A book reveals the richness of Bulgarian-Iranian relations from 1878 to the late 1950s
Angel Orbetsov is a Bulgarian diplomat and Iranologist who published his doctoral research, Bulgarian-Iranian Relations from the (Bulgarian) Liberation to the Late 1950s, as a book in late 2022. Orbetsov is a former ambassador to China and longtime director of the Asia, Australia and Oceania Directorate at the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry. He was also a diplomat in Iran in the late 1980s and early 1990s, also serving in consular functions. He is the author of a number of scholarly publications on Bulgarian-Iranian relations and contemporary Iranian politics.
The interview was realised for Radio Bulgaria.
How does the book Bulgarian-Iranian Relations from the Liberation to the Late 1950s contribute to the relations between Bulgarians and Iranians? What new insights does it bring to the understanding of these relations?
A book reveals the richness of Bulgarian-Iranian relations from 1878 to the late 1950s
Angel Orbetsov is a Bulgarian diplomat and Iranologist who published his PhD research, Bulgarian-Iranian Relations from the (Bulgarian) Liberation to the Late 1950s, as a book in late 2022. Orbetsov is a former ambassador to China and longtime director of the Asia, Australia and Oceania Directorate at the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry. He was also a diplomat in Iran in the late 1980s and early 1990s, also serving in consular functions. He is the author of a number of scholarly publications on Bulgarian-Iranian relations and contemporary Iranian politics.
The interview was realised for Radio Bulgaria.
How does the book Bulgarian-Iranian Relations from the Liberation to the Late 1950s contribute to the relations between Bulgarians and Iranians? What new insights does it bring to the understanding of these relations?
There is a certain affinity between Bulgarians and Iranians, which I myself have always felt during my many years of work with Iran, including my long-term posting to that country some 30 years ago. The reasons for this affinity may be sought in the spiritual and cultural communication between the two peoples over the centuries, in the geopolitical positioning of the two countries as neighbours to the west and east of the Ottoman Empire against the background of the problems that both countries have had with it, and in their relations at interstate level with a now 125-year history.
We have already accumulated a considerable number of Iranian studies, which give a good insight into the country and its language, culture and spirituality, as well as into various aspects of the contacts between the two peoples – archaeology, literature, linguistics, economics, medicine, etc. The two introductory parts of the book are based on these, as well as on monographs and studies by world-renowned authors. The first introductory part provides an overview of the historical development of Iran. The second one arranges layers and synthesizes into a single material findings and hypotheses from different fields, creating an idea of the depth of cultural and historical connections.
As far as interstate relations are concerned, they have not been the subject of any comprehensive study in historical terms, if one does not count the short sections on Iran in the reference books of our scholar Maria Mateeva, devoted to diplomatic and consular relations of Bulgaria.
The writing of this book prompted bringing to light and studying a large number of documents from the archives, which were transformed into a continuous narrative over time with an attempt at periodization. The narrative was set in the context of historical processes in both countries and supplemented where possible with materials from a variety of sources. This included the reading, translation and presentation in annexes of Iranian documents hitherto inaccessible to the Bulgarian scholarly community. In this way, a number of unknown or unexplored events and processes were illuminated. I will mention some of them, such as the Bulgarian-British arrangement of 1897 on the issues of Iranian subjects in the Principality of Bulgaria, the first Iranian diplomatic mission to our country at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the preparation of a Trade Agreement at the end of the 1920s, Bulgarian labour migration to Iran in the 1930s, the internment of Bulgarian subjects residing in Iran during the Second World War, inter-party contacts in the 1950s, etc.
Large parts of the book deal with the diplomatic presence of each side in the other country, as well as the activities of both diplomacies in covering events and developments in the other country and carrying out demarches, initiatives and interactions. At the same time, the book goes beyond diplomatic ties and attempts to present the relationship in depth, touching on the areas of politics, economics, culture, scientific ties, people-to-people contacts, and handicrafts, including Persian carpets. The narrative interweaves many stories whose protagonists are both celebrities and humble workers who have contributed to the enrichment of bilateral ties. Conclusions are drawn at the end of each chapter, allowing the most important points to be highlighted and the trends characterising the development of the relationship to be traced.
