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 January1907, 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 III: Shattered Hopes
In December 1911, Russia reasserted its domination of northern Iran. The constitutional experiment was over. Shuster knew that his mission -- to reform the country’s finances and shore up its first democratic experiment -- had failed. Russia, meanwhile, doled out money and thousands of meals to Tehran’s poor, asserting that, as Shuster paraphrased it, “only the hostility of the Majles to Russia was the cause of the scarcity of bread.” Rumors abounded in Tehran of plots to harm Shuster and his American colleagues. The Americans, now “without an employer or status” had little to do but arrange an orderly transfer of the treasury to Russia’s preferred replacement, a Belgian customs official named Joseph Mornard.
For Russia, regaining control in Iran was essential to security within the borders of the Russian Empire. “Imperial Russia was very agitated by the idea of the revival of the revolution of 1905 in Russia itself,” says Abbas Amanat of Yale University, referring to a series of uprisings that had taken place in Russia a year before Iran’s Constitutional Revolution. “They were afraid of revolutionary activities in the Russian Caucasus, among the Georgians and the Armenians, for example. And the Muslims of the Caucasus were looking to Iran as a case of a successful resistance to Russia.”
Russia had much to prove in its Iranian “sphere of influence,” and displayed its military might by occupying Iran’s north with, Shuster estimated, 18,000 troops. On December 24, a year to the day since Iranian Foreign Minister Husayn Kuli Khan had written to the US seeking “American Financial People,” Shuster received news that Russian forces, facing a rebellion in the northeastern city of Tabriz, had carried out a massacre there. The city’s acting governor reported that, following a clash between Iranian sentries and Russian soldiers stringing telephone lines on the roof of a police station, Russian troops had killed hundreds of non-combatants in the streets. As militant “fidais” rose up against the occupation, Russian forces shelled fighters hiding out in the city’s historic citadel. On the 10th day of Muharram, a Shia mourning festival, Russia asserted its authority by publicly hanging several prominent Islamic clerics.
Russian actions in Tabriz appear to have been controversial even within Russian officialdom. Shuster reported that the Russian minister in Tehran, Stanislow Poklewski-Koziell, asked the Russian general in Tabriz to end the fighting for the sake of his own diplomatic efforts. The general retorted that he took his orders from the viceroy of the Caucasus in Tiflis (now Tblisi), and not from Tehran. Russia, having already faced military humiliation at the hands of one non-European power – Japan – in 1905, as well as revolution in its own cities that same year, sought to prove itself in Iran. An official for the Russian foreign ministry in St. Petersburg spoke of Russia’s desire for vengeance against Tabriz, and promised that “revolutionary dregs” would be exterminated. One Russian newspaper called explicitly for the “punishment” of the city’s whole population. Russian forces followed through. “The horrors of Tabriz,” Shuster later wrote, “will never become fully known.”
Out of Iran
With evident melancholy, Shuster prepared to leave Iran. He paid a visit to Iran’s child monarch, Ahmad Shah, who was then only 13. The young shah, he wrote, “thanked me gravely for what I had sought to do for his country.” Shuster wished him luck, “though the career of a ‘merry monarch’ hardly seemed in store for him.” The young Shah and his regent, Naser ul-Molk, lent Shuster their new car and its French chauffeur for his journey to the northern port of Anzali. Shuster heard reports from the majles deputies with whom he had worked that crowds of well-wishers hoped to see him off, but he asked that the demonstration be called off, presumably to avoid the risk of bloodshed. The new pro-Russian cabinet would not have tolerated it.
On the morning of January 11, 1912, Shuster took his final glimpse of the snowy Alborz Mountains ringing Tehran from the north, and reflected on his failures. “As I stood in a circle of gloomy American and Persian friends,” he wrote,
I could not help recalling the evening of my arrival at the same spot just eight months before, and there swept over me the realization that the hopes of a long-suffering Muhammadan people of reclaiming their position in the world had been ruthlessly stamped out by the armies of a so-called Christian and civilized nation.
His final sight in Iran, as he prepared to depart from the port of Anzali, was of Russian gunboats saluting each other.
Reflections on the Persian Dilemma
“Memories of the preceding eight months crowded fast upon me,” Shuster later wrote of his Persian adventure. He left Iran determined to publicize the country’s plight, and to defend his own record. He didn’t idealize his Iranian colleagues -- indeed, he lamented the petty personal animosities that took hold among men inexperienced with democracy, and deplored the preponderance of self-interested aristocrats and “grandees” within the Persian state -- but he remained fond of the rank and file majles members. For him, their legitimacy was the heart of the Persian question. Iran’s young parliament, he was certain, “in the main represented the new and just ideals of the Persian people.”
Shuster ridiculed the notion that a mere “lack of tact” on his part had caused Russia to demand his dismissal and pour 18,000 troops into the country. Rather, he argued, Russian aggression in Iran had filled a vacuum created by Britain’s geopolitical calculations. While Britain and Russia had both promised under the terms of the 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement to respect Persian sovereignty, he argued, Britain proved willing to “throw Persia overboard” to ensure friendly relations with Russia in the face of a rising Imperial Germany. And while Britain publicly blamed Shuster for interfering with undefined British and Russian “interests,” inside Iran, Shuster’s research allowed him to produce a damning document – first published in Edward Granville Browne’s The Persian Revolution of 1905-1909 – proving that Britain had promised the Persian government that the intent of the Anglo-Russian Agreement was “not to allow one another to intervene on the pretext of safeguarding their interests.”
The Russian and British actions Shuster had witnessed, he wrote, amounted to nothing less than “the destruction of Persian nationality” without even the most basic imperialist pretexts, such a claim to be building institutions or the advancing civilization. Britain, he argued, had damaged its own standing in the Muslim world -- much of which had sympathized with Iran’s Constitutional Revolution -- and had damaged the reputation of Christianity in the process. Shuster believed the constitutional government’s economic project, which would have secured Iran the resources and central authority it needed to realize its revolutionary aspirations, was “its sole chance for self-redemption.” Russia, he reflected, “unwittingly paid us the compliment of fearing that we would succeed in our task.”
Also in this Series: