The Banknotes of Iranian Azerbaijan

Peter Symes

Iranian Azerbaijan is a province of Iran situated in north-west Iran, bordering the Republic of Azerbaijan. It is populated predominantly by Azerbaijanis and over the centuries there have been strong cultural and religious links between the people either side of the Araxes River, which forms much of the border between Iran and Azerbaijan. Iranian Azerbaijan has always been a part of Persia or Iran, unlike the neighbouring state of Azerbaijan, which has seen periods of independence and periods of incorporation within the Russian Empire and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. While Iranian Azerbaijan has never been an independent entity, there was a brief attempt at autonomy during 1945 and 1946. Support for autonomy came from the Soviet Union, amidst political manoeuvring that commenced the ‘cold war’. During the period of autonomy, a series of banknotes was issued by the autonomous government and it is that issue which is the focus of this study.

            The border between Iran and Azerbaijan, under Imperial Russian control and later under Soviet Control, had been acknowledged for many years. While the Russians respected the border, they had ambitions south of the Trans Caucasus and in 1941 they had prepared a pact with Nazi Germany whereby the Russians were willing to recognize German influence in many areas, in return requiring that the area south of the Trans Caucasus be recognized as a focus of Russian aspirations. However, Germany invaded Russia and the pact was never signed.

            At the outbreak of World War II Iran was neutral, but there was much support for the Germans, both by the Iranian government and the Iranian people. However, Russia and Great Britain saw the need to secure Iran to allow transport from the Persian Gulf to Russia, particularly as early defeats suffered by the allies closed off access to much of Russia. In order to secure Iran, the Russians moved from the north, the British from the south, and they met in Tehran on 16 September 1941. On the same day Reza Shah, the dictator of Iran, abdicated in favour of his son Muhammed Reza. Reza Shah had been an autocratic ruler who had upset the minorities of Persia in two significant matters. Firstly, he had refused to acknowledge the requirements of the Constitutional Code that stated regional governments were to be established. Secondly, he had commenced a program of Persianization that had seen local languages and cultures sacrificed in favour of a national language and culture imposed by the central authorities in Tehran.

            Following the occupation of Iran, several treaties were established between the Russians, British and Iranians, all supporting the occupation and rule in Iran for the duration of the war. Under one treaty, the occupying forces promised to leave Iran within six months of the end of the war. However, the Soviet occupation of northern Iran took on vestiges of more than a war-time occupation. The Soviet occupying force consisted of many Azerbaijanis from Soviet Azerbaijan who often brought their families with them. The Russians sponsored theatre companies and cultural groups from Baku in visits to the region and established press and publications that supported Russian and Soviet Azerbaijani ideas. As the war lengthened and the occupation continued, the Soviet Union launched a concerted effort to establish a permanent Soviet presence in northern Iran, often promoting the concept of a ‘Greater Azerbaijan’.

            When Muhammed Reza ascended the throne under the guiding hand of the British and Russians, he had been forced to restore the constitutional monarchy. When the new parliament was formed, many new political parties were formed, with one of the most significant being the Tudeh. This was a party of the people, with strong leftist tendencies and, due to Soviet influence, they had strong support from Tabriz, the principal city in Iranian Azerbaijan. However, divisions began to appear in the Tudeh as elements from the north, who sought autonomy for the Azerbaijani-speaking people of Iran, clashed with the central party elements who saw Iran as a nation state and rejected ideas of autonomy for minorities.

            As the war in Europe moved towards its conclusion, Soviet-sponsored activity in the province of Azerbaijan increased. Labour disputes and strikes became more frequent, as the Tudeh and the trade unions exercised their power. In one instance, during August 1945, buildings were occupied by members of Tudeh in defiance of the Iranian government, and the Iranian troops were forced to stay in their barracks by Russian troops, so they could not respond to the disturbances. Although the situation calmed down, during the disturbance the Tudeh called for autonomy and recognition of Azerbaijani as the official language of the region.

            One man who had been prominent in the activities of the Tudeh in Tabriz was Sayyid Jafar Pishevari. Supported by the Russians, Pishevari had been nominated for a seat in the Fourteenth Majlis (parliament), but his nomination was thwarted by claims of irregularities in his nomination. In Tabriz, he decided that the Tudeh was no longer the vehicle by which Iranian Azerbaijan would win autonomy and so, on 3 September 1945, a proclamation was published by Pishevari and signed by seventy-six of his compatriots by which he formed the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. Although the new party took over the local branch of the Tudeh, the Democratic Party sought a much wider base then just the workers and elements of the political left. The party was open to all Azerbaijanis, no matter their place in society.

