Qajars first settled during the Mongol period in the vicinity of Armenia and were among the seven Qizilbash tribes that supported the Safavids.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The Qajar dynasty (also known as Ghajar or Kadjar) is a common term to describe Iran (then known as Persia) under the ruling Qajar royal family that ruled Iran from 1794 to 1925. In 1794, the Qajar family took full control of Iran as they had eliminated all their rivals, including Lotf ‘Ali Khan, the last of the Zand dynasty, and had reasserted Persian sovereignty over the former Iranian territories in Georgia and the Caucasus. In 1796 Āghā Moḥammad Khān was formally crowned as shah (emperor or king). European powers began to see Iran as a strategic ally in the region, one with whom they could work to undermine Ottoman power. Russia and Great Britain were especially interested in establishing themselves in Iran, which consequently became a venue for their so-called “great game” of imperial rivalry. (This term is attributed to Arthur Conolly, who was an intelligence officer with the British East India Company’s Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry.) Britain and Iran fought a war in 1856 over territory between Iran and their Indian empire. Britain also established control of the Trucial States. In the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, Britain and Russia (with imperial hubris) divided their playground into spheres of influence. The Qazars became economically indebted to Russia. In 1901, short of money caused by their own extravagance, they sold a concession to prospect for oil cheaply to a British engineer. During the Qajar period, Western science, technology, and educational methods were introduced into Iran. Contact with Europe also encouraged a movement in Iran for the development of democratic institutions and a constitutional monarchy, which resulted in mass demonstrations and civil unrest in 1906, followed reluctantly by the granting of a constitution.
This went too far for some. In 1921, Reza Shah Pahlavi overthrew the Qajars, establishing the authoritarian Pahlavi dynasty. He could not abolish the Majlis (consultative assembly) but found ways to manipulate or discredit its leaders. The Pahlavis fell to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when a groundswell of anti-Western sentiment and the desire to establish an Islamic system of governance toppled the dynasty. Iran under the Qajars found itself at a crossroads. Outside influence was too strong to resist. The perception that Iran, with a proud historical heritage, was actually ruled by foreigners, hurt national pride. Foreign involvement in Iran, given its strategic location, was inevitable. Iran’s subsequent alienation from the West, which stems from this period, can be attributed to the irresponsible way in which a “game” was played in other people’s territory, with little thought to what the consequences might be. Intervention in the internal affairs of other nations may sometimes be necessary. However, in a world in which some speak of the possibility of a civilizational clash—as people fear the subversion of their traditions and values—ill advised intervention can be disastrous.
The Qajar or ghajar rulers were members of the Quvanlu clan of the Qajars, originally themselves members of the Oghuz branch of the larger Turkmen peoples. Qajars first settled during the Mongol period in the vicinity of Armenia and were among the seven Qizilbash tribes that supported the Safavids. The Safavids “left Arran (present-day Republic of Azerbaijan) to local Turkish khans,” and, “in 1554 Ganja was governed by Shahverdi Soltan Ziyadoglu Qajar, whose family came to govern Karabakh in southern Arran.”
Qajars filled a number of diplomatic missions and governorships in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries for the Safavids. The Qajars were resettled by Shah Abbas I throughout Iran. The great number of them also settled in Astarabad (present-day Gorgan, Iran) near the south-eastern corner of the Caspian Sea, and it would be this branch of Qajars that would rise to power. The immediate ancestor of Qajars, Shah Qoli Khan Qajar Qovanlu of the Qovanlus of Ganja, married into the Qovanlu Qajars of Astarabad. His son, Fath Ali Khan Qajar, born circa 1685-1693, was a renowned military commander during the rule of the Safavid shahs Husayn and Tahmasp II. He was killed on the orders of Tahmasp Qoli Khan Afshar (Nader Shah) in 1726. Fath Ali Khan’s son Mohammad Hassan Khan Qajar (1722-1758) was killed at the behest of Karim Khan Zand, and was the father of Agha Mohammad Khan and Hossein Qoli Khan (Jahansouz Shah) Qajar (father of “Baba Khan,” the future Fath Ali Shah Qajar).
Within 126 years between the demise of the Safavid state and the rise of Nasir al-Din Shah, the Qajars evolved from a shepherd-warrior tribe with strongholds in northern Iran into a Persian dynasty with all the trappings of a Perso-Islamic monarchy.
