ii. AN OVERVIEW OF RELATIONS: SAFAVID TO THE PRESENT
Prior to the Safavid period, contacts between Britain and Persia were confined to the 13th century, and were infrequent and of short duration. The earliest recorded envoy from Persia was sent to the court of Henry III in 1238 in an unsuccessful quest for an alliance against the Mongols; the first English mission was that of Geoffrey de Langley to the court of the Mongol ruler Arḡun Khan (q.v.) in 1290, in an equally unsuccessful quest for an alliance. There is no further record of contact between the two countries until the Safavid period, when English merchants, operating through newly founded joint-venture companies, sought to develop trade with Persia.
In 1562, Sir Anthony Jenkinson of the Muscovy Company traveled from London via Moscow to Qazvin in a vain attempt to secure trading privileges from Shah Ṭahmāsp. The Muscovy Company sent five further missions to Persia; but despite securing some facilities, in 1581 they finally abandoned their attempts to develop trade there. Further attempts were made during the reign of Nāder Shah by John Elton (q.v.) and Jonas Hanway of the Muscovy Co. to develop Anglo-Persian trade via Russia and the Caspian Sea but failed because of Russian opposition. Next, the Levant Company, from its base in Aleppo and with the help of Armenian merchants, sought to promote Anglo-Persian trade through Turkey, but was hampered by recurrent wars between Turkey and Persia.
The East India Company (q.v.), which had been granted a royal charter in 1600, was more fortunate. In 1615, from their Indian base at Surat, the Company sent Richard Steel and John Crowther to Persia to investigate trading possibilities, particularly the market for English broadcloth and the availability of silk as a return cargo. With the help of Robert Sherley, who, with his brother Anthony and a band of fellow adventurers, had arrived in Persia in 1598 and entered the service of Shah ʿAbbās I (q.v.), they obtained a farmān from Shah ʿAbbās giving them certain trading facilities. Encouraged by this, in the following year the East India Company sent a trial shipment from Surat to Jāsk, together with a six-man mission under Edward Connock, who in August 1617 obtained from the Shah a second farmān confirming and extending the earlier one and providing for permanent residence at the Persian court of an English ambassador, as well as for the dispatch of a Persian ambassador to the English court should circumstances make this desirable.
Company “factories,” or trading posts, were now established at Jāsk, Shiraz, Isfahan, and Kermān. Then, in 1622, after helping the Shah to expel the Portuguese from the island of Hormuz, the Company was permitted to establish itself at Bandar-e ʿAbbās (q.v.), which became its principal port on the Persian Gulf until 1763 when, after a few years in Baṣra (q.v.) at the head of the Gulf, the headquarters was transferred to Bušehr (q.v.). In the absence of diplomatic relations, the Company’s resident there conducted any necessary negotiations with the Persian authorities. Until 1946, Bušehr remained the seat of an official entitled the “British Resident for the Persian Gulf,” who after 1857 was appointed by the government of British India. He was, in Curzon’s words, “the uncrowned king of the Persian Gulf” (Curzon, II, p. 451). Whether the Persians liked it or not, he had at his disposal naval forces with which to suppress piracy, slave trading, and gun running, and to enforce quarantine regulations; he also could, and did, put landing parties and punitive expeditions ashore on the Persian coast.
Despite Shah ʿAbbās’s farmān of1617, and a confirmatory farmān from Shah Ṣafi in 1629, it was not until 1808 that the British government appointed Sir Harford Jones as their first resident envoy to the Persian court. Since that time (apart from temporary breaks in diplomatic relations), Britain has been continuously represented in Tehran. Permanent Persian representation in London dates from the mission of Mirzā Jaʿfar Khan Mošir-al-Dawla in 1860; prior to this, a number of special missions were sent to London, notably those of Mirzā Abu’l-Ḥasan Khan Širāzi (1809-10 and 1819-20), Mirzā Ṣāleḥ Širāzi (1822-23), Ḥosayn Khan Neẓām-al-Dawla (1839), and Farroḵ Khan Amin-al-Molk (1857-58).
Until the appointment of Charles Alison as Minister in Tehran in 1860, the envoy and his staff had, with rare exceptions, been recruited from the ranks of the East India Company, although, because of Persian sensitivity, the envoy was as a rule accredited as the British sovereign’s representative. After 1857, the Foreign Office took over responsibility for Persian affairs from the government of India, although the latter continued to play an important role in policy making until 1947. Persian sensitivity about British who had served in India survived into the 20th century: in 1919, the Persian Foreign Minister asked Curzon (q.v.), his opposite number, not to appoint anyone to Persia who had served in India because of “a popular impression in his country that they did not treat Persians on equal terms” (Woodward and Butler, IV, p. 1175).
At the end of the 18th century, concern for the defense of their expanding territorial empire in India against the Afghans and the French added a political dimension to the East India Company’s existing commercial interest in Persia. In 1799 the Company’s Persian–born resident in Bušehr, Mahdi ʿAli Khan, was sent to Tehran to seek the Shah’s help against the Afghans. Barely a year later, Captain (later Sir) John Malcolm was sent from India with instructions to encourage Persian attacks on Afghanistan and secure Persian help against a perceived threat to India from the French. The political and commercial treaties he concluded on this visit were the first of their kind between the two countries. However, when a few years later the government of India failed to respond to the Shah’s appeal for help against the Russians, the latter turned to the French.
The arrival in Persia in 1807 of a large French mission under General Gardane (see GARDANE MISSION) galvanized the British, both in London and Calcutta, to send missions (under Harford Jones and Malcolm respectively) to Persia in an attempt to undermine the French. Jones succeeded where Malcolm had failed, and concluded with the shah a Preliminary Treaty of Friendship and Alliance (1809) which, though modified in subsequent negotiations (Definitive Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, 1812; Treaty of Tehran, 1814), remained the framework within which Anglo–Persian relations were set for the next half century.
The shah now broke with the French, replacing them as military instructors with British officers and men under the modernizing crown prince, ʿAbbās Mirzā (q.v.), in Tabriz. Under the Treaty of Tehran, the shah undertook to deny passage towards India of any European army, and to provide assistance should the Afghans or any other power attack India. In return, the shah was promised either military assistance or a large subsidy, together with arms, for the duration of hostilities if attacked by any European power.
The implementation of the treaty left a legacy of distrust with the Persians. There was a running dispute over the subsidy payments during the 1812 war with Russia, and much resentment when Britain refused military assistance or subsidy when hostilities were resumed in 1826, on the disputed grounds that Persia was the aggressor. Further odium was incurred by Britain for the part her diplomats played in the humiliating treaties of Golestān (1813; q.v.) and Torkamānčāy (1828), and Britain’s insistence on the cancellation of the military assistance and subsidy clauses in the Treaty of Tehran as the price of contributing to the war indemnity exacted by the Russians under the terms of the latter treaty.
By the early 1830s, Russia’s expansionist policies were seen by the British as a new and dangerous threat to their Indian possessions, as also to Persia and Afghanistan, which were regarded as outer bastions in the defense of India. In 1838, the British government reminded the Russian government that “Great Britain has regarded Persia as a barrier for the security of British India against attack from any European power. With this defensive view Great Britain has contracted an alliance with Persia and the object of that alliance has been, that Persia should be friendly to Great Britain, independent of foreign control, and at peace with all her neighbours” (Public Record Office (PRO), Kew, U.K., FO 539/1, Clanricarde to Nesselrode, 10 Nov. 1838).
This, until India achieved independence in 1947, was Britain’s main political interest in Persia, and was reflected in intense Anglo-Russian rivalry for influence there until to some extent softened by the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 (q.v.), which divided Persia into spheres of influence between the two powers. As part of this same policy, Britain resisted Persian attempts, encouraged by the Russians, to seize Herat—once in 1839, when they forced Persian withdrawal by occupying Ḵārg Island, and again in 1857, after seizing Ḵārg Island and defeating the Persians in battle on the mainland. The fact that Herat had once been part of Persia, and that Britain had, in the Treaty of Tehran, agreed not to interfere in hostilities between Persia and Afghanistan unless requested by both parties to mediate, was much resented by the Persians. Again, the abortive Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 (q.v.), on which Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, had set his heart, was conceived by him not merely to protect British interests in Persia but, more importantly, to regenerate the country and preserve her independence against Russian Bolshevism. In Persian eyes, this agreement—no less than the 1907 Convention—was a violation of that independence. The memory of both remains deep in Persian minds.
