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The Illegal Invasion and Occupation of Iran by English and Soviet Forces

British soviet invasion of iran
The Illegal Invasion and Occupation of Iran by English and Soviet Forces destroyed the Country

It is well-documented that Nazi Germany embarked on a campaign of invasion across various nations, ostensibly as a deterrent and to commandeer their resources. However, it is less commonly known that the Allied powers engaged in similar strategies during the Second World War. A prime example of this is the Anglo-Soviet invasion of the neutral Imperial State of Iran in August 1941, carried out jointly by the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. Dubbed Operation Countenance, the invasion faced minimal resistance from Iran’s forces, which were significantly outnumbered and technologically inferior. The operation was executed through a multi-faceted, coordinated assault along Iran’s borders with the Kingdom of Iraq, the Azerbaijan SSR, and the Turkmen SSR. Hostilities commenced on August 25 and concluded by August 31, following the Iranian government’s formal capitulation and an earlier ceasefire agreement on August 30.

This military action occurred just two months after the Axis powers’ invasion of the Soviet Union, and shortly after the USSR forged an alliance with the United Kingdom. It also followed closely on the heels of Allied victories against pro-Axis forces in neighboring Iraq and the French territories of Syria and Lebanon. The strategic objectives of the invasion were manifold: to secure Allied supply lines to the USSR via what was known as the Persian Corridor, to take control of Iranian oil fields, to curb German influence in Iran (where Reza Shah had previously used German support to balance the influence of the British and Soviets), and to forestall a potential Axis advance from Turkey through Iran towards the vital Baku oil fields or British India. In the aftermath of the invasion, on September 16, 1941, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate and went into exile, his place taken by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Iran remained under Allied occupation until 1946, with the British withdrawing on March 2 of that year, while the Soviet Union prolonged its departure until May, citing “threats to Soviet security.”

The Events that led to the Invasion and Occupation of Iran by English and Soviet Forces

In 1925, following a tumultuous period marked by civil strife, external interference, and internal upheaval, Persia underwent a transformation under the leadership of Reza Khan, who assumed the title of Reza Shah that same year. Notably, in 1935, Reza Shah urged international delegates to adopt “Iran” as the official designation for the nation, aligning with its indigenous nomenclature. His reign ushered in an era of ambitious initiatives aimed at revitalizing Iran’s economic, cultural, and military spheres. The country, previously fragmented and isolated during the Qajar dynasty’s rule from 1789 to 1925, embarked on a path towards industrialization. Under Reza Shah’s administration, educational institutions were established, infrastructure was developed, urban centers were modernized, and transportation networks were expanded. Despite pursuing a policy of neutrality in foreign affairs, the Shah relied on Western financial support to sustain his ambitious modernization endeavors.

In the early 1940s, against the backdrop of Britain’s conflict with Germany in North Africa and concerns over German access to the Persian Gulf, the British government began to voice suspicions regarding Iran’s alleged sympathies towards Nazism and pro-German sentiments. Despite Reza Shah’s early declaration of neutrality in World War II, Iran’s strategic significance heightened for Britain, particularly due to fears that the Abadan Refinery, operated by the UK-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and refining eight million tons of oil in 1940, could fall under German control. This refinery played a pivotal role in the Allied war effort. Tensions between Britain and Iran had been escalating since 1931 when the Shah unilaterally terminated the D’Arcy Concession—a 1901 agreement granting the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company exclusive rights to explore Iranian oil reserves for six decades, with Iran entitled to 16 percent of the net profits. Under the Shah’s leadership, the Iranian government accused the Company of diminishing its share of profits through covert reinvestments in subsidiary enterprises, thereby excluding significant sums from annual profit calculations. Although the Shah subsequently renegotiated a revised concession with the Anglo-Iranian Company, offering terms more favorable to Iranian interests, the diplomatic rift fueled perceptions of the Shah’s hostility towards British oil ventures.

