Historic Hyes: Famous spy couple recall brush with world destiny

When, in 1943, Adolph Hitler schemed to assassinate Theodore Roosevelt, Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill while the three world leaders met in Tehran, two young Armenians were recruited to help foil the plot.

The names of Gevorg and Gohar Vardanyan were revealed in declassified information in 2000, and the Russian couple came to Yerevan last week, where they told their story.

“The German leader had all reasons to pin hopes on Iran,” Gevorg Vardanyan says. (Despite its neutrality officially declared on September 4, 1939, the head of this key Middle East state Reza-shah Pehlevi in fact sought military and political cooperation with Germany.) “Apart from other things, Iran ensured not only control over the region, including over the Soviet Transcaucasus and Central Asia, but also guaranteed access to the Indian Ocean; that was exactly what the Fuhrer wanted after Moscow’s surrender.”

By the fall of 1943, one of the means of achieving victory was, in his opinion, liquidation of Stalin; the Kursk battle had completely changed the course of World War II. The “Long Jump” operation designed and elaborated by the German command was to have translated this plan into action. And Wilhelm Canaris’s Abwehr and Walther Schellenberg’s political intelligence (SD) were concerned only with one circumstance – the activities of the head of Soviet fixed-post spies in Iran Ivan Aghayants.

“I was 16 when on February 4, 1940 I voluntarily established direct contact with Tehran’s resident intelligence agents,” Gevorg Vardanyan remembers today. “I went to the meeting with the fixed-post spy. I learned only later than Ivan Aghayants was a legendary Soviet intelligence agent. He was a strict man, but at the same time kind and warm. I worked till the end of the war under his leadership and it was him who made me a spy.”

The Vardanyans who were invited to Yerevan by the Development Fund of the Caucasus Democracy Institute, say that materials declassified six years ago are only the “tip of the iceberg”.

“If the half-a-century chronology of our activities is reflected on the face of a 24-hour clock, only the first two hours have so far been subjected to publication through publicist works or cinematography,” the Vardanyans told ArmeniaNow.

Hitler, indeed, counted on the “Iranian Card”: he was well aware that the course of the war could be broken, also by physically destroying the heads of the USSR, the United States and Great Britain. The Nazi leader realized well the scale of the paralysis that would destroy the “Russian backbone” after the elimination of Joseph Stalin. By the fall of 1943, he was a little less concerned about the fates of Roosevelt and Churchill. Nevertheless, he could not miss the opportunity to kill all three “whales” of alternative policies with one shot, especially that they’d chosen Tehran as a venue for their meeting on November 28.

Still in August 1941, Ivan Aghayants was sent to Iran as a fixed-post spy to ensure strategic supplies – armaments, ammunition, foodstuffs, medicines, raw materials and fuel to the Soviet Union; railway communications and unfreezing sea-ports of Iran objectively promoted the development of this plan. It was here that Aghayants crossed paths with a wide network of agents created by Germany that controlled German intelligence in the USSR. They were implementing spying, sabotage and undermining activities to disorganize the country’s southern borders and even periodically dispatched “visitors” to the Caucasus.

“It was his reports to the High Command Headquarters that conditioned the introduction of a Soviet shock group consisting of two armies in September 1941 to the northern provinces of Iran,” Gohar Vardanyan says. “A little later, British and American troops would cross the sea border of Iran from the south.”

“Tehran openly supported Germany,” Gevorg Vardanyan remembers. “In the initial period of the war more than 20,000 German soldiers and officers were stationed on Iranian soil. And nevertheless, it was the professionalism of the head of Soviet intelligence agents that reduced Hitler’s plans to nothing.”

Already in August 1943, Aghayants would thwart the implementation of the “Franz” operation devised at Schellenberg’s office – staging a spontaneous uprising of Iranian tribes along the “railway perimeter” of supply of American and British cargoes to the USSR. The twenty SS officers immediately working with tribe leaders and especially SD and Abwehr were greatly shocked when the leaders of the “controlled teips” who had accepted expensive gifts suddenly resold them at a profit and vanished into thin air. On the threshold of the Teheran conference it was Aghayants who gave headache to Canaris and Schellenberg most of all.

“Fate would provide German spies with a rare chance,” Gevorg Vardanyan remembers. “At the end of August 1943 the head of the Soviet agents in Iran named ‘commissar on repatriation Ivan Avalov’ would fly to Algiers. In reality, his meeting with the head of the National Committee of fighting France, Charles de Gaulle, was also to take place there. On the threshold of the Teheran talks Stalin needed information of this general: Could he become the leader of his nation, should he pin certain hopes on him and what was his vision of future Europe? It was at that time that Hitler’s choice of the liquidator of the Troika fell on Otto Skorzeny.”

Ivan Aghayants was well aware of the Fuhrer’s favorite spy’s capabilities. It was Skorzeny who had rescued Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in September 1943 and brought him to Hitler; the operation on Duche’s abduction from guerrilla captivity cost the lives of 31 paratroopers and the loss of 12 gliders. However, the Soviet fixed-post spy had totally irreplaceable support – the so-called “light cavalry” of Gevorg Vardanyan – a group moving around Teheran on bicycles would trace six German wireless operators.

“We traced the saboteurs and arrested them,” Gevorg Vardanyan says. “It would become known from the diary of SS unterscharfuhrer Rokstrock that the saboteurs were getting to Tehran on camels for more than two weeks. Clad in Iranian traditional clothes and with dyed hair members of the group stayed in one of the secret flats where they were arrested. The bearings on the work of the radio stations were taken and their reports to Berlin were deciphered. As a result the German command would have to give up its designs to redeploy the main implementers of the ‘Long Jump’ operation to Tehran.”

Hitler would have another fit of hysteria – his “Iranian Card”, on which he pinned a concrete and great hope, proved out-trumped – through the help of two teenage Armenians.