We may also reflect upon a conversation which took place between a British statesman and a Persian visitor some time after the peace-settlement which followed the General War of 1914-18. The Persian was saying that he could not understand how the British Government, which he acknowledged to be intrinsically honourable and liberal-minded, had brought itself to pursue in Persia, from A.D. 1907 onwards, a policy which he could only describe as a cynical sacrifice of the rights and welfare of an innocent, friendly, and defenceless country on the altar of the Anglo-Russian entente. The British statesman, who had been largely responsible for the policy and who was of a frank, straightforward disposition, admitted to his visitor that Persia had been deliberately sacrificed; “but”, he added, “the British policy which you criticize was not pursued by us in a cynical frame of mind. In matters of statesmanship, choices are usually limited; and in this case, with only two alternatives before us, we were simply choosing the lesser of two evils: the risk of allowing Russia to destroy the independence of Persia rather than the risk of seeing Russia remain neutral or even take the German side in the then imminent event of a European War. If, seven years later, Germany had started the Great War with Russia as an ally or indeed as a neutral, she would certainly have won the War; and that would not only have been the end of the British Empire. It would have been the end of Civilization. When Civilization was at stake, how could we act otherwise than we did? Put yourself in our place, and answer me with your hand on your heart.”
At this the Persian, who had at first been mildly puzzled and aggrieved, completely lost his temper. His heart burnt within him and a torrent of denunciation issued from his lips: “Your policy was infinitely more wicked than I had suspected! The cynicism of it is beyond imagination! You have the effrontery to look me in the face and tell me complacently that you have deliberately sacrificed the unique treasure which Persia preserves for Humanity – the priceless jewel of Civilization – on the off-chance of saving your worthless Western Society from the catastrophe which its own greed and pugnacity were inevitably bringing upon its head! Put myself in your place, indeed! What should I have cared, and what do I care now, if Europe perish so long as Persia lives!” Therewith, he indignantly took his leave; and the British statesman found himself unable to feel certain that his visitor’s indignation was unjustified or his point of view unreasonable. Was it Europe or Persia that held the seed from which the life of the future was to spring? Perhaps the answer to that question could not, after all, be taken for granted. Perhaps it could only be given by Time and only be read correctly by some historian looking back upon the year 1907 of the Christian Era from a distance of many centuries.
In the nineteenth century, Britain’s policy had been to prop up Turkey as a bulwark against Russia. Now it made plans for the Ottoman Empire’s dismemberment. I’ll write about Greek and Russian relations with Turkey, and with Britain in relation to Turkey, from 1907 to ’23 in another post.
The Russian revolution gave the British a free hand in Persia for three years. Then, in 1920, the Red Army invaded. The British removed them and then withdrew their own forces.
Having beaten Germany and retreated from the Russian Civil War, they continued to interfere with Persia’s internal affairs, as they had done long before 1907. In the nineteenth century, Persia had been a pawn in the Great Game (main phase 1813-1907). Now, whatever its traditional concerns about Russia, Britain had oil interests to defend. Oil had been discovered in Masjed Soleiman in 1908, leading to the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the antecedent of BP.
Britain played a part in the coup of Reza Khan in 1921: he had helped to expel the Red Army. But as commander-in-chief, then prime minister, then Shah (from 1925, when the Qajar dynasty fell), he was anti-British before he was anti-Russian. It was anti-British, not pro-Russian, sentiment which had caused the Persian parliament to accept the 1921 Russo-Persian Treaty. In 1935 he renamed the country Iran.
Britain and Russia invaded Iran in 1941, again partly to forestall Germany.
Britain and the US jointly organised the coup against Mossadegh in 1953. The US had had advisers in Persia before the First World War, but was the Shah’s main prop from 1953 until the revolution of 1979.
A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934