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Confronting British Imperialism: Iran at the Peace of Paris, 1919

Philip Grobien | University of St Andrews

Before the guns fell silent and as the First World War drew to a close, the Allied powers of Britain, France and the United States began planning for peace. The Big Four of Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George and Vittoria Orlando embarked on a peace conference with the aim of making future world wars impossible. Europe was gripped by ideas of a new world order; a new internationalism based on international law and sovereignty which foresaw an introduction of ideas like self-determination. However, this was to be a worldwide phenomenon and other countries, such as Iran, saw the upcoming peace conference in Paris as a path to re-establish sovereignty independent of unwanted impositions from foreign powers. Yet Britain was to adopt a more nuanced approach to ideas of independence, particularly when it came to the Middle East and Iran. Inevitably, Iran’s mission to recapture sovereignty, territory and to receive reparations put it at loggerheads with Britain’s plans.

The First World War

Iran’s suffering during the First World War had been caused by a number of specific but often related factors. Iran’s declaration of neutrality at the beginning of the war had not prevented its territory from being used as a battleground by the Allies and Central powers. Civilians were caught in the middle of the conflict and were gripped by numerous epidemics including typhus, cholera and influenza. Periodic outbreaks of famine underscored the disintegration of governmental control. Government authority, never extensive, was now impotent and the government was unable to cope with the deteriorating situation. Increasingly, Iran’s elite had become divided, and some looked towards supporting the Germans as a means of escaping Iran’s semi-colonial existence. A condition that had reached its apogee under the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which had delineated Iran into spheres of influence. For the British, any turn towards Germany brought Iran’s claim to neutrality into question.

The end of the First World War did not bring significant improvements to Iran’s condition. Iran’s circumstances were still dire though the extent of Iran’s suffering during and after the war is now being disputed by some historians. What cannot be disputed is that Britain was now the dominant power in the region. The Ottomans, on Germany’s side, had lost the war and the Russians were occupied by the effects of the Russian Revolution. At the same time, British and Iranian relations were also at a low ebb. Britain’s collaboration with the Russians, their debilitating control on Iran’s purse strings, and their support of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s claim that Iran had not done enough to prevent the sabotage of their pipelines, all helped to establish the British as Iran’s bête noire.

Nevertheless, Iran had been energised by the ideas of a new world order which offered independence and freedom from intervention by foreign powers. At the same time, they were also driven by despair. One of the delegates, Mohamad Ali Foroughi, suggested that they feared that Iran would collapse further and cease to exist. It was becoming clear that any proposals to the Peace of Paris would depend on several issues. Iran’s approach would need to capitalise on the available international sympathy. Comparisons were drawn between the fates of Belgium and Iran and how Iran’s suffering as a non-belligerent (non-combatant) country had merit. Moreover, Iran had suffered more as a neutral country than a country like China which had gone to war but had suffered little. As we shall see, Iran also had to overcome British reservations.

Russian Cossack and British officers meeting with Kurdish tribal leaders, 1917.
Russian Cossack and British officers meeting with Kurdish tribal leaders, 1917.

Planning for Peace

Iran began planning to send a delegation to Paris before the war had ended. Iran’s political elite, and in particular Ahmad Shah, according to the newspaper Iran, put the wheels in motion. Ahmad Shah set about organising a diplomatic programme which formed the delegation’s foundations. Already a commission had been established to determine the damages caused by the war and to assess the state of the nation. In addition, views regarding Iran’s approach were sought from Iran’s embassies abroad. The embassies in the United States and France both provided advice on content and remarked on the political climate in these countries and how this might affect Iran’s outstanding issues. Thereafter, at the cessation of hostilities, Ahmad Shah oversaw a meeting of former and current ministers in his palace to discuss the aim of Iran’s future foreign policy. This was the first of many meetings and resulted in a two-pronged approach; to send a delegation to Paris and another to the United States. However, the latter scheme was soon dropped, and all energies were put into sending a delegation to the Peace of Paris, supported and facilitated by a diplomatic charm offensive.