Returning to the question of mutual attraction between the two peoples, I would like to refer to an internal report of a long-time Iranian consul in Salonika and Adrianople in 1910. The name of this consul has not been reported. This document has been chosen to serve as the background for the cover of the book. In it, for the first time, one finds a candid explanation of the advantage for Iran of maintaining friendly relations with Bulgaria. Referring to “numerous meetings and exchanges with influential (Bulgarian) representatives” and trips to Bulgaria, he speaks enthusiastically of the immense successes achieved by the young Bulgarian state in its civilizational development, which has proved to be beyond the reach of its Balkan neighbours as well as many other countries. It specifically addresses the cultural affinity between Iran and Bulgaria and the similar geopolitical position of the two countries in relation to the Ottoman Empire. He does not fail to mention the rapprochement on political grounds, since Iran has adopted a constitutional system as a result of the Constitutional Revolution, and Bulgaria has made impressive achievements on this path. Starting from the above considerations, he urges the establishment of “lasting friendly ties” between the two countries, of which “the Bulgarian Government is a great supporter”. As a concrete proposal, he raised the issue of opening an Iranian embassy in the Bulgarian capital and establishing a Bulgarian diplomatic presence in Tehran.
For its part, Bulgarian diplomatic activity since the beginning of the twentieth century, apart from purely informational activity, has in a number of cases included an assessment of and reaction to processes related to Iran, positions on Iranian demarches and initiatives, proposals to use in Bulgarian interests opportunities that have opened up, as well as certain interactions with Iranian diplomats. During the First World War, it is worth mentioning the two campaigns through Bulgarian territory, undertaken respectively by the acting Bulgarian consul in Alexandria Dr. Bachvarov to transport a team of medics and humanitarian aid for the distressed Iranian population, and by our legation in Constantinople to repatriate Iranian subjects residing in Turkey, which was however not materialised due to Bulgaria’s entry into the war.
Many Bulgarian diplomats pointed out the benefits of cooperating with Iran. Nedyalko Kolushev in Turkey towards the end of the First World War spoke about the Turkish-Iranian controversy and Bulgaria’s opportunities to take advantage of it. Our Minister Plenipotentiary in Moscow in the second half of the 1930s, Nikola Antonov, made recommendations to Bulgarian workers to take advantage of economic opportunities in Iran. The Bulgarian Legation in Iran (1939-1941), headed by the diplomat Dimitar Dafinov, took real steps to improve trade and economic relations by exporting Bulgarian products: silkworm seeds, tobacco, cement, passenger carriages, as well as importing Iranian cotton. It also developed alternative transport routes through the Soviet port of Batum, thus starting a dialogue on this very important issue, which continues to this day: today we are already talking about the Black Sea-Persian Gulf corridor.
One of the ambitions of the book is to establish the exact date of the beginning of Bulgarian-Iranian diplomatic relations. What is established about their beginning?
Indeed, the beginning of diplomatic relations was explored at length in the first chapter of the book. Moreover, after negotiations with Iranian counterparts in the summer of 2021, a bilateral study was launched to shed more light on the initial 25-year period of bilateral relations after the Liberation, including contacts between monarchical institutions, mutual high-level visits, the Iranian consular presence in Bulgaria, and the opening of the first Iranian diplomatic mission in Sofia.
The date of 15 November 1897, currently accepted as the beginning of diplomatic relations, derives from the presentation of a note confirming the granting of agrément to the first Iranian diplomatic agent in the Principality of Bulgaria, Mirza Hossein Khan. The only document reflecting this event is a letter from our diplomatic agent in Constantinople, Dimitar Markov, to Prime Minister Konstantin Stoilov, which is shown in Appendix 2 to Chapter One. In the period 1898-1902 the first Iranian diplomatic mission functioned in Sofia, but unfortunately the date of its opening cannot be clarified from the available documents. Since there is also no trace of a deliberate act establishing diplomatic relations – an agreement, declaration or exchange of notes – no other date can be identified to mark their beginning. Therefore, for the moment and until the study is completed, we stick to the date of 15 November 1897.
