The Qajar Military

  August 10, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Qajar Military
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed Iran’s uneasy transition into a modern nation-state under the increasingly decrepit Qajar dynasty (1794–1926).

The country solidified its contemporary boundaries during this period while its ethnic Persians, Azeris, and other peoples increasingly adopted an Iranian national consciousness. The Qajars’ greatest challenge, however, was to avoid entanglements with Russian and British imperialist policies, and war was the result of the Iranian monarchs’ repeated failures to do so. Qajar pretensions to retain some of Iran’s imperial glory contributed to these confl icts, which, in turn, led to cycles of humiliating concessions and debts. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Qajar rulers had shown themselves to be too greedy, lazy, and unimaginative to lead Iran out of the trap of foreign domination.

The history of Iran’s armed forces through much of the first six decades of the nineteenth century was one of laudable att empts at military modernization and reforms to meet the threats posed by Russia and Great Britain. But, in each instance, the Qajar reforms proved insuffi cient and could not keep pace with improvements among the European militaries. Politicization and corruption were rife and constantly undermined eff orts to put Iranian military professionalism on par with Western armed forces. Even worse, the Qajars set dreadful precedents in the maltreatment of Iranian fighting men and wasted the benefi ts of their demonstrated qualities of bravery, resourcefulness, and a dogged ability to endure hardship. Toward the end of the century and into the next, the Iranian monarchs essentially gave up on creating an eff ective national standing army and sought instead to enlist the aid of their former Russian foes, a move that contributed to domestic political currents that left the Qajar armed forces an empty shell.

The first Qajar shah, Agha Muhammad Khan (r. 1794–97), was a eunuch general who seized the throne of Iran and became a cruel and brutal ruler. Muhammad Khan had been castrated as a boy at the order of Adil Shah, Nader Shah’s successor, to prevent him from becoming a political rival. Karim Khan, the founder of the short- lived Zand dynasty, also kept the young eunuch prisoner for many years aft er collaborating in the murder of Muhammad Khan’s father. Not surprisingly, the future shah swore a blood feud against the descendants of Nader and Karim, and his rise to power was marked by mass murders celebrated with pyramids of skulls and the mutilation and enslavement of his surviving enemies and their families. In 1795 the last Zand ruler was betrayed and handed over to Muhammad Khan, who had him tortured, blinded, castrated, and fi nally murdered. Qajar fi ghters then conducted a campaign of rape and pillage against the major Zand cities of Bam, Shiraz, and Kerman.

In the latter city, twenty thousand women and children were given to Muhammad Khan’s tribal warriors or were sold into slavery while the captured men were all robbed of their sight. Muhammad Khan’s last revenge was to have the remains of Nader Shah and Karim Khan disinterred. He brought their bones to Tehran, where he had moved the Iranian capital to be closer to the Qajars’ tribal grazing and hunting grounds. Muhammad Khan then reburied the two former rulers under the gateway of his palace so that royalty and commoners alike walked over their remains. Formally crowned shah in 1796, Muhammad Khan’s evil ways caught up with him, and he was assassinated the following year. Despite his short reign, Muhammad Khan initiated the process in which the Qajars, a minority Turkman tribe with no real power base in Iran, legitimized their rule by forming ties with other ethnic and social groups and manipulating them to work against each other.