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Persia's honor
Remembering Soltan Ahmad Shah

October 24, 2003
The Iranian

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.

Much 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 guided 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 their imperial plans.

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 to 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 and 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: "I 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 League of 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 underline 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 laying 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 and law. 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 he represented. Given the overwhelming odds against him, there was little else he could do but put up a valiant last effort to have his voice heard in the court of reason. After this speech, events quickly unraveled in favor of his internal and external foes, 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 Soltan Ahmad 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 Ahmad Shah 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 of 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 the Guildhall reception, and certainly can see it in the actions of Reza Khan once he ascended to the throne of Persia. The price of accepting 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 the offer of Mustafa Kemal, relayed to him by a delegation in Geneva: Page 1, Page 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 of reminding us of the example of this truly unique man, Soltan Ahmad Shah Qajar, in the modern history of our country. Only with great difficulty and great trauma does a nation achieve freedom. There is nothing more tragic than the loss of a freedom that was gained at such cost. It is for this reason, that I have concentrated my efforts on remembering the harbinger of that vision and not letting 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 in which this 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 of 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 Katouzian's State and Society in Persia, and Stephanie Cronin's The Making of Modern Persia. In support of an alternate view are the following, Hossein 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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