World War II Country Trends: Iran

Figure 1.--This World War II photograph taken in Iran shows a British or American MP and an American jeep. An inscription on the bavk reads, "Little Charlie Cain, Valvo and another fellow with a jeep." I'm not sure who the little boy is. The photograph was taken near Camp Amirabad near Tehran.

Reza Shah's Government declared Iran neutral with the outbreak of World War II in Europe. The British suspected that the Shah was sympathetic with the NAZIs who were active diplomatically in Iran. The Iranians rejected British demands to expel Axis agents. After the NAZI invasion of the Soviet Union it became vital to open supply lines to the Soviets. The British and Soviets thus launched a coordinated invasion (August 26, 1941). The Soviets invaded from the north. The British from Iraq where they had defeated a pro-Axis rebellion and by troops landed along te Persian Gulf. There was only limitedd resistance. Reza Shah abdicated (September 16). His son ascended the throne as Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. At the time of the War, Iran had just begun to develop its petroleum indutry. It did not play an important factor in the War. Britain fought the War largely with American oil, although the 8th Army fought the War in the Western Desert largely with Iraqi oil. Iran's importance in the War was largely as a conduit for American Lend Lease shipments to the Soviets. Iran in fact became the major conduit for American Lend Lease aid to the Soviets. 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.

Historical Background

The Qajar Dynasty ruled in Iran (1795-1925). A Constitutional Revolution occurred in Iran just before World War I (1906-09). Iranian reformers sought to curb the arbitary power of Shah Muzaffar ad Din and install a modern elected parliament. The first Majlis was elected (1906). Iran at the time was not a state with a population willing to operate undermocracy and the ballot box. The result was disorders in the provinces. Some of the population was nomadic with very traditional outlook. Many were unwilling to support the new government. In prt because of the growing instability, Britain and Russia sign the Anglo-Russian Agreement (1907). This divided Iran into spheres of influence. The Russians achieved exclusive right to the north along the Cauususes. The British claimed the south along the Persian Gulf nd the east along British India. The treaty detailed a neutral sphere in central Persia which was open to both signatories. Mohammad Ali Shah sought to restablish royal power (1908). A brigade loyal to the shah with Russian officers fired on the Majlis. The Brirish discovered important oil fields in Iran (1908). The British formed the Anglo-Persian Oil Company company (APOC--modern British Petroleum) to develop the resource. Military units loyal to the new constitution match on Tehran and depose the shah. Mohammad Ali Shah was forced into exile in Russia. Disputes develop between the constitutional government and the Russians over taxing rights. The Russians object to the government collecting takes in its sphere and Russian trops stationed in Persia move on Teheran. Eventually the Majlis accepts the Russian demands, but then is again closed (1911). The new Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) begins to build an oil refinery at Abadan Island in the Persian Gulf. The political situation in Persia is further complicated by the War and foreign intervention. The urban middle classes and intelligentsia with the failure of democracy were more willing to accept a strong-man ruler. This was to create an opportunity for Reza Shah.

World War I (1914-18)

When World War I breaks out in Euope (August 1914), Persia declared its neutrality, but the presence of Russian, Turkish and British troops as swell as the importance of the newly discovered oil resources makes this in practice impossible. The Royal Navy signs a long-term contract with the APOC to supply fuel oil for the fleet. The British Government purchases a majority of the company's stock. Persia bordered on the Ottoman Empire which had held Mesopotamia since 1534. The Britain needed the oil for its fleet. The most modern dreadnoughts had been converted from coal furnaces to clearn burning oil. The British after the Ottomans entered the War launched an offensive and took Basra (Mesopotamia/Iraq) with its oil wells (November 1914). The British also occupied the terminus of the oil pipeline and the refineries situated on Abadan Island (Persia) in the Shatt El Arab. This was the border between Ottoman Mesopotamia and Persia. Accross the border the British and Ottomons fought over Mesopotamia. Some Persian soldiers fought with the Ottomans. A Ottoman diversionary force crossed the Tigris (April 1915) as a threat to pro-British Persia, especially the refinery at Ahvaz. The British suffered a major defeat at El Kut in Mesopotamia (Iraq). The British Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force regrouped and launched another attack. They crossed the Tigris and captured Kut-el-Amara (December 1916). The British reached Baghdad (March 1917). Turkish offensives drove toward Baku in the Caususes supported by the Germans to tghe north. The Ottomons also moved into northeaster Iran (autumn 1918). The British respomded with small mobile forces (Dunsteforce expedition). Ottomon military power is broken, however by a British drive from Bagdad toward Mosul and the British Arab drive toward Jeurusalem and Damascus and then as far noth as Alepo.

