Long before Iranian revolutionaries named America the “Great Satan” in 1979, another Iranian revolutionary government looked to America for help in its struggle to secure its independence. In 1911, the government of Persia – as outsiders then knew Iran – invited William Morgan Shuster, an American lawyer and civil servant, to become the country’s treasurer general. Shuster arrived at a pivotal moment in Iran’s history, just as a fragile new democracy was struggling to survive. Only five years earlier, Iranians had carried out a “constitutional revolution,” forcing the reigning monarch, Mozzafer ad-Din Shah, to accept a constitution and a parliament, or majles. Supporters of the new government counted on the majles to end the corruption of successive monarchs who had exploited Iran’s resources for personal gain, and allowed Russia and Britain to dominate the country’s economy.
But the constitutional movement had powerful enemies. In January 1907, Mozzafer ad-Din died, and his son Muhammad Ali, a friend of Russia, became shah. Russia opposed the constitutional movement and jealously guarded its influence in northern Iran. In 1908, after surviving an assassination attempt, Muhammad Ali’s Russian-backed forces besieged the majles, arresting and executing prominent constitutionalists. The following year, constitutional forces deposed Mohammad Ali and sent him into exile. But by then, Iran was almost bankrupt. Europeans and corrupt local elites conspired to drain the national purse, even as Russia sought to undermine the government. To secure control of Iran, the government needed to root out corruption and centralize its tax system. That was Shuster’s mission.
This series of articles is based on Shuster’s 1912 memoir, The Strangling of Persia.
Part I: An American Idealist Goes to Iran
On December 25, 1910, Iranian Foreign Minister Husayn Kuli Khan instructed the Persian legation in Washington to ask US Secretary of State Philander Knox to put him in touch with “American financial people.” Iran’s economic future looked bleak. “In the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution,” says Ali Ansari of the University of St. Andrews, “the government had a lot of plans for reforming the Iranian state. These included free education, having an army, having standardized taxes and so on, but they needed money to get these things sorted out.”
In Tehran, corrupt local elites and venal Europeans working for foreign legations –and even in some cases for the Iranian government itself -- found pretexts to drain the country’s coffers. The majles, recognizing a dilemma posed by vested interests, and unwilling to seek local or European specialists, looked to America, which had established no substantial presence -- or bad habits -- in Iran. The job on offer was to manage Iran’s financial affairs -- from taxation to disbursement of revenue -- for three years.
The US State Department recommended Shuster, who had worked as a customs collector in Cuba and in the Philippines – then a US colony – following the Spanish-American War. “His pre-history probably wasn’t that pretty,” says Evan Siegel, translator of Ahmad Kasravi’s History of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. “The Philippine Civil War was a horrible bloody mess, where the Americans had fought against Philippine nationalists. But he had cultivated people cooperative with the Americans, he had had a role in founding the first Philippine university, and he had organized a Philippine-American chamber of commerce, which had been very successful. He had full powers there and could do what he wished.”
Although Shuster had never thought about going to Iran before, the Iranian chargé d'affaires in Washington, Mirza Ali Kuli Khan, helped persuade him. Shuster also read and took inspiration from a recent book by the British orientalist Edward Granville Browne, called The Persian Revolution of 1905 – 1909. Shuster supported Iran’s constitutional project in the light of American ideals. “I finally decided to do what I could to help a people who had certainly given evidence of an abiding faith in our institutions and business methods,” he later wrote.
Americans at the time had some awareness of events in Iran. In his 1909 State of the Union speech, President William Howard Taft had commented on the spread of constitutional government in Turkey and Persia. “These events have turned the eyes of the world upon the Near East. In that quarter the prestige of the United States has spread widely through the peaceful influence of American schools, universities and missionaries. There is every reason why we should obtain a greater share of the commerce of the Near East since the conditions are more favorable now than ever before,” he said.
While Shuster would not be traveling to Iran as a representative of the US government, his mission reflected a popular American outlook regarding old world powers. “At the turn of the 20th century,” says Abbas Amanat of Yale University, “the anti-imperialist, ant-British feeling among the Americans was very strong. They felt that Britain’s supremacy over its colonial empire and zones of influence was growing all the time at the expense of weaker powers.” Shuster, one might say, set off for Iran with the spirit of American independence in tow.
In April 1911, Shuster made the long journey to Tehran to become Persia’s treasurer general. Along with an American staff and their families, he sailed from New York to Paris, then via Vienna, Constantinople (now Istanbul), Batum, Baku, and on to the Persian port of Anzali on the Caspian Sea. From there, the party traveled overland to Tehran by carriage.
Recalling his early encounters with Iran, Shuster later wrote with a mix of mordant wit and charmed nostalgia. He recalled with amusement his Persian guide on the road to Tehran who, “Although a good Muhammadan…was a firm believer in the efficacy of an occasional cup of cognac upon trips of this kind.” His first impression of Tehran, with its lanterns and nightingales and uniformed pageantry, was “almost a fairy land.”
A Role in the Persian Opéra Bouffe
In Tehran, Shuster quickly took the lay of the land, which was not altogether favorable. Although he enjoyed the confidence and hospitality of most members of the constitutionalist government, he knew from the outset that he faced resentful rivals, mainly in the form of foreign diplomats, Europeans working for the Persian government, and corrupt Persian elites. In many cases, these antagonists emerged in comic fashion. As he wrote in the introduction to his memoir, “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 opéra bouffe” – that is, as a French comic opera.
“There was a touch of naiveté on his part,” Ansari says. “You could call it naiveté, but you could also call it quite refreshing idealism. Shuster is one of these figures -- and you see them repeated throughout Iranian history and they can be Iranians as well – who go to tackle these major issues of financial impropriety and it’s extremely difficult. But I think he was quite overwhelmed by this fantastic network of corruption that the Europeans were all enmeshed in.”
Shuster knew from the moment he arrived that Russia, the friend of Muhammad Ali Shah, was especially displeased with his presence. Russia had pulled its weight with “certain persuasive and notorious members of the Parliament” to try and keep him away, and had even complained to the US State Department. Russia, says Amanat, faced its own revolutionary situation in the Caucasus Mountains and resented its loss of influence in Azerbaijan to the constitutionalists. “They were very grudging and they didn’t want to see the constitutionalists succeed,” he says.
Even so, Russia claimed to respect Iran’s sovereignty and stopped short of publicly objecting to the employment of a US citizen by the Persian government. Britain reluctantly assented to Shuster’s project as well. Both countries expected him to visit their legations upon his arrival and sent constant messages to that effect. But Shuster gave them the cold shoulder. He argued that, as an official of the Persian government, he was under no obligation to pay “first calls” to anyone.
At the heart of the foreign embassies’ worries was Shuster’s “financial law,” which he was preparing to put before the majles. Once it passed, Shuster would control the disbursement of all government funds, and would have the power to examine all requests for payment, including those from foreign powers. As far as Shuster was concerned, most of the foreign diplomatic corps in Tehran, along with the coterie of foreign experts whose countries they represented, were driving Iran ever closer to bankruptcy.
When Iranians saw how Shuster behaved toward the other westerners, he later wrote with no little self-regard, they “rubbed their eyes a few times and then commenced to have a new sensation. ‘Inshallah, we have a faranghi [foreigner] among us who takes not his orders from the foreign legations. Let us help him.’”
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