Foreign  Affairs, incl. in the Bulgarian missions in Rome, Budapest, Berlin and Bucharest. [21] 

The Bulgarian diplomat, appointed by Georgi Kyoseivanov’s government, [22] arrived in  Tehran on April 21, 1939, and was received on May 1 by Iranian Foreign Minister Mozaffar  Alam, to whom he presented his credentials (Appendix 3). [23 ] The legation included two  other Bulgarian employees plus a local dragoman of Armenian origin. [24] In his first  report, Dafinov informed about his acquaintance with the Bulgarian colony in Iran, to  which he subsequently devoted much of his activity. According to his calculations, the  Bulgarians were numbering about 600 people only in Tehran and approximately the same  number in the rest of the country. With the opening of the Bulgarian legation, an  alphabetical catalog of Bulgarian citizens in Iran was compiled, which was constantly  supplemented and enriched. Dafinov initiated the establishment of a Bulgarian cultural  and charitable society as an auxiliary body of the legation, assisting it in the protection of  the interests of our compatriots. The legation was instrumental in solving their problems,  including expired passports, inability to transfer their savings, unpaid receivables and  arbitrary deductions by employers, etc. [25] 

The presence of a Bulgarian mission on the ground in Tehran provided an opportunity for  Bulgarian diplomacy to better understand events in Iran and the wider region on the eve  and during the Second World War. Dafinov provided interesting analyses of the activities  of the members of the Saadabad Pact (Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan) established in  1937 [26]. Although the Pact had not turned these countries into allies, they had the  obligation to consult with each other on political issues. The head of the Bulgarian legation  provided valuable information about the internal shifts in the Iranian ruling elite, as well  as the activity of Soviet, British and German policy in Iran against the background of its  course of neutrality since the beginning of World War II. He payd special attention to the  radically changed international position of Iran after the German attack on the USSR. [27] 

Significant efforts were made in the economic field, and from the very beginning Dafinov has set himself the task of working for the realization of Bulgarian exports and the search  for niches for Bulgarian economic activity in Iran, e.g. sending specialists, gardeners and  farmers. He sounded out opportunities for the export of Bulgarian quality tobacco and  silkworm seed, and later recommended that the possibilities for export of cement, sugar  and cotton manufactory be explored. The difficulties come from the inability to pay in  foreign currency, which is why compensatory deals were offered. [28] Another of his  initiatives was related to the inclusion of Bulgaria in the routes for transport of goods  between Europe (mainly Germany) and Iran using the Soviet port of Batumi. [29] The  Legation contributed to a large-scale study undertaken by the Export Institute at the  Ministry of Commerce of the possibilities for the development of trade with Iran [30], and 

from the beginning of 1941 it became involved in the attempts of Bulgarian business to  import Iranian cotton [31]. 

The closure of the Bulgarian legation in Tehran in September 1941, caused by the  invasion of Iranian by Soviet and British troops in order to counter Hitler’s Germany, was  imbued with big drama. Iran was forced to sever diplomatic relations with the countries of the fascist coalition, to whom Bulgaria was added by the allies only on September 13.  The withdrawal of the Bulgarian employees, for which they were given a period of only  four days (Appendix 4), went through tense experiences and vicissitudes, and taking care  of the Bulgarian community turned out to be an impossible task. [32] Immediately before  the departure on 17 September, the Bulgarian legation organized a transfer of its  belongings to the Swedish legation in Tehran, which was designated to protect Bulgarian  interests. [33] The journey of the Bulgarian employees was carried out as part of a convoy  of cars together with the German legation and colony and the Hungarian legation. The  convoy was put under the operational leadership of the Soviet GPU and accompanied by  an official of the Soviet embassy in Tehran, while the Swedish consul in Tehran also  joined the column. The group traveled for seven days and six nights, covering nearly  1,000 km through the Soviet-occupied zone of Iran to the Turkish border, where it  received a friendly welcome and service, and reached the Bulgarian border town of  Svilengrad after another three-days of journey and five days of rest. [34] 

Despite its short existence, the first Bulgarian mission in Tehran left deep traces in the  Bulgarian presence in Iran and the development of bilateral relations, especially given the  lack of Iranian diplomatic representation in our country at that time. The information and  experience gained by the legation were subsequently used by the sections for the  protection of Bulgarian interests in the legations of Sweden, Yugoslavia and  Czechoslovakia. 

These moments are just two touches of the interesting development of Bulgarian-Iranian  relations from the Liberation to the present day, which is full of twists and strong  experiences. Regarding the date of establishing official contacts and the initial period of  diplomatic relations, it may be necessary to rethink the accepted views and come up to a  joint assessment on the example we have had with Japan. [35] As for the first Bulgarian  mission in Tehran, it identified problems as well as ideas and areas for the development  of cooperation, which were followed after the restoration of bilateral relations in December  1961 and even in the modern period. 


