Angel Orbetsov: The interest towards researching Bulgarian-Iranian relations is mutual

Angel Orbetsov: The interest towards researching Bulgarian-Iranian relations is mutual

The cover of Angel Orbetsov’s book (source: The Persian Bridge of Friendship)

Transcript of the speech delivered by Bulgarian diplomat Angel Orbetsov at the presentation of his book “Bulgarian-Iranian Relations from Liberation to the end of the 1950s”, held on 29 November 2022 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sofia

The Persian Bridge of Friendship

Angel Orbetsov: I fully agree with the last remark. And, yes, I had the honor of participating in a video promoting the Diplomatic Institute’s library with two other people and I am extremely proud of my participation. The library has taken a very serious step towards professionalization. I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the Diplomatic Institute, especially to Mrs Mihailova and her colleagues, especially Daniela Peșeva and Nikolai Krumov. Thank you very much for organising this event.

This event is very important because it is part of the 125th anniversary of the establishment of Bulgarian-Iranian diplomatic relations, which is part of my research and is described in the first chapter of the book. Today, 1897 is accepted as the year of the establishment of diplomatic relations with Iran. 

I would like to thank Pepi Kraychev for this touching introduction. It is very hard to find a person who could give a more vibrant introduction. I have had a wonderful professional relationship with him since I was Director of the Joint Directorate for the Americas, Asia, Australia and Oceania, and he worked at our Embassy in Washington and at the Consulate General in Chicago. On his return he joined the US Department. I’m very grateful to him for joining us today. I would like to thank all the guests, including the professors from Sofia University, the Iranian Ambassador, Mr Rasouli, and his colleagues for attending. I’m not even going to mention all the people who honoured the event – veterans and colleagues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including from my former Directorate for the Americas, Asia, Australia and Oceania and my current Directorate for Foreign Policy Planning, Information and Coordination. Special thanks to Snejana Todorova, Rusi Ivanov, Daniela Kaneva, who moved me very much by their participation.

I would like to thank all those who helped me in writing this paper. I want to start especially with Prof. Kalinova, who was the driving force in defending the dissertation, together with Prof. Baeva, who encouraged me from the very beginning of my inspiration. After a discussion with her and Prof. Stoiceva, I started preparing for my PhD exams at the Faculty of History, which is a great challenge in itself.

I would like to thank the Faculty of Classical and Modern Philology and its Dean, Prof. Danova. I would like to thank Professor Madeleine Danova and the Centre for Oriental Languages, including the Iranian Studies speciality, in the person of Professor Ivo Panov. My sincere thanks both for his methodological help and for his inclusion in the jury. He was one of my reviewers together with Prof. Kenderova, Prof. Peev, who joined the jury and expressed his opinion on my paper, as well as Assistant Dr. Nadia Filipova, Dean of the Faculty of History Assoc. Markova. Unfortunately, some of them could not come today.

Most of my PhD was spent at the Central State Archives. I also invited people from there, but unfortunately they couldn’t come. I worked mostly in reading room 100, my favourite room, and in the microfilm reading room, where for about a year and a half I researched documents and materials, in the Eastern Department of the National Library, in the archives of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, in the Historical Library of Sofia University and, last but not least, with documents from the Iranian archives, which I got to know from a joint publication prepared by our embassy in Tehran in cooperation with Iranian colleagues. Special thanks to Mr Hashem Nasiri of the Iranian Embassy, who helped me to understand some documents in Persian, and to Alireza Pourmohammad, lecturer at the Centre for Oriental Languages and Cultures (CECL), who now lives in Hungary.

Last but not least, for the printing of the book, I would like to thank the University Publishing House, the editor-in-chief Gergana Borisova, who had confirmed she would come but unfortunately could not, her colleagues Ivo Nikov, who proofread the text, the cover artist Antonina Gheorgieva, and my editor – Mila Tomova. Special thanks also to the many colleagues who, in one way or another, supported me with books, advice or the correct spelling of concepts, geographical names. So, to all these people, I would like to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation. Surely I have forgotten someone, but I hope they are not offended.

