The origin and development of imperialist contention in Iran; 1884-1921
A case study in under development and dependency
By: Younes Parsa Benab
In the process of the struggle for political and economic independence and liberation, the contemporary history of any Third World Country appears shaped by the impact of a dynamic interaction between two logically interrelated phenomena: the imperialists' contention for achieving hegemony over the Third World country  and the inevitable national movement which gradually grows out of combating this alien challenge. The history of Iran from 1884 to 1921, when viewed in the context of Anglo-Russian contention in Asia, can provide a case study of this dynamic interaction.
Until the Bolshevik (October) Revolution in Russia, Iran had for over a century been involved in Anglo-Russian rivalry for power in Asia. Subjected to Tsarist territorial expansion and British manipulation, Iran like China, Thailand, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Ethiopia had been gradually transformed from a viable and independent political entity in to a chaotic Asian case of underdevelopment. While observing the territorial "integrity" and national "sovereignty" of Iran, Britain and Russia had designed counterrevolutionary actions against the Iranian Constitutional Revolution by dividing Iran into their spheres of influence in 1907. They had opposed progressive programs of the Constitutionalists by crushing democratic upsurges in Iran, with the object of preventing the further spread of constitutional ideas into their respective colonies in India and Central Asia.
The fall of Tsarist and the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia brought the 1907-1917 "entente" to an end. From there on, Soviet Russia, led by Lenin and his associates, sided with the rise and development of the national Liberation movement in Iran against the imperialist forces . It is against this background that the origins and development of the imperialist contention for hegemony and its social-economic consequences in Iran will be reappraisal.
At the outset of this paper, I will analyse the origins and development of the Great Powers' activities in Iran which provided a favourable ground for the gradual emergence of Iran as an underdeveloped dependency by the end of the nineteenth century. Then I will outline the responses of the Iranian to this foreign challenge during the period under investigation.
The emergence of the commercial activities of the European colonial powers in Iran goes back to the Safavid period (1500-1722). During this period however, the Iranians, being able to resist the intended colonial penetration, cultivated commercial relations with the Europeans on an equal footing and exported Iranian manufactured commodities to the European countries .
After the fall of the Safavid House, Iran went through a process of tribal and feudal rivalries which set the stage for colonial penetration and contention. In retrospect, the period following the fall of the Safavid ruling class marks the beginning of the regional secessions and general disarray of Iran's social-economic and political institutions due to the revival of feudal wars over control of Iran's human and natural resources. In fact, the history of Iran from 1700 to 1800 can be characterised as an uneventful series of military and political conflicts among the rival khans, which brought about the condition for further colonial penetration of Iran under the Qajar rule in the nineteenth century .
The Iranian community fragmented and demoralised under the corrupt Qajar ruling classes, gradually surrendered to the colonial powers. After the Irano-Russia wars of 1813 and 1828, the unequal and imposed treaties of Gulestan and Turkomanchai, the eventful Anglo-Iranian war of 1856, and the unequal Treaty of Paris (1857), Iran lost its independence for all practical purposes and, was gradually drawn into the arena of the Anglo-Russian power struggle . The transformation of Iran from an independent and cohesive Asian state into a "buffer state" was mainly due to the colonial penetration and rivalry between Great Britain and Tsarist Russia in Asia, especially during the last quarter of the 19th century .
Anglo-Russian competition in Asia can be traced to Peter the Great and even earlier . This rivalry began in earnest from the 1780's onward with Catherine the Great's "partition fever" in regard to the Ottoman Lands on the one hand and Britain's new commitment to an emerging British India and a "reformed" East India company on the other . The rivalry reached its peak after the aggressive Tsarist expansion into Central Asian and Chinese territories during the second half of the 19th Century . The British, viewing the domination of these Asian Lands as a serious threat to their colonial interests in India and the Persian Gulf  made it clear that any further military expansion by the Russian into the Iranian lands would lead to a military confrontation with Britain. Although the top Tsarist strategists strongly advocated military expansion and predicted a successful incorporation of Russia into the Tsarist Empire  the Russians finally opted for the less dangerous path of social-economic penetration in order not to risk a military confrontation with Britain .