            Within two days of being founded, the party commenced publishing a newspaper, called Azarbaijan, which was written entirely in Azerbaijani. Reaction to the formation of the new party was dramatic, with the Tabriz Workers Union joining the party in a matter of days, and very soon the membership of the party had reached over sixty-five thousand. On 2 October 1945 the Central Committee of the party was formed and they elected Pishevari as their leader. As the editor-in-chief of the newspaper and leader of the party, Pishevari called for changes and reforms, but he did not call for Iranian Azerbaijan’s independence.

            However, the constant calls for reform and taunts launched towards the Iranian government demanded attention by the central authorities. Two battalions despatched to quell the disturbances were rendered ineffective by the Russians who refused to let them enter the territory. The Democratic Party then handed out arms to their members, from stocks seized by the Russians during their occupation of Iran. Faced with the military threat from Tehran, on 20 November 1945 the National Constituent Congress declared the Autonomous Government of Azerbaijan, which was intended to operate within Iran as an autonomous region and not as a secessionist state. On the surrender of the Tabriz Iranian Army Corps to the Autonomous Government in December 1945 most of the Corps joined the Azerbaijani Army. The army, not surprisingly, was modelled on the Red Army.

            Much of the discontent that fermented in Iranian Azerbaijan was due to the program that imposed Persian culture and Persian language on the various ethnic minorities during the reign of Reza Shah. Many observers, including the British, saw the opportunity for Iran to decentralize its authority, with Iranian Azerbaijan being the first of many provinces that could undertake forms of local government. Following the example set by the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, the Kurds of Iranian Azerbaijan created the Kurdish Democratic Party in Mahabad and declared their own autonomy on 22 January 1946. The two autonomous governments did not see eye to eye, as the Kurds were claiming territory that the Azerbaijanis believed was theirs, and conflict was only averted through the intercession of the Russians, who supported both administrations.

            With a functioning government and civil service, the Azerbaijani regime under Pishaveri commenced significant reforms in the region. Land owned by absentee landowners was seized and distributed to the peasants, while peasants farming under resident landlords gained a larger share of their harvests. A law was passed making it a capital offence for a public official to take a bribe and examples were set, with at least two senior officials being hanged for their crimes. Prices of goods were controlled, hoarding was punished, and the cost of living reduced significantly. Minimum wages and minimum working hours were set, and the unemployed were set to work under government programs. Other reforms included replacing public servants of the Shah’s regime with people sympathetic to the goals of the Democratic Party, setting up schools, a broadcasting station, a theatre, a university, and establishing Azerbaijani as the national language.

            Although Pishevari’s government continued to declare their aversion to independence, they were being manipulated by the Soviet army of occupation. Despite declaring that they would leave northern Iran six months after the war ended, Stalin had later stated that the Russian occupation would end six months after Japan’s surrender and not six months after Germany’s surrender. However, the appointed time passed and the occupation continued. It appears that Russia was hoping that the Azerbaijanis and Kurds would seek their independence and then opt to be included in the Soviet Union. So, while Iranian Azerbaijan continued to avow their loyalty to Iran, their actions often went counter to their words.

            The problem of understanding whether the push for autonomy within Azerbaijan was a challenge to the central government to recognize the requirements of the Constitutional Code or whether it was a push for self-determination is reflected in the issue of postage stamps in December 1945. The Iranian stamps were issued with an overprint consisting of ‘Azerbaijan National Government, 21 Azar 1324’ Endnote . If the push was only for regional autonomy, then issuing postage stamps with overprints was a step that seemed to usurp the rights of the central government.

             In the area of finance, the autonomous government nationalized the larger banks and a new currency was introduced. At this stage, the currency of Iran was the ‘Rial’, with ten rials equivalent to one ‘Toman’. The currency issued by Iranian Azerbaijan was denominated in ‘Tomans’ and ‘Krans’, with one toman equivalent to ten krans. This reflected the structure of the Iranian currency up to 1931, when it was reformed to Rials and Tomans, where one toman was worth ten rials. So, while the new currency maintained the toman as the principal denomination, they recognized krans as the sub-unit rather than rials. The new currency was issued in the denominations of: 5 krans, 1 toman, 2 toman, 5 toman, 10 toman and 50 toman.

