Iranian History - The Qajars
Between the death of Karim Khan in 1779 and the coronation of Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar in 1795, five Zand kings held power over a divided land. Tribes that had been submissive under Karim Khan rebelled against these weaker Zand kings and civil war ensued.
Agha Mohammad Khan, leader of the Qajar tribe from what is now Azerbaijan, defeated the last of the Zand kings, Lotf Ali Khan, in 1794 and reclaimed territories that had been lost to Russia, reuniting Iran for the first time since the Safavids. He moved the capital of Iran to Tehran but was assassinated by his own bodyguards in 1797 only two years into his reign.
Agha Mohammad Khan fathered no children due to the castration he suffered at the hands of enemies of his family during his childhood. It was his nephew Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) who acceded to the throne, shouldering the responsibility of establishing a royal bloodline with an almost single-minded dedication.
Over the course of his life he took 158 wives and fathered a total of 260 children, of whom 108 survived their father.
Qajari style painting of mollahs in the presence of Nasser-ed-Din Shah.
Qajar-era note showing Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar.
In war however, he was less successful. Fighting against the technologically superior forces of the growing Russian empire, Iran was defeated on two occasions. The Treaty of Golestan in 1813 conceded Georgia and much of the Caucasus and the even more humiliating Treaty of Turkmanchai in 1828 recognized Russian sovereignty in the entire region north of the Aras River (present day Armenia and Azerbaijan).
This was a period in which diplomatic rivalries between European nations, in particular Britain and Russia, began to affect Iran greatly.
In many ways the most able of the Qajar kings was Nasser al-Din Shah. (r. 1848-1896). It was during his reign that Iran took the first steps towards modernisation. Nasser al-Din Shah made many trips to Europe and was greatly impressed by what he saw there.
Very much a progressive thinker, Nasser became fluent in French, learned to play the piano, wrote poetry and was a keen photographer.
Numerous European-style institutions took shape under the guiding hand of Nasser's brilliant minister Mirza Taghi Khan, who was to become better known as Amir Kabir ("The Great Prince").
These included the introduction of train transport, banking, a postal service, newspaper publishing and Iran's first technical school which sent many students to French universities to learn about modern technology and science.
On the other hand, Nasser was aware that the influence of foreign powers was growing in Iran and not entirely to its benefit. He attempted to use the mutual distrust of the British, Russians and Ottomans to maintain the Irans independence but he was unable to prevent encroachments into Iranian territory or reduce the control that the British held over Iran's trade and economic affairs.
Those who benefited from the old power structure were, however, resistant to the reforms of Nasser and Amir Kabir. The restructuring of the financial system, which saw state payments to the royal family severely curtailed, aroused the opposition of the mother of the King and court intrigue eventually led to the exile and assassination of the reforming prince.
The Shah himself became a victim of his reforms when he was assassinated by a hardliner in 1896 after attending a prayer service in Rey.
Photograph of Nasser al-Din Shah, Iran.
Photograph of Mozaffar-ed-Din Shah.
Nasser would prove to be the last of the Qajar kings with true vision and ability. Dissatisfaction and unrest during the reign of Mozzafar al-Din Shah (r. 1896-1907) led to constitutional reforms and a curtailment of the power of the monarchy in favour of a new house of representatives called the Majlis.
However, his son and successor Mohammad Ali Shah (r. 1907-1909) turned his back on these reforms and attempted to dissolve the new assembly by force with Russian support. He abdicated following a reaction by forces supporting the constitution and was exiled to Russia.
Meanwhile, Russia and Britain were taking advantage of the weakness of the government to carve the country up into "spheres of influence" within which they could exercise their power without the others interference. Iran remained only nominally independent while British and Russian diplomats exacted more and more concessions from their hosts and imposed merciless conditions.
The last Qajar king, Ahmad Shah (r. 1909-1925) was only 12 years old at his coronation. He could do nothing to ease the troubles of the turbulent period that followed. With his father attempting to regain the throne by force with Russian backing in 1910, his kingdom was beset with problems from the very beginning of his reign.
This, and the growing influence and activities of the Great Powers in the build up to war meant that the future was effectively out of his hands. During the First World War, Iran was officially neutral but was occupied by Russian and British troops.
The end of the war saw a decline in Russian influence in Iran due to the October revolution, eventually leading to a total withdrawal by 1921. The British thus became the sole colonial power in Iran and changed their approach accordingly, now wishing to replace the irresolute, pleasure-seeking Ahmad Shah with a stronger ruler, one more able to protect their interests.
They believed that they had found him in Reza Khan Mir Panj, a taciturn, morally upright soldier who had risen up through the ranks to the command of the Russian-trained Cossack Brigade. A British engineered coup detat in 1921 led to the appointment of Reza Khan as Minister of War. He was subsequently promoted to the post of Prime Minister in 1923.
In 1925, Ahmed Shah left for Europe to receive medical treatment but was never to return. While he was away, Reza Khan was proclaimed Shah by the Majlis bringing to an end the reign of the Qajars.
Photograph of Ahmed Shah.
Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari