All Brits know we have invaded Iraq, yet many tend to think we haven’t invaded Iran. But we have on a number of occasions, something that the average Iranian in contrast to the average Brit probably knows very well.
As with the Gulf States, our early involvement with Iran (Persia, as it was known) is linked to the East India Company’s activities and its desire to protect them. In 1763, the East India Company opened a trading post at Bushehr, a port that was to play a major role in our relations with the country (and still does since the site of Iran’s controversial nuclear reactor is nearby).
After that, the East India Company’s desire to protect its ships from attack at sea led to a number of operations against targets in what is present-day Iran. Thus, for instance, in 1809, after his attack on Ras al-Khaimah in the current-day United Arab Emirates, Captain Wainwright ordered his flotilla to cross the Persian Gulf and attack the town of Bandar Lengeh in present-day Iran. The locals fled and we burned twenty dhows.
Wainwright’s forces then moved on to the Iranian Qeshm Island in the Straits of Hormuz. Here Wainwright landed troops, and with the sloop Fury firing in support the landing party, despite suffering heavy casualties, eventually managed to capture a fort.
In 1856, full-scale war broke out between us and Persia, and a more serious and extensive invasion got under way. This war started over two major issues. First, the Persians had once controlled Herat in Afghanistan and wanted to retake it. After several attempts in 1856, with Russian encouragement, they succeeded. Second, things had been getting rather complicated diplomatically in Tehran. In this, the British Ambassador had been accused of having improper relations with the wife of a man he wanted to appoint as secretary. To make matters even more complex, the wife happened to be a sister of one of the Shah of Persia’s wives. When the Persians arrested the woman, our ambassador demanded she be released and when she wasn’t he broke off relations with Persia. The war was on and Bushehr was our first major target. We landed an army under Major General Stalker at Hallila Bay, 12 miles south of Bushehr, in December 1856, and while that fought its way towards Bushehr, the fleet under Rear Admiral Sir Henry Leeke prepared to attack the town too. There was a potentially problematic incident when ships ran aground due to the tides, but they continued firing while stuck and eventually the combined land and sea attack forced the port to surrender. The Persian flag was cut down and the British colours hoisted.
In 1857, reinforcements arrived in the shape of two divisions from India under the command of General Sir James Outram. In February, he advanced inland from Bushehr and clashed with a Persian force gathered there. After a dramatic cavalry charge of the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry, the Persians were defeated, losing at least 700 killed, compared to only sixteen men killed on our side.
A subsequent operation involved a flotilla of three steamers making its way up the Karun River as far as the Persian, now Iranian, town of Ahvaz. Captain Rennie landed his 300 troops and with, supporting fire from the gunboats, took the town.
Eventually peace was signed. The Persians withdrew from Herat and we withdrew from Persia.
British influence in Persia increased in the late nineteenth century and competition between Britain and Russia for influence over Persia culminated in the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907, which established separate British and Russian spheres of influence in Persia.
During the First World War, our forces were in action in Persia once again. In the south of the country, one Wilhelm Wassmuss, also known as the German Lawrence (of Arabia), tried to rouse local tribes to strike at British interests. But the comparison to Lawrence is a little unfair to Lawrence, since Wasmuss was far less successful. He contributed significantly to Allied operations by losing his German Diplomatic Code Book, which allowed Admiral Hall to read German diplomatic communications for much of the war. In August 1915, we reoccupied Bushehr. Towards the end of the year, Sir Percy Sykes established the South Persia Rifles to protect our interests there, and by December 1916 it had brigades based at Shiraz, Kerman and Bandar-Abbas.
Then in 1918, with Russia after the revolution out of the war against Turkey, British forces advanced into northern Persia and the Caucasus to counter Ottoman advances and Bolshevik influence. At the end of the war, we made sure we were guaranteed access to Persian oil and, for a while, troops under General William Edmund Ironside occupied Northern Persia.
In the Second World War, we invaded again. In 1935, the then Iranian government had asked countries with which it had diplomatic relations to call it Iran instead of Persia, so this time we invaded Iran instead of Persia. Again oil was a vital consideration, as was the desire to transport supplies from the Persian Gulf through Iran to the Soviet Union. There were fears of increasing German influence over Iran and in 1941, in coordination with the Soviets, we invaded. In an echo of the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907, the plan was for the Soviets to take control of northern Persia, while Britain would take control of the south. The invasion began on 25 August 1941, with Abadan, site of a major oil refinery, as a prime target. HMS Shoreham sank the Iranian ship Palang, while Indian troops from Basra crossed the Shatt al Arab and took the town. HMAS Kanimbla landed troops at Bandar-e-Shahpur to take the port and petrol terminal there. Indian troops from Basra then advanced towards Ahvaz, which Captain Rennie had taken in 1857. Meanwhile, further north, General William Slim led British and Indian troops across the Iraq/Iran border to capture the Naft-i-Shah oilfield and then pressed on towards Kermanshah. The Soviets advanced from the north. By the time hostilities ceased, assorted Iranian warships were sunk or badly damaged, their planes had been destroyed and hundreds of Iranian military personnel were dead. In September, British and Soviet forces occupied Tehran and Reza Shah was forced off the throne to be replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Phalavi.
So, over the centuries we have been very busy in Persia/Iran.