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Iran in World War Two


Iran was one of the nations that were unlucky enough to be forced, kicking and screaming, into the fires of world war two.  Like Norway and Finland, it suffered the indignity of being violated by one of the alliances fighting the war – unlike the aforementioned nations; the ‘good guys’ of the war, Britain and the USSR, violated it.  Further, the American hesitation at a crucial moment led to a growth of anti-Americanism within the region, leading to the Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah. 

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Iran to 1939

The Persian Empire collapsed under the weight of the massive changes that swept the world after World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  In many ways, the destruction of the empire occurred as the culmination of the ‘Great Game’, the struggle for power in Asia between Britain and Russia.  The two sides, in their agreement of 1907, divided the nation into spheres of influence, formally ending their competition.  However, the disastrous Russian defeat and the establishment of the USSR would soon restart the competition, as the Russian civil war headed for Iran’s borders

Foreseeing the danger, or perhaps motivated by a simple desire for power, Colonel Reza Khan overthrew the Persian government in 1921, concluding an agreement with the USSR, which left some room for Russian Communist forces to operate on Iranian soil.  However, those were only meant to be applicable against ‘white Russian’ forces.  With this breathing space, Khan soon made himself the new Shah in 1926, taking the name of Pahlavi.  The Shah, as we will now refer to him, launched a program of rapid modernisation and industrialisation.  He crushed the power of the Islamic judges and priests, ordered the adoption of European style dresses and began a massive reorganisation.

The shah was careful to attract American help, but the Americans and Iranians did not get on, the Americans finding the government of Iran corrupt and suffering harassment from the British and Russians.  Needing an industrial power to help him, the Shah increasingly turned to Germany – a fateful choice, but the logical one at the time – and Germany began to gain a monopoly of Iranian business.  The Iranian army was also reorganised, at the time of fighting, it would number some 126’000 (14 divisions, 5 independent brigades), tanks and approximately 200 older model planes.  However, the Shah’s plans remained incomplete when the world was, once again, plunged into the flames of world war. 

Trouble from the North

In September 1939, German forces crossed the border into Poland, crushing the Poles in a fortnight.  The news was received with dismay by the royal family in Iran, who knew that the war could only do Iran harm.  There were several reasons for this, most notably the British blockade that cut Iran off from its German suppliers and, worse, the secret treaty between Hitler and Stalin, which placed Iran into the Soviet section of the world. 

Iran tried to steer a careful course between the antagonists, risking war or total ruin on all sides.  They attempted to set up new Iranian-German supply lines through the USSR, which was accomplished in late September, but several of the Shah’s advisers questioned the wisdom of continued dependence on Germany.  However, German goodwill was needed, as events near the USSR showed.

Having taken the spoils from Poland, Stalin started looking for new bounty.  The USSR gobbled up most of the Baltic States, while putting pressure on both Iran and Finland.  While Iran tried to obtain a treaty with Russia, the Russians placed impossible demands on them, including the release of Iranian communists and the exclusive use of Iranian oil.  The effective surrender of their only possible Arab ally, turkey, caused the Iranians to tremble.  The Soviet invasion of Finland caused the Iranians to overcome their concerns about dealing with Britain, and they tried to make a secret deal with them.  The British were reluctant to get too involved in Middle Eastern affairs, but they made plans for sending British troops to defend the oil fields and Iraq, secretly deciding to declare war on the USSR if they moved against Iran or Afghanistan. 

Perhaps fortunately, the allied plans for a grand anti-soviet/German strategy collapsed when Finland did.  Those plans included using bombers to attack the USSR, which would have almost certainly have provoked a soviet attack on Turkey and Iraq, causing massive disruption to the British Empire and their probable defeat.  Further, the pathetic success rate of unguided bombers in 1939 suggests that, even if Stalin did not order retaliation, they would only hit empty land. 

Despite this collapse, the soviets continued to move forces into the Baku region in March 1940.  These forces were formidable, five infantry divisions, one tank division, a cavalry division and two light tank divisions.  This new army group had about 200’000 men and nearly a thousand tanks.  The soviets used this force to intimidate Iran, which the Germans gleefully noted, and then tried to lure Iran into a German alliance.  However, the Germans soon had other problems, as their attack on France soon caused her collapse and with her, much of the remaining allied strategy.  Worse, soviet pressure on Iran intensified to a point in which Britain first considered breaking Iranian neutrality and occupying or destroying the oil refineries. 

