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 IV: Shuster’s Legacy
William Morgan Shuster is little remembered today, either in the US or Iran. He spent only eight months in the country, and during that time failed in his mission to centralize Iran’s economy and root out corruption and foreign exploitation. Today, Shuster's efforts on Iran’s behalf, however noble, seem to have escaped the notice even of those to whom they might prove useful, such as US diplomats and presidential speechwriters looking for happy precedents in the US-Iran relationship. This might be because it’s too still too early for a Shuster revival (could the US be planning to uncork his memory along with the champagne when it reopens its embassy in Tehran one day?) or because it’s far too late (the very notion of Iran hiring western experts to fix Iranian problems cuts both against both the pride of an independent republic, and against the suspicious and inward-looking spirit of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution).
Inside Iran at least, it’s more plausible that Shuster’s exploits were divided from modern memory by the era of trauma and humiliation the country endured after the collapse of its constitutional government. In his memoir The Strangling of Persia, Shuster painted a bleak picture of Iran’s future as it looked to him as he prepared to leave for good. He predicted that violence, insecurity and foreign domination would replace politics altogether, and his grim vision largely came to pass. “The period from 1911 to 1912 was one of the darkest periods in Iranian history,” says Abbas Amanat of Yale University. “There was an explosion of semi-autonomous forces throughout the country, some of them ethnic, some of them purely interested in benefitting from the weakness of the central government. This was a period of turmoil that corresponds to a rise in rebellion and banditry as well as famine.”
Then came the First World War in 1914. “After the outbreak of the First World War, although Iran had declared itself neutral, it was fought over,” says Ali Ansari of the University of St. Andrews. “The Ottomans and the Russians entered the north, and the British came in to defend their oil interests in the south. Ultimately, because of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire a few years later, the British became the dominant power in Iran by default.” This period of turmoil endured until the 1921, when a former officer of the Persian Cossack Brigade, Reza Khan, installed himself as Iran’s military strongman, with British approval. He then crowned himself Shah in 1925, founding the Pahlavi dynasty that endured — first under his own rule and then under his son Mohammad Reza — until 1979.
Where Shuster failed, Reza Shah succeeded, deploying hard-man tactics to centralize the Iranian state. “The tragedy of Shuster is that he was way ahead of his time,” Ansari says. “After the First World War, Iranian intellectuals came to the same conclusion that Shuster and others had come to, which was, 'until we get this house in order, we're not going to be able to do anything.’ The Iranians came to the conclusion that they needed a strongman on horseback.” Reza Shah, he says, brought in a more autocratic government that got things done, mainly through force. “In Shuster’s time, the government barely existed, so he didn’t have that strong arm to deal with the things he needed to.”
American Values Abroad
Readers of Shuster’s 1912 memoir The Strangling of Persia will be struck by Shuster’s accounts of the emancipatory passions of Iranian women during the constitutional era, and by his depiction of Iran’s religious minorities – both topics that continue to excite interest and concern in the West. Shuster regarded Iranian women as essentially sympathetic to Iran’s constitutional movement. “The Persian women,” he wrote, “from 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world...We of Europe and America are long accustomed to the increasingly large role played by women in business, in the professions, in literature, in science, in politics, but what shall we say of the veiled women of the Near East who overnight become teachers, newspaper writers, founders of women’s clubs and speakers on political subjects?”
Shuster was clearly impressed both by the women themselves, and by the compliment they seemed to pay western institutions. “Having themselves suffered from a double form of repression,” he wrote, “political and social, they were the more eager to foment the great Nationalist movement for the adoption of constitutional forms of government and the inculcation of Western political, social, commercial and ethical codes.” Shuster gives an account of one woman who, at great risk to herself and her family, provided him a list of all properties in Iran belonging to one of the exiled Shah’s brothers, Shuau’s-Saltana. Perhaps more fancifully, he also describes how, on the eve of the collapse of the majles, a party of women appeared at parliament and threatened to kill their husbands and sons if the majles deputies capitulated to the Russians. There seems to be scant evidence they followed through on their threat.
Although he was a Christian, Shuster’s views of religion were clearly derived from American secular principles, which were well entrenched in the civil service in which he had served. Just as Shuster believed that Iranian Muslims deserved just and equitable treatment from the great Christian powers of Europe, he believed that Iran’s minorities deserved just and equitable treatment from Iranian Muslims. Shortly after Shuster arrived in Iran, rumors began to circulate that his Persian staff were members of the country’s widely persecuted Baha’i minority and that therefore he and his American team must be Baha’is as well. When the Persian finance minister tried to get Shuster to dismiss his staff on this basis, the American warned him off:
I told the Finance Minister that the Americans were not Baha’is, but that I did not propose to have the Persian Government or people pass on the religious faith of ourselves, or our servants, or the color of our neckties, and that if the Government did not have something more important than that to think about, it should find something.
The Financial Question Again
Now, as the US and Iran enter an era of uneasy détente underpinned by last year’s nuclear agreement, the financial question arises anew. Iran hopes to maximize the advantages of the sanctions relief it received under the deal, which has made it easier for Iran to do business in the EU and elsewhere. But Iranian officials complain that remaining US sanctions, particularly those pertaining to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps -- a military and security organization with an outsized role in Iran’s economy – are frightening potential investors and hindering its economic development. The US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, meanwhile, counters that Iran needs to update its business practices and make its economy more transparent.
Evan Siegel, the translator of Ahmad Kasravi’s History of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, sees modern parallels. “Iran's economy under the Islamic Republic is very untransparent,” he says. “Most of the economy is sheltered from public view, with the bonyads [tax-exempt religious charitable organizations] that belong to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's clique, and no one having any understanding of what the Revolutionary Guards are up to. The Revolutionary Guards can do whatever they want, and eight years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government demonstrated that. Iran's economy lacks most of the qualities of old-fashioned Qajar-era feudalism -- it's more modern -- but one quality it shares is that the central government really doesn't call the shots.”