Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
THE alleged reason for the Russian and British invasion of Iran last August was the refusal of the Iranian Government to expel an unknown number of Germans who, it was feared, were paving the way for a German coup d'état. A second purpose, stressed in the press and alluded to by Winston Churchill in his speech of September 9, 1941, was to open a road for the transport of war supplies to Soviet Russia. Back of both reasons was doubtless a British desire to strengthen the defenses of India against eventual German attack.
No official statement has yet revealed the exact number of persons who were interned after the Russian and British occupation as dangerous to the Allied cause. Reports spoke of 700 Germans being in Teheran alone, and there probably was a somewhat smaller number than that outside the capital. Groups totalling more than 400 have been, in fact, evacuated via Turkey. It is doubtful if more than a thousand men capable of bearing arms were actually interned, though it is true that most of these had held important industrial and technical positions.
Shah Riza Pahlevi always was fearful for his throne, and for the past fifteen years he kept over 60,000 troops -- half of the total army of Iran -- camped around Teheran. This half, moreover, possessed practically all of the army's effective equipment, including all its airplanes, heavy artillery and armored cars (about 20 in number). Only skirmishing forces were left on the borders, which largely accounts for the poor showing made by the Irani army when in August the British suddenly entered the country from the south and west and the Russians from the north. Probably a desire to intern German agents was less of a factor with the British and Russians than the need to counteract the strong pro-German feeling prevailing at the Court and among many leading Iranians. In this respect the situation in Iran was similar to that which had prevailed a few months earlier in 'Iraq, when a pro-British government was overthrown by the pro-German politician, Rashed Ali al Gailani, thereby forcing the British to undertake a counterstroke.
A strong hope was expressed at the time of the invasion that Iran might provide another "Burma Road" by which supplies could be shipped to Russia to compensate for the heavy Soviet losses incurred in the retreat from the Ukraine. Actually, there are three routes which might possibly be used for this purpose. One is the road leading north from Zahidan, through eastern Iran, near the Afghanistan border, to Meshed, and thence into Russian Turkestan. Zahidan (Duzdab) is the terminus of the Baluchistan railway running north and west via Quetta from Karachi, a first-class port on the Indian Ocean. The second route is the Trans-Iranian Railway, from Bandar Shahpur, on the Persian Gulf, to Bandar Shah, on the Caspian Sea. The third route is the narrowgauge railway from Basra, on the Persian Gulf, to Baghdad, and the standardgauge line thence to Khanikin, Kirkuk and Erbil. From near the latter place a road leads over the Rowanduz Pass into western Iran, and thence northward to strike the Russian wide-gauge railway at Tabriz. Each of these three routes has great limitations and presents enormous difficulties for through transport.
Much of the road running northward along the eastern border from Zahidan, especially in the district of Seistan, passes through country which is practically without water and is almost uninhabited.[i] The roadbed would need constant repairs, for which almost no facilities at present exist. Thousands of trucks would have to be imported and many repair and fuel stations organized before this road could be of any considerable value. Provided this were done, trucks might continue north from Meshed into Russian Turkestan and at some convenient point their loads could be transshipped and placed on the single-track
railway that ends at Krasnovodsk, on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, opposite Baku. At Krasnovodsk the shipments would again have to be reloaded on steamers for Bakuor Astrakhan, at the mouth of the Volga. The shipping on the Caspian Sea available for this service is in very poor shape. There are not more than five steamers of 2,000 tons or over, and all of them were built before the last war. Some 50 small tramp steamers ply the coastal waters, but they are so slow and have such small capacity that they would be incapable of handling heavy war equipment. At Baku, moreover, both piers and ships would be exposed to heavy enemy bombing. All in all, it would take six months of hard work to arrange for even a meager 500 tons per day to be delivered to Russia by this route, and it could never become a major artery.
