The history of what is now known as Iran is a history of various ethnic groups, languages and cultures coexisting amongst one another. Ever since the establishment of the first Elamite civilization around 5000 BC. Iran has been a multiracial. multicultural and multilingual society (Girshman. 1954; Zerrinkoob. 1957; Pimiya. 1983: Dandamaev. 1989: Zehtabi,1999; Poorpirar, 2000, 2001a, 2001b).
The Elamites ruled in the region for 2,210 years, until their dynasty disintegrated in the year 640 BC. Alongside the Elamites, other cultures having agglutinative, Afro-Asiatic, and Semitic languages are documented to have co-existed in the region.
About four thousand years after the formation and flourishing of various cultures in the region, a new ethnographic development took place in the Iranian Plateau, and it was the arrival of waves of nomadic groups to the plateau who later came to be known as 'Indo-Europeans.' There is no uniform consensus on the exact points of origination and departure of these nomadic groups. While some have identified their origins in India, others have cited such places as central Asia, Southem Russia, Caucasia, and so on. It is generally accepted that the migration these fringe groups visiblein Near Eastern writing is a combination of various scenarios: there is imperceptible influx of pastoral people, there are clashes with the settled agriculturalists over water and grazing rights, there is cattle raiding, there is gradual influx into the cities (often by hired soldiers, with palace coups), plus outright invasion by motley groups of border peoples, who are not necessarily ethnically homogenous such as, the Guti, Lullubi, Kassites, and Mitanni between 2300 and 1450 BC. Around 1200 BC these new immigrants had reached western and central parts of current Iran. Said to be Indo-European was the Median dynasty that after ruling for around 200 years was put an end to through the invasion by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. And ever since then, the area that is now considered Iran has continued to be ruled by the Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Persians, and others. Finally in the year 637 AD, Arab-Islamic forces defeated the Sasanid regime with its capital Baghdad, in the battle of Qadisiyya and took over that empire. It is said that signs of discontent and dissatisfaction were evident , and that Sasanid regime was already in decay.
Thus Muslim scholars tend to portray this nascent Islam "as a nativist movement, or in other words as a primitive reaction to alien domination of the same types as those which the Arab conquerors were themselves to provoke in North Africa and Iran, and which European colonists were later to provoke throughout the Third World, the object of the movement being the expulsion of the foreigners in question:' As a seventh-century Muslim leader explained regarding the contemporary Islamic conquests: "Other men trampled us beneath their feet while we trampled no one. Then God sent a prophet from among us and one of his promises was that we should conquer and overcome these lands."
This thesis is true as far as it goes, yet it overlooks the same imperialist impetus behind those early Islamic conquests as for example the Sasanid regime before them. Expelling occupiers from one's patrimony is an act of self-liberation. Conquering foreign lands and subjugating their populations is pure imperialism. Neither North African Berbers fighting their Islamic conquerors nor twentieth-century Third World movements resisting European colonialism aspired to conquer the homeland of their imperial masters. Yet as we explained elsewhere, this is precisely what Muhammad asked of his followers once he had fled from his hometown of Mecca (in 622) to the town of Medina to become a political and military leader rather than a private preacher: not to rid themselves of foreign occupation but to strive for a new universal order in which the whole of humanity would embrace Islam or live under its domination.
On the cultural front, perhaps a most significant development was the establishment of the modern Farsi language with a new Arabic alphabet. Soon after the Islamic conquest, this Farsi script became the major language of science, philosophy, literature, and governance. After about two centuries, the modem Farsi language was gradually developed that not only used the Arabic alphabet, but relied heavily on the Arab language and Arabic traits in its structure and vocabulary. Even the style and form of poetry writing in Iran was fundamentally changed, following the Arabic style of rhythm. rhyming and form still in use in Iran today. For nearly two centuries the Umayyad Caliphs ruled what is now Iran and beyond, from the center of their power in Medina and Damascus. Rulers and governors were assigned to different territories. regulated the running of their provinces and responded to the Caliph directly.
The Umayyads themselves succeeded in maintaining their position mainly through reliance on physical force, and were consumed for most of their reign with preventing or quelling revolts in the diverse corners of their empire. Mu'awiya had attempted to wrest the caliphate from Ali, and while his nineteen years on the throne (661-80) were characterized by relative calm and stability owing to his formidable political and administrative skills, his son and heir, Yazid I, faced widespread disobedience on several fronts. Particularly threatening was the revolt by Abdallah ibn Zubair, son of a prominent companion of Muhammad, who refused to acknowledge the validity of the Umayyad line of succession and sought to establish himself as caliph. Ibn Zubair was supported in his endeavor by the people of Medina, who withdrew their allegiance from the caliph and circulated damning stories about his alleged religious and personal indiscretions, including his propensity for wine and singing girls and his obsession with his pet monkey, which was constantly by his side and to which he gave the dignified title of Abu Qays. See case study.
Around the mid-eighth century. the Umayyad Caliph was defeated and the Abbasids took the reins of power. They transferred the capital city to Baghdad and ruled from there until 1258, when the Mongol invasion put an end to their rule. Themdisintegration of the Caliphate in Baghdad culminated in the emergence of local dynasties throughout the region. Tribal dynasties and local kingdoms such as the Samanids, Ziyarids, Deylamites, Ghaznavids and Kharazmis continued to rule over territories and localities. This period also witnessed various invasions such as that of Tamerlane (Mongol who became an Islamic ruler), and others.
