In the 1870s and 1880s, Russia completed its conquest of central Asia and bordered Persia on the north-east as well as the north. The 1,200 miles of common frontier stretched from Mount Ararat and around the Caspian Sea to the borders of Afghanistan. Given its weakness, Persia’s only means of resisting Russian pressure was to seek Britain’s backing, and this required the granting of a series of concessions to British commercial interests.
Throughout the nineteenth century the Persian shahs ruled as despots with little restraint on their personal power. Only the nomadic tribes – about a quarter of the population, who inhabited the mountain ranges along Persia’s eastern and western borders – retained a sense of independence, regarding the monarchy with some disdain. The great majority of the rest of the population consisted of illiterate peasant farmers living close to subsistence level in small mud villages. Although legally free, in practice they were tied to the land. Most of the landlords (who measured their wealth by the number of villages they owned) were absentees, living in the larger cities and leaving the management of their villages in the hands of an agent. Despite their wealth and power over the peasantry, they did not form a cohesive feudal class which was capable of challenging the absolutism of the throne, and, as the ultimate owners of the land, the shahs did not hesitate to confiscate an individual landlord’s property when they were in need of funds.
There was no European type of bourgeoisie or professional class. In Shiite Persia, the religious hierarchy, made up of mullahs, with a better-educated upper class of mujtahids, learned in Islamic law, was much larger than its equivalent, the ulama, in Sunni Islam. But, despite its influence with the people, it rarely chose to defy the authority of the throne. The nearest equivalent to a middle class was formed by the bazaaris or merchants, who ranged from itinerant pedlars to wealthy exporters of the carpets and textiles which were virtually Persia’s only manufactured goods. However, their lack of cohesion meant that their political influence was very limited.
The most serious challenge to the shahs came from the leaders of religious sects. In the 1840s a rebellion broke out led by the Agha Khan, spiritual head of the Ismailis, and then another by the Babi movement, created by Mirza Ali Mohammed, son of a Shiraz merchant, who after making the pilgrimage to Mecca declared himself to be the bab (gateway) to the divine truth. His movement spread and became so strong that in 1850 Nasir al-Din Shah was obliged to have him executed. Two years later a Babi attempt to assassinate the shah led to the fierce persecution of the sect, and most of the survivors fled the country. However, an offshoot of the Babis – the Bahais – continued. This never threatened the shahs but was still held in suspicion.
The closest equivalent to a reform movement in nineteenth-century Persia was instituted by Mirza Taqi Khan, the capable and honest vizier appointed by the young Nasir al-Din when he came to the throne. Impressed by the Tanzimat reforms in Ottoman Turkey, he persuaded the shah to reorganize the armed forces and ensure that they were properly paid and to end the sale of titles and offices and various other abuses. He was also responsible for the founding of the École Polytechnique or Dar al-Fanun in Tehran and the first Persian newspaper. But the reforms were short-lived. The shah’s formidable mother persuaded him that Taqi Khan was becoming too powerful, and Nasir al-Din ordered his execution.
Despite his occasional acts of cruelty the shah was generally a humane ruler, but his liberal and reformist inclinations, which had been encouraged by Taqi Khan, did not last. He was affected by the failure of the constitutional movement in Ottoman Turkey and Abdul Hamid II’s speedy reversion to autocratic rule in 1878. In the last years of his reign he ruled as despotically as any of his predecessors. His greatest achievement was to establish security throughout the empire. There was some very limited modernization in the form of paved roads and the electric telegraph (installed by the IndoEuropean Telegraph Company, acting on behalf of the British government of India to serve its imperial interests). The Dar al-Fanun in Tehran taught science and engineering on modern lines, and there was a modest growth in the publishing of newspapers and books. In general, however, the systems of administration, education and justice (which applied both Islamic and customary pre-Islamic law) remained on medieval lines. The shah enjoyed travelling to Europe but prevented the Persian upper class from educating their children abroad, in case they should be infected with Western ideas.
The shah and his court were extravagant and demanding. To protect the throne, he maintained substantial armed forces which, although ill-paid, corrupt and inefficient, were costly. Since there was so little economic growth or development, and the returns from the sale of government offices were limited, state revenues were minimal. The shah therefore had recourse to the granting of concessions to foreign interests. The most remarkable of these was the concession awarded to Baron Julius de Reuter, a naturalized British subject, in 1873. Covering all Persia, this gave the Baron a seventy-year monopoly on the construction and operation of all Persian railroads and streetcars and on the exploitation of all mineral resources and government forests, including all uncultivated lands; an option on all future enterprises connected with the construction of roads, telegraphs, mills, factories, workshops and public works of every kind; and the right to collect all Persian customs duties for twenty-five years. In return, de Reuter was to pay the Persian government 20 per cent of the railway profits and 15 per cent of those from other sources. Lord Curzon commented that this represented ‘the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a kingdom into foreign hands that has probably ever been dreamt of, much less accomplished in history’.
