It’s February 1921, and in the Persian capital of Tehran, 2,500 Persian Cossack troops have deposed the government. British officials are keeping a close watch, since the coup might allow them more influence in the country. Link to new episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RX3V9wgOTOA
At the start of the 20th century, Persia - modern-day Iran – was in the middle of an imperial power struggle between Britain and Russia known as the Great Game in English and Voyna Teney, the Shadow War, in Russian. For the most part, both sides ignored the interests of Persian nationalists, but growing tensions and the disruption of the First World would change all that in 1921. In this episode we’ll take a look at events in Persia leading up to a dramatic coup d’etat which took place exactly 100 years ago.
Persia had a highly decentralised state nominally based around the power of the Shah in Tehran, who since 1789 came from the Qajar dynasty of rulers. In reality, numerous tribal leaders enjoyed a great degree of autonomy and often possessed the most competent military forces. This fractured internal political landscape limited the development of state, and made it easier for foreign powers like Britain and Russia to intervene and exert their influence.
British Viceroy of India and later Foreign minister, Lord Curzon recognised the strategic importance of Persia in the struggles between imperial powers:
“[Persia is one of] the pieces on a chessboard upon which is being played out a game of domination of the world.” (Brysac 92)
Britain was mostly interested in protecting its interests in the southern part of country, since the Persian Gulf was along the vital sea lanes to India. Russia wanted influence in northern Persia to secure its borders and be in a position to threaten Britain’s communication with its Asian empire. However, both sides hesitated about open warfare, and instead concentrated on increasing their influence. This often involved economic concessions, like contracts for transport, construction, mining, and in the banking sector.
The British used their global commercial dominance to influence and sometimes bribe Persian leaders to adopt policies that were useful for Britain. On the ground though, Russia had an advantage: the Russian-led Persian Cossack Brigade, one of the few effective military formations loyal to the Shah. The Persian Cossacks protected the Shah from internal threats, which meant that he would also be well-disposed to Russian wishes.
But things would change at the start of the 20th century. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and subsequent revolution in Russia weakened their influence in Persia, and the growing threat of Germany in Europe motivated the British and the Russians to find a compromise in Asia. This resulted in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which divided Persia into British, Russian, and neutral zones of influence. As usual, the Shah was not consulted.
So on one hand it seemed the Great Game had ended in a sort of a draw by 1907. Britain and Russia mostly got what they and were able to concentrated on threats closer to home. But lots of people in Persia had other ideas.
See, while Britain and Russia were burying the hatchet and dividing Persia between themselves, a local movement for democratic reform began to rise. It culminated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, an event that was motivated by Persian opposition to foreign interference in the country, especially the economic concessions.
Secular moderates, merchant guilds, religious leaders, and a fledgling free press all came together in a rare display of unity against foreign influence. Persian ambassador to Italy and revolutionary Malkum Khan explained how religious leaders were able to accept the revolution’s political ideas:
“We have found that ideas which were by no means acceptable when coming from your agents in Europe were accepted at once with greatest delight when it was proved that they were latent in Islam. I can assure you that the little progress which you see in Persia and Turkey [...] is due to the fact that some people have taken European principles and instead of saying they come from England, France or Germany, they have said: “We have nothing to do with Europeans; but these are the true principles of our religion […] which have been taken by Europeans! That has had a marvelous effect at once.” (Abrahamian 397)
The Shah was under pressure and no longer had the strong Russian support he had relied upon in the past. He therefore agreed to the demands of the revolutionaries to create a new legislative body, called the Majlis. This parliament would be led by a prime minister, and was to ratify any major decisions made by the Shah, including economic concessions. Revolutionaries were also able to force out the old Shah in 1909 and installed the teenaged Ahmad Shah. For some critics, like secular journalist Ziya al-Din Tabatabai, this was how things should be done: "People should choose a person as the king to protect their rights and defend their interests; hence the king is the people's representative. He should remain king as long as he gives his service to the people. If the king turns careless and lascivious, the people should remove him from the throne and appoint another one." (Hairi)
However, Russia, despite being weakened, was not out of the game entirely. The Majlis was temporarily suppressed by the Persian Cossack Brigade in 1908, before being further restricted in 1911 under additional Russian threats.