Following Operation Barbarossa, the Axis incursion into the Soviet Union in June 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union formalized their alliance, setting the stage for potential Allied action. Shortly after Barbarossa, in a notable analysis featured in the New York Times, esteemed international correspondent C. L. Sulzberger highlighted the prospects of Operation Orient. He emphasized the likelihood of a German assault on Egypt in the event of Axis success, underscoring the potential consequences of a German advance towards the Caucasus, Iran, and the Persian Gulf. He warned of the potential for British Middle Eastern positions to be outflanked and for unrest to spread to Iraq by autumn.

British invades Iran

On 25 August 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran. The occupation secured the Allies’ continued access both to Iranian oilfields and to the so-called Persian Corridor.

As the Wehrmacht made strides through Soviet territory, the Persian Corridor, facilitated by the Trans-Iranian Railway, emerged as a crucial supply route for sending Lend-Lease aid from the ostensibly neutral United States to the Soviet Union. Recognizing its strategic significance, British and Soviet strategists sought to assert control over this corridor, particularly as escalating U-boat attacks and winter conditions rendered convoys to Arkhangelsk perilous.

The Allied powers intensified pressure on Iran and its monarch, leading to heightened tensions and anti-British demonstrations in Tehran, which British authorities labeled as “pro-German.” Iran’s geographic position posed a threat to Soviet oil resources in the Caucasus and the rear of Soviet military operations, while any German incursion southeastward would imperil British communications between India and the Mediterranean. In July and August, despite British demands, the Shah rebuffed calls for the expulsion of German nationals from Iran, predominantly comprising workers and diplomats. Estimates indicated a significant German presence in the country, with conflicting figures suggesting around 1,000 German residents according to British sources and approximately 690 according to Iranian reports. Notably, these German nationals held influential positions in key sectors such as government industries, transportation, and communications.

However, Iran began to curtail its trade ties with Germany in response to Allied pressures, as Reza Shah endeavored to maintain a neutral stance, seeking to avoid antagonizing either side. Yet, this neutrality became increasingly challenging amidst mounting demands from Anglo-Soviet quarters. With British forces already deployed in Iraq following the Anglo-Iraqi War of May 1941, the geopolitical landscape in the region grew increasingly complex and volatile.

The Invasion and Occupation of Iran by English and Soviet Forces

The invasion unfolded as an unexpected assault characterized by Allied forces as swift and executed effortlessly. Preceding the incursion, two diplomatic missives were conveyed to the Iranian administration on 19 July and 17 August, stipulating the expulsion of German nationals. The latter communication was acknowledged by Prime Minister Ali Mansur as a veiled ultimatum. General Archibald Wavell later articulated in his dispatch that it was evident the Iranian leadership anticipated a prompt British advance into Khuzestan and was dispatching reinforcements, including light and medium armored vehicles, to Ahvaz.

In the aftermath of the invasion, Sir Reader Bullard and Andrey Andreyevich Smirnov, the British and Soviet envoys to Iran, were summoned. The Shah demanded clarification regarding the rationale behind their country’s invasion and the absence of a formal declaration of war. Both representatives cited the presence of “German residents” in Iran as justification. When the Shah inquired whether the Allies would halt their offensive if he expelled the Germans, the envoys remained noncommittal. Subsequently, the Shah dispatched a telegram to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, beseeching intervention to halt the invasion. Given the neutral stance of the United States, Roosevelt was unable to accede to the Shah’s request but affirmed his belief in upholding Iran’s “territorial integrity.”

The naval offensive was launched by the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy from the Persian Gulf, while additional British Commonwealth forces advanced via land and air from Iraq. Simultaneously, the Soviet Union initiated its incursion from the north, primarily via Transcaucasia, deploying the 44th and 47th Armies of the Transcaucasian Front, led by General Dmitry Timofeyevich Kozlov, alongside the 53rd Army of the Central Asian Military District, to occupy Iran’s northern territories. Both air force and naval units were engaged in the operation, with the Soviets employing approximately 1,000 T-26 tanks for combat operations.