At the same time, it should be taken into account that long before that time the two countries had maintained official contacts through their missions in Constantinople. There had been official correspondence between the monarchs, and Iranian consuls, vice-consuls and honorary consuls had been active in Rousse and Varna. The first documented correspondence is the exchange of messages between Prince Alexander Battenberg and Nasser ed-Din Shah (1879-1880), which marks the establishment of official contacts at this early stage after the Liberation. Of this, only a transcript survives in the Iranian archives of the Iranian monarch’s congratulatory letter on the occasion of Prince Alexander’s accession to the throne – a unique document which, along with its translation, is set out in the first appendix in the book. It is significant that in his letter the Shah encourages the independent development of Bulgaria (the word independence has been used three times in the text), whereas it is well known that according to Article 1 of the Treaty of Berlin Bulgaria was defined as “a self-ruled tributary principality under the sovereignty of H.M. the Sultan”. So, I suppose that the conclusion of our study will reaffirm 15 November 1897 as the date of the establishment or beginning of diplomatic relations, but at the same time take into account the fact that official contacts existed long before that date.
The book presents cases in which Bulgarian-Iranian relations took place through relations between diplomats in neighbouring countries – Romania, Serbia, the Ottoman Empire. What was the significance of the Balkan capitals in international relations with Persia in the first half of the twentieth century, and what was Sofia’s place in these relations?
From the very first years after the Liberation, the two countries maintained constant contacts in Constantinople, where their diplomatic missions were crucial for the conduct of their foreign policy. Some of the most capable diplomats and politicians from both missions met and built friendly relations there. On the Bulgarian side, these were the well-known politicians Dragan Tsankov, Marko Balabanov, Dr. Georgi Valkovic, Petar Dimitrov, Dr. Dimitar Markov and Ivan St. Geshov, who served as diplomatic agents in Constantinople as one of the first agencies opened from the onset of the foreign policy activities of the Principality of Bulgaria. On the Iranian side, one can also note quite a few famous diplomats who held the posts of ambassadors, as Iran’s diplomatic mission had already been elevated to the rank of embassy before this period. We are talking about Mohsen Khan Mozaher (Tabrizi), Asadollah Khan (Nazem od-Douleh) and Mahmud Khan Diba (Ala ol-Molk) who maintained good relations with the Bulgarian diplomatic agents.
Then came the turn of Sofia, where an Iranian diplomatic mission functioned in 1898-1902. This fact was not well known until now, as Maria Mateeva’s book claims that no Iranian agency was opened in Sofia, and that the first Iranian diplomats Mirza Hossein Khan, then Montazem os-Saltaneh and then Sadiq ol-Molk were accredited from Belgrade. On the basis of the documents examined in my book, it has been proved that the facts are different and that, as is it also transpires from Iranian documents, the mission was opened in Sofia. Iranian diplomatic agents in Sofia were in contact with the Bulgarian administration, including the head of Prince Ferdinand’s Secret Cabinet, Strashimir Dobrovich. In 1899, Iranian envoy Ohanes Khan visited Sofia and met with Prime Minister Dimitar Grekov. 1900 saw the transit visit of the Iranian monarch Mozaffar ed-Din Shah to Bulgaria, which provided an opportunity for a meeting between the highest-ranking statesmen of the two countries.
