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Persia Between Britain and Russia

Possessing India, England desired to annex Persia in order that she might safeguard the western frontier of India. Russia, needing an outlet on the Mediterranean Sea, had sought for a century or more to possess herself of Constantinople, only to be thwarted again and again by England, France, and Germany acting in concert.

Great Britain has been accustomed to regard Persia as within her "sphere of influence" and to consider it her future colony for the simple reason that Persia lies on one of the routes to India. England had always watched apprehensively every movement of imperialistic Russia in Central Asia, interpreting it as a menace to India. Persia thus became the scene of a duel between two powerful imperialistic states, Russia and Great Britain. Trying to prevent Russia from becoming a naval power, English policy endeavored to keep the Russians from attaining further outlets to the seas.

In 1854, during the Crimean war, and in 1877-78, during the Turkish war, England prevented Russia from reaching the Mediterranean through Turkey. Blocked at the Dardanelles, the ambitious Russian imperialists turned their attention to the Pacific and to the Persian Gulf. But England still watched closely every movement of the Russian Czar. The RussoJapanese war, skilfully planned by English diplomacy and backed by British capital, blocked the Russians from an outlet to warm water in the Far East, and during this conflict the Persian Gulf became British. The Russian Government was forced to abandon its projects of connecting the Trans-Caspian railway with Port BenderAbass. Thence forward the real struggle between the British and Russians began in Persia.

Politically, economically, financially, and morally the Persian people became the slaves of English and Russian ambitions. No constructive work could be undertaken in Persia except upon the initiative of the Russian banks in the north or of the British in the south, with the consequent ruination of Persia's independent economic life. Successes in the Far East after the Boxer campaign of 1900 and the completion of a new branch of the Transcaspian railway from Merv to Kushk on the Afghan frontier encouraged the aggressiveness of the old Russian Government in Persia. The Ministry of the Ways of Communication undertook to realize the railway concessions which Russia had obtained from the Persian Government in 1901, by which a railroad was to be built by the Russians from Tulfa to Hamadan, via Tabriz, crossing southward all Azerbaijan, with a branch line from Tabriz to Teheran also in project. These constructions were to have been accomplished by 1903.

Meanwhile a fierce diplomatic struggle was in full progress between Russia and England for the controlling influence in the Persian Gulf. The British claimed the port of Koweit at the northwestern extremity of the gulf, while the Russians in turn threatened to take Bender-Abass in the strait of Ormuz between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Serious friction arose between Great Britain and Russia on the one hand, and between Germany, France and Great Britain on the other. This continued until 1907, when the Anglo-Russian Convention for the partition of Persia was signed with grave results for the contending powers. The Persian liberals obtained a sort of constitution from the Shah, Muhamed Ali Mirza, and the first Mejliss (parliament) was convened in the fall of 1906. Persia was practically in a state of civil war, with the reactionaries supported by the Russian Czar's forces in the north, and by the British in the south.

In 1907, Russia turned her eyes toward the Persian Gulf, hoping to win a passage through Persia to a port on the Indian Ocean. She proposed that England join her in the seizure of Persia. Persia being largely in their debt, the two Powers evolved a plan whereby, under the guise of stabilizing Persia's finances, they would virtually take over the control of the Persian Empire for purposes of exploitation.

This was the first stage of that general rapprochement between Russia and England which resulted in the Entente Cordiale. From that year on, until the outbreak of the World War, Persia was. held in pawn by the two Powers, the Shah being their echo in all affairs of government. Russian and English banks were established to control the financial operations of Persia; the post offices, telegraph lines, railroads, and post roads in Persia were operated jointly by the Russians and British, and privileges were exacted which greatly restricted the independence and sovereignty of Persia. Finally Persia was "policed" by Russian and British military forces, and this item alone is said to have cost the British Empire, from first to last, the colossal sum of $500,000,000.