Inter-War Era

With the Bolshevick Revolution, Russia is no longer an important player in Persia. Britain attempted to establish a kind of protectorate under the terms of the Anglo-Persian Agreement. Iranian nationalists object. Iranian Prime Minister Vosuq od-Dowleh supports the agreement because the Majlis refuses to approve it. Vosuq od-Dowleh is forced out of office. Moshir al-Doleh replaces him. The elected government is again overthrown in a British-instigated military coup. Reza Khan leading a force of Persian Cossacks seize control (1921). Reza Khan becomes prime ministership. Reza Khan formally deposed the royal Qajar Dynasty (1925). He then has himself crowned shah (1926) founding the Pahlavi Dynasty. Reza Khan was an authoritarian ruler who sharply limited party politics and imposed severe press censorship. He launched an ambitious development program which over the space of about two decaded trans formed Iran from a nearly medieval country to a prosperous, rapidly developing country. For this transformation, foreifn technical advisers wre needed. Iran's primary foreign relations were with Russia/Soiviet Union and the British Empire. Commercial relations with Russia deteriorated somewhat after the Russian Reviolution. Reza Shah to counterbalance British and Soviet influence, promoted commercial contacts wih the Germans and by the outbreak of World War II, NAZI Germany was Iran's primary trding partner. As a result, there were about 1,000 German nationals in Iran. Some were actual technicians. An unknown number were NAZI agents. And there was a level of ideological sympathy with the NAZIs. The NAZI offered to help build a steel mill in Iran. Britain was the dominant imperial power in the region. And the NAZIs provided a way of destroying British power. In addition, the Shah had a rasist mind set. He changed the name of the country from Persia to Iran to emphasize the country's Aryan origins.

Neutrality (1939)

Reza Shah's Government declared Iran neutral with the outbreak of World War II in Europe (September 1939). The British demanded thsat Iran remove German nationals from Iran, concerned that they might be NAZI spies or sabatoge the British-owned oil industry. The Shah refused, insisted that the Germans had nothing to do with the Nazis. They were also important to his ambitious development program. We do not know of any study which documents the works of NAZI agents in Iran. We do know that the Shah gave refuge to the Grand Mufti who was actively working against the British and foir the NAZIs. The British naval blockade cut off Iran's important trade with German suppliers. Unknown at the time to the Iranians, secret provisions of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pacr placed Iran into the Soviet zone of control. Iranian officials attempted to set up new Iranian-German supply lines through Soviet rail lines. Some trande commenced (late September). But both war priorities and the limits of the rail system limited actual commerce. The Iranians attempted to nehotiate a treaty with the Soviets. The Soviets attached demands that meant involvement in Iraniasn domestic policies such as the release of Iranian communists. Most of the Tudeh (Iranian Communist Party) had been arrested. The Sovies also wantedf exclusive use of Iranian oil. Soviet aggressions as a NAZI ally (Poland, Finland, the Baltics, and Romsnia) caused the Iranians to reconsider their policy toward the British. The Soviets moved forces into the Baku region which bordered on northwest Iran (March 1940).

NAZI-Soviet Cooperation (1939-41)

The NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939) not only gave Hitler the ability to launch World War II, but it also involved the partioning of Central and Eastern Europe among the two dictatorships. This was so extensive that further meetings were required to iron out the details. The Molotov-Hitler agreement (November 26, 1940) addressed the Soviet demand that "the area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf is recognized as the center of the aspirations of the Soviet Union." This of course meant Iran. Interestingly at a time when there was considerable support for the NAZIs in Iran, the same NAZIs were colluding with the Soviet Union in effect to develop a new colonial empire in the Middle East.

The Holocaust

Current Iranian officials claim that their country was not involved in the Holcaust and now are involved in an effort to prove that the Holocaust necer occurred. Like much that comes out of Teheran, there is often some accurate statements mixed in with outlandish lies and convuluted reasoning. It is true that Iran was not involved in the Holocaust, but left unsaid is that this is because the Allies deposed the pro-NAZI Government at the beginning of the War. Persia which the country was called when Hitler seized power in Germany, developed links with the new NAZI regime. The basic factor here was the anti-British attitude of the Persian Government. Reza Shah Pahlavi proved to be an earlier admirwe of Adolf Hitler anbd the NAZIs. The NAZIs were seen as a powerful rival to British colonialism. As in the Arab world, the Shah and other Persian leaders do not seem to have considered what would have happened to their county in a NAZI-dominated world. The Shah was also attracted to the NAZI concept of a master race to which he included Persians. This was why the Shah renamed his country Iran, which in Farsi means Aryan. This was a pointed linage to the Proto-Indo-European lineage that NAZI racial theorists and Persian ethnologists concocted. Persia admitted Gestapo agents and other German operatives who operated openly in Tehran. The NAZIs saw Persia as a potentially useful base to cause trouble for the British as well as to pursue their campaign against Jews. The most notable NAZI agent was Fritz Grobba, Germany's primary spokesman in the Middle East. He is sometimes referred to the "German Lawrence" because he proposed a new Caliphate state stretching from Casablanca to Tehran.

