The invasion of Iran - August 1941

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The invasion of Iran - August 1941 

Perhaps more important, in retrospect, that the Berlin crisis, was the Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran. Known as Operation Countenance, the British-Soviet invasion was conducted between 25 August and 17 September 1941. Like neighbouring Turkey, Iran was neutral and wanted to remain so. It was led by the dictatorial, modernising, monarch, Reza Shah. Winston Churchill’s government was worried about Britain’s oil supplies (through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co) and supplying the Soviet Union with war materials through Iran. Many in Britain and the USA thought Soviet Russia was on the verge of collapse, which would then have facilitated the German occupation of Iran. It was also claimed that Iran was harbouring German agents. Little evidence of this was ever produced. Some German technicians were helping in the development of infrastructure projects. The Shah refused to let the two powers deploy their troops in Iran. As in the First World War, the two states then embarked on a full-scale military operation involving Soviet armies advancing from the north, and, from the south, mainly British-Indian divisions. They were opposed by much smaller Iranian forces.

Iran's army was on purpose equipped with weapons procured from neutral states (Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Switzerland) and also the US, Britain, Italy, France and Russia. The Iranian rifle, for example, was the Czech Brno Mauser. Iran's General Nakhjevan, was one of the Iranians responsible for arms purchase. Nakhjevan favoured British and neutral arm suppliers rather than Germans.

The Allies sustained light casualties during the invasion. British forces, suffered 22 killed and just over 40 wounded and sick. Hostilities did not last long because the new Iranian government ordered the army to cease fighting. Iranian forces surrendered to the British and the Soviets on 29-30 August. The Shah was deposed and exiled in 1941, and his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was crowned in his place.

Three months after the invasion, the United States extended assistance to the Soviet Union through its Lend-Lease Act of March 1941. Lend-Lease was the most visible sign of wartime cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union. About $11 billion in war material was sent to the Soviet Union under that program. Additional assistance came from U.S. Russian War Relief (a private, non-profit organization) and the Red Cross. About seventy per cent of the aid reached the Soviet Union via the Persian Gulf through Iran; the remainder went across the Pacific to Vladivostok and across the North Atlantic to Murmansk. Lend- Lease to the Soviet Union officially ended in September 1945.

The United States sent a military force and technical team to Iran to help maintain and operate sections of the railroad. Major improvements were made to Iranian ports, roads, and railways. Given the fact that the Wehrmacht was largely destroyed on the Eastern Front by the Red Army, these supplies delivered through Iran were very important indeed. The Allies transported more than 5 million tons of munitions and other war supplies through Iran to the Soviet Union. Deliveries of trucks through Iran greatly increased the mobility of the Red Army.

In 1943 Iran joined the Allies in the War, declared war on Germany, and joined the United Nations.

The Iranian people suffered extreme food shortages under the Allies. The occupation continued until 1946 with the Soviets most reluctant to withdraw. Nascent democracy developed and the Iranian parliament nationalised the oil company (AIOC, later BP). Under the British, conditions for Iranian oil workers and their families were very bad. Britain organized a western boycott of Iranian oil exports, which hit Iran’s economy hard and thwarted Premier Dr. Mosaddegh’s economic and social reform programmes. The Shah fled. In 1953, the US sided with Britain and the Shah against Mosaddegh’s government because of oil and fear of Tudeh [Communist] Party influence. Assisted by military men and Islamic clerics, the CIA and MI6, the Shah returned. Repression followed. Mosaddegh was imprisoned. However, oil revenues were more evenly distributed between Iran and the British, American, Dutch, and French oil companies. Increasingly, Iranians perceived the Shah as a puppet of imperialistic masters and he was overthrown in 1979.

Does the wound still hurt the Iranians? The Iranians are proud of their ancient, pre-Islamic civilisation and the fact that they are one of the very few nations not to become a colony. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has demanded that the World War II Allies reimburse Tehran for the country's occupation during the war.

David Childs

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