By Graham Stewart (THE TIMES, 15/04/06):
IS THE BUSH Administration drawing up plans to invade Iran? Media speculation that this is so has been angrily denied by the White House. But of course invasion plans exist. All that Washington’s hawks need do is dust down those drawn up by the British. After all, that strategy proved remarkably successful.
In mid-1941, British ministers were divided over what to do about Iran. The Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, was uneasy about launching a pre-emptive strike against a neutral country. Even Churchill had some initial doubts but took the precaution of squaring Roosevelt on the issue when the two leaders met to draw up the Atlantic Charter — supposedly guaranteeing the rights of free nations — in August.
London feared the intentions of Reza Shah, Tehran’s autocratic ruler who had Nazi sympathies. Having seized power in the 1920s in a bloodless military coup, he had ordered Persia’s renaming, in 1935, as Iran (meaning Land of the Aryans).
With the Second World War at a critical stage, there were up to 3,000 German “technicians” in Iran seeking to undermine British influence in the Middle East. It was feared they might sabotage the oilfields controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company — upon which the British war effort was heavily dependent.
The issue became critical after the German invasion of Russia. From the Caucasus the Wehrmacht could sweep into Iran and seize the oilfields. Given Turkey’s neutrality and the hazards faced by the Arctic convoys, Iran was the only route through which Britain could easily supply its reeling Russian ally. Biting the bullet, London did a deal with Moscow. With 120,000 troops and 1,000 tanks, the Soviet Union would invade neutral Iran from the north while simultaneously Britain would invade with 19,000 men and 50 tanks from the west, crossing over from British military bases in Iraq.
Facing this onslaught, the 67,000 Iranian troops proved clueless. Their airforce was put out of action by RAF bombing raids. British Indian troops seized the massive Abadan oil refinery in a dawn raid on August 25. Another prong of the attack met equally ineffectual opposition as it sped through the Pai Tak pass to Kermanshah. An advance party raced off to greet the Russians.
Within four days of the invasion commencing, Iranian resistance had crumbled. The British and Indians had lost only 22 men. Reza Shah “abdicated” in favour of his son (the Shah, who was deposed in the 1979 Iranian Revolution) and by late 1942 the beleaguered Russians were supplied with more than 27,000 aircraft and 28,000 tanks via Iran.
The Pentagon should assume Iranian defence is now made of sterner stuff. The lessons of 1941 may be less in the military detail than the nature of its reliance on Russian co-operation. For without Vladimir Putin’s connivance, the options for coercing Tehran remain stark indeed.