Since neither imperialist power desired a military confrontation in Iran, competition to moved into social-political area of domination of the country without necessarily colonising her. This new Anglo-Russian contention in Iran became what Keddie has aptly called "concession hunting":
In general, concession -hunting in Iran, was a game of speculators and adventurers, out for quick profits, whose wits were matched against those of wily courtiers, and the shah who equally wanted as little trouble as possible .
The peculiarity of this situation was due to the rivalry between two imperialist powers in maintaining the collapsing political community in Iran. As a result. Iran was not conquered as a formal colony, but survived as a buffer state between the expanding Russian Colonialism towards the Persian Gulf and the British strategy of defending her own imperialist interests in India and the Persian Gulf .
The main strategy of Russia in this period was to expand as far as the Persian Gulf, while establishing colonial footholds for competition with the British in order to achieve commercial and political hegemony in Iran . To accomplish this goal, Russia quickened the pace of her penetration into Iran by using three colonial instruments:  (1) commercial monopolies, (2) the Iranian Cossack Brigade, and (3) finance capital.
The Iranian Cossack Brigade was established in 1889 when Naser al-Din Shah decided to employ Russian officers to protect his person and the Qajar court against the growing popular discontent . These officers, it is interesting to note, did not take their orders from any Iranian authority or even from the Shah but communicated "directly with the Ministry of War in St. Petersburg" . The Brigade developed into a strong, relatively modern and reliable force in Iran and was the only military institution which received its full salary without the customary delay. This naturally made the Cossacks, though Iranian, Loyal to the Russian officers, thereby making them an important instrument of Tsarist policies in Iran .
The nature of trade relations between Iran and Russia was the other important instrument of Tsarist political domination of Iran. The background for an expansion of commercial relations between the two countries had been set by the trade instrument appended to the Treaty of Turkomanchai (1828), which had deprived Iran of tariff autonomy and enabled Tsars to wrest concessions and colonial privileges of all kinds from Iran's venal and corrupt Kings . One of factors that undoubtedly facilitated the increasing Tsarist monopoly of Iranian trade was the Trans-Caspian Railway. Constructed under the direction of General Annenkoff, this first Asian railway (1888) ran for nearly three hundred miles parallel to and very near the Iranian frontier. Since it was in its interest that no railway should be built in Iran, Tsarist Russia extracted from the King a formal agreement not to allow such construction for ten years (1890-1900), at the expiration of which the ban was extended for another decade .
The effect of the expansion of railway was to propel Tsarist policy into an aggressive campaign to obtain extensive commercial and political privileges in Iran. For instance by 1890 Russia exports to Iran were valued at 1,000,000 rubbles  and by the turn of the century, trade increased even more between the two countries,  albeit with terms of trade favourable to Russia. In order to promote her trade domination still further, Russia closed her frontiers to goods in transit to Iran, and, by establishing The Persian Loan Bank, drew Iran into orbit of Tsarist finance capital and forced the King to revise the tariff in favour of Russian merchants .
Although British trade with Iran in this period did not exceed half of the Russo-Iranian trade,  her principal objective was to establish British domination of Iran in order to defend her imperialist interests in India and the Persian Gulf. British attempts for the so-called "strengthening" of Iran were designed to enable her to resist the Russian drive toward the Persian Gulf and at the same time to dominate the Iranian economy.
The major economic concessions which were obtained by the British during this period are summarised as follows: 
Native industrial decay
- During the 1860's concessions were given to the Indo-European Telegraph Company, acting on behalf of the government of British India, for the construction and operation of a land telegraph line running from Baghdad across Iran to the Persian Gulf where it connected with a submarine cable to India, forming part of a system of telegraph communication between Britain and India.
- Immunity from road tolls and internal transit taxes, which were collected from Iranian merchants in the southern provinces of Iran, was granted to the British (1871).
- A comprehensive countrywide monopoly of railway construction, mining, and banking was granted to a British subject, Baron Julius de Reuter (1872).
