Qajar PersiaThe diplomatic flag of Mohammad Shah Qajar. A red background on the flag signifies wartime use, while a green background is for peacetime.
Official Name: Sublime State of Iran (دولت علیّه ایران – Dowlat-e Âliyye-ye Irân
Leader: Mohammad Shah Qajar (محمد شاه قاجار)
The Russo-Persian wars defined the perilous state of the Qajar dynasty at the turn of the 19th century. Territories in the Caucasus traditionally belonging to Iran had swapped hands at the end of the 18th century as the Georgian monarch Erekle II pledged allegiance to Russia instead of the Persians. Infuriated, the reigning monarch of Persia, Fath-Ali Shah Qajar, declared war on the Russians in 1804. Despite early victories against the Russians, the Persians were quickly outmatched by superior Russian technology and military organization once advanced Tsarist weapons were shipped to the theater.
To this end, the Qajars tried to strike a deal with the British in exchange for assistance in the war. Yet they were denied, as their previous agreements only included help against French invasion, not Russian. Fath-Ali Shah turned to the French, striking a deal with Napoleon in 1807. French forces arrived in Iran to modernize and instruct the fledging Qajar tribal military, in exchange for direct support to a potential French invasion of British India. This invasion never happened, as the French were far more tied up in Europe than anticipated. In 1807, the French schemes to diplomatically pacify the Russians and focus on the British threat were disrupted when Napoleon reneged on agreements made at the Treaties of Tilsit.
Russia, believing that France was in violation of the treaty after its agreements about the Prussian monarchy fell through, was infuriated. No armistice with the Russians was ever signed, and the French continued to work with the Persian military to equip and train them with great haste. Napoleon recognized Fath-Ali Shah’s claims to Georgia in the Caucasus, keeping the Persians on good diplomatic terms while he prepared for continued war with Russia. In the Caucasus, the Perso-Russian War came to a standstill as small fronts of elite French-trained Iranian forces put up fierce resistance against Russian invaders.
In 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia once again, the situation for the Tsarist kingdom was dire. Napoleon burned down Moscow, sending the Russian state into panic. The Iranians retook large parts of Armenia and Azerbaijan, though were kept from Georgia and Dagestan in the north. A truce between the two countries was settled as the Iranians consolidated their gains and Russia caused great losses against Napoleon’s armies.
Fath-Ali Shah, bolstered by this victory, celebrated all things French. Bribing French diplomats and officials with lavish gifts, gold, and large tracts of land, he declared himself a Francophile and praised the character of the Franco-Persian alliance. French scientists, educators, generals, doctors, and bureaucratic professionals were encouraged to modernize all facets of Persian society. Upper-class Tehranis dressed like Parisians, adopting French slang and language as high fashion. The military changed out their tribal garb for Napoleonic uniforms, organizing their armies after the French.
With French influence in the Persian systems of bureaucracy, the Qajars consolidated their hold over Iran. Traditionally, the Persians lacked a form of centrally controlling the tribes in their borders. The concept of the gendarmerie
, imported from France, rapidly improved the reach of the Qajars’ rule. The long arm of the law could now stretch from Tehran to the most remote corners of Persia, thanks to ruthlessly efficient gendarmes
patrolling the rural areas by the 1820s. Systems of industrialization, capital employment, and trade turned the Persian Gulf into a series of boom towns. Fath-Ali Shah was, however, criticized for his tendency to allow very high shares of these companies to be owned by the French.
When Napoleon suffered his defeat in Europe and exiled to Elba, it was said that Fath-Ali Shah mourned. Diplomatic relations with the Bourbons were often tense, the Persians refusing to cooperate on much. French companies, weakened from the Empire’s decline, lost their grip to entrepreneurial Persians. Napoleon in Elba, of course, plotted his return to France and eventually succeeded: the Persians were happy to see their friend return, watching the anti-Napoleon coalition’s rout at Waterloo with great interest. They approached France with a proposition: an invasion into the underbelly of Russia utilizing their French-trained military, to take advantage of the postwar chaos. Napoleon agreed, publicly asserting Iranian rights to Georgia and Dagestan.
The Iranians continued their Francophile regime even after Napoleon's final defeat. Encouraged again by the decade-old proclamation by the Emperor of Europe, the Persians took to arms and invaded the Caucasus again in 1832. The war brought some territorial gains to the Persians but was severely hampered by the death of Fath-Ali Shah in October of 1834. His designated heir, Abbas Mirza, had passed away in 1833. His 24-year-old son, Mohammad, was selected to take the throne instead. Drama struck the Peacock Throne shortly after Fath-Ali Shah’s death, as his son Ali Mirza attempted to take the throne in defiance of his father’s choice of heir. Ali Mirza reigned for forty days before being deposed by a court loyalist to Fath-Ali Shah. Mohammad was crowned king: Mohammad Shah Qajar.
This turbulence had distracted the Persian military, who were left defending battle positions in the Caucasus for almost three months in the winter of 1834-1835. The Persians could ultimately not muster the momentum to push fully into Georgia and Dagestan and settled for an armistice slightly more beneficial than a white peace. Some territories were recaptured, but the goal of marching Persian troops into Tbilisi was not accomplished. Napoleon fell to the British coalition during his invasion of the United Kingdom shortly thereafter: the uncertainty put a pause to Persian military ambitions.
Mohammad Shah Qajar had lived his life almost entirely under the Francophile craze in Iran and was no different than his predecessor. Humiliated and disgraced French officers, who could not stand what was being done to France, were gladly accepted by the Qajar dynasty in Persia. French advisors were popular with Mohammad Shah, and he gladly took anyone he could get. With some leverage, Mohammad Shah permanently employed these French expatriates in exchange for loyalty to the Persian monarchy. Such activities concerned the former coalition in Europe, who would rapidly become concerned that the Shah sought to become a Napoleon of his own.
The grand aspirations of the Persian state, headed by the sickly but devoted Mohammad Shah, are enough to trigger interest from the European powers. Mohammad Shah eyes the east, the French advisors to the throne seeking to further Napoleon’s late plan of taking India from the British. Russia, too, is on edge for a Persian reinvasion of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The Ottomans, always wary of their traditional rivals, are on guard against the Iranians.
Inside Iran, the Westernization is enough to drive fault lines between the traditional Shia beliefs and newer Western ideals. The old guard of clergy, bazaaris, and feudal lords eye the new “progressive” Shah with intense hesitation and resentment. At any time, he may feel bold enough to take away their traditional sources of wealth and power. The French foreigners in Tehran are replacing the Iranian tribes, angering those far from the capital. As Persia seeks to play the “great game” at the behest of its Francophile tendencies, many at home are not happy with the choice. How they choose to act out remains to be seen.