By Curzon’s day, Britain’s commercial and economic interests in Persia were considerable, having grown rapidly in the 19th century in the wake of the industrial revolution, the steamship, and the acquisition of valuable concessions. Access to Tabriz and the Azerbaijan market had been made easier by the opening of Turkey’s Black Sea ports to foreign shipping (in 1830 the British opened a consulate at Trabzon with the express purpose of furthering Anglo-Persian trade), while the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 greatly shortened the old Bombay-Bušehr route via the Cape of Good Hope. In 1888 the shah, under British pressure, opened the Kārun river to foreign shipping. British merchants hoped that this, together with a fortnightly steamship service between Moḥammara (Ḵorramšahr) and Šuštar (run by Lynch Brothers, one of their number, together with the “Baḵ-tiāri” or “Lynch” caravan road they later built between Ahvāz and Isfahan), would enable British exports to compete with those from Russia in south Persia.
Although the East India Company lost their trading monopoly in the Persian Gulf in 1811, it was some years before other British merchants established themselves there or elsewhere in Persia. The first to do so were the brothers Charles and Edward Burgess and Edward Bonham, in Tabriz in the early 1830s, Manchester cotton goods being their main imports. Others were put off by the absence of a commercial treaty. Malcolm’s 1801 treaty had never been ratified, and had been cancelled by the shah in 1807. On the other hand, through the Treaties of Golestān and Torkamānčāy the Russians had acquired capitulatory rights, together with trading and consular facilities denied to the British. It was not until 1841 that, as the price of the settlement of the Herat dispute, the British secured a commercial treaty that placed them on a near-equal footing with the Russians. They were, however, only allowed to open consulates in Tehran and Tabriz (in return for Persian consulates in London and Bombay), whereas there was no such restriction on the Russians. It required another defeat over Herat before the Persian government agreed, in the Treaty of Paris (1857), to lift this ban. The British then opened a third consulate at Rašt, then the center of the silk trade and a post from which they hoped to observe Russian activities across the Caspian. Later in the century commercial and, more importantly, political considerations led to the opening of a string of consulates across the country. The first was at Astarābād, the next at Mašhad, opened in 1889 in riposte to a coming Russian move there. It was staffed and paid for by the government of India, as were other consulates in eastern Persia. Elsewhere in the country, the consulates were the responsibility of the Foreign Office; but none was so grand or important an intelligence center as the Mašhad Consulate-General, designed, as Curzon had once demanded, “to represent to the native mind the prestige of a great and wealthy power” (Curzon, I, p. 172).
Concern for the defense of India, and fear of Russian interference in Persian affairs if frontiers were left unsettled, caused Britain to play a leading part in demarcating nearly all of Persia’s frontiers. After his defeat in the 1856-57 Anglo–Persian War (q.v.), the shah was forced to abandon his claim to Herat and recognize the river Hari-rud as his boundary with Afghanistan. Later, between 1870 and 1905, a complicated series of Anglo-Persian negotiations resulted in the demarcation of Persia’s eastern frontier in Sistān and Baluchistan. Britain, being the stronger, made the running, and left the Persians with a feeling of having come off second best.
Britain’s first important investment in Persia dates from 1862, when the British government reached an agreement with a reluctant shah to build a telegraph line from Ḵānaqin, on the Perso-Ottoman frontier, to Teh-ran and Bušehr, as an all-important (for Britain) step in linking London with India. The staff and families who manned the telegraph stations were the nucleus of a growing non-official British community in Persia. Other concessions followed. Nāṣer-al-Din Shah and his Prime Minister, Mirzˊā Ḥosayn Khan Mošir-al-Dawla, hoped that by giving Britain a large economic stake in the country, she would help maintain Persian independence against Russia. Salisbury, the British prime minister, also encouraged British enterprise “to make Persia as strong as we can by internal development to resist the supposed aggression,” but with the caution that “nothing must be pushed merely because it will favor a British speculation, unless you are certain that it will do good or at least no harm to Persia itself” (Salisbury papers 6.10.81, Salisbury to Lascelles). However, Julius de Reuter’s all-embracing 1872 concession for the economic development of Persia so scandalized the Russians and other Europeans that the shah cancelled it the following year; on 28 December 1891, in the face of widespread national opposition inspired by the mullahs, the shah formally cancelled Gerald Talbot’s tobacco concession. More enduring and successful were the banking and oil concessions obtained by Reuter (in belated compensation for his lost concession) and William D’Arcy in 1889 and 1901 respectively. The Imperial Bank of Persia (later British Bank of Iran and the Middle East, then British Bank of the Middle East) and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (q.v.; later Anglo–Iranian Oil Company, then British Petroleum), both with head offices in London and expatriates staffing all the senior posts in Persia, pioneered the country’s banking and oil industries, contributing much to Persia’s economic development. The British government used the Bank as a political instrument in competing for loans with the Russians. In due course, both institutions became nationalist targets.
