Published:  12:33 AM, 10 February 2019

The struggle for Iran

The late IK Gujral was a gentleman in the true sense of the word; a person of extraordinary decency and goodwill. In the early 1980s he was a former Cabinet Minister, a former Ambassador to the then USSR, and also a most congenial and warm-hearted neighbour in New Delhi. His finest hour still lay a few years in the future. In the course of a conversation, he once casually observed that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979 would, in all probability, not have taken place, but for the Iranian revolution earlier in the same year.

Gujral's opinion would no doubt have been shaped by his experience of Moscow. At the time of the invasion, Afghanistan was in disarray, in the throes of civil strife. The radical change in Iran would, in all likelihood, eventually have impacted on neighbouring Afghanistan, and the Soviet leadership would, of course, look askance at the prospect of a dogmatic and assertive theocratic regime on its borders. The Soviet intervention, by such a line of reasoning, was thus in the nature of a pre-emptive measure.

In September of 1980, within a year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq invaded Iran by land and air. Shias constituted a clear majority in Iraq, but had been excluded from effective political power for years. Saddam Hossain, himself a Sunni, possibly concluded that the revolution in Iran could upset the delicate Sunni-Shia balance in his country, and even trigger an insurgency among Shias in Iraq.

He was perhaps also persuaded that Iran was at that time a more vulnerable military target than before. There were, to be sure, outstanding issues between the two countries. The Iran-Iraq war would continue till August 1988, and cost over a million lives on both sides.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 did not emanate from a vacuum. Its roots can be traced to the coup of 1953, which ousted democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. The then Shah of Iran, who was complicit in the coup and had fled the country prior to it, returned in triumph and assumed all powers. He would rule, virtually as an absolute monarch, for nearly 26 years, until his own ouster and exile in 1979.

There is an impressive body of literature on the coup of 1953, and the events leading to it. Stephen Kinzer, author, academic and former foreign correspondent of the New York Times, gives a compelling and meticulously researched account in his bestselling book, "All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror".

Iran-or Persia as it was known in earlier times-is one of the oldest nations of the world, and the people of Iran have traditions and a history to be proud of. The Persian Empire at its apogee-five centuries before Christ-extended across continents, from parts of the Balkans in the West to the Indus Valley in the East. Persia of old produced poets and artists, who "created works of exquisite beauty".

Professor Richard Frye, a foremost specialist on Iran and Central Asia who taught at Harvard, has likened Persia's role in the "development and diffusion of Islamic civilization" to that of Greek civilization vis-à-vis Christianity. For the people of Iran, it has always been a deeply ingrained belief that citizens have the right to enlightened and just leadership. The Persian Empire, like so many other empires of old, went through peaks and troughs. It had its share of foreign invasions. Among others, Alexander the Great invaded in 334 BC, as did Genghis Khan centuries later.

By the end of the 19th century, under successive ineffectual, indolent and weak monarchs of then ruling Qajar dynasty, Persia was clearly in decline. The egregious Qajar monarchs-to support a profligate style of life-even started to sell the nation's patrimony; concessions were awarded for paltry sums to foreign governments and companies.

In 1872, Baron Julius de Reuter, "of news agency fame", was given exclusive rights to "run the country's industries, irrigate its farmland, exploit its mineral resources, develop its railroad and streetcar lines, establish its national bank, and to print its currency". In the words of Lord Curzon, the transaction was "the most complete and extraordinary surrender of the entire industrial resources of a Kingdom into foreign hands".

In the face of strong public reaction, the Emperor, Nasir al Din Shah, was obliged to revoke the concession within a year. The incorrigible monarch was not, however, quite deterred or dissuaded.

Over the next few years, he sold other concessions to foreign powers, including three to British consortiums relating to mineral-prospecting rights, establishment of banks, and commerce along the Karun River, the only navigable river in Iran. Russia was granted exclusive rights to the country's caviar fisheries. Control over valuable national assets thus passed into foreign hands. The Shah also borrowed freely from British and Russian banks.

In 1891, for the sum of Pound Sterling 15,000, he sold a concession to British Imperial Tobacco Company; tobacco farmers had to sell their produce to British Imperial, and every consumer was obliged to buy his supply from an outlet that was part of the Company's retail network. Tobacco became a "tool for the exclusive profit of foreigners".

People affected included farmers, who cultivated the crop, middlemen who packaged and distributed it, and, of course, the consumer. There were vigorous protests from a wide cross-section of the population. A leading cleric issued a fatwa against smoking "as long as foreigners controlled the tobacco industry".

Even the royal consorts joined in the protest and boycotted tobacco-the hookah was one of the pleasures of life in the harem. A thoroughly chastened Shah was once again obliged to bow to overwhelming public sentiment; the concession was duly revoked. He had to borrow Pound Sterling 500,000 from a British bank to compensate British Imperial; this was insult upon injury.

