Boundary Problem at the Top of Foreign Policy's Agenda

  August 07, 2021   Read time 3 min
Boundary Problem at the Top of Foreign Policy's Agenda
If alliances and wars dominated Iran’s foreign policy in the first half of the nineteenth century, boundary problems and economic activities received major emphasis later.

Not, of course, that boundary problems, with which this chapter will be concerned, did not exist earlier. But the Anglo-Russian rivalry, which continued to be such an important factor in Iranian foreign policy, reached a peak after Russian advances into Central Asia, and this intensified Iran’s own boundary difficulties with Russia.

Anglo-Russian rivalry continued to be the most important factor with which Iran had to contend in foreign affairs. This rivalry intensified in the second half of the nineteenth century and reached a new peak after the spectacular Russian expansion in Central Asia. Iran’s boundary problems with Russia and Afghanistan were intimately interwoven with the whole Central Asian Question.

Russia’s advance into Central Asia has been attributed to a wide variety of considerations, different observers emphasizing different motives. Some have mentioned economic advantages, while others have remarked that “civilized Russians” had to advance against the “half-savages.” Still others have characterized Russia’s expansion in Central Asia as a way to solve the Eastern Question, a “detour on the royal road to Constantinople and the Straits.” The road to the Straits had been barred by Great Britain ; hence Russia had to strike at the enemy’s heart - India. It has also been stated that Central Asia proved so attractive that Russia could not resist the temptation of conquest. The attraction of the area, it is argued, lay in the fact that a vast power vacuum stretched all the way from the Caspian Sea to the borders of China, from Afghanistan to the edge of the Siberian plain. Another view stresses that the object of Russian policy in Central Asia was the attainment of an outlet to the ocean both in the Near and Middle East. This view linked the Central Asian Question to the Persian Gulf, where Russia wished to get a foothold.

Whichever one of these interpretations is favored, the fact is that the Russian thrust in Central Asia posed a serious challenge to Great Britain. The Russian movement into Central Asia in the nineteenth century was a late phase in an expansion that had been in progress over several centuries. But that expansion had never taken the form or reached the intensity of the momentous nineteenth-century forward advance. This conquest, which gained momentum in the 1860’s, gave rise to grave concern on the part of the English public, as well as to the British government. One of the earliest signs of apprehension may be found in Sir Henry Rawlinson’s “Memorandum on the Central Asian Question” for government guidance. This memorandum had immediate effects in India. It urged that action and zeal must replace the existing official apathy toward the Russian expansion. Rawlinson insisted that the easiest route for Russia to take toward India was not through the heart of Afghanistan by way of the difficult mountain passes to Kabul and the Khyber, but via the country’s western flank, from the Caspian littoral down to Merv, Herat, and Qandahar. This flank was commanded, or at any rate presided over, by Iran. Iran’s existence had always been a political necessity for the Indian Empire ; now Iran’s strength had become “a military requisite.”

The Central Asian problem affected Iran in two different but related ways. First, the Russian conquests east of the Caspian Sea made Russia the immediate neighbor of Iran along the borders of Khorasan. No definite frontiers had previously existed between Iran and its nomadic neighbors, and Russia’s move into the area faced Iran with the question: Where would Russia stop? Second, Iran was affected by the strategic significance that the Russian advance in Central Asia added to the areas coveted by Iran. Sistan was one of these areas. Its geographic position and other features made it “an object of much interest both to Russia and Great Britain. Situated at the point of junction of the frontiers of Persia, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan, its future affects the destinies of all the three countries.” Great Britain, therefore, became directly involved in Iran’s frontier problem with Afghanistan.

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