Monday, August 30, 2010

Dateline 1941: British Forces Invade Iran

Dateline 1941: British Forces Invade Iran

by William Jason Mathews on Tuesday, August 24, 2010 at 2:51pm

"This incident brings into war a neutral and pacific country which has had no other care than the safeguarding of tranquillity and the reform of the country." - Reza Shah Pahlavi in letter to Franklin Roosevelt, 25 August 1941

During World War Two, Great Britain and the Soviet Union launched a joint invasion of the neutral Imperial State of Iran in a action named 'Operation Countenance'. Operation Countenance was conducted between August 25 and September 17, 1941, would lead to an occupation that would last until 1946, and would end the reign of Reza Shah, who is considered today, by many, to be the father of the modern Iranian nation.

Reza Shah Pahlavi
In 1933, Reza Shah had demanded the abolishment of the D'Arcey Oil concession. The concession was a 60 year contract granting extensive rights to exploit Persian oil reserves, and had resulted in the creation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). A controlling interest in APOC had been purchased in 1913 by the British Crown at the behest of then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. According to Kevin Myers writing in the Irish Journal, The Independent: in 1923, the Burmah Oil Company (APOC's parent corporation) secretly gave £5,000 (a huge sum at the time) to future Prime Minister Winston Churchill to lobby the British government on their behalf. Their goal was to monopolise Persian oil resources. 

The Iranian government had many complaints about the scope and transparency of APOC operations in Iran: unfair compensation, opaque accounting, and mistreatment of workers among them. But despite his previously hard-line stance, the Shah quickly gave in to British demands after Britain took the matter to the Permanent Court of International Justice at the Hague. 

The Iranians had become deeply suspicious of the perceived colonial aspirations of the British and Russian empires. But they found a willing commercial partner in Hitler's Germany, and one that was apparently willing to deal with them as equals. By 1939 Germany had become Iran's leading trade partner, and by 1941 accounted for nearly 50% of all of Iran's foreign trade. Germany was actively helping to modernize Iran. Yet, officially, Iran was a declared 'neutral' country in the World conflict.

His [Reza Shah's] foreign policy, which had consisted essentially of playing the Soviet Union off against Great Britain, failed when those two powers joined in 1941 to fight the Germans. - Encyclopedia Britannica.

Now, 8 years after the Shah had tried to nullify the D'Arcey concession, under the aegis of Churchill, Britain had invaded Iran. The BBC states about the action:

The invasion and occupation of Persia was swift and undemanding. The British units invaded Persia from their bases in Iraq, to the south of Iran. The Russians invaded from the north. Persian resistance was rapidly overwhelmed and neutralised by Soviet and British tanks and infantry. 

The proximate cause of the invasion was that Iran had refused to allow Allied troops to be deployed on Iranian territory, and had refused to deport German nationals working in Iran, though they probably numbered less than 1000, according to British Intelligence reports.

It was clear from their message of August 6 that the Persians would not meet our wishes regarding the expulsion of German agents and residents from their country, and that we should have to resort to force. The next stage was to co-ordinate our plans, diplomatic and military, with those of the Russians. - Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Volume III, The Grand Alliance

More important was the need to safeguard materials and munitions traveling to the Soviet Republic under the U.S. Lend Lease act via the southern, Persian Gulf route. The Allies also hoped to prevent Germany from seizing, or other wise making use of, Persian oil fields. Additionally, the invasion would be a foil against Turkey, which was an Axis power during World War II.

The need to pass munitions and supplies of all kinds to the Soviet Government and the extreme difficulties of the Arctic route, together with future strategic possibilities, made it eminently desirable to open the fullest communication with Russia through Persia. The Persian oilfields were a prime war factor. An active and numerous German mission had installed itself in Teheran, and German prestige stood high.... We welcomed the opportunity of joining hands with the Russians and proposed to them a joint campaign. - Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Volume III, The Grand Alliance

Winston Churchill
Churchill would subsequently call Iran the 'Bridge to Victory'. But there was still one problem, what to do with the popular and decidedly anti-colonial Shah.

The 'Great' Shah had sought to modernize Iran. During his reign, Iran had built thousands of miles of highways, installed modern communications systems, established the University of Tehran, promoted European style education, increased the number of industrial operations many times over, and built the Trans-Iranian Railway. Under his government women were no longer required to wear the veil, in fact it was no longer allowed. Jews were shown respect by the regime. But during this time he had also made many enemies. He had tried to curtail foreign influence, to the detriment of the British, the Dutch, and other colonial powers, and he had alienated the Muslim clerics by rejecting Islamic tradition.

The British would see to it that his control of 'their' oil was at an end. He was 'asked' to abdicate in favor of his young son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Mohammad claimed his fathers rule on September 16, 1941. Reza Shah was forced into exile in South Africa, where the British could keep close tabs on him. He would die 3 years later, still residing in Johannesburg, at the age of 66.

This would not be the last time the British would intervene by placing Mohammad Reza Pahlavi upon the throne of Iran.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi