Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, Britain had made it abundantly clear that it took very seriously any threat to India's northwest frontier. The defense of India was a military responsibility and could not rest solely on Britain's major bulwark, the Royal Navy. Since the Germans did not possess mastery of the seas, they were unable to threaten India from the coast. The chances of revolution from within the subcontinent diminished as British rule solidified. The Germans therefore focused their attention in 1914 towards Afghanistan, trying to provide incentives to the locals to invade India.
The conflict as to the ultimate responsibility, whether it was the army's or the foreign office's, and the friction between the leading personalities at the local level were exacerbated in April 1915 when Berlin decided on a second mission. Mohamed Barkatullah, an Indian revolutionary, presented himself at the German consulate in Geneva. Barkatullah claimed a friendship with Emir Habibullah's brother, Nasrullah. The Germans agreed to send a group of Indians, including Barkatullah and Kumar Mahendra Pratap, under the management of Werner Otto von Hentig to Kabul in order to foment rebellion across the frontier.
Habibullah was astute, realistic, and hard-headed. He was guided by practical politics and not by religious fervor. His aim was to use the German mission to regain Afghan sovereignty. The German expedition became a pawn in his efforts to exact these concessions from Britain.
German intentions were known in Delhi by December 1914. Thereafter intelligence on Niedermayer's progress was full and reasonably up-to-date. British intercepts enabled Britain's policy in Kabul to anticipate that of Germany. In July 1915 Hardinge forewarned the Emir of the German arrival, and emphasized British friendship for and protection of Islam.
The Germans were granted their first audience with Habibullah. The Emir stalled. By mid-December both Hentig and Niedermayer had concluded that their mission had failed and that they should return home. The danger of losing his lever on Britain prompted Habibullah to summon the Germans once again. He told them that Afghanistan had decided to seek a treaty with Germany before it declared war; the terms of the treaty were to include a guarantee of territorial integrity, a seat at the peace conference, £10 million, 100,000 rifles, and 300 guns.
At a durbar (Indian court), Habibullah announced Afghanistan's neutrality. The Germans thought this might be another tactical ploy, but the Afghans knew of the collapse of Germany in Persia. Niedermayer developed a plan for contacting the Russians in Meshed in order to propose a joint German-Russian advance on India; his respect for the status of Afghanistan had become secondary to the local balance of power. He also spoke of organizing a coup in Kabul. The British intercepted Niedermayer's communications and informed Habibullah. The negotiations were at an end.
In the autumn of 1914 German policy focused on Afghanistan, not Persia. The German ambassador in Tehran had not encouraged General von Moltke's proposed alliance with the Shah: Persia was a country 'without patriotic energy and for the moment powerless'. It therefore became the high road to Afghanistan, not an end in itself.
Throughout the nineteenth century Persia had served as, and profited from being, a buffer between Russian expansion into Central Asia and Britain's defense of India. But in 1907 the two powers, while formally recognizing Persia's integrity, had allocated each other spheres of interest: Russia to the north and Britain to the south. A central band remained unapportioned. In the decade between the revolution and the World War, Russia became the most consistent authority in northern Persia. The Shah's powerlessness in the south prompted the British to make independent bargains with local leaders.
The Shah responded to Turkey's entry to the war by declaring Persia neutral. In reality, the statement was meaningless before it was issued. The Shah lacked an army able to ensure his country's integrity. Russia refused to withdraw from Azerbaijan. Britain, for all its attempts to get its ally to comply with Persian requests, was guilty of a double standard. It had undertaken punitive action against the Gulf tribes, and had stationed small bodies of Indian troops at Bushire and Bandar Abbas.
Shuja was defeated south of Lake Urmia by the Kurds, who then advanced on Tabriz and entered it on 8 January 1915. Enver saw the opportunity to offset the defeat of his pan-Turanian offensive at Sarikamish. He followed up the Kurds' success with the Turkish divisions, commanded by his uncle, Halil, which had arrived from Mesopotamia too late to take part in the battle in the Caucasus. Tabriz was retaken, and the Turks driven back across the frontier.
Enver's proposal was to renew the attack in Azerbaijan first. Colmar von der Goltz, who had just arrived in Constantinople, supported him: Azerbaijan was the key to Persia and commanded the route to Tehran. Halil’s force of 12,000 men concentrated on Bitlis, south of Lake Van, and took Dilman, at the northern end of Lake Urmia. But a rising of Armenians at Van to their rear, and the overawing of the Kurds by the Russians in front of them, compelled the Turks to fall back.
The Russians landed a detachment at Enzeli, on the Caspian Sea, and then pushed it forward to Kazvin. The Russians said they were relieving the troops already at Kazvin; the Persians detected a threat to Tehran. Throughout the summer the Russian and British ministries advocated further Russian intervention; by September 1915 both deprecated the policy of drift favored in London and Delhi, arguing that only an ultimatum to Persia could check the increase in German influence.
In the autumn of 1915, recognizing that the Russians could get to Tehran, the Germans decided that military action should replace negotiation, and urged the Persian Cossack brigade to turn against its Russian officers and escort the Shah and his government from the capital. The Russians got wind of the plan. The brigade was paraded, declared its loyalty to the Tsar, and the Russians threatened to restore Muhammad Ali, Ahmad's deposed father. The German attempt to seize control of the Persian government had failed. Its major ally, the nationalist lobby of the Majlis, had dissipated. Tehran remained an Entente enclave for the rest of the war.