This painting once decorated the Abbas Mirza’s palace. Depicted on this huge canvas is the defeat of the Russian Trinity Infantry Regiment in the battle near Sultanabad, which took place on 13 February 1812. Persian soldiers wearing European uniforms and bearing Persian banners, on which a lion holds a sabre in its paw against a background of the rising sun.

This painting by Franz Roubaud illustrates an episode near the Askerna river where the Russians managed to repel attacks by a larger Persian army for two weeks. They made a “living bridge”, so that two cannons could be transported over their bodies.

The story of Persia’s dealings with the Western powers in the reign of Fath Ali Shah would be almost comical if the consequences, both short and long term, had not proved so damaging. From the perspectives of the individual European states themselves, their conduct was logical, if shortsighted, given wartime necessity. From a Persian perspective, it looks fickle and crass.

But it began well: the first European mission successfully to agree to a treaty was from the English East India Company (EIC), and they knew how to handle things. In 1800 the company sent a very able young man, the future historian John Malcolm, with a retinue of some five hundred men, including a military escort of one hundred Indian cavalry. The almost royal progress of this caravan made a strong impression, as did the lavish gifts the company could afford to send with it. The government of India and its counterpart in London had been shocked by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, and alarmed by a French mission to Tehran in 1796. They were determined to make an alliance with Persia to secure the western approaches to India. The alliance could also be used against the danger of Afghan incursion into northern India. In January 1801 political and commercial treaties were signed, according to which the French were to be excluded from Persia, and Fath Ali Shah agreed to attack the Afghans if the Afghans made any incursion in India. The British agreed to send “cannon and warlike stores” if the Afghans or the French were to attack Persia. The company’s commercial privileges in Persia were confirmed and enhanced, and a solid Anglo-Persian alliance seemed to be taking shape.

But the big question mark over the treaties was Russia, which was a more immediate concern for the Persians than France. After Agha Mohammad’s massacre at Tbilisi in 1795, the Russians established a protectorate in Georgia, stationed troops there in 1799, and later abolished the Georgian monarchy after the death of its king—effectively annexing the territory. Fath Ali Shah continued to declare Persia’s sovereignty over Georgia, to no avail, and Russian generals speculated about pushing the Russian frontier farther south, to the Araxes. In 1804, led by a brutal general called Tsitsianov, the Russians set about it in earnest, taking Ganja and massacring as many as three thousand people there (including five hundred Muslims who had taken sanctuary in a mosque). They fought an inconclusive battle against Fath Ali Shah’s son Abbas Mirza outside Yerevan. But as Nader Shah had discovered to his cost, and as many later Russian military men including Tolstoy and Lermontov were to confirm, the Caucasus was an awkward place to go soldiering. The war proved more difficult than Tsitsianov had anticipated, and a little later the Persians succeeded in killing him by a trick. The Russians suggested some negotiations with the Persian governor of Baku, but the Persian governor, suspecting bad faith, made preparations for an assassination. Tsitsianov and the governor both went to the appointed meeting place with just three attendants each, but when they arrived the governor’s nephew shot Tsitsianov through the chest.

In the meantime, British interest in Persia had faded. It was complicated: after a short peace between Britain and France, hostilities reopened between them, and whereas before 1801 the British had suspected Russia of wanting to cooperate with the French against India, they now secured an alliance with Russia against Napoleon. Fath Ali Shah invoked the Treaty of 1801 and asked the British for help against Russia in the Caucasus, but the British valued their northern ally more than their Persian one. They ignored the request.

Seeing an opportunity, the French made overtures to the Persians and in May 1807 Fath Ali Shah agreed to sign the Treaty of Finckenstein with them (the treaty was signed in East Prussia, as Napoleon’s army recovered from the bloody Battle of Eylau and prepared for a renewed attack on the Russians). This was a mirror image of the previous treaty with the British: the Persians agreed to expel the British and to attack India; Napoleon recognized Persian sovereignty over Georgia and promised military assistance against the Russians; and a mission under the Frenchman Claude Matthieu, Count Gardane, set out for Tehran to fulfill those terms. But before Gardane could get there Napoleon defeated the Russians decisively at Friedland in June 1807, and signed a treaty of alliance with the Russian tsar at Tilsit the next month. The diplomatic dance swung around, and the partners changed again.

