Today in Iranian history: the 1921 Iranian coup

The irony of Iran’s experience during World War I is that the evaporation of Imperial Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution should have marked a positive turning point for the Qajar Dynasty, but instead it eventually led to their overthrow. Russia and Britain had dominated Iranian affairs (first as rivals, then as allies) for most of the 19th century through the first half of the war, and the 1917 revolution removed one of those two oppressive foreign powers from the equation. The Qajar monarchy, crippled by internal dissension and by the infantilizing effects of having two hegemonic powers controlling their affairs for over a century, might have now had an opening to rebuild its authority. Unfortunately for Ahmad Shah Qajar (d. 1930), though, while the Russians were no longer an issue the British weren’t going anywhere. They negotiated the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 with Ahmad Shah, which stipulated British rights over all of Iran’s oil fields in return for British military, infrastructure, and financial aid. It was a terrible deal for the Iranians, criticized both within Iran and internationally, but Ahmad Shah had little choice but to accept it.

The popular backlash to the Qajars’ continuing weakness and that hated 1919 agreement with Britain helped fertilize the development of Iranian nationalism. Iranian elites had already begun to embrace nationalist sentiments before this, but now the feeling began to permeate, largely through popular literary culture, to the Iranian people in general. Nationalism often needs some foreign occupier or enemy to react against (see: all of 19th century Ottoman history), and in this case the Iranian people were reacting to centuries of Turkic military and dynastic governance going back to the Safavids (a dynasty of mixed ethnic origins whose authority rested on the Turkic tribes that supported it). There was now an uptick in anti-Turk feelings–a very bad thing for the Qajars, who were, you guessed it, ethnically Turkic. There’s even some literature from this period (and later) that expresses regret for the Arab conquest of Iran way back in the 7th century. Considering that it was the Arab conquest that brought Islam to Iran, this is a rather shocking sentiment to read in 20th century Iranian literature. Or at least it seemed shocking to me when I first encountered some of it in my grad school Persian classes. A literary Iranian person might not find it that shocking, I guess.

Anyway, as the Bolsheviks gained the upper hand in the Russian civil war, they saw British-dominated Iran as a problem insofar as the Brits kept using Iran as a staging ground to interfere in Russian affairs. It’s pretty clear that Britain didn’t want a direct confrontation with the Bolsheviks, but they weren’t above sending aid to a local revolt here, or sending an army via Iran to Baku, Azerbaijan, to try to keep the oil fields there out of Ottoman and Bolshevik hands (the Battle of Baku, in 1918, was an Ottoman victory). In May 1920 an amphibious Russian force landed at Anzali, an Iranian Caspian Sea port, and quickly established the “Soviet Republic of Gilan” on the southwestern Caspian shore, based in the city of Rasht. Their objective was plainly to march on Tehran.

The British military performance in the face of the Russian incursion–their North Persian Force had retreated immediately rather than risk a confrontation–thoroughly discredited the 1919 agreement (which was as a result never ratified by the Iranian parliament). London now had to fear losing Iran completely, either to a Russian conquest or a diplomatic rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow. The commander of Britain’s North Persian Force, General Edmund Ironside, and the British minister to Iran, Herbert Norman, decided that a military coup was the only way to stabilize the country and protect British interests in the process. They used the Cossack Brigade, which ironically had been created by Russian officers in the 1870s as a gift from Moscow to Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (d. 1896), and which at this point was the only capable Iranian fighting force in the entire country.

Working through two sympathetic Iranian agents–journalist Zia al-Din Tabatabai in Tehran and Colonel Reza Khan, whom Ironside appointed to command the entire Cossack Brigade–the Brits put a plan in motion to topple the Iranian government and install a new cabinet headed by Zia. It wasn’t really supposed to be the end of the Qajar dynasty, though it ultimately proved to be just that. Reza and the Cossacks met almost no resistance marching into Tehran, apart from a few police officers, and forced Ahmad Shah to appoint a new government with Zia at the top. He made sure that he was named commander in chief of the Iranian army and Minister of War, which wasn’t hard to do considering that, as the commander of a military force occupying the capital, he was really in a position to dictate the terms of the new order. He allowed Zia to become PM because the British wanted it that way, but he certainly didn’t plan on staying Minister of War forever.

The new government’s first order of business was to sign a treaty of friendship with the Russians that assuaged Moscow’s concerns and led it to drop its support for the Gilan Republic. So that was one problem solved. But a new and more serious problem cropped up when it turned out that the British government didn’t actually support the coup. The entire operation had really been the brainchild of Ironside and Norman, without the input of Britain’s foreign secretary, George Curzon. Lord Curzon had little interest in helping the new government in any material way, and when Zia abrogated the still-unratified 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement, he lost whatever British support he’d had. Reza managed to use this row to jettison Zia altogether. He positioned himself as Ahmad Shah’s closest adviser, and at his urging (and after Britain had pulled its forces out of Iran), the Shah canned Zia in May and replaced him with the former governor of Khurasan, Ahmad Qavam. Reza Khan was now unquestionably the most powerful man in Iran.

Reza Shah

Reza spent the next two years putting down internal revolts that had sprung up in the aftermath of the coup, while government after government rose and fell in Tehran. In October 1923 he ended the charade and made Ahmad Shah appoint him prime minister. At the same time, Ahmad left for Europe, for “health reasons,” and although he technically remained the ruler of Iran, he never returned. Presumably one of those “health reasons” was “I don’t want Reza Khan to kill me.” In December 1925, the Iranian parliament formally ended the Qajar dynasty and crowned Reza Shah Pahlavi as Iran’s new ruler. Notwithstanding the fact that he ruled as a repressive absolute monarch, the reforms Reza undertook as shah helped to further consolidate the idea of Iranian nationalism and laid the foundations for the modern Islamic Republic.

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