While revolution raged in Persia and the Russians intervened, the British, in the words of one historian, did little more than sit back and quote “wring their hands” – even though large deposits of oil were discovered in Persia in 1908.
So the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 had been partially muted by the Russians, while the British looked on. The outbreak of the Great War in 1914, however, would upend the situation – Persia was officially neutral, but would still become a strategic battlefield.
During the world war, the Persia Front was active for four years. Ottoman troops and tribal forces organised by Wilhelm Wassmuss the so-called “German Lawrence of Arabia.”, hoped to move through Persia to put pressure on Russia. Russian and British forces, which included the British South Persian Rifles as of 1916, tried to stop them and threaten Eastern Anatolia.
The fighting was on a smaller scale than the main fronts of the war, but nonetheless had a devastating impact on the country. The young and indecisive Shah proved powerless to assert Persian sovereignty, or to stop the terrible famine which erupted in 1917. The famine killed about 100,000 people and caused the abandonment of some 10,000 villages. The royal government’s inability to end the starvation and death sweeping the land further eroded the central authority of the Persian state, and some tribal leaders announced their autonomy.
To add to the chaos, the Russian Revolution of 1917 complicated the situation even more. The new Bolshevik government renounced Imperial Russia’s policies and took the country out of the war – and now looked to strike up friendly relations with pro-Bolshevik groups in Persia.
So the Great War had come to Persia and left death and destruction in its wake – and it had also removed the traditional Russian presence in the region. Once the war ended, Britain was the only remaining foreign power in Persia – but wasn’t quite sure what it wanted.
After the war, some British ministers, like Lord Curzon, strongly advised seizing the initiative and doubling-down on British economic and political control, if necessary by sending troops. Only this they felt, could secure Persia as a buffer state between Bolshevik Russia and British interests in the Middle East and India. Other members of cabinet disagreed and wanted to withdraw the soldiers who were already in Persia. They argued that Britain could simply no longer afford the cost of controlling Persia, especially with more pressing concerns developing in Turkey, Ireland, India, and Iraq.
Despite the opposition, Curzon continued to press his case. He was so convinced of his cause that he once chaired a meeting of the Eastern Committee at which he was the only person in attendance. His report of the session concluded quote “the Committee agreed with the Chairman.” By August 1919, Curzon’s view had begun to prevail, and he had developed a new treaty to propose to the Shah.
The Anglo-Persian Agreement aimed to extend British influence on a previously unprecedented scale. Britain would gain nominal control of Persia’s armed forces, including the Persian Cossack Brigade, as well national finances and railways – plus access to oil. When asked how the Persians would ever accept such a deal, Curzon simply replied: “The case will be settled by cash.” (Brysac 97)
And that is nearly how it worked out. The British provided a bribe of £131,000 pounds, and the leading Persian ministers promised to make sure the agreement would be ratified. Curzon, though, had underestimated Persian opposition.
First, the Persian constitutionalists were outraged that the Majlis was not consulted on the deal, despite the parliament having officially sat since 1915.
Second, in the summer of 1920, two autonomous regions had been declared in the country: a short-lived democratic state in Iranian Azerbaijan, and a Bolshevik-supported Persian Socialist Republic in Gilan. The Bolshevik capture of the White Russian naval flotilla at Enzeli in May - which at the time was under British protection - further eroded British prestige and power in Persia.
So the Anglo-Persian Agreement had given the British a free hand in the country on paper, but the reality on the ground was messier. And the timing was bad too – the British were imposing themselves in nearby Iraq, Palestine, and Jordan, and many Persians feared their country would be next.
The Shah’s government appointed several prime ministers in quick succession, but because of the opposition to the agreement with Britain, especially from the free press, the treaty was not officially adopted.
