Remembering Soltan Ahmad Shah
October 24, 2003
I must say that I read with great regret the reply
of Mr. Esfahani [Leave
us alone] to my caricature of Mr. Vassigh's vulgarities
[Iruni-baazi]. With regret and a sense of vindication, that this
is indeed a representative
sample of the level of discourse by some Iranians about their
own not too distant history and especially about the Qajars.
Both Mr. Vassigh and Mr. Esfahani's comments are deplorable,
particularly Mr. Esfahani's who also has aspirations
to higher education.
To most Iranians the waning years of the Qajar dynasty are
marred by false memories generated by concerted efforts at propaganda
that had started during the reign of the Qajars and continued
well past the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. There is ample
historical evidence to reveal a very different picture of the
reality of the events surrounding the demise of the Qajars and
the true character of their last ruler, Soltan Ahmad Shah, but
established beliefs have a tenacious hold on people's imagination,
and any attempt to dislodge these beliefs with alternate explanations
is always met with stiff resistance.
of the vitriol against the Qajars is also concentrated on or emanates
from an almost pathological need to tarnish the person of Soltan
Ahmad Shah Qajar. This hatred directed at Soltan Ahmad Shah makes for an interesting
psychological study. Soltan Ahmad Shah became a fulcrum for the
collision of the two dominant personality types of Iranians:
the authoritarian personality (mostabed va estebdaad talab) and
the libertarian or democratic personality (mostaghel va esteghlaal
talab). Soltan Ahmad Shah himself was the polar opposite of the
authoritarian personality, to a fault, just as Reza Khan, his
replacement, was the polar opposite of the libertarian personality.
With the fall of Soltan Ahmad Shah and the rise of Reza Khan
to the position of Shah, the authoritarian personality won out
over the libertarian, but this victory was a pyrrhic one for
the Persian psyche, for in giving in to the authoritarian in
itself, it lost its libertarian soul in the process. Thus, my
comment earlier on the brutalized becoming brutalizers in turn.
We are so as a result of the long frustration with ourselves
at the loss of something genuine and good, and this national
drama in our personal and political psyches has played out time
and time again not just between ourselves and our leaders, but
within ourselves and within our leaders also.
Witness the events
surrounding the Constitutional Revolution of Persia. Witness
the rise and fall of Dr. Mossadegh. Witness the rise and fall
of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Witness the ambiguity we felt
and feel towards the person of Ayatollah Khomeini. Even more
tellingly, witness the political split personality of the current
regime between hard-line and reformist!
But even this is only part
of the story, and the pages of a newspaper do not allow for a
full elaboration of this theme. Suffice it
to say here that this is presented as a hypothesis for the
reader to ponder, even though it is considered by this writer already
as an essential analytical tool. The other side of the story
of Soltan Ahmad Shah and the demise of the Qajars is that of
foreign power involvement in the affairs of Persia, particularly
that of Britain and its designs on Persia as a strategic source
of raw materials, especially oil. To the British, what was at
stake in Persia was the control of a geo-strategic region, with
assets that had proven themselves invaluable and irreplaceable
in the theater of World War I. To control this valuable asset,
the British tried a variety of stratagems to achieve their end.
The 1919 Agreement with Persia was the culmination of a grand
strategy that would finally have allowed unquestioned and legitimate
control of Persia and its resources by Britain. The hold up in
the plan became the person of the constitutional monarch, Soltan
Ahmad Shah, whose assent to the treaty was considered essential
for its passage in the popularly elected parliament of Persia.
Without his assent, the agreement never would have had legitimacy.
While the British felt that they had been able to control all
angles of this complex process, they had not counted on the opposition
of the monarch.
The reasons why Soltan Ahmad Shah was opposed to the treaty were
obvious. He saw it as a sell out of his country's sovereignty
to the British who had managed to present the treaty to its proponents
as a bailout of Persia and a remedy for what ailed her. The treaty
could in fact be seen by well-meaning people as a panacea for
Persia's ills. If the British were indeed given a free
hand in Persia, they would have removed many of the obstacles
they had created in Persia and the situation would have substantially
improved. The price however, would have been Persia's honor.
Given that the British were writing the story as it was unfolding,
they did not expect the young king to make a point of honor in
opposing them. They felt they had put sufficient pressure on
him to make him compliant. The irony in this, of course, consisted
also in the fact that a nation that prided itself on being the
cradle of democratic government, could find in herself no patience
or respect for the nascent democracy of another country. Given,
then, the impasse with this obstinate king, the British decided
on a different course altogether to replace the very person who
had become the main obstacle to their success.
At first Britain
toyed with the idea of replacing Soltan Ahmad Shah only but maintaining
the Qajars as nominal rulers of Persia. When that became too
cumbersome, a new course of action altogether was decided upon.
What was required for the success of the plan was an altogether
new leadership bereft of, and unburdened by any sense of history,
duty, place, or belonging that would be completely compliant
to the demands of the individuals behind the change. In Reza
Khan, the perfect individual to achieve this task was found.