            The currency was issued under the authority of the Treasury of the National Government of Azerbaijan. It is not known whether the issue of the currency was due to a shortage of Iranian currency, or whether the notes were intended to replace Iranian currency, making a statement on the aspirations of the Azerbaijanis. The fact that the notes were issued in Tomans, which had been superseded in Iran for some years, suggests that the issue of the notes was a statement indicating nationalistic aspirations. Had the notes been issued in Rials (as opposed to Tomans and Krans), then one might suspect the notes were issued to cover a shortage in currency.

            The notes are all in the same format, with a number of panels, or cartouches, holding text surrounded by arabesques. The central panel reads:

آذرببيجبنمخب ملى حكومتنين خزانه دارليق سندى
‘Azerbaijani National Government Treasury Bond’. The four corner panels hold the denomination and read, for the different denominations: five krans, one toman, two toman, five toman, ten toman, and fifty toman. The date ‘Esfand 1324’ (اسفند ١٣٢۴) appears in a panel at the bottom centre of each note. The under-print for each note is a pattern consisting of a pale colour on which is repeated the word ‘Azerbaijan’ (آذرببيجبن) many times in very small text.

            The notes were signed by Ghulam Reza Ilahami as the ‘Vazir Malieh’ (Minister of Finance) and an unknown signatory as the ‘Khazanehdar’ (treasurer). Ilahami (1904-?) was an Azerbaijani, born in Tabriz, and he belonged to the urban upper class. He was well-educated, having obtained a degree in political science. Prior to the founding of the Autonomous Government of Azerbaijan, Ilahami was the Mayor of Tabriz, although he held no affiliations with a political party. After the fall of the government he fled to Soviet Azerbaijan where he died in exile.

            While each note is predominantly the same design, there are differences between the 5-krans note and the higher denomination notes. Firstly, each of the higher denomination notes has the denomination punched through the notes by a series of holes in the upper centre. The 5-kran note has no hole-punched denomination. A single serial number appears at the centre right on the higher denomination notes, whereas for the 5-krans note the serial number is in the upper centre. Finally, there is a rubber stamp on the higher denomination notes at the centre left, whereas for the 5-krans note the rubber stamp can be found at the centre left or centre right.

            The rubber stamp is a circular stamp, which has the date ‘Esfand 1324’ (دنفسا ١٣٢۴) in the centre. The first day of Esfand 1324 was 20 February 1946, so it appears that the notes were prepared for circulation in either late February or early March 1946. The text in the upper arc of the stamp reads ‘Azerbaijan National Government’ (آذرببيحبن ملى حكومتنين), while the text in the lower arc reads ‘Treasury’ (خزانهدارليقى).

            The back of the notes carry three lines of text that read:

1. The Azerbaijan National Government guarantees this bond

2. In exchange for this bond, goods can be obtained in all stores in Azerbaijan

3. Those who try to counterfeit the bonds will be brought to court and sentenced to death by the court.

            With the exception of the 50-toman note, the signatures are printed on the notes. Endnote The 50-toman notes exist in a number of varieties. One variety of the issued notes sees the signatures written in black ink, while another variety sees the Minister of Finance’s signature written in black ink and the Treasurer’s signature (at the right) in red ink. The issued notes have the usual blue rubber stamp and the number ‘50’ punched in the upper centre, just like the other denominations. However, on this high denomination note, there are two ‘rosettes’ of nine holes punched to either side of the ‘50’ on the issued notes. The 50-toman note is commonly found as a remainder, with the signatures printed (as for the other denominations) and without the rubber stamp and the hole-punched value of the note. (This suggests that the rubber stamp and the hole-punched value were applied at the time of issue.) It is not known whether this variety of the note, with the printed signatures, was ever placed into circulation, as all issued notes of this denomination appear to have been hand signed.

            The first period of progressive reform within Iranian Azerbaijan did not last long. Soviet influence was insidious, with many officials in the new government being Azerbaijanis from Soviet Azerbaijan. A secret service was set up to target people who were opposed to the new government and it was not long before some of the laws intended for reform were being used against political opponents. For example, land was taken from people opposed to the new regime and distributed to the peasants. People who opposed the regime soon started disappearing, taken from their homes at night, and opposition to the Autonomous Government became less demonstrative as the terror increased.