The standard-gauge, single-tracked Trans-Iranian Railway, completed in 1939, is a marvel of engineering skill. On its 870-mile course it passes through terrain as rough as our Rocky Mountains -- or even rougher. In all, there are 224 tunnels and 4, 102 bridges. At both ends the grades are very steep. After leaving Bandar Shahpur, the southern terminus, the line crosses a coastal plain and then reaches the Kotals -- a series of rising ranges, rank upon rank. It tunnels through the solid rock of these and is suspended by precarious-looking bridges across the deep intervening chasms. Two engines have to be used to a point near Khurramabad, when the plateau level is reached. Only 27 percent of the line is on a plain; 6 percent is in tunnels. The same thing happens at the other end of the line, north of Teheran. After crossing the backbone of the Elburz range at a height of almost 9,500 feet, trains begin a long and rapid descent, plunging through more than 90 tunnels and traversing many bridges before they finally reach the Caspian at Bandar Shah. Here everything has to be put on shipboard for transport to Baku or Astrakahn. Harbor facilities are meager and the ships which would be used here are the same which would have to handle goods arriving by the road from Zahidan. A real bottle-neck therefore exists on the Caspian.
The Trans-Iranian Railway now has about 80 locomotives capable of regular work. Inasmuch as they have to double up on the steep grades, only 40 trains could operate with present equipment. There are about 3,000 freightcars of all kinds. The present maximum capacity of the road, something less than 500 tons per day, was insufficient to supply the peacetime needs of Iran, and those needs must still be filled now, as well as the needs of the forces of occupation. For some time the Railway Commission was trying to buy equipment from the United States. Now an attempt is being made under British supervision to double the track in many places, and an appeal has been made to the United States to allocate 200 locomotives and additional rolling stock, as well as rails, in the hope that by April 1942 the railway's capacity may be doubled or trebled. A motor trail roughly parallels the railway; but it has bad stretches and is hard on transport vehicles, which so far are practically non-existant. Whether we speak of traffic by rail or road, the United States and some part of the British Empire (such as Australia) will first have to ship all the transport equipment to Iran before any appreciable flow of materials can be attained by the various Iranian routes to Russia.
The port facilities on the Persian Gulf will also have to be improved. Basra, a good port, is only 70 miles distant from Bandar Shahpur; but the intervening terrain is swampy and passable only with difficulty. Bandar Mashur, on the Persian Gulf, is only 20 miles from the railway terminus; but it is inaccessible to ocean-going vessels. Much dredging, dock-building and road-making will have to be done before heavy overseas traffic can reach the Trans-Iranian Railway.
In 1939, incidentally, a spur of the Trans-Iranian Railway was started toward Tabriz, some 400 miles distant, but it reaches only half way, to Zenjan. Tabriz is linked by rail via Julfa with Baku. If this spur were completed, then, the Trans-Iranian Railway would have a direct connection with the Russian railway system, and the strain upon the Caspian Sea fleet would be greatly relieved. But the hiatus includes a steep mountain pass at Shibley, where extensive tunneling must be done; so this part of the break must be serviced by motor trucks in any event.
The third route presents manifold difficulties. From Basra to Baghdad, a distance of 353 miles, the railway (built in 1915-1918) is narrow-gauge, and the equipment consists of old materials brought in from India during the campaigns of the last war. In 1938 it boasted 55 locomotives and 2,543 freightcars of a secondary type not suited to main line traffic. Its maximum capacity, about 1,000 tons per day, would not all be available for transporting supplies to Russia, but would have to serve the normal needs of 'Iraq also. Since the United States could not easily supply additional units for this type of railway, new equipment will have to come from India, where the wartime pressure on rolling stock is already heavy. At Baghdad, goods must be transferred, since the northern section, built by the Germans as the terminal section of the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, is wide-gauge. The equipment here is meager also. For handling traffic on the 300 miles to Mosul there existed in 1938 only 11 locomotives and 525 freightcars of all types, entirely material captured from Germany in the last war and never supplemented. Repeated efforts to get more units have been unsuccessful. For this section of track, rolling stock cannot be found in 'Iraq but must be placed on the rails at some point in Turkey or Syria (for example, Latakia) and run up to Aleppo and thence to Nisibin. The plan is that somewhere about 250 miles north of Baghdad, probably in the neighborhood of Erbil, the supplies coming from Basra would be unloaded from the trains and placed on trucks -- which do not exist as yet, but might be sent out from America under Lend-Lease agreement. When these are available, probably the most practicable route for them to use to reach Tabriz, some 275 miles to the northeast, will be via the Rowanduz Pass -- one of the world's most magnificent scenic trails. This Pass, 75 miles long, winds through a sort of "Grand Canyon" and enters Iran at Khani, in the Kurdish Mountains, at an elevation of 8,500 feet. Again, suitable repair stations would have to be built on this road to make it of any real value.
