The War with Great Britain over Herat

  August 07, 2021   Read time 3 min
The War with Great Britain over Herat
Iran fought its last irredentist war of the despotic period in 1856-57. This war, which was with Great Britain over Herat, was similar to the ones with Russia over Georgia. Iran had lost Herat, like Georgia, in the eighteenth century after the assassination of Nadir Shah and amid the ensuing internal disorder.

Ahmad Khan, the commander of the Abdâlï contingent, broke away from the Iranian army, occupied Herat, and set the foundation of the independent kingdom of Afghanistan. The Q äjär rulers claimed Herat as they had claimed Georgia. Fath Alî Shah led two expeditions for the recovery of Herat - in 1799 and 1800. The outbreak of his first war with Russia (1804) left the question of Herat in abeyance. Once the protracted hostilities with Russia were finally terminated, the problem of Herat was revived. 'Abbâs M îrzâ, the heir apparent, marched on Herat. His purpose was twofold: he wished to return Herat to the control of Iran; he also sought to repair his prestige, which had suffered grievously in the war with Russia.

Iran’s decision to recover Herat brought it into conflict with Great Britain. The British interests in Herat were linked to Great Britain’s imperial interests in India. Herat was regarded as the starting point of routes to Kabul and Qandahar from which ran natural lines of invasion into India. For this reason Great Britain opposed Fath 'All Shah’s plan to capture Herat. British opposition stiffened when Muhammad Shah (1834-48) ascended the throne of Iran. He, in contrast to Fath 'All Shah, favored Russia over Great Britain. His control of Herat, then, might well bring Russian influence to the gates of India.

In spite of British opposition the Shah attempted to seize Herat in 1836-38. The Iranian army, however, failed here as it had failed in the wars with Russia. And this defeat was even more humiliating. The Shah’s army proved unequal to an undisciplined eastern army without the benefit of any modem weapons of warfare. The Afghan swordsmen drove the Iranian besiegers back. The Shah attempted to cover up the ensuing disgrace by blaming the defeat of his army on Perovski, a Russian general who had planned the attack. In the meantime Great Britain began a show of force in the Persian Gulf. The Shah utilized the British maneuver as a face-saving device. He pretended that only the action of a great power like Great Britain could force him to terminate the seizure of Herat, and he proclaimed officially that Herat belonged to Iran and that its capture was still an important objective of his policy.

This objective was inherited by his successor, who clashed with Great Britain in 1856. Nâsir al-Din Shah (1848-96) was no less an irredentist monarch than his predecessors. The real instigator in this second attempt against Herat was probably Mirza Äqä Khân Nûri, the Shah’s Grand Vizier, rather than Russia, but Great Britain still suspected Iran’s attitude toward Russia.4' In anticipation of the Crimean W ar (1854-56) Russia had secretly obtained an agreement from the Shah in 1853 to take military action, at Tabriz and Kermanshah, against the enemies of Russia. Great Britain regarded this undertaking as a committal on the part of Iran to a course of quasihostility. The deteriorating relations between Great Britain and Iran took a turn for the worse in 1856, when Iran marched on Herat and occupied it without resistance.

Reluctantly Great Britain declared war on Iran. Strategically it was easier to attack Iran from the Persian Gulf than overland. The island of Khark was occupied, and the British forces overwhelmed the Iranian army, which twice fled panic-stricken, leaving munitions behind. The government of the Shah then sued for peace, and a treaty was signed in Paris in 1857. By this agreement Iran relinquished all its territorial claims to Afghanistan, recognized the latter’s independence, and pledged not to interfere in its internal affairs.

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