This weekend, a crowd in Tehran attacked and set fire to the Saudi Arabian embassy in retaliation for the execution of a Shi’a cleric. A brief scan of social media channels confirms that a majority of Americans are still profoundly ignorant about the real motivations behind the 1979 seizure of the US embassy — and the long history of foreign ‘diplomats’ undermining the nation’s sovereignty to foster a state of dependence. German and Austro-Hungarian agents taught the people of Iran to target Russian and British diplomatic personnel a century ago during the First World War, when the Kaiser had imperial ambitions of his own in the Middle East. While they failed to appreciably expand the conflict as intended, in 1915 the Central Powers found ready partners who resented the weakness imposed by the representatives of foreign powers. This history helps explain why today’s Iran insists on controlling the uranium fuel cycle itself, remains unrepentantly unaligned in the world, asserts total national sovereignty, and crowds sometimes disrespect foreign embassies. Too many Americans mistake these events as products of religious fervor when they are actually born of deep, historic resentments rooted in nationalism.
25 December 1915 – Iran
Thirteen years old at the end of 1915, future ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is certainly old enough to be aware of the traumatic political upheaval taking place in his country. He will come of age resenting the disempowerment of the Persian state by foreign empires; in his old age, Khomeini will praise key figures in the 1915 uprisings as national heroes. For the man who still matters most in understanding the current state of affairs in Iran, the Great War is a formative period, and it explains many things about the Iranian nationalism he left behind.
In November, Mowstowfi ol-Mamalek and his cabinet resigned to placate Russia and Britain, the two empires which have divided Persia into spheres of influence, after German and Austrian intrigues very nearly succeeded at turning the Shah and his government into allies of the Central Powers. Meanwhile, Russian columns were marching through the northwestern portion of the country to put down an insurgency, occupying the capital of Tehran before the end of the month. Rallying a few thousand pro-German gendarmes and Kurdish mercenaries, German ambassador Prince Heinrich Reuss tried to rally disaffected tribesmen to his cause, but was unable to raise a force strong enough to oppose the Army of the Caucasus with their Armenian allies.
General Nikolai Baratov commands one of the two main Russian columns, capturing Hamadan on December 15th against only minor and ineffectual resistance, while the northern column has easily routed the enemies Prince Reuss has assembled outside Tehran, forcing Persia’s ardent nationalists to fall back on the hinterland and regroup. In the new year, the Army of the Caucasus will press on, winning victory after victory against lightly-armed gendarmes and untrained tribal fighters. Of course, a young Khomeini sees these Russian successes as further humiliations on the Persian nation, and to make feelings worse, political shame is being piled on top of military weakness.
Two days ago, the British and Russian ambassadors prevailed on Ahmed Shah Qajar to name a new government more amenable to the Entente allies, recommending Prince Abdol-Hossein Farman Farma in place of Mowstowfi. Today, Farman Farma accepts the appointment, assembling a cabinet over which British Resident Sir Charles Marling wields enormous influence. But this arrangement will not last long. Marling immediately tries to press a treaty on his government that gives the occupying empires full control of Persia’s military and financial affairs, but Farman Farma objects to “the slavery of Iran,’ resigning just weeks later. As chaos deepens and conditions deteriorate, however, Marling will prevail on the Shah to name him governor of Fars province.
Of course, the gendarmes must be replaced, for they provided most of the nation’s everyday security. To reestablish order within Britain’s sphere of influence, this week an officer named Sir Percy Sykes is breveted to Brigadier General and authorized to raise a unit of South Persian Rifles with mercenaries from the local tribes. But Sykes is a power-hungry adventurer; whereas his superiors expect him to lead a police force, the unit Sykes puts together soon begins to resemble an infantry battalion, while his movements across the country always leave a trail littered with disorder amd destruction. Selected for his experience in the country and his friendship with Farman Farma, during 1916 Sykes becomes known as ‘Pomposity’ to the British legation at Tehran and loses the confidence of every British official from New Delhi to London — except one. Sykes’s personal popularity with Lord Curzon, the powerful former Viceroy of India, prevents him being removed from office until 1918.
As a result of Russian and British imperial policy, Iran is powerless to run its own affairs as a modern state. Persia’s native uprisings are unable to eject either hated foreign presence. And to top it all off, the foreigners who would stabilize the country are poorly equipped for the job. Even without great battles, the war is tearing Khomeini’s still-neutral country apart, and he will never forget how it feels.