Rise to Power
“Like virtually every dynasty that ruled Persia since the eleventh century,” according to Keddie, “the Qajars came to power with the backing of Turkish tribal forces, while using educated Persians in their bureaucracy.” In 1779, following the death of Mohammad Karim Khan Zand, the Zand dynasty ruler of southern Persia, Agha Mohammad Khan, the leader of the Qajar tribe, set out to reunify Iran. Agha Mohammad Khan was castrated in his childhood by the enemies of his father and was one of the cruelest kings even by the eighteenth century Iranian standards. In his quest for power, he razed cities, massacred entire populations, and in an act of singular cruelty blinded some 20,000 men in the city of Kerman solely because the local populace had chosen to defend the city against his siege.
The Qajar armies were composed of a small Turkoman bodyguard and Georgian slaves, and by 1794, Agha Mohammad Khan had eliminated all his rivals, including Lotf ‘Ali Khan, the last of the Zand dynasty, and had reestablished Iranian control over the territories in the Caucasus. Agha Mohammad established his capital at Tehran, a village near the ruins of the ancient city of Rayy. In 1796, he was formally crowned as shah. Agha Mohammad was assassinated in 1797, in Shusha, the capital of Karabakh khanate, and was succeeded by his nephew, Fath Ali Shah Qajar.
War with Russia
In 1803, under Fath Ali Shah, Qajars set out to fight against Russian Empire, in what was known as Russo-Persian War of 1804-1813, due to concerns about the Russian expansion into Caucasus which was an Iranian domain, although some of the Khanates of the Caucasus were considered independent or semi-independent by the time of Russian expansion in nineteenth century. Fisher explains: “Even when rulers on the plateau lacked the means to effect suzerainty beyond the Aras, the neighboring Khanates were still regarded as ‘Iranian dependencies’.” Naturally, it was those Khanates located closest to the province of Azarbaijan which most frequently experienced attempts to re-impose Iranian “suzerainty:” The Khanates of Erivan, Nakhchivan and Qarabagh across the Aras, and the cis-Aras Khanate of Talish, with its administrative headquarters located at Lankaran and therefore very vulnerable to pressure, either from the direction of Tabriz or Rasht. Beyond the Khanate of Qarabagh, “the Khan of Ganja'” and the Vali of Gurjistan (ruler of the Kartli-Kakheti kingdom of south-east Georgia), although less accessible for purposes of coercion, “were also regarded as the Shah’s vassals,” “as were the Khans of Shakki and Shirvan, north of the Kura river.” The contacts between Iran and the Khanates of Baku and Qubba, however, were more tenuous and consisted mainly of maritime commercial links with Anzali and Rasht. The effectiveness of these somewhat haphazard assertions of suzerainty depended on the ability of a particular Shah to make his will felt, and the determination of the local khans to evade obligations they regarded as onerous,” this period marked the first major economic and military encroachments on Iranian interests during the colonial era. Qajar army suffered a major military defeat in the war and under the terms of the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813, Iran recognized Russian annexation of Georgia and most of the Caucasus region. The Russo-Persian War (1826-1828) ended even more disastrously for Qajar Iran with temporary occupation of Tabriz and the signing of Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828, acknowledging Russian sovereignty over the entire South Caucasus, the area north of the Aras River.
Fath Ali Shah’s reign saw increased diplomatic contacts with the West and the beginning of intense European diplomatic rivalries over Iran. Iran’s strategic location was of interest to the Russians and British especially. For the Russians, it lay to the South of existing territory which could be expanded to open up additional access to the sea. For the British, the region was part of their gate-way to India. Iran was a major venue for the “great game.” Fath Ali Shah’s grandson Mohammad Shah, who fell under the Russian influence and made two unsuccessful attempts to capture Herat, succeeded him in 1834. When Mohammad Shah died in 1848, the succession passed to his son Nasser-e-Din, who proved to be the ablest and most successful of the Qajar sovereigns.