The shah naïvely believed that he had both ensured some revenues and delegated his country’s economic regeneration to Britain. Russia’s furious reaction forced him to cancel the concession, but in 1899 British pressure forced him to grant a more limited concession which enabled de Reuter to establish the Imperial Bank of Persia, with the right to issue its own banknotes, and to search for oil.
Largely because of his willingness to mortgage the country’s resources in this way, Nasir al-Din lost popularity in his later years and a liberal reformist movement began to emerge. Although Persia was much more isolated from the West than Ottoman Turkey, there was some penetration of Western ideas and methods via the foreign military missions, consular and bank officials and the Christian missionaries who were permitted to found schools and hospitals. The reform movement had a more potent stimulus from another source – the reformer and preacher of pan-Islamic ideals Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. The shah was attracted by al-Afghani’s writings in his Paris exile and in 1886 he invited him to Persia, where he became an honoured member of the Royal Council. However, he soon began to preach subversive and revolutionary ideas – to the alarm of the shah and his ministers – and, when in 1890 he led the popular denunciation of the granting of a tobacco concession to a British group, he was deported from Persia. His movement survived, and in 1896 one of his disciples assassinated Nasir al-Din.
The reform movement gathered strength during the reign of Nasir al-Din’s weak and ailing son Muzaffar al-Din, who exceeded his father in extravagance. A new reformist leader was Malkom Khan, the Persian ambassador in London, who campaigned against the shah’s chief minister. When dismissed, he published a newspaper Qanun (‘Law’) calling for a fixed code of laws and the assembly of a parliament. Although banned in Persia, the paper nevertheless had a wide circulation in the country.
In 1903 the shah appointed his able but ultra-reactionary son-in-law Prince Ayn-u-Dula to assume control of government affairs. His actions provoked further opposition, and matters came to a head in 1905. A group of merchants, outraged by the extravagance and corruption of the court and the country’s increased indebtedness which had led the government to introduce an onerous new customs tariff, took best or sanctuary in a Tehran mosque, in accordance with an ancient custom, in order to voice their protests. They were joined by some prominent mullahs. When the shah promised to meet some of their demands but then prevaricated and intensified the repression, a larger group combining many of the country’s notables – merchants, bankers and clerics – took best in the grounds of the British legation to persist with their demand for the introduction of a legal code and also, for the first time, a constitution. In October 1906, now in desperately bad health, the shah complied – with extreme reluctance. A Majlis or parliament was convened which drafted a Fundamental Law of the constitution.
The Constitutional Revolution, as it is known, received the support of virtually the whole nation and was a milestone in Persian history. Subsequent shahs attempted to reverse it, but none was wholly successful and some form of constitutional and representative government has survived to the present day.
The constitutionalists received some inspiration from the attempt by their Russian counterparts in 1905 to end the autocratic role of the tsar. A different kind of stimulus came from the Russo-Japanese War of the same year, in which for the first time a modernizing Asian state defeated one of the great European powers. (This was also an inspiration for the Egyptian nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel in the same period.) However, with its blend of the secular and clerical, the reform movement had a strongly Persian character.
Muzaffar al-Din was succeeded in 1907 by his son Mohammed Ali, who reigned for only two years, amid continuing unrest. Like his father, he repeatedly promised to accept reforms only then to ignore them. At one point he bombarded the Majlis, which he had attempted unsuccessfully to dissolve, and killed or wounded many deputies. This led to a serious uprising in Tabriz which his troops were unable to quell. Russian troops intervened, ostensibly to protect Russian nationals. The nationalist forces gathered strength and marched on Tehran. Unable to resist, the shah took refuge in the Russian legation. As he went into exile in Russia, the Majlis decided that his 11-year-old son Ahmed Mirza should succeed him.