Iraq (1940-41)

A new Government led by Rashid Ali took power in neighboring Iraq (March 1940). Ali was backed by the pro-Axis Golden Square. The fall of France (June 1940) dramatically changed the military ballance in the Mediterranean and thus the Middle East. Ali initiated various intrigues against Britain. British military successes in the Western Desert caused Ali to resign. The next primeminister acted to breakup the e Golden Square. A military coup placed Ali back in power (April 3, 1941). At the same time, spectacular German successes in Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete convinced the Iraqi nationalists that the Germans would quickly defeat the British. Ali tore up the 1930 Treaty and struck at the British air base at Habbaniya. The French Vichy authorities controlling Syria assisted Ali by allowing the German and Italians to deliver some assistance. General Wavell, the British Middle East commander was hard pressed at the time. He had to contend with Rommel in the Wester Dessert and the disaterous intervention in Greece. He was reluctant to commit forces to Iraw, but Churchill insisted. An Indian division struck from the south landing at Basara. The Habforce (a British brigade and the Arab Legion) struck west from Jordan.

Barbarossa (June 1941)

Stalin cooperated with Hitler in the early phase of the War, supplying large quantities of strategic materials. He also engaged in a series of aggressions against neighboiring countries. Iran was one of the possible Soviet victories. Reza Shal's policy of playing the Soviets off the British collaosed with when the the NAZIs launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941). Hitler's invasion made the Doviets and British allies. Iran was a backwater of the War, of little strategic importance except that it was located close to Iraqi oil fields. This changed with Barbarossa. A key to the Allied victory over NAZI Germany was to keep the Soviets in the War. The Soviets appealed for war material whch was urgently needed as the Wehrmacht swept over the western Soviet Union. Iran instantly changed from being a backwater to a country of immense strategic importance. Iran was a possible route for the shipments of war supplies to the Siviets. And as a result, both countries turned their attention to Iran.

British-Soviet Intervention (August 1941)

The Shah's central foreign policy of playing the Soviet Union off against the British worked for a while, especially when the Soviets and Germans as a result of the NAZI-Soviet Nom-Aggression Pact )August 1939) became Worls War II allies. This changed abruptly after the NAZIs invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941). With the Soviets and British Allies, Reza Shah's neutral regime with pro-Axis leanings was isolated. Even with huge German advances in the Soviet Union and the Afrika Korps success in the Western Desert, Iran was exposed and had no way of receiving NAZI assistance. And also because of geography, Iran became critical to the Allied war effort. Getting war supplies to the beagered Red Army became a high priority for not only the Soviets and British, but the Americans as well who passed the Lend Lease program even before entering the War. The British had only limited aud to offer the the Soviets. The United States on the otyher hand was mobilizing its vast economy for war and massive shipments were being organized. The most direct route to the Soviet Union for both th British and the Americans was the Arctic convoys, but the Germans throuh U-boats, surface ships, and Norwegian air bases made that the deadliest run in the entire war. Shipping through Iran was longer and tgus required more shipping per ton of supplies delivered. It was, however, much safer. And one of Reza Shah's development projects, the new Trans-Iranian Railroad, provided the means of getting war supplies to the Soviet Union. It connected Persian Gulf ports to the Soiviet border. Shipping war supplies through Iran, however, would violate Iranian neutrality and Reza Shah refused to grant permission. This proved to be his undoing. The British issued another demand that Reza Shah expel German technicians. When he refused, this time they acted. The British and Soviets launched a coordinated intervention (August 26, 1941). The Soviets invaded from the north. The British from Iraq where they had defeated a pro-Axis rebellion and by troops landed along the Persian Gulf. There was only limited Iranian resistance. The Soviets and British quickly took control of Iran's communications and coveted railroad.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (September 1941)

Reza Shah concluded that the Allies would not permit his continued reign. He abdicated (September 16). His son ascended the throne as Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The British took Reza Shah and several close family members to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Subsequently they were transported to Johannesburg, South Africa. Reza Shah died there (July 1944).