In 1915, the second year of the World War, the British Government stipulated for the addition to her "sphere of influence" in Persia of the so-called neutral zone, comprising the districts of Fars, Arabistan, and Luristan, but the Persian Prime Minister, Vosoughed-Douleh, withheld his consent for two years, finally rejecting the proposal in a document bearing the date of January 31, 1917. This was at a time when England and Russia, with their backs to the wall, were not in a position to coerce Persia.

Two months later occurred the Russian Revolution, and with it the declaration of rights of small nationalities, which the Persians hailed as a message from heaven, absolving them from all punishment due to their sinful refusal to comply with the demands of the British Government. With Russia fallen, England confidently expected to extend her "sphere of influence" throughout Persia and rule as the sole arbiter of the destinies of the Persian Empire, but these expectations were never realized.

In November, 1917, after the Bolsheviki had seized the power of government in Russia, Lenin turned his attention toward Persia, which appeared to him a fertile field for Bolshevik propaganda. How to rid Persia of the British invader was the first concern of the Soviet statesmen. Having at the moment no troops to spare for a campaign in this quarter, Lenine and Trotzsky hit upon the ingenious idea of "shaming the British out of Persia." England and Russia, they argued, had occupied Persia in the role of creditor nations - sheriffs, if you like - bent upon enforcing the payment of debts due them, by a helpless state. If now those debts were cancelled, there would be no further moral justification for English or Russian occupancy of Persia.

As the sole autocrats of Russia, Lenin and Trotsky would generously cancel Persia's debt to Russia and withdraw the Russian Imperial troops out of Persia. By a single stroke of the pen, and without the shedding of blood, they would accomplish four important results: They would liberate one-half of Persia from the shame of alien occupation; absolve Persia from liability for at least half of her enormous debts; win the gratitude, perhaps the allegiance, of the Persian nation, and at the same time put England in an uncomfortable dilemma, making her to appear by contrast as a soulless oppressor, a Shylock power, demanding Persia's pound of flesh. Perhaps England might be influenced to follow the generous example set by Russia. Or, failing that result, the Persians might unite with the Bolshevists and expel the British invaders. That task accomplished, Persia would be rapidly Bolshevized, becoming a mere dependency in the Universal Atheistic Empire which Lenine and Trotsky hoped then and hope still to establish throughout the globe.

The Bolshevist plan was put in operation without delay. Lenine made overtures to the Persians, professing friendship for them and promising to withdraw the Russian Imperial troops from their soil at the earliest feasible moment. On January 14, 1918, the Bolshevik rulers addressed a note to Assad Khan, the Persian Charge d'Affairs at Petrograd, which read as follows: "The Council of the People's Commissaries (Bolshevist Cabinet) declares the Anglo-Persian agreement of 1907, as directed against the Persian people, once and for all abrogated. The Council likewise declares null and void all agreements, prior and ulterior to the above named, which constitute in any way an infringement upon or a restriction of the rights of the Persian Government to a free and independent existence."

In reply, the Persian Nationalists expressed their sincere thanks to the Soviet Government "for this act of justice." So matters rested for three years or more. On January 15, 1921, a Bolshevist agent appeared in Teheran, with the avowea purpose of effecting the liberation of Persia from British control. Three days after the arrival, the British officials decided to withdraw their troops from Northern Persia. Consternation seized the merchants of Teheran and the official class generally; the Persian Premier threatened to resign; the Shah to abdicate.

On February 20th, Gen. Reza Khan executed his coup d'etat. His Persian Cossacks seized the Persian capital, deposed the Shah's Cabinet, and set up a new government at Teheran. One of the first acts of the newly installed Persian Government was the abrogation of the treaty of 1907 with Great Britain and Imperial Russia, and the substitution therefor of a new treaty with Soviet Russia. This treaty was signed at Moscow on February 26th with the understanding that it must be ratified within three months. Zia-ed-Din, the new Premier, on April 9th, explained the foreign policy of his government to foreign officials, saying that the relations with Great Britain were now completely cordial, owing to the disappearance of the English treaty which had "bred clouds of misunderstanding." On May 1, 1921, the British troops left Teheran just as a diplomatic mission from Soviet Russia entered the city.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2019 11:06:43 ZULU