By Jay Holmes
As an intelligence operative, I need a good foundation in history to do my job. After all, if we don’t understand what happened in the past, we can’t understand what is happening today or why. This series outlines Iran’s past as we move toward an analysis of that country’s current nuclear capability and what it means to the West. (See Part I, Part II, and Part III.)
Today, we look at the political and social dynamics of Iran from 1650 A.D. until the time the British drilled the first oil well in the Middle East.
Great Britain drills first oil well in Middle East, image from insideofiran.com.
While a new age of art, literature, architecture, and engineering flourished in Iran, the question of dynastic successions left it in a weakened condition politically. In the last half of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, many of Iran’s political elite looked inward too much toward internal rivalries and failed to deal effectively with foreign relations.
It reminds me of Washington D.C. and London today.
A charismatic Afghan chieftain by the name of Mahmoud Khan revolted against his Iranian overlords and overcame tribal enmities to form a united army. He invaded and captured Isfahan and was able to rule much of eastern Iran.
Mahmoud Khan confidant and cousin murdered him.
Persian General Nadir Kuli defeated and evicted the Afghan invaders from eastern Iran.
Yet another foreign force invaded Iran. This time, a well equipped Turkish army entered western Iran, but Nadir Shah solidified his political position by defeating and evicting them.
A ruthless but skillful Persian general, Nadir Shah invaded and defeated Afghanistan. He then invaded India and sacked Delhi. Fortunes in jewels, including the famous Koh-i-noor diamond, were shipped to Iran along with the famous Golden Peacock Throne.
The Golden Peacock Throne, image from public domain.
The Astrakhan-id dynasty of Uzbekistan and Turkestan collapsed. Nadir Shah quickly conquered the region and incorporated it into Iran.
Nadir Shah’s bodyguards assassinated him and the vast Iranian empire fell into disarray. Many of the strongest leaders that could have risen to rule a united empire were long since dead thanks to the cruel hand of Nadir Shah. Nadir Shah’s bodyguard commander, Ahmad Shah, declared himself ruler of the Iranian Empire. Iran fell into civil war along predominantly ethnic divisions.
Karim Khan managed to rise through the mayhem of the civil war and establish the Zand Dynasty. Karim attempted to solidify control by destroying and killing off various ethnic and political groups. His genocidal campaign was not completely successful.
Agha Muhammad Khan, a survivor of Karim’s brutality in his youth, led an army against Karim and decisively defeated the Zand Dynasty. He was able to reunite much of the Iranian Empire.
Agha Muhammad’s servants assassinated him.
Fath Ali Shah rose to the top of the Iranian political heap. He reinvigorated East-West trade, and Iran entered a new age of prosperity.
Not all Azerbaijanis liked being Iranian. In the northern reaches of Azerbaijan, they joined the Russians and Armenians to invade Azerbaijan. They defeated the Iranian garrisons, and a treaty was signed ceding territory to Russia.
Iran wisely signed a peace treaty with the Turks that defined their mutual border.
Iran lost another war with Russia and ceded control of the Caucasus and the north Caspian shore to that country.
Great Britain invaded Afghanistan from British India, and at a high cost in men and material, it defeated the Afghan tribes. Within weeks, the British troops started wondering why they came to Afghanistan. The invasion indirectly pitted Russia against Great Britain. The Iranians laughed.
Russia ignored Great Britain long enough to invade and capture Turkmenistan from Iran. The Russians laughed, and the British remained silent on the point, as they were busy in India and elsewhere. The sentiments of the Turkmenistan peasants were not recorded.
The Persian Empire embraced comic political opera, and within 120 years, they elevated it to new heights. Iranian leader Naser od Dinh Shah infuriated Iranians by selling tobacco growing concessions to European companies. Those concessions required no capital investment by the Shah, and they seemed like easy money.
Iranian mullahs issued a “Fatua” (a holy war declaration) against anyone cooperating with the European tobacco concessions.
The Shah was murdered in a mosque. It seemed like easy money to the mullahs and required no capital investment by them.
Iran granted mineral rights to Great Britain. It seemed like easy money to the Iranian monarchy and required no capital investment by Iran.
The mullahs instigated anti-European riots. About 15,000 Brits took refuge in the British Embassy property. The tea schedule was disrupted. It seemed like easy money to the mullahs. It cost them no capital investment.
To the mullahs’ dismay, a constitutional movement led by educated Iranians took over the riots. The Shah agreed to a constitution that limited his power.
While their ancestors were fierce warriors who ruled with iron fists, the Iranian throne now seemed to be at the mercy of multiple factions, both foreign and domestic. Alliances that keep the throne intact depended on the wind of the day.
To the dismay of the mullahs, Iran held elections for a democratic parliament. If the monarchy was something they hated, democracy was something they loathed and feared.
Russia’s beleaguered monarchy and the far-stretched British conferred with their respective accountants and divided up Iran between them into spheres of influence.
Russian troops put down a rebellion directed by the mullahs.
Great Britain drilled the first Middle Eastern oil well. Let the fun begin.
Next time, we’ll look at how oil supplanted East-West trade as the great driver of Iran’s international relations.