At that time, the Iranian diplomatic representative in Sofia was Montazem os-Saltaneh, who had presented his credentials to Prince Ferdinand in May 1900. His mission has been reflected in the draft of the Iranian report of the bilateral study, of which I have just spoken. So we have documentation on both sides that proves that there were Iranian diplomatic agents in Sofia at that time.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Iranian diplomacy was trying to map out a strategy for representation in the Balkans, while relieving its overburdened embassy in Constantinople of these duties and establishing a beachhead in its newly opened legation in Bucharest. In the choice of a Balkan representation, Bucharest was preferred to Sofia probably because of the earlier achievement of full independence by Romania and the greater activity of Romanian diplomacy towards Iran. At the same time, the ministers plenipotentiary, Ebrahim Khan de Ghaffari (known in Iran as Mo’aven od-Douleh Ghaffari) and Mirza Ali Mohammad Khan (Mo’adel os-Saltaneh), and after them the Chargé d’Affaires Count Anton Monteforte, a naturalized Italian, were by no means oblivious of Iranian diplomatic chancery in Sofia, which they undertook to staff with suitable personnel. In Bucharest, our Minister Plenipotentiary Simeon Radev, until his recall in 1916 owing to the severance of Bulgarian-Romanian diplomatic relations, maintained warm and friendly contacts with Count Monteforte, whom he described as a sincere friend of Bulgaria.
At the end of the First World War, Monteforte, who was later bestowed the honorific appellation Montazem ol-Molk in Iran, moved his headquarters to Sofia, thus beginning the second period of the Iranian legation in this country (1918-1928, with intermittence). Monteforte remains the longest-serving Iranian diplomat in the entire history of interstate relations. He was duly appreciated by the Bulgarian government, which advocated the continuation of his mission and awarded him the Order of St. Alexander (big officer’s cross). During the presentation of his credentials in September 1921, he had a meaningful conversation with Tsar Boris III, at which the mutual desire to maintain friendly relations was confirmed.
Following Monteforte’s recall, the Iranian legation in Sofia was closed. Bulgaria came under the responsibility of the Iranian embassy in Ankara, which announced in December 1928 that the Belgian legation in Sofia would be entrusted for the second time the protection of Iranian interests in Bulgaria. This development was also linked to the Iranian government’s decision in 1929 to close its legation in Bucharest, most likely due to financial difficulties caused by the world economic crisis. In 1935, the accreditation for Bulgaria was again transferred to the Iranian legation in Bucharest, which resumed its activities. Thereafter, we have two Ministers Plenipotentiary, whose responsibilities include Bulgaria, although the first of them, Mohammad Ali Moqaddam, did not manage to present credentials. In October-November 1938, he was replaced by Mohsen Rais, who remained in Bucharest until diplomatic relations between Iran and Romania broke down in September 1941.
On the Bulgarian side, there were active diplomats in Bucharest as well as in Constantinople and Ankara, who dealt with, among other things, the already growing consular cases related to Bulgarian labour migration to Iran.
Bulgaria had a colony of migrant workers in Iran in the period before and during World War II. What was the fate of these Bulgarians after the cessation of diplomatic relations in 1941, provoked by the entry of the Allies (USSR and Britain) into Persia and the overthrow of Reza Shah?
The mid and second half of the 1930s were marked by a completely new phenomenon in bilateral relations – the formation of Bulgarian labour emigration to Iran, which has remained virtually unexplored in Bulgarian scholarly literature. This migration became the reason for opening the first Bulgarian legation in Iran headed by the experienced diplomat Dimitar Dafinov in April 1939. Bulgarian workers found themselves at the forefront of the cohort of European labourers for whom Iran became a centre of attraction during the intensive economic activities undertaken by Reza Shah Pahlavi, especially the large-scale infrastructure construction. Prominent among the sites creating jobs for foreigners, including our compatriots, was the Trans-Iranian Railway. The main profiles of Bulgarians in Iran were masons, construction and general workers, although there was also no shortage of painters, carpenters, mechanics and even engineers, decorators and contractors. The largest contingent came from the central part of the Pre-Balkan region (Gabrovo, Dryanovo, Tryavna, Sevlievo, Veliko Tarnovo), known for its construction traditions. The number of Bulgarian subjects working in Iran at peak times probably reached 1500-2000 people. Behind this figure of significant size for our scale were people with difficult destinies, who with their selfless work left a lasting mark in the efforts for the economic uplift and modernization of the Iranian state. They often put their survival skills and the resilience of their families left behind to a severe test, and sometimes their courageous adventures ended tragically. A number of cases have been described by name in the book, and a list of Bulgarians who lost their lives in Iran with brief annotations has been provided in an appendix.
