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The Shah's Northern Navy
Diplomatic history of the Caspian Sea

July 31, 2001
The Iranian

From Guive Mirfendereski's A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (Palgrave, 2001) .

-- Chapter titles and endorsements
-- Foreward
-- Introduction
-- Chapter 13: Taming of the Turkmans
-- Chapter 31: The Shah's Northern Navy
-- Chapter 33: Making Virtue of Necessity
-- Appendix

Chapter 31

On the way to conduct a botanical study of northern Persia, in March 1935, Mrs. Nancy Fullerton and her colleague, Miss Nancy Lindsay, both from the British Museum in London, reached Baku, where in Fullerton's words, "oil wells showed like chessmen against the sky." One late afternoon, the party boarded a "little ship" that hardly compared to a steamer in the English Channel and headed to Anzali. The ship was clean; it had very little deck space, though, but provided three classes of accommodation. The evening sail from Baku proved pleasant: The weather was warm, the sea was calm. And the water was made smooth and silky with the oil that trailed the ship for some distance. "We watched the stars come out like diamonds in a deep sapphire sky," wrote Fullerton.

On board, dinner was served at eight o'clock, communally. It, Fullerton noted, was plentiful and very good. The featured wine was a product of Persia, rather sweet and heavy like port. Among the Persian passengers, there was the Persian foreign minister. There was also a student who was returning from years of study in France; he had all his notes confiscated by the Russians at Baku. There were also two Persian doctors, one of whom was returning from Germany after 16 years to set up an electric shock treatment clinic in Tehran. There was a carpet merchant who resided in Berlin. Several Czech men and women also were on board; they were going to Persia in order to join the Skoda Works, which was building the railway from the Caspian. A French consulting engineer, on his second or third trip to Persia, was headed to Tehran to obtain a contract for a future part of the Caspian railway.

"Early the next morning," Fullerton wrote, "we had the first glimpse of Persia, our promised land, a low line through the mist on the horizon." "The shore," she noted, "was low and sandy, edged with houses and huts with straw roofs, like bee-hives. As we came nearer to Pahlevi, there were more modern and ugly houses." "Boats," she wrote, "came out to meet us -- part of the Persian Navy and the Governor of Gilan's launch, in honour of the Foreign Minister."

The Persian Navy? In the Caspian Sea? The process by which Persia had come again to develop a naval presence in the Caspian is a remarkable story and shares some of the same elements that had prompted Nader Shah to create a naval force in the Caspian back in the 1740s. Nader's ambition had been to secure the blessings of maritime trade and ensure the security of the Persian coast. Also, geopolitically, he had sought to ensure that the Caspian, an inland sea, and the Persian Gulf, a semi-enclosed sea, each be rendered a "mare clausum to Persia, as the Black Sea then was to Turkey."

Nader Shah's plans died with him, giving birth to two recurrent themes in observations made about the Persians and their flirtation with sea power. One is the generalization that Persia's failure to become a naval power was due in part to the Persian's aversion to the sea. Nader's "ambition was shortlived," wrote J. B. Kelly, an eminent historian of the Persian Gulf, "not least because his subjects had no love of the sea." Similarly, J. G. Lorimer, the editor of the Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, described the Persians as "not being good judges in marine matters" and that was the reason why they accepted the Northumberland without complaining about its decrepit condition. The truth about the Persian and the sea, as Laurence Lockhart has suggested, seems to have lain in a state of mind that was informed by a healthy respect for the sea, sporadic recognition of the need for sea power, and unavailability of resources and technical know-how.

The other recurrent theme in the observations made about the Persian navy is about the tenacity by which the relics of the Persian navy litter the Persian landscape. In that tradition, in August 1875, Ballantine noted the remains of Persia's navy, this time littering the landscape near Anzali. "As we neared the town," he wrote, "we noticed a couple of dilapidated hulks, that might have been steamers once, which we were told in all serious-ness, formed the Shah's navy. We readily believed the statement, as we probably should not have done had we not just come through Persia." "[C]ertainly," he noted of the able oarsmen who rowed him for 15 miles from Piri Bazar to Anzali, "our experience with Persian oarsmen was anything but creditable to the nation, who are notedly the reverse of a seafaring people."

In the 1740s Nader's desire to establish a northern navy had been informed in part by the depredation of the Tekke and other Turkmen marauders raiding the Persian coast near Gorgan. The beginning of the Pahlavi navy in the Caspian was stirred by events not dissimilar to those that shaped Nader's experience.

In 1924, a band of Uzbeks raided the Persian customs and military posts at Farahabad; they killed the customs chief and his shepherd and carried off their wives and belongings by sea. In 1924 the Persian government ordered its military procurement agent in Germany to purchase at once a naval vessel for deployment in the Caspian. The agent bought the Fatiya, a 171-ton German minesweeper that was built in 1917. To pilot the vessel to Persia, the agent hired the services of a Persian-Armenian, named Khachik, who resided in Germany and who had acquired his marine skills in the German service. Arming the boat with a 48mm canon and a 37mm heavy machine gun, the agent applied at the Soviet embassy in Berlin for permission to have the gunboat sent down the Volga to Anzali. The Soviets denied the application, stating that the passage of the gunboat through the Volga was inconsistent with Soviet interests. However, they offered, if Persia required assistance in fighting contraband and maintaining order at sea, then the Soviet government would be pleased to place a similar naval vessel at the service of the Persian government.

The agent dismantled the guns and reapplied for permission. The idea was that the stripped vessel would go by way of the Volga, while its guns were to be sent separately to Persia by another route. The Soviet government again denied the application. Regardless, the gunboat was christened the Pahlavi and eventually made its way to Persia by way of the Persian Gulf. Upon arrival, it was judged not to be substantial enough to deserve the royal name of Pahlavi, and so it promptly was renamed the Shahin, meaning "hawk."