- In 1888, the British firm of Lynch Brothers (which was already running a line of steamers on the Tigris) was granted a concession for running a line of steamers on the Karun River up to Ahwaz.
- A concession was obtained by the British to organise the Imperial Bank of Persia with a monopoly in issuing currency (1888).
- In order to encourage and increase the British investment in Iran, Britain pressed Naser al-Din Shah for a life and property decree . This important commercial instrument, announced in May 1888, was designed to protect British investors and fortunes against the possible upsurge of the people's wrath.
- One British national was granted a monopoly on the production, sale, and export of all tobacco in Iran (1890).
- Furthermore, there was the Act of 1889, which established "consular jurisdiction" by the British over British nationals in Iran because of "the increasing numbers of British subjects who resided in Persian as a result of the banking activities, the opening of Karun, the operation of the telegraph line, and the mining exploration" .
- Finally, a historic concession was granted to a British syndicate headed by William Knox d' Arcy to explore for and to produce petroleum anywhere in Iran except in the Russian "sphere of influence" in northern Iran (1901).
Russian and British socio-economic penetration of Iran, though productive in terms of British commercial activities in Iran,  was disastrous for the independent economic development of Iranian society. This penetration, which was achieved through diplomacy and superior technology destroyed Iran's factories, which were important during the eighteenth century. As a result, European manufactured goods superseded Iranian local products on the one hand, and the export of raw materials replaced that of manufactured materials on the other. The last quarter of the nineteenth century evidenced the decay of industrial activities in the cities of Isfahan, Kashan, Tabriz, Yazd, Kerman, and Mashad .
Not only were the traditional factories destroyed, but the various attempts of the modern middle class to establish themselves failed partially because of the intervention of Russia and Great Britain in favour of their own overall aims. Jamalzadeh reports that thirty major new factories which were opened in the last decade of the nineteenth century were shut down. For example, a modern sugar cane factory, which was installed in 1899 and whose products were of better quality than Russia sugar, finally went bankrupt as a result of Tsarist dumping practices .
Another example was the failure of Iranian money dealers and traders to establish an independent national banking system due to the predominance of the two foreign banks, the Imperial (British) Bank of Persia and the (Russian) Banque d' Escompte, over the Iranian money market . The growth of trade, the decline of native manufacturers, and the failure of Iranian businessmen to establish their independent banks gave rise to the emergence of a dependent bourgeoisie in the first quarter of the twentieth century. British and Russian firms opened up their offices or appointed representatives in the major commercial cities of Iran in this period. Curzon reports that six large British firms were active in the British sphere of interest . Although a good deal of trade was done by native merchants, the bulk of mercantile transactions passed through the hands of English firms . As a result, many big businessmen in Iran were converted into agents of Russian and British commercial firms and lost their independence. The domination of Iran's finance by the two foreign banks, the apathy of Iran's rulers toward the national bourgeois elite, and the intervention of the two power in favour of their own interests forced Iranian traders and businessmen to work with either of the foreign firms to survive .
The Iranian response to this alien threat was an attempt to launch the policy of "equilibrium". The ruling elites in Iran reasoned that by balancing the Russians and British against each other, Iran could maintain at least a precarious independence . Historically, since the turn of the nineteenth century, the Shahs had thrown their lot first with one power and then with another by making alliances and waging unprepared wars . In contrast, during the early reign of Naser al-Din Shah (1848-1896), the policy of equilibrium in confronting the challenge of Anglo Russian rivalry was introduced and implemented . Despite its unique and innovative aspects, however, this policy which was supposedly formulated to rid Iran of further foreign encroachments, actually worked against that aim. In practice, the central task of the Iranian ruling elites became one of equalising the economic and political privileges granted to the nationals of each of the two great powers .
The socio-economic domination of Iran by the imperialist powers and the ineptness of the Iranian ruling classes in coping with this foreign threat to Iran's national independence finally gave rise to a sense of national humiliation. This in turn, led to public outrage and the alienation of the intelligentsia from the ruling oligarchy. Mirza Agha Khan Kermani, Mirza Talebov Tabrizi, and Haji Zein al-Abadin-i Maragehye, outstanding Iranian critics, courageously denounced Nazer al-Din Shah's lust for unnecessary expensive trips abroad and the monarch's lack of any feeling of responsibility toward his people . Years later, Farrukhi, the distinguished poet, recited a poem which denounced the autocracy of the regime at that time and concluded with the line, "Never was (Iran) so trampled upon as then by British and Russian oppression" .