In September 1941, as you mentioned in the question, Iran was forced by the Allies (the USSR and Great Britain) to break diplomatic relations with the countries of the Tripartite Pact. The closure and evacuation of the Bulgarian legation in Tehran was fraught with great tension. As a country that had joined the pact but had not yet entered the war, Bulgaria was not initially included in the ultimatum delivered to Iran. Its inclusion at the last minute meant that Bulgarian legation officials were given an extremely short three-day deadline to leave the country and consequently were unable to arrange the evacuation of even a limited segment of the Bulgarian colony.
The war period gave rise to repressive actions against Bulgarian subjects in Iran. The adversity caused by their treatment as enemy elements, the loss of their jobs and the difficulties of their repatriation was exacerbated by the acute problem of deportation (also a hitherto unexplored phenomenon) undertaken by the British occupation forces. Nearly 100 people were interned in the Dehra Dun camp in British India, a smaller group in the Iranian city of Soltanabad, now Arak, and there were isolated cases in other camps.
During the war, the Swedish Legation in Tehran, which had taken over the protection of Bulgarian interests, undertook actions for the repatriation of Bulgarian subjects, which included coordination with the local authorities, the occupying forces, the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry and the transit countries, as well as the organization of the Bulgarian colony. A small group of women and children were successfully repatriated, but the two main convoys prepared in 1942 were stopped by the Soviet occupation authorities, although prior consent was obtained thanks to our preserved diplomatic ties with Moscow. Most likely, this was done out of solidarity with the British allies, given Bulgaria’s declaration of war on Britain in December 1941.
Conditions for the repatriation of the main groups of Bulgarian subjects were created only after the end of the war and the signing of the Armistice Agreement by the new Fatherland Front government, when the Armistice Implementation Commission headed by Foreign Minister Petko Stainov entered into dialogue with the Allied Control Commission and the political representations of the USSR and Great Britain. Two groups of 87 and 56 Bulgarians, respectively, withdrew via Soviet territory – the first group from December 1945 to the spring of 1946, and the second in the spring of 1947, 75 people from the Dehra Dun camp set sail on a British ship from Karachi to Basra together with other camp inmates – Hungarians, Yugoslavs and a Romanian – in November 1946, whence they reached Bulgarian territory by rail. A few people who, due to illness or other reasons, were unable to join this group, additionally made their way home on other British ships.
Returning Bulgarian nationals, whose stay in Iran had been prompted by the hope of earning means to improve their lives, had generally failed to achieve their aims. This failure was due to the suspension of the large-scale construction works in Iran during the Second World War and its aftermath, as well as by the internment of a large number of Bulgarians. On their arrival in Bulgaria, our compatriots, who had been absent from the country for many years, faced difficulties in adjusting to the new reality and finding suitable employment, as well as personal and family problems. There were also isolated cases of people detained for some time by the security authorities.
Relatively few Bulgarian citizens chose to stay in Iran, although the situation there was becoming extremely unfavourable and had nothing to do with the construction boom of the 1930s. According to the Czechoslovak Legation in Tehran, which took over the protection of Bulgarian interests from the beginning of the 1950s, by mid-1954 there were about 50-60 Bulgarian citizens residing in Iran, who used to visit the Legation for various services. Most of them were workers and poor craftsmen who took interest in events in our country. Therefore, by order of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in July 1954, the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency began regularly supplying the Czechoslovak Legation with Bulgarian periodicals and later with Bulgarian books.
Let me also share a personal memory of my long-term posting to Iran in 1989-1992, when I also performed consular functions. In Tehran, I used to maintain contacts with a Bulgarian national of that generation named Ivan, with whom I had numerous conversations. By that time, I had no idea about a Bulgarian emigration of that scale. He was an elderly man of the age of 80-85. From him I learned that Bulgarians had participated in large numbers in infrastructure projects in Iran. He had had a family in Bulgaria in the past, but had then married an Iranian citizen of Armenian origin and had been residing in Iran all that time. It is my intention to recollect the documents left from those contacts and possibly include them in a future research.
What are the book’s findings regarding the collaboration between the Bulgarian Communist Party and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria with leftist forces in Iran in the period from the end of World War II to the late 1950s?
