The dominant theme of this collection is the position of Persia between two powerful neighbours, Russia in the north and the British Government of India in the east. British involvement in Persia dated back to the East India Company's first trading contacts of the early 17th century, and by the late 19th century, the country's economic life was largely in the hands of Russian and British concessionaires.
Persia became the playground of Russiand and British interests for almost half a century, during which the British, with their immensely valuable oil concessions in the south, emerged as the dominant, if only despised foreign partner.
Britain's strategic planning and policy formulation relied on 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.
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 (only raised to embassy status in 1944), there were Consuls-General at Bushehr (Bushire) from 1878, Isfahan from 1891 and Mashhad (Meshed) from 1889, and at varying dates Consuls in Ahwaz, Kerman, Kermanshah, Khorramshahr, Rasht (Resht), Seistan and Shiraz. Each post maintained Special Secret Service funds. 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.'
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.
The General Staff, in 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 consulate in Mashhad (in the eastern province of Khurasan) 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.