Iran in the Great War

  December 19, 2021   Read time 4 min
Iran in the Great War
Iran presented a very mixed picture in the year before the First World War. Central authority was still weak, and the Bakhtiari chiefs who dominated the government refused to pursue state- building reforms at the expense of tribal power.

In some regions, despite the eff orts of the Gendarmerie, brigandage and tribal raiding were widespread. Yet in many respects, Iran’s security and political situations were improving. The police actions in southern Iran in 1913 had shown that central authority could reach into the provinces, and much of central Iran and the Russian- dominated north were relatively peaceful. Meanwhile, British and Russian infl uence decreased as their interests in Iran collided. According to U.S. diplomats in Iran at the time, the 1907 Anglo- Russian agreement was becoming a “dead letter.”

Thanks to Shuster’s fi nancial reforms, Iran’s foreign debt had decreased and was becoming more manageable. Also the gendarmes had become an eff ective counter to the sway of the Russian- offi cered Cossacks. More encouragingly, Iran’s democratic institutions were growing. The Iranians were able to overcome British and Russian opposition to hold parliamentary elections in early 1914 and were rewarded with a good turnout aft er successfully handling the registration and voting in Tehran and the provinces. The insecurity, political divisions, and tribal and provincial challenges of the Constitutional Revolution, however, were revived and intensifi ed by the onset of World War I.

The last Qajar ruler, Ahmad Shah, was crowned at the age of seventeen on the eve of war in July 1914. Ahmad Shah was hardly an inspiring monarch, with a still boyish face and his forebears’ taste for personal indulgence that limited his aspirations and desire to stand up to any of the European legations constantly seeking to infl uence him. Popular resentment against the Russians and British was strong because of the Triple Entente (Allied) Powers’ military presence and their highhanded interference in Iranian affairs.

As a result, the Iranian people favored the Germans as a third force to off set British and Russian infl uence. Most Iranians also were sympathetic toward the Muslim Ott omans, who aligned with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria- Hungary. The government chose to remain neutral when war was declared, although ongoing foreign intrusions on Iranian territory ensured that Iran could not avoid the confl ict. At the time, the Russian military already occupied parts of Iranian Azerbaijan, Gilan, Golestan, and Khorasan with more than fourteen thousand troops, including about seven hundred soldiers at Qazvin.

The British had troops in Khuzestan, a cavalry detachment in Shiraz, and a naval presence in Iran’s Persian Gulf ports. Turkish troops, meanwhile, had occupied some of the border districts of northwestern Iran since 1910. Iran announced its policy of strict neutrality in a royal fi rman (decree) on the fi rst day of November 1914, but the Ott omans rejected Iran’s position so long as the Russians refused to remove their troops from eastern Azerbaijan.

The war came to Iran shortly aft er Turkey’s entry into the confl ict in late October. As the highest- ranking Turkish Sunni cleric issued a fatwa (religious ruling) declaring jihad against Russia, Great Britain, and France, an already shaken imperial court in St. Petersburg, reeling from its armies’ defeats in East Prussia and Poland, now faced the prospect of war in the Caucasus and the loss of Black Sea transit routes for essential war supplies from its British and French allies. At the same time, the western allies were anxious to maintain access to Ukrainian grainfi elds, making it essential that Iran be kept out of the Central Powers’ control.

Respected Shia scholars in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf in Ott oman Iraq supported the call to jihad, and some Iranians responded with att acks on British interests and assaults on Iranian opponents of Turkey. Former Tabriz mujahedin, exiled since 1909, entered Iran’s Azerbaijan Province in late November 1914 under the command of Amir Hishmat Nisari to att ack Russian military outposts. In December 1914 the Ott omans launched an off ensive against the Russian stronghold of Kars in Transcaucasia that forced the Russians to call on troops from Iranian Azerbaijan.

Seeing an opportunity, the Turks extended the front south and, with the help of irregular forces provided by Iranian Kurds, captured Tabriz without a fi ght in early January 1915. Turkish defeats in the north, however, were followed by a strong Russian counteroff ensive in Azerbaijan. By the end of the month, Russian forces had reoccupied Tabriz, and the Turks had retired to the western side of Lake Urmia while the Iranian Kurds dispersed back to their mountain strongholds and Hishmat Nisari’s mujahedin returned to Ottoman territory.

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