Era of Development and Decline
During Nasser-e-Din Shah’s reign Western science, technology, and educational methods were introduced into Iran and the country’s modernization was begun. Nasser ed-Din Shah tried to exploit the mutual distrust between Great Britain and Russia to preserve Iran’s independence, but foreign interference and territorial encroachment increased under his rule. He contracted foreign loans to finance expensive trips to Europe. These trips were part of a strategy to put Iran on the map as an independent, ancient but civilized state. Although the trips in this field were rather successful, he was not able to prevent Britain and Russia from encroaching into regions of traditional Persian influence. In 1856, during the Anglo-Persian War, Britain prevented Iran from reasserting control over Herat. The city had been part of Iran in Safavid times, but Herat had been under non-Persian rule since the mid-eighteenth century. Britain supported the city’s incorporation into Afghanistan and, when the war ended in 1857, it was. In large part, Afghanistan was created by Britain in order to extend eastward the buffer between its Indian territories and Russia’s expanding empire. Britain also extended its control to other areas of the Persian Gulf during the nineteenth century through treaties with the rulers of what are now the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, by 1881, Russia had completed its conquest of present-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, bringing Russia’s frontier to Iran’s northeastern borders and severing historic Persian ties to the cities of Bukhara and Samarqand. Several trade concessions by the Iranian government put economic affairs largely under British control. By the late 19th century, many Iranians believed that their rulers were beholden to foreign interests. In fact, through the sale of concessions, the customs service was run by the Belgians with the revenue being used to pay off debts, the police were run by the Swedes, the telegraph service by the British, while between them the Russians, Britons and Turks ran the banks. Britain printed the currency. No decision was made without the consent of the British and Russian ambassadors.
Mirza Taghi Khan Amir Kabir was the young prince Nasser-e-Din’s adviser and constable. With the death of Mohammad Shah in 1848, Mirza Taqi was largely responsible for ensuring the crown prince’s succession to the throne. When Nasser ed-Din succeeded to the throne, Amir Nezam was awarded the position of prime minister and the title of Amir Kabir, the Great Ruler.
At that time, Iran was nearly bankrupt. During the next two and a half years Amir Kabir initiated important reforms in virtually all sectors of society. Government expenditure was slashed, and a distinction was made between the private and public purses. The instruments of central administration were overhauled, and Amir Kabir assumed responsibility for all areas of the bureaucracy. Foreign interference in Iran’s domestic affairs was curtailed, and foreign trade was encouraged. Public works such as the bazaar in Tehran were undertaken. Amir Kabir issued an edict banning ornate and excessively formal writing in government documents; the beginning of a modern Persian prose style dates from this time.
One of the greatest achievements of Amir Kabir was the building of Dar ol Fonoon, the first modern university in Iran and the Middle East. Dar-ol-Fonoon was established for training a new cadre of administrators and acquainting them with Western techniques. Amir Kabir ordered the school to be built on the edge of the city so it can be expanded as needed. He hired French and Russian instructors as well as Persians to teach subjects as different as Language, Medicine, Law, Geography, History, Economics, and Engineering. Unfortunately, Amir Kabir did not live long enough to see his greatest monument completed, but it still stands in Tehran as a sign of a great man’s ideas for the future of his country.
These reforms antagonized various notables who had been excluded from the government. They regarded the Amir Kabir as a social upstart and a threat to their interests, and they formed a coalition against him, in which the queen mother was active. She convinced the young shah that Amir Kabir wanted to usurp the throne. In October 1851, the shah dismissed him and exiled him to Kashan, where he was murdered on the shah’s orders. Through his marriage to Ezzat od-Doleh, Amir Kabir had been the brother-in-law of the shah.
The Constitutional Revolution
When Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar was assassinated by Mirza Reza Kermani in 1896, the crown passed to his son Mozaffar-e-din. Mozaffar-e-din Shah was a moderate and kind, but also not a very effective ruler. Royal extravagance and the absence of incoming revenues exacerbated financial problems. The shah quickly spent two large loans from Russia, partly on trips to Europe. Public anger fed on the shah’s propensity for granting concessions to Europeans in return for generous payments to him and his officials. People began to demand a curb on royal authority and the establishment of the rule of law as their concern over foreign, and especially Russian, influence grew.
The shah’s failure to respond to protests by the religious establishment, the merchants, and other classes led the merchants and clerical leaders in January 1906 to take sanctuary from probable arrest in mosques in Tehran and outside the capital. When the shah reneged on a promise to permit the establishment of a “house of justice,” or consultative assembly, 10,000 people, led by the merchants, took sanctuary in June in the compound of the British legation in Tehran. In August the shah, through the issue of a decree promised a constitution. In October an elected assembly convened and drew up a constitution that provided for strict limitations on royal power, an elected parliament, or Majlis, with wide powers to represent the people, and a government with a cabinet subject to confirmation by the Majles. The shah signed the constitution on December 30, 1906, but refusing to forfeit all of his power to the Majlis, attached a caveat that made his signature on all laws required for their enactment. He died five days later. The Supplementary Fundamental Laws approved in 1907 provided, within limits, for freedom of press, speech, and association, and for security of life and property. The Constitutional Revolution marked the end of the medieval period in Iran. The hopes for constitutional rule were not realized, however.
