|Iran Table of Contents
At Karim Khan's death, another struggle for power among the Zands, Qajars, and other tribal groups once again plunged the country into disorder and disrupted economic life. This time Agha Mohammad Qajar defeated the last Zand ruler outside Kerman in 1794 and made himself master of the country, beginning the Qajar dynasty that was to last until 1925. Under Fath Ali (1797-1834), Mohammad Shah (1834-48), and Naser ad Din Shah (1848-96) a degree of order, stability, and unity returned to the country. The Qajars revived the concept of the shah as the shadow of God on earth and exercised absolute powers over the servants of the state. They appointed royal princes to provincial governorships and, in the course of the nineteenth century, increased their power in relation to that of the tribal chiefs, who provided contingents for the shah's army. Under the Qajars, the merchants and the ulama, or religious leaders, remained important members of the community. A large bureaucracy assisted the chief officers of the state, and, in the second half of the nineteenth century, new ministries and offices were created. The Qajars were unsuccessful, however, in their attempt to replace the army based on tribal levies with a European-style standing army having regular training, organization, and uniforms.
Early in the nineteenth century, the Qajars began to face pressure from two great world powers, Russia and Britain. Britain's interest in Iran arose out of the need to protect trade routes to India, while Russia's came from a desire to expand into Iranian territory from the north. In two disastrous wars with Russia, which ended with the Treaty of Gulistan (1812) and the Treaty of Turkmanchay (1828), Iran lost all its territories in the Caucasus north of the Aras River. Then, in the second half of the century, Russia forced the Qajars to give up all claims to territories in Central Asia. Meanwhile, Britain twice landed troops in Iran to prevent the Qajars from reasserting a claim to Herat, lost after the fall of the Safavids. Under the Treaty of Paris in 1857, Iran surrendered to Britain all claims to Herat and territories in present-day Afghanistan.
The two great powers also came to dominate Iran's trade and interfered in Iran's internal affairs. They enjoyed overwhelming military and technological superiority and could take advantage of Iran's internal problems. Iranian central authority was weak; revenues were generally inadequate to maintain the court, bureaucracy, and army; the ruling class was divided and corrupt; and the people suffered exploitation by their rulers and governors.
When Naser ad Din acceded to the throne in 1848, his prime minister, Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir, attempted to strengthen the administration by reforming the tax system, asserting central control over the bureaucracy and the provincial governors, encouraging trade and industry, and reducing the influence of the Islamic clergy and foreign powers. He established a new school, the Dar ol Fonun, to educate members of the elite in the new sciences and in foreign languages. The power he concentrated in his hands, however, aroused jealousy within the bureaucracy and fear in the king. He was dismissed and put to death in 1851, a fate shared by earlier powerful prime ministers.
In 1858 officials like Malkam Khan began to suggest in essays that the weakness of the government and its inability to prevent foreign interference lay in failure to learn the arts of government, industry, science, and administration from the advanced states of Europe. In 1871, with the encouragement of his new prime minister, Mirza Hosain Khan Moshir od Dowleh, the shah established a European-style cabinet with administrative responsibilities and a consultative council of senior princes and officials. He granted a concession for railroad construction and other economic projects to a Briton, Baron Julius de Reuter, and visited Russia and Britain himself. Opposition from bureaucratic factions hostile to the prime minister and from clerical leaders who feared foreign influence, however, forced the shah to dismiss his prime minister and to cancel the concession. Nevertheless, internal demand for reform was slowly growing. Moreover, Britain, to which the shah turned for protection against Russian encroachment, continued to urge the shah to undertake reforms and open the country to foreign trade and enterprise as a means of strengthening the country. In 1888 the shah, heeding this advice, opened the Karun River in Khuzestan to foreign shipping and gave Reuter permission to open the country's first bank. In 1890 he gave another British company a monopoly over the country's tobacco trade. The tobacco concession was obtained through bribes to leading officials and aroused considerable opposition among the clerical classes, the merchants, and the people. When a leading cleric, Mirza Hasan Shirazi, issued a fatva (religious ruling) forbidding the use of tobacco, the ban was universally observed, and the shah was once again forced to cancel the concession at considerable cost to an already depleted treasury.
The last years of Naser ad Din Shah's reign were characterized by growing royal and bureaucratic corruption, oppression of the rural population, and indifference on the shah's part. The tax machinery broke down, and disorder became endemic in the provinces. New ideas and a demand for reform were also becoming more widespread. In 1896, reputedly encouraged by Jamal ad Din al Afghani (called Asadabadi because he came from Asadabad), the well-known Islamic preacher and political activist, a young Iranian assassinated the shah.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress