The Strangling of Persia: A Story of European Diplomacy and Oriental Intrigue
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The Strangling of Persia: A Story of European Diplomacy and Oriental Intrigue

Published Date: April 10, 2014

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About the Book

In 1911, an ambitious American was invited by a budding Iranian democracy to bring financial stability to the country. He went with the blessing of the British and Russian governments, both of which enjoyed a wide sphere of influence in the region. However, no one expected him to succeed so quickly in making Iran into a credible democracy and he was ousted by the actions of the Russian and British governments. After he was forced to return to the US, Shuster wrote a book revealing the true motives of the superpowers of the time and how the region’s course of history was forever altered. Strangling of Persia offers keen insights into the timeless methods used by powerful nations to achieve their own ends. More than 85 years after its’ first publication, it remains a powerful indictment of a short-sighted policy that crushed a fragile but promising democracy.


Note: This book was orginally published in 1912 by The Century Company.


“A new edition of the 1912 work by the American appointed in 1911 by the newly (and briefly) constitutional government of Persia to help organize its finances. “Ejected” only a year later as a result of “British and Russian diplomatic intrigue,” Shuster wrote a lively firsthand account of his experiences that reveals much about how Great Power interference shaped Iran’s history, with considerable reference to recent and current events.”

–Middle East Journal


“Outside Iran, hardly anyone recalls W. Morgan Shuster, or the 1907 Anglo-Russian agreement. Yet what happened then helps explain how Russia was shut out of the Persian Gulf and why Iranians behave as they do today. Before that pact, Iranians looked upon Russia as a traditional enemy and Britain as a well-meaning friend. Britain had aimed to keep all rivals, especially Russia, away from approaches to India, notably the Persian Gulf. The gulf was virtually a British lake, charted, mapped and cleared of pirated by the British Navy… Hardly had he arrived when Shuster became embroiled in a dispute with Russia over customs policy. He asked for, and was given, plenary powers, by Iran’s national assembly. Czarist armies were soon marching on Tehran, demanding Shuster’s removal. An embarrassed Britain, citing the 1907 pact, came to Russia’s support. Shuster departed but then wrote a forceful book, The Strangling of Persia.

–The New York Times


From the Introduction

There are several peculiar features about writing any detailed account of the recent political events in Persia which make necessary some slight explanation.


The first point is that Persian political affairs, fraught as they are with misfortune and misery for millions of innocent people, are conducted very much as a well-staged drama-I have heard some critics say, as an opera bouffe. The reader will find the same old characters weaving in and out of the story, at one time wearing the make-up of a Royalist Minister, at another the garb of a popular patriot. Cabinets are formed and dissolved with unreal rapidity. Men high in the councils of the nation sink in a day into perfect obscurity,-only to emerge again as the ceaseless whirl of intrigue drags them into public favor. All these men belong to what may be described as the professional governing class in Persia, and there is very distinctly such a class. Indeed it is only in recent years that the idea has been even admissible that a man of mediocre parentage, or without a title, could fill any official position. Thus the fortunes and hopes of millions of voiceless subjects are largely dependent upon the line of action which some professional cabinet officer, or governor, or self-styled general may decide to adopt at a given time. Couple with this the fact that the principal object of holding office has always been, with slight exception, to enrich oneself and one ‘s friends, and the strange actions of Persian personages become somewhat clearer.


A proper understanding of the character, motives and type of some of these men, whose personal actions and motives have played such a large part in Persia’s recent political happenings, is essential to the correct reading of her history.

Another feature which is very puzzling to the uninitiated is the-to foreigners-absurdly complicated system of names and titles. Ordinary Persians have merely names, yet I have known but few who did not possess some form of title, and the failure to know or recognize a man’s title is not easily overlooked.


Imagine a gentleman in American political life deciding that he would adopt and wear the title of ” Marshal of the Marshals,” or “Unique One of the Kingdom,” or “Fortune of the State. ” Having duly taken such a title, and obtained some form of parchment certifying to his ownership, he drops his real name and is thereafter known by his high-sounding title. It is rather difficult for foreigners to remember these appellations, especially as a great many of them end with one of the four words Mulk (kingdom), Dawla (state), Saltana (sovereignty), or Sultan (sovereign).


The present Regent was formerly known only by his title of Nasiru’l-Mulk (The Helper of the Kingdom), but since he has become Regent he is also referred to by another title, that of Naibu’s-Saltana, or ” Assistant of the Sovereignty.”


Still another difficulty is in spelling with Roman characters these names and titles. Half a dozen people are apt to write a Persian name in six different ways. Thus, one of the prominent Persian cabinet officers during the past year writes his own title in English as Vossough-ed-Dotleh; others write it Vossuke-Dowleh; while Professor E. G. Browne, of Cambridge University, and a most distinguished Persian scholar, transcribes this title as Wuthuqu’d-Dawla.


To avoid confusion the writer has deemed it best to follow, so far as possible, the method of spelling these names and titles which has been adopted by Professor Browne in his various writings on Persian history.