Foreign interference, the rise of national consciousness, the constant flow of social-democratic ideas from Russia into Iran,  and general public discontent gave rise to a series of uprisings, culminating in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906.
- Rivalry among the big colonial powers has never ceased in modern contemporary history of international relations. In the 17th century, it was mainly a contention for maritime hegemony between Britain and the Netherlands. In the 18th century, there was fierce rivalry between Britain and France for international maritime and European hegemony. In the 19th century, a complicated situation arose on the European continent, with Britain, Russia, France, Germany, and Austria locked in strife for supremacy at different times in different parts of the underdeveloped countries. These rivalries became sharper when world capitalism entered the stage of imperialism. For a detailed account of this historical process, see G.S. Graham, The Politics of Naval Supremacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965; C Day, A History of Commerce. New York: Longman Green, 1938; E.J. Hobsbawn, "The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century", in T. Aston, ed. Crisis Europe 1560-1660 (New York: Doubleday, 1967); J. Rose, "Sea Power and Expansion 1660-1763", in The Cambridge History of the British Empire. New York: Macmillan 1929 Vol. II: and B. Semmel, The Rise of Free Trade Imperialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
- For further references and a detailed analysis of Bolshevik support of Iran's national liberation movement during the 1917-1921 period, see M. A. Manshur Garakani, Siyasat-i Dowlat-i Shurawi dar Iran ( The Soviet Policy in Iran) Tehran: Chapkhaneh-i Mazaheri, 1327/1948; V.I. Lenin, The National Liberation Movement in the East Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962; E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution: 1917-1923. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953. volume III, Chapter: XXVI: "Revolution over Asia", pp. 229-270; and Y.P. Benab, "The Soviet Union and Britain in Iran, 1917-1927", unpublished ph.D Dissertation The Catholic University of America, Washington, D. C., 1974, II: "The Bolshevik Revolution and Persia". pp. 48-112.
- For a detailed account in reference to the independence of Iran vis-à-vis the European colonial powers, see Ahmad Tajbakhsh, Tarikh-i Ravabet-i Iran va Russeyye dar Nimey-i Avval-i Qarn-i Noozdahum (A History of Russo-Persian Relation During the First Half of the 19th Century). Tabriz: Tchehr Bookstore, 1337/1958; Reza Sardari, Un Chapitre de l' Histoire Diplomatique de L' Iran. Paris: University of Paris, 1941. Chapter II; documents Nos. 3,5,6,7,8,9,13,15, and 17 in J. C. Hurewitz, ed. Diplomacy in the Near and Middle East, Documentary Records, 2 Vols. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Co. 1956; and B. Parisie, "Jazr O Madd-e Siyasat va Egstesad dar Asr-e Safaviyye", (Fluctuations of Politics and Economy During the Safavid Period) in Yaqhma Nos. 2-3, 1346/1967.
- For a reference, see A. Lambton, "Persian Society Under the Qajar" in The Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society, vol. 48 (April, 1961), pp. 123-139; for a Persian account, see S. Nafisi, Tarikh-i Ijtemay-i va siyasey-i Iran (A Socio-Political History of Iran). Tehran: Matboat-i Shargh 1335/1956, vol I, p 76.
- For the stipulations and colonial nature and character of these treaties, consult Hurswitz, ed. Diplomacy in the Middle East. Vol. I, documents Nos. 33,38, and 70.
- See, for example, F. Kazemzadeh, Russia and Britain in Persia 1864-1914. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968; K. Marx, "The Anglo Persian War", in New Youk Daily Tribune, February 14, 185; F. Engels "Persia -China", in Ibid. June 5, 1857; and Ivanov, "Transformation of Iran into a Semi-colony".
