Partition of the Ottoman Empire



The Sykes-Picot Agreement

The partitioning of the Ottoman Empire was planned in several secret agreements made by the Allies early in the course of World War I, notably the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916.

Learning Objectives

Describe the Sykes-Picot Agreement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret 1916 agreement between Great Britain and France, with Russia assenting, that defined their mutually agreed spheres of influence and control in Southwestern Asia, under control of the declining Ottoman Empire.
  • The agreement allocated to Britain control of areas between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, Jordan, and southern Iraq;  France got control of southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; and Russia received Istanbul, the Turkish Straits, and Armenia.
  • The agreement is seen by many as a turning point in Western and Arab relations, still mentioned when considering the region and its present-day conflicts.
  • Many historians consider the borders created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement “artificial” and argue they have given rise to many conflicts in the region.

Key Terms

  • Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: A jihadist unrecognised state and militant group that follows a fundamentalist doctrine of Sunni Islam. This group has been designated a terrorist organization by the United Nations and many individual countries. It is widely known for its videoed beheadings of both soldiers and civilians, including journalists and aid workers, and destruction of cultural heritage sites. The United Nations holds them responsible for human rights abuses and war crimes, and Amnesty International charged the group with ethnic cleansing on a “historic scale” in northern Iraq.
  • Triple Entente: The understanding linking the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland after the signing of the Anglo-Russian Entente on August 31, 1907. The understanding between the three powers, supplemented by agreements with Japan and Portugal, constituted a powerful counterweight to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Kingdom of Italy, though Italy did not side with Germany and Austria during World War I.
  • T. E. Lawrence: A British author, archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat. He was renowned for his liaison role during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The breadth and variety of his activities and associations, and his ability to describe them vividly in writing, earned him international fame as Lawrence of Arabia—a title used for the 1962 film based on his wartime activities.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement, was a secret 1916 agreement between Great Britain and France, to which the Russian Empire assented. The agreement defined their mutually agreed spheres of influence and control in Southwestern Asia. The agreement was based on the premise that the Triple Entente would succeed in defeating the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The negotiations leading to the agreement occurred between November 1915 and March 1916,  and it was signed May 16, 1916. The deal was exposed to the public in 1917. The agreement is still mentioned when considering the region and its present-day conflicts.

The agreement allocated to Britain control of areas roughly comprising the coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, Jordan, southern Iraq, and an additional small area that included the ports of Haifa and Acre, to allow access to the Mediterranean. France got control of southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Russia received Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and Armenia. The controlling powers were left free to determine state boundaries within their areas. Further negotiation was expected to determine international administration pending consultations with Russia and other powers, including Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca.

Given Ottoman defeat in 1918 and the subsequent partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, the agreement effectively divided the Ottoman Arab provinces outside the Arabian peninsula into areas of British and French control and influence. An international administration was proposed for Palestine as part of the Acre-Haifa zone, intended to be an British enclave in northern Palestine to enable access to the Mediterranean. The British gained control of the territory in 1920 and ruled it as Mandatory Palestine from 1923 until 1948. They also ruled Mandatory Iraq from 1920 until 1932, while the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon lasted from 1923 to 1946.

The terms were negotiated by British diplomat Mark Sykes and a French counterpart, François Georges-Picot. The Tsarist government was a minor party to the Sykes-Picot agreement; when the Bolsheviks published the agreement on November 23, 1917, after the Russian Revolution, “the British were embarrassed, the Arabs dismayed and the Turks delighted.”

The agreement is seen by many as a turning point in Western and Arab relations. It negated the UK’s promises to Arabs made through Colonel T. E. Lawrence for a national Arab homeland in the area of Greater Syria in exchange for supporting the British against the Ottoman Empire.

Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French.

Sykes-Picot Agreement: Map of Sykes-Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria, and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. It was an enclosure in Paul Cambon’s letter to Sir Edward Grey, May 9, 1916.

Consequences

Leading up to the centenary of Sykes-Picot in 2016, great interest was generated among the media and academia in the long-term effects of the agreement. It is frequently cited as having created “artificial” borders in the Middle East, “without any regard to ethnic or sectarian characteristics, [which] has resulted in endless conflict.” The extent to which Sykes-Picot actually shaped the borders of the modern Middle East is disputed, and scholars often attribute instability in the region to other factors.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claims one of the goals of its insurgency is to reverse the effects of the Sykes–Picot Agreement. “This is not the first border we will break, we will break other borders,” a jihadist from the ISIL warned in a 2014 video titled End of Sykes-Picot. ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a July 2014 speech at the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, vowed that “this blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy.”

