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Was Britain responsible for the largest ever famine in Iran during WW1?

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In a nutshell, yes!

Was Britain responsible for the largest ever famine in Iran during WW1?
During the nineteenth century, Russia and Britain competed for power and influence in Central Asia where countries, such as Iran, which were treated like pawns on a chessboard. By the twentieth century Russia dominated the northern part while Britain dominated the south. This division was formalised in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which segmented Iran into three parts - a Russian northern zone, where Russia had exclusive political and economic control; a British southern zone in the southeast, where Britain solely exercised political and economic control; and a neutral "buffer" zone in the rest of the country, where both shared power.

Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 Britain remained the sole power in Iran. Historian Professor Mohammad Gholi Majid of Princeton University in his book, "The Great Famine & Genocide in Iran: 1917-1919" (2013) cites the American Archives reported a widespread famine during WW1 and the spread of an epidemic disease estimating deaths following the British preventing important caused a famine killing around 8-10 million during the 1917-19 period, making this the greatest genocide of the 20th century and Iran the biggest victim of World War I (p.71).

"World War One was unquestionably the greatest calamity in the history of Persia, far surpassing anything that happened before. It was in WWI that Persia suffered its worst tragedy in its entire history, losing some 40% of its population to famine and disease, a calamity that was entirely due to the occupation of Persia by the Russian and British armies, and about which little is known. Persia was the greatest victim of WWI: no country had suffered so much in absolute and relative terms. As I have shown in another study there are indications that 10 million Persians were lost to starvation and disease. Persia was the victim of one of the largest genocide [sic] of the twentieth century. (M G Majd, "Persia in World War I and Its Conquest by Great Britain," 2003, pp. 3-4)

Iran had been one of the main suppliers of food grains to the British forces stationed in the empire's South Asian colonies. Although bad harvest during these two years made the situation worse, it was by no means the main reason why the Great Famine occurred. The American documents show the British prevented imports of wheat and other food grains into Iran from Mesopotamia, Asia, and also the USA. Ships loaded with wheat were not allowed to unload at the port of Bushehr in the Persian Gulf. Britain intentionally created genocide conditions to destroy Iran and to effectively control the country for its own purposes. Major Donohoe describes Iran of that time as a "land of desolation and death" whilst in his 1934 biography of the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, Harold Nicolson, who had served as a British diplomat in Iran during the 1920s, wrote:

"Persia, during the war, had been exposed to violations and sufferings not endured by any other neutral country." (Nicolson, "George Curzon: The Last Phase," 1934, p. 129)

In a memorandum of 1941, the Chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs at the US Department of State, Wallace Smith Murray, wrote:

"During the late World War, despite Iran's declared neutrality, she was invaded by both the Great Powers, which resulted in untold misery to the Persian people. It is estimated that during the famine of 1917-1918, caused by the chaotic conditions of the country, approximately one third of the population perished." (M G Majd, "Great Famine & Genocide in Iran,"p. 8)

But this event soon became the subject of a British cover up. The documents published by the British government overlook the genocide, and consequently, the tragedy underwent an attempted cover-up by the British government. The Foreign Office "handbook on Iran" of 1919 mentioned nothing related to the Great Famine.

Britain's role in Iran's Great famine, which killed nearly half of Iran's population, however was not unprecedented - similar examples appear in regions like India, Bengal and Ireland.


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