Contacts between political parties and youth organizations that shared similar ideological platforms brought a new element to bilateral relations after the end of World War II, when Bulgaria and Iran found themselves in opposing bloc structures. The first links were established between youth organisations united by the World Federation of Democratic Youth. With the Iranian People’s Party (“Tudeh”) going underground after General Zahedi’s 1953 coup, its activists emigrating to socialist countries, and seeking help and assistance from the world communist movement, conditions were created for wider contacts with related parties, including the Bulgarian Communist Party.
The period since the mid-1950s witnessed the development of cooperation between the BCP and Tudeh, which, given the quasi-one-party nature of power in Bulgaria, engaged the country’s state leadership. Tudeh’s underground status and repression-stricken members put it in the position of a junior partner, relying on help to accommodate its overseas activists, support for declarations and political demands, and learning from the experience of the BCP. A number of protests were organized in Bulgaria over the repression of leftist activists in Iran. The Bulgarian press published numerous pieces related to Iran’s foreign policy course towards strengthening its alliance with the US in the late 1950s. As we know, Iran was a member of the Baghdad Pact, which was renamed CENTO in 1958 after Iraq’s withdrawal, and in 1959 strengthened its alliance with the US with a new agreement.
Researched documents illustrating the relationship between the BPC and the IPP in the 1950s, much of which has so far been classified, reveal important insights into the organizational development and ideological views of Iranian Marxists that have generally been relatively understudied in world literature. Of high research value is the information on the Fifth Plenum of the IPP Central Committee, held in Sofia in 1958, given the very little knowledge about it, as well as about other clandestine plenums of the party, whose place and date have usually not been reported. Attached to the Iranian guests was a former activist of the Bulgarian guerrilla movement, Vera Nacheva, at that time holding the post of First Deputy Head of the Foreign Policy and International Relations Department of the BCP Central Committee, who attended the plenum and shared her impressions in a report to CC Secretary Dimitar Ganev. After the plenum, a communiqué was prepared for the press in French, and the BCP Central Committee arranged through the Foreign Ministry and our embassy in Paris for its publication in L’Humanité newspaper, organ of the French Communist Party. Shortly afterwards, the Central Committee of the Tudeh Party published a brochure in Persian giving an overview of the history of the BCP, based on a lecture given to the Iranian delegates during their stay in Bulgaria for the Fifth Plenum.
The interaction between both parties continued with the participation of Iranian representatives, including the secretary of the IPP Central Committee and one of the party’s most outstanding activists Abdus-Samad Kambakhsh, as guests at the Seventh Congress of the BCP in June 1958. The invitation was extended by the first secretary of the Central Committee Todor Zhivkov, who had been elected to that post two years before. From 1958 onwards, two activists of the Tudeh Party per year were accommodated for recreation in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria, like the other countries of the socialist camp, hosted activists of the Tudeh Party who settled in the country as political emigrants. Among the documents examined, there is a curious piece from our party archives relating to one of them named Mohsen Golestan, also known as Bahrampour. He was a former textile worker, secretary of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Committee and member of the Isfahan District Committee of the IPP, emprisoned for a long time, and had participated as a guest at the Fourth Congress of Bulgarian Trade Unions. In November 1957, he wrote an extensive report to the BCP Central Committee, in which he analysed in a highly critical spirit the processes taking place in the Tudeh Party. Bahrampour’s report was made known to our party and state leaders. On the instructions of Nacho Papazov (then head of the Registry Department of the BCP Central Committee), it was transmitted through party channels to the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party.
Let me once again point out that the declassified documents from the Bulgarian party archives are of great scientific interest not only from the point of view of Bulgarian-Iranian relations, but also for the study of the internal processes in the Tudeh Party and the political processes in Iran.
What image did the Bulgarians in Persia and the Iranians in Bulgaria have during the period you are researching? To what extent were the two peoples able to establish friendly ties and cooperation?