Franco-German geographer Christophe Neff wrote that the geopolitical architecture founded by the Sykes–Picot Agreement disappeared in July 2014 and with it the relative protection of religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. He claimed further that ISIL affected the geopolitical structure of the Middle East in summer 2014, particularly in Syria and Iraq. Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin presented a similar geopolitical analysis in an editorial contribution for the French newspaper Le Monde.

The United Kingdom in the Middle East

During the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, the British promised the international Zionist movement their support in recreating the historic Jewish homeland in Palestine via the Balfour declaration, a move that created much political conflict, still present today.

Learning Objectives

Demonstrate how British interests in the Middle East affected the development of the region

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After secret talks and agreements leading up to and during World War I, at the end of the war the Allies founded the League of Nations, which divided the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence and legal mandates.
  • The Sykes-Picot Agreement, one of the major secret agreements during the war, allocated to Britain control of the coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, Jordan, southern Iraq, and an additional small area that included the ports of Haifa and Acre to allow access to the Mediterranean.
  • The explicit aims of the British and the other allies, was “the complete and final liberation of the peopls who have for so long been oppressed by the Turks.”
  • Key to these discussions, especially for the British, was the fate of Palestine and the Jewish people.
  • During World War I, Britain produced three contrasting statements regarding its ambitions for Palestine, which created conflict at the time and ever since.
  • Mandatory Palestine became the resulting political entity, under the rule of Britain until 1948.

Key Terms

  • Zionism: The national movement of the Jewish people that supports the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel (roughly corresponding to Palestine, Canaan, or the Holy Land).  It emerged in the late 19th century in Central and Eastern Europe as a national revival movement in reaction to anti-Semitic and exclusionary nationalist movements in Europe. Soon after this, most leaders of the movement associated the main goal with creating the desired state in Palestine, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
  • League of Nations: An intergovernmental organization founded on January 10, 1920 as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. Other issues in this and related treaties included labor conditions, just treatment of native inhabitants, human and drug trafficking, the arms trade, global health, prisoners of war, and protection of minorities in Europe.
  • Balfour Declaration: A letter dated November 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It stated British support for “a national home for the Jewish people…”
  • Mandatory Palestine: A geopolitical entity under British administration, carved out of Ottoman Southern Syria after World War I. British civil administration in Palestine operated from 1920 until 1948.

During World War I, continued Arab disquiet over Allied intentions led in 1918 to the British “Declaration to the Seven” and the “Anglo-French Declaration,” the latter promising “the complete and final liberation of the peoples who have for so long been oppressed by the Turks, and the setting up of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous populations.”

The British were awarded three mandated territories by the League of Nations after WWI: Palestine, Mesopotamia (later Iraq), and control of the coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan. A son of Sharif Hussein (who helped lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire), Faisal, was installed as King of Iraq, with Transjordan providing a throne for another of Hussein’s sons, Abdullah. Mandatory Palestine was placed under direct British administration, and the Jewish population was allowed to increase, initially under British protection. Most of the Arabian peninsula fell to another British ally, Ibn Saud, who created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.

United Kingdom and Palestine

British support for an increased Jewish presence in Palestine, though idealistically embedded in 19th-century evangelical Christian feelings that the country should play a role in Christ’s Second Coming, was primarily geopolitical. Early British political support was precipitated in the 1830s and 1840s as a result of the Eastern Crisis after Muhammad Ali occupied Syria and Palestine. Though these calculations had lapsed as Theodor Herzl’s attempts to obtain international support for his project failed, WWI led to renewed strategic assessments and political bargaining regarding the Middle and Far East.

Zionism was first discussed at the British Cabinet level on November 9, 1914, four days after Britain’s declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire. David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, “referred to the ultimate destiny of Palestine.” In a discussion after the meeting with fellow Zionist and President of the Local Government Board Herbert Samuel, Lloyd George assured him that “he was very keen to see a Jewish state established in Palestine.” He spoke of Zionist aspirations for a Jewish state in Palestine and of Palestine’s geographical importance to the British Empire. Samuel wrote in his memoirs: “I mentioned that two things would be essential—that the state should be neutralized, since it could not be large enough to defend itself, and that the free access of Christian pilgrims should be guaranteed…. I also said it would be a great advantage if the remainder of Syria were annexed by France, as it would be far better for the state to have a European power as neighbour than the Turk.”

