In Iran Episode 11

About Nilanjan Hajra

Nilanjan Hajra, 49, is a poet, traveller and gourmet. He earns his living as a journalist.

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The world order that the World War I devoured also included the Qajar reign in Iran. 1921. The Russians, the British and the Ottomans all wanted a piece of Iran. Sultan Ahmed Shah Qajar, in his early 20s, was completely out of depth. Brigadier General Reza Khan of the Cossack Brigade struck at the opportune moment. 1923 saw the young Qajar king forced into exile. In October 1925 the titular legislature, Majlis, instituted by the Qajars, conferred the title of Shah on Reza Khan. Thus began the Pahlavi reign, with Reza Shah Pahlavi as the first ruler of the dynasty.

Iran turned towards Europe. Reza Shah was determined to run an infrastructural revolution across the nation, largely with the help of the Germans. At the height of this socio-economic churning arrived Rabindranath Tagore on an invitation from the Shah himself. It was an extraordinary trip that yielded his last travel diary, which is an extraordinary treatise on civilization. The extent to which Tagore punished his body to undertake this travel is astounding, and it demands special attention from researchers to the question, why indeed the old ailing poet

embarked on it? To accept the invitation must have been an extremely difficult decision for him. The invitation was for straight 52 days, from April 11 to June 1, 1932. Besides Bushehr, in the course of the journey, Rabindranath would be visiting, Shiraz, Isfahan, Teheran, Hamadan and Kermanshah in Iran, then Khanaqin and Baghdad in Iraq. By today’s calculations, that would be 1735 Km in Iran itself. He would be travelling in cars, which by today’s standards, were rudimentary boxes on wheels, and on roads, which, as we find from his diary, were a far cry from the silken highways that criss-cross Iran today. Such a journey would begin with a two-day flight in a 12 passenger Dutch Air Mail Fokker Trimoter, which had no air-conditioning and which emitted a deafening noise even inside the cabin.

This would be Rabindranath’s second travel by air, something that he disliked thoroughly. Bushehr, where his flight would land, did not have a regular airport, but just a make-shift air-strip. This must have added to the sense of insecurity that adhered to flying in the early 1930s. All this at the age of 70; by someone whose health was failing. Add to it the fact that accepting this invitation would mean spending his 70th birth anniversary away from home.

Surely, Asia’s most celebrated modern polymath, who had already travelled all over the globe, had very legitimate reasons to politely turn down the invitation. But he decided to go to Iran. There must have been far more compelling reasons, other than assurances from a friend and foreign official, for Rabindranath to accept, what clearly was a veritable physical challenge.

“I would be failing in my duties if I refused to accept this invitation,” he wrote — strong words of deep conviction. What ‘duties’ did Rabindranath have in mind? Duties towards whom? My quest into this question has led me to believe that Rabindranath could not have refused this invitation. His determination to be a Musafir in Persia, was because of two reasons: A. Since early childhood Iran had a key role in shaping Rabindranath’s whole vision of existence, of which Sufism and similar mystic philosophies were quintessential components. Rabindranath was deeply disillusioned with Western civilization by the end of the 19th century.

Contributing to India’s struggle for freedom from British colonial bondage, he was also shaping an anti-colonial discourse. In that effort, he had made it his intellectual mission to spread the message of his own alternative notion of civilization, and sought to deepen his intellectual ties with the leading civilizations of the East, such as China and Japan.

Iran must have been central to this map in his mind. But that again is a vast and completely separate discourse, out of place in this journal. I must, however, add that this trip to Iran yielded Rabindranath’s last travel journal, Parasya-Yatri (A traveller to Persia). It also has a phenomenal commentary on civilizations’ encounter with the “killing noose of religious blindness” that is no less relevant in the world today than it was in the 1930s.

Rabindranath was impressed by Reza Shah’s efforts to modernise Iran. Although being a Royal guest, he had no inkling that the system was bound to throw up, and throw up vigorously, if the King’s progressiveness were to be forced down his subjects’ throats. That is exactly what happened in Iran, some forty years later.