In 1896 Nasir al-Din Shah was assassinated. His son Muzzaffar, who succeeded him on the throne, continued the late Emperor's lavish and reckless style of life. In 1901 he sold a concession that-more than any other factor-shaped the future history of the country. The British financier William Knox D'Arcy was granted the "exclusive privilege to obtain, exploit, develop…carry away and sell natural gas and petroleum…for a term of sixty years".

The concession applied to an area larger than California and Texas combined. It cost D'Arcy the not quite princely sum of Pound Sterling 20,000, an equivalent amount in shares of his company, and an assurance of 16% of future profits. Oil would be struck within a decade, but more on this later.

Political change came to Persia early in the 20th century. The people wanted a parliament or Majlis with effective power. Clerics and secular reformers were united in this demand. Under pressure from an increasingly restive population, Muzzaffar al-Din Shah yielded-without enthusiasm-on the issue of political reforms. He insisted, though, that his assent would be needed for the laws enacted by the Majlis to come into effect. A constitution was drafted, patterned on the Belgian model of government.

A 200-member Majlis was elected, with some members directly elected by the people, and others chosen by different guilds-grocers, blacksmiths, doctors, printers, etc. The inaugural session of the Majlis was held on Oct.7, 1906; the constitution was adopted only weeks later on Dec.30. Muzzaffar al-Din Shah died soon after. His son and successor, Mohammad Ali Shah, did not envisage for himself the quiescent role of a constitutional monarch. The uneasy alliance of clerics and secular reformers had begun to unravel, and there were differences between and among groups of clerics as well. All this worked to the Shah's advantage.

The monarch was not averse to terror tactics-using thugs and even the elite Cossack Brigade-to shape the Majlis to his will. In his confrontation with the Majlis, the Shah received support from two outside powers, Britain and Russia; both countries had concluded that their interests would be best served if the reform movement did not become too powerful. By the close of the 19th century, Persia, for cogent enough geo-strategic reasons, had come to the attention of the two major imperial powers of the time.

Russia sought to expand south into the Caucasus and central Asia, while Britain wanted to dominate the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and, of course, India. Julius Nyerere once likened "small nations" to "indecently dressed women", since both tended to "tempt the evil-minded". The definition of "small nations" could be extended to include vulnerable nations, and it is a fair assumption that the "empire-minded" and the "hegemony-minded" are also susceptible to temptation.

In 1907, Britain and Russia, by formal treaty, partitioned Iran into two zones of interest or control. Britain controlled the southern zone and Russia, the provinces of the North. There was a narrow neutral zone in between, where Iranians were free to rule. Iran was informed only after the signature of the treaty in St. Petersburg. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Russian interest in Iran declined, and Britain moved swiftly into the vacuum. There was a strong incentive for Britain to act as it did.

Oil had been discovered in western Iran in 1908, and by the time of the Bolshevik revolution, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company that had emerged from the D'Arcy concession of 1901 was "extracting huge quantities of it from beneath Iranian soil". In the words of Winston Churchill, it was "a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams".

In 1919, the Anglo-Persian Agreement was forced upon the hapless regime of Ahmad Shah, who had succeeded his father Mohammad Ali Shah on the Peacock throne in 1909. The Agreement provided for British control over Iran's army, treasury, transport-system and communications network.

It was a short-lived agreement, suspended within a year and subsequently annulled. It served, though, to strengthen the nationalist forces in the country. By that time, the people of Iran were thoroughly disenchanted with the succession of effete Qajar monarchs. They were also deeply resentful of domination by foreign powers. The denouement was all but inevitable.

In February 1921, Reza Khan, an officer of the Cossack Brigade, marched into Tehran at the head of some 2000 soldiers and placed the Prime Minister and his cabinet under arrest. Ahmad Shah was obliged to appoint a new Prime Minister, and Reza Khan was named Commander of the Cossack Brigade. Reza Khan's coup had British support. Britain had concluded that a strong central government was needed to counter the volatile tribal leaders of the country.

Over the next few months, Reza moved to consolidate his hold on power. Prime Minister Sayyed Zia Tabatabai-who was the British choice for the office-was summarily removed and sent into exile. The Shah also was persuaded to leave for abroad, ostensibly for reasons of health.

Finally in April 1926, Reza Khan-who had earlier assumed the office of Prime Minister-ascended the Peacock Throne as the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. The Majlis, which had taken a beating over the years, had no wish to see Ahmad Shah return to the throne, and invited Reza to be the new monarch. (To be continued…)

The writer is a distinguished former Bangladesh diplomat

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