Today in Middle Eastern history: the 1921 Iranian coup

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The fall of imperial Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution should have been good news for Iran’s Qajar dynasty, which had fought three wars with Russia and lost much of its Caucasian territory in the process. But instead of eliminating a serious rival, the events of 1917 upset the delicate balance of power inside Iran and eventually led to the Qajars’ overthrow.

Russia and Britain had dominated Iranian affairs (first as rivals, then as allies) for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries, until the 1917 revolution removed Russia from the equation. Would the Qajar monarchy, crippled by internal dissension and by the infantilizing effects of having two hegemonic powers controlling their affairs for over a century, finally have a chance to reassert itself? Sadly, no! Unfortunately for Ahmad Shah Qajar (d. 1930), while Russia was no longer an issue Britain wasn’t going anywhere. British officials “negotiated” (though it wasn’t exactly a fair negotiation between equals) the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 with the hapless Iranians, which stipulated British rights over all of Iran’s oil fields in return for British military, infrastructure, and financial aid. It was a terrible deal for the Iranians, criticized both within Iran and internationally, but Ahmad Shah had little choice but to accept it.

The popular backlash to that hated 1919 agreement helped seed the development of Iranian nationalism. Iranian elites had already begun to embrace nationalist sentiments before this, but now the feeling began to permeate, largely through popular literature, to the Iranian people at large.

Nationalism often needs some “foreign” occupier or enemy to react against (see: all of 19th century Ottoman history), and in this case the Iranian people had their pick of occupier. Of course there was Britain, which had by this point colonized Iran in all but name. But there was also the ruling dynasty itself. The Qajars were Turkic, the latest in a long line of non-Iranian dynasties ruling over Iran, and while that hadn’t been much of an issue previously, the rise of Iranian nationalism made it one. There’s even some literature from this period (and later) that expresses regret for the Arab conquest of Iran way back in the 7th century. Considering that it was the Arab conquest that brought Islam to Iran, and considering how central Islam has become to the Iranian identity, the existence of this literary genre shows just how how deep feelings of Iranian nationalism could run. Relations between the Qajars and London deteriorated as the Qajars considered rebelling against British control and as British officials considered dumping the Qajars in an effort to appeal to the Iranian people.

Enter the Bolsheviks. As they gained the upper hand in the Russian civil war, they saw British-dominated Iran as a problem, insofar as the Brits kept using Iran as a staging ground to interfere in Russian affairs. London certainly wasn’t above sending aid to a local revolt here or there, and it actually sent an army via Iran to Baku, Azerbaijan, to try to keep the oil fields there out of both Ottoman and Bolshevik hands (the ensuing 1918 Battle of Baku, if you're wondering, was an Ottoman victory). So in May 1920 an amphibious Russian force landed at Anzali, an Iranian Caspian Sea port, and quickly established the “Soviet Republic of Gilan” on the southwestern Caspian shore, based in the city of Rasht. Their ultimate objective was to march on Tehran.

The British military performance in the face of this Russian incursion—their North Persian Force had retreated immediately rather than risk a confrontation—thoroughly discredited the 1919 agreement (which was as a result never ratified by the Iranian parliament). London now had to fear losing Iran completely, either to a Russian conquest or a diplomatic rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow. The commander of Britain’s North Persian Force, General Edmund Ironside, and the British minister to Iran, Herbert Norman, decided that a military coup was the only way to stabilize the country and protect British interests in the process. As the vector for their intentions they settled on the Cossack Brigade, which ironically had been created by Russian officers in the 1870s as a gift from Moscow to Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (d. 1896), and which at this point was the only capable Iranian fighting force in the entire country.

Working through two sympathetic Iranian agents—journalist Ziaʾeddin Tabatabaee in Tehran and Colonel Reza Khan, whom Ironside appointed to command the Cossack Brigade—the two Brits put a plan in motion to topple the Iranian government and install a new cabinet. Though it ultimately proved to be the end of the Qajar Dynasty, at the time the goal was just to replace the government and leave the monarchy intact. Reza and the Cossacks met almost no resistance marching into Tehran, apart from a few police officers, and forced Ahmad Shah to appoint a new cabinet with Tabatabaee as prime minister. Reza made sure that he was named commander in chief of the Iranian army and minister of war—a pretty easy feat considering it was his army occupying the capital. Tabatabaee became PM mostly because Ironside and Norman wanted it that way, but in assuming total control over the Iranian military Reza Khan had become unquestionably the most powerful man in Iran, and he didn’t plan on staying minister of war forever.

The new government’s first order of business was to sign a treaty of friendship with the Russians that assuaged Moscow’s concerns and led it to drop its support for the Gilan Republic. So that was one problem solved. But a new and more serious problem cropped up when it turned out that the British government back in London didn’t actually support the coup. The entire operation had really been the brainchild of Ironside and Norman, without the input of Britain’s foreign secretary, George Curzon. Lord Curzon had little interest in helping the new government in any material way, and when Tabatabaee abrogated the still-unratified 1919 agreement by negotiating a treaty with Moscow, he lost whatever British support he’d had. Reza used this row to eliminate his one rival for political supremacy. He positioned himself as Ahmad Shah’s closest adviser, and at his urging (and after Britain had pulled its forces out of Iran), the Shah canned Tabatabaee in May and replaced him with the former governor of Khurasan, Ahmad Qavam. If hadn’t already been clear that Reza Khan was in charge, it was now.

Reza spent the next two years outside of Tehran, putting down internal revolts that had sprung up around Iran in the aftermath of the coup, while government after government rose and fell in the chaotic capital. In October 1923 he ended the charade and made Ahmad Shah appoint him prime minister. At the same time, Ahmad left for Europe, for, uh, “health reasons.” And to be fair, “my prime minister is probably going to kill me” could technically be called a health issue. Although he remained the ruler of Iran on paper, he never returned. In December 1925, the Iranian parliament formally ended Ahmad Shah’s reign, along with the entire Qajar dynasty, and crowned Reza Khan (thence known as Reza Shah Pahlavi) as Iran’s new ruler.