Fear of being upstaged both politically and commercially by Russia and others lay behind the importance attached by the British government to the state visits to London of Nāṣer-al-Din Shah, in 1873 and 1889, and his successor Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah in 1902. Enormous public interest was aroused by the first ever visit by a Persian monarch, less so by the other visits. But there was little to show for them, apart from some ephemeral goodwill, the settlement of the Sistān frontier, and the banking and mining concession given to Reuter on the eve of the 1889 visit. The Order of the Garter grudgingly given by King Edward VII to Moẓaffar-al-Din Shah after his departure from England may have helped restore some of the balance between Russian and British influence in Tehran, so much desired by Sir Arthur Hardinge (q.v.), the British Minister there; without it, the 1903 Anglo-Persian Commercial Treaty giving Britain most-favored-nation status might not have been signed.
It was Hardinge who established links with the ulama. He saw in their strong anti-Russian feelings a means of checking the alarming growth of Russian influence around the shah, and was authorized by the British Foreign Secretary to spend “a moderate sum . . . in establishing closer relations with the Church party” (PRO, FO 800/137, Lansdowne minute, 4 September 1902). The fact that some mullahs were among the thousands taking sanctuary (bast, q.v.) in the British Legation’s compound in the summer of 1906 owed little to this link, which seems to have ended with Hardinge’s departure from Tehran in 1905. The bast paralyzed the life of Tehran and forced the shah to meet the demands of the Constitutionalists. Inevitably, the British acquired some credit for this; but they lost much popular good will a year later with the signing of the Anglo–Russian Convention, when, in the words of a Persian writer, “the modern Persian image of England crystallized . . . Justifiably or not, most Persians would, from now on, be prepared to believe only the worst of England” (Kazemzadeh, p. 502).
The infringement of Persia’s declared neutrality by the British (also Russian and Turkish) forces early in World War I strained Anglo-Persian relations almost to the breaking point. Britain’s aims then, and again in World War II, were to safeguard her oil supplies, protect India, and eliminate German influence. To achieve this, she paid scant attention to Persian wishes or sovereignty, e.g. in the landing of an Anglo-Indian force at Ābādān in November 1914, the arrest and deportation of the German consul in Bušehr in 1915, Sir Percy Sykes’ recruitment of the South Persia Rifl;es in 1916, and the pressure on an unwilling shah to appoint the anglophile ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn Mirzā Farmānfarmā (q.v.) first as Prime Minister, then as governor-general of Fārs. Persian nationalists duly reacted, e.g. with the murder of the British vice-consul in Shiraz and the seizure of the Consul–General and staff in 1915, the 1918 mutiny in the South Persia Rifl;es, and the rejection of the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919.
One of the many Persian conspiracy theories (q.v.) about the British is that they planned Reżā Khan’s 1921 coup. Such evidence as exists shows that Ironside, then commanding the British forces in Persia, acted on his own in encouraging Reżā Khan to march on Tehran, without the knowledge of Norman, the British Minister in Tehran, or of the Foreign Office in London. Ironside, under instructions to withdraw all British troops from Persia by April 1, 1921, feared for their safety in the event of a Bolshevik takeover of the demoralized country. He saw Reżā Khan as the strong man needed in Tehran to prevent this. Had the British government been behind the coup, they would never have rejected an urgent appeal for financial assistance from the new Persian Prime Minister, supported by Norman and the Imperial Bank’s chief manager in Tehran.
Reżā Khan, both as Prime Minister and as shah, was determined to unify and modernize his country and free it from British and Russian influence; in so doing, Anglo-Persian relations suffered. To begin with, there was trouble over the treatment of Shaikh Ḵazʿal of Moḥammara, whose semi-autonomous position the British were pledged to protect. One by one, the privileges the British had enjoyed under the Qajars were lost-capitulatory rights, sowar (mounted) escorts, bases on the islands of Hangām and Qešm, control of the Anglo-Indian telegraph and postal services, and so on. There was also friction over the forced surrender by the Imperial Bank in 1930 of its profitable sole right to issue banknotes, the abrupt cancellation in 1932 and subsequent renegotiation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s sixty-year concession, and Persia’s claim to Bahrain and other Persian Gulf islands.