Much before that, however, Reza Shah was troubled with other problems, which began since World War II. Iran’s newfound proximity to Germany disturbed the Allied Powers. Reza Shah proclaimed Iran to be a neutral country. Yet, unlike that of Switzerland, the Allied Powers never accepted Iran’s neutrality. Why? Is there a hint of racist considerations here? I don’t know. But Madhusree Mukherjee’s phenomenal research led to the unassailable conclusion that besides the logic of the colonial machine and the war effort, it was actually Winston Churchill’s personal racist hatred towards India and Indians. He felt this was “a beastly nation with a beastly religion”, that ensured the 1943 Bengal Famine, which starved three million Bengalis to death by torpedoing American attempts to send relief (1)! Can such racial considerations be totally ruled out while trying to understand the West’s relation with Iran? I am not sure. After all it is documented history that the German Minister of the Exterior Ribbentrop had candidly told his USSR counterpart Molotov, on August 24, 1939, that the Soviets were free to attack Iran (so much for the great ideological battle between the Nazis and the Communists). It has now also been proven beyond doubt that the Reza Shah government had given asylum to hundreds of Jews in Iran fleeing from Nazi persecution. And that brings us to the vast and complicated chapter of the Jews in Iran. There is absolutely no escaping the fact that since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, many unacceptable socio-political restrictions have been put in place on the Jews in Iran, as there is no escaping the surprising statistics that Iran has the third largest Jewish population in the world, after Israel and the US. Indeed, in October 2016 in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, a major Israeli right-of-centre daily, Iran’s only Jewish Member of the Majlis, Siamak Moreh Sadegh, is quoted to have said that despite various restrictions, “In the history of Iran, Jews have never been forbidden from being in any city, not even in the holiest.” Claiming that Iran was much “safer for Jews than France and there is no need for security at synagogues,” he put the current number of Jews at 25000 (2).

The Encyclopaedia Iranica (Columbia University, New York City) accepts this number. (3) However, the2011 ‘National Population and Housing Census’ data published by the Statistical Centre of Iran, puts the number at 8756. Surely the number could not have tripled between 2011 and 2016. Here is a catch, confronting which is essential towards any attempt at understanding the nature of the Islamic regime in Iran: the discrepancies between the apparent and the reality, between what the regime’s ostensible signals and real results of its policies. Does it want to signal to the world that it enforces a far more strict Islamic code than it really does or is it just the opposite? My brief digging into the gender issue signalled to me that it was indeed the former. Unfortunately one of the major lapses during my Iran trip on my part was my failure to at least try to look into the Jewish question.

All this, however, pertains to the post Islamic Revolution Iran. There is absolutely no evidence that Reza Shah had any complicity with the Nazi or Fascist barbarism. Yet the Allied Powers rejected its declaration of neutrality and the Anglo-Soviet army invaded Iran in August-September 1941. It was a very well-oiled operation, literally.

Yes, oil, and oil alone, has been at the heart of every single move the West has made vis a vis Iran since the beginning of the 20th century. So, whether Reza Shah was close to Nazi Germany or not, is really not even peripherally important to understand his unceremonious exit from the throne. For that we have to look into the files of the Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC), a British owned company. The story runs through long, convoluted, contested pipelines of history that since the first decade of the 20th century has sucked oil from

the earth and spurted out blood on the face of humanity. Here we will just note that till 1932 the APOC owned all the refineries in all the provinces of Iran, barring five, and pocketed 84 percent of the earnings, sharing only 16 percent with the government of Iran.  Muzaffar Ad-din Shah, the fifth Qajar king, caught in a vicious debt trap, signed an agreement with William Knox D’Arcy, a British land speculator and miner, in 1901. Known as the D’Arcy Concession, it can be marked as the well from which has blown-out blood and tears that is set to drown the world today. It gave the British almost unmitigated control over Persian (which included Iranian and Iraqi) oil.

Driven by a swelling mass anger at the arrangement, Reza Shah, abrogated it, and drew up a new one in 1933. It forced the APOC to share more money with Iran, reduced its area of control, but still let it remain the sole digger. As the World War II ensued, the Allies feared a German occupation of the oil fields, which would be a nightmare for the war effort and a huge blow to the British colonial engine. Joseph Stalin, on the other hand, had already drawn up a blueprint to occupy Azerbaijan, to expand his empire. So, in 1941 the Britsh-USSR army invaded Iran and dethroned Reza Shah, and put his son Muhammad Reza Shah on the hot seat. The British-USSR army finally vacated Iran in 1946, but the country remained trapped in the iron grip of Western oil-greed, until the Islamic Revolution freed it from the grip, but not from the greed, in 1979.


Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra


  1. Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II: Madhusree Mukherjee. Basic Books. 2011.


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