In the year 1501, Shah Ismail Safavi of Ardabil was able to bring together the local dynasties of Qaraqoyunlu and Aqqoyunlu and found the Safavid dynasty. The Safavid succeeded in establishing Shiism as the national religion from the Caspian sea to the Persian Gulf, and from Mesopotamia to India and Central Asia. While later Orientalists and the dominant Fars-centered literature attempted to present the Safavids as Persians, the fact remained that they were of Turkic origin and Azeri Turkic was the main language of Shah's court, followed by Farsi and Arabic, respectively.
The dynasty's first monarch, Ismail Shah, was a formidable ruler, whose political and military prowess was matched only by his youthfulness (he was fourteen upon taking the throne) and his megalomania (he was convinced he was the "hidden imam," the reembodiment of Caliph Ali). During his twenty three years on the throne, Iran's countless power centers were brought under central government control and vast territories that had belonged to the Sasanid Empire were restored. He even managed to take Baghdad, but was eventually defeated by the Ottomans, who temporarily occupied the Safavid capital of Tabriz. Ismail's most important accomplishment by far was to make Shiism Iran's official state religion and to undertake the forceful conversion of the country's overwhelmingly Sunni population. This move, taken against the advice of some of the shah's counselors who feared a violent backlash, irrevocably set Iran on a distinct path of development, separate from the Sunni world and largely antagonistic to it. After a few decades' lull under Ismail's ineffectual successors Safavid expansion was resumed by Abbas Shah (1587-1629), who drove the Ottomans from Azerbaijan and extended Iran's imperial reach as far as the key Armenian town of Kars. He also consolidated Iran's control over the Persian Gulf and expelled the Portuguese from the island of Hormuz at the southern mouth of the Gulf. His reign marked the apex of Safavid power and cultural prowess. After his death the empire went into rapid decline, and in 1722 Afghan rebels sacked the Iranian capital and brought about the Safavid dynasty's ignominious collapse. (Roger Savory, Iran under the Safavids, Cambridge University Press, 1980; Rula Jurdi Abisaab, Converting Persia: Religion and Power in the Safavid Empire, 2004.)
Iran's imperial fortunes were temporarily revived by Nadir Shah (1736-47), an able general who ascended the throne following the Safavid collapse. Having expelled the Afghans from Iranian territory, he successfully campaigned against the Ottoman and Russian empires and defeated India's Mughal sultan, carrying off much booty. This whetted Nadir's appetite. He began viewing himself as the head of an Iranian-dominated universal Islamic empire, and even adopted a virulent anti-Shiite stance so as to make himself acceptable to Sunni Muslims. Yet his phenomenal cruelty-Nadir was notorious for piling his victims' skulls into large pyramids, second in size only to those erected by the omnipotent Tamerlane some 350 years earlier-bought him the hatred of his subjects and culminated in his assassination. This threw Iran into fratricidal strife, from which it recovered only half a century later when Agha Muhammad, leader of the Qajar tribe, defeated his main rivals and established his own ruling dynasty with Tehran as its capital. The domestic challenges confronting the new dynasty were daunting. Iranian society was a mosaic of contrasts and contradictions: between Muslims and non-Muslims, Shiites and Sunnis, rich and poor, urban and rural, settled and pastoral, tribal and non-tribal communities, and so forth. The medieval fabric of parochialism, in which local affinities and loyalties lay with tribe, clan, and the like, together with Iran's inhospitable geographical terrain, remained a powerful barrier to the enforcement of central authority. The Safavids managed somewhat to overcome these obstacles by using the newly imposed Shiite creed as a unifying force, but this instrument had largely run out of steam by the time of their demise. The wholesale conversion of the population to Shiism by Ismail Shah was by no means complete, leaving substantial parts of Iranian society, such as the Central Asian Muslims, Kurds, Arabs, and Afghans, largely untouched. Once Iran slid into anarchy, the antagonisms between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority quickly resurfaced. The fusion of religious and temporal authority in the person of the shah, which had enabled the Safavids to keep their subjects in constant awe, gave way to a system in which state and mosque drew increasingly apart. The shah no longer exercised absolute power over religious appointments and endowments, and the clerics, the ulama, quickly filled the vacuum. They controlled the religious, judicial, and educational institutions, cultivated ties with bazaar merchants and artisans, and exploited the collapse of the powerful group of local administrators (sayyeds) to amass fabulous wealth. Some of them even used theology students and urban thugs as private armies. In short, the ulama developed into an influential political player, which the Qajars could only ignore at their peril. (Hamid Algar, Religion and State in Iran 1785-1906: The Role of Ulama in the Qajar Period ,Berkeley, 1969); Said Amir Arjomand, The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 12-15.)
