Russian Occupation of Northwester Persian and Rebellions

  November 11, 2021   Read time 4 min
Russian Occupation of Northwester Persian and Rebellions
In May 1909 approximately seven hundred northern mujahedin under Sepahdar and Yephrem Khan moved toward Qazvin, ninety miles from Tehran. They were joined by about one hundred mujahedin who had reformed under Sattar Khan and had been chasing royalist units back toward the capital.

A British observer traveling from Rasht to Tehran came across part of the shah’s army returning from Tabriz and commented that it was “straggling over five or six miles of road . . . [there were] knots of weary and dispirited but good- humored men. . . . Their baggage wagons and horses were laden with fi lthy rags and rotten rusted fi rearms, and their offi cers sprawled over the backs of mules in a half sleep.” After arriving at Qazvin, a contingent of 250 nationalists att acked the Qajar garrison, capturing one hundred soldiers and killing another twenty while only losing three mujahedin. In response, about four hundred Iranian Cossacks under a Russian commander set out with two Maxim guns from Tehran to Karaj, about one- third of the way between the capital and Qazvin, with the mission to hold a bridge on this primary avenue of approach.

Muhammad Ali Shah had no illusions about his situation. The Qajar army had approximately five thousand regular soldiers and tribal levies in Tehran and on the southern approaches to the city, while the Cossack Brigade had eight hundred soldiers in Tehran and four hundred at Karaj. The shah knew that Tabriz had fallen to the Russians and not his army while smaller rebel armies had repeatedly defeated Qajar forces. In addition, the Russians and British were advising him to compromise to avoid further violence and its unforeseeable and potentially dangerous consequences. Reluctantly, the Qajar monarch off ered to restore the constitution and grant a general amnesty. The Tabriz anjuman sought to get the nationalist movement to accept the shah’s concessions, but most of the revolutionaries were not inclined to trust the conniving Muhammad Ali. Despite Russian and British warnings to the nationalists against approaching the capital, the contingent of Bakhtiari warriors from Esfahan advanced against litt le resistance from a retreating Qajar force of 1,200 infantry, 300 cavalry, and 6 guns. The Cossacks at Karaj, in danger of being outfl anked by the Bakhtiaris, withdrew back to the town of Shahabad, only fi ft een miles from Tehran, opening the door for the northern mujahedin to close on the capital. The Cossacks won the initial skirmishes and slowed the mujahedin advance, which increased pressure on the nationalists as news arrived that the Russians were readying troops in Baku to intervene. Despite or perhaps because of the threats of Russian intervention, the Bakhtiari khans sent an additional six hundred mounted rifl emen to join in the push to the capital.

After a series of hard-fought batt les at Shahabad and other towns on the road into Tehran from the northwest, the mujahedin linked up with the Bakhtiari tribesmen to create a combined nationalist army. On July 11, 1909, Qajar reinforcements reached the frontline trenches about fourteen miles west of the capital near the small village of Badamak. At this point, the shah had a few thousand entrenched Qajar soldiers supported by a limited number of artillery pieces and three Maxim machine guns. Some Cossack Brigade units may have participated in the first day of fi ghting but apparently were withdrawn to police the capital against a potential popular uprising. The nationalist army, which had grown as it approached Tehran, probably was around four thousand strong with one fi eld gun. The Qajar forces were surprisingly stalwart in the defense of Tehran, and the nationalists were unable to breach the defensive line aft er two days of att acks. Descriptions of nationalist actions in the next phase of the batt le vary. Some historians credit the fi rst att acks as mere feints that allowed part of the constitutionalist forces to outfl ank the Qajar defenses. Others suggest that it was the failure to defeat the entrenched Qajar army that caused the nationalists to att empt to bypass Badamak. In either case, the nationalists moved a substantial force to the vulnerable northern outskirts of the city.

On the morning of July 13, 1909, these nationalist forces assaulted the capital, aided by a supporting att ack from three hundred mujahedin who had infiltrated the Qajar lines to the west. The revolutionaries entered the unprotected northern gates of the capital and captured portions of Tehran without fi ring a shot. The city’s other gates, guarded by regular soldiers, surrendered aft er brief fights. By midday, the nationalists controlled the northern part of the city, and many Qajar soldiers and Iranian members of the Cossack Brigade deserted to the democratic side. A Qajar force that had been advancing toward the city from the northeast joined the batt le late and bombarded points of Tehran occupied by the nationalist troops with little effect. By July 15, as many as three thousand Bakhtiari, mujahedin, and other volunteer fighters were in Tehran, and although the Cossack Brigade still held out in the city’s central square, the batt le was basically over. Aft er the nationalists seized the city’s South Gate, the last to fall into their hands, a frightened Muhammad Ali, his guard, and his att endants took refuge in the Russian legation, eff ectively abdicating his throne. A quickly reconstituted Majles voted to depose the shah on July 16 and established a regency for the twelve- year- old crown prince.