This month, the attention of the world is on Russian military operations in Syria. But this is not the first time that Russian forces have intervened in the Middle East. One hundred years ago today (10 November 1915), troops of the Russian Expeditionary Corps under General N. N. Baratov landed at the northern Persian port of Enzeli at the start of a campaign which eventually saw some of them enter Iraq. Generally ignored by histories of the First World War, the Russian invasion was part of a series of events which eventually resulted in Persia possibly losing a greater percentage of its population than any other country during the war (in large part due to famine in 1917-19).
Persia was neutral, but became the battlefield for competing foreign powers – the Ottoman Empire, Germany, Britain, and Russia. The Ottomans and Germans hoped to persuade Persia to abandon its neutrality and join them, providing a launchpad for jihad into Central Asia and Afghanistan, and from there, it was hoped, even into India. To this end, in 1915 German agents spread out through Persia buying support for an uprising against the government. In Isfahan, a pro-German group murdered the Russian vice-consul in May 1915, and by autumn 1915 the situation in that city was so dangerous that Europeans (apart from Germans and Austrians) had to leave. Meanwhile, in Shiraz German supporters attacked and imprisoned the British consul, while the British and Russian consuls in Kermanshah were forced to flee. By October 2015, Persia seemed to be about to fall into German hands.
It was to prevent this from happening that the Viceroy of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, ordered General Baratov to invade Persia. His logic was akin to an early-20th century version of the infamous ‘domino theory’. Events in Persia were damaging Russia’s reputation, and if nothing was done unrest might spread. The Grand Duke explained the purpose of Baratov’s mission in the following way:
The significance of the corps consists of raising our prestige in Persia. … The attitude to the Persian civilian population must be very benevolent and, as a true guarantee of this, troops must pay the population for everything that they acquire at prices which are satisfactory to the population.
Similarly, Nikolai Nikolaevich told Baratov that, ‘Until the Persians declare war on us, the task of the forces now concentrated in Persia consists of raising the prestige of Russia’s name. The attitude to the Persian population must be very friendly.’
On 25 November 1915, after Persian gendarmes mutinied in Hamadan, the Grand Duke ordered Baratov to seize that city and suppress the mutiny. Baratov took Hamadan on 15 December, and from there marched on the holy city of Qom, which he took on 20 December. The Grand Duke gave Baratov strict instructions not to do anything in Qom which could lead to accusations that the Russians were insulting Islam. Next, on 26 February 1916, the Russian Corps entered Kermanshah, and on 19 March it captured Isfahan. With this, Russia’s strategic objectives were fulfilled, as the German threat in Persia was entirely eliminated.
The next step was not so successful. The British Army had managed to get itself surrounded in Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia. On 1 April, the Grand Duke ordered Baratov to advance towards Baghdad in order to pull Ottoman forces away from Kut and help the British. Ten days later, Baratov reached the town of Khanaqin (nowadays just on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq border), but in the face of a large Ottoman force, he had to withdraw back into Persia, where his forces remained until they left after the revolution of 1917. In the end, it was the British who became the dominant power in Persia after the war. Russia was left with nothing for its efforts.