I don’t have the opportunity to recount them all in 500 pages. So I’m focusing on a few things. The first thing, which is quite controversial and I think it would be interesting if I asked it as a question, is the presence of the Iranian theme in Bulgarian scientific literature. I think that in recent years, in addition to literary and linguistic studies, which are the work of the Department of Iranian Studies of the CEC and its graduates, a number of events have been organized on the occasion of the last two round anniversaries of diplomatic relations – 115 and 120 years – conferences, exhibitions, seminars. Materials have been published in several collections. Many of the published studies are the work not only of Iranians, but also of scholars and specialists in various fields. The parallels and common roots between the two peoples are sought in various fields: history, philosophy, linguistics, philology, medicine, etc.

At the same time, the history of our bilateral relations with Iran has not been the subject of deliberate academic study. Only in the monograph of our researcher Maria Mateeva is there a chronologically and analytically arranged material. I assume that many people in the ministry are familiar with her work, which has been reprinted twice, most recently in English. Her work gives a schematic picture of relations with Iran, as with all other countries, and one can expect no more from a reference work. It does not discuss the political, economic and cultural contacts between the two peoples, nor does it address some of the problematic points of bilateral relations that require special study.

From the point of view of Bulgarian historical research – I quote here Professor Kalinova’s introduction – this book is part of the process of “filling in the white spots”. We have such “white spots” in our relations with different countries, including those in the Asian region. Some of them have already been filled. I will mention our colleague Vera Stefanova’s book, together with Yevgeny Kandilarov, on relations with Japan. In addition, at the Faculty of History, I saw that a paper was written on relations with Vietnam. I hope that, little by little, these “white spots” in bilateral relations, not only with Iran, but also with the rest of the world, will be filled. Drop by drop, a whirlpool is being created.

Returning to the subject of relations with Iran, I would like to point out that Iran was the first Asian country to establish ties with Bulgaria in 1897. Since then, the relationship has gone through various stages, which have included Iranian diplomatic presence in the country intermittently. Later, mention should be made of the opening of the first Bulgarian legation in Tehran, which operated between 1939 and 1941. Relations were then interrupted during World War II, and various missions of third countries took over the care of Bulgarian and Iranian subjects respectively. Diplomatic relations were re-established 20 years later.

What is gratifying is that, in addition to the interest we show on the Bulgarian side, there is a counter-interest in bilateral relations on the Iranian side. In Iran, too, there has been no study devoted to bilateral relations, and Bulgaria appears only peripherally in scholarly works on the history of Iranian foreign policy. Following negotiations with Iranian counterparts in the summer of 2021, a multilateral study was launched to shed more light on the initial 25-year period of Bulgarian-Iranian relations, including contacts between monarchical institutions, high-level mutual visits, Iranian consular presence and the opening of the first Iranian diplomatic mission in Bulgaria. One of the main tasks of this study is to confirm the validity of the date of 15 November 1897, which we now perceive as the beginning of diplomatic relations.

The original idea of writing this paper was to cover the entire period from the Liberation to the present. In the course of the work so much material was found in the Central State Archives that it allows even the early stages of bilateral relations to be described in a sufficiently voluminous study. I have therefore decided to divide the study into two parts and have now confined myself to the period up to the end of the 1950s. The next part of the study I intend to write later, and the study as a whole will be divided into two parts up to and from the period of the restoration of diplomatic contacts in 1961. Since that time, we are entering a completely new phase of bilateral relations, which is ascendant and developing in a complex way in the political, economic, cultural and other fields. There is a continuous diplomatic presence of each of the two countries in the other. Particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, and then in the 1980s, Iran occupied one of the leading positions in Bulgaria’s relations with developing countries. 

I will now say a few words about the main features of the book. Its first feature is that it is based entirely on documents, most of which are unpublished archival material. The Central State Archives have researched and collected more than 350 archival documents, which allow a picture of the development of bilateral relations and their history to be drawn in a single narrative. The main problem here is that there is currently no unified description of bilateral relations. These should be built on the basis of chronologically and thematically arranged documents. Of course, there were various difficulties. Many files are incomplete, and some gaps have been filled by the availability of some 70 documents from Iranian archives, which we have highlighted thanks to the bilateral exhibitions and collections mentioned above. Part of the work of processing and analysing these documents has been to decipher them, which in itself, as I said a little while ago, is a formidable challenge, both because of the handwritten Persian script and the highly complex epistolary style of the Qajar and later periods. Exposing the documentary material collected is the first element of the methodology I employ. This is followed by placing the events and phenomena discovered in the context of the political processes in both countries. Many parallels can be drawn, even though the countries are located in different regions and the history of each is unique. In each chapter, findings and conclusions are extracted and then synthesised in the conclusion, thus moving from gathering empirical material and then formulating conclusions, rather than the other way around – formulating ready-made findings and then seeking evidence for them. The use of this methodology implies an academic and objective character to the research, which excludes the notion of ‘political correctness’ or extrapolating current reasoning and ideas over a past historical period. So, after consulting with the professors at the History Faculty, I am convinced that this is the correct approach. The opposite approach is subjective and does not pay any dividends.

