Euro/American Influence in Modern Iran

From the later 19th Century and throughout the 20th Century, Iranian social and political movements have been continually shaped by foreign influences. Though the nation was never formally colonized, both its state structures as well as its national identity have been heavily impacted by outside countries in numerous ways. Today, so invasive was the European and later American influence, that the history of modern Iran that it is difficult to imagine how the formation of the nation state would have gone differently had it been allowed to develop freed from these foreign presences. Indeed, the absolute rejection of the West by Iran’s leaders since the Islamic Revolution is difficult to fully comprehend without also understanding the breaches of national sovereignty and territorial integrity that Iran has suffered at the hands of Western states. 

The interference by these outsider nations driven by their own economic and resource interests raise many questions about the formation of the Iranian nation. For every event in which the foreign hand is apparent, we are left with an unsolvable historical counterfactual: what if? What if the British had not insisted on Tobacco concessions, which established both the precedent of the clerical resistance to the monarchy?[1] What if Reza Shah hadn’t based his cultural reforms based on an European model of modernization?[2] What if the British and the Americans hadn’t conspired to overthrow a popularly-elected and civic nationalist government, the first government that tried to rule Iran for Iranians?[3] These counterfactuals surrounding some of the most formative events of modern Iranian history all bear the impact of European and American influence. It is crucial to understand the ways in which foreign powers have affected Iran throughout its national identity formation in order to fully comprehend the foreign policy calculus of modern Iranian leadership. 

In this essay, I examine the ways in which foreign powers made Iran into a semi-colonial entity, and argue that the lasting effects of this quasi-colonialism are most pervasive where they are least visible: in Iranian society, culture, and identity. I will examine the influence of foreign powers in three separate time periods: the Qajar Empire, Iran under Reza Shah, and then under his son Mohammad Reza Shah before and after the coup of 1953. I conclude with a discussion of the ways in which the events and social movements of Iran’s recent history manifest in Iran’s modern international relations and national identity.

  1. The Qajar Empire: 

Colonial encroachment during the Qajar era was enacted primarily by two parties, Russia and Great Britain, and through three mechanisms: economic imperialism, territorial loss, and resource concessions. The threat of territorial loss posed by Russia and Britain led the Qajars to allow greater European influence, rather than engage or defend their subjects. During this time, Persia essentially became a buffer between the two great powers as the British sought to protect their colonials interests in India and the Russians followed an expansionist policy to balance British influence in the region.[4] The compromises made by the Qajars which continually favored the foreign powers is an important driver to increased demands by the people for greater political representation and economic freedom.

The first element of European encroachment during the Qajar era was the influence on the Iranian economy. During this time, the European powers treated Iran as it did its other colonized territories. They reshaped the Persian economy from one centered around subsistence farming to one centered around the production of cash crops which would fuel European industrialization.[5] Notably, the British utilized there sphere of influence in southern Iran to fuel their demand for opium.[6] These interactions quickly pushed Iran into the global market as European manufactured goods flooded into the Iranian market. The imposition of these foreign goods further alienated Iranian farmers and merchants from the Qajar leadership because it made it more difficult to earn their livelihood. 

Territorial loss was another important aspect of European influence during this period. The nonchalance with which the European powers took Iranian land left a deep mark on Iran because it demonstrated complete disregard for the empire’s territorial integrity. From the very beginning of the 1800s, the Russian Empire began struggling with Persia for control over territories near the Russo-Persian border. This led to two wars (1804-1813 and 1826-1828), both of which led to treaties that forced the Qajars to cede land to the Russians. The first of these treaties was the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813, which ceded to Russia a wide are of the eastern Caucasus.[7] The second was the Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828, which ceded remaining territories of the eastern Caucasus to the Russians, including the entire plain of Yerevan. The new border between Russia and Persia was established along the river Araks.[8] In both of these treaties, Iran was forced by Russia to sign due to military defeat. Together, these two treaties are widely regarded as the most humiliating treaties ever signed, and only increased the perception of Qajar incompetence. 

The third aspect of European encroachment during this time was economic concessions granted by the Qajar rulers for the rights to various resources in Iran. Due to widespread malfeasance and opulent lifestyles, the Qajar rulers were facing huge deficits by the late 19th Century. The most comprehensive economic concessions as granted in 1872 to Baron Julius de Reuter, a British notable. The Reuter concession granted him the rights to exploit natural resources and infrastructure, such as dams, bridges, roads, railways, and factories for seventy years.[9] Other concessions to exploit natural resources included licenses to Caspian fisheries, the Mazandaran forests, and to the mineral resources in the Qaracadag region of Azerbaijan. One of the most lasting and later extremely contentious concessions was for Iranian oil: in 1901, the Qajar rulers granted an Englishman named William Darcy the rights to natural gas and petroleum found on Persian territory. These rights would later be sold by Darcy to the British government, sparking the conflict between the Iranian and British governments that would ultimately be the driving cause of the infamous coup of 1953. A final concession whose significance to modern Iranian politics is difficult to overstate is the Tobacco concession, which eventually had to be repealed due to widespread protests, and that would establish the precedent of the ulama’s involvement and leadership in popular social and political movements. 

All in all, the Qajar era was one during which Persia was essentially treated by both Russia and Britain as a quasi-colony. Its lasting significance was in the reactions it provoked in the Iranian people, for whom the quest to throw off foreign influence would be central to political developments throughout the 20th Century. 

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[1] Abrahamian, Ervand. “‘Royal Despots’: State and Society under the Qajars.” In A History of Modern Iran, 8–33. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2019; Amanat, Abbas. “The Making of the Qajar Era (1797-1852).” Essay. In Iran: A Modern History, 179–247. Yale University Press, 2019. 

[2] Abrahamian, Ervand. “‘Royal Despots’: State and Society under the Qajars.” In A History of Modern Iran, 63-95. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2019

[3] Brew, Gregory, Robert Chesney, Max W. Smeets, Ben Buchanan, Fiona S. Cunningham, Jason Healey, and Robert Jervis. “The Collapse Narrative: The United States, Mohammed Mossadegh, and the Coup Decision of 1953.” Texas National Security Review, April 22, 2020.

[4] “Encyclopædia Iranica.” RSS. 

[5] Abrahamian, Ervand. “‘Royal Despots’: State and Society under the Qajars.” In A History of Modern Iran, 8–33.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Suren-Pahlav, Shapour. “Golestan (Gulistan) Treaty.” Golestan (Gulistan) Treaty - (CAIS). Accessed October 25, 2020. 

[8] Suren-Pahlav, Shapour. “Turkamanchai Treaty.” Torkman (Turkmanchai) Treaty - (CAIS). Accessed October 25, 2020. 

[9] Encyclopædia Iranica.