Foreign Interference and Cultural Backwardness in Qajar Persia

  September 01, 2021   Read time 4 min
Foreign Interference and Cultural Backwardness in Qajar Persia
By late 1904 the demand for a House of Justice had grown to a demand for a proper parliament modelled on the British House of Commons. In 1906 there were m ass demonstrations.

In 1901 a British national. William Knox D’Arcy. obtained a concession for the exploration, production and sale of oil and other mineral deposits which in a few years proved to be more profitable than anything any foreign power had hitherto been granted. When oil was struck in 1908 it was dear that the British political and military presence would become permanent.

In earlier protests against the award of concessions, there had come about an alliance between religious leaders and lay reformers. At the turn of the century a new alliance comprising substantially the same elements was asking for an end to despotic rule and the establishment of a House of Justice to check the powers of the Shah. By 1903 there was a full-grown movement asking for political reform. What had started in Europe with the French Revolution, setting in motion a series of challenges to despotic regimes, had finally come to the East. In 1905 the Czar had been forced to grant sweeping concessions and a Consultative Assembly had been established. Turkey was in the throes of agitation which led to the overthrow of its king in 1908. There was also less fear of the two powers by the Iranians. The Japanese victory over the Russians at Port Arthur had done away with the belief in the inevitable victory of a European nation in conflict with an Asian nation. The successful revolt of the Boers in South Africa had humiliated Britain and tarnished the myth of the invincible British Lion.

By late 1904 the demand for a House of Justice had grown to a demand for a proper parliament modelled on the British House of Commons. In 1906 there were m ass demonstrations. The Shah, who up to then had resorted to repressive measures, had to give in. On his birthday. 5 August 1906, he granted a form of constitution and permitted the convention of a constituent assembly which promptly met to draft an electoral law. In October 1906 the assembly had drafted and passed a constitution which was ratified by the Shah. The supplement, i.e. an Iranian version of a Bill of Rights, was enacted later in October 1907.

Mozaffar al Din Shah died in January 1907 and in February was succeeded by his son Mohammad Ali. Mohammad All Shah, bom in 1872, was voy different from his cautious and ailing father. He was impulsive, vain and a stem autocrat During his years in Tabriz as Crown Prince he had ruled oppressively and was not in the habit of seeking advice or sharing power. He believed his father had made an error in giving in to the constitutionalists and felt the movement could have been dispersed if greater force had been used. He was unwilling to accept any diminution of his powers and is supposed to have said, ’It is fine to have a parliament provided it does not interfere in m atters of state and politics’. From the beginning of his rule he did everything to subvert the constitution and he had strong allies among the notables and certain elements of the clergy. Some prominent clerics opposed all democratic institutions which they considered too secular and European, and as members of an elite group they were apprehensive of egalitarian change. The clergy on the whole never accepted nationalism or even nationhood which they considered a form of idol worship, and monarchy the elevation of mortals to the level of deity. Some amongst them had supported the constitutional movement only for its anti-imperialist and antiforeign features and because they felt their interests were being threatened under an unyielding autocratic Shah.

Russia was unequivocally opposed to parliamentary rule in Iran. Britain also preferred dealing with a single individual and not being bogged down by governments and parliaments. There were some dissenting voices in the British Government which viewed the change favourably but for entirely different reasons. Britain’s influence was at a low ebb in Iran, and Russia had gained ascendancy since the turn of the century. Thus perhaps a weakening of the monarchy would even the scales between Britain and Russia. There were also a few voices in the British parliament which were sympathetic because of their own parliamentary structure, and felt it better in principle to have an accountable government. The treatm ent of Iranians who had sought asylum in the British Legation during the struggle preceding the granting of parliamentary rule had greatly enhanced Britain’s popularity. In fact it was higher than at any point before and probably since. At this very time, however, Britain was contemplating an agreement with the Russians to divide Iran into spheres of influence.