Iranian Oil

At the time of the War, Iran had just begun to develop its petroleum indutry. In addition, after the entry of Italy into the War and the fall of France (June 1940), the Axis effectively closed the Meditteranean to British merchant vessels and tankers. Iranian oil would have to be shipped around the Cape of Good Hope, increasing the cost and tanker force needed to move it. Thus Iranian oil did not play an important factor in the War. [Schmeider, pp. 32-33.] Britain fought the War largely with American oil, although the 8th Army fought the War in the Western Desert largely with Iraqi oil.

Tripartite Treaty of Alliance (January 1942)

Iran before Lend Lease supplies began moving through the country in quantity signed a tripartite treaty of alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union. Iran agreed to provide non-military assistance to the Allied war effort. This primarily involved support to move Lend Lease supplies to the Soviets. Britain and the Soviets for their part committed to respect Iran's independence and territorial integrity. They also pledged to withdraw their troops from Iran within 6 months aftter the end of the War.

Lend Lease

Iran's importance in the War was largely as a conduit for American Lend Lease shipments to the Soviets. Iran was the third route opened to the Soviets. This route was opened when the British and Soviets moved into Iran in a coordinated action (August 1941). but it eventually became the most important. The route was imperiled by u-boats and the Japanese Fleet during early 1942. The route was fairly secure by mid-1942. The problems experienced on the other two routes caused the Allies to take great interest in the this route. The problem was the distance involved and the limited Iranian infrastruture. Distance meant that shipments took more time to deliver which meant more shipping was needed per unitv delivered. On the other hnd, losses were lower. This route involved a long trip around the Cape of Good Hope and then overland through Iran. This route was limited because the length of the voyage tied up shipping and the Iranian port and transportation infrastructure was limited. In addition during much of 1942 the Indian Ocean was threatened by the Japanese Navy. Another serious constraint was the port facilities in Iran and the country's limited railroad network. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers played a major role in expanding the capacity of the ports and railway system. Even after the long trip around the Caspe of Good Hope, the Iranian route (referred to as the Persian corridor) was still further fron the fronr than the northern route. It was, however, closer to the front than deliveries at Vladisvostock. Thus as the War progressed, this route became more and more important. Iran became the major conduit for American Lend Lease aid to the Soviets. 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 th mobility of the Red Army.

Poles (1942-43)

The Soviet Union when it invaded Poland (September 1939) interned large numbers of Ploish POWS. Stalin ordered many officers shot. The POWs were held under terrible coinditions. Stalin also iordered large number of Poles deported from what had been eastern Poland. This included many entire families. After the NAZI invasion (June 1941), the Polish POWs were given the choice to fight with the Red Army or to join with the the Polish Goernment in Exile and fight with the Western Allies. These men were transported from POW camps to Iran where they crossed with Lend Lease supplies flowing to the Red Army. Along with the POWs were large numbers of the Polish civilians that Stalin had deported. This included many displaced children.

Declaration of War (September 1943)

Iran declared war on Germany (September 1943). By this time, Italy had surrendered and it was clear that Germany was losing the War. The declaration of War gained Iran membership in the United Nations.

Tehran Conference (November 1943)

One of the major Allied War-time conferences were held in Iran. It was attended by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Prime Minister Josef Stalin. It was the only time that Stalin ever left the Siviet Union. By this time in the War, it was clear that the NAZIs had lost the War. Britain and America had not yet, however, launched the cross-0Channel invasion. And the Germans still had a massive militaty and occupied much of western and central Europe. It was unclear how long it woyld take to defeat the NAZIs and at what cost. Along with stating their continued commitment to defeat NAZI Germany, the Allies reaffirmed their 1942 commitment under thge Tripartate Treaty to Iran's independence and territorial integrity. The Allies also offered Iran economic assistance.

Impact of the War

Iran at the time of the War was still a very traditional society, little touched by the outside world. It was the War in fact that provided Iran's first major contact with the modern world. For most Iranians it was unsetteling. Some Iranians with contracts from the Allies fared well, but many Iranians suffered from spiraling inflation and shortages of food and other items. An active black market developed. Foreign troops made an impression on Iranians. Some were drawn to modernity. Others reacted with xenophobic and nationalism. Migration to the cities increased, causing a range of social problems. The Majlis made little effort to address the social problems, in part the propertied interests which dominated generally benefitted from the Allied intervention. The new Government which followed Reza Shah relaxed press censorship and accepted open and vocal political party politics. Among the parties which could operate mpre freely was the Tudeh (Communist) Party and from the beginning was subservient to the Soviet Union. The Tudeh actively organized industrial workers. Many of the new partices demanded far reaching economic and social reforms.