James Balfour of the Balfour Declaration declared that: “The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

During WWI, Britain produced three contrasting but feasibly compatible statements about their ambitions for Palestine.
Through British intelligence officer T. E. Lawrence (aka: Lawrence of Arabia), Britain supported the establishment of a united Arab state covering a large area of the Arab Middle East in exchange for Arab support of the British during the war. Thus, the United Kingdom agreed in the McMahon–Hussein Correspondence that it would honor Arab independence if they revolted against the Ottomans, but the two sides had different interpretations of this agreement. In the end the UK and France divided up the area under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, an act of betrayal in the eyes of the Arabs. Further confusing the issue was the Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising British support for a Jewish “national home” in Palestine.

At the war’s end the British and French set up a joint “Occupied Enemy Territory Administration” in what had been Ottoman Syria. The British achieved legitimacy for their continued control by obtaining a mandate from the League of Nations in June 1922. The formal objective of the League of Nations Mandate system was to administer parts of the defunct Ottoman Empire, which had been in control of the Middle East since the 16th century, “until such time as they are able to stand alone.” The civil Mandate administration was formalized with the League of Nations’ consent in 1923 under the British Mandate for Palestine, which covered two administrative areas. The land west of the Jordan River, known as Mandatory Palestine, was under direct British administration until 1948. The land east of the Jordan, a semi-autonomous region known as Transjordan under the rule of the Hashemite family from the Hijaz, gained independence in 1946.

In a 2002 interview with New Statesman, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw observed “A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now, I have to deal with now, are a consequence of our colonial past… The Balfour Declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis—again, an interesting history for us but not an entirely honourable one.”

The formal transfer of Jerusalem to British rule. A native priest reads the proclamation from the steps of the Tower of David.

Mandatory Palestine: The formal transfer of Jerusalem to British rule. A native priest reads the proclamation from the steps of the Tower of David.

France in the Middle East

After World War I, Syria and Lebanon became a French protectorate under the League of Nations Mandate System, a move that was met immediately with armed resistance from Arab nationalists.

Learning Objectives

Connect French politics in the Middle East to the present day

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • After WWI, Syria and Lebanon became a French protectorate (thinly disguised as a League of Nations Mandate).
  • French control was met immediately with armed resistance, so to combat Arab nationalism France divided the Mandate area into Lebanon and four sub-states.
  • Although there were uprisings in the respective states, the French purposefully gave different ethnic and religious groups in the Levant their own lands in the hopes of prolonging their rule, keeping the resistance to French rule divided and fragmented.
  • With the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French invaded and occupied the country in July 1941.
  • Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941 but was not recognized as an independent republic until January 1, 1944.
  • France bombed Damascus and tried to arrest its democratically elected leaders, but continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups and the British forced the French to evacuate their last troops on April 17, 1946.

Key Terms

  • Franco-Syrian War: A war that took place during 1920 between the Hashemite rulers of the newly established Arab Kingdom of Syria and France. During a series of engagements that climaxed in the Battle of Maysalun, French forces defeated the forces of the Hashemite monarch King Faisal and his supporters, entering Damascus on July 24, 1920. A new pro-French government was declared in Syria on July 25.
  • League of Nations mandate: The legal status for certain territories transferred from the control of one country to another following World War I, or the legal instruments that contained the internationally agreed-upon terms for administering the territory on behalf of the League of Nations. Two governing principles formed the core of this system: non-annexation of the territory and its administration as a “sacred trust of civilisation” to develop the territory for the benefit of its native people.

French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon

Officially, the Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon (1923−1946), was a League of Nations mandate founded after the First World War for partitioning of the Ottoman Empire concerning Syria and the Lebanon. The Mandate system was considered the antithesis to colonialism, with the governing country acting as a trustee until the inhabitants were able to stand on their own. At that point, the Mandate would terminate and an independent state would be born.

When first arriving in Lebanon, the French were received as liberators by the Christian community, but as they entered Syria, they were faced with a strong resistance, and thus the mandate region was subdivided into six states: Damascus (1920), Aleppo (1920), Alawites (1920), Jabal Druze (1921), the autonomous Sanjak of Alexandretta (1921, modern-day Hatay), and the State of Greater Lebanon (1920), which became later the modern country of Lebanon.