In these circumstances, the Qajars saw the reassertion of the imperial dream as a trump card that would help unify a fragmented Iranian society and provide an outlet for the release of internal pressures. Their first target was Afghanistan, once a part of the Safavid Empire and now for the first time in its modern history a sovereign entity ruled by an indigenous dynasty. Another prominent target was the Caucasian principalities, especially Georgia, which had drifted away from Iranian control in the chaotic aftermath of Nadir Shah's assassination and which, in 1783, had concluded a treaty of alliance with Russia. In 1795 Agha Muhammad occupied the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, which he then subjected to wholesale pillage before being forced to withdraw in the face of the approaching winter, carrying off with him some fifteen thousand enslaved women and children. The shah was fortunate enough to escape Russian retribution owing to the death of Catherine the Great in November 1796, but his policy backfired by driving the fearful Georgians into the Russian sphere. In December 1800 Tsar Paul I acquiesced in desperate Georgian pleas and signed a decree incorporating the kingdom into the Russian Empire. The following summer Georgia's fate was sealed when Paul's successor, Alexander I, announced its annexation to Russia in the name of "humanity." This made Russia a direct neighbor of Iran, a development that caused great alarm in Tehran but also fueled irredentist aspirations. (Ahmad Tajbakhsh, Siyasathayi Ist'mari-i Rusiyah-i Tizari, Inglistan va Paransah dar Iran: Nimah-i Avval-i Qarn-i Nuzdahum, Tehran, 1983; A. V. Padeev, Rossia i Kavkaz, Pervoi Ttreti XIX v., Akademi Nauk U.S.S.R., 1960; Muriel Atkin, Russia and Iran 1780-1828, University of Minnesota Press, 1980, Chapters 2-4.)
It was at this juncture that the Qajars plunged themselves into the evolving Anglo- Russian competition in Central Asia. Fath Ali Shah, who in 1797 succeeded his uncle Agha Muhammad, recognized the importance of British India as both a counterweight against Russian expansionism and a sponsor of Iran's imperial aspirations. This view found favor with the shah's coteriesons, advisers, and ministers-who quickly embraced the British connection as a means to enhance their personal standing and to fill their pockets with generous bribes. (Abbas Mirza to His Majesty the King, as translated in the enclosure of Ouseley to Wellesley, June 1, 1812, FO 60/6, No.15 , p. 168.)
The Iranian display of interest was warmly welcomed by British India. Marquis Richard Colley Wellesley, the elder brother of the Duke of Wellington and governor-general of India, whose claims to fame include not only the doubling of the territories under the control of the East India Company during his time in office but also his rumored habit of wearing his decorations on his pajamas, viewed collaboration with Iran as a strategic asset against a common enemy: Afghanistan. The Afghan threat to India dated back to its establishment as an independent kingdom by Ahmad Khan (1743-73) and escalated under the reign of Zaman Shah (1793-1800), who attacked Punjab and seemed poised to march on Delhi itself. (Marquis Wellesley to the Secret Committee of the Honourable the Court of Directors, "Persian Embassy and Treaty, and advantages thus secured. Why an European ambassador, in state, was required;' Sept. 28, 1801, in Sidney J. Owen,ed, A Selection from the Despatches, Treaties and Other Papers of the Marquess vVellesley, during his Government of India , Oxford, 1877, pp. 607-08.)
Wellesley was not the only one to show interest in Afghanistan. The French general Napoleon Bonaparte, who in 1798 invaded Egypt and quickly ventured into the Levant, aimed at nothing short of the occupation of India and sought to collaborate with Tsar Paul I to this end. In 1799 Wellesley sent envoys to Tehran to strike a deal on the defense of India. In January 1801, after protracted talks lubricated by the lavish use of gifts and bribes, Iran signed its first -ever treaty with a European power. This provided for British military support in the event of an Afghan or French attack on Iran, and for Iranian support against an Afghan invasion of India. In addition, the two signatories undertook to ensure that France would not expand its influence in Iran. (For the text of the treaty, see J. C. Hurewitz, ed., The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics, Yale University Press, 1975, Vol. 1, pp. 68-70.)
To the shah's exasperation the agreement was stillborn. British India's strategic outlook was not shared by decision-makers in London, the Foreign Office in particular, who viewed the Ottoman Empire, rather than Iran, as the key to the protection of Britain's imperial interests in the East. In a moment of anxiety during Napoleon's Middle Eastern expedition, London appeared willing to go along with it anyway; but with the disappearance of the French threat to India on the one hand, and the diminution of Afghan militancy following the death of Zaman Shah on the other, the gap between London and India widened again. When in 1804 a Russo-Iranian war broke out and the shah approached Britain for military support, London refused to do anything that could damage its relations with Russia at a time when the anti Napoleonic struggle in Europe was at its height. Some in London could even see an advantage in the consolidation of Russian power in the Caucasus as a barrier against French penetration of the region. (Warren to Hawkesbury, Feb. 17, 1804, FO 65/54.)