- For reference see R.H. Major, India In the Fifteenth Century. London: Hakluyt Society, 1857
- For details, see P. Nightingale, Trade and Empire in Western India, 1784-1809, South Asian studies, No, 9. London: Cambridge university press, 1970.
- For reference see W. Baczkowski, "Russian Colonialism", in R. Strauaz-Hupe and . H.W. Hazard, eds. The Idea of Colonialism. New York: Praeger, 1958 pp. 70 ff.
- R.L. Greaves, Persia and Defence of India, 1884-1892. London: The Athlone Press, 1958, p 18.
- For a reliable source, see F. Adamiyyat Andishihaya-e Mirza Fatali Akhundzadeh (Thoughts of Mirza Akhundzadeh). Tehran: Kharzmi, 1349/1970, pp. 39-40; also see Sardari, UN Chapitre de L'Histoires Diplomatique de L'Iran, p. 25; and I. Lederer, Ed, Russian Foreign Policy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962, P. 508.
- For a detailed account, see H. Kapur, Soviet Russia and Asia 1917-1927. New York; The Humanities Press, 1967, pp. 145-6.
- N. Keddie, Religion and Rebellion in Iran. London; Cambridge University Press, 1966, p 7.
- British and Russian governments, while pretending "to observe" the "integrity" and "sovereignty" of Iran in their declarations, competed with each other for social-political hegemony of Iran throughout the second half of the 19th century. For repeated British and Russian mutual dealings in relation to the maintenance of "peace" and "order" in Iran, see Great Britain British and Foreign State Papers. London: J. Ridgway, 1915; and G.N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question 2 Vols. London: Longman,Green and Co. 1892, vol. II, pp. 554-85
- J. Upton, The History of Modern Iran. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960, p. 7.
- For a thorough account of these colonial means see M. Afschar, La Politique European en Perse: Quelques Pages de L' Histoire Diplomatique. Berlin: M. May 1921.
- For a commanding survey on the origins and development of the Russian Cossack Brigade, see F. Kazemzadeh, The origin and Early Development of the Persian Cossack Brigade, The American Slavic and East European Review Vol. . XV, No 3 (October, 1956), pp. 351-62.
- B. H. Summer, Tsardom and Imperialism in the Far East and the Middle East, 1880-1914. London: M. Milford, 1943, pp. 52-3.
- For instance, during the counter-revolutionary coup d' etat of June 1908, against the constitutionlists, Colonel Liakhov, the Russian commander of the Cossacks, ordered the Brigade to bombard the Iranian Majlis (National Assembly), an order which the Persian Cossacks carried out with no hesitation. For an excellent account of this specific Tsarist aggression in favour of absolute monarchy in Iran, see A. Kasravi, Tarikh-i Mashrutey-i Iran (A History of the Constitutional Movement in Iran ). Tehran: Amir Kabir, 1340/1961 pp. 577-89.
- For a comprehensive analysis of the nature and unequal terms of trade relations between Iran and Russia, see M. L. Entner, Russo-Persian Commercial Relations, 1828-1914. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965.
- For an account of Tsarist obstructive railway policy during the 1888-1914 period see F. Kazemzadeh, "Russian and Persian Railway", in Harvard Slavic Studies, Vol. IV (1957), pp. 355-73.
- R. Ramazani, The foreign Policy of Iran. Charlottesville: University of Virginian Press, 1968, p 74.
- V. Conolly, Soviet Economic Policy in East ; Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Tana Tura, and Sin Kiang London: Oxford University Press, 1933, pp. 56-57.
- For reference see Kasravi, The Constitutional Movement, P. 25.
- According to Jamalzadeh, over half of the foreign trade was in the hands of Russian firms; British agencies had only one-quarter of the foreign trade in the early 20th century. For details see M. Jamalzadeh, Gang-i Shayegan ( An Immense Treasure) Tehran: 1335/1957, p. 9.
- For reference, see Curzon, Persia and The Persian Question, Vol. II. PP. 528-85; and E. N. Yeganegi, Recent Financial and Monetary History of Persia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1934 chapter II , pp. 15-46.