The drawing of those states was based in part on the sectarian makeup of Syria. However, nearly all the Syrian sects were hostile to the French mandate and the division it created, and there were numerous revolts in all of the Syrian states. Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon, on the other hand, were a community with a dream of independence that was realized under the French; therefore, Greater Lebanon was the exception to the newly formed states.

Although there were uprisings in the respective states, the French purposefully gave different ethnic and religious groups in the Levant their own lands in the hopes of prolonging their rule. During this time of world decolonization, the French hoped to focus on fragmenting the various groups in the region, so the local population would not focus on a larger nationalist movement to dispose of colonial rule. In addition, administration of colonial governments was heavily dominated by the French. Local authorities were given very little power and did not have the authority to independently decide policy. The small amount of power that local leaders had could easily be overruled by French officials. The French did everything possible to prevent people in the Levant from developing self-sufficient governing bodies. In 1930, France extended its constitution on to Syria.

Map showing the states of the French Mandate from 1921–22.

French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon: Map showing the states of the French Mandate from 1921–22.

Rise in Conflict

With the defeat of Ottomans in Syria, British troops under General Sir Edmund Allenby entered Damascus in 1918 accompanied by troops of the Arab Revolt led by Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca.

The new Arab administration formed local governments in the major Syrian cities, and the pan-Arab flag was raised all over Syria. The Arabs hoped, with faith in earlier British promises, that the new state would include all the Arab lands stretching from Aleppo in northern Syria to Aden in southern Yemen.

However, in accordance with the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, General Allenby assigned the Arab administration only the interior regions of Syria (the eastern zone). On October 8, French troops disembarked in Beirut and occupied the Lebanese coastal region south to Naqoura (the western zone), replacing British troops there. The French immediately dissolved the local Arab governments in the region.

France demanded full implementation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, with Syria under its control. On November 26, 1919, British forces withdrew from Damascus to avoid confrontation, leaving the Arab government to face France.

Unrest erupted in Syria when Faisal accepted a compromise with French Prime Minister Clemenceau and Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann over Jewish immigration to Palestine. Anti-Hashemite manifestations broke out and Muslim inhabitants in and around Mount Lebanon revolted with fear of being incorporated into a new, mainly Christian state of Greater Lebanon. Part of France’s claim to these territories in the Levant was that France was a protector of the minority Christian communities.

On April 25, 1920, the supreme inter-Allied council that was formulating the Treaty of Sèvres granted France the mandate of Syria (including Lebanon), and granted Britain the Mandate of Palestine (including Jordan) and Iraq. Syrians reacted with violent demonstrations, and a new government headed by Ali Rida al-Rikabi was formed on May 9, 1920. The new government decided to organize general conscription and began forming an army.

On July 14, 1920, General Gouraud issued an ultimatum to Faisal, giving him the choice between submission or abdication. Realizing that the power balance was not in his favor, Faisal chose to cooperate. However, the young minister of war, Youssef al-Azmeh, refused to comply. In the resulting Franco-Syrian War, Syrian troops under al-Azmeh met French forces under General Mariano Goybet at the Battle of Maysaloun. The French won the battle in less than a day. Azmeh died on the battlefield along with many of the Syrian troops. Goybet entered Damascus on July 24, 1920. The Mandate was written in London on July 24, 1922.

End of the Mandate

With the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French invaded and occupied the country in July 1941. Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941 but it wasn’t until January 1, 1944, that it was recognized as an independent republic.

On September 27, 1941, France proclaimed, by virtue of and within the framework of the Mandate, the independence and sovereignty of the Syrian State. The proclamation said “the independence and sovereignty of Syria and Lebanon will not affect the juridical situation as it results from the Mandate Act.”

There were protests in 1945 over the slow French withdrawal; the French responded to these protests with artillery. In an effort to stop the movement toward independence, French troops occupied the Syrian parliament in May 1945 and cut off Damascus’s electricity. Training their guns on Damascus’s old city, the French killed 400 Syrians and destroyed hundreds of homes. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalist groups and the British forced the French to evacuate the last of its troops in April 1946, leaving the country in the hands of a republican government that was formed during the mandate.

Although rapid economic development followed the declaration of independence, Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval. The early years of independence were marked by political instability.