Most readers are more familiar with ancient Persian history than with modern events in that strange land. The purpose of this book is not historical in any but a very limited sense, and the following brief resume of the Persian Risorgimento, or revolutionary movement, which resulted in what may be termed the establishment of a constitutional monarchy on August 5, 1906, during the reign of Muzaffaru’d-Din Shah, is given only that the more recent political events which are narrated herein, and in which the writer had some part, may be better understood.


During the past generation the most striking evidence of the power and desire of the Persian people to have even a small voice in their public affairs was the remarkable prohibition on the use of tobacco proclaimed by the Islamic clergy and immediately obeyed by the people when, in 1891, the famous Tobacco Concession was actually put into force. The previous year Nasiru’d-Din Shah Qajar had granted to a British corporation in London a monopolistic concession for the entire handling buying and selling of all tobacco raised in Persia. The corporation was capitalized at £650,000, and was expected to make an annual profit of about £500,000. One quarter of the profits was to go to the Persian government, which meant to the Shah and his ministers and court.


Even the long-suffering Persians had grown tired of this wholesale selling of their rights and industries, and in December, 1891, as a result of a religious decree, all the tobacco-shops closed their doors, the people destroyed or put away their waterpipes, and in a marvelously short time the use of tobacco practically ceased. This agitation did not stop until the Shah had been forced to rescind the Concession, after agreeing to pay the British corporation an indemnity of £500,000, which was borrowed by the Persian Government at 6%o, thus arbitrarily fastening upon the people an annual interest charge of £30,000, for which they received no tangible return.


Nasiru’d-Din Shah, who had ascended the throne on September 20, 1848, was shot on May 1, 1896, after nearly fifty years of power. His assassin was a fanatic named Mirza Muhammad Riza, of the city of Kirman, and the motive, though never clearly established, was not unconnected with the general belief that the rights of Persia were being rapidly sold out to foreigners.


The Crown Prince, Muzaffaru’d-Din Shah Qajar, was made Shah on June 8, 1896, and reigned until January 4, 1907, when he died. Some six months before his death the Persian people, whose discontent with the tyranny of their rulers had been constantly increasing, commenced an open agitation for the granting of a constitution, and in July, 1906, by a measure which was as remarkable as it was successful, they brought about this result.


Some 16,000 people of Teheran, from all walks in life, after being exhorted by the Mullahs or priests, took refuge or sanctuary-bast it is called in Persia-in the vast compound of the British Legation, and in the mosques and other sacred places. The crowds gathered there in the utmost good order; they established their commissariat and sanitary arrangements, and by these purely passive measures succeeded in compelling the Shah to dismiss an obnoxious minister, the Aynu’d-Dawla, and to grant them a code of laws or constitution. After various attempts to break up this peculiar form of resistance, the Shah and his government were compelled to yield, partly through the strange humiliation which the adoption of this course by the people conveys to the minds of the Persian governing class against whom it may be directed, and partly through fear of further and more active measures of opposition. On August 5, 1906, the so-called constitution was granted and the people resumed their homes and ordinary avocations.


Thus, by an almost bloodless revolution, the centuries-old absolutism of the Persian monarchs had been legally modified by constitutional forms, imperfect in many respects as they were, and, what was even more important, the people had learned something of their real power and were more determined than ever to save their nation from the straight road to disintegration and decay along which it had been for generations skillfully piloted by its hereditary rulers.


The principal modification in the Shah ‘s absolute power obtained by this revolutionary action was the right of the people to have a Medjlis, or national elective assembly, which should have a voice in the selection of ministers and in the framing of laws- After many negotiations and even a second bast, commenced in the British Legation grounds early in September, 1906, the actual elections took place during the first days of October, and on the 7th of that month, without awaiting the arrival of the deputies from the provinces, the first Medjlis was opened at Teheran, and a speech from the throne was read.


At the death of Muzaffaru’d-Din Shah, on January 4, 1907, he was succeeded by the Crown Prince, Muhammad Ali Mirza, who had been at Tabriz, governing the rich and important province of Azarbayjan. This infamous individual arrived at Teheran on December 17, 1906, the Shah being very ill, and was crowned on January 19, 1907, having previously pledged himself to observe the constitution and rights granted by his father.


Muhammad Ali Shah Qajar was perhaps the most perverted, cowardly, and vice-sodden monster that had disgraced the throne of Persia in many generations. He hated and despised his subjects from the beginning of his career, and from having a notorious scoundrel for his Russian tutor, he easily became the avowed tool and satrap of the Russian Government and its agent in Persia for stamping out the rights of the people.


The reign of Muhammad Ali Shah started out most inauspiciously. He began by ignoring the Medjlis and mutual suspicions and open dissensions became the rule. The Medjlis proposed to exercise some of its hard-won authority, while the 03hah with his favorites, thoroughly reactionary ministers and court party, was equally determined to wield all that old arbitrary and cruelly oppressive power for which the House of Qajar has been notorious. He intrigued with Russian emissaries against his own people, and actually contracted with Russia and England for a secret loan of £400,000, to be squandered by himself, though the arrangement was shortly afterwards discovered and balked by the mullahs and the Medjlis.