Iran’s approach and diplomatic strategy was well thought out and attested to the use of modern methods. This suggests that the tail-end of the Qajar dynasty in Iran was not simply a narrative of decline and disintegration, but a story wholly more complex and nuanced. Modern methods are more usually associated with the Pahlavi dynasty, which ushered in and imposed the modernisation of Iran. In fact, this period exemplified an Iranian enlightenment which had begun with the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911), if not before. Some of the delegates who would eventually go to Paris were participants in the Constitutional Revolution, which had established a parliament and set down laws. All the delegates, chosen by Ahmad Shah, were nationalists who believed in Iran’s independence. This included Moshaver al-Mamalek, the leader of the delegation.

A young Ahmad Shah
A young Ahmad Shah

Moshaver al-Mamalek, leader of the Iranian delegation.
Moshaver al-Mamalek, leader of the Iranian delegation.

The British response

By late October 1918, Britain’s man in Tehran, Sir Percy Cox, Minister to Persia, was left in no doubt that Iran would, if possible, attend the Peace of Paris. In response, the British put together a memorandum outlining the reasons why Iran should be prevented from attending. They suggested that access should be barred on the grounds that Iran had been non-belligerent during the First World War and that Britain wanted to be free to “settle our post-war policy directly with the Persian Government”. The memorandum continued to outline the need for an Iranian policy which reflected the security of India and, therefore, any policy that promoted stability in the region would be ideal. If access to the Peace of Paris could not be rebuffed, then various contingencies were also mooted, which included mandate powers.

In contrast to its views towards a European peace, the British regarded the end of the First World War as an opportunity to extend its influence throughout the Near and Middle East. Numerous agreements had been made with local regional powers, some of them contradictory, to facilitate British war aims. One notorious outcome of British interventionism in the Middle East was the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), which provided for the arbitrary division of Ottoman provinces. As President Wilson was to argue, these secret agreements were incompatible with the new era, but they also fed into America’s growing criticism of British imperialism.

Iran’s demands

On 21 November, Vosuq al-Dowleh, Iran’s Prime Minister submitted a memorandum listing Iran’s demands to the French, British and United States governments. This memorandum requested reparations for losses during the war, the cancelling or re-adjustment of all political and commercial treaties and agreements, economic freedom and the redrawing of Iran’s frontiers. A primary motivation behind this memorandum was liberty from any one power’s influence, such as Britain. The scheme to send a delegation to the United States had principally been to argue their case, but also to encourage greater involvement by the United States in Iran. The Iranians had been keen to attract other countries, including France, as part of a greater wish to counteract British domination.

The memorandum elicited general backing from the United States Minister in Persia, John Caldwell. The Americans, rightly, had misgivings that the British would not allow Iran to attend. Though sympathetic, they were not prepared to commit to helping Iran before President Wilson arrived in Paris. The French reaction was mixed. While Raymond Lecomte, Minister to Tehran, ridiculed Iran’s intentions, not all French diplomats agreed. The newspaper Le Temps, however, looked on Iran’s request with sympathy as a just cause.

The British were not to be swayed and were busy making their own plans for Iran’s future. Lord Curzon, by now the leading “expert” on Iran had begun to negotiate the Anglo-Persian Agreement (1919) with the anglophile Iranian Prime Minister Vosuq al-Dowleh. The Anglo-Persian Agreement, the brainchild of Lord Curzon, would have put Britain in ultimate control over Iran’s financial and military affairs. The agreement broadly called for a loan of two million pounds sterling for general reforms, which included the army, in exchange for closer ties to Britain when it came to defence and foreign affairs. In all likelihood, this agreement would have enabled British oil companies to extend drilling rights.

Lord Curzon in his robes as Viceroy of India.
Lord Curzon in his robes as Viceroy of India.