The Discovery of Oil in the Middle East

The history of the discovery and production of oil in the Middle East exemplifies the “resource curse”: countries with an abundance of natural resources, specifically non-renewable resources like oil, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the consequences of the discovery of oil in the Middle East

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In March of 1908, after years of difficult conditions and failure, geologist George Bernard Reynolds discovered oil in Persia (modern-day Iran).
  • A year later, an oil company in the UK, Burmah Oil, created a subsidiary company to develop oil production in Persia, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), which started volume production of oil by 1913.
  • Britain’s Royal Navy was under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who wanted to shift its fuel source from coal to oil. The Navy thus became the company’s major customer and a de facto hidden power behind its success.
  • Iranian popular opposition to the APOC’s royalty terms whereby Iran only received 16% of net profits was widespread and created political discontent throughout the country.
  • In 1941, during World War II, Britain and the USSR invaded Iran, exiled Reza Shah, and put his son, Reza Pahlavi, who was friendlier to their interests, onto the throne.
  • Following WWII, nationalistic sentiments were on the rise in the Middle East, most notably in Iran, and the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry; at the same time, the public elected Mohammed Mossadegh as Prime Minister, causing the Abadan Crisis.
  • Britain was unable to subvert Mossadegh, so British and American intelligence agencies orchestrated a coup d’état to overthrow him and bring Reza Pahlavi back onto the throne.
  • By 1954, now with a pro-Western leader in place, oil production started again under the control of a new cartel named the “Seven Sisters,” completely based outside the Middle East.

Key Terms

  • Red Line Agreement: The name given to an agreement signed by partners in the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) on July 31, 1928. The aim of the agreement was to formalize the corporate structure of TPC and bind all partners to a “self-denial clause” that prohibited any of its shareholders from independently seeking oil interests in the ex-Ottoman territory. It marked the creation of an oil monopoly, or cartel, of immense influence, spanning a vast territory.
  • 953 Iranian Coup: The overthrow of the Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in favor of strengthening the monarchical rule of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on August 19, 1953, orchestrated by the United Kingdom (under the name “Operation Boot”) and the United States (under the name “Operation Ajax”).
  • “resource curse”: Also known as the paradox of plenty, refers to the fact that countries with an abundance of natural resources, specifically non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources.
  • Abadan Crisis: Occurred from 1951 to 1954 after Iran nationalized the Iranian assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) and expelled Western companies from oil refineries in the city of Abadan.

The Anglo-Persian Oil Company

The history of the oil industry in Iran is representative of the effects of the discovery of oil in the Middle East, and a prime example of the “resource curse”: the paradox that countries with an abundance of natural resources, specifically non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources. It is characterized by political and military conflict, in this case caused by British and American interests in the oil industry.

On April 14, 1909, one year after geologist George Bernard Reynolds discovered oil in Persia (modern-day Iran), Burmah Oil created the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) as a subsidiary and sold shares to the public.

Volume production of Persian oil products eventually started in 1913 from a refinery built at Abadan, for its first 50 years the largest oil refinery in the world. In 1913, shortly before World War I, APOC managers negotiated with a new customer, Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty of Britain. Churchill, as a part of a three-year expansion program, sought to modernize Britain’s Royal Navy by abandoning the use of coal-fired steamships and adopting oil as fuel for its ships instead. Although Britain had large reserves of coal, oil had advantages in better energy density, allowing a longer steaming range for a ship of the same bunker capacity. Further, Churchill wanted to free Britain from its reliance on the Standard Oil and Royal Dutch-Shell oil companies. In exchange for secure oil supplies for its ships, the British government injected new capital into the company and in doing so, acquired a controlling interest in APOC. The contract that was set up between the British Government and APOC was to hold for 20 years. The British government also became a de facto hidden power behind the oil company.

During this period, Iranian popular opposition to the D’Arcy oil concession and royalty terms whereby Iran only received 16% of net profits was widespread. Since industrial development and planning and other fundamental reforms were predicated on oil revenues, the government’s lack of control over the oil industry served to accentuate the Iranian Government’s misgivings regarding the manner in which APOC conducted its affairs in Iran.

In 1923, Burmah employed Winston Churchill as a paid consultant to lobby the British government to allow APOC to have exclusive rights to Persian oil resources, which were subsequently granted. In 1933, APOC made an agreement with Iran’s Reza Shah, which promised to give laborers better pay and more chance for advancement and build schools, hospitals, roads, and a telephone system. These promises were not kept. In 1935 APOC changed its name to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC).

