Military History: The Middle East in World War II

From a Lecture Series Presented by Professor Salim Yaqub, Ph.D.

The role of the Middle East in World War II fundamentally altered Americans’ conception of the region. For the first time, U.S. officials saw the geopolitical orientation of the Middle East as vital to American national security—a view of the region that persists to this day.

image of map of the middle east for article on The Middle East in World War II

In the decades leading up to the war, American interests in the region had been almost entirely missionary, philanthropic, educational, and commercial. The main concern of the U.S. government was making sure that the individuals and institutions engaging in such activities were not obstructed or endangered and that they received reasonable compensation for their efforts.

Apart from the brief flurry of Wilsonian activity in the aftermath of World War I, the United States had not concerned itself with the political character or geopolitical orientation of the countries of the Middle East. As long as the various American interests in the region were allowed to function and prosper, Washington was satisfied.

Learn more: U.S. & the Middle East During World War II

Protecting North Africa and the Middle East

Once it entered World War II, however, the U.S. government could no longer ignore the geopolitical orientation of Middle Eastern countries. It was essential for the war effort that the Middle East not fall under the control of Nazi Germany and its allies. If that happened, Germany and Japan might be able to link up with each other along Asia’s southern rim, making it impossible for the United States to send war supplies to Russia, its wartime ally. If the Axis powers took over the Middle East, they would also, of course, gain control of the region’s enormous oil reserves.

Farther to the west, North Africa assumed vital importance as a staging area for the United States and Britain to launch their invasion of fascist Italy, from which they hoped to move northward to attack German positions in central Europe. In these ways, it became—for the first time—essential to the overall security of the United States that the countries of the Middle East be under the control of friendly forces, whether indigenous or European.

Formal U.S. involvement in World War II began, of course, with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, to which Washington responded by declaring war on Japan. A few days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States, bringing America into the European theater of the war as well.

Learn more: World War II—The European Theater

The Great Arsenal of Democracy

Image of President Roosevelt signing the Lend-Lease bill, c.1941
President Roosevelt signs the Lend-Lease bill, c.1941

One of the principal advantages the United States enjoyed in waging World War II was its enormous industrial capacity. This capacity, combined with the fact that the United States was the only major combatant to escape physical devastation, allowed America to serve as “the great arsenal of democracy,” in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

To make the most of America’s industrial potential in the war, Roosevelt devised a policy known as Lend-Lease, whereby the United States lent its wartime allies military equipment—planes, ships, weapons, ammunition, and so on—without worrying too much about the timing or manner of repayment. For the duration of the war, the Allies would not have to compensate the United States for any equipment they received. Once the war was over, they could either give the equipment back or compensate the United States in some other way.

The Persian Corridor and $11 Billion in Aid to Russia

The biggest recipient of Lend-Lease aid was Britain, but the Soviet Union also received a huge amount of aid, about $11 billion worth over the course of the war. One of the most important routes by which the United States supplied Russia with aid was the so-called Persian Corridor; materiel would be shipped through the Persian Gulf to Iran and then transported northward over Iranian territory.

The great advantage of the Persian Corridor was that it could be operated at all times of year due to the relatively warm climate. Most of the other corridors for supplying Russia were frozen over during the winter months. For the Persian Corridor to remain open, of course, it was essential that Iran remain in Allied hands.

To accomplish this, in early 1942 the United States sent its troops to occupy Iran, which was already under joint Anglo-Soviet occupation. Some months earlier, in August 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union had forced Reza Shah, the ruler of Iran, to abdicate his throne on the grounds that he was too sympathetic to Germany. Reza Shah was replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was then in his early twenties and was much more malleable than his father. Mohammad Reza Shah permitted Britain, the Soviet Union, and, later, the United States to occupy Iran for the duration of the war.

Image of an American train transporting aid bound for the USSR stopping at a station, along the Persian Corridor. c. 1943
An American train transporting aid bound for the USSR stopping at a station, along the Persian Corridor. c. 1943

The U.S. Presence in Iran

A huge American establishment, employing tens of thousands of U.S. troops and Iranian employees, was built up in Iran. The main functions of this operation were to offload cargoes at the docks, assemble trucks and planes in specially designed plants, and then ship the materiel to the Soviet Union on trains operated by the U.S. army. Russia received millions of tons of American equipment in this way, enough to sustain 60 Soviet combat divisions on the eastern front against Germany.

Iran itself became a recipient of Lend-Lease assistance, although most of the aid it received consisted of grain and other foodstuffs that had become scarce during the war, rather than military equipment. U.S. military personnel also assisted the Iranian government in organizing and training its internal police forces. It was the start of an extremely intimate relationship between the U.S. and Iranian governments that would continue right up until the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s.

Learn more: The Iranian Revolution & the Hostage Crisis

Iran was important to the United States, not only for its strategic location but for its considerable oil reserves as well. Access to cheap and readily available oil was crucial to the American war effort, especially since the United States was exporting oil to many of its wartime allies. Moreover, in the early 1940s it was mistakenly assumed that domestic American oil reserves were nearly exhausted and that any additional oil required by the United States would have to come from overseas.

Britain’s Right to Iranian Oil

Of the three countries that occupied Iran during World War II, only Britain had been granted the right to extract and market Iranian oil. The Soviet Union and the United States were eager to gain oil concessions of their own, and both countries pressured the Iranian government to grant such concessions. Many Iranian politicians resented this pressure, and in 1944 the Iranian parliament passed a law forbidding the cabinet from granting any additional oil concessions without the parliament’s permission. At least for the time being, Britain was able to retain its monopolistic position in Iran.

Keep Reading:
World War II and the Advent of Fast Food
The Ottoman Empire at Total War, 1914–1916
The Great Powers of World War I — Germany’s Revolution

From the Lecture Series: The United States and the Middle East: 1914 to 9/11
Taught by Professor Salim Yaqub, Ph.D.