The history of Bulgarian-Iranian relations is traced in the book not only on a national level but also on an interpersonal basis. In the diplomatic field, I have already mentioned the good contacts between Bulgarian and Iranian representatives in Constantinople and Bucharest. The Iranian legations in Sofia and, of course, by the first Bulgarian mission in Tehran contributed largely to the widening of personal acquaintances. Worth noting among other specific cases was the trusting friendship between our consul in Smyrna (now Izmir) Ivan Hamamjiev and his Iranian counterpart Mirza Esmail Khan during the First World War. The bond between the two was so strong that on his recall the Iranian consul offered Hamamjiev to take over the protection of Iranian interests in his consular district. The Bulgarian side accepted the offer after the matter was taken up by our legation in Constantinople, and the venture was not carried out solely because of the break in Bulgarian-Turkish relations at the end of the First World War in 1918.
Among the personal contacts established in Turkey we should highlight the friendship between Nedyalko Kolushev, whom I have already mentioned, and Mirza Mahmud Khan Alamir (Ehtesham os-Saltaneh) in Constantinople, the productive relations in Constantinople and Ankara of our representatives Todor Pavlov and Georgi Balamezov with the Iranian ambassador and later foreign minister Mohammad Ali Foroughi, one of the most influential Iranian statesmen of the time of Reza Shah and its immediate aftermath. In 1929-1930, the signing of a trade agreement and a treaty of friendship was almost negotiated with Foroughi, who was also in personal contact with the foreign minister in the second government of the Democratic Alliance, Atanas Burov, but the initiative ultimately fell through due to a divergence of interests between both countries.
Another memorable friendship arose between the representatives of the two countries in Bern and then in Moscow, Nikola Antonov and Anushirvan Sepahbodi, formerly Iran’s permanent representative to the League of Nations in Geneva, who later held ministerial posts. In an August 1937 report from Moscow, Nikola Antonov wrote of his “excellent relations with the ambassador”, whom in another correspondence he referred to as “an educated and intelligent Persian”.
The friendly ties, of course, went far beyond the realm of diplomacy. Among the disseminators of the art of the Persian carpet in Bulgaria, which reached deep socio-cultural layers, a prominent entrepreneur of Iranian origin, who changed his name from Ismail Hasan to Boris Persiyski (Boris of Persia), played a notable role. He was born in the Iranian city of Tabriz around 1880 and hailed from the Alawite (Alevi) community. His contact with Persian carpets dates back to his earliest childhood: for 10 years he apprenticed in carpet workshops in his hometown. After his family moved to Bulgaria around 1900, he became exclusively involved in the carpet business, first in the town of Panagyurishte and then in Shumen, where he settled. In 1904-1907 he was a travelling teacher of carpet weaving, and in 1907-1909 he was master-manager of the Shumen State Model Workshop of Persian Carpet Making (the first in the town). He then moved to Sofia, where he became one of the first Persian carpet manufacturers, producing mainly for the American market. Later he returned to Panagyurishte, where in 1937 he became one of the founders of the famous Labour-Production Co-operative “Persian Carpet”. It continued its activity after 1944 and became one of the leading enterprises in the carpet industry in the socialist period. Boris Persiyski’s business profile reveals his profound knowledge of Persian carpets as “one of the most delicate artistic arts” and his enviable competence in the various types of Persian carpets, which he brought to Bulgarian soil. It is quite safe to say that he is an epitome of the deep layers of cooperation between the two countries as he transferred one of the most famous Iranian artistic crafts to Bulgaria.
Among the Bulgarian subjects included in the book’s narrative, who contributed their share to the development of bilateral ties and rapprochement between the two peoples, are the economic geographer Anastas Beshkov (one of the founders of this science in Bulgaria, who co-authored with Lyuben Melnishki a monograph on the economic geography of Iran, used for many years as a reference book for the country), the civil engineer Lyuben Trnka (who took part in the construction of the Trans-Iranian Railway, and later became a well-known professor in Bulgaria and a designer of a number of infrastructure projects), the physician Alexander Atabekyan (who in the early 1900s, opened a doctor’s office in the city of Rasht, Gilan province) and the investor Marko Danchev (who extended a loan for the construction of the Jolfa-Tabriz railway before the First World War). Iran is present as an important part of the tours of the eminent travellers, lecturers and ambassadors of Bulgarian culture Anka Lambreva and Lyuba Kutincheva, which have already been reflected in our press.