Within six days of the invasion and subsequent Allied occupation of southern Iran, the British divisions, previously designated as “Iraq Command” (also referred to as Iraqforce), underwent a renaming to “Persia and Iraq Force” (Paiforce), commanded by Lieutenant-General Edward Quinan. Paiforce comprised the 8th and 10th Indian Infantry divisions, the 2nd Indian Armoured Brigade, the 4th British Cavalry Brigade (later reconstituted as the 9th Armoured Brigade), and the 21st Indian Infantry Brigade. In response to the invasion, the Imperial Iranian Army deployed nine infantry divisions, some of which were motorized, with two divisions equipped with tanks. The Iranian Army boasted a standing force ranging from 126,000 to 200,000 personnel. Despite efforts made over the preceding decade to bolster, standardize, and modernize its military, the Iranian Army lacked the requisite training, armor, and air power to contend with a multi-front conflict. Reza Shah’s modernization initiatives were incomplete by the outbreak of war, with the Iranian Army predominantly focused on internal security rather than external defense.

Armed primarily with the vz. 24 rifle, a Czech variant of the Mauser Gewehr 98, Iranian troops also utilized other Czech small arms such as the ZB vz. 30 and ZB-53. Iran had acquired 100 FT-6 and CKD TNH light tanks, alongside AH-IV tankettes and additional LaFrance TK-6 armored cars, sufficient to equip its 1st and 2nd Divisions. However, subsequent Iranian orders were delayed due to World War II. Despite their quality, the tanks proved insufficient to repel a multi-front invasion by two major powers, with most rendered obsolete by advancements in tank warfare during the 1930s. The Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF) operated a varied fleet of outdated biplanes, including British Hawker Fury fighters and Hawker Hart bombers, as well as French aircraft such as the Bréguet 14, Bréguet 19, Potez VIII, and Blériot-SPAD S.42. Additionally, the IIAF possessed Soviet-manufactured aircraft, including variants of the British DH.4 and DH.9A produced by the Polikarpov factory, albeit lacking modern types such as the original Polikarpov R-5.

Facing little time to organize a defensive strategy, the Iranians found themselves caught off guard by the tactical surprise orchestrated by the Allies. The conflict erupted in the early hours of 25 August, as RAF aircraft penetrated Iranian airspace, launching airstrikes on targets in Tehran, Qazvin, and various other urban centers, alongside distributing leaflets urging surrender. Simultaneously, Soviet air raids targeted cities like Tabriz, Ardabil, and Rasht, resulting in casualties among civilians and significant damage to residential areas. Despite pleas from his generals to disrupt road and transportation networks, Reza Shah declined, reluctant to jeopardize the infrastructure painstakingly developed during his reign, inadvertently facilitating the swift advancement of the Allies.

Without external support, Iranian resistance swiftly crumbled under the overwhelming force of British and Soviet tanks and infantry. Converging at Sanandaj (referred to as Senna by the British) and Qazvin (known as Kazvin by the British), located respectively 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of Hamadan and 160 kilometers (100 miles) west of Tehran and 320 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Hamadan, British and Soviet forces achieved their rendezvous on 30 and 31 August. Confronted with resounding defeats, the Shah issued orders for his military to cease hostilities and stand down on 29 August, a mere four days into the invasion.

Iran was invaded by Soviets

The Invasion and Occupation of Iran by English and Soviet Forces

Under the command of Commodore Cosmo Graham, the British orchestrated a naval task force to seize control of Bandar Shahpur, Abadan, and Khorramshahr. The assault commenced at dawn on 25 August 1941. At 04:10, the naval offensive commenced at Abadan, with HMS Shoreham initiating the attack by targeting the Iranian sloop Palang, which succumbed to a single salvo. The strategic significance of the Abadan refinery was paramount to British commanders, not only for its economic importance but also for safeguarding the personnel of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company against potential reprisals. Defending Khuzestan Province were 27,000 troops drawn from the 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 16th infantry divisions, comprising both light and mechanized infantry units. All Iranian tanks were concentrated in Khuzestan, integrated within the 1st and 2nd divisions. HMS Shoreham remained stationed in the vicinity, providing naval gunfire support. Despite encountering resistance from Iranian forces, the refinery and the city fell under British control later that afternoon, following intense hand-to-hand combat that resulted in casualties among British and Indian troops.