With a French military mission in Tehran training up a Persian army to invade India, the British were impressed once more with the urgency of an alliance with Fath Ali Shah. But because the government in London and the East India Company government in India could not agree on which should take precedence in policy on Persia, they sent two competing missions—one from London under Sir Harford Jones, and one from Bombay again headed by John Malcolm. Malcolm got to Persia first but was allowed no farther than Bushire, because of Fath Ali Shah’s commitments to the French; Malcolm sailed back to Bombay in July 1808 after three fruitless months. Meanwhile, Count Gardane was in an impossible position, training Persians whose only real interest was in the continuing war with Russia and the re-conquest of Georgia. And Russia was now France’s ally. Harford Jones succeeded where Malcolm had failed, reaching Tehran in March 1809. Gardane, by now discredited, flitted out of the country a month later, abandoning France’s commitments to Persia.

Jones and the Persians signed a Treaty of Friendship and Alliance that went further than the Treaty of 1801 and gave the Persians more watertight guarantees. The Persians were to receive help against any invading European power, even if Britain had made a separate peace with that power, provided Persia was not the aggressor. The help was to be in the form of British troops, or failing that, subsidies, cannon, muskets, and British officers. For his part, the shah undertook not to do anything to endanger British interests in India, and to give military assistance in case of an attack by the Afghans.

But although the British encouraged Fath Ali Shah to continue the costly war with the Russians, when Napoleon attacked Russia in 1812 Britain and Russia again became allies, and Britain’s enthusiasm for helping Persia against the Russians evaporated. The war in the Caucasus was now, for Britain, an embarrassment that needed tidying up. Although the Persians fought hard with some successes under Fath Ali’s son Abbas Mirza, their failures were more damaging, culminating in October 1812 in a heavy defeat at Aslanduz on the Araxes. Britain served as a mediator for a peace signed at Golestan in October 1813. The treaty was a terrible humiliation. Persia kept Yerevan and Nakhichevan, but lost everything else north of the Araxes, including Daghestan, Shirvan, and Georgia, and cities that had been part of the Persian Empire for centuries—Darband, Baku, Tblisi, and Ganja among them. It also included provisions that only the Russians could maintain warships on the Caspian Sea, and that Russia would recognize and support the legitimate heir to the throne of Persia. This last point gave the Russians a locus for meddling in the royal succession, which was to prove seriously damaging. When the terms of the treaty became known, they caused anger in Persia and calls for renewed jihad against the Russians, led by bellicose mullahs in the towns. Abbas Mirza regarded the treaty only as a truce, and redoubled his efforts to turn the army he controlled in Azerbaijan into a modernized force that could fight the Russians on equal terms.

It didn’t work. War was renewed with Russia in 1826, after a period in which Abbas Mirza drew further help from the British (who with the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 grew more anti-Russian again), and another aggressive Russian general, Yermolov, did his best to alienate the new subject populations—over-interpreting the terms of the Golestan treaty and further irritating the Persians. Yermolov proved more belligerent in peace than in war, and the Persians made some initial gains, marching toward Tbilisi and up the Caspian coast. Many local leaders went over to the Persian side, and Yermolov abandoned Ganja. But soon Russian reinforcements arrived under more active commanders. Once war was begun, the British refused further help, pointing to the clause in the Treaty of 1809 that exempted them from doing so if Persia were the aggressor. Before the year was out the armies of Abbas Mirza and his brother Mohammad Mirza were defeated in separate battles, Ganja was retaken, and the Persians were back where they had started. In 1827 the Russians advanced farther, taking Yerevan at the beginning of October and Tabriz later in the month.

The mountains and forests of the Caucasus were ideal country for guerrilla warfare, and if, especially in this second war, when the local tribes were ill-disposed toward the Russians, the Persians had fought in that way, they might have been more successful. The Lezges had fought off Nader Shah with guerrilla tactics in the 1740s, and they (with the Chechens) would give the Russians enormous difficulties in the long wars they fought in the decades after 1830. But the Persians had seen themselves as equals of the Russians, and had aspired to fight them in the open field. They disdained to fight the hit-and-run war of the ragged Sunni tribesmen of the Caucasus, whose overlords they had been for centuries. That was their mistake; they were not flexible enough, and misjudged the measure of Russian military superiority.

Peace was concluded at Turkmanchai in February 1828, with even more humiliating terms than those of Golestan. Persia lost Yerevan, and the border was set at the river Araxes. Persia had to pay Russia twenty million rubles as reparations and all captives had to be returned to Russian territory—even if they had been taken twenty or more years before. According to commercial agreements made at the same time, Russian merchants were to be allowed to operate freely in Persia, and (these provisions were aptly named capitulations) were effectively exempt from Persian jurisdiction.

