Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Iran:  Leadup to a Revolution

Steve Muhlberger

Most everyone has heard of the Iranian revolution of 1979.  It, however, was not the first great Iranian revolution of modern times.   This lecture will look at the earlier struggles of Iran to come to terms with both Islam and modern developments, and how they led to an earlier revolution, the revolution of 1905.

By the 19th century, Iran, important in so many eras, was a backwater.  Its cities were no longer sitting on the major trade routes of the world.  Its population was very low, around 5 million, which relative to important countries like France (27 million) or Britain (8 million and growing fast), made it a very sparsely peopled area.  Economically, Iran was far behind the advanced parts of Europe and had no obvious resources to draw on for renewal.

During the early 19th century, Iran came up against two expansionist powers, Russia and Britain..  Although these powers sometimes acted together, they more often were suspicious of each other.    Iran was one of the places where "the Great Game" for the domination of Asia was played out.  On top of the great power competition for influence there was competition from European merchants wanting to break into the Iranian market and gain economic concessions from the government.  Iran was doomed to be whipsawed between the two countries during the whole of the century.

Iran faced this situation with the added disadvantage of a very weak government.  Part of the weakness was institutional.  Iran had been on the downside of the imperial cycle for some time now.   But personal factors made the situation worse.  The shahs of the 19th century were very reluctant to attempt any sort of modernization.  Educational reform was kept at a bare minimum, and there was little investment in economic production either.

Following such a policy meant that Iran was if anything more vulnerable to that European pressure than it might have been otherwise.   Russia, for instance, made some important territorial gains at the expense of Iran and when a treaty recognizing these gains was made up in 1828, economic concessions had to be made.  An import duty of no more 5% could be levied on Russian goods, and no internal taxes could be charged on them.

This is just one example of concessions that put Iranian merchants at a disadvantage vis-à-vis European merchants.  The Iranian domestic market was thrown open just at a time when European countries were entering the Industrial Revolution.   Iran in the past had exported cloth to Europe; now it became a net importer, with bad effects on the urban economy.  Some of these economic changes were inevitable, but it must be emphasized that European countries used their muscle to force the pace of change to their own advantage.

Also, treaties like the Russian-Iranian treaty of 1828 gave foreigners special immunities.  The excuse for such extraterritoriality was that Europeans did not trust the courts of a corrupt, arbitrarily ruled Islamic country, and insisted therefore that Europeans had to be tried in their own consular courts.  Such privileges were also extended to Iranian employees of the embassies and consuls, and then later on to other Iranians favored by the foreign representatives.  Such extraterritorial privileges were typical of the colonial era and were  imposed on the Ottoman Empire, on Egypt, and on China, and added to the advantages that European businessmen had over local merchants, suppliers, and peasants.

In the later nineteenth century, a different kind of concession was increasingly made to foreign investors.  This kind of concession was the right, sold by the government for cash or some other consideration, to develop some kind of modern facility.  The first Iranian concessions were granted to British interests to build telegraphs through the country.  The British interest was to have a quick communications link to India.  But of course things like this had a domestic impact.  The result was that the most modern sector of the economy was under foreign control.

Foreign strength and foreign control was strong enough that Iran was often treated with great arrogance.  One early incident illustrates this arrogance, and the possibility of conflict arising from it.  The Russian embassy incident of 1829 is a good, if rather extreme example.

In 1828, a Russian named Aleksandr Griboyedov was sent to Iran to force the government to pay an indemnity for losing a war with Russia.  He was married to a Georgian, and both Griboyedov and his wife were anti-Iranian.  Georgia, a Christian country in the Caucasus, was one of the areas where Russian and Iranian interests were in direct conflict.  While he was in Tehran, the capital of Iran, Griboyedov and his wife heard reports that some prominent anti-Russian Iranian men had kidnapped Christian women—Georgians or Armenians—and were holding them in their harems.  The Russians then took it upon themselves to kidnap some of these women out of the harems.  At least two of these women had converted to Islam in the meantime.
So there was a classic conflict of values.  In each case, the people involved probably thought of themselves as standing for all that was right and decent.  On the Russian side, women abused by infidels were being rescued; on the Iranian side, infidels were kidnapping women from their homes in violation of all modesty.  The two convert wives apparently decided that they wanted to leave Iran.  The rumor that they were being held against their will sparked first a judgement from the religious authorities that it was legal to free Muslims (i.e. the women) from infidel captivity, and then a riot, in which the entire diplomatic mission was killed.

