Nader Shah, Iran’s saviour or slayer?

The final blow to the Safavids dynasty came from the disgruntled Sunni people of Afghanistan. In 1720, a rebellious Afghan army toppled the weak Safavid king (Shah Sultan Hussein) and pillaged Isfahan. Their uprising was a direct result of Sunni suppression in the Kandahar province, and their success was due to the steady weakening of the army and Ghezelbash, and the deteriorating court spirit under the mind-numbing influence of Shia mullahs.

To fight the Afghan conquest, the Safavids united around a young successor to the murdered king, and designated Nader Khan as the army chief. Nader was a minor Afshar (a Ghezelbash tribe) warlord, but a military genius and extremely courageous. Nader’s army defeated the Afghans in 1729, and he subsequently removed the incapable Safavid heir, and crowned himself as Nader Shah, in 1736.

Nader’s reign started like a fairytale and ended like a nightmare. At the beginning, Nader was regularly consulting the Ghezelbash chiefs and the learned nobility; tried to reconcile the Shia-Sunni animosity; managed to obtain a respectable peace treaty with both the Uzbeks and the Ottomans; and lowered the tax burden on the general populace.

Unfortunately, the huge army that Nader had gathered during the war years encouraged him to march in the militaristic path of the likes of Genghis and Tamerlane. Besides, with each bloody campaign of pillage and terror, Nader descended deeper and deeper into the abyss of paranoia and rage. Nader’s most infamous military aggression was the invasion of India, to plunder their riches.

India had never had any war with Iran, and since antiquity was linked to us, through cultural, linguistic and religious ties. Nader’s brutal invasion of that country and the merciless looting, raping and pillaging of Delhi, not only is a shameful example of cruelty, but also weakened the Indian Muslim state to be subsequently colonized by the British Empire.

Nader’s greed for treasures did not abate after the plundering of most Indian jewels, such as the Peacock throne and the diamonds of Kohinoor and Daryinoor. He concealed much of those loots in the remote Khorasan Mountains (Kalat Naderi), and then increased the taxes to pay for the maintenance of his huge army (Urdu), which by this time had even developed its own hybrid language.

Nader’s final years are filled with suspicion and conspiracy, as he embarked on killing and blinding all the potential rivals, including his own sons. Finally, a group of his trusted generals, lead by a nephew, attacked his grand tent at night and killed him in 1747. In 20 short years, Nader had saved Iran from servitude and mayhem, raised it to the level of a respectable regional power and then plunged it again in blood and anarchy!

Immediately after Nader’s assassination, his army broke up along several ethnic and tribal lines, each trying to find and fetch as much of the cursed Kalat loot as possible. The Afghans went east to establish the independent Afghanistan state, lead by the Dorani’s, who continued to raid India for the next fifty years. The Qajars (another Ghezelbash tribe) converged in Mazandaran and began fighting against Nader’s murderous nephew in Khorasan and the Zands (Bakhtiari tribe) based in Isfahan and Shiraz.

Finally, after many more years of fighting filled with torture and madness, a more benevolent Khan of Zands (Karim Khan), could re-ascertain a measure of Iranian sovereignty and peace. Unfortunately, those fifty years of murder and mayhem not only ruined most of the Safavids cultural and social achievements, but also instilled a sick psyche of brutality and madness in the Iranian subconscious. Karim Khan maintained a relatively generous and caring government from his new capital in Shiraz, but could not establish a lasting and durable system to outlive his passing in 1779.

After Karim Khan, the various khans of Zands fought for his succession for ten bloody years; till another fine example of Persian nobility (Lotfali Khan) could prevail over his cruel cousins. Unfortunately, by that time the Qajars had regained military power in the North and united around their castrated but brutally determined Khan (Agha Mohammad).

Agha Mohammad conducted a merciless campaign of terror against Lotfali, who had to take refuge in Kerman. When Kerman fell, Agha Mohammad tortured and massacred the captured Zands, blinded all the men of Kerman and enslaved the women and children.

Agha Mohammad Khan then continued along the lines of Nader’s tradition of fighting and looting, and invaded the caucuses in 1795. He successfully defeated the Christian king of Georgia; looted the city of Tbilisi; made a minaret from the severed heads of thousands of their men; and enslaved their wives and daughters. This created such a steer in the Christian Russia that the Tsar accepted the full future protection of Georgia, leading to a generation of Persian-Russian wars.

In 1797, while again campaigning in the caucuses, Agha Mohammad Shah was assassinated by two of his servants. The servants were apparently under suspicion of having eaten a melon from the Shah’s kitchen, and were jailed to be executed pending the royal’s final decision.

Reference: The History of Iran, by Prof. Elton Daniel.

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