British Intelligence and Policy on Persia (Iran), c. 1900-1949
Advisor: A.J. Farrington, Former Deputy Director, Oriental & India Office Collections (OIOC, now part of the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections), British Library
British Intelligence and Policy on Persia (Iran), c. 1900-1949
India Office Political and Secret Files and Confidential Print
The present edition brings together the product of all this activity – ranging through British reporting, planning and thinking on:
• the Persian revolution of 1905-09;
• the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 which divided the country into informal spheres of influence;
• First World War intervention;
• the Communist threat;
• the reign of Riza Shah;
• Second World War intervention;
• the countering of German influence;
• the succession of Muhammad Riza.
Dominant foreign partner
British involvement in Persia dated back to the East India Company's first trading contacts of the early seventeenth century. But by the late nineteenth century, when the country's economic life was largely in the hands of Russian and British concessionaires, it seemed as if Persia might even become a Russian protectorate. instead, the British, with their immensely valuable oil concessions in the south, emerged as the dominant foreign partner.
British India and London's strategic planning and policy formulation required information – intelligence on internal politics, tribal groupings, rivalries, personalities, resources, communications and the terrain – to provide “background” for political relations and practical “know-how” for military operations and clandestine activities.
Information gathering devolved in the first instance upon British diplomatic representatives in Persia. There were four players on the British side – the Foreign Office and War Office in London, the Government of India Foreign Department, and the Indian Army General Staff. Personnel manning posts in Persia were drawn from the London-based Diplomatic and Consular Services and the British Army, or from the Indian Civil Service, the Indian Political Service and the Indian Army.
Embassies and Consulates(-General)
Reflecting the perceived importance of Russian designs and of British strategic interests, the country was exceptionally well covered. In addition to a permanent British legation at Tehran from the 1850s, there were Consuls-General at Bushire from 1878, Isfahan from 1891 and Meshed from 1889, and at varying dates Consuls in Ahwaz, Kerman, Kermanshah, Khorramshahr, Resht, Seistan and Shiraz.
The two central series are the Government of India Foreign Department Printed Correspondence and the Foreign Office annual political reports 1910-1948. The first, some 5,000 pages in 44 parts, prints all incoming and outgoing papers relating to Persia between 1916 and 1940; the pagination is frequently erratic, but within each “part” the documents are arranged in a continuously numbered sequence. There are also long runs of Consular diaries/summaries from the various posts, printed up either by the Foreign Office or the Government of India (though typescript became the norm from around 1933/34). The diaries have numbered sequences for each year or issue dates within the year, varying from monthly to weekly.
Transmission was extremely cumbersome. Predominantly Foreign Office posts (eg. Tehran, Kermanshah, Khorramshahr, Resht, Shiraz) made their reports to the FO in London, from where copies were sent to the India Office. Government of India posts (eg. Ahwaz, Kerman, Meshed, Seistan) reported to Delhi, from where copies were sent to the India Office in London and from there forwarded to the Foreign Office.
A small Intelligence Branch was formed within the Quarter Master General's Department at Army Headquarters, India, in 1878. The wide-ranging reforms of the Army in India Committee of 1912-13 established an Intelligence Section (M.O.3) within the Military Operations Directorate of the General Staff, divided into four geographical sub-sections (one of them responsible for Persia) and a fifth devoted to “special work of a confidential nature.”
The General Staff, India, was responsible for a stream of gazetteers, route books, military reports and who's who compilations. Sources were the military attachés at the diplomatic posts and military officers in the field (particularly during the two World Wars), their Persian and other contacts, and clandestinely employed local agents. The military attachés also produced regular intelligence summaries. The Meshed consulate was an especially important listening post for developments across the borders in Russian Central Asia and Afghanistan. In 1913 the Foreign Office laid down that the collection of military intelligence was not part of the duty of British consulates, so that the task devolved almost entirely upon the General Staff, India, with some financial input from the War Office.
The various volumes of gazetteers, route books, military reports and who's who compilations have a roughly similar geographical coverage:
• Vol. 1. North-east (Khorasan, Kain, Seistan);
• Vol. 2. North & Central (incl Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Tehran);
• Vol. 3. South-west (Luristan, Bakhtiari, Isfahan, Arabistan, Khuzistan, Kughalu);
• Vol. 4/1. South (Yazd, Fars, Laristan, Gulf Ports);
• Vol. 4/2. South-east (Kerman, Persian Baluchistan).
Secret, Confidential or For Oficial Use Only
All the works were classifed “Secret,” “Confidential” or “For Oficial Use Only,” and were subject to strict rules of custody. It was also ordered that when a new edition of a particular work appeared all previous editions had to be destroyed. As a result these works survive in very few locations. The collection in the India Office Records at the British Library is unique in its breadth and accessibility.
Provenance and historical background
The political reports, diaries and summaries produced in the diplomatic posts (including the military attaché materials) were received in the Political & Secret Department registry at the India Office and were given reference numbers within its annual file sequences. They were eventually brought together as “subject” files up to 1931 (L/P&S/10) and as files within “external subject collection 28 – Persia” (L/P&S/12) thereafter. The General Staff, India, secret and confidential works are located in two internal “reference libraries” which were kept within the Military Department (L/MIL/17) and the Political & Secret Department (L/P&S/20) at the India Office. Items were received from India upon publication and were kept/disposed of according to the custody rules laid down by the originator.
All the India Office departments were subsumed within the Commonwealth Relations Office (subsequently the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) after Independence in 1947. In 1982 the Foreign & Commonwealth Office transferred the administration of the India Office Library & Records to the British Library, now forms one part of the Library's Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections (specifically, the former Oriental & India Office Collections (OIOC)).
A.J.Farrington, Former Deputy Director, Oriental & India Office Collections (OIOC, now part of the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections), The British Library
This collection includes the sections:
• BIP-1: Gazetteers and Handbooks, 1906-1948
• BIP-2: Internal and External Affairs, 1904-1949
• BIP-3: Who's Who, 1909-1947
• BIP-4: Military Reports, 1900-1940
• BIP-5: Routes, 1908-1942