The rights and wrongs of the case are hard to figure out from this distance.  Note, however, that the Russians, who had just beaten Iran in a war and were trying to force a monetary settlement out of the government in connection with that victory, were acting in blatant violation of local standards.  It is hard to imagine how the Russian mission could have acted in a more inflammatory manner.  But the imposition of foreign standards within Muslim territory, in connection with the forceful imposition of practical economic and political concessions was fairly normal, and meant that the relationship between Muslims and foreigners in Iran and elsewhere was often pretty unhappy.

During the later 19th century, European economic dominance of the Iranian economy became considerably greater.   The pursuit of concessions was hot and heavy.

In 1872, Baron Julius de Reuter, a British subject who had founded the first news wire service, was able to get an amazing concession from the Prime Minister, Mirza Hosein Khan.  De Reuter got, in exchange for a rather modest payment and annual royalty, the right to exploit all these things:  all mining not already underway; all irrigation works not already built; a monopoly on railroad and street-car construction; a national bank, and a large list of concessions for developing industrial and agricultural projects..  The British government was Britain was astounded, and not very happy about the concession.    The Russians were infuriated, because it looked like a tremendous extension of British influence.  And people in Iran criticized it a selling-off of the country’s independence.  Russian pressure and local opposition led to the cancelling of the concession.

Despite charges that the concessions were a corrupt deal, Mizra Hosein Khan, the premier or Grand Vezir, had made the deal with his eyes open.  The concessions to de Reuter would make de Reuter rich at the expense of Iran, but it would also develop a modern infrastructure for the country.  Since there had been no consistent efforts to modernize Iran to date, Iran was falling farther and farther behind Europe.  Mizra Hosein Khan was taking a chance, but he was gambling for high stakes.

The opposition to the concession is complicated, too.  Some people distrusted the premiers judgement or integrity; some disliked him for personal reasons; and others were motivated by a deep conservatism.  Both ulama, the religious scholars and bazaaris, the urban merchant classes of the cities, especially the capital of Tehran, were distrustful of foreign interests and believed that they would be harmed by its growth.  They were probably right to think so.

So who was right in this dispute?  It is hard to say.   The desperate nature of the deal, and the fact that Iran had to pay a lot of money in the end without getting anything in return shows the unfortunate economic position that Iran found itself in.  A final thing worth noticing is that the Shi’ite religious leaders were instrumental in rallying the urban population against foreign intrusion, as in the case of the Gribodeyov embassy.

In 1890 there was an even stronger religiously-led movement against the foreigners.  In the late 1880s, the shah himself, Nasir ud-Din, was falling more and more under British influence, and was convinced to grant lucrative concessions to Britons.  The merits and permissability of some of them were very dubious indeed.  For instance, in 1889 he approved a British-run lottery, even though gambling was forbidden by the Qur’an.  The religious authorities made such a fuss that the concession was withdrawn.  What proved even more inflammatory, though, was the concession the next year of a tobacco monopoly to a British subject.  Unlike Mizra Hosein Khan’s concessions, this one had nothing to do with economic development.  Lots of Iranians grew, processed, and sold tobacco, both domestically and abroad.  All these people were now going to be forced out of the business or forced to deal with new monopoly on its terms.

Religious leaders, bazaaris, peasants, European-oriented reformers were all outraged, and the ulama were soon there at the forefront of a mass movement denouncing the shah’s sell-out.  The ubiquitous Al-Afghani was one of the chief agitators. The government held on as long as it could, suspending the concession in hopes that the opposition would blow over.  But when soldiers shot and killed demonstrators in Iran, the government’s position lost all legitimacy, and the concession was cancelled.  Unfortunately there was a high financial cost. Britain insisted that the concessionaires be paid 500,000 pounds, a very large sum for a country as poor as Iran was.

The most important result of this tobacco controversy was the creation of political alliances between traditional religious leaders, business leaders and other urban notables, and the small but growing number of Iranian modernizers.

In fact, the government was in a pretty precarious position.  After 1896 the situation was aggravated by the accession of Muzaffar ud-Din as shah.  He spent much of his reign parading around Europe with a huge retinue.  Supposedly these trips were to consult with foreign doctors, but the jaunts were so expensive that major loans from Russia, secured by control of the customs revenue, had to be raised.  The shah was visibly ruining the country.