Stubbornly, the Shah refused to compromise with Russia, despite the Iranian military realising that a defence of the soviet target areas was impossible.  However, Stalin reduced pressure in August, apparently out of the concern that the British might attack the soviet oil wells if he invaded.  The successful defence of British airspace in the battle of Britain also impressed Stalin, although the rumblings of a German attack on Russia may also have deterred him. 

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Trouble from the West  

April 2nd, 1941 does not, on first glance, appear to have been an important day in World War Two, however, for Iran it was the day that brought ruin.    In neighbouring Iraq, nationalist, pro-German, forces had overthrown the government. 

In 1939 Iraq had severed diplomatic relations with Germany--as it was obliged to do because of treaty obligations with Britain. In 1940, however, the Iraqi nationalist and ardent anglophobe Rashid Ali succeeded Nuri as Said as prime minister. The new prime minister was reluctant to break completely with the Axis powers, and he proposed restrictions on British troop movements in Iraq.

Nuri as Said, a proponent of close cooperation with Britain, opposed Rashid Ali's policies and pressed him to resign. In response, Rashid Ali and four generals led a military coup that ousted Nuri as Said and the regent, both of whom escaped to Transjordan (hidden under a woman’s chador). Shortly after seizing power in 1941, Rashid Ali appointed an ultra-nationalist civilian cabinet, which gave only conditional consent to British requests in April 1941 for troop landings in Iraq. The British quickly retaliated by landing forces at Basra, justifying this second occupation of Iraq by citing Rashid Ali's violation of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930. Many Iraqis regarded the move as an attempt to restore British rule. They rallied to the support of the Iraqi army, which received a number of aircraft from the Axis powers. The Germans, however, were preoccupied with campaigns in Crete and with preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union, and they could spare little assistance to Iraq. As the British steadily advanced, Rashid Ali and his government fled to Egypt. An armistice was signed on May 30.

That the Germans had been unable to provide effective help went largely unnoticed in Britain, while the role that German agents had played in fomenting it was blown out of all proportion.  The British eyes, concerned with the uncomfortable amount of success Rommel was having in North Africa, focused on the large number of German workers in Iran.  The British, probably correctly, suspected several of them of being spies.  The Iranian posture near Iraq, that on being ‘on guard’, probably intensified British suspicions. 

Further, the Germans were clearly building up in Poland, apparently against Russia.  One stream of British thought suspected that Hitler was trying to blackmail Stalin into moving against the British position in the Middle East, or to obtain further concessions of some kind.  However, Hitler was deadly serious and, despite last minute soviet offers, launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22nd, 1941.  Ironically, in May 1941, the Red Army had completed its plans to invade Iran. 

If the German attack on the looming danger to their north did not go without pleasure on the part of the Iranians, I would be very surprised, and indeed, there was some public rejoicing.  However, the soviet relivation of a German spy network in Iran caused immediate concern, and both the British and the USSR delivered warnings of a possible pro-German coup in Iran.  Therefore, the allies demanded the removal of Germans, including vital technical specialists, from Iran.  Further, the British conceived the idea of a joint invasion with the USSR as supporting player.

The British had two plans.  The first one involved a British-only operation, occupying just the oil fields.  The second one involved a joint attack, occupying all the military significant parts of Iran.  Therefore, the British sent the first in a series of notes demanding the removal of the Germans, although concerns over Turkish opinion withheld the really strong language for the time being.  The British also sought US backing, while we have no record of what Churchill and Roosevelt said to each other, clearly Churchill was left with the impression that the US gave the go-ahead, although the Iranians continued to seek US assistance and meditation.  Desperately, the Shah’s government (just how well-informed the Shah himself was is a matter of mystery) tried to buy time for the war’s outcome to be determined. 

Time, however, was in short supply.  Even as Hitler considered ways to aid the Shah, if needed, (the genesis of the Stalingrad campaign may be found here), the allies were running out of patience.  The invasion was postponed several times as diplomats tried to find a solution that did not involve vast loss of face for anyone.  Meanwhile, the two sides built up for war, and finally, the allies invaded on August 25th. 