In 1919, when the British had yet no intentions of removing the
Qajars from power, in a last ditch effort to save face, Britain
invited Soltan Ahmad Shah to come to England and accept before
the entire world the yoke of England as a legitimate mortgage
on his country's future. In one of the most important speeches
of his career as constitutional monarch of his country, Soltan
Ahmad Shah pushed back the barely concealed demands of England
and in so doing simultaneously sealed his fate as monarch as
well as the fate of his dynasty.
At a banquet in his honor at Buckingham Palace on October 31,
Britain's King George V, in a prepared speech reminded
Soltan Ahmad Shah of the fait accompli: Great Britain and Persia
had now "become closer than they [had] ever been." The
two countries were about "to embark upon a collaboration
in the field of material and administrative progress which should
ensure [for Persia] a future not unworthy of its famous past." In
his reply, which was also supposed to have been a prepared speech,
Soltan Ahmad Shah chose to ignore the proposal put to him and
his nation. His reply made no mention of the embrace so heartily
described by his host, instead he chose to give his audience
a civics lesson.
He informed his hosts of the reason for his desire to visit England
and Europe: 1) "My admiration for the solid liberal institutions
of England." 2) "The establishment of new principles
and new ideas in international relations with the formation of
the League of Nations." 3) "Given the fact that my
country, benefiting from a liberal constitution, had already
assumed its rightful place among the free nations of the world,
one of the principal reasons for my journey is to study personally
the democratic institutions of this country, which has been the
first to give to other nations an example of parliamentary government,
and this in order to make it more possible for myself to better
steer my own country on the road to progress."
In other words he was not here as a vassal of the King of England,
but as the constitutional monarch of a free nation which he
intended to keep free by appealing to the very principles that
England's own government and the institutions England was
championing internationally: rule of law, self-determination,
sovereignty, mutual recognition, non-interference in domestic
affairs, etc... All principles the British needed no reminder
of except for the fact that they were quite willing to forget
them when it came to countries they did not judge worthy of
such consideration when such consideration would interfere with
He further remarked that he was fully aware that "because
of her geographic position, and because of her secular traditions,
Persia [was] called upon to help in the establishment of
order and progress in the Middle East, a condition so essential
the overall peace in Asia." He knew this was a difficult
task but, "with the aid of Western democracies and particularly
that of Great Britain, whose friendly relations with Persia
go back far in time, it could be accomplished in a manner
commensurate with the honor of Persia." And, closing with a reminder
to his host that Britain has always stood for the highest
noblest goals of humanity, he wished his hosts well and raised
his glass to their health.
The next morning, on November 1, at a function given in honor
of Soltan Ahmad Shah at the Guildhall in London by the Lord Mayor,
the real architect of the Persia policy of Britain, Lord Curzon,
reminded Soltan Ahmad Shah again what this was all about: Britain's
magnanimous offer to assist Persia in her hour of need and Britain's
offer to strengthen Persia against the trials and tribulations
she might expect as a result of her unstable domestic situation
and the dangers to her in the larger area of the Middle East.
In return, what did Britain expect from Persia? Little, really:
"What did we desire to do by that agreement?" asked his Lordship
rhetorically, "We wished to assist his Majesty and his
Government in the restoration of peace and order to his country,
sadly vexed and agitated by the disturbance of the recent war.
We wished to assist him in developing the resources of his native
land. Those resources were indeed considerable: resources both
above and below the soil. They were the resources of trade and
the resources of a naturally industrious and capable population.
What Persia wanted at the present time was security of her frontiers
to prevent them from being crossed by any foe; and internally,
order and law, the authority of his Majesty to be felt in every
quarter of his country; pacification of the trade routes along
which she carries goods in exchange for produce with foreign
lands. In this respect land transport and communication was lamentably
difficult. Then there was the administration of justice for her
people, and, above all (which was the secret of all successful
administration), a sound and economic finance."
If, he went on, Persia's government, with Britain's "friendly
assistance" could develop the resources to which he had
referred, then Persia had a great future ahead of her, and "[t]here
was no reason why Persia should not recover a great and resounding
position as one of the independent Mussulman nations of the world."
And, in a great moment of poetic flourish his Lordship concluded:
recall – and see it blazoned on one of the flags at the
end of this hall – the national emblem of Persia. It is
the Lion and the Sun. May we not find in that juxtaposition a
happy omen; the British Lion stands forth as the proud and valiant
champion of the rights and liberties of Persia. Over his shoulders
rises the orb of the steadily increasing progress and prosperity
of Persia itself."
Once again Soltan Ahmad Shah replied by evoking the same themes
he had evoked the night before at the dinner in his honor at
Buckingham Palace: Thanking his hosts, he reminded them that
while he was not the first monarch of Persia to enjoy the hospitality
of the city of London, he could lay claim to the honor of being
the first constitutional monarch of Persia received there.