Further north, the 10th Indian Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General William Slim, spearheaded the assault in central Iran. Slim exercised command remotely via radio communication from India, orchestrating the operation from afar. The Indian Army infantry and armored units amassed at Khanaqin, a border town situated 160 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of Baghdad and 480 kilometers (300 miles) from Basra. The British contingent breached the border at Qasr-e Shirin, swiftly advancing into the Naft-e Shah oilfield with minimal resistance. Close air support was provided by the RAF, engaging in multiple aerial skirmishes with Iranian aircraft. Six Iranian fighters were downed and several others damaged, ensuring air superiority without incurring any losses. Additionally, the RAF conducted bombing raids on several local towns and distributed leaflets urging surrender.

Principal Iranian forces in the vicinity were comprised of the 5th and 12th infantry divisions, totaling 30,000 troops, stationed with artillery support at Kermanshah and Sanandaj. These forces predominantly consisted of light infantry units, as mechanized and armored assets were stretched thin due to engagements on multiple fronts. Despite encountering delays, the British forces reached the outskirts of Shahabad in the early hours of 28 August. By 29 August, they had advanced to the town of Kerend, approaching within 3 kilometers (2 miles) of Kermanshah, when Iranian commanders were notified of the ceasefire directive and subsequently stood down. In a gesture of goodwill, the defenders designated Kermanshah as an open city, allowing British forces to enter unopposed on 1 September.

By 28–29 August 1941, the Iranian military found itself in a state of utter disarray. The Allies exerted complete dominance over Iran’s airspace, with significant portions of the country falling under their control. Major urban centers, including Tehran, endured relentless aerial bombardments. Although casualties in Tehran remained relatively low, the Soviet Air Force disseminated leaflets warning of an impending massive bombing campaign, urging the populace to surrender to avoid imminent devastation. Shortages of water and food plagued Tehran, exacerbating the dire situation, while soldiers, gripped by fear of Soviet reprisals, deserted their posts in droves. Confronted with the regime’s imminent collapse, members of the royal family, excluding the Shah and the Crown Prince, sought refuge in Isfahan.

The collapse of the meticulously crafted military apparatus overseen by Reza Shah constituted a humiliating setback. Many military commanders exhibited incompetence or clandestinely sympathized with the British, ultimately undermining Iranian resistance efforts. In a clandestine gathering, army generals convened to deliberate surrender strategies. Upon learning of their actions, the Shah reacted vehemently, subjecting the head of the armed forces, General Ahmad Nakhjavan, to physical assault and stripping him of his rank. The Shah even contemplated executing Nakhjavan on the spot, but intervention by the Crown Prince spared his life, albeit resulting in his incarceration.

To rectify perceived deficiencies within the government, the Shah demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Ali Mansur, whom he held responsible for the demoralization of the military. Mansur was replaced by Mohammad Ali Foroughi, a former prime minister. Subsequently, the Shah issued directives for the Iranian military to cease resistance and enforce a ceasefire, initiating negotiations with both the British and Soviets to salvage what remained of Iran’s sovereignty.

The Persian Corridor emerged as a pivotal conduit for an immense influx of supplies, totaling over 5 million tons of matériel, destined for both the Soviet Union and British forces in the Middle East. Towards the close of August 1942, German intelligence operatives disseminated leaflets in Tabriz and other urban centers, fostering the establishment of an underground fascist entity known as Melnune Iran. Agents affiliated with Melnune Iran incited anti-government demonstrations in the Lake Urmia region, while the Bakhtiari and Qashqai peoples mounted armed resistance against the nascent regime.

