The western presence in Iran before the 1979 Iranian revolution can best be described as ugly primarily because it escalated tensions that led to the ouster of the Shah. These tensions emanated from the initial idea that the Shah’s regime was perceived as oppressive and dictatorial, coupled with giving Western companies valuable concessions over Iranian resources (Mehan, 2017). Many Iranians saw the Shah as a puppet of Western powers based on the unfair relationships and contractual agreements his administration entered into on behalf of the Iranian people. An example of how the Shah’s administration dealt with western powers and how this could be termed an unfriendly relationship can be seen in the circumstances surrounding the Tobacco protest and the resulting constitutional unrest that it incited among the Iranian population.
Relations between the West and Iran can best be analyzed in the aftermath of the wars against the Qajar dynasty with the Russian empire and the British Empire. The Qajar dynasty that was in charge of Iran lost both of these military engagements, and as a result, this set the tone for the surrounding chaos that emerged against foreign interests. After losing both of these wars, the Qajar Dynasty was in a precarious financial position and had to concede a number of economic rights to these western powers and their nationals who had flocked to Iran, cognizant of the available opportunities (Deutschmann, 2015). The immediate consequence of these losses emerged because the Iranian government was forced to allow western countries unfettered trade and economic rights within their territory. As a result, the nature of the relationship between Iran and western powers can best be inferred from the discontent from the Iranian public on the terms of these concessions.
After losing the wars against Russia and Britain, the Iranian government was placed at a disadvantage that interfered with maintaining and regulating free trade within their territories. This circumstance resulted in situations where the Iranian public was unfairly disadvantaged compared to the western foreigners who had taken up residence within Iran (Standley, 2017). Other than the concessions granted to these foreigners and their trading companies, Iranian merchants could also not compete with the lower prices offered by Western merchants due to tax advantages negotiated with the Shah’s government. Towards this end, the Shah’s government was increasingly viewed as a puppet for these Western governments who took advantage of their position to make commercial and economic profits. The earliest demonstration of the advantages secured by Western agents can be seen in the Reuter concession that was signed between Baron Julius de Reuter and the King of Persia at the time.
The agreement signed between Baron Reuter and the Shah took the form of a concession whereby the Baron was granted complete economic control over Persian roads, telegraphs, resources and infrastructural works for 20 years. The level of commercial control granted by the Shah to the Baron, a British subject that counted on the support of the empire to bolster his claim and relationship with the Shah (Fawcett, 2014). As a result, the concession shaped the tone of agreements with other imperial agents who collectively agreed on the manipulative nature of this agreement. Based on the terms of the agreement that the Shah entered into on behalf of the Iranian people as an absolute and oppressive monarch. The discontent surrounding these agreements revolved around the fact that there were limited opportunities for public participation, resulting in rising discontent among the Iranian peoples. Following this initial reaction, it is clear that the Iranian public’s Western presence in Iran was not appreciated nor tolerated, showing the nature of these exploitative relationships.
The earliest form of discontent with the Western presence and the inability of the Shah to negotiate favorable terms with these outsiders was first taken to the forefront by the clergy that served as the mouthpiece for the general public. In relation to the Reuter concession, the clergy engaged in a widespread public campaign targeting the predominantly Muslim population of Iran at the time (Clark, 2015). The campaign focused on highlighting that the Shah had conspired with a Jew to bring corruption to their lands by granting him unilateral control over the country’s economic affairs. The face of the campaign revolved around a proposed railway that would have cut through lands that were perceived as holy among the native population. The first Reuter concession demonstrated that the nature of the Western presence in Iran primarily incited feelings of discontent among the local population and discontent among other Western powers.
The first Reuter concession was eventually canceled after only being in effect for one year after mounting local and international pressure on the Shah based on these unfavorable terms. The international pressure came from other Western powers with competing interests, such as the Russian government. In addition, the campaign by the local clergy set the stage for future protests, as was seen in the aftermath of the Tobacco concession (Keddie, 2012). In this way, the nature of the Western presence in Iran before the 1979 revolution primarily revolved around attempts to infringe on Iran’s sovereignty while deriving financial gains. The fact that the Western presence also took the form of competing interests with other European powers shows that their intentions were not pure and not intended to help the vast majority of the Iranian population that was still living under the yoke of poverty. The Shah eventually gave in to the pressure and cancelled the concession despite his poor financial position and inability to negotiate more favorable terms on behalf of his people.
The Western presence in Iran can be considered ugly because the agreements they sought were mostly to the detriment of the local population and not cognizant of the influence that the clergy had over the local population. In the aftermath of the coordinated campaign spearheaded by the clergy in relation to the Reuter concession, the Shah agreed to a full monopoly over Tobacco interests in the region (Ali, 2018). It is important to note that tobacco was one of the major cash crops in Iran, and the concession allowed Major Talbot, a British officer, full control over the industry. The scope of the agreement that he entered into with the Shah allowed him to take charge of the crop’s production, sale, and export for fifty years. On receiving the concession, Major Talbot established the Imperial Tobacco Corporation of Persia that allowed him to exercise his rights as per the agreement.
Under the terms of the agreement, the government required that all tobacco producers sell their produce to agents of Talbot. He then resold the product to local and international markets. The terms of the agreement were skewed in favor of the concession holder, allowing him to set prices at points that were unfavorable to local producers. Iranian tobacco was highly prized in the international market, and the local industry was central to the livelihoods of close to 250,000 Iranians. As a result, the local merchants and farmers were hard hit by these terms forcing them to seek permits and certification from a foreign-owned firm. The consequences of the Tobacco concession primarily impacted local Tobacco sellers and producers who had built careers and livelihoods from this trade.
An apt demonstration of the nature of the Western presence in Iran is that initial protests against the Tobacco concession were not voiced by locals but spearheaded by the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire was of the idea that the Tobacco concession was detrimental to the idea of free trade despite the Shah’s insistence on continuing with the concession due to prevailing British interests. Once the concession was announced to the public, it was met with widespread public resistance to the terms that threatened a lucrative industry for a majority of the Iranian population.
The public anger in the aftermath of the Tobacco concession echoed the approach taken during the campaign against the initial Reuter concession. The public displayed their outrage in various ways demonstrating the growing animosity against foreign interests in Iran. There were public posters and brochures distributed throughout the country calling out the Shah for not doing enough to protect the commercial interests of the Iranian population. In a bid to reassure the British, the Shah ensured that despite the rising tensions, he was still firmly in control of the country and would personally ensure that the terms of the agreement were abided by. However, the Shah’s efforts could do little to quell the public anger and the controversy surrounding the decision leading to mass protests across major Iranian cities. This time, the second wave of the protests was led by Iranian merchants who were under the impression that their livelihoods were at risk.
The Iranian merchants soon enlisted the clergy to their cause that effectively shaped the discourse of the protests against foreign influence in Iranian sovereign matters. The support of the clergy was instrumental, considering the scope and breadth of their influence across Iranian society. The clergy was informed that giving control over local commercial interests to non-muslim foreigners increasingly threatened their influence over the population (Nabavi, 2016). As a result, the clergy focussed on painting the agreement as something contrary to Islamic law and, as a result, contrary to established norms and principles on which the Iranian nation was founded. The reigning Ayatollah at the time was unrelenting in his critique, going to the extent of pronouncing edicts on the recreational use of tobacco among his followers. The ban against recreational tobacco demonstrated the lengths to which the Iranian population was willing to go to fight against foreign influence in their country.
Flowing from the tone taken by the country and the mass protests that emerged in response to the numerous concessions and the growing influence of foreign powers in Iran, the Shah subsequently canceled the concession. In this way, from the foregoing, it is clear that foreign influence in Iran was exploitative and manipulative to the extent that it inspired popular action (Nabavi, 2016). The actions of the Shah in furtherance of foreign interests set the stage for the eventual revolution of 1979 whereby the Iranian public clamored for independence from the hooks of western imperialism. From the text of these concessions, it is easy to deduce the fact that Western influence was not cognizant of local circumstances when making these agreements. Taking the case of tobacco as an example, the crop was central to the livelihoods of the Iranian public to the extent that the concession amounted to an infringement on Iranian sovereignty. In response to these flawed agreements, the Iranian public united with the clergy to protest against the Shah’s oppressive regime and how he was being used as the mouthpiece for foreign interests in Iran.
Ultimately from the foregoing, it is clear that the Western presence in Iran was counterproductive to the needs and commercial demands of the Iranian population. The Shah, the head of the Iranian state, was perceived as a mouthpiece for foreign interests. In response, the clergy took an increasingly prominent role in defending the Iranian public and their sovereignty. This ultimately set the stage for the revolution where the clergy with overwhelming public support took control of the government and sought to prioritize the Iranian public’s needs. In this way, it is clear that Western powers took advantage of their presence in Iran to seek ways to profit from the natural resources and commerce of the Iranian public to the detriment of the citizens. In a bid to safeguard their interests, Iran ultimately revolted and overthrew the Shah fuelled by resentment against the impacts of Western imperialism.
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Deutschmann, M. (2015). Iran and Russian imperialism: the ideal anarchists, 1800-1914. Routledge.
Fawcett, L. (2014). Revisiting the Iranian crisis of 1946: How much more do we know?. Iranian Studies, 47(3), 379-399.
Keddie, N. R. (2012). Religion and Rebellion in Iran: The Iranian Tobacco Protest of 1891-1982. Routledge.
Mehan, A. (2017). In razing its modernist buildings, Iran is erasing its past Western influence. The Conversation, 1-7.
Nabavi, N. (2016). Modern Iran: A History in Documents. Markus Wiener Publishers.
Standley, C. (2017). Iranian oil concessions of the twentieth century: economic and legal agendas surrounding the Anglo-American Oil Company, 1901-1953.