In what follows, I will briefly address the contents of the book, drawing attention to some of the most interesting points.

The first chapter deals with the period up to the beginning of the 20th century. The main points are, first of all, the exchange of messages between the courts of Nasser ed-Din Shah, then an Islamic monarch, and Alexander Battenberg, which took place in 1879-80. Battenberg’s letter notifying various monarchs around the world and the President of the United States that he had taken office provoked reactions. One of the responses came from Nasser ed-Din Shah. A transcript has been preserved in the Iranian archives, allowing the exchange of letters to be reconstructed. This document was exhibited at an exhibition and then placed in a collection, but has only now been deciphered. It forms the first appendix to my book and is accompanied by an English translation, making it possible to form an opinion. This is the first official contact between the courts of the two countries and therefore I think that in our draft we should set it as the beginning of official contacts, if the Iranian side agrees with this finding. 

On the other hand, the Iranian diplomatic presence in Bulgaria should be noted. There are Iranian consuls and honorary consuls, especially in Ruse and Varna, who have probably inherited functions from the Ottoman Empire. Some of them were recognised by the princely government, others were not; there are also those who took over functions and fulfilled their duties.

The date adopted at the time for the establishment of diplomatic relations follows. The starting point is thought to be the handing over of a note of approval to Mirza Hossain Khan, the first Iranian diplomatic agent in Bulgaria. A controversial issue that is misrepresented in Maria Mateeva’s book is the claim that the Iranian diplomatic mission did not open in Bulgaria, but that Iran covered Bulgaria through its Belgrade mission. This is absolutely untrue, as my research proves. It is not just that. I received a report in Persian from the Iranian side describing the appointment of one of Iran’s diplomatic agents, Montazem os-Saltaneh, in 1900. This first Iranian diplomatic mission probably opened in 1898 and existed until 1902, when the Bucharest mission opened and Iran moved its diplomatic presence from the Balkans to Romania.

During this early period, diplomatic contacts between leading Iranian diplomats and politicians and our diplomats and politicians, many of whom were posted to Constantinople, where one of our first diplomatic agencies was opened, are fairly well documented. These were Dragan Tsankov, Marko Balabanov, Dr. Georgi Valkovic, then Petar Dimitrov, Dimitar Markov and Ivan Stefanov Geshov. And on the Iranian side there were three ambassadors, Mohsen Khan, Asadollah Khan and Mahmoud Khan, who communicated with our diplomats and these were some of the first contacts. We also have the visit of a dragoman from the Iranian embassy in Constantinople, Ohanes Khan, who in 1899 met the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Dimitar Grekov.

The important transit visit of Mozafar ed-Din Shah to Bulgaria is also part of this period. He travelled by train, provided by the Turkish Sultan, from Vienna to Constantinople via Budapest, Belgrade and Sofia. On the way back to Vienna, he stopped for half a day in Bulgaria. I don’t have time to go into more detail, but the visit was an important event for his era…

Chapter 2 only describes the Iranian diplomatic and consular presence in Bulgaria in the following period. One famous personality stands out here, an Italian naturalised in Iran – Count Anton Monteforte, who initially worked at the Iranian embassy in Bucharest as an adviser. Then, at some point, he became head of the Iranian mission, and in 1918, at the end of the First World War, he moved his headquarters from Bucharest to Sofia. This mission existed until 1928, i.e. ten years, with a break, because they recalled him twice and appointed him again, so he left for good only in 1928. He was a favourite of the Bulgarian ruling elite and was well described by our ambassador until 1916 in Bucharest, Simeon Radev, as a great friend of Bulgaria. Behind this friendship lies his personal biography. He was married to the daughter of a retired general, Petăr Markov, also a famous personality, described in detail in Costa Skutunov’s recently published memoirs. He was commander of the Leibguard cavalry regiment for 22 years. He then became Ferdinand’s aide-de-camp. He then held a diplomatic post in Berlin and retired as acting cavalry general. His daughter was married to Count Monteforte. There is a related saga that is described in the book, but I don’t have time for more details now.