Political Instability and Military Intervention

Following Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union became allies. Britain and the USSR saw the newly opened Trans-Iranian Railway as an attractive route to transport supplies, including oil, from the Persian Gulf to the Soviet Union. Britain and the USSR used concessions extracted in previous interventions to pressure Iran (and, in Britain’s case, Iraq) into allowing the use of their territory for military and logistical purposes. Increased tensions with Britain led to pro-German rallies in Tehran. In August 1941, because Reza Shah refused to expel all German nationals and come down clearly on the Allied side, Britain and the USSR invaded Iran, arrested the monarch, and sent him into exile to South Africa, taking control of Iran’s communications and the coveted railway. They put Reza Shah’s son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi onto the Iranian/Persian throne. The new Shah soon signed an agreement pledging full non-military logistical cooperation with the British and Soviets in exchange for full recognition of his country’s independence and a promise to withdraw from Iran within six months of the war’s conclusion.

Following World War II, nationalistic sentiments were on the rise in the Middle East, especially Iranian nationalism. AIOC and the pro-western Iranian government led by Prime Minister Ali Razmara initially resisted nationalist pressure to revise AIOC’s concession terms further in Iran’s favor. In May 1949, Britain offered a “supplemental oil agreement” to appease unrest in the country, but it did not satisfy Iranian nationalists since it did not give them the right to audit the AIOC’s books. On March 7, 1951, Prime Minister Haj Haj Ali Razmara was assassinated by the Fadayan-e Islam. Fadayan-e Islam supported the demands of the National Front, which held a minority of seats in Parliament, to nationalize the assets of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

Later in March 1951, the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the AIOC and its holdings, and shortly thereafter the Iranian public elected a champion of nationalization, Mohammed Mossadegh, Prime Minister. This led to the Abadan Crisis in which foreign countries agreed not to purchase Iranian oil under British pressure and the Abadan refinery was closed. AIOC withdrew from Iran and increased output of its other reserves in the Persian Gulf.

As the months went on, the crisis became acute. By mid-1952, an attempt by the Shah to replace Mossadegh backfired and led to riots against the Shah and perceived foreign intervention; Mossadegh returned with even greater power. At the same time, however, his coalition was weakening as Britain’s boycott of Iranian oil eliminated a major source of government revenue and strategically made Iranians poorer and thus unhappier by the day.

1953 Iranian Coup

Britain was unable to subvert Mossadegh as its embassy and officials had been evicted from Iran in October 1952. However, they successfully appealed to exaggerated anti-communist sentiments in the U.S., depicting both Mossadegh and Iran as unstable and likely to fall to communism as they weakened.

The anti-Mossadeq plan was orchestrated under the code-name “Operation Ajax” by the CIA, and “Operation Boot” by the British MI6. In August, the American CIA, with the help of bribes to politicians, soldiers, mobs, and newspapers and information from the British embassy and secret service, organized a riot which gave the Shah an excuse to remove Mossadegh.

The Shah seized the opportunity and issued an edict forcefully removing the immensely popular and democratically-elected Mossadegh from power when General Fazlollah Zahedi led tanks to Mossadegh’s residence and arrested him. On December 21, 1953, he was sentenced to death, but his sentence was later commuted to three years’ solitary confinement in a military prison followed by life in prison.

Photo of a tank covered by men celebrating the Coup in the streets of Tehran, 1953

1953 Iranian Coup: Tanks in the streets of Tehran after the coup, 1953

With a pro-Western Shah and the new pro-Western Prime Minister, Fazlollah Zahedi, Iranian oil began flowing again and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which changed its name to British Petroleum in 1954, tried to return to its old position. However, public opinion was so opposed that the new government could not permit it.

Under pressure from the U.S., British Petroleum was forced to accept membership in a consortium of companies that would bring Iranian oil back on the international market. It was incorporated in London in 1954 as a holding company called Iranian Oil Participants. This group of companies, all based outside the Middle East, came to be known as the “Seven Sisters” or the “Consortium for Iran” cartel and dominated the global petroleum industry from the mid-1940s to the 1970s. Until the oil crisis of 1973, the members of the Seven Sisters controlled around 85% of the world’s known oil reserves. Afterward, the oil industry began to nationalize throughout the Middle East.