In Memoriam: Gevork Vartanian, 87, Soviet spy who foiled Hitler's plot against Roosevelt and Churchill
Published: Wednesday January 11, 2012
Washington - In the middle of World War II the allied leaders of Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States, the Big Three, came together in the capital of Iran to coordinate their strategies in the war against Nazi Germany.
The summit was planned in secrecy, but Hitler learned of the plans for the Tehran Conference after Nazis intercepted allied communications. Hitler then ordered his special operations chief Otto Skorzeny to either assassinate or abduct Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.
Skorzeny, who months earlier managed to snatch Italy's Mussolini from captivity, launched preparations for what came to be known as Operation Long Jump that, if successful, could have unravelled the course of world history.
But as it happens, a 19-year-old Armenian intervened.
Born in 1924 in Russia's Rostov-on-Don Gevork Vartanian came from an Iranian Armenian merchant family. In 1930 his father, Andrey Vartanian, was persuaded by the Soviet authorities to move back to Iran, set up a business there and assist in Soviet intelligence operations.
Vartanian grew up in Tehran and as teenager began to take on intelligence assignments. In 1942 he attended a British intelligence course in Tehran, which helped him hone his spy skills and, later, also expose British agents working against the Soviet Union.
But in 1943, the two countries were still allies. In 1941 to prevent Iran from allying with Germany, Soviet forces occupied northern Iran, including Tehran, and the British forces took over the country's south. But Tehran still had a community of 20,000 Germans, a number of them working for the Nazi government.
Hunting Nazis in Tehran
According to Vartanian's recollections published by Russia's official RIA Novosti in 2007, this is how he made history:
"The German field station in Iran, headed by Franz Meyer, was very powerful. Long before the [Big Three] conference - from February 1940 to August 1941 - our group of seven intelligence officers had identified more than 400 Nazi agents. When our troops entered Iran, we arrested them all. Meyer went deep underground. It took us a long time to find him - he had grown a beard and dyed it, and was working as a grave-digger at an Armenian cemetery."
Vartanian related in the Russian language version of the same interview that Meyer's choice of profession was not accidental: Nazi operatives planned to follow an underground river that ran from near the Armenian cemetery and towards the British embassy. During the 1943 summit the British embassy, where Churchill was staying, was connected via a heavily-guarded corridor with the Soviet embassy across the street, where both Stalin and Roosevelt were staying.
The group of "seven intelligence officers" was in reality a group of seven teenagers led by Vartanian that rode bicycles around Tehran while following Nazi operatives and suspects. The Soviet station chief in Tehran instructed the "Amir," as Vartanian was nicknamed, and his group dubbed "light cavalry" to try to locate the Germans that would be arriving in Iran in late 1943 for a special mission.
"Our group was the first to locate the Nazi landing party - six radio operators - [on road to] the town of Qum, 60 km from Tehran. We followed them to Tehran, where the Nazi field station had readied a villa for their stay. They were traveling by camel, and were loaded with weapons.
While we were watching the group, we established that they had contacted Berlin by radio and recorded their communication. When we decrypted these radio messages, we learnt that the Germans were preparing to land a second group of subversives for a terrorist act - the assassination or abduction of the Big Three.
The second group was supposed to be led by Skorzeny himself, who had already visited Tehran to study the situation on the spot. We had been following all his movements even then.
We arrested all the members of the first group and made them make contact with enemy intelligence under our supervision. It was tempting to seize Skorzeny himself, but the Big Three had already arrived in Tehran and we could not afford the risk.
We deliberately gave a radio operator an opportunity to report the failure of the mission, and the Germans decided against sending the main group under Skorzeny to Tehran."
(Vartanian also discussed the operation in an interview with Russia Today in 2009 and last year Russia's Channel One aired a film based on these events; the story also served as the plot for the 1981 Soviet-French film Teheran-43: Spy Ring, which, incidently, featured actor Armen Dzhigarhanian and songs of Charles Aznavour.)
A husband-and-wife team
Vartanian credited his success as an intelligence officer to the motivation and training he received from his father as well as the Soviet intelligence station chief in Iran during World War II, another ethnic Armenian Ivan Agayants.
Gevork Vartanian and his wife Gohar continued to work in Tehran until 1951 when they were permitted to move to Yerevan to earn their college degrees. Later, they went abroad again and most of Vartanians' postings and activities in the West, Near and Far East, remain classified to this day. They finally re-settled in the Soviet Union in 1986.