Today in Middle Eastern history: the 1921 Iranian coup

The fall of imperial Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution should have been good news for Iran’s Qajar Dynasty, which had fought at least three wars with Russia and lost much of its Caucasian territory in the process. Instead, it upset the delicate balance of power in Iran and eventually led to the Qajars’ overthrow.

Russia and Britain had dominated Iranian affairs (first as rivals, then as allies) for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, until the 1917 revolution removed the former from the equation. Would the Qajar monarchy, crippled by internal dissension and by the infantilizing effects of having two hegemonic powers controlling their affairs for over a century, finally have a chance to reassert itself? Sadly, no! Unfortunately for Ahmad Shah Qajar (d. 1930), while the Russians were no longer an issue the British weren’t going anywhere. They “negotiated” (it wasn’t exactly a fair negotiation between equals) the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 with the hapless Iranians, 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 that hated 1919 agreement helped seed 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 had their pick of occupier: the Qajars were Turkic, the latest iteration of centuries of Turkic military and dynastic governance going back at least to the Safavids (whose ruling family was mixed but whose army was predominantly Turkic). And, of course, there was Britain, which had by this point colonized Iran in all but name. Relations between the Qajars and London deteriorated as each considered selling out the other in an effort to stave off a revolution.

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 might not find it that shocking, I guess.

Now enter the Bolsheviks. As they 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. London certainly wasn’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 both Ottoman and Bolshevik hands (the ensuing 1918 Battle of Baku, if you’re wondering, was an Ottoman victory). So 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 clearly 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 settled on 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 Ziaʾeddin Tabatabaee in Tehran and Colonel Reza Khan, whom Ironside appointed to command the Cossack Brigade–the Brits put a plan in motion to topple the Iranian government and install a new cabinet. Though it ultimately proved to be the end of the Qajar Dynasty, at the time the goal was just to replace the cabinet and leave the monarchy intact (though I suppose if Ahmad Shah had decided to abdicate that wouldn’t have broken anybody’s heart). 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 Tabatabaee as prime minister. Reza made sure that he was named commander in chief of the Iranian army and Minister of War–a pretty easy feat considering it was his army occupying the capital. Tabatabaee became PM mostly because the Ironside and Norman wanted it that way, but Reza Khan clearly 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 Tabatabaee abrogated the still-unratified 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement, he lost whatever British support he’d had. Reza used this row to jettison Tabatabaee 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 Tabatabaee in May and replaced him with the former governor of Khurasan, Ahmad Qavam. If he hadn’t been already, Reza Khan was now unquestionably the most powerful man in Iran.

Reza Shah

Reza spent the next two years outside of Tehran, putting down internal revolts that had sprung up in the aftermath of the coup, while government after government rose and fell in the chaotic capital. In October 1923 he ended the charade and made Ahmad Shah appoint him prime minister. At the same time, Ahmad left for Europe, for, uh, “health reasons”–“my prime minister might have me murdered” could technically be called a “health” issue, I guess–and although he remained the ruler of Iran on paper, he never returned. In December 1925, the Iranian parliament formally ended the Qajar dynasty, and Ahmad Shah’s reign, and crowned Reza Khan, now known as 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 did help to modernize Iran. He’s also mostly responsible for the name of the country–what used to be “Persia” in the West we call “Iran” today at his insistence.

Author: DWD

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