The embittered shah felt he had no choice but to approach Napoleon. The newly crowned emperor for his part sought to transform Iran (and Turkey) into a base for an attack against India and Russia, and so the two empires signed a defense alliance on May 4, 1807. France undertook to "direct every effort toward compelling Russia to withdraw from Georgia and Persian [Iranian] territory" and to provide the military aid necessary to this end, while Iran undertook to "sever all diplomatic and commercial relations with England, to declare war at once on the latter power, and to commence hostilities without delay." It also pledged to persuade "the Afghans and other peoples of Qandahar to add their armies to his [i.e., the shah's] fighting England': and to allow the French army to cross Iranian territory in the event of an attack against India. (Bonaparte, Empereur des Francais it Feth Ali, Schah des Persans, 16 fevrier et 30 mars, 1805, in Correspondance de Napoleon I, publiee par ordre de l'empereur Napoleon III ; Paris, 1858-70, Vol. 10, pp. 184-86,342-44,362-63; Napoleon au Schah de Perse, 20 avril et 5 mai 1807, ibid., Vol. 15, pp. 73-76, 148-49,237-38. For the text of the treaty see Hurewitz, The Middle East, Vol. 1, pp. 184-85.)
No sooner had the ink dried on the agreement than it fell prey to Napoleon's shifting priorities. The Tilsit treaty of July 1807, which terminated the war between France and Russia, put an end at a stroke to Napoleon's Asian grand design, so instead the emperor attempted to mediate an IranianRussian peace settlement, only to be rebuffed by the shah who insisted on the surrender of Georgia to Iran. As the Russians had no intention of making any such concessions, Fath Ali reverted to his first choice: Britain. This time London was sufficiently alarmed by the French threat to India to come to terms, and between 1809 and 1814 the two countries signed three agreements extending military and financial support to Iran if it was attacked by a European power, and precluding British interference in any war between Iran and Afghanistan. (For the text of the agreements see: C. U. Aitchison,ed., A Collection of Treaties, Engagements, and Sanads Relating to India and Neighboring Countries, Government of India ,1933, Vol. 12, pp. 45-46, 48-53; Hurewitz, The Middle East, Vol. 1, pp. 199-201.)
Before long, British support spilled over to other spheres. A handsome subsidy provided for nearly 10 percent of the shah's regular income, British doctors treated the Iranian monarch, and the young princes traveled to England for their education. So keen was Fath Ali to cultivate the alliance that in December 1812 he offered Britain the opportunity "to do in Persia [Iran] exactly as if it belonged to you." Iran would provide 200,000 troops for Britain to train and deploy as it saw fit, the government of India could send an army to Iran of whatever size it chose, and the British could build forts wherever they wished. If they so desired, they could even have the strategic island of Kharg. (Ouseley to Castlereagh, Jan. 16, 1813, FO 60/8; Fath Ali Shah to His Majesty the King, May 1812, FO 60/6, p. 170.)
By now the Russians had crushed the Iranian army, commanded by the overconfident heir apparent Abbas Mirza, and the shah hoped that his spectacular offer would shore up his empire's crumbling military position. To his deep dismay, rather than extending their protective wing over their Iranian allies, the British now pressured them into an agreement with Russia. This culminated in the October 1813 treaty of Gulistan which included a number of painful concessions, such as recognition of Russia's sovereignty over "all the territory between the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea;' including Georgia, and its exclusive right to sail warships on the Caspian. As the shah would not reconcile himself to these losses, another Russo-Iranian war broke out in 1826, resulting in the even more humiliating treaty of Turkmanchai (February 1828), which reaffirmed Russia's annexation of Erevan and Nakhechevan and gave it extraterritorial rights in Iran. (For the official text of the treaties see FO 60/553; Hurewitz, The Middle East, Vol. 1, pp. 197-99.)
With their imperial ambitions in the Caucasus thwarted, the Iranians turned again to Afghanistan. Ascending the throne in 1834, Muhammad Shah attempted to regain the Afghan khanate of Herat, to no avail. Twenty years later, Muhammad's successor, Shah Nasser al-Din (1848-96), sent his troops to Herat once more in an attempt to exploit a window of opportunity opened by Britain's involvement in the Crimean War. He was to be painfully disillusioned. Despite its reluctance to weaken Iran in any way that could increase its susceptibility to Russian power and influence, Britain considered the invasion alarming enough to warrant an immediate declaration of war. In December 1856 British forces invaded Iran, and before the year was over they had captured the southern islands of Kharg and Bushir and continued their advance northward. In early March 1857, the heavily fortified town of Muhammara fell after an hour's fighting, with thirteen thousand panicstricken Iranians being pursued as they fled by forty-five British cavalrymen. Ahwaz was captured on April 1, and the following day Iran signed a peace treaty renouncing all its territorial claims to Afghanistan.
It would take more than two decades for British foreign policy to swing back in Iran's favor. In 1879, following a serious deterioration in Anglo Afghan relations resulting in two wars, the foreign secretary, Lord Salisbury, offered Nasser aI-Din the coveted territories of Herat and Sistan, together with a handsome subsidy. In return, Iran was to allow the presence of British officers in Herat, in order to enable the construction of a railroad from Kandahar to Herat, and was to undertake, under British supervision, projects for internal reform and for improving transportation from the Gulf inland.This was music to the shah's ears, and it also whetted his appetite. Hoping to extract further concessions from Britain, he indulged in "an almost interminable series of discussions on points of detail and changes of wording, and when matters appeared almost ripe for the signature of the Convention, the Persian Government announced suddenly, in February 1880, that they were not prepared to proceed further unless the arrangement was made permanent!' (The Marquis of Salisbury to Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, No. 14, Feb. 29, 1888, FO 60/491. For the text of the proposed treaty see "Draft Convention between Her Majesty and the Shah of Persia, most secret," undated, FO 65/1097.)