In the 1950s, when the collection of valuable Iranian manuscripts left in Bulgarian lands was being completed in the Oriental Department of the National Library, the long-time head of the department, prof. Boris Nedkov established international scientific relations, including with Iranian professor Nafisi – a distinguished historian, literary scholar, linguist and publicist, and one of the most productive Iranian scholars of the twentieth century. He was a visiting professor at the Oriental Department for an extended period.
Lastly, I would like to touch on the literary field. We keep a good memory of the appearances of the renowned Iranian writer-humourist Mohammad Ali Afrashteh, who moved to our country, in the pages of the Starshel (Hornet) newspaper, which injected fresh blood into bilateral cultural communication. Mohammad Ali Afrashteh was one of the most revered humourists of his time and a favourite of Bulgarian readers.
The above examples are a vivid illustration of the contribution of individuals to the friendly ties between the two nations.
In what directions are you going to explore Bulgarian-Iranian relations now that you have this book behind you? What white spots remain in Bulgarian knowledge of Iran?
The cultural and economic ties discussed in the last chapters of the book, in conjunction with political contacts and consular issues, shape the view of the period from World War II to the late 1950s as a preparatory stage for a new era in bilateral relations when cooperation was in full swing. Importantly for this period, the two countries’ interest in each other did not wane, even though diplomatic relations were suspended for many years, from 1941 to 1961. The tradition was kept alive so that it could later bear rich fruit.
Negotiations to restore diplomatic relations, which began in 1952 during the National Front government in Iran, were then stalled for a long time. The Bulgarian side insisted on reciprocity, while for the Iranian side this issue did not seem important at the time. Talks then continued in Moscow, Belgrade and Ankara and ended with a joint communiqué of 26 December 1961. In the following summer, the Ministers Plenipotentiary of Bulgaria in Ankara and of Iran in Belgrade were accredited to the two countries respectively, thus materializing the proposal formulated by the Bulgarian side in April 1957.
Further on, the period of the 1960s and 1970s saw the opening of legations, which subsequently were upgraded to embassies, and a gradual upward development of bilateral relations in their entire range – visits at various levels, including the highest-ranking ones, full-fledged trade and economic cooperation, meaningful cultural, scientific and sport exchanges. A solid contractual and legal basis was established for this purpose and relations were set on a long-term perspective.
The period of development of bilateral relations since the early 1960s, which I would like to deal with, is certainly no less interesting. Many documents are to be studied. The work will be no less labour-intensive. The period can be divided into several stages, in which the main landmarks are the cardinal changes that took place in both countries: the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the democratic changes in Bulgaria in 1989, respectively, as well as the Iranian nuclear issue and a number of other developments. The task, on the one hand, will be easier given the abundance of documents and analyses. Both sides in this new period pursued consistent policies towards each other depending on the dominant ideology and political line of the respective periods.
On the other hand, objective research will be put to the test as there are a number of points sensitive to both sides. I have already done some research on this period, and since the mid-1980s it can be said that I have been a participant in the process of the development of bilateral cooperation in my capacity of an official in the Foreign Ministry – Iran desk officer, head of department, director of the Asia Directorate, including during my long-term assignment in Iran and my work with Iranian delegations. Filling in the “white spots” is likely to involve declassified documents and files that have not been examined or have not been made public, although we have been aware of them.
There is work to be done in this regard.
Photo: Angel Orbetsov (source: Angel Orbetsov)
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- Drepturi sociale - Социални права - Social Rights
- Interviuri - Интервюта - Interviews
- Iran - Иран - Iran
- Istorie - История - History
- Radio-ul Naţional Bulgar - Българско национално радио - The Bulgarian National Radio
- Relaţii irano-bulgare - Българо-ирански отношения - Bulgarian-Iranian relations
- România - Румъния - Romania
- Turcia - Турция - Turkey