The British authorities didn’t feel the need to wait for the Persian government and began to implement some of the agreement’s provisions, including replacing the Persian Cossack Brigade’s Russian officers with British ones. This was key to enforcing their policy, as British Minister to Persia Herman Norman explained:
“[The] expulsion of… Russian officers and virtual control by British officers of the only regular Military Force in Persia would make us practically independent of the vagaries of Persian internal politics and in the absence of external developments ensure gradual execution of [the 1919] agreement.” (Zirinsky 645)
The process of securing British predominance in Persia was entrusted to Major General Edmund Ironside, who was sent to Persia in the fall of 1920 with orders to keep things under control. Although he lacked detailed instructions, Ironside quickly got involved in local politics and replaced the Russian commander of the Cossack Brigade with a candidate of his own: Reza Khan.
Reza was an orphan from a modest background, but he rose through the ranks after he joined the Persian Cossacks in 1878. To Ironside, Reza was a man the British could do business with:
“[Reza Khan] seemed to me a strong and fearless man who had his country’s good at heart.” (Zirinsky 639)
On his own initiative, Ironside made it clear to Reza in early 1921 that the British would not oppose any attempt by the Cossack Brigade to overthrow the government.
A few days later, on February 20th, Reza went into action and the coup d’etat began. He led 2500 Cossacks on an overnight march into Tehran, and the force deposed Prime Minister Fathollah Khan Akbar. The powerless Shah Ahmad, on the other hand, was allowed to retain his crown – for now. The local police, which was made up largely of Swedish officers, was ordered to stay in their barracks by the Cossacks, the coup was nearly bloodless success.
Now there has been recent debate amongst historians about the true extent of British influence on the coup. At the time Ironside clearly felt he was responsible for it:
“I fancy that all the people think that I engineered the coup d’etat. I suppose I did, strictly speaking.” (Fromkin 461)
On the other hand, some have argued that the British government was taken by surprise by the coup, and that it would probably have happened even without Ironside’s help. What is clear, is that Britain provided the military and covert political support to the plotters. After 1921, many Persians believed Britain had been meddling in their country’s affairs, and Britain’s image in Persia was tarnished for decades.
So a British supported coup had done away with the old Persian government and Ziya al-Din Tabatabai was sworn in as Prime minister February 22, 1921. The real power, though, lay with Reza Khan, who was now Minister of War. But Brits hoping that Reza would now enforce the unratified treaty were about to be sorely disappointed.
The new Persian government decided not to support the Anglo-Persian Agreement, and instead adopted very different policies. Ziya al-Din had promised land reform and national independence, and his priority was to come to an agreement with the Bolsheviks on his borders rather than the British.
The Russo-Persian Treaty was signed just days after the coup, and represented a serious shift in Persian foreign policy away from Britain. The Bolsheviks and Persians promised not to intervene in each others’ affairs, nor allow others to do so through their territory. If a foreign power occupied Persia, the Red Army could intervene. In Britain, this was seen as a direct challenge. Curzon was appalled and blamed a lack of decisive action. British diplomat Harold Nicolson, though, had a different interpretation:
“More serious, was [Curzon’s] misconception of the attitude of the average Persian towards Russia and Great Britain. He did not realise... it was Great Britain who was regarded as the oppressor and Russia as the potential friend.” (Brysac 99)
Reza moved quickly to consolidate and centralize his power. He imposed martial law, arrested politicians, shut down the press and banned gatherings He also announced his intention to end tribalism and foreign influence, despite the help he’d received from Britain:
"Our aim is to establish a government that will not plunder the treasury. A strong government, that will create a powerful and respected army, because a strong army is the only means of saving the country from the miserable state of its affairs. We want to establish a government that will not discriminate among Gilani, Tabrizi, and Kermani. We want to establish a government that will not be an instrument of foreign politics." (Ghods 38)
Reza also began a campaign to crush the autonomous Gilan Soviet Republic, and the tribal rulers formerly supported by Britain.
Reza’s alliance with Prime Minister Ziya al-Din only lasted a few months. Al-Din wanted to get foreign loans and raise taxes for his plans to develop the country, but Reza opposed him and al-Din resigned. Just months after the February coup, Reza’s control over Persia was almost complete, and all that remained of the old authority was the powerless young Shah. Reza had plans for him too, but they would wait for another day, when Reza Khan himself would ascend the throne.
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