This proved a critical mistake. In April 1880 the anti-imperialist Gladstone returned to power and Britain reverted to a policy of aloofness. Nasser aI-Din thus missed a golden opportunity for territorial aggrandizement that was never to present itself again. When Salisbury succeeded Gladstone as prime minister in June 1885, he no longer backed his earlier efforts to make Iran a bastion against Russian expansionism with generous territorial concessions. "It is to the interest of this country that the integrity of Persia should be maintained, that its resources should be developed, and that its Government should be strong, independent, and friendly;' he instructed his new ambassador to Tehran, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff. "It is to the promotion of these objects that your attention should be directed." The ambassador did precisely that, and in October 1888 gave a formal guarantee for the preservation of Iran's territorial integrity against any foreign power. (Salisbury to Wolff, Feb. 29, 1888, FO 60/491; Treaty series 14B. Persia, FO 93/75/14B, Oct. 24, 1888.)
The shah reciprocated by opening the Karun River to commercial steamers of all nations and gave Baron Julius von Reuter a concession to establish the Imperial Bank of Persia, which for sixty years would have the right to issue notes of legal tender in Iran and to engage in any operations on its own account or for others in the fields of finance, commerce, and industry. Now that Britain had extracted handsome economic concessions there, Russia sought to make the best possible gains for itself and to curb the rise of British influence in Iran. One such gain was the concession to open the Discount and Loan Bank of Persia, which was effectively a branch of the Russian Ministry of Finance and part of the Russian central bank. With no real stockholders or need to show profit, the bank made loans on convenient terms to Iranian princes, officials, clerics, and merchants-to the degree that it was widely joked that Russia had bought off the entire ruling elite. In 1887 the shah, who was far from enthusiastic about having trains in Iran, pledged not to give any concession for a railroad or a waterway without prior consultation with Russia. Three years later he acquiesced in yet another Russian demand that no railroad be built on Iranian territory for ten years.
For the shah and his court these concessions were highly valuable. Nasser aI-Din was, of course, not the only avaricious ruler in Iran's modern history, but his exploitation of great-power competition for the purpose of selfenrichment is legendary. Keenly aware that Britain and Russia would pay dearly to buy their way into Iran, he developed the tendering of concessions into a highly lucrative industry. One famous concession provided for the construction of telegraph lines throughout the country (by the end of 1864 the first single-wire line was ready, and the Indo-European Telegraph was inaugurated the following year), another empowered Reuter to develop Iran's economy and industry, including granting the rights to mine, construct railways, and found a bank. ("Correspondence respecting the Reuter and Falkenhagen Concessions 1872-75;' FO 539/10.)
Although this concession was quickly withdrawn following widespread opposition in Iran and Russia, the shah retained the lavish bribes.As concession-hunters flocked to the imperial court, the shah's men were swimming in ever-growing bribes-none more so than Mirza Ali Asghar Khan, better known as Amin aI-Sultan ("Trusted of the Sovereign"), the grand vizier and holder of several key ministerial posts. They also secured a steady flow of cash from the development of a semi-annual auction of offices in which governorships went to the highest bidders, a practice that proved catastrophic to the empire's economic well-being.( Peter Avery, Modern Iran, 1965, p. 100; Asnad-i Siyasi-yi Dawran-i Qajariyya, compiled and ed. by Ibrahim Safa'I, Tehran, 1967-68; Shaul Bakhash, Iran: Monarchy, Bureaucracy, and Reform under the Qajars: 1858-1896, 1978; Firuz Kazemzadeh, Russia and Britain in Persia 1864-1914: A Study in Imperialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968; George N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, London, 1892.)
To make things worse, the shah's insatiable thirst for money led to the rapid expansion of foreign presence and influence in Iran, which in turn generated a wave of xenophobia. Nasser al-Din's three visits to "infidel" Europe during the 1880s did little to endear him to his subjects. Aside from sparking a charge that Iran had been relegated to "Farangistan," the land of the Franks, their exorbitant cost at a time when the empire was on the brink of bankruptcy fueled widespread discontent.Things came to a head in March 1890, when the shah gave a certain Major Gerald Talbot, a close friend of the ambassador, Drummond Wolff, a fifty-year monopoly over the manufacturing, trade, and export of tobacco and its products throughout the Iranian Empire, in return for an annual lump sum of £15,000 and a quarter of the annual net profits. (For the text of the tobacco concession see Wolff to Salisbury, April 3, 1890, FO 539/60, No. 3,104, See also FO 60/553; Acting Consul-General Robert Paton to Kennedy, Aug. 19, 1891, FO 60/553, No. 202.)
Like the Reuter concession two decades previously, the Tobacco Regie affected virtually every single individual throughout the empire. Many Iranians smoked heavily and no fewer depended on the tobacco industry for their livelihood. In no time there was a public uproar against the concession. Initially this was seen as a minor outburst by "the very lowest classes with a sprinkling of the better-class people." But by 1891 the protest had developed into a mass movement headed by the ulama and the bazaaris. Anger was vented in all directions as people went on the rampage in the major cities. Merchants burned their entire stock to avoid selling to the tobacco company. Those who used tobacco were subjected to violent reprisals, those who continued to work for the Regie were declared "unclean" and ran the risk of being murdered. Europeans, many of whom had absolutely nothing to do with the concession, were harassed and humiliated. Religious leaders accused the shah of selling Muslims like slaves to the Christians and placards threatening an imminent jihad if the Regie were not immediately withdrawn appeared in several cities.
