During the late summer of 1941, an obscure but nonetheless deadly sideshow of the Second World War would play out in the Persian Gulf. The Allies, desperate to halt the Nazi advance in Russia, sought to open a supply route into the U.S.S.R. through the Middle Eastern kingdom of Iran, a country that at the time was drifting into Germany’s sphere of influence. It soon became clear to planners in both Moscow and London that force would be required to open up this all important Persian Corridor. The ensuing campaign would cost hundreds of lives, raise to the throne a future dictator and set the stage for the first real show down of the Cold War. In this week’s edition of Wars You’ve Never Knew About, we’re looking at the British and Soviet invasion of Iran.
In June of 1941, Hitler tore up the two-year-old Molotov Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Joseph Stalin and sent his Panzers surging eastward into the Soviet Union. Up until that point in the war, Russia was more than happy to stay out of the widening conflict. Moscow watched from the sidelines as the Nazis grabbed Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Greece, Yugoslavia and even large swaths of North Africa. Now with his own country on the receiving end of Blitzkrieg, the Soviet despot suddenly found a new ally in Great Britain. British prime minister Winston Churchill, believing that the enemy of his enemy was his friend, immediately looked for ways to help the Soviets stem the tide of Hitler’s armies who were relentlessly driving on towards the Russian capital. For its part, London committed what materiel could be spared to aid the Soviet war effort. But one issue remained: how to get the weapons, supplies and ammunition into the hands of the Red Army quickly?
A Persian Corridor?
With shipping lanes to Northern Russia threatened by German U-boats and bombers based in Norway, the Black Sea all but closed to sea traffic from the Mediterranean, and Pacific ports like Vladivostok too distant, the Persian Gulf and Iran seemed the only conduit through which aid could flow to Stalin unobstructed. There was one catch: the Iranian leader, Reza Shah Pahlavi, wasn’t about to allow the Allied supply convoys safe passage through his kingdom. Throughout late July and early August, British and Soviet diplomats coaxed, urged and even threatened the Iranians to open up their sea ports and rail lines to the Allied cause. Tehran still refused. With support for Germany on the rise in Iran and pro-Nazi rallies being staged in the streets of the capital, the British and Soviets cast aside diplomatic niceties and opted for a joint invasion. The Allies would seize Iran and hold it for the duration of the war.
The invasion opened in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 25 when the British sloop HMS Shoreham steamed into the port of Abadan, Iran at the mouth of the Shatt al Arab River, surprising and sinking at least two Iranian warships and damaging others. The move coincided with an amphibious assault launched from Basra, Iraq on the opposite bank of the river by units of the Indian Army’s 8th Division under cover of RAF fighters and bombers. With the port in Allied hands, the 8th and units of the 10th Indian Division, along with supporting British armour pressed inland. These forces were soon joined by more British and Indian troops entering Iran east of their bases in Baghdad. To the North, three Red Army units swarmed over the border into Iran from the Caucuses. After bombing Iranian defences along the Caspian sea, the Soviets pushed its 44th, 47th and 53rd armies southward, crushing whatever resistance it encountered. For several days, Iran’s outclassed army and air force tried to stem the onslaught. Tehran even appealed to Washington for help. None was forthcoming.
Within a week, the Iranian army had been all but brushed aside. By September, the British and Soviet units had linked up at Hamadan and had effectively secured a route from the Persian Gulf right into the U.S.S.R. More than 800 defenders lay dead, two Iranian warships had been sunk, several more crippled and six planes had been brought down. Two hundred civilians also died in the fighting. The British casualties were 22 killed. The Soviets lost 40 men.
With Iran under Allied control, London and Moscow replaced Shah Pahlavi with his son, Mohammad. With the father exiled in South Africa, the younger and more conciliatory Shah agreed to work with the Allies. The so-called Persian Corridor was soon open and goods from the British Empire and even the supposedly neutral United States could now make its way into Soviet hands. By way of a bonus, all German and Axis diplomats were expelled from the country and Iran’s vast oil fields could now supply the war effort. By the end of 1941, America entered the war. Soon even more U.S. made goods, equipment and armaments would be flowing through the vital lifeline and into the hands of the Red Army, all under terms of President Roosevelt’s Lend Lease Program. American military personnel also streamed into Iran to help secure and maintain the link. In January, 1942, the Allies formally signed a treaty with Iran specifying that the occupation would end within six months of the conclusion of the war. For the next three years, more than $11 billion worth of goods (the equivalent of $180 billion in today’s currency) would flow into the Soviet Union, much of it via the Persian Corridor.
The Post War Crisis
For Iran, the occupation didn’t end with the defeat of Nazi Germany. Despite assurances from Washington, London and Moscow that all Allied occupiers would vacate Iran within six months of the end of the war, the Soviets refused to relinquish control of northern Iran. By the fall of 1945, Moscow had even established two breakaway puppet republics in their zone of the country: a Kurdish state of Mahabad and the People’s Republic of Azerbaijan (which was separate from the Soviet Azerbaijan). The Soviets provided weapons, training and military advisors to the two new states and maintained troops in the region. To the world, it looked like Stalin was planning to stay.
The international community condemned the Russian presence. In fact, the three of the first five United Nations Security Council resolutions in history (numbers 2, 3 and 5) called for a Soviet withdrawal from Iran. Bowing to mounting pressure from the United States, Great Britain, Stalin finally agreed to pull out his troops by March of 1946, but not before inking a deal with the Shah that would allow the Soviets a stake in Iranian oil.
With the Soviets gone, the Iranian army, equipped with surplus British weaponry launched a war to reclaim the breakaway republics. By the summer, it had crushed the fledgling states and with diplomatic support from the United States and Britain, reneged on its oil agreements with Moscow. For the next 33 years, Iran would be one of Washington’s most stalwart allies in the Persian Gulf. In 1979, Islamic revolutionaries would topple the Shah.
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