In the third chapter, in the absence of a Bulgarian diplomatic representation in Iran, it talks about how our diplomats in third countries dealt with the Iranian problem. It is divided into several parts, in which the main characters are our diplomats, such as Dimitar Stankhov, Dimitar Tokov, Stefan Paprikov, Nedyalko Koluchev. I am very impressed by Nedyalko Koluchev’s reports, written during the First World War, in which the Iranian theme appears. Also Pansy Hadjimishev in London, Todor Pavlov and Todor Hristov in Ankara, Dimitar Mihalchev in Moscow and especially Nikola Antonov, who impressed me the most of all Bulgarian diplomats who wrote on the Iranian subject. He worked in several capitals, including Moscow, where he befriended the Iranian ambassador, Anushirvan Sepahbodi. He has many good suggestions and advice on how Bulgaria should conduct its policy towards Iran. This man stayed on after 9 September, working at our mission in Ankara, and in October 1946 he fled abroad via Alexandria on a Turkish ship. He was followed by another diplomat, Varban Anghelov, who also addressed the Iranian problem in his reports.

Here he describes a lot of friendships that were created between Bulgarian and Iranian diplomats. I will just exemplify two of them. The work of our consulate in Smyrna (Izmir), where Iran also had a consulate, is very little known. Our consul on the eve and during the First World War was Ivan Hamamdjiev, and his Iranian counterpart was Mirza Esmail Khan. They became such friends that Mirza Esmail Khan, who had been recalled by his government, but was trying to justify the need for an Iranian consulate in Izmir, asked to entrust the protection of Iranian interests to the Bulgarian consulate in Izmir. The Bulgarian government agreed to this proposal, but the outcome of the First World War and the breakdown of relations between Bulgaria and Turkey prevented its implementation.

Another friendship developed between our representatives in Turkey, Todor Pavlov and Gheorghi Balamezov, and one of the most prominent figures not only in Iranian diplomacy, but also in Iranian public life at the time, Mohammad Ali Foroughi, who was ambassador to Turkey and representative to the League of Nations (LNO). He later became Iran’s foreign minister. In chapter four, which deals with trade and economic relations, I describe negotiations with him on a trade agreement between the two countries in 1929-1930.

Trade contacts as well as cultural relations are discussed in chapter four. I will not go into detail here. I have already talked about the trade agreement. Many Bulgarians actively participated in the social and political life in Iran and in the rapprochement between the two peoples. I will mention only the founder of Bulgarian economic geography, Anastas Beșkov, who made a study of Iran after a visit there as part of a German scientific expedition between 1924 and 1926. We have a famous doctor, Alexander Atabekyan, who worked in Iran for a long time from the beginning of the last century. We even have an investor named Marko Dancev, who was involved in the investment for the Jolfa-Tabriz railway. And last but not least, we have two kinds of ambassadors of Bulgaria and travellers, one of whom is mentioned in Vera Stefanova’s book – Lyuba Kutinceva. The other, Anka Lambreva, links her life to Iran. She has family in Iran and returned to Bulgaria quite late.

Chapter five begins with an account of the emigration of Bulgarian labour to Iran. This is a phenomenon that is not at all known to Bulgarian historical researchers. Our researcher, Professor Penka Peykovska, who researched the emigration of Bulgarian labour force in that period, mainly dealt with emigration to Central Europe. We contacted her, talked to her. It turned out that she had no idea that there was emigration to Iran. Аccording to the documents, at peak times we had somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people in that country. These people were mainly construction workers and bricklayers, but there were also designers, painters, decorators, engineers and mechanics who worked mainly in Iranian infrastructure projects during the time of Reza Shah.. It was then that the Trans-Iranian railway was built. Many of our workers worked there. They also built roads and bridges.