On January 4, 1892, all shops in the Tehran bazaar closed down and the agitated mob, led by the clerics, made its way to the royal palace. An attempt by the shah's favorite son and minister of war, Kamran Mirza, to disperse the demonstrators failed miserably and the prince beat a hasty and undignified retreat in the course of which he fell on his face in the mud. The terrified shah sent for his elite Cossack Brigade (established in 1882 and commanded by a Russian officer), only to realize to his horror that it had decided to side with the clerics. As the mob closed on the palace, the shah backed down and abolished the tobacco concession out of "love for his people." The clerics rejoiced. This was the first time in Iran's modern history that they had managed to impose their will on the shah through a popular uprising. It would not be the last. (For the Regie crisis and its aftermath see Nikki R. Keddie, Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Tobacco Protest of 1891-1892,London, 1966; Jean-Baptiste Feuvrier, Trois ans a la cour de Perse,Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1906; Edward G. Browne, The Persian Revolution of 1905-1909, Cambridge University Press, 1910.)
To recover from this humiliation, the shah retreated into his harem, doting on cats and marrying a long succession of wives. There was no real government in Iran, with corruption as prevalent as ever. The minister of post busied himself with stealing parcels suspected of containing valuables, while the minister of war filled his pockets with money destined for his soldiers. When the Imperial Tobacco Corporation of Persia demanded £500,000 in compensation for the cancellation of the concession, and the shah declared himself willing to compromise on £300,000, Amin aI-Sultan expressed his readiness "to again urge upon the Shah to accept the terms of the Company on condition that the £15,000 should be made over to him which he had paid in cash to the Shah for the shares to that amount allotted to H.M.” (T. H. Sanderson to R. W. Grosvenor, March 11, 1892, FO 60/555.)
The vizier made good his promise, convincing the shah to pay the requested £500,000 in cash. A loan was quickly arranged from the Imperial Bank of Persia, and as one loan led to another Iran yet again found itself on the brink of bankruptcy. A sense of foreboding doom permeated the empire. Mas'ud Mirza Zell alSultan, the shah's eldest son, repeatedly talked about partitioning Iran after his father's death between himself and his brother, Crown Prince Muzaffar alDin. The shah's brother compared Iran to a "lump of sugar in a glass of water" gradually melting away. Even Amin aI-Sultan became sufficiently alarmed to plead with Britain to prevent the bartering-away of Iran by the shah, who "resisted any attempt to improve the country and refused to take any thought for what might happen after his own death." (Lascelles to Rosebery, Jan. 26,1894, FO 65/1484, No. 22 and Feb. 11, 1894, FO 65/1484, No. 42; Greene to the Earl of Kimberley, March 13,1894, FO 65/1485, No. 67; Lascelles to Rosebery, Jan. 20, 1894, FO 65/1484, No. 18.)
His concern was justified. When on May 1, 1896, Nasser aI-Din was assassinated in the midst of preparations to celebrate his fiftieth anniversary on the throne, his successor, Muzaffar al- Din, proved disastrous. Illiterate, sickly, and completely under the spell of his courtiers, the new shah immersed himself in the minutiae of his daily existence, paying little attention to public affairs. A central goal from his first days in power was to travel to Europe in the grand style of his predecessor, and to obtain the enormous sums of money needed for this trip he was prepared to mortgage ever-growing segments of the Iranian economy to foreign powers. Belgian administrators flocked to the empire to restructure the customs system, and a Belgian national was even made minister of customs. Russia obtained a number oflucrative concessions, including a customs treaty that removed tariffs on cotton cloth, thereby ruining most Iranian cloth manufacturers. Britain also reaped handsome gains, including a sixty-year exclusive concession for petroleum, gas, and asphalt throughout the entire empire, excluding the five northern provinces. When Muzaffar al-Din eventually went on his coveted European trip in 1902, it proved a catastrophic drain on the treasury. The ten million roubles borrowed from Russia in April had evaporated into thin air by the end of the year. The shah's desperate attempts to secure another loan were given the cold shoulder by the Russian finance minister, who insisted that "money would be employed for definite public purposes, and not squandered amongst the courtiers and H. H’s own worthless dependants.” (A. Hardinge to Lansdowne, Dec. 30,1902, FO 60/600, No. 183. )
A £300,000 loan from the British-controlled Imperial Bank gave the shah a vital respite but did nothing to stem the tidal wave of xenophobic and anti-government sentiment engulfing the empire. The ulama resented the government's half-hearted attempts at reform, while the bazaaris protested against the favoring of foreign interests and demanded the removal of Belgian customs officials. Secret societies distributed inflammatory leaflets in the major Iranian cities, and attacks on foreigners and minority groups-Christians, Jews, and Bahais-became a common sight. The Bahai faith was established by Mirza Ali Muhammad (1819-50), a merchant from the Iranian city of Shiraz who claimed to be the Hidden Imam, whose return had been anticipated by Twelver Shiites since the ninth century, and a new manifestation of God. He was summarily executed, but his ideas were developed to a full fledged religion by one of his disciples, Mirza Hussein Ali (1817-92), who styled himself Baha'ullah ("Glory of God")-the messenger foretold by Ali Muhammad.The Bahais in particular were earmarked for harsh treatment: hundreds of men, women, and children were massacred in Yazd at the instigation of the local governor and their property destroyed or pillaged. The British consular agent in Yazd even reported that the governor had a Bahai fired from a cannon "to appease the crowd.” (E. Eldred to Hardinge, enclosure in Hardinge to Landsdowne, FO 60/666, No. 102.)