Ultimately, this agreement, and Lord Curzon specifically, was to be heavily criticised on the international stage for the pursuit of an outmoded imperial diplomacy. The French and American press attacked Britain for treating Iran as a protectorate and for the secrecy surrounding the negotiations. The French and United States governments began quietly campaigning against the agreement and declined to recognise it. The international uproar aside, the agreement was to suffer from other interconnected factors. Lord Curzon had also forced this agreement on Britain. Others in government and the Government of India had been against greater involvement in Iran. Soviet Russia, also against the agreement, responded by landing a Russian military force in the Caspian, intent on securing the Iranian capital Tehran. Despite the aftereffects of the Russian Revolution, Lord Curzon was surprised to see that they were still a factor in Iranian politics. Fundamentally, however, Lord Curzon had not expected the Iranian reaction to the agreement. Greeted as a final nail in Iranian sovereignty, this agreement which had been facilitated by British bribes, epitomised everything which a growing Iranian polity considered wrong in their relationship with foreign powers. The secrecy in which it had been negotiated and the use of bribery were two factors in international diplomacy which President Wilson opposed. The agreement was never to be ratified by Iran’s parliament but the negotiation of such an agreement, the very antithesis of Iran’s aims at the Peace of Paris, would undercut the Iranian attempts to get a hearing.


The Iranian delegation arrived in Paris in early 1919. Just as they were preparing to set their diplomatic charm offensive into action, Vosuq al-Dowleh asked them to wait and postpone their attempt to gain access to the peace conference. At around the same time they had heard from Arthur Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary who was in Paris, that other negotiations were taking place between the two governments in Tehran. Lord Curzon had already begun through Sir Percy Cox to negotiate towards the Anglo-Persian Agreement. The delegates were now apprehensive that their work in Paris would be undermined by Vosuq al-Dowleh, whose predilection towards the British was always well known. In a few weeks, Vosuq al-Dowleh’s order to wait was lifted, and they embarked on their diplomatic campaign.

At a formal reception, Moshaver al-Mamalek was encouraged by President Wilson and, with the help of the Italian delegation, Iranian participation was put on the agenda on 18 February 1919. At the meeting of the Council of Ten, Arthur Balfour was adamant that as non-belligerents the Iranians could not be allowed to attend. Eventually, other representations were made to the Council, principally through Secretary of State Robert Lansing and President Wilson. Indeed, President Wilson, on two occasions, brought up the question of Iranian admittance at the Council of Ten.

The Big Four in Paris. Vittorio Orlando (Italy), David Lloyd George (Britain), Georges Clemenceau (France), Woodrow Wilson (USA) (left to right).
The Big Four in Paris. Vittorio Orlando (Italy), David Lloyd George (Britain), Georges Clemenceau (France), Woodrow Wilson (USA) (left to right).

British objections worked in Paris for a number of reasons. Overall, the atmosphere at the peace conference placed more emphasis on maintaining peace in Europe, rather than on issues concerning the Middle East and the Ottomans. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that the confused and chaotic nature of deliberations worked against the Iranians and others. Ignorance of the Middle East was also another factor, and extra motivations were necessary to get involved. In addition to the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, only the plight of the Armenians and a possible homeland for them was discussed at the Peace of Paris. It is likely that pressure from the international press and the issue of Christianity had much to do with that

In March, the Iranians had synthesised their demands and presented them in the Claims of Persia before the Conference of the Preliminaries of Peace at Paris. This document was based on the aforementioned memorandum of November 1918. This document expressed a nationalism independent of foreign interference, a request for reparations from the Turks and Germans, and a re-drawing of Iran’s borders to those of 1828. This included in the north-west, many of the territories lost under the Treaty of Turkmanchai and, in the north-east, the entire area between the Amou Darya (Oxus River) and the River Attrek, known as the Transcaspian. In addition, Iran claimed Suleimanieh and what amounted to Ottoman Kurdistan. Apart from the latter, this represented all the lands lost to Russia over nearly 100 years. In a nod towards the political realities of requiring British help and consent in their quest, it did not include any of the Persian Gulf territories controlled by the British.

