After Agha Mohammad fell, his army disintegrated and several months of infighting followed among the Qajar princes. Finally, his nephew was crowned as Fatah-Ali Shah, in 1798, whose only Fatah (victory) was over several hundred wives and concubines.
The 35 years of Fatah-Ali Shah’s reign witnessed a gradual decline of Qajar dynasty, who started the nineteenth century like blood-thirsty wolves, but finished it like frail rats. The crippling blow came in the form of Persian-Russian wars. In 1800, incapable of protecting his people against the Qajar invasions, the king of Georgia simply relinquished his crown to the Tsar of Russia! This initiated 14 years of war that coincided with the Napoleonic wars in Europe.
As Napoleon invaded Russia and even captured Moscow, the tide of war temporarily turned in favour of the Iranians (lead by the crown price Abbas Mirza). However, the Russian people united against the invading French army, and aided by their severe winter conditions, defeated Napoleon and achieved supremacy in Eastern Europe. The Russian morale and troop surge reached the Persian front in 1814 and severely defeated the Qajars, forcing them to accept an undignified peace treaty (Golestan). A similar defeat followed in 1826, as the Qajar crown prince again fought with the Russians, leading to the even more ignominious treaty of Turkmenchi, which annexed all of the Armenia and the Caspian Sea, and half of the Azerbaijan to Russia.
In 1834, after Fatah-Ali Shah’s passing, Abbas Mirza’s son was crowned as Mohammad Shah. The new Shah soon fought with both his vizier (Ghaem Maugham) and his mentors (the British). He tortured and killed the learned vizier and invaded the British allies in Afghanistan, which both were shameful and unnecessary bloodletting.
After Mohammad Shah’s passing in 1848, his young crown prince became Nasser-al-din Shah, whose reign lasted for just short of 50 years. The new shah started with dramatic reforms and improvements, led by his energetic and popular vizier (Amir Kabir). Unfortunately, the corrupt Qajar court led by the Shah’s mother were hurt by the reforms and vigorously conspired against Amir Kabir, and finally toppled him after two years of relentless scheming.
At the same time, there was a religious uprising in most Persian cities, which threatened to curtail the power of mullahs and the brutal Qajar princes. After an unsuccessful coup attempt though, the Baha’i uprising was brutally suppressed by the Shia masses and the Qajar forces, resulting in the torturous death of most leaders and the exile of the rest. The Baha’i faith maintained a dissident underground existence in Iran, but was unable to convince the Shia of their founder’s incredible claim to have been the promised Mahdi or his gateway (Baub).
After ten years of religious struggles and remorse over the unjust execution of Amir Kabir, Nasser-al-din Shah agreed to another attempt at reforming the backward state of Persia, this time under a new vizier (Moshir-al-doleh). Like Amir Kabir, the new vizier had learned the basics of European style reforms, while serving as emissary in Moscow and Baghdad. Influenced by the British supported reforms in the Ottoman Empire, he enlisted the help of many Western minded intellectuals to move the country’s affairs away from backwardness and ignorance.
To avoid Amir Kabir’s macabre faith, Moshir-al-doleh followed a much more conservative path. He both tried to enlighten the Shah by taking him to a European tour of the advanced countries, and pursued foreign investments through granting industrial concessions. Unfortunately, both of the Moshir-al-doleh initiatives (although started with honest intensions) resulted in harmful consequences.
Shah loved the worldly pleasures of Europe so much that he became addicted to more glamorous trips. In addition, the corrupt Qajar court discovered the delicious art of peddling various concessions for the foreign nationals, and receiving their sweetener. Therefore, in 1874 the reformer vizier was replaced with a more “amusing” character, who instead of tiring industrial tours, could arrange a lot more attractive programs in Paris!
The deluge of foreign concessions caused an added economic hardship for the general populace of Persia, who now had to pay for the added taxes and tariffs associated with those activities. This resulted in a number of riots and uprisings, most notably the so called tobacco obstruction. The popular movement against unfair tobacco levies, united the few modernist intellectuals with the more numerous reform-minded clergies, whose alliance successfully engaged the Shah and forced him to cancel the very unpopular tobacco concession, in 1891.
After nearly 50 years of Nasser-al-din Shah’s reign, the Iranians were probably better off than before. But they were much more discontent; as many could now read in the sprouting newspapers about the amazing advances in Europe (both technologically and democratically) and even some Asian nations (like Japan). But Shah was unreceptive towards further reforms and afraid of the few young school graduates and the enlightened clergy. Hence, instead of cheering up for his bicentennial, a disgruntled intellectual shot the Shah to death, while on a religious pilgrimage!
In 1896, the Qajar crown prince replaced his martyred father and was crowned as Mozafar-al-din Shah. The new king was old and sickly, but still craved similar glamorous visits to Paris. Hence, he too granted many wide ranging concessions to finance his lavish sojourns. One of them was for the exploration and production of petroleum in Southern Iran (for 60 years) that went to a British citizen, for the payment of 40,000 pounds and 16% of the profit. When the unlucky entrepreneur ran out of funds before striking oil, the British government bought his concession cheaply, and soon built a most lucrative industry out of that dark and smelly fluid!
Reference: Persia in the Great Game, by A. Wynn
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