World War II Fact: In 1941, Russia and Britain Invaded Iran

By Photo: Cpl Phil Major ABIPP/MOD, OGL v1.0,

World War II Fact: In 1941, Russia and Britain Invaded Iran

The Shah's troops barely could resist.

On the 27th, Soviet heavy bombers began round-the-clock bombardment of the city, while ground forces began grinding down the defenders, who finally surrendered on the 28th.

Far to the East, the Soviet 53rd Army also attacked from Turkmenistan. VVS bombers destroyed Iranian aircraft on the ground at the Mashad Airport, while ground forces destroyed the 8,000-strong 15th Division and seized Mashad itself.

If the surprise factor rendered the Iranian Army’s initial resistance ineffectual, the paralysis and disloyalty of its senior leaders sealed its fate. Many abandoned their troops in the field or failed to organize any resistance, perhaps due to a close relationship with the British or a disbelief that there was any point to resisting.

Though commanders in Ahvaz and Bandar Phalavi did delay the Allied advance, the Iranian military was incapable of supporting them.

The Shah expressed his surprise at the invasion to British officials and futilely tried to bargain them into abandoning the invasion. When the ruler learned that his chief of the armed forces, Gen. Ahmad Nakhjavanhad, was secretly plotting to surrender, he flew into a rage and began beating the general with his riding crop and tearing medals off his chest.

The Shah nearly personally executed the man on the spot before Crown Prince Reza Phalavi calmed him down.

Finally on Aug. 29 the Shah agreed to a ceasefire. The British had lost 22 dead and 42 wounded. The Soviets, 40 dead. Iran’s military and civilian deaths numbered 800.

Reza sacked his British-sympathizing Prime Minister Ali Mansur and replaced him with Mohammad Ali Foroughi. However, Reza had earlier executed Foroughi’s son, which left the former prime minister with something of a grudge.

When dispatched to negotiate with the British, Foroughi hinted that the Iranian people would be happy too see the Shah replaced.

The Allies now demanded that Reza cut diplomatic ties with the Axis powers and hand over all German citizens into their custody. However, the Shah so resented the Allies that he stalled negotiations while he secretly organized the evacuation of the Germans across the Turkish border.

This caused the Soviets to resume advancing on Tehran on Sept. 16.

Meanwhile, nationalists in the Iranian air force mutinied. On the 16th, two renegade Fury fighters took off to attack a flight of five Soviet I-16s, which shot down one of the Furies over the Caspian Sea. The other crashed, out of fuel.

As Soviet troops entered Tehran, Foroughi convinced the Shah to formally abdicate—and then engineered the accession of Reza Pahlavi to take his place. Pahlavi cooperated closely with the Allied occupation and ended relations with the Axis.

The Allies promised they would withdraw their troops six months after the conclusion of the war with Germany. Iran became a major logistical hub that channeled nearly a third of the vital military aid the Western Allies transferred to the Soviet Union.

The United States also built up a major presence, even supplying Lend-Lease equipment to Tehran to rebuild its military.

Most famously, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at the Tehran Conference late in 1943 to discuss plans for the Allied landing in France and the post-war political division of the planet. As for Reza Shah, he died in exile in South Africa in 1944.

Despite Iran’s newly cooperative stance, the British and Soviets commandeered much of Iran’s grain supplies for their own troops, causing hyperinflation and some starvation. German agents attempted to organize an anti-British insurgency among Iranian ethnic minorities, but were swiftly caught.

Soviet historians also allege that Nazi spies parachuted into Iran to assassinate the Allied leaders at the Tehran conference.

However, Moscow reneged on the promised withdrawal after Hitler’s defeat, and even built up two short-lived separatist republics on Iran’s border. It finally withdrew in May 1946 after Iran filed the first complaint in the history of the United Nations.

None of the parties to the 1941 invasion of Iran come out looking very good. The Allied invaded a neutral country to secure vital oil fields and supply lines. Reza Shah badly miscalculated his political and military leverage.

The Iranian army’s humiliating collapse in 1941 left Reza Pahlavi only more determined to build up Iranian military power after World War II—even while he continued his father’s repressive policies.

Ironically, that repression would be the undoing of Reza Pahlavi’s reign, while the army he built proved instrumental in defending the Islamic Republic from Iraqi invasion.

This article by War is Boring originally appeared at War is Boring in 2018.

Image: Wikimedia