The Political and Regional Context of Oil in 1920s and Shifting British Policy Toward Iran


Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]


British policy toward Iran underwent significant reassessments throughout the 19th and through the first three decades of the 20th centuries, with fundamental repercussions for southern areas bordering the Persian Gulf[15]. Since the subsequent development of the oil complex cannot be understood without this historical context I will briefly outline these developments in the following section to provide the geopolitical backdrop of what transpired in Abadan and the oil areas of Khuzestan during the decisive 1920s.
From the early19th century through the middle of the 20th century the importance of the Persian Gulf increased steadily for British imperial priorities, and with it came an expanded military, naval, and commercial presence[16]. Throughout the 19th century until WWI the Persian Gulf was conceived by Britain within three intertwined but unequal geopolitical parameters: Strategically, it was seen as the first line of vital defense of India on its western front[17]. Second, with the establishment of direct telegraph communication between London and India, the maintenance of the control and security of the northern (Persian) coast of the Gulf where the communication lines traversed became an added strategic priority[18]. Expanding commercial interests and securing supplies and outlets for British merchant goods was the third motive behind the increasingly active diplomacy that led to obtaining navigation rights in Karun, Tigris, and Euphrates from Ottoman and Persian governments, and the signing of the so called Trucial agreements with the city states bordering the Persian Gulf. Soon after, a series of ever more comprehensive concessions were granted to Europeans, encompassing mining, industries, banking, railroads, commerce, customs, etc. Curzon summarized these interests as “commercial, political, strategical, and telegraphic”[19]. The 1901 D’Arcy Oil Concession was the last of these controversial agreements, which were one of the targets of the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. Thereafter the granting of such concessions became far more controversial, and every government that attempted to issue a similar concession ran into major frictions with the Majles and the uproar of public opinion that were reflected in the increasingly vocal press. After 1912 oil was added to the British geopolitical priorities as a major new variable in the calculations of policymaking toward the region, while the deployment of wireless communication gradually began to reduce the importance of the telegraph by late 1920s[20].
Russia’s 19th century expansion into Caucasus had led to two wars with Iran, both ending with the latter’s defeats (in 1813 and 1828) and resulting in exorbitant treaties that had forced open the Iranian society to Russian commerce and political Interference[21]. Britain had withdrawn support from Iran during these conflicts, calculating that the official treaties, while weakening Iran considerably, would force Russia to recognize Iran’s territorial integrity and thus stop its southward territorial expansion toward the Persian Gulf and eventually India. Instead, the situation turned Iran into a rapidly enfeebled and defenseless battleground of the more powerful imperial rivals. As Britain pushed for equal concessions in the south, Iranian economic development was further stunted to serve the priorities of its more powerful neighbors, British India to the southeast, Russia to the north, and Ottomans to the west, who all competed to extract as much as possible, while actively blocking any autonomous development that would threaten their own strategic interests. For example, these ongoing imperial rivalries prevented successive attempts to build a national railroad in Iran on defensive strategic grounds, to the extent that the railroad project became a nationalist obsession that was only carried out in the 1930s as one of Reza Shah’s grandest scheme[22]. Likewise, the geographic axis of Iranian trade roots for international commerce were shifted south-north, from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian and the Black Seas, at the expense of the historical east-west trans-Asian Silk Road that was effectively blocked off[23]. Iran’s last attempt to re-open its eastern flank by occupying Herat ended in defeat at the Anglo Persian War of 1857, a conflict that established a permanent foothold for Britain throughout southern Iran (see chapter 3). Trapped among stronger neighbors, playing the imperial adversaries against each other, or banking on the assistance of more distant and supposedly neutral potential allies (France, Germany, the United States) became an integral feature of Iranian politics and political culture, at least until 1953. After the 1857 Indian revolt and the assumption of direct colonial rule by the British Raj the western approaches of the Empire, especially the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iran, came to be treated as India’s first line of defense. Iran in particular, was conceptualized in British foreign policy not really as an independent country, but more as an ambiguous “ buffer state” against the incursions of other rival big powers toward India[24]. This meant that any internal development in Iran, economic, social, regional, or political, were viewed and treated by British policymakers primarily through the lens of their own imperial strategic priorities. One fascinating side effect of this situation was the sheer volume of information produced by the British intelligence gathering machinery on Iran. While domestic Iranian documentation and archives about this period are at best scattered and patchy, the amount of detailed and thorough strategic information systematically gathered and preserved by British travelers, diplomats, local consular officials and military attachés, merchants, scientists, archeologists, and adventurers, is simply remarkable by comparison[25]. Olson comments that Iran was far better studied than major colonies such as Australia, South Africa, or Canada, in order to facilitate strategic planning, lines of defense, assured supplies, potential allies and adversaries, manpower, etc.[26]


Notes :

15. Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire; Fain, American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region, 14–16. See note 1 above

16. Fain, American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region, 1–17; Marlowe, The Persian Gulf in the Twentieth Century; Adelson, London and the Middle East; Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire; Rose Greaves, “Iranian Relations with Great Britain and British India: 1798-1921,” in Cambridge History of Iran, From Nadir Shah to the Islamic Republic, vol. 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 350–73.

17. George Nathaniel Curzon, The Place of India in the Empire: Being an Address Delivered before the Philosophical Institute of Edinburgh (london: J.Murray, 1909).

18. Olson, Anglo-Iranian Relations during World War I, 12–13; Marlowe, The Persian Gulf in the Twentieth Century, 26–27.

19. Olson, Anglo-Iranian Relations during World War I, 11.

20. Stephen Longrigg, Oil in the Middle East: Its Discovery and Development, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 33–116.

21. Firuz Kazemzadeh, Russia and Britain in Persia, 1864-1914;: A Study in Imperialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968); Muriel Atkin, Russia and Iran, 1780-1828 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980).

22. Kaveh Ehsani, “Tabar Shenasi-e Tarh-ha-ye Bozorg-e Tose’eh dar Iran-e Mo’aser (Genealogy of large-scale development projects in contemporary Iran),” Goftogu, no. 54 (2009): 113–32.

23. Peter Avery and S. Simmonds, “Persia on a Cross of Silver: 1880-1890,” Middle Eastern Studies 10 (1974): 259–86.

24. On Iran as a buffer state in British foreign policy from 1857-1907 see Edward Ingram, “The Defence of India, 1874-1914,” Militärgeschichtliche Mittleilungen 16, no. 2 (1974): 215–224; George Nathaniel Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, (London: Elibron, 2005 [1892]), Vol.1, Chs.1, 9; Vol.2, Ch. 30; David McLean, Britain and Her Buffer State: The Collapse of the Persian Empire, 1890-1914 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1979); E. Haward, “India’s Defense as an Imperial Problem,”
Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society 13, no. 2 (1926): 111–129; Rose Louise Greaves, Persia and the Defence of India, 1884-1892 : A Study in the Foreign Policy of the Third Marquis of Salisbury. (London: Athlone Press, 1959); Rose Louise Greaves, “British Policy in Persia, 1892-1903,” Bulletin
of the School of Oriental and African Studies 28, no. Parts 1 & 2 (1965): 34–60; 284–307; T. Holdich, “The Gates of India,” The Imperial and Asiatic Quarterly Review 33, no. 65/66 (1912): 62–79.

25. This is equally true for the city-states of the Persian Gulf. See for example the astonishing Lorimer,
GPG. On Iran see for example Burrell, IPD; Edmonds, East and West of Zagros; Wilson, SW Persia; Layard, Early Adventures in Persia; Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question.

26. Olson, Anglo-Iranian Relations during World War I, 13.

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