British influence in Persia in the 19th century
by Abbas Amanatpublished in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 11
New York: Columbia University, 2003
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With the establishment and growth of the Indo-European Telegraph Department (hereafter IETD) in Persia from the mid-1860s, the British networks for news-gathering and local influence grew in size and efficiency. Some of the telegraph offices were in remote towns and villages and clashes with the locals were not rare nor were frequent recruiting from the local population. Creating a vital link with colonial India, IETD became the most significant British investment in Persia up to the early 20th century. The officers and employees of the IETD, whose security and well-being was the responsibility of the British government, often acted as informal British representatives at their posts and invariably exerted some measure of authority through their Persian contacts. Qualified members of the Armenian and Bahai communities were among the employees of IETD which offered them jobs and a degree of security. Like British consuls and agents, IETD often happened to be the only refuge for members of religious minorities at the time of crisis and persecution, particularly for the Babi-Bahais and the Jews. Like the British consulates, the telegraph offices were recognized as the inviolable property of the British government, and were used as sanctuary (bast) by those escaping from persecution of some mojtaheds, of mob frenzy, and from tax collectors and oppression of the government agents (Momen, pp. 268-73).
From the middle of the century, and more consistently since the 1870s, the British legation and consulates adopted a policy of reporting instances of outrage and persecution against recognized minorities especially the Nestorian Christians, the Zoroastrians, the Armenians, and the Jews, and occasionally mediated on their behalf with the Persian authorities. From the 1850s onwards, the Parsee community of India, which had long enjoyed excellent terms with the British, became more concerned with the plight of the Zoroastrians co-religionists in Persia. They often sought British diplomatic channels to ameliorate the pressure exerted by local authorities or by some troublemakers among the ulama. During the residence in Persia (1854-90) of the Parsee representative, the celebrated Mānakji pur Limji pur Hushang Hatāriā, there was some improvement in the condition of the Zoroastrian communities of Yazd and Kermān partly thanks to the British support (Šahmardān, pp. 617-42). His Parsee successor, Sir Ardeshir Ji Reporter (1893-1933), however, served as one of the most influential British agents in Persia at the critical juncture at the end of the Qajar period and the rise of Reżā Khan to power (Wright, 1977, pp. 44-45).
During the 1873 and 1889 royal tours of England, with the help of the British government, influential Jewish figures such as Sir Moses Montefiore, Baron Lionel de Rothschild, and Sir Albert Sassoon urged Nāṣer-al-Din Shah to improve the condition of the Persian Jewry. These concerted efforts, to which the shah responded positively, no doubt helped curtailing the recurrence of severe persecutions and eventually led to the lifting of the hated religious tax (jeziya) in 1882 for Zoroastrians but only partially for others. Seldom, however, before the 20th century, did the members of the Jewish community act as instruments of British influence in Persia. In dealing with persecutions, though the Foreign Office did act on humanitarian grounds, often it went only far enough to satisfy the concerned constituencies at home. Occasional British efforts to save the Babi-Bahai communities from merciless killings, torture and imprisonment were far less successful not only because of the ingrained enmity towards them among the governmental and religious authorities, not to mention the shah himself, but also for the want of any representation on their behalf outside Persia. Despite groundless accusations in the late 20th century anti-Bahai literature, only few Babi-Bahais acted as British commercial agents in Yazd and Bušehr. Nor did they receive any blanket protection from any foreign power except in local level and in severe cases of persecution. Only in the late 19th century when a Bahai community emerged in the city of Ashkabad in the Russian Turkestan (today’s Turkmenistan), was there any sign of Russian attention to the fate of the Bahais in Persia.