The Soviet government was under no legal obligation to allow the Pahlavi to pass through the Volga. The Friendship Treaty had given to Persia, arguably and in rather ambiguous terms at best, the right to maintain a navy in the Caspian. However, nowhere in the treaty did the Soviet government accord to Persia the right of free passage or transit for its vessels through Soviet territory and waters. The Soviet government was not about to create a precedent to the contrary, especially since that could undermine the Soviet control of the access to the sea and could encourage traffic by third countries in and out of the Caspian. Nevertheless, in the context of the spirit of the Friendship Treaty, the Soviet refusal to let the Pahlavi pass through was an act of bad faith and ill will.

The Soviet refusal was not going to deter Reza Khan in his naval quest. Still in 1924, he ordered the commander of the army in northern Persia to procure locally several vessels for duty in the Caspian. A 70-ton, useless, and decrepit vessel belonging to the Lionozov enterprise and laying at anchor at Chimkhaleh near Anzali was pressed into service. A multinational crew made up of various expatriates, including Polish, German, and Russian seamen, undertook the rehabilitation of the vessel. Armed with the two guns that were brought from the arsenal in Tehran, the Sefidrud was commissioned in February 1925 for security patrol and interdiction of contraband.

Stationed off Piri Bazar, the Sefidrud's first major operation turned out to be the successful blockade of the Turkmen position near Gorgan, where the Turkmens were fighting the Persian army. Upon return from this operation, the vessel was renamed the Nahang, meaning "whale." Later, a 15-ton vessel also belonging to the Lionozov enterprise was purchased by the Persian government, renamed the Chalus, after a town in western Mazandaran some 34 miles east southeast of Shahsavar. Converted into a gunboat, the Chalus was commissioned in 1927 for patrol duty in the Caspian.

The Fisheries Agreement removed some of the ambiguity with respect to Persia developing a Caspian navy. The agreement had provided expressly for the Persian government to police the fisheries in the southern Caspian. That implied the recognition of Persia's right to develop and maintain a marine police force. The issue, not addressed then, was the extent of the area within which Persian naval units could patrol and exercise enforcement jurisdiction. On the face of the agreement's own definition of the concession area, this geographical area would have been deemed to coincide with the limits of the area known as the Caspian's southern part, or in the words of the agreement proper, "la cote meridionale." It is likely that the area consisted of the waters inside the line connecting the Russian-Persian land boundaries, from Astra-Chay to a point north of Gumesh Tappeh on the shores of Hassanqoli Bay.

In 1928, the Persian government ordered three 60-ton naval ships to be built at Ancona on the eastern coast of Italy. Each was to be armed with 47mm guns and heavy machine guns. As if to remind Persia of the limits of Soviet tolerance of a Persian navy in the Caspian, the Soviet government now began questioning the Persian title to the Nahang, formerly Sefidrud, and the Chalus, which the Persian government had acquired from the Lionozov enterprise.

On the occasion of the signing of the Russian-Persian Convention of Establishment, Commerce, and Navigation (ECN Agreement), on October 27, 1931, the Soviet ambassador at Tehran tendered a diplomatic note to the Persian government, informing that the USSR was reserving all its rights to men of war, or warships that had belonged to the former Russian empire. In addition, the Soviets reserved their rights to the merchant ships that had become state property by virtue of Soviet decrees that nationalized the merchant marine. The decrees applied to the vessels that had been transported abroad, without the consent of the Soviet government, and sold, or in some fashion made to escape from the possession of the governmental organs of the USSR. In reply, the Persian foreign minister acknowledged receipt of the Soviet note, without comment.

The 1931 ECN Agreement became binding on the parties on June 22, 1932. But all the goodwill and conviviality engendered by it was not enough to get the Soviets to agree to the passage of three Persian gunboats from Italy to Anzali by way of the Volga. In a move reminiscent of Nader Shah's steely determination to overcome logistical adversity, Reza Shah decided to have the three vessels shipped to Persia in pieces by way of the Persian Gulf.

On November 9, 1932, while reporting the arrival of Persia's Italian-built gunboats to the Persian Gulf, London's Evening Standard observed that Persia's naval units conducted no operations off the Caspian coast, because the Bolsheviks did not allow any government a free hand in the area that they considered as the Soviet zone of influence. It now looked as though these gunboats were going to have the same fate as the Shahin, confined to service in the Persian Gulf. But when the crates arrived at Khorramshahr, Persia's chief port on the Shatt al-Arab River, the pieces were transported overland to Bandar Pahlavi. There they were assembled with the help of Italian technicians. Named the Sefidrud, Gorgan, and Babolsar, the gunboats began service in 1933. Needless to say, the Persian navy was no match for Soviet supremacy in the Caspian. As a reminder of who was still boss in this sea, on April 9, 1933, the Soviet navy appeared off Gorgan and seized a number of Persian fishing boats and their crew. Speaking before The Iran Society in London, on December 9, 1936, Laurence Lockhart observed that, like Nader Shah, Reza Shah Pahlavi "has realized the value of sea power, and has already formed the nucleus of a fleet; although the vessels forming the present Iranian Navy are not large, they are modern and efficient, and they have already done much to prevent smuggling." "A point of great importance," Lockhart concluded, "is that these vessels are manned by Iranian officers and men. In this respect H.I.M. the Shah has laid the foundations of his fleet upon a more secure and enduring basis than Nader Shah was able to do."

Most significantly, in the Caspian the nucleus of the shah's northern navy was thus formed without any favor from the Soviet Union. Necessity and will on the part of the Persian government had overcome both legal and physical obstacles and led to the development of a modest Persian navy in the northern sea.

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