When supplies sent in by this route finally reach Tabriz, they at last have access to the Russian railways, but not directly across the Caucasus. So precipitous are the northern Caucasus mountains that no railway passes over or through them, and a long detour of over 600 miles is necessary before one can reach the plains of Russia proper. To sum up, supplies coming from Basra by this route would need three transshipments and would have to cover a total distance of over 1,600 miles.
It is doubtful if all three routes combined can be counted on in their present condition to permit shipment of much more than 1,000 tons a day of supplies to Russia. By next May, if railway sidings are added, if existing tracks are doubled in some sections, if railway equipment is provided, if harbors are developed, if roads are improved, if thousands of trucks are sent in, and if the necessary repair equipment is provided, the total might be more than doubled. Even in that case political unrest and guerrilla activities would have to be reckoned with as possible hampering factors. The flow of supplies envisaged might suffice to enable the Russians to hold the Caucasus. But in no case would it be enough to enable them to defend a long line on the open plains of Russia.
The third reason for the invasion of Iran is less obvious than the others but doubtless highly important -- the British desire to secure India against invasion. In 1930, perturbed over Gandhi's Civil Disobedience, Lord Rothermere declared: "If we lose India, the linchpin of the British Empire, the Empire must collapse, first economically, then politically." Britain could not rely on the Iranian Army to hold India's first line of defense. Even if the Iranian Government sincerely desired neutrality it could not have enforced it. Britain thus was obliged to take her own measures to insure that the outposts afforded in the Caucasus and further south were as firmly held as possible. South of the Caucasus there are a series of remarkably strong defensive lines. The first is the River Aras (Araxes), marking the general line of the frontier between Soviet Russia and Iran. It flows down precipitous gorges most of the way and has but three crossings -- at Nakhichevan, at Julfa, and in the Mughan plain before it reaches the Caspian south of Baku. All northwest Iran is crisscrossed by mountain ranges rising to 12,000 and 14,000 feet, with narrow ribbons of roads threading the valleys between. Far to the south, hidden behind equally lofty and still more concentrated mountain areas, lie the rich Iranian oil fields, the life source of the whole British defensive system in the East. These wells produce about 10,200,000 tons of oil a year -- twice the amount of the 'Iraq fields and thrice that of Rumania. The mountains of Iranian Azerbaijan control all the routes from the Caucasus that German troops might take to reach the oil fields or to penetrate into India across northern Iran and Baluchistan via Quetta. By acting when they did, the British made sure that at least seven months must elapse before any such German attack could come, for snowdrifts make all roads in northwestern Iran dangerous until March.
This "breathing spell" is being used by the British in a feverish effort to prepare for a German offensive through the Caucasus in the spring. The press has already carried news of the dispatch to Iran of an American military commission under Brigadier General Russell L. Maxwell to study the British plans for urgent railway and road expansion necessary to keep supplies flowing to the Russian armies in the Caucasus and the British troops that might bolster their resistance. In anticipation of this, American ships are already being diverted to Iranian ports carrying Lend-Lease equipment. If these desperate efforts succeed, and if enough equipment reaches the Russian Caucasian army to enable it to survive, Iran might prove to be the straw which broke the Nazi camel's back.
[i] A road of poor quality also runs through southwestern Afghanistan from Kandahar to Herat and thence north into Russian Turkestan. It is roughly the same length as the road from Zahidan to Meshed, and like it, too, it traverses sterile, salty and sandy wastes.