The presence of Bulgarian labour emigration in Iran became the main reason for opening a Bulgarian legation in April 1939, headed by one of our prominent diplomats. I have inserted his only photograph in the book. Dimitar Dafinov was a diplomat with 21 years’ experience in the Foreign Ministry, working in several embassies – most recently in Bucharest, where he dealt, among other things, with the files of our workers in Iran. The closure of the Bulgarian legation in September 1941 was a very dramatic one, which took place in the context of the invasion of Iran by British and Soviet troops during World War II and the ultimatum to Iran to break off diplomatic relations with the Tripartite Pact countries.

Chapter six looks at relations with Iran after the break in diplomatic relations. This is  when the protection of both countries’ interests in the other country was entrusted to Swedish missions. Here we focus mainly on the activities of the Swedish mission in Tehran, which were impressive and it is no coincidence that five Swedish diplomats were awarded the Order of Civic Merit by the government of the Fatherland Front. Among them is the distinguished diplomat Gunnar Järing, who after the 1967 Six-Day War in the Middle East became the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the region.

A little known fact is the deportation to camps of large numbers of Bulgarian citizens living in Iran by the British occupation forces. Most of them were exiled to Dehradun in British India, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas. There are reports of around 100 Bulgarian prisoners from the colony in Iran. Several of our compatriots were sent to another camp in Maharashtra state. There was another camp at Soltanabad, now Arak, in Iran. The repatriation of these people was handled by the Swedish Legation, and after 1946 by the Yugoslav Legation, which managed to protect the interests of the Bulgarians. The saga of these people ended in 1947, when they withdrew from Iran in two large groups and with a group of ships from British India. Most of the Bulgarians were thus repatriated, but some of them remained in Iran in later periods.

This brings us to the final chapters, seven and eight, where the new conditions of the Cold War period are discussed in terms of the ties between the two countries in the context of broken diplomatic relations. The two countries are in different camps. Then there is nothing more to explain about Bulgaria – its position in the Cold War is clear. Iran has become part of the Western bloc. In the mid-1950s, the country joined the Baghdad Pact, which then became the CENTO. This goes a long way to explaining the very episodic inter-state contacts between the two countries. But inter-party contacts play an important role here. They concern parties and organisations with left-wing convictions.

In Bulgaria, the Communist Party has been in power under a one-party or quasi-one-party government since the late 1940s. While Iran’s left-wing Tudeh party, which was founded in 1941, is deeply underground. It maintains contacts with affiliated parties, mainly from the socialist bloc. What is interesting here is that one of the plenary meetings of the Central Committee of the Tudeh Party in 1958 took place in Sofia. The party was so clandestine that the documents coming out of its plenaries were without place or date. But we have documented in our party archives that the fifth plenary of the Central Committee took place in Sofia. A former partisan, Vera Naceva, who had been the first vice-president of the Foreign Policy and International Relations Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was attached to the Iranian delegation. There is a report kept from her. And, by the way, from all these documents, which have now been declassified, the history of the Iranian Tudeh Party can be easily completed. Because there is relatively little objectively written about it. 

As far as economic contacts are concerned, which were quite rare, I have presented a table on the beginnings of commercial transactions and exchange of goods. I also mention cultural links. The manuscripts in the Oriental Section of the National Library are very important here. The Oriental collection, which is one of the richest in Europe, contains 159 manuscripts with Persian or Iranian documents. I haven’t said anything about translations of Persian poetry. This is not my research, but I have borrowed it mainly from the works of Ivo Panov. Chapter eight also includes the beginning of sporting contacts between the two countries.

All 8 chapters mentioned constitute the main part of the study, but are preceded at the beginning by an overview of Iranian history, which is meant to familiarize the general public with what Iran is, and a second introductory part that briefly traces the relations between the two countries over the centuries. 

Finally, I conclude with a look to the future. I have fulfilled the History Department’s commission to write this historical outline. This leads me to believe that it could be framed, with the addition of the modern period, as an Iranian history textbook for Iranian Studies students. Finally, when I retire in two or three years, because I need time to research the Central Archives and our archives again, I am thinking of writing about the next period of relations in the 1950s.

I apologise for perhaps tiring you with all this talk. Thank you once again very much.

Photo: Diplomat Angel Orbetsov (front left), chairwoman of the diplomatic institute Tanya Mikhailova and diplomat Peter Kraychev (source: Persian Bridge of Friendship)

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