- For a complete text of this decree in English , see "Correspondence Respecting the Issue of Decree by His Majesty the Shah of Persia for the protection of Rights of property in Persia" in Great Britain, House of Lords, Parliamentary Debates. London: HMSO, 1920 vol. CIX 1888, (C. 5434).
- Greaves, Persia and the Defence of India 1884-1892, p 175.
- For reference see Curzon, Persia and The Persian Question. Vol. II, pp. 572-580.
- Bank-i Melli, Tarikhchey-i si saley-i Bank-i Melly-i Iran (A Thirty Year History of the Iranian National Bank). Tehran: 1338/1959; also see E. Flandin, Safar Name-ye Eugene Flandin dar Iran, 1840-1841. Tehran:1324/1945, trans. by Sadeghi, 2nd edition; also, Curzon, Persia and The Persian Question vol.2, pp. 41, 211-12, and 245.
- Jamalzadeh, An Immense Treasure, pp 93-95 and 99.
- Curzon, Persia and The Persian Question, vol. 2, p 543.
- Ibid, P. 573.
- Ibid, P. 41.
- For a critical account of this case, see K. Khosravi, Bourgeoisie dar Iran Tehran: Tehran University Library, 1344/1965 and R. W. Cottam, Nationalism in Iran Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1964, p 159.
- Ramazani, The Foreign Policy of Iran p 65.
- This concept owed its origins to the emergence of an unexpected and extraordinarily able politician and administrator, Amir Kabir, on the Iranian political scene. For his contribution to the pace of modernisation in the fields of Iranian state and public administrations and other reforms during the second part of the nineteenth century, see Abbas Eghbal Ashteyani, Mirza Taghi Khan Amir-Kabir. Tehran: Chehr, 1340/1961-1962.
- For an excellent treatment of various kinds of trade, economic and political concessions which were granted by Naser al-Din Shah and his successor, Mozaffar Al-Din Shah, to the British and Russian Powers in Iran, see Ebrahim Taymouri, Asr-i Bikhabari Ya Tarikh-i Imtiyazat dar Iran. (The Era of Unawareness, or the History of Concessions in Iran) Tehran: M. H. Equal 1332/1953, pp 130-50; and also see Kaveh. vol. III, No.28 (May 15, 1918), pp 5-6.
- For a detailed account of the life and thoughts of these prominent Persians, see N. Kermani, Tarikh-i Beedary-i Iranian (A History of the Iranian Awareness). Tehran: Ibn Sina, 1333/1954) Chapter I; and F. Adamiyyat , Andishehhaye-e Mirza Agha Khan Kermani (Thoughts of Mirza Agha Khan Kermani) Tehran Payam, 1351/1972 pp 235-238.
- For Farrukhi's denunciation of Anglo Russian rivalry in Iran, see H. Makki, Divan-i Farrukhi (The collection of Farrukhi). Tehran; M. A. Elmi, n. d.
- For a comprehensive Persian account of the penetration of social-democratic ideas into Iran during this period, see F. Adamiyyat, Fikr-i Democracy-e Ejtimai-i dar Nehzat-i Mashrutiyyat-i Iran (The Social-Democratic Idea in the Iranian Constitutional Movement). Tehran: Payam, 1354/1975. Chapter I, pp 3-29; see also, B. Mumini, Iran dar Astaneh-e Ingilab-e Mashrutiyyat (Iran on the Eve of the Constitutional Revolution), Tehran; Shabgir, 1351/1972, pp 1-17.
- Aside from the internal factors, certain international developments have been considered instrumental in raising the national consciousness of the Iranian at this crucial point. For example the defeat of Russian Tsarism by Japan, an Asian power, and the concurrent development of the Russian Revolution of 1905 were seen by the Iranian as a series of setbacks to the Persian ruling elites who had been supported by the Tsars. For the epochal impact of the Japanese victory over the Russian Tsar in the 1904-5 war on the political atmosphere in Iran, see Kasravi, A history of the Constitutional Movement, p 48; for a detailed account of the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1905 on the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, see I. Spector, The First Russian Revolution: its Impact on Asia (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1962), pp 38-50.