He said he was representing " a new and liberal regime from
which [his] people expected the regeneration of the country,
a regeneration that had been hampered until now by unfavorable
influences. ... The present moment was particularly well
chosen for the attainment of the object of closer unity between
the two peoples. There was a new spirit of co-operation and
fraternity between them, and this spirit was consecrated by the
Nations, which guaranteed the free development of States in
the full enjoyment of their independence and integrity. ..."
In both his Buckingham speech and his Guildhall speech, Soltan
Ahmad Shah reminds his hosts that they have no legal authority
to go through with their plans for the de facto declaration
of Persia as their protectorate. The invocation of a world
order under the aegis of the League of Nations, which Persia had
joined as a sovereign nation and equal among equals was meant to
this fact again.
The many references to the "obstacles" Persia
had been facing in Soltan Ahmad Shah's remarks referred
directly to the circumstances Great Britain had created in
Persia, first by co-opting her entire financial system, then by
claim to her oil without compensating her, then by violating
her neutrality in World War I and by creating untold suffering
and death through the famine that her policies caused for Persia
and continued to cause even as he was speaking to them in London
on that dreary November day.
Despite all that, he was still appealing
to the sense of honor of England to treat his country with
dignity calling upon her own traditions of fairness and justice
Throughout, however, he was fully cognizant that his efforts
were quixotic at best. England had made up her mind. Persia
was too big a prize to leave to the vagaries of chance and democratic
shilly-shallying. England needed to control what by right of
might was hers.
The above is cited as evidence of the character of the man so
many have made a profession to malign. From the above, whatever
else we may say about Soltan Ahmad Shah, we cannot say that
he was not mindful of who he was, what he represented and whom
represented. Given the overwhelming odds against him, there
was little else he could do but put up a valiant last effort to
his voice heard in the court of reason. After this speech,
events quickly unraveled in favor of his internal and external
leading to the coup of 1921 and Soltan Ahmad Shah's self-exile
from Persia in 1923.
For those who wish to know these things, there is evidence
not only of the fact that Britain was willing to support
Shah to return to his throne at a price, there is also evidence
that foreign powers such as Turkey under Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk"
were willing to help in this matter. In both cases, Soltan
refused because the price of accepting was too high for a
man who was the legitimate constitutional monarch of his country
who had lived his life as a staunch believer in the rule
law, not of force.
The price the British wanted to extract is now very clear.
We could intimate it in the statements of Lord Curzon at
reception, and certainly can see it in the actions of Reza
Khan once he ascended to the throne of Persia. The price
Mustafa Kemal's offer would have been the shame of having
to live with the label that the backing of the occupant
of the Peacock Throne is the muscle of the new "heir" to
the Sublime Porte.
(Read the notes of Ambassador
Anoushiravan Sepahbody, father of Ambassador Farhad
Sepahbody, with regard to the reaction of Soltan Ahmad Shah to
offer of Mustafa Kemal, relayed to him by a delegation in Geneva:
2. This historic meeting is also documented in Hossein
Makki's political biography of Soltan Ahmad Shah, Zendegiye Siyaassi-e
Soltan Ahmad Shah, Amir Kabir Press, Tehran, 1362 solar).
In all this, Soltan Ahmad Shah distinguishes himself from
his two successors admirably and it is for this reason
that I have
cited these examples as worthy of consideration and admiration
as the actions of an honorable man who wished to be the
king of a prospering nation, but not at any price.
I will leave the story of Dr. Mossadegh for others to
tell who tell it better than I do. Mine was the duty
the example of this truly unique man, Soltan Ahmad
Shah Qajar, in the modern history of our country. Only with
and great trauma does a nation achieve freedom. There
is nothing more tragic than the loss of a freedom that
gained at such
cost. It is for this reason, that I have concentrated
my efforts on remembering the harbinger of that vision
his vision and name be sullied.
As Iranians, it is
all of our duty
to do so, we who are his heirs, actually and politically.
That is why I say we should feel great sadness for
not having recognized
what we had in the person of this exceptional man.
And that is also why I bemoan the facile and cavalier manner
man and his memory is treated by people who should
and do know better.
The reader might be interested in following up on this discussion
by consulting recent scholarly work done on the subject of
the last years of Soltan Ahmad Shah's reign and the transition
to Pahlavi rule. In support of the dominant interpretation
Soltan Ahmad Shah's reign are the following books in Farsi
and English: Javad Sheikholeslami's Simaaye Ahmad Shah,
Cyrus Ghani's Persia
and the Rise of Reza Shah, Homa
and Society in Persia, and Stephanie Cronin's The
Making of Modern Persia. In support of an alternate
view are the following,
Makki's Zendegiye Siyaassi-e Soltan Ahmad Shah, Mohammad
Gholi Majd's Great
Britain and Reza Shah, and The Great Famine and
Genocide in Persia, 1917-1919, to name but a
few recent and much referenced examples.
Manoutchehr Eskandari-Qajar is professor of Political
Science and Middle East Studies at SBCC. He is
also President and
Founder of the International Qajar Studies Association
(IQSA) and President
of the Kadjar Family Association (KFA).
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