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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.