Anarchy was contagious. In Azerbaijan the governor and heir to the throne, Muhammad Ali Mirza, relied on criminal elements to maintain his hold on the province, appointing a notorious local brigand, condemned to death a year earlier but pardoned by the prince-governor, as commander of the cavalry. An unholy alliance was contrived among leading ulama, courtiers, and secular reformers to bring about the downfall of Amin al-Sultan, blamed for Iran's ills.They did not have to work very hard. The grand vizier's fortunes were rapidly waning. When, after dreaming that this loyal servant had saved himfrom drowning, the shah ordered his favorite astrologer to be paid a £3,000 annual pension plus a large lump sum, Amin al-Sultan lost his temper and complained that "he had raised large sums to pay for the Shah's tours and toys, but must protest against paying for his dreams." (Hardinge to Lansdowne, April 27, 1903, FO 60/665, No. 64.)
Six months later, in September 1903, he found himself out of office.Any hopes that the vizier's downfall would calm the situation were soon disappointed. His successor to the premiership, Majid Mirza Ain al-Dawla, grandson of Fath Ali Shah and Muzaffar al-Din's son-in-law, was a corrupt and brutal bigot who drew pleasure from punishing convicts by driving horseshoes into their bare heels. Not only did he do nothing to curb the insatiable greed of the shah and his coterie, he was also an active member of this corrupt system, amassing an enormous fortune for himself. The powerful forces of decay and fragmentation that had been operative throughout the nineteenth century were now quickly brewing into a revolution.In December 1905 several Tehran merchants were publicly flogged for raising the price of sugar, and the entire bazaar was closed in protest. When ordered to reopen their shops or have their goods confiscated, some two thousand merchants, together with a number of ulama, took sanctuary in the Imperial Mosque, the traditional form of protest in Iran. Supported by the vengeful Amin al-Sultan and the crown prince, they demanded the dismissal of Ain al-Dawla and other ministers, the sacking of the governor of Tehran, the removal of the Belgians from the customs offices, and the foundation of a "House of Justice" comprising merchants, landowners, and clergy. In January 1906 the shah acceded to these demands and the crisis seemed to have abated.
When the shah subsequently reneged on his word, expelling a number of prominent ulama from Tehran, a fresh wave of popular discontent engulfed the capital. Recognizing that sanctuary in mosques and shrines was no longer respected, on July 19, 1906, merchants, guild members and clerics took refuge at the "infidel" British embassy. Within a couple of weeks nearly fourteen thousand protesters were camping in the embassy's gardens. Their demand now grew from the dismissal of Nn al-Dawla to the formation of a representative assembly, or majlis. Nudged by the British, the ailing shah (he suffered a stroke in the spring) peremptorily dismissed Ain al-Dawla and called for a majlis to be introduced.Parliamentary elections were held in October 1906, and on December 30 the shah, his prime minister, and the crown prince signed the empire's constitution. Yet the "constitutional revolution" quickly ran into a dead end. The majlis was beset by internal antagonisms from the outset, notably between the constitutionalists, who favored secular legislation and a modern constitution, and the religionists, who supported the formation of a theocratic consultative body. Local political groups defied the authority of the majlis and the central government, with local governors exercising arbitrary power across the country. Land taxes went unpaid. Smuggling flourished. The Belgian customs regime frequently turned over revenues to ministers rather than using them for the repayment of loans. Yet again the specter of bankruptcy loomed large. In these circumstances it was widely agreed that the detested Amin aI-Sultan had to be recalled from his Swiss exile to save the day. He returned in March 1907 and was about to arrange a new loan with Russian, French, British, and German backing when he was assassinated by a religious militant.
For the above see, Nikki R. Keddie, "The Assassination of Amin as Sultan (Atabak-i Azam) 31 August 1907, in C. E. Bosworth ed., Iran and Islam, Edinburgh University Press, 1971, pp. 315-30; Gad Gilbar, "The Big Merchants (tujjar) and the Constitutional Movement of 1906;' Asian and African Studies, Vol. 11,1977, pp. 275-303; V. A. Martin, "The Anti-Constitutional Arguments of Shaikh Fazlallah Nuri;' Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2,April 1986, pp. 181-91; Ahmed Kasravi, Tarikh-e Mashruteh-e Iran,Tehran, 1984; Fereidun Adamiyat, Ideolozhi-ye Nehzat-e Mashrute'h Iran, Tehran,, 1976; Djafar Shafiei-Nasab, Les Mouvements revolutionnaires et la constitution de 1906 en Iran, Berlin, 1991; Ervand Abrahamian, "The Causes of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran;' International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 10, August 1979, pp. 318-414; Edward G. Browne, The Persian Revolution of 1905-1909, Cambridge University Press, 1910; Ann K. S. Lambton, "Secret Societies and the Persian Revolution of 1905-06;' in Albert Hourani, ed., Middle Eastern Affairs, No. 1, St.Antony's Papers, No.4,1959,pp.43-61; Lambton, "Persian Political Societies 1906-1911;' in Albert Hourani, ed., Middle Eastern Affairs, No. 3, St. Antony's Papers, No. 16,1963, pp. 41-98.
