Persia (now Iran) is little-known as a theatre of the First World War, but events there influenced global politics in the years following the war. Although Persia declared its neutrality in 1914, it was too important strategically for Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Germany to leave it alone and as a British diplomat wrote, ‘Persia, during the war, had been exposed to violations and sufferings not endured by any other neutral country.’ As a bulwark between Europe and India, Britain was determined to control Persia, and Germany sought to undermine this for the same reason.
Furthermore, oil had been discovered in Persia shortly before the war, with the first exports starting in 1912. Britain had decided to replace coal with oil for its navy making for faster, lighter ships but committing Britain to importing fuel rather than relying on home-produced coal. The oil was refined in Abadan, on the border with Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). From the start of the war, it was essential for Britain to retain control of its oil supplies and with the Ottoman Empire able to send more troops to the area after their victory at Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and Persia became a key focus, especially as Germany was able to use the Berlin-Baghdad Railway to supply its Ottoman allies and potentially transport oil to Europe.
As a further aspect of the First World War in Iran, Britain and its ally Russia set about major political changes in the country, effectively partitioning it so that Russia controlled the north and Britain the south.
The British established the South Persia Rifles, made up of locally-raised troops under British officers, to control tribes in the region. With the withdrawal of Russia after the 1917 revolution, Britain also became increasingly active in northern Persia, with a multinational ‘commando’ unit called Dunsterforce operating in the chaotic Caucasus region to frustrate Ottoman forces trying to invade the area.
Persia endured a disastrous famine and associated disease between 1917 and 1919, partly due to the impact of British control of transport and food supplies as it supported its huge army in Mesopotamia.
By 1918 British control of the weakened country was assured, but with it came resentment and opposition from Persian natives, especially as it became clear that Britain’s political involvement was mainly to secure its oil interests through the establishment of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later to become BP. This project has explored the contentious history of Persia in the FWW.
The London-based project was led by the Iranian Association, which represents the social, educational and economic needs of Iranian ex-patriots and exists to help them integrate into British society. Volunteers conducted research into the history of their country, producing a timeline. As part of this research a bibliographical study was also compiled.