British Fox and Sepahsalar's Cabinet

  October 25, 2021   Read time 7 min
British Fox and Sepahsalar's Cabinet
Norman provided Curzon with some revealing insight into the new Cabinet: Amir Nezam, one of the largest landowners of Western Iran, was in the Cabinet merely as the elder brother of Sardar Akram, Vosouq’s son-in-law.

Salar Lashkar, the second-eldest surviving son of Farmanfarma, was included because Sepahdar had calculated that Farmanfarma would be unlikely to intrigue against the Cabinet if one of his sons were included. Norman added that although Farmanfarma was ‘extremely unpopular, [Sepahdar] had to have a Farmanfarma in the Cabinet for tactical reasons... [The sons of Farm anfarma] often visit me and always allude to their attachm ent to Great Britain... We therefore owe them something’. The appointment of Soleiman Mirza, whose return to Iran Curzon had strenuously objected to some five months earlier, was explained by the fact that Soleiman Mirza was a friend of the respected Mostofi, and his inclusion in the Cabinet might help wavering members of parliament (soon to be convened) to climb aboard and support the Agreement.

When some two weeks later Sepahdar asked Norman for funds to be disbursed amongst the newly-elected members of parliament and Norman routinely asked Curzon for approval, Curzon responded with indignation, probably prompted by the recent revelation of the bribe and his prior assent to i t He wrote to Norman: Sepahdar (who) prided his government on repudiation of venality which he severely condemned in some of his predecessors now contemplates adoption of similar methods of support for Anglo-Persian Agreement. You should emphatically dissociate yourself from any such suggestion. This is the same Curzon who some fifteen months earlier had approved the bribe to the triumvirate and a monthly retainer for the Shah. Now sensing that the Agreement had little chance of ratification he acted offended and morally outraged.

Norman, already irritated with Curzon for disassociating himself from the bribery episode and now portraying himself as a paragon of virtue, could not help but indicate the contrast between the practices of Sepahdar and those of Vosouq and Cox: Sepahdar is personally honest and his request does not appear to afford evidence to the contrary any more than use of Secret Service Funds by European statesmen reflects on the integrity of the latter... Sepahdar never flattered himself that he was certain of getting Anglo-Persian Agreement accepted by the Medjllss without expenditure of money... Till late this question would have presented no difficulties since [Persian] Government could always dispose of revenue according to their pleasure. For example when I arrived I found a great part of monthly subsidy of 350.000 tomans being used to silence the opposition.

Norman explained that the practice stopped when Pimia introduced a monthly budget which excluded any provision for ‘Secret Services’. Sepahdar was unwilling to revive the old practice, for it would be obvious to all what any payment above and beyond the confines of the budget was intended for. Norman asked Curzon to reconsider the m atter and reassured him that Sepahdar ‘is in our hands to a much greater extent than was his predecessor and if he can be sure that His Majesty’s Government will support him adequately will do practically anything they wish’.18 Norman’s telegram is also interesting in that it indicates that Vosouq paid off politicians from the Iranian Treasury and not from his personal funds or from proceeds of the bribe as Vosouq claimed years later. Lest Curzon still believed Vosouq had never used his share of the bribe for personal use, Norman in another dispatch reported, have been told by an unimpeachable authority that Vosouq ed Dowleh did not give 200,000 tomans, as he claims to Tomanians to help the latter [out of bankruptcy but paid it to him as the purchase price of a dozen villages in Mazandaran’.

The failure to have the Agreement approved was beginning to cost Curzon dearly and he began to lose support in the British Cabinet. Confronted with uprisings in Mesopotamia. Egypt and Ireland, and industrial strife in mainland Britain itself, the need for troops became acute. These events, coupled with budgetary constraints, made the Cabinet unwilling to delay the recall of troops from northern Iran any longer than early spring of 1921, whatever the consequences. Curzon reluctantly accepted, hoping that before withdrawal the Iranian Parliament would meet and approve the Agreement. Curzon, who until now had assented to the appointment of a weak and servile Prime Minister as the answer to his problems, soon despaired and in a series of telegrams to Norman voiced suspicions about Sepahdar.

He warned Norman that the Iranian Government, having exhausted all financial resources of the British Government, had turned to APOC and the Imperial Bank and somehow had eked enough money to carry on for a few months longer. APOC had agreed to pay the Iranian Government one million tomans in settlement of all royalties for the period ending 31 March 1919. The payments were staggered over eight-to-nine months. Curzon was fearful that once the Soviets reached an agreement with the Iranians and renounced concessions acquired during the Czarist regime, the Iranian Government could well turn around and offer the same concessions (such as the Khoshtaria oil concession) to the Soviets and/or other countries.

By the end of December gloom had descended upon the British Cabinet and the Government sought expert advice as how best to deal with the deteriorating situation in Iran. G.P. Churchill, a former Oriental Counselor at the Legation in Tehran familiar with Iranian affairs for over a quarter of a century, submitted one of the first memoranda. Churchill predicted that Bolshevik troops with their Iranian allies would attack Qazvin and then Tehran as soon as British forces withdrew. Iranian military forces were unreliable and would offer no resistance. The Government in Tehran would collapse and the Shah would escape to Europe. The Bolshevik forces would stop short of actually occupying Tehran but with the help of their agents and sympathisers would control the capital and install a pro-Bolshevik government. The Cossack Division could not be reorganised by British officers in time, hence no military equipment should be given to them as they would fall into enemy hands.

The Gendarmes, the Tehran police and other Iranian local forces would either return to their homes or take arm s and turn into highway robbers. Churchill warned of dire consequences not only in southern Iran but the likelihood of a similar process in Afghanistan and Mesopotamia. He further predicted that in such circumstances the India Office would contend that the best place to defend India was on the Indian frontiers and Iran should be left to her fate. Churchill argued that this attitude was unacceptable as British commercial interests, including the Imperial Bank and APOC, would suffer. The debt to Britain amounting to several million pounds would have to be written off and the expenditures incurred in Iran over the past five years would have been wasted. Churchill felt that it was too late to think of acceptance of the Agreement by the Iranian parliament. Even if ratified at the last moment none of its provisions could be put into effect. He then proposed m easures to minimise British losses. He suggested that the Legation be moved to Esfahan.

Britain should conclude a military and financial assistance arrangement with the Bakhtiari leaders under which the latter would support a government to be formed in central and southern Iran. Britain should then send selected officers with a large contingent of SPR to Esfahan to strengthen Bakhtiari forces. This plan Churchill contended would lay the groundwork for an eventual attem pt to re* establish the Shah’s authority in the north while continuing to protect the oil fields in the South. Churchill concluded his report with an obvious jibe at Norman and the India Office: All idea of governing Persia with and through a Medjliss or by employing democrats should, at this dangerous stage in Persia’s affairs be abandoned. A government might be composed of strong men whose names are known and feared by the great tribes. These men, it is true, are usually corrupt and rapacious, but they are the only people who can deal with the tribal chiefs who will not move for democratic leaders whom they despise. Ain al Dowleh is perhaps the best of this class.

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