Popular feeling had been stirred up not only by the shah’s action but also by the Anglo-Russian agreement of August 1907, which was designed to settle all outstanding differences concerning Persia and Afghanistan between Russia and Britain. The two powers were already expecting the coming struggle with imperial Germany, in which there were strong chances that Ottoman Turkey would be Germany’s ally. In effect the agreement divided Persia into Russian and British spheres of interest, with Russia taking the north and centre, Britain the south-east, and the south-west remaining a ‘neutral’ zone. Persian opinion was dismayed and angry when the agreement was made known. Britain especially had been thought to have sympathized with the constitutionalist revolution. The European powers’ wider strategic interests did not concern the Persians: Russia and Britain were henceforth regarded as the two imperial powers which sought to destroy Persia’s independence.
Britain might be said to have had the worst of the 1907 agreement, because south-eastern Persia consists mainly of desert. However, British interests in Persia were about to receive a powerful boost. De Reuter had abandoned his mineral concession after two years, having failed to find oil, but in 1901 Shah Muzaffar al-Din granted an Englishman, William Knox D’Arcy, a sixty-year petroleum and gas concession covering the whole of the Persian Empire. The British government had lobbied strongly in D’Arcy’s favour through the legation in Tehran, and the Persian grand vizier, who had been won over, successfully kept the deal secret from the Russians until it was signed.
D’Arcy looked for oil for several years without success, until his funds were nearly exhausted and he began to look around the world for new investors. At this point the British Admiralty intervened. The First Sea Lord, the dynamic and independent-minded Admiral John Fisher, had long ago determined that the British navy should convert its ships from the use of coal to oil. This, he reckoned, would increase its fighting capacity by 50 per cent. But 90 per cent of the world’s oil was then produced in the United States and Russia, and the rest was already covered by concessions. The world market was dominated by Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell. It was urgently necessary to find an independent source under British control. In 1905 the Admiralty persuaded the British Burmah Oil Company to link up with D’Arcy and provide new funds. In 1908 D’Arcy’s engineers, at the point of abandoning the search in despair, drilled into one of the world’s largest oilfields at Masjid-i-Sulaiman in south-western Persia. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed, and shares were sold to an enthusiastic public.
There were still difficulties. The oilfields were situated not in the British sphere of influence but in the neutral zone. The semi-independent Arab shaikh of Mohammereh regarded the area as his territory. Marauding tribes threatened the pipeline needed to export the oil to the Gulf. Accordingly Britain signed an agreement recognizing the shaikh and his successors as the lawful rulers of Mohammereh in return for an annual rental. The shaikh undertook to protect the oil installations.
In 1911 the young Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in Britain’s Liberal government, and a huge and expensive three-year development programme for the navy was launched. In addition to Persia’s vital strategic significance for the British Empire, Persian oil was of crucial military importance. In June 1914, just two months before the outbreak of the First World War, Churchill presented the House of Commons with an agreement under which Anglo-Persian would guarantee oil supplies for twenty years while the British government would buy a controlling interest in the company (later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and ultimately British Petroleum) for £2.2 million. Despite a few members’ misgivings that this would provoke the Russians and further weaken the Persian government, the agreement was overwhelmingly approved. Churchill later estimated that the investment brought savings of £40 million and paid for the gigantic expansion of the British navy without any cost to the British taxpayer.
With the 11-year-old Ahmed Mirza on the throne, Persia’s internal situation became more chaotic. The victorious nationalists split into two parties – revolutionaries and moderates. The Russians sent troops to Kazvin in Tehran province, against British protests, on the familiar pretext of protecting their nationals. The lack of administrative experience of the new regime showed the urgent need of foreign advisers but, since neither Britain nor Russia would agree to the appointment of the other’s nationals, it was necessary to look elsewhere for these. Belgians were placed in charge of the customs. An appeal was made to the United States, and President Taft recommended an experienced lawyer and civil servant William Shuster, who in 1911 was placed in charge of Persia’s finances with full powers for a three-year period. Although the United States was in no way an imperial power in the Middle East at that period, the Russians vigorously protested, and persisted with their opposition to the point of threatening to occupy Tehran. The regent Nasir al-Mulk thereupon carried out a coup d’état, dissolved the Majlis and acceded to the Russian demands by expelling Shuster and his colleagues in January 1912. Shuster’s efforts had just begun to show results, but the country was now left in even greater confusion.
Protests from the US government and liberal opinion in Britain were in vain – the need to accommodate Russia in the face of the expected war with Germany was paramount for Britain’s Liberal government. When the war did break out and Turkey allied itself with Germany, the Turkish threat to Russian territory and to the oilfields in the south caused Russia and Britain to occupy part of Persia in spite of its declaration of neutrality.