Nader Shah, the Persian Napoleon

  July 07, 2021   Read time 3 min
Nader Shah, the Persian Napoleon
Nader Shah, a former ghulam, seized effective control of the empire under the last Safavid shah before claiming the throne for himself in 1736. The future conqueror started out as Nader Khan, an able leader from the Turkman Afshar tribe in northern Khorasan.

He had initially fought with the Afghans against the Uzbeks, but after Esfahan fell Nader split from the Afghan army and off ered his services to the Safavids in 1727. He assembled an army and began the reconsolidation of the country, displaying the military genius that led some historians to refer to him as the Napoleon of Persia or the Second Alexander. Aft er successfully expelling the Afghans from Safavid domains in 1729, Na der was the true ruler, although he acknowledged Sultan Hussein’s weak son, Tahmasp II (r. 1722–32), as the Safavid shah. In 1730, Nader decisively defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Hamadan, which he followed up with a swift occupation of southern Iraq and Azerbaijan. While Na der was quelling a revolt in Khorasan in 1732, Tahmasp led part of the Safavid army against the Ott omans and was soundly beaten. The young shah made an unfavorable peace treaty that surrendered Georgia, Armenia, and Nader’s gains in the west from two years earlier. Enraged by the shah’s actions, Na der deposed the Safavid monarch and then served as regent to Tahmasp’s infant son, Abbas III, until 1736, at which time Nader declared himself shah.

Nader Shah used every religious and political ploy in his power to build up his position in Persia. He was a Sunni and proclaimed Sunnism as the religion of Iran at his coronation. He made various att empts to reconcile his Persian subjects’ Shia beliefs with the Sunni creed and sought to get the Ottomans to recognize this new Persian Sunnism as its own sect. His motivation may have been to facilitate relations with the Sunni Ott omans, but possibly his real aim was to overthrow the Turks by uniting the Muslim world with him as its head. This would extend his domains to the ancient Achaemenian boundaries and would create a cohesive Muslim front better able to prevent the depredation of the rising Christian powers of Europe. Nader Shah’s personal devotion was very shallow, however, which created doubts about his real intentions, especially among his rivals for Islamic leadership in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul. For the most part, Na der Shah’s major motivation for conquest was to restore lost territory and protect his frontiers against avaricious neighbors. He also sought to improve Iran’s economic position through plunder and to reassert Iran’s control over the silk trade, which had been damaged by the Russian and Ottoman conquests during the latter stages of the Safavid decline.

Nader Shah’s military was administratively and organizationally a direct continuation of the Safavid establishment. Its ideology and resources had changed, however, which aff ected the army’s composition and role. Most of his core troops were Afghans, steppe Turkman, and Khorasan Kurds who shared Nader Shah’s Sunni beliefs. These Sunni fighters outnumbered the other members of Nader’s military, the Shia Turkman and the ethnic Persian soldiers from central and western Iran who made up the Safavid partisans. In its later campaigns, the army swelled as various tribal forces, allies, camp followers, and freebooters joined it. The army Nader assembled in 1741 for a campaign in Dagestan in the northern Caucasus supposedly included up to one hundred and fifty thousand men, with Indians and Uzbeks joining the mix of nationalities. His 1743 campaign against the Ott omans allegedly involved a polyglot and multisectarian host of three hundred seventy- five thousand, which included Sunni Turkman, Afghans, Uzbeks, and Kurds; Shia Persians, Arabs, and Turks; Christian Armenians and Georgians; and both Sunni and Shia Indians. Na der Shah’s large army became the main element of the state, and he subordinated the Persian economy, much diminished by Afghan and Ott oman occupations, to the needs of his growing military. His requirement for more and more funds probably was a factor driving him to his later military conquests, especially after increased taxation to support the army provoked rebellions