Britain, France and Russia interfere in Iran

MUHAMMAD SHAH (1834 - 1848)

The succession

Muhammad was recognised by Britain and France immediately - but locally he had to squash opposition from two uncles and two brothers. He soon removed and had strangled the reforming minister who had, as his father before him, advised Fath Ali Shah. He replaced him with Haji Mirza Aghasi, his tutor and spiritual guide, complicit in his predecessor's murder, who mistrusted all foreigners, especially British and Russian - and favoured trying to play them off against each other. As a Sufi, the new minister had an interest in marginalising the clerics (ulama), who under the prevailing flavour of Shi'ism expected to have an influential, if not decisive say in government. He became the de facto ruler during the reign of Muhammad Shah.

Muhammad Shah Qajar

British interference

Muhammad was very keen to take Herat - seen as part of ancestral Eranshahr. The British were equally keen to distract him: he ignored them, but when no support was forthcoming from Russia (who had perhaps encouraged the attempt to win back territory in the east, to compensate for the losses in the Caucasus) or the rest of Afghanistan, he had to give up the idea. The British showed their displeasure by seizing Kharg Island in the Gulf, and making him sign a new treaty, giving them the same privileges accorded to the Russians under the Treaty of Turkmanchai in 1828 - and, more importantly, the same trading tariffs (fixed at 5%). The "Great Game" was under way.

Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf

Kharg Island in 1972, before the oil installations were destroyed by Iraq

Religious problems

Sufism: Haji Mirza Aghasi encouraged Muhammad's pro-Sufi tendencies - angering the Shi'i clergy. The Shi'i ulama had always been suspicious of secular authority: they preferred temporal rulers to be submissive to advice and direction from the religious leaders. A Sufi shah listening to a Sufi minister was not good news: this was the beginning of the conviction among the ulama that the rule of the Qajar dynasty was illegitimate - there would be consequences.

Anti-Semitism: At the same time, exploiting the anti-foreigner mood, some extremist mullahs were stirring up ill-feeling against Jews and other minorities - leading in some cases to outright persecution, and serious rioting.

Isma'ilis: Banished and disgruntled members of the extended Qajar family caused trouble by encouraging a rebellion in 1838 of the Agha Khan Mahallati, leader of the Isma'ilis, in Yazd and Kirman. The British were also accused of interfering. The rebellion was suppressed, but the Isma'ili leadership moved to Bombay.

Qorrat al-AinMillennarianism

1844 marked the millennium since the occultation of the Twelfth Imam in 844. A pious young Shirazi proclaimed himself the Bab - the portal through which the Twelfth Imam could communicate with the faithful. He began preaching conventional Shi'ism - but became more radical, and eventually began saying he was actually the Twelfth Imam himself. This was serious - putting the Bab and his followers (Babis) in direct conflict with the ulama. When some Babis, acting individually, made an attempt to kill the shah, the government repsonded with collective punishment. The Babis were targeted by the shah's army, and the Bab himself was imprisoned and executed in 1850. Some of his ideas were indeed progressive - equal treatment of women, rights for children, less harsh punishment under Shari'a - and even undoing the Islamic ban on usury. He had many female followers, including the remarkable Qorrat al-Ain [right], who discarded her veil as a sign of emancipation of women and the end of Shari'a law. She was arrested, of course, and executed in secret. Also known as Tahihrih (The Pure One). The Baha'i faith deveoped from the Bab's teaching.

The army

Muhammad and Fath Ali had both been keen to upgrade the Iranian forces, after their defeat by Russia. New units were raised, with European officers and European weapons. These were in addition to the traditional royal bodyguard of ghulams (well-trained cavalry, mostly Georgian slaves, with Qajar officers), tribal levies and community militias. British miltary advisors were allowed to train troops in various cities - in particular young Henry Rawlinson was sent to Kirmanshah in 1835 "as military advisor and assistant" to the shah's brother. Despite such innovations, though, the Iranian army remained on the whole poorly-organised and badly trained - especially when compared with the armies of the Ottomans or Egypt. Partly this was due to the interest of the tribal leaders and the ulama in blocking reform.


As yet, it was only western weapons and military training that the shahs were interested in. That was soon to change, but: "throughout the lifetimes of both Fath Ali Shah and Muhammad Shah, Iran was still, in almost every respect, a medieval Muslim society largely self-sufficient in most of its material needs as well as in its cultural identity.Cambridge History of Iran, Vol 7, page 173