Mozaffar-e-din Shah’s son Mohammad Ali Shah (reigned 1907-09), who, through his mother, was also the grandson of Prime-Minister Amir Kabir (see before), with the aid of Russia, attempted to rescind the constitution and abolish parliamentary government. After several disputes with the members of the Majlis, in June 1908, he used his Russian-officered Persian Cossacks Brigade to bomb the Majlis building, arrest many of the deputies, and close down the assembly. Resistance to the shah, however, coalesced in Tabriz, Isfahan, Rasht, and elsewhere. In July 1909, constitutional forces marched from Rasht and Isfahan to Tehran, deposed the shah, and re-established the constitution. The ex-shah went into exile in Russia.
Although the constitutional forces had triumphed, they faced serious difficulties. The upheavals of the Constitutional Revolution and civil war had undermined stability and trade. In addition, the ex-shah, with Russian support, attempted to regain his throne, landing troops in July 1910. Most serious of all, the hope that the Constitutional Revolution would inaugurate a new era of independence from the great powers ended when, under the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, Britain and Russia divided Iran into spheres of influence. The Russians were to enjoy exclusive right to pursue their interests in the northern sphere, the British in the south and east; both powers would be free to compete for economic and political advantage in a neutral sphere in the center. Matters came to a head when Morgan Shuster (also spelled Schuster), a United States administrator hired as treasurer general by the Persian government to reform its finances, sought to collect taxes from powerful officials who were Russian protégés and to send members of the treasury police into the Russian zone. When in December 1911 the Majlis unanimously refused a Russian ultimatum demanding Shuster’s dismissal, Russian troops, already in the country, moved to occupy the capital. To prevent this, on December 20, Bakhtiari chiefs and their troops surrounded the Majlis building, forced acceptance of the Russian ultimatum, and shut down the assembly, once again suspending the constitution.
Fall of the Dynasty
Soltan Ahmad Shah, was born January 21, 1898, in Tabriz, and succeeded to the throne at age 11. However, the occupation of Persia during World War I (1914-18) by Russian, British, and Ottoman troops was a blow from which Ahmad Shah never effectively recovered. With a coup d’état in February 1921, Reza Khan (ruled as Reza Shah Pahlavi, 1925-41) became the preeminent political personality in Persia; Ahmad Shah left Persia in 1923 for Europe, never to return. Under pressure from Reza Khan, he was deposed by the Majlis (national consultative assembly) in October 1925 while in Europe, and that assembly declared the rule of the Qajar dynasty to be terminated. Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq later Prime Minister of Iran was one of the few deputies who dared to protest against this illegal act. Soltan Ahmad Shah died later on February 21, 1930, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. Reza Shah could never rule without the Majlis but throughout his reign abrogated more power for himself, manipulating or side-lining the political leadership. In this, though, he can be said to have copied the example of the British and Russia, who even in the 1940s would present him with a list of approved candidates. According to Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the great powers “controlled elections” to parliament and “knew how to manipulate Iranian politics” to achieve their goals, which invariably pushed Iran’s “economy into even deeper trouble.” Tension between pro-democratic forces, authoritarianism and those who wanted a more Islamic system continued during the Pahlavi period. In 1953, when the Shah had fled the country due to serious differences with the Prime Minister, Mohammed Mosaddeq over his plan to nationalize the oil industry, the democratically elected government was overthrown with British and U.S. connivance. His dynasty fell in 1979, when the Islamic Revolution led by Ruhollah Khomeini swept into power, arguing that Iran should be governed by Islamic principles. From the beginning of agitation for constitutional government, some religious leaders thought that this was yet another example of Western, non-Muslim influence in Iran that did not fit with the country’s distinctive cultural and religious identity and tradition. Perceptions that foreigners wielded too much influence in Iran still informs popular opinion.
The way in which the great powers played out their “game” in Iran under the Qajars (and under their successors) has similarities with some of the interventions of the Cold War. During the cold war, many proxy wars were waged in other people’s countries with little regard for the impact these had on their population, which were even seen as expendable. Covert and often explicit support for regimes perceived as anti-communist often propped up authoritarian regimes. Intervention in other nations may be necessary, at times, for the preservation of global peace but needs to be carefully planned and carried out with some awareness of what the consequences will be.
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Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 06.18.2015, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.