On 29 January 1942, the newly installed Shah formalized a Tripartite Treaty Alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union, delineating terms for Allied withdrawal from Iran “not more than six months after the cessation of hostilities.” Subsequently, in September 1943, Iran declared war on Germany, thereby qualifying for membership in the United Nations (UN). At the Tehran Conference held in November of the same year, Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin reaffirmed their commitment to Iranian sovereignty and territorial integrity, expressing readiness to provide economic aid to Iran. The treaty stipulated that Iran was not to be regarded as “occupied” by the Allies but rather as a member of the Allied coalition.

Indians in Iran

Indian troops guarding the Abadan Refinery in Iran, 4 September 1941

The repercussions of the war proved profoundly disruptive for Iran. Significant portions of the state bureaucracy were decimated by the invasion, exacerbating scarcities of essential commodities, including food. The Soviet appropriation of much of the northern Iranian harvest precipitated food shortages among the populace. British and Soviet forces utilized grain delivery as leverage, exacerbating the food crisis amid the logistical demands of foreign troops. Concurrently, British pressure led to the appointment of Ahmad Qavam as prime minister, whose stewardship of the food supply and economy was marred by mismanagement. In 1942, bread riots erupted in Tehran, prompting the declaration of martial law and resulting in casualties among protesters. Inflation soared by 450 percent, inflicting severe hardships on the lower and middle classes, while famine-related fatalities were reported in certain regions. Despite these adversities, armed resistance against the occupation remained scarce.

In 1943, a contingent of 30,000 American personnel bolstered operations along the Persian Corridor, facilitating the transit of 26–34 percent of supplies dispatched to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease Act. Moreover, the United States assuaged Iranian apprehensions of colonial encroachment by affirming respect for Iranian sovereignty, extending Lend-Lease assistance, and initiating military training programs. Arthur Millspaugh assumed the role of Iran’s finance minister but encountered significant opposition in his efforts to manage Iranian finances effectively.

In 1943, two notable German initiatives aimed to undermine Allied operations. Operation Francois, orchestrated by Abwehr in mid-1943, sought to leverage dissident Qashqai factions in Iran to disrupt British and American supply lines to the Soviet Union. Concurrently, Operation Long Jump, an unsuccessful German scheme, targeted the assassination of the “Big Three” Allied leaders—Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt—at the Tehran Conference.

The Withdrawal of British and Soviet Forces

Amidst weeks of intense confrontations, the Soviet-backed separatist People’s Republic of Azerbaijan was established on 12 December 1945, marking a significant development in the region’s political landscape. Concurrently, the Kurdish People’s Republic emerged towards the latter part of 1945. Efforts by Iranian government forces to reinstate control were met with resistance, as Red Army units obstructed their advancement.

As the deadline for withdrawal loomed on 2 March 1946—six months subsequent to the cessation of hostilities—the British commenced their withdrawal from Iranian territory. However, Moscow rebuffed calls for withdrawal, citing purported “threats to Soviet security.” Soviet troops remained entrenched in Iranian territories until May 1946, following Iran’s formal grievance to the newly established United Nations Security Council. Notably, Iran’s complaint marked the inaugural instance of a country lodging a formal grievance with the UN. The episode served as a litmus test for the UN’s efficacy in post-war global governance. Nevertheless, the UN Security Council refrained from directly pressuring the Soviets to withdraw their forces from Iranian soil.

Thus, the invasion of Iran stopped, but neither the British nor the Americans were satisfied. As a matter of fact, they had seen the vast oil fields in Iran and were unwilling to let go of it. They would find themselves back in Iranian politics merely half a decade later when the US-backed CIA and the British would jointly overthrow the Iranian democracy in 1953.

Next, read about the Destruction of Democracy in Iran by the CIA. Then, about the Case of a Woman who Slept for 32 Years!

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Written By

Abin Tom Sebastian, also known as Mr. Morbid in the community, is an avid fan of the paranormal and the dark history of the world. He believes that sharing these stories and histories are essential for the future generations. For god forbid, we have seen that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

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