During World War II, Britain respected Persian neutrality until Germany’s attack on the USSR in June 1941. Then, when Reżā Shah failed to respond to Anglo-Russian pressure to break off diplomatic relations with the Axis powers and expel their many nationals, on August 25, 1941, Anglo-Russian forces invaded and occupied the country and, in so doing, opened a valuable Allied supply route to the Soviet Union. The abdication and exile of Reżā Shah, who had come under strong attack from the BBC in their Persian language broadcasts, followed. After considering the possibility of a Qajar restoration, the British, with Russian agreement, installed the deposed shah’s son, Moḥammad Reżā Shah, on the Peacock Throne. This episode was to color the young shah’s relations with the British until his dying day: he never forgave them or the BBC for their part in his father’s abdication, and believed that his own fate lay in their hands.
Six months after the end of hostilities, Britain withdrew all her forces from Persia in conformity with the terms of the tripartite Treaty of Alliance with the USSR and Persia, signed in Tehran in January 1942. Also in 1946, a further irritant in Anglo-Persian relations was removed by the transfer from Bušehr to Bahrain of the Political Resident’s headquarters. Two years later, Moḥ-ammad Reżā shah paid his first visit to London. However, relations suffered a severe setback in May 1951, with Dr. Moḥammad Moṣaddeq’s nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Britain’s most prized overseas asset. In the course of the bitter dispute that followed, Moṣaddeq closed all British consulates, and in October 1952 broke off diplomatic relations. Relations had only twice before been broken, on each occasion by Britain: in 1838-41 over the Herat dispute, and in 1855-57 in protest over the treatment of Charles Murray, the British Minister in Tehran. On this third occasion, relations were not resumed until December 1953, with the appointment of Denis Wright (later Sir) as chargé d’affaires, following the fall of Moṣaddeq in August 1953 in a coup in which both the British and Americans had a hand, and Britain’s insistence that diplomatic relations must precede oil negotiations rather than vice versa, as the Persians wished.
The settlement of the oil dispute in 1954, after the formation by the major international oil companies of a consortium in which the dispossessed Anglo-Iranian Oil Company acquired forty percent, and Persia’s membership of the Baghdad Pact (q.v.; later CENTO) a year later, were the prelude to over twenty years of close and friendly relations between Britain and Persia, marked in 1959 by the signature of a Treaty of Commerce, Establishment and Navigation and a state visit by the shah to London, which was followed two years later by the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Tehran, the first visit by a British sovereign to Persia.
The announcement by the British government in January 1968 that by the end of 1971 it would terminate its treaties with the Persian Gulf shaikhs and withdraw the armed forces stationed there by virtue of these treaties, was the catalyst that led, after some difficult secret negotiations, to a settlement, in 1970 and 1971 respectively, of Persia’s long-standing claims to sovereignty over Bahrain and the islands of Abu Musā and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs. This removed the last major irritant in Anglo-Persian relations under the Pahlavis.
From 1955 to 1978 relations between the two countries were as close as they had ever been, despite the shah’s paranoia about the British and his frequent complaints about the BBC, the British press, and the oil companies, which culminated in 1973 in the abrogation of the 1954 Consortium Agreement (see conspiracy theories). Mounting oil revenues provided a valuable market for British exports, particularly machinery, chemicals, and arms. There was close cooperation between the two countries on political, military, security, and cultural mat-ters, and help for the British exchequer in 1974 with a Persian government loan of $1,200 million for Britain’s nationalized industries. Both countries shared a common interest in assuring the flow of Persian oil through the Persian Gulf, and, as a corollary, in countering Soviet penetration of the region. The British government regarded Persia under the shah as an important stabilizing factor in the troubled Middle East and deplored his fall.
This happy period in Anglo-Persian relations came to an end with the fall of the shah in January 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. When in September 1980 the Persian Ministry for Foreign Affairs warned that they could not guarantee the safety of the British ambassador and his staff much longer the British Embassy was closed without formally breaking off diplomatic relations. The Swedish embassy, with a British Interests Sections staffed by British diplomats, undertook the protection of British Interests. Subsequent efforts by both sides to improve relations were hampered by a series of incidents. The reopening of the British Embassy in December 1988 was cut short after barely a month by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwā calling for the death of the British author Salman Rushdie—the Tehran embassy was closed and the Persians asked to close their London embassy. Diplomatic relations were restored in September 1990 but remained under chargés d’affaires until July 1999 when, following an assurance from the Iranian Government that Rushdie’s death sentence would not be implemented both countries agreed to appoint ambassadors.
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Originally Published: December 15, 2002
Last Updated: February 23, 2012
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