The deputies of the Medjlis were becoming more and more convinced that the Shah and his party regarded them as enemies to his plans, and they determined to assert their strength to bring about the reforms which were most urgently needed. They particularly desired to prevent any further loans from Russia and England, as they had come to regard the rapidly increasing foreign indebtedness of the Persian nation as a source of danger to her independence and safety. They sought therefore to limit the Shah’s expenditures for his court and civil list, to diminish the rampant fraud and corruption in the system of farming out the taxes to the Shah’s favorites, and to put an end to the malign influence of a certain Mons. Naus, a Belgian who, with a number of his countrymen, had been employed for some years to organize the Persian Customs, and who had succeeded in acquiring a large fortune and in establishing himself as a political and financial power of the most baleful description. The Medjlis also planned to establish a national bank, to be capitalized with money raised from internal subscriptions, in order that their dependence on foreign financial assistance might be lessened.


On February 10, 1907, the Shah was compelled to dismiss Mons. Naus, and this one achievement vastly increased the prestige of the Medjlis with the people.


The Shah now decided to invite the famous Aminu’s-Sultan (also known as Atabak-i-Azam) to return to Persia and resume the post of Prime Minister. This grandee, the Atabak, is perhaps the strongest figure in recent Persian history. Of unusually broad European education, widely traveled, but thoroughly despotic and corrupt, he had been condemned by the mullahs for his dishonest participation in the two Russian loans to Persia of 1899-1900 and 1902, and had been forced into exile in 1903. When his consent to return became known, the Russian Government lost no time in resuming warm relations with him, and he was conveyed across the Caspian to the Persian port of Enzeli in a Russian gunboat, with the highest official honors. When he landed, the people of Resht, the capital of the province, compelled him to swear fidelity to the Constitution before permitting him to continue on his journey to Teheran.


On reaching Teheran, the 26th of April, the Atabak found a state of disorder and chaos in every department of the government. The treasury was in its normally void condition and there were uprisings and disturbances throughout the entire Empire. The Medjlis knew more or less what should be done, but the Shah was determined that they should do nothing unless to carry out his own plans. The people of Isfahan had already revolted against the rule of the Shah’s uncle, the Zillu’s-Sultan; the city of Tabriz was in a ferment, and in June that Persian ” madcap,” Prince Salaru’d-Dawla, brother to the Shah, openly revolted in the district of Hamadan and proclaimed his intention to seize the throne at Teheran. After a three days’ fight with the Shah’s forces at Nihawand, he was defeated and captured in June, 1907.


Matters went from bad to worse, and during the month of August, Russia, which had never been content with the establishment of a constitutional regime in Persia, began to threaten the Medjlis with intervention. Troubles with Turkey also arose, and an army of 6,000 Turkish troops crossed the northwestern Turco-Persian frontier, and after occupying a number of Persian towns, actually threatened the city of Urmiah.


All this time the Atabak had been working to bring about another Russian loan, though he was afraid to contract the same without the approval of the Medjlis. By the end of August he had almost succeeded in winning over to his project a majority of the deputies when, on August 31, he was shot and killed, as he was coming out of the Assembly building, by a young man named Abbas Aqa, of Tabriz, who immediately committed suicide. This youth was a member of one of the numerous anjumans or secret political societies which had sprung up in great numbers, and his undoubted motive was the, to him, patriotic idea of saving the constitutional government from ruin and betrayal at the hands of the clever and intriguing prime minister, whom he considered a traitor.


The assassination of the great Atabak was taken as positive evidence of the existence of a large body of men who had sworn to uphold the Constitution and to remove all those who opposed its representatives, even at the cost of torture and a felon’s death.


A period of great confusion followed, during which the Shah and Medjlis were unable to agree on a cabinet, until towards the end of October, 1907, Nasiru’l-Mulk (now the Regent of Persia) succeeded in doing so. Most of the members of this cabinet were believed to be favorable to the Constitution. They remained in the office until December, when they resigned.


On August 31, 1907, the so-called Anglo-Russian Convention had been signed at St. Petersburg between England and Russia. On September 4 it was made public at Teheran, and despite its carefully worded assurances of respect for the integrity and independence of Persia, this famous document produced a most painful impression on the Persian people.

About the Author

W. Morgan Shuster(1877-1960) was a lawyer from Washington, DC who had previously served as Collector of Customs in Cuba, and later in the Philippines as Advisor on Customs and Immigration and a member of the Supreme U.S. governing body. In 1910, the Iranian Minister in Washington asked the U.S. Government for assistance in finding a financial advisor. Shuster was recommended and went on to serve for the duration of 1911 before being forced out at the end of the year. The following year The Strangling of Persia was published in the US and Britain.