Appendix 1 – Letter from the Bulgarian diplomatic agent in Constantinople Dr. Markov to  the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Religions Dr. Konstantin Stoilov  dated November 15, 1897 regarding the notification to the Iranian side of the granting of  an agrément to the Iranian diplomatic agent Mirza Hossein Khan (2 pages)

(CDA, fund 176K, op. 1, a.e. 1136, p. 2).

Appendix 2 – Transcript of a congratulatory letter from Nasser ad-Din Shah from May June 1880 to Prince Alexander Battenberg on the occasion of his accession to the  throne (1 page manuscript in Persian with 1 page translation into Bulgarian) [36]

Translated from Persian 
Reply to the letter of the Bulgarian monarch 
His August Highness Prince Alexander,
Ruler of the Bulgarian state 
Dear and kind friend, 
The joyful and friendly letter of Your August Highness, containing the good news of your  entry into independent possession of the Bulgarian state on June 27, fell into friendly  hands, greeted with extreme satisfaction and respect. In the spirit of sincere friendship  and determination to strengthen friendly relations between the foundations of benevolent  understanding [37], which will be carried out by the will of the glorious God in an  atmosphere of stability and independence, addressing this friendly letter, we congratulate  Your Princely Highness with the attributes of independence of the new government. We  hope that, by the happy order of fate, with each passing day, your country will make more  and more progress, and the government will become more stable and long-lasting, which  will bring us more and more joy. We ask Your Highness to accept our congratulations,  accompanied by our most sincere respects to you, in the assurance that our boundless  respect for you will abide in eternity. 
Done at the royal palace of Dar al-Khalafa in Tehran during the month of Jomadi Os-Sani,  [38] the thirty-third year of the reign (of the present monarch), 1297. [39] 

Appendix 3 – Copy of letter of credence from the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign  Affairs and Religions Georgi Kyoseivanov dated April 12, 1939 for the appointment of  the diplomat Dimitar Dafinov as head of the newly opened Bulgarian Legation in Tehran  (1 page in French) and reply from Iranian Foreign Minister Mozaffar Alam of May 17,  1939 (1 page in French), CDA, Fund 176K, op. 18, a.e. 1173, pp. 181, 187

Annex 4 – Note of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Bulgarian Legation in  Tehran dated September 13, 1941 with a request for its closure and setting a 4-day  period for evacuation of Bulgarian personnel (1 page in Persian with 1 page translation),  fund 176K, op. 8, a.e. 1033, pp. 1-2

Translated from Persian 
(State Emblem of Iran) 
Ministry of Foreign Affairs 
№ 3803 
date 22 shahrivar 1320 [40] 
Verbal note 
The Shahinshah Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran pays its respects to the Bulgarian Legation 
and, in pursuance of its note № 3801 [41], has the honor to inform it that the representatives of the  governments of the USSR and England insist that the Bulgarian Legation be closed by 17  September and its employees leave the territory of Iran. The above is announced with the  explanation that all necessary actions concerning the citizens of the Bulgarian state should be taken  by the legation of the country, which will take over the protection of their interests. The responsible  representatives of the Bulgarian Legation can be assured that the Iranian government will spare no  effort in providing any assistance. 

[1] The Center for Oriental Languages and Cultures at Sofia University “St.  Kliment Ohridski ”and his Iranian partners. 

[2] Cf. published proceedings: International Conference Iran and the Balkans  in the Mirror of History (Past, Present, Perspectives), edited by Ivo Panov and  Alireza Purmohammad, Sofia, 2014; International Conference Iran and  Bulgaria in the Mirror of History (Past, Present, Perspectives), edited by Ivo  Panov and Alireza Purmohammad, Sofia, 2015; Bulgaria-Iran bilateral  relations, Collected papers and historical documents, ed. by Kazem Sharif  Kazemi & Georgi Petrov (Seminar papers and Exhibition of historical  documents on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the establishment of  diplomatic relations between the Republic of Bulgaria and the Islamic republic  of Iran, Tehran, 17 September, 2017 & Sofia, 27 November, 2017). 

[3] Central State Archives (CSA), Fund 176K, Inventory 1, Archive Unit 1136,  Sheet 2. 

[4] Ibid., A.e. 1001, pp.6-16, 19-22. 

[5] Ibid., A.e. 1434, pp. 1-3. 

[6] Ibid., A.e. 1001, pp. 34-35, 41-48. 

[7] Ibid., A.e. 1433, pp. 1-5. 

[8] Ibid., Op. 14, a.e. 512, pp. 2, 6-7, 11-12; f. 3K, op. 8, a.e. 214, pp. 1-2. 

[9] Maria Mateeva and Hristo Tepavicharov, Diplomatic Relations of Bulgaria  1878-1988, Sofia, 1989, pp. 157, 160.

[10] Bulgaria-Iran bilateral relations, Collected papers and historical  documents, ed. By Kazem Sharif Kazemi & Georgi Petrov, p. 90-91;  Pryaporets newspaper, year IV, issue 38, Sept. 13, 1901, p. 4. 

[11] CDA, f. 176K, op. 1, a.e. 29, pp. 1-3. 