The treaty had a violent and undiplomatic postscript. A distinguished literary man and friend of Pushkin, Alexander Griboyedov, arrived in Tehran as Russian Minister Plenipotentiary and set about enforcing the terms of the treaty, being particularly exercised about the provisions over the return of captives. He set about extricating from Persian families women who had been taken captive as Christians but who had subsequently converted. Some of these women were less than keen to be rescued, and the Russians’ interference in private Persian households gave great offense, which was whipped up further by radical mullahs. A mob gathered outside the Russian embassy on January 30, 1829. One account says a Cossack on the roof shot a boy in the crowd. The mob broke in and found and murdered an Armenian eunuch who had previously served the shah. Two women were also dragged away, and several of the crowd were killed in the fighting as the Cossacks who served as guards tried to protect the building. The bodies were carried away to the mosques, but later the mob returned, broke in again, and massacred all the Russians except one, who escaped dressed as a Persian. Griboyedov was apparently convinced that the shah himself was behind the attacks. It seems his last words were Fath Ali Shah! Je m’en fous!

Fath Ali Shah could perhaps have tried harder to control the situation that led to the killings, but it is most unlikely that he was in any serious way to blame (some Russians have blamed the British ambassador also, for inciting the mob, which illustrates the rivalry between the two powers in Persia by this time, but has no basis in fact). Fath Ali Shah had to send a mission to St. Petersburg to present his apologies and smooth things over.

The Persian/Russian wars and their consequences illustrated a number of important realities about the state of Fath Ali Shah’s realm. Militarily and economically, it was no match for the European powers. The army Abbas Mirza led into the Caucasus in 1826 was thirty-five thousand strong, which was large by comparison with those that had fought the civil wars forty years earlier, but the Russians had lost a larger number of men as casualties in a single day when they fought Napoleon at Borodino in 1812. The Russians had some difficulties getting troops to the Caucasus and in supplying them once there, but their reserves of manpower and war materials were impossible for the Persians to equal—even if the Persians could have come up to the Russian standard of drill, training, and staff work.

The point was not that the Persians were bad soldiers, nor really that they had fallen behind technologically (not yet). It was just that the Qajar state was not the same kind of state, nor was it trying to be. It controlled its territory loosely, through proxies and alliances with local tribes. The state bureaucracy was small, revolving around the court much as it had in the days of the Safavids. It has been estimated that between a half and a third of the population were still nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists. Provincial governors were often tribal leaders. They ruled independently, with little interference from the capital, and sent there what tax revenue was left after they had deducted their own expenses, which was not usually very much (Abbas Mirza’s army was largely recruited and paid for from the province of Azerbaijan in which he was governor). To raise money for the wars, Fath Ali Shah had alienated crown lands, increasing the devolved tendency. Nader Shah would have handled matters differently, but the apparent lesson of his reign was that ambition, greater integration, centralization, militarism, and higher taxation went together—they alienated important supporters, created opposition and revolt, and led to civil war. All Persian rulers after Nader, from Karim Khan Zand onward (even Agha Mohammad Shah), seemed to have absorbed that lesson. They rejected Nader’s model and accepted a more devolved state as the price of stability and popular consent to their rule.

The other side of the story is that most Iranians at the time probably preferred it this way. In the smaller towns and villages of the country (where most still lived), the wars in Armenia and Shirvan were a long way off, and there would have been only sporadic (and inaccurate) news of them. The civil wars between the Qajars and the Zands, let alone the earlier revolts in the time of Nader Shah and the Afghans, had affected many more Iranians either directly or indirectly through economic dislocation. Those terrible events were still within living memory, and most Iranians would have been grateful to have been spared them. Under Fath Ali Shah some moderate prosperity returned to these traditional communities.

But the popular agitation for war and the murder of Griboyedov showed the influence of the mullahs, and the closeness of some of them to at least one important strand of popular feeling in the towns (as always, one should be wary of assuming all the mullahs thought the same way—they did not). In later decades, as other European powers demanded, secured, and exploited the same privileges as those accorded the Russians at Turkmanchai, popular feeling became more and more bitter at the apparent inability of the Qajar monarchy to uphold Persian sovereignty and dignity.


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