It was widely rumored that the driving force behind the killing was none other than the shah. This suggestion was not wholly unfounded. Muhammad Ali Shah, who ascended the throne following Muzaffar al-Din's death on January 8, 1907, was a bitter enemy of constitutionalism and representative rule. He may have sworn to uphold the constitution, but had never seriously intended to keep his word. He was supported by a number of high- ranking ulama who had initially seen the majlis as an opportunity to increase their political power but were subsequently disillusioned as the liberals gained the upper hand there. He was also backed by the Russian government, which believed that Iran "was not yet ready for a constitution, and that the Shah, and only the Shah, was the foundation stone of order in his country;' and by the French, who were convinced that "the anti-Government party in Persia was under the active control and direction of the British Minister." (Said Amir Arjomand, "The Ulama's Traditionalist Opposition to Parliamentarianism: 1907-1909;' Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2,April 1981, pp. 174-90; SpringRice to Grey, June 13, 1907, Fa 416/33/22389; Eugene de Schelking, Recollections of a Russian Diplomat, New York, 1918, p. 240.)
Unfortunately for the shah, Russia was going through its own cycle of cataclysmic upheavals. It had suffered a humiliating defeat by Japan, had experienced its own revolution, and had had its resources-political, military, and economic-strained to the limit. In Britain, too, important changes were taking place. The long reign of the Conservatives had come to an end, and the new foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, like his monarch, King Edward VII, advocated a quick rapprochement with Russia that would bring an end to the Anglo- Russian Great Game.This policy shift was unacceptable to both the British ambassador to Tehran, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, and British India which sympathized with the Iranian constitutionalists and the more pragmatic clerics. "I venture to observe that it would in my opinion be a grave error to attribute the popular movement in Persia to such a slight or accidental cause as the intrigues of a foreign Legation," Spring-Rice wrote to Grey.
I think that European nations should be prepared to face in Persia, what they are beginning to experience elsewhere, a national and religious movement, formless perhaps and misdirected, but of great vigour and intensity. And owing, perhaps, to the superior mental attainments of the Persian race,I think it is not improbable that the leaders of the movement here, especially as they are in close touch with the Russian Mussulmans already represented in considerable numbers in the Duma, may occupy a prominent, perhaps a dominant position in the future development of the national and constitutional movement among Mussulman peoples. Should the movement be really of this nature, we cannot make it our tool, and we cannot wish to make it our enemy. (Spring-Rice to Grey, June 13, 1907, Fa 416/33/22389. )
These words fell on deaf ears. By this time-and completely unknown to Spring-Rice or the Iranians-the British and Russian governments were busy ironing out their long-standing disputes in Asia. In addition to Mghanistan and Tibet, their nascent agreement included the Iranian question, which in the view of both powers contained the seeds of a potential future confrontation between them. In Grey's words: "The inefficiency of Persian Governments, the state of their finances, the internal disorders, not only laid Persia open to foreign interference, but positively invited and attracted it .... Unless the mists of suspicion were dissolved by the warm air of friendship, the increasing friction would cause Britain and Russia to drift toward war." (Viscount Grey of Fallodon, Twenty-Five Years, 1892-1916, New York, 1925, Vol. 1, pp. 243-44, 246.)
And so, on the very same day as Amin al-Sultan's assassination, August 31, 1907, an Anglo- Russian deal was reached in St. Petersburg on the partitioning of Iran, while paying lip service to its "integrity and independence:' Russia would dominate the northern part of the country, including Tehran and Tabriz. Britain would control the south, with a neutral buffer zone established in the center. (Hurewitz, The Middle East, Vol. 1, pp. 538-40.)
Although Grey presented the agreement as a "real gain" that prevented further Russian advances in the direction of India, the Indian government was deeply disappointed.29 No less embittered were the Iranian constitutionalists, who viewed the British move as an act of betrayal. How could it be that after all their moralizing and encouragement, the British had turned their backs on Iran? Yet the Iranian authorities had only themselves to blame. Having thrust their empire for over a century into the midst of greatpower competition, for reasons of political and territorial aggrandizement and financial self-enrichment, they had now fallen victim to that very competition. Had the Qajars shunned the Anglo-Russian rivalry, and had they put their house in order and ensured its political and economic stability, Iran might have well been left in peace. As it was, Iran came to be viewed by both Britain and Russia as a dangerous vacuum that could draw them into an undesirable confrontation that had therefore to be filled without delay. The stark reality of weakness behind the imperial dream exacted yet another casualty, that of the Ottoman Empire, as we already detailed elsewhere.