            The much vaunted return to the Azerbaijani language soon became a fertile ground for writers and editors from Soviet Azerbaijan, as Soviet-sponsored literature increased. The authentic Azerbaijani of Iranian Azerbaijan showed interferences from the Russian-influenced Azerbaijani of Soviet Azerbaijan, as books and the press became dominated by Soviet-issued publications.

            However, the occupation of northern Iran by Russia was causing concern on the international stage. The Cold War had broken out and Russia’s aspirations in the Middle East were causing concern to the British and Americans. In an ‘incident’ that is regarded as the first confrontation of the Cold War, the Russians initially bolstered their forces in Iran and then withdrew after Iran promised to establish a Soviet-Iranian oil company. In April 1946 overtures by the Iranian government to Pishaveri resulted in several meetings. In Tehran, politics had shifted to the left with a change in government and there seemed to be a willingness by Tehran to come to an agreement with the Autonomous Government in Tabriz. Although the initial talks were not positive, in May 1946, following the withdrawal of Russia from northern Iran (including Iranian Azerbaijan), the talks became more productive. Despite losing the backing of his Soviet allies, Pishevari negotiated terms that were very favourable to the Azerbaijanis, while making concessions to the central government. The outlook for his regime was looking politically sound and the negotiations that commenced in April seemed to be coming to a positive conclusion in August.

            However, even as the political gains were being savoured, the tide was turning against the Democratic Party in Iranian Azerbaijan. Discontent at Russian influence, diminishing respect for religious institutions and religious values by the new regime, conscription, grain collections, and crop failures, all led to increased opposition to Pishevari’s regime.

            In a political coup, Qavam al-Saltanah, the Iranian Prime Minister, turned the situation on its head. Until October1946 he had shared government with leftist parties and he was not willing to be confrontationist. But after the Russians had left and his position firmed, he formed a new government without the left and immediately refused to negotiate with the Azerbaijanis any more. Qavam declared that national elections would be held in December 1946 and that Iranian armed forces would supervise the elections in all provinces, including Azerbaijan.

            Feeling betrayed and now aware of their isolation, Pishevari postured and defied Tehran, pouring forth invective from Tabriz. Rather than rallying support from the people of the region, local opposition to Pishaveri’s regime continued to grow. On 8 December 1946 the Iranian army marched into Iranian Azerbaijan and met little resistance. Most of the officials in Tabriz realized that the end had come and some sought to negotiate with the central government. A call to fight to the death by Pishevari on 11 December was ignored and the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan admitted defeat on 12 December 1946.

            It is estimated that Pishevari’s regime was responsible for the death of over five hundred people. So, it was not surprising that retribution followed hard on the heels of the Iranian occupation, not from the Iranians but from the disaffected population of Iranian Azerbaijan. Many was the untimely death, usually from a crude gibbet, of those who had been part of the failed regime. Truckloads of Azerbaijanis from the toppled government crossed into Soviet Azerbaijan, but there was, to the surprise of many, no support from the Soviet Union to restore the regime and the status quo was restored as Iranian Azerbaijan came once more under the control of the central government.

            It is not known what happened to the currency issued by the Autonomous Government. In all likelihood, it became worthless and was not honoured by the Iranian administration, although this is not certain. The availability of large numbers of 50-toman remainder notes suggests that these notes were in transit at the time the coup failed. These notes are common and easily available for collectors. Other denominations are less easy to obtain, but are available. As is the case for many other banknotes issued through history, the notes of the Autonomous Government of Azerbaijan remain one of the few tangible reminders of a distant event, an event that is now often romanticized but which altered little in the fortunes of Iranian Azerbaijanis at the time.


          Abrahamian, Ervand Iran Between Two Revolutions Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA.

          Farahbakhsh, Fereydon. Standard Catalogue of Iranian Banknotes Tehran 2005.

          Fawcett, Louise L’Estrange Iran and the Cold War – The Azerbaijan Crisis of 1946 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

          Hovsepian, Armen

          Lenczowski, George Russia and the West in Iran, 1918-1948 Cornell University Press, Ithaca, USA, 1949.

          Swietochowski, Tadeuz Russia and Azerbaijan – A Borderland in Transition Columbia University Press, New York, USA, 1995.


Prof. Peter Hill of the Australian National University

Dr. M. Mehdi Ilhan of the Australian National University

This article was completed in December 2006
© Peter Symes