British and American Withdrawl

A wartime treaty providing for the presence of American, British and Soviet troops in Iran expired January 1946. The deadline for departure was 6 months after the end of the War. The clock began ticking when the Japanese foirmally surrendered (September 1, 1945). The British and small American contingent wihdrew, but the Soviets refused citing "threats to Soviet security."

Soviet Occupation

The Tudeh was able to operate freely in north-western Iran--the area ocuupied by the Soviets. American companies negotiating for oil concessions (1944). The Soviets demanded an oil concession in the five northern provinces (September 1944). The Majlis passed a law forbidding the government to discuss oil concessions before the end of the war (December 1944). The Soviets responded with propaganda attacks on the government and used the Tudeh to agitate for a Soviet oil concession. The Azarbaijan Democratic Party which was essentially an offshoot of the Tudeh and also controlled by Moscow announced the establishment of an autonomous republic in northwestern Iran. This ‘autonomous’ republic (and the neighbouring Kordestan (Kurdish Republic of Mahabad)) was backed by the DSoviets. Soviet troops remained in Khorasan, Gorgan, Mazandaran, and Gilan even after the German surrender ending the War in Europe. And they prevented Iranian government forces from moving north into Azarbaijan and Kordestan to restablish Iranian control. The Soviet occupation and efforts to dismember Iran continued after British and American troops evacuated Iran as required by their treaty commitments. But this left the Sovies in northwestrn Iran. And the Siviets refused to announce a timetable to leave East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan. The Soviets with their autonomy movements showed every indication of remaining. As noted earlier, the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact place Iran in the Soviuet spohere of influence. International pressure applied through America, Britain, and the United Nations) finally convinced the Soviets to leave (May 1946). The Iraniamn government ptomised san oil concession to get them to leave. The Iranians quickly overthrew the Soviet-backed republics. A tribal revolt flared in the south protesting Communist influence. The Shah used this opportunity to dismiss Tudeh cabinet officers and revoke the oil concessions given the Soviets.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who doesn't dare stand in an open election and denies the Holocaust has come up with a new idea, that Britain and Russia should compensate Iran for the World War II occupation of "neutral" Iran. Ahmadinejad maintains thsat Iran suffered immensely after it was invaded by Britain and the Soviet Union. He announced on state television that "A team has been assigned to calculate all the damages in the Second World War. This will be an invoice they [Allied powers] must pay to the Iranian nation (Janusary 9, 2010). course the very statement of the issue is a half-truth. Iran in 1941 had not declared war on Brirain and the Soviet Union. The Shah and much of the military were pro-NAZI. It is unclear just how penetratedthe Iranian government was. but it is clear there was more than just anti-British feeling. The Shah gave refuge to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who was actively promoting Iranian support for the NAZIs. The British and the Soviet Union after the Shah repeatedly refused to expel German nationals intervened. The questions of reparatiojs is an interesting one. Of course President Ahmadinejad only wants to look at one side of the ledger. There are two aspects that Ahmadinejad does not want vto address. First is all the infrastructure the Allies were responsible. Iran became a major conduit for Lend Lease aid to the Soviet Union. And not only did Iran receive some Lend Lease aid, but the United States financed a major upgrade of Iranian infrastructure (ports, roads, and railways). This was done to accomodate the transportation of the American war material to the Soviets, but Iran was thus a beneficiary because it ended the War with a modern infrastructure. And the British and American personnel in Iran provided a stimulus to the Iranian economy. Second, Ahmadinejad is oblivious to what it meant for Iran that the Amerucans and British prevented both a NAZI or a permanent Soviet occupation. To see wehast that would have meant there are plenty of examples. One can look at what happened in Romania, another oil rich country, during the War. The NAZIs simply seized any resources useful to them. Of course there behavior in other countries like Poland and Yugoslavia was much worse. Or you can look at what the Italians did in Libya. Amd there arevmany examples of Soviet conduct in Muslim areas such as the various countries of Central Asia.


Schmider, Klaus. "The Mediterranean in 1940-41: Crossroads of Lost Opportunities?" War and Society Vol. 15, No. 2, (October 1997).


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Created: 2:34 AM 3/28/2006
Last updated: 5:19 AM 8/28/2010