Opposition to the shah and Russian influence grew.  Most of opposition activity had to be undertaken in secret until Russian power was shaken by a disaster.  In 1905, Russia was beaten in war by Japan, the first time a non-European power had beaten a European one for decades.  This alone was encouraging to people under the European thumb all over the world.  But Iran also benefited more directly.  The defeat shook Russian absolutism at home and there was a major, if ultimately unsuccessful revolution.  Russia was for the moment incapable of doing anything about Iran, one way or the other.

An Iranian revolution soon followed.  It began, typically, with public outrage over cruel and arbitrary behavior by the government.  The governor of Tehran beat several sugar merchants (bazaaris) on the feet for selling sugar at too high a price.  They claimed that high import duties made lower prices impossible.  The beating sparked a protest from bazaar merchants and religious leaders.  A large number of these community leaders took sanctuary in the royal mosque of Tehran.  They were chased out of there by the government, and then went to a second one outside of the city, where, not at all discouraged, they made up a list of demands for the shah.  The key one was a demand for a representative “house of justice.”

 The shah was disturbed enough to grant this demand, but once the group of protesters had dispersed, he was in no hurry to actually do anything.  In fact, the government continued to use repressive measures against any criticism.  There were demonstrations, demonstrators were shot, religious and other leaders went into refuge in mosques and the British Embassy grounds, and eventually (1906) the shah was forced to fire his ministers and grant the country the right to have a parliament.

The Iranian parliament of 1906 through 1911 faced almost exactly the same problems as the Ottoman reformers faced in 1876-77 and the Young Turks at almost precisely the same time.  They had taken over the government at a time of crisis, with no money to speak of—though at least the country, unlike the Ottoman Empire,  wasn’t being invaded.  They were trying to create a new way of doing politics with little previous experience to guide them.  They were resisted by the monarchy.  As in the Ottoman Empire in 1876, a weak monarch died in the middle of the revolution and was replaced by a tougher one, who was determined to hold onto his power (Muhammed Ali Shah).  Finally the shah and his absolute, foreign dominated government had the active support of European powers.
The constitutionalists put up a good fight over a number of years, and in fact outlasted Muhammed Ali Shah, who was deposed by a rebel army in 1909 and replaced by his young son.  However, the opposition of the two predominant powers eventually brought it down.  As early as August of 1907, the Russian government (having crushed its own revolution) and the British had decided to stop competing in the Great Game.  They were both worried about Germany, and so they buried their differences.  As part of the Entente, or settlement, they marked out spheres of influence in Iran.  While proclaiming their respect for the integrity and independence of the country, they split the country into three zones.  In the north, Russia would have the exclusive right to gain concessions.  Britain would have the right to concessions in the southeast.  In the middle, subjects of either power could arrange concessions.

The agreement by itself had no effect on Iranian politics; but the fact that Britain would no longer oppose Russia’s efforts in Iran emboldened that country to give active support to Muhammed Ali Shah.  When the city of Tabriz rose against the Shah, a Russian army marched in and brutally put down the revolt.  When he was deposed, they gave him refuge and an army, which the constitutional government beat (Sept. 1911).  Finally, the Russians invaded in force.  Despite British disapproval at this point, this did the trick.  A faction of Russian-supported politicians closed the parliament in Tehran and essentially surrendered to Russian influence.

The pattern here is a familiar one.  The grimness of Iran’s political and economic situation under European domination gave birth to a reform movement that owed something to European examples and something to indigenous ideals of just Islamic law.  The writing of a constitution and the creatin of a parliamentary regime seemed to be the obvious way to begin the regeneration of the country.  But the barriers to implementing such a reform were great.  The reformers came to power at a bad time; the old ruling group fought back; and finally, the European powers actively opposed any change, even change for the better—maybe especially change for the better.  Russia, an absolute regime, had no use whatever for constititutional reform anywhere.  Britain was little better.  So Britain was indifferent and Russia acted to end the new regime and bring back an “absolute” one that would be too weak to resist Russian interests.

Once again, colonial powers had made peaceful political change impossible.

One last point connects this incident to more recent times.  When Britain claimed its sphere of influence in southeastern Iran, it picked it with, as usual, the defence of India in mind.  But there was a new factor, too, that was important—the potential for oil.  At the beginning of the 20th century, we are at the point where Islamic countries are becoming interesting to Europe and America as the site of this vital and strategic resource.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.