[12] Ibid., F. 321K, op. 1, a.e. 9, pp. 26-28; a.e. 41, pp. 234-235. 

[13] Ibid., F. 176K, op. 1, a.e. 418, pp. 10-14; op. 21, a.e. 21, pp. 7-9; f. 321K,  op. 1, a.e. 743, pp. 1-4. 

[14] Bulgaria-Iran bilateral relations, Collected papers and historical  documents, p. 92. The document was erroneously called “the Bulgarian king’s  reply to a congratulatory letter from the Shah of Iran on the occasion of  Bulgaria’s independence, April 1880.” In fact, it was a transcript of the Shah’s  congratulatory letter in response to a letter received from Prince Alexander on  his accession to the Bulgarian throne. The Bulgarian translation was made by  the author with the assistance of Iranian lecturer and researcher Alireza  Pourmohammad. 

[15] CDA, f. 321K, op. 1, a.e. 41, pp. 92-93, 96-97, 102. 

[16] The Treaty of Berlin of 1878 (Art. 1) granted the Principality of Bulgaria  the status of a self-ruled tributary principality under the sovereignty of HE the Sultan – cf. Maria Mateeva and Hristo Tepavicharov, Diplomatic Relations of  Bulgaria 1878-1988, p. 48. 

[17] CDA, f. 176K, op. 8, a.e. 1033, pp. 40-101. 

[18] Ibid., F. 363K, op. 3, a.e. 243, pp. 15. 

[19] Ibid., F. 176K, op. 7, a.e. 146, pp. 3. 

[20] Ibid., Op. 7, a.e. 784, pp. 6; op. 18, a.e. 1172, pp. 167-169. [21] Ibid., Op. 18, a.e. 1172, pp. 182, 185, 208, 213, 218. 

[22] Ibid., Pp. 176-181. 

[23] Ibid., F. 176K, op. 13, a.e. 205, pp. 1-4; op. 18, a.e. 1172, pp. 186-187 

[24] Ibid., Op. 17, a.e. 355, pp. 1; a.e. 356, pp. 12-15; a.e. 357, pp. 105; f.  239К, а.е. 2, pp. 15.

[25] Ibid., F. 173K, op. 6, a.e. 261, pp. 1-8; f. 176K, op. 7, a.e. 1054, pp. 19- 23; op. 8, a.e. 1033, pp. 40-101; op. 11, a.e. 1642, pp. 1-5; a.e. 1643, pp. 1- 26; op. 13, a.e. 205, pp. 1-4; f. 239K, op. 1, a.e. 1, pp. 78-133. 

[26] Ibid., F. 176K, op. 7, a.e. 1057, pp. 1-4. 

[27] Ibid., A.e. 1056, pp. 1; a.e. 1057, pp. 5-9; a.e. 1059, pp. 1-2. 

[28] Ibid., F. 176K, op. 11, a.e. 1642, pp. 4-5; f. 285K, op. 5, a.e. 323, pp. 152- 153. 

[29] Ibid., F. 176K, op. 11, a.e. 1641, pp. 13-29; f. 285K, op. 5, a.e. 323, pp.  35, 147-148. 

[30] Ibid., F. 176K, op. 11, a.e. 1641, pp. 1-12. 

[31] Ibid., F. 192K, op. 1, a.e. 255, pp. 72; a.e. 266, pp. 2, 3, 5. [32] Ibid., F. 176K, op. 8, a.e. 1033, pp. 1-16; a.e. 1118, pp. 17. [33] Ibid., A.e. 1032, pp. 4-5; a.e. 1033, pp. 14, 32-33. 

[34] Ibid., A.e. 1032, pp. 8-12. 

[35] In 2014, a bilateral working group was set up at the Foreign Ministries of  Bulgaria and Japan, which conducted a study in the archives of the two  countries and issued a report on the beginning of official contacts and the  establishment of diplomatic relations. The report was approved by an  exchange of notes in 2017 and was further laid down as a basis for  celebrating the respective anniversaries. 

[36] Bulgaria-Iran bilateral relations, Collected papers and historical  documents, ed. By Kazem Sharif Kazemi & Georgi Petrov, p. 92. 

[37] These are state institutions. 

[38] The sixth month of the lunar Muslim calendar, corresponding in that year  to the period 11 May to 10 June in the Gregorian calendar. 

[39] 1880 according to the Gregorian calendar. 

[40] Equal to September 13, 1941.

[41] Note № 3801, sent earlier in the day on the same date, 13 September  1941, stated the request of the USSR and Britain to close the Bulgarian  legation and evacuate from Iran its employees and Bulgarian subjects. It was noted that the Ministry considered it unnecessary to go into a detailed  explanation of the matter, as the mission staff “are aware of the events  surrounding the passage of Soviet and British troops and the conditions  imposed by them”, but conveyed “the Shahinshah government’s regret in this  regard“(Fund 176K, op. 8, a.e. 1033, pp. 1-2).

Photo: The city of Qom (soure: Pixabay, CC0)

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