The Great War

  November 27, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Great War
On the morning of February 21, 1921, the people of Tehran woke up to the news of a military coup that in the early hours of the day had brought to power a new government. It was headed by a fiery journalist and backed by Reza Khan, a brigadier general in Iran’s Cossack Division.

The nine-article communiqué posted on public thoroughfares announcing the new regime carried an unprecedented authoritarian tone. It began with the ominous phrase “I command!” (hokm mikonam) and called upon the people of Tehran to be “quiet and obedient to military commands.” It warned that martial law was in effect; that all press and publications were banned, pending permits from the future government; that public gatherings were illegal; that taverns, theaters, cinemas, and gambling clubs were closed; and that all government departments and communications were suspended. “Whoever fails to obey the above orders,” it sternly concluded, “will be brought before the military tribunal and receive the harshest penalty.” The proclamation was signed, “Reza, Chief of His Majesty’s Cossack Division and Military Commander of Tehran.”

Reza Khan, an ambitious forty-three-year-old officer soon came to be recognized as a “strongman” who promised to save Iran from perpetual crisis and desperation. His meteoric rise to power and eventual establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 was as much the outcome of the frustrations and setbacks experienced after the Constitutional Revolution as it was the outcome of a decade-long foreign occupation and imperial ambitions. He was able to rapidly consolidate because of his shrewdness and personal qualities, but also because he operated in a setting in which other options for Iran’s political survival seemed to be exhausted. By 1921, the opportunity for a sovereign and functioning constitutional regime was nearly lost, leading to what Shuster had labeled a decade earlier as the “strangling of Persia.” It was a feat of fortune, perhaps, but also an engaging historical question as to why Iran eventually managed to escape disintegration and remain a sovereign state.

At the outset of World War I, most Iranian nationalists were hopeful that imperial Germany’s challenge to the great powers would liberate Iran from Anglo-Russian hegemony. In reality, however, further misfortunes, prompted by the war, brought the Iranian government to a standstill and the country to further disarray and misery. Iran was not even a party to a war that was fought violently over Europe’s imperial ambitions, pride, and power games. And if the Young Turk regime in the neighboring Ottoman Empire was reckless to side with one power against another, the weakling Iranian government was sober enough to declare neutrality, at least on the surface. It seemed entirely unwise for Iranians to join either of the warring parties, given the high level of resentment toward Russia and Britain at home but also the uncertain gains if Iran officially sided with the Central Powers.

Despite repeated pleas to the fighting parties—Russian, British, Ottoman, and German—Iranian territory was overrun by the first three almost from the start of the war, the country’s sovereignty was undermined, and its people were subjected to starvation and disease directly or indirectly resulting from the military operations. At no time since the civil wars of the eighteenth century had Iran faced a darker political moment than the period between 1915 and 1921. War and occupation coincided with the eclipse of nationalist hopes and the rise of secessionist movements. The rippling effects of the Bolshevik Revolution and Iran’s ill-fated 1919 treaty with Britain further complicated the quagmire.

Long before the outbreak of World War I, the emergence of imperial Germany on Middle Eastern horizons impressed the Iranian nationalists, who viewed it as a dynamic but relatively benign world power. The appeal of Germany, however, went beyond its role as a diplomatic counterbalance. German nationalism as a unifying ideology, one that made possible industrial development and created an efficient state with a powerful military, was an intriguing model for Iranians, as it was for the neighboring Young Turks. Ever since the 1870s, Iranians had admired Bismarck for unifying Germany through war and diplomacy. In 1903, German success in finalizing the agreement with the Ottomans for the construction of the Istanbul-Baghdad railway was viewed internationally as a major strategic breakthrough. It brought Germany, for the first time, close to the shores of the Persian Gulf, a body of water the British considered essential to the security of British India. Further plans to connect Tehran to the Baghdad railway through a line across western Iran equally alarmed the Russians, who saw it an intrusion into their zone of influence.