Resisting the South Persian Rifles

  January 11, 2022   Read time 2 min
Resisting the South Persian Rifles
In the Fars province, the Germans allied with Qashqa’i khans and further south in the “warm” country (garmsir) with tribes of the Persian Gulf region among them the Tangestanis north of Bushehr, and the adjacent partisans from the Dashtestan region.

The chief of Tangestan, Rais-‘Ali Delvari, who put up a stiff resistance, was killed in clashes with IndoBritish forces, and his positions were pounded by British battleships. The German infiltration, and prospects for a combined urban and tribal armed resistance in western and southern Iran, was a legitimate pretext in the eyes of the British authorities for them to undertake, as early as 1915, similar countermeasures. The arrival of Brigadier General Percy Sykes and his British and Indian officers in March 1916, and the creation of the South Persian Rifles (SPR), secured the southern oil fields but also countered, and eventually supplanted, the Iranian gendarme units in the south.

First initiated by Morgan Shuster in 1911 under Swedish officers, the Iranian Gendarmerie had turned into an effective arm of the state in the countryside, replacing the older Qajar rural police. By the time of the war, a number of Iranian officers in the Gendarme ranks openly sympathized with the nationalist cause during the “immigration” and effectively fought against the Russians in Kermanshah. Their Swedish counterparts, though first supervised by British officers, also gravitated to the German side and openly sympathized with the Tangestani and Dashtestani tribal partisans, as they did in the north with the Lur and the Kurdish fighters. They served as a counterforce not only to the SPR but also to the Russian-led Cossack Division, which until 1917 had held strong ties to imperial Russia.

Relying in part on local recruits, the SPR force of up to eleven thousand, under a British officer corps and Indian petty officers, operated throughout the region, stretching from the Baluchistan border with British India to Kerman, Fars, Khuzestan, and Bakhtiyari lands, linking in the southwest with British forces in Basra and across the Mesopotamian front. Control over the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Iranian interiors proved a formidable task even for Sykes, a diplomat, historian of Iran, and experienced colonial officer who traveled widely inside Iran and wrote about it. By the time he took over the new post, he had produced his twovolume History of Persia, the most extensive in the English language, nearly a century after John Malcolm’s and predictably from a colonial British perspective.

By the end of the war, the fate of the SPR had become another complex issue in the already-strained relationship between Britain and Iran. Responding to repeated objections from Tehran, the British authorities, who earlier had given their tacit agreement to hand over command of the force to Iran, made the transfer conditional on implementing the terms of the more comprehensive 1919 agreement. Specifically, the transfer was tied to the creation of a national army under British supervision. It took the coup of 1921 and the rise of Reza Khan for the British authorities to terminate the SPR in favor of a centralized state with a national army.