Iran and Iraq during the Second World War


An overview of Persian Gulf Command: A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq, published by Yale University Press in May 2018.

Early in the Second World War, men who had fought in the 1914-18 Mesopotamia campaign found themselves, once again, sailing up the Persian Gulf towards Basra and the Shatt al-Arab:

In these desolate and thirsty lands hundreds of thousands of Indian and British troops were destined to live for many months, and some to die. This, once again, was to be a test of British power to survive, to organize and labour, in conditions as disheartening as any the world could offer. Here, when the British Commonwealth faced alone the most destructive power in history, when German guns commanded Dover, when the spreading fires of war increased incessantly the need for men and material, an army was to be born, to remain and grow gigantic, hundreds of miles from any major battle . . . The finest in men and material that the Commonwealth could create or discover, was to be poured out in the vast and empty lands between the Caspian and the Persian Gulf. Was this immense expenditure of labour and living wasted?.

Persian Gulf Command seeks to answer this question, and others relating to the politics of the great powers, the war’s grand strategy, and the impact of conflict on the people of Iran and Iraq. Histories of the war in ‘the Middle East’ – a problematic appellation – focus overwhelmingly on the campaigns in North Africa. As the book explains, however, the ‘proper’ Middle East, located further eastwards, witnessed extensive wartime activity and was a focal point for the ambitions of each of the ‘Big Three’ Allied powers. Furthermore, it might be argued that the focus on the British Empire’s defence of Egypt rather misses the point that its defence was primarily intended to protect what lay behind it – the oil of Iran and Iraq – as well as the vital Suez Canal artery, which itself was prized not just as the ‘Clapham Junction’ of imperial sea communications, but as an artery through which Iranian oil could flow. Britain sought to use the war to round off its historic position in the Iran-Iraq region, as did the Soviet Union, while America entered the region in force for the first time, laying the foundations of its post-war presence. Meanwhile, years of German political, economic, and ideological penetration of Iran and Iraq had cultivated close links. During the war, Berlin aimed to incite anti-Allied nationalists and, through the employment of saboteurs, spies, and military assets, prepare the way for the entry of a victorious Wehrmacht once its enemies had been crushed elsewhere.

Though a theatre of extensive activity, the Iran-Iraq region has not made its way into popular memory of the war and has had minimal impact on the historical record. Reflecting this, Colonel George Heaney, a Survey of India officer sent there to map possible invasion routes, wrote that the ‘Allied Forces in Persia and Iraq were singularly unsuccessful at catching and holding the limelight’. American servicemen dispatched there in their tens of thousands put it more bluntly, referring to themselves as the FBI – the ‘forgotten bastards of Iran’. Despite its minor billing in subsequent histories, at the time the region was considered vital by the British because of its oil. It was ranked second only to the British Isles themselves by Winston Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff during the crucial months of 1941-1942, when the war hung in the balance. Iran attracted the attention of Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin too, because of its potential as a ‘land bridge’ over which military aid could flow from the Anglo-Americans to the Soviet Union.

The war brought numerous conflicts across the region to a dramatic head. Arab nationalists saw an opportunity to rise up and depose their European masters, and Britain and Iraq, erstwhile allies, turned their guns on each other. Iranian and Iraqi elites vied for power within their states, and those states faced uprisings from regional ethno-nationalists wishing to secede. Britain and the Soviet Union prepared for war with each other, before becoming allies and jointly invading Iran; and Allied forces fought their Axis foes, including the Vichy French, through both covert and overt means. For the British, the Iran-Iraq region had to be defended because of its oil, and through the fog of war London descried a new moment in the Middle East, an historic opportunity to flesh out its territorial claims across the great arc from Suez to the headwaters of the Persian Gulf. What transpired was an impressive last hurrah of British imperialism before its precipitate post-war decline.

As well as heralding a new era of Soviet assertiveness, the war brought American political, economic, and military power to the region in an unprecedented manner. Though the arrival of American troops and Lend-Lease largesse indicated the potency of the Grand Alliance, it also meant that American-Soviet competition was grafted onto pre-existing Anglo-Soviet tensions – and that Anglo-American disagreements regarding the region’s future would become manifest. Thus, while the region became a unique arena of Allied cooperation, it simultaneously became a debut stage for the Cold War and a point of contention between competing Anglo-American visions of the post-war world.

In addition to the strategies and military endeavours of these external great powers, the following chapters chronicle the encounter between the people of Iran and Iraq and the American, British, German, Indian, Polish, Nepalese, and Soviet civilians and military personnel deposited there by the tides of global conflict. The sheer weight of Allied activity, and the wider ramifications of a deeply penetrative global conflict, sucked ordinary people into the maelstrom of war, harming their economic wellbeing and transforming the political landscape of their countries. What is more, the war laid down profound markers for the future, including the rise of the Baathist state in Iraq, and the consequences of the wartime deposal of the shah of Iran.

Persian Gulf Command is the story of the travails of state development in Iran and Iraq, of diplomacy, geopolitics, and the age-old contest between imperialism and nationalism. It is a tale of invasions, coups d’état, logistics, covert operations, scorched earth, high politics, and warfighting on land and in the air, set against the backdrop of local societies suffering the familiar blights of world war, including rampant inflation, food shortages, rationing, friction between occupying forces and civilian populations, and the migration of refugees. It is a story that begins with the interwar evolution of the Iranian and Iraqi states, one under the Qajar dynasty, the other under the Hashemite, a process shaped by the proximity of great powers and the presence of oil, and ends with the recolonization of Iraq and intense intra-Allied competition in Iran.

Image via Yalebooks, reproduced with the permission of the author. 


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