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Persia in the Great War

Iran hoped to avoid entanglement in the Great War by declaring its neutrality, but ended up as a battleground for Russian, Turkish, and British troops. When German agents tried to arouse the southern tribes against the British, Britain created an armed force, the South Persia Rifles, to protect its interests. Then a group of Iranian notables led by Nezam os Saltaneh Mafi, hoping to escape Anglo-Russian dominance and sympathetic to the German war effort, left Tehran, first for Qom and then for Kermanshah (renamed Bakhtaran after the fall of Mohammad Reza Shah in 1979), where they established a provisional government. The provisional government lasted for the duration of the war but failed to capture much support.

Although Turkey was suspected by the Allies almost from the commencement of the Great War in August, she did not commit the provocative acts, including the bombardment of Odessa, until the end of October. During the intervening period of three months, and particularly towards the latter part of it, Austro-German pressure on the Russian front in Europe necessitated a withdrawal of some portion of the Russian troops normally stationed on the Turkish frontier and in Caucasia, and known as the "Army of the Caucasus." This force, which was under the immediate control of the Governor-General of the Caucasus, was intended to be, and generally was, kept independent of the Russian main armies and separate from them, and in ordinary times was credited with 180,000 effectives, comprised in three army corps, various brigades of rifles, several divisions of cavalry, and numerous bands of Cossacks. The southern boundary of Caucasia marches with both Turkish and Persian territory, and the activities of this army were not confined entirely to the viceroyalty, for it also supplied the body of soldiers that Russia maintained in the northern part of Persia, which under the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 is recognized as the "Russian Sphere."

In the last year before the war, the number of these soldiers was estimated at 3,000, distributed in detachments throughout northern Persia, notably at Teheran, its capital, and in the province of Azerbaijan at Tabriz, its second city. Detailed, at all events nominally, for the preservation of order and the protection of Russian interests in that long-distracted country, and too inconsiderable to be designated an army of occupation, they yet constituted in a very real sense the advance-guard of the Russian Empire in that quarter of the globe.

The Caucasus mountain region divides Europe and Asia to the eastward of the Black Sea. Its summits are among the highest peaks in the world, including Mt. Ararat of Biblical fame, which is over 21,000 feet high. Here occurred much of the hard fighting of the preceding Russo-Turkish war of 1878, which made famous the Caucasus fortresses of Kars and Erivan. And here in December of 1914, not far from Kars, the chief Russian stronghold, there gradually developed a bitter battle, which reached its climax of Russian victory at Sarikamish on January 4, 1915. Hence the new year was ushered in by an Allied triumph.

Northern Armenia was soon afterward occupied by the Russians, and also northern Persia, with its capital Tabriz. The Turks had previously seized northern Persia; and as they retreated the advancing Russians snatched it in their turn. The Persians were helpless between the two. The Russians had previously "policed" this part of Persia; now they gradually spread over it as conquerors. The Turks fell back unwillingly to their own domains along the Euphrates River valley. Here they were later to fight Britons as well as Russians.

After the Russians withdrew from Persia according to the orders of the Soviet Government in 1917, the British at once occupied Enzeli as well as the Azerbaijan Republic, with the Baku oil field. The British took Batum and finally became masters of the whole Caucasus, which became a base for intervention. England still obstinately tried to establish herself in the neighborhood of the richest oil fields in the world, in order to retake them at the first favorable opportunity.

Being forced to leave the Caucasus, the English remained in Northern Persia, while deserted and ruined Armenia was generously offered to the protection of the United States. This proximity of the imperialistic-capitalist coalition alarmed the Soviet Government, which understood that England was trying to annex Persia and transform it into a militaristic state, an undesirable and dangerous neighbor for the Proletarian Republic of Russia. It was well known in Moscow that the British War Office had prepared a plan for the transportation of Indian troops to Batum and that considerable forces were fully prepared to start for North-Western Persia from Mesopotamia, as well as from Southern Persia which is practically under British rule.

The Russian attack on Enzeli was accomplished just on the eve of realization of this new English plot and was a most important preventive movement of Russian strategy. According to the New York Globe of May 26, the "Bolshevik forces continue to pour into Persia and have occupied Resht, from which the British troops have retired toward Teheran." The capture of Resht by the Reds is of great significance. It is a large silk and cotton center which was for a long time in the closest connection with the Russian market.

At the end of the war, because of Russia's preoccupation with its own revolution, Britain was the dominant influence in Tehran. The foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, proposed an agreement under which Britain would provide Iran with a loan and with advisers to the army and virtually every government department. The Iranian prime minister, Vosuq od-Dowleh, and two members of his cabinet who had received a large financial inducement from the British, supported the agreement. The Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 was widely viewed as establishing a British protectorate over Iran. However, it aroused considerable opposition, and the Majlis refused to approve it.

The agreement was already dead when, in February 1921, Persian Cossacks Brigade officer Reza Khan, in collaboration with prominent journalist Sayyid Zia ad Din Tabatabai, marched into Tehran and seized power, inaugurating a new phase in Iran's modern history. Reza Khan became commander of the armed forces in the new government. Reza Khan, however, quickly emerged as the dominant figure. Within three months, Tabatabai was forced out of the government and into exile. Reza Khan became minister of war. In 1923 Ahmad Shah agreed to appoint Reza Khan prime minister and to leave for Europe. The Qajar shah was never to return.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:34 ZULU