Penitent Iranian negotiators at the Peace of Turkmanchai, 1828.
Penitent Iranian negotiators at the Peace of Turkmanchai, 1828.

In Claims of Persia before the Conference of the Preliminaries of Peace at Paris, the delegates expressed the desire to be independent from foreign interference. As they set out this argument, they explained that whilst ideas of “progress” were important to the future of Iran, the integration of modern methods in Iran necessitated a change in approach. While in the West, the concepts of progress had been rooted in the Enlightenment, for the Iranians any modernisation in Iran had come in the shape of concessions on the back of a hegemonic imperialism. In short, the introduction of progress in Iran had been to the advantage of nations such as Britain and Russia and not Iran. As Japanese modernisation had shown, it would be possible to affect an Iranian “enlightenment” and not to emulate a European modernity. The delegates in Paris, therefore, set out the desire for progress in the context of an independent and sovereign Iran. As we have seen with the Anglo-Persian Agreement, Lord Curzon had considered progress in Iran to be within a colonial context, something which the nationalists who made up the delegation in Paris considered continuing subordination.

Map showing extent of Iranian claims in red.
Map showing extent of Iranian claims in red.

Ultimately, the Iranians were unsuccessful in presenting their wishes to the Peace of Paris. The failure of Iran’s diplomacy revolved around some issues that the Iranians could simply not circumvent. The Iranians depended on the British for support, which was not forthcoming as Britain had its own plans for Iran and were intent on developing those plans in the Anglo-Persian Agreement. The Anglo-Persian Agreement shocked the Iranian delegates in Paris who saw it as a violation of Article 10 in the League of Nations Charter. The American press intimated that “The absorption of Persia into the British Empire seems to be a process well underway”. In Iran, the commotion led to rumours that Ahmad Shah, who had felt forced to sign the agreement, had fled to Constantinople immediately after signing the treaty. The delegates did have one accomplishment in Paris in that they were successful in becoming a founding member of the League of Nations, fulfilling at least one aim.

However, when you strip out the misjudged Anglo-Persian Agreement, it is difficult to see what else the British could have done in the circumstances. In one respect, Iranian claims would have necessitated, at the very least, a fully functioning government in control of its borders which in the aftermath of the First World War it was not. Of course, the British had a part to play in this narrative, but the agency for change always lay with the Iranians.

Iran’s initiative in Paris had helped to develop ideas for her future, ideas which Reza Khan Pahlavi would develop. Iran was starting to evince a more modern approach to diplomacy. The British approach showed that outside Europe, she would continue to depend on tried and tested colonial and imperial approaches. It is perhaps no wonder that 1919 represented the nadir of Iran’s relationship with the British and the beginning, however slow, of the end of the British political domination of Iran.


Further reading

  • Oliver Bast, ‘La mission persane à la Conférence de Paix en 1919: Une nouvelle interprétation’ in Oliver Bast (ed), La Perse et La Grande Guerre, Bibliothéque Iranienne 52 (Tehran; Louvain: Peeters, 2002)

  • Oliver Bast ‘Putting the Record Straight: Vosuq al-Dowleh’s Foreign Policy in 1918/19’ in Touraj Atabaki and Erik J. Zürcher (eds) Men of Order: Authoritarian Modernization under Ataturk and Reza Shah (London: I.B.Tauris, 2004)

  • Homa Katouzian, State and Society in Iran: The Eclipse of the Qajars and the Emergence of the Pahlavis (London; New York: I.B Tauris, 2006)

  • Margaret Macmillan, Peacemakers, The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (London: John Murray, 2002)

Philip Grobien is a PhD student of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. This article is derived from his thesis entitled: Resurrecting Empire: Iranian Irredentism in 1919.


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