British Intention: Permanent Control of Persia

  July 27, 2021   Read time 6 min
British Intention: Permanent Control of Persia
Southard also describes British occupation and control through various military and police organizations, including the South Persia Rifles, concluding by giving British long-range plans for the control of Persia.

To Southard and American diplomats in Tehran and Mesopotamia, the so-called temporary British occupation and control of Persia was to be permanent: "I have the honor to state that the British control of Persian affairs is being further strengthened by other military measures. Next to the Bagdad-Caspian line, the control of South Persia with the assistance of the South Persia Rifles is the most important. The organization of native police or gendarmerie as initiated with the South Persia Rifles organization is being extended by the British to other parts of the country, and more particularly in central and north-central Persia. In the provinces of Kermanshah and Hamadan the organization of military police composed of Persian Kurds is already well advanced.

The Germans, at the time of the Turkish occupation of this part of Persia in 1916, made serious attempts to organize such a force among the Kurds, but were prevented from completing their work by the return of the Russians and the retirement of the Turks into Mesopotamia. The Kurds themselves seem to have no patriotic objection to serving whatever government may offer them the most suitable financial inducement, and the British have been quite successful after having established an attractive scale of compensation which is as follows: Privates receive fifty krans per month; corporals receive seventy-five krans; and sergeants receive one hundred krans. In addition each man receives six krans per day in lieu of food. The Persian kran at present has an exchange value of about 19 cents in U.S. currency, although the normal value is about $0.0875. The term of enlistment is for one year, and the Persian authorities along the line have apparently been willing to assist the British in rounding up deserters from this native force. The police have been enlisted in the number of several thousands—the exact number is not obtainable—and are drilled by British drill-sergeants.

Those [enlisted men] which I saw did not impress me as having much physical or mental vigor, but they will probably serve well for the constabulary or police duty along the line of communication, which I understand is to be their work. It is presumed that when the British retire from Persia these police will be handed over to the Persian government as an organized and equipped body to be used in place of the gendarmerie organization formerly possessed by that government, but which has become almost completely disorganized since the beginning of the war. Detachments, mostly of Indian troops, as Consular guards at various other places complete in general the organization for the military safe-guarding of British interests in Persia.

In Arabistan and Luristan I understand that detachments of troops have come over from Mesopotamia for station at Maidan-i Naphta [Meydan-e Naftun], Dizful [Dezful], Shuster [Shushtar], Ahwaz [Ahvaz], and other points of strategic importance in watching for and controlling possible disorder among somewhat troublesome tribes in that part of Persia. I understand that the placing of troops in this district is largely upon the necessity of guarding the oil-fields and pipelines of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company from possible attack by Persian tribes presumably in German pay. At Mohammerah, Bushire, and at other points along the Persian Gulf there are understood to be military detachments as well as bases for the gunboats patrolling the coast.

At Yezd, Shiraz, and Kerman, the South Persia Rifles are understood to be in control, although British Consulates and Political Offices at these places have detachments of Indian troops, principally cavalry, as Consular guards. At Meshed in northeastern Persia there were, according to last reports, about five hundred British Indian troops with arrangements made for bringing in considerably greater numbers via the Quetta-Nushki railroad should it seem necessary to move into Russian Turkestan. I understand that this is now actually being done. From the foregoing it may be understood that plans have been carefully and systematically worked out so that all parts of Persia, excepting Azerbaijan province, either are actually occupied by British military forces, or are more or less readily accessible to occupation should circumstances make it necessary. There appear to be three areas: South Persia, which is based upon the Gulf; eastern and northeastern Persia based on Baluchistan; and central and northcentral Persia based upon Bagdad or other points in Mesopotamia.

There is no definite information, so far as I could learn, as to British plans in Persia excepting that the British government is understood to have assured the Persian government that no part of the country will be permanently occupied; but it is evident that with their present organization it would be very easy and perhaps tempting to the British to retain permanent control of parts of southern and southeastern Persia which are so vitally important to their oil interests and to the safe-guarding of India from invasion. Although the British government seems to have been particularly anxious to disclaim any idea of permanently occupying any part of Persia, there seems to be a general feeling and attitude on the part of subordinate military and political officers in Persia that a permanent British control of Persian affairs is necessary to British interests and to Persian economic development in favor of British commercial interests particularly."

Long after the conquest and occupation of Persia, British military and political capabilities were being augmented, thereby confirming suspicions about British intentions in Persia. The American consul in Baghdad sent the following telegram to Washington in August 1918: “Additional political officers from Bagdad continue to come to Persia for stay at various points and British occupation and control seems to be receiving study and definite strengthening. Additional batteries, aeroplanes, and armored cars are coming in, complete hospital units accompany the forces, and large hospital is about to be opened in Hamadan.” By the end of 1918, prospects for Persia escaping from the British grip were bleak. The country had been completely encircled and conquered. To the American chargé d’affaires, Francis White, its very existence was now threatened: Great Britain would appear to favor a strong, independent, friendly Persia. There is no means of knowing what her intentions towards Persia will be, however. Persia’s geographical position vis-à-vis Great Britain has enormously changed since the war. With Mesopotamia in her possession and her activities in the Caucasus, which are already causing speculation and even uneasiness in some quarters, she has in a great measure encircled Persia. Furthermore from Bassra [Basra] as a base she will surely extend her interests up the Karun river at the same time as she expands up the Tigris. Now the history of European expansion in Asia has shown that it has proceeded along two general lines, by encirclement as in the case of Kirghiz steppes by Russia, and by expansion up the great river systems from a base at their mouth as in the case of Calcutta, Kurachee [Karachi], Rangoon, etc. These two conditions are now fulfilled as regards Great Britain’s geographical position in relation to Persia and if Persia does not seize her present opportunity to put her house in order and establish a strong government circumstances which cannot now be foreseen may very easily arise in the future to impel Great Britain to absorb a part at least of Persian territory.

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