Invasion from the North and South

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The first shots of the allied invasion of Iran were fired by HMS Shoreham, targeting the Iranian warship Palang, at Abadan.  At the same time, the British and soviet ambassadors presented what amounted to a formal declaration of war to the Iranian Prime Minister.  Swiftly, the British destroyed or captured most of the Iranian ships – and the stuck German ships – and occupied the oil refineries at Abadan and Bander-I Shahpur.  Resistance was uncoordinated, in some places the Iranians fought hard, but their lack of time to prepare their defences meant that the British won quickly. 

Meanwhile, the RAF was attacking Iranian airbases and lines of communication.  Soon, British and Indian troops crossed the border from Iraq and headed towards Qasr Shiekh. 

On the northern front, the USSR acted with overwhelming power.  Bombers attacked the city of Maku, while ground troops headed towards the city.  Iranian forces hurriedly got into defensive positions, but reports of soviet troops in the rear caused vast confusion and a withdrawal south.  Soviet seaborne offensives were launched at Bander-I Pahlavi, which included a accidental soviet attack by the red air force one their own ships.  However, the Iranians were unable to hold back the Russian hordes.

The Shah meanwhile protested vigorously to the ambassadors, comparing the allied attack to the German invasion of Poland.  The British received the impression that the Shah was surprised by the attack, although writher this was from ignorance or complacency is undetermined.  The Iranians tried to get the Americans to intervene, but the Americans were unable to assist them.  Meanwhile, large numbers of Germans attempted to flee Iran, while the Iranians tried to persuade Turkey to give them safe conduct. 

The allies advanced slowly, but implacably.  The Iranians resisted as best as they could, although they did not have enough firepower to do more than slow down the allies.  Finally, the Iranians sued for peace, and conceded the allied demands.  This was followed by disturbances in Tehran, and rumblings in the armed forces.  A coup of some kind appeared probable.  The Shah finally abdicated in favour of his son, but it was too late to hold back the sway of power, which headed towards the mullahs. 


The occupation of Iran proved of vital importance to the Allied cause and brought Iran closer to the Western powers. Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States together managed to move over 5 million tons of munitions and other war materiel across Iran to the Soviet Union. In addition, Iran signed a tripartite treaty of alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union under which Iran agreed to extend non-military assistance to the war effort. The two Allied powers, in turn, agreed to respect Iran's independence and territorial integrity and to withdraw their troops from Iran within six months of the end of hostilities.

In September 1943, Iran declared war on Germany, thus qualifying for membership in the United Nations. In November at the Tehran Conference, Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin reaffirmed a commitment to Iran's independence and territorial integrity and a willingness to extend economic assistance to Iran. However, soviet interference, in the form of the communist Tudeh Party, which was especially active in organizing industrial workers, continued to trouble Iran.  With the political controls of the Reza Shah period removed, meanwhile, party and press activity revived.

Eventually, collusion between the Tudeh and the Soviet Union brought further disintegration to Iran. In September 1944, while American companies were negotiating for oil concessions in Iran, the Soviets requested an oil concession in the five northern provinces. In December, however, the Majlis passed a law forbidding the government to discuss oil concessions before the end of the war, which led to fierce Soviet propaganda attacks on the government and agitation by the Tudeh in favour of a Soviet oil concession, while in 1945 the Azarbaijan Democratic Party, which had close links with the Tudeh, announced the establishment of an autonomous republic.  This ‘autonomous’ republic (and the neighbouring Kordestan (Kurdish Republic of Mahabad)) enjoyed the support of the Soviets, and Soviet troops remained in Khorasan, Gorgan, Mazandaran, and Gilan.  Other Soviet troops prevented government forces from entering Azarbaijan and Kordestan. Soviet pressure on Iran continued as British and American troops evacuated in keeping with their treaty undertakings, while Soviet troops remained in the country.

Finally, as a result of United States, British, and UN pressure, Soviet troops withdrew from Iranian territory. A tribal revolt in the south, partly to protest communist influence, provided an opportunity to dismiss the Tudeh cabinet officers.  However, the Shah’s authority was badly weakened. 


The best single source in the invasion of Iran is ‘Sunrise at Abadan’, by Richard A. Stewart, from which most of the information in this article was drawn.  A World At Arms’ provided information on the geopolitical realities of the invasion and ‘Armed Truce’ (Hugh Thomas) on the Iranian crises that threatened to start World War Three. 

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