Shah Abbas’ great miracle, as it were, is to reach out in some extent to some of these other constituencies that are around, give them a stake in the system and in his battle to keep his throne, reach out to new groups. So, one of the things he does do, for example, is engage with the Europeans. He brings the Portuguese in, and the Dutch and the British, primarily in order to fight the Ottomans. So, he’s sending emissaries out to bring these groups in. He signs commercial and other sorts of treaties with various emissaries, political, commercial as well of the Portuguese, in particular, however, of the British and the Dutch. The English East India Company appears on the Persian Gulf in this period. The Dutch East India Company on the Persian Gulf in this period, both interested in silk. Shah Abbas forcibly removes the Armenian community from Eastern Turkey, from Jelfa, to a suburb of Esfahan called, New Jelfa. This was not at all a pleasant process. Many people died along the way. Shah Abbas wanted the Armenian merchants to be there at the center of Esfahan. They would mediate the East-West trade with Europe. Part of the shah’s avenue to reach out to the Europeans to satiate their demand for luxury goods which passed through the Safavid polity, but also achieve political alliances as against the Ottomans. Therefore, the European powers—the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English—by signing treaties, by reaching agreements with them, hoping to keep the Ottomans off-balance so they would relent in their attacks on the Safavid state.
The fact that Iran was never formally a colony actually matters a lot because they, there are very, very few countries in the world, non-Western countries who survived the age of imperialism without becoming European colonies. In fact, there are only six of them, namely China, Japan, Thailand which was then called Siam, Iran, which was then called Persia, the Ottoman Empire and Ethiopia, which was then called Abyssinia. This means that uh these countries, the elites in these countries be they kings or be they oppositional intellectuals had one overriding goal and that is to consolidate the independence of their country. Because while the European countries recognized these states at sovereign, they did not treat them as equals. In fact, if you look at manuals of international law of the 19th century, the six countries are called semi-civilized countries. They are not completely quote un quote ‘civilized’ which is what Europeans thought of themselves, nor are they quote on quote ‘barbarian’ like the inhabitants of the colonies. They were semi-civilized which means one can deal with them diplomatically without recognizing them as equals. And of course the best manifestation of this inequality where treaties that actually called unequal treaties, which were not reciprocal. The best example of these unequal treaties were the so called capitulations, which granted Europeans immunity from local jurisdiction in these countries without of course being reciprocal. In other words, a Russian in Iran was not subject to the Iranian legal system, but an Iranian in Russia was. And so it became the overriding aim of elites in these countries, Iran included, to end the state of affairs. How do you do it? By convincing the Europeans that they’re every bit as quote on quote ‘civilized’ as they were.
So one of the things that is going on already in 1906 to 1911 is this question of a response to modernity and the impact to the west. And in many ways the story of the revolution of ’78, ’79 begins with the revolution of 1906, 1911. It established a new array of ideas and motivations in Iranian political life particularly around the desire for representative government for the rule of law, for a degree of what you could call westernization but some of the motivation for the revolution was not actually westernizing, it was actually trying to turn the clock back to some kind of more traditional pattern of events. The revolution begins with bazaars and clerics trying to reassert themselves towards the monarchy and trying to reassert their idea of how things should be. Really a very traditional idea of how economic and religious and political relations should work. But then the revolution being taken over by people with a different agenda, this being somewhat more westernized, a new intelligentsia, doctors, lawyers, politicians who come from a slightly different background wanting to import some western ideas, ideas as I say of democracy, representative government, rule of law and so on. And part of the story of how the revolution, if you like, went wrong is about the failure of the revolutionary movement to hold those conservative and radical strands, the failure to hold them together. And eventually the revolution is defeated.
With the 20th century, the first significant change comes with the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907. This was an attempt by the British and Russian empires to resolve their differences throughout Asia in the interests of jointly meeting what they perceive to be the rising German threat in Europe. And so, with the Anglo-Russian agreement, there was an attempt made to resolve conflicts between Russia and Britain in Iran, and in other places like Tibet. So this represents a change in how Russia and Britain related to each other, and it also meant the end for Iran of this policy of trying to play off one great power and another.
The results of this firstly for Iran were the search for a third power. So Iran begins to look for a third external power, which it can use as a lever against what appears to be this movement coming from Russia in the north and Britain in the south. At first they looked to America and the constitutional government invites an American to reorganize Iran’s finances. This is the [Morgan] Shuster Mission. This isn’t tremendously successful and after 1911, the Iranians turn their attention to other possible countries in Europe, which might provide a source of assistance which they could use, and to give them some protection against the possibility that Britain and Russia is going to simply divide the country between them and they will lose their independence completely. This is why during the First World War, the Iranians turned towards Germany.
And then in the 20th century, you have a series of interventions in Iran by foreigners from outside. The first of which is in the first World War, well it’s not necessarily the first, but one of the major ones over the period of the first World War. When despite Iran declaring neutrality in 1914 at the outbreak of war, a series of foreign powers sent troops into the country in order to establish some kind of control. The Ottoman Turks, the Russians, even the Germans in a small way, and the British, the British in the south trying to protect the oil fields which had become very important by that time in which the British have control over. The period of the war is a traumatic one. It’s not, it’s not like the western front in Europe. There isn’t intense fighting over large areas between large bodies of troops. It’s on a lower level of intensity, but it’s still of sufficient level of intensity to do a lot of damage.
Of course, at the end of the first World War there was a more or less a global epidemic of influenza which caused a high mortality and that is badly felt in Iran too. So it’s a period over which this major foreign interference in the country, with foreigners looking after their interests in the country rather than the interests of the country itself, where the government of a country is weak, where the people are suffering economic hardship and also physical and health problems, a period of chaos where tribal leaders become more important in brigandage and loss of law and order is also a major problem. And this comes after the period of the constitutional revolution where already there’s been a disruption to traditional patterns of government and social patterns. So it’s a period where a lot of people are looking around for a solution to these kinds of problems. And by this time the old Qajar dynasty, the Qajar monarchy has become somewhat discredited. Partly because it’s failed so obviously to resist this foreign pressure over such a long time. And this is really the context for the rise of Reza Khan, who becomes Reza Shah later in the 1920’s.