Immediate Background to the Nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s Crisis: Britain and Iran

Immediate Background to the Nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company’s Crisis: Britain and Iran

Britain and Iran

With the consolidation of the British position in India, the commercial hegemony of the East India Company over the Persian Gulf zone underwent a gradual change into political supremacy over the region, which lasted until nearly three quarters of the twentieth century. The initial factor was Napoleonic activity in the Middle East. France, traditionally Britain’s colonial rival, had already made an abortive attempt in the mid seventeenth century to establish herself in the Persian Gulf area, with a view to capturing India. Later when hostility broke out between Britain and revolutionary France, the Paris government sent emissaries to the Middle East to explore the possibility of an advance towards India. Against such a perspective, Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt was interpreted in British circles as a prelude to the invasion of India. The French threat led the Governor-General of India, Lord Wellesley, to look beyond the frontiers of the Indian Empire for its defence. The Governor-General of India sought to safeguard British interests through extending his well-known policy of subordinate alliances to the state contiguous to India on the west. Lord Wellesley, therefore, sent a mission to Teheran, the capital of Persia, in order to negotiate agreements to secure the exclusion of French influence. The envoy induced the Shah of Persia, Fath Ali Shah, into promising armed assistance to the British in the event of a French advance towards the Persian Gulf. This was late reinforced by a British person this time, as the first mission was headed by a Persian, working for the East India Company. The Governor-General of India sent Captain (later General Sir) John Malcolm to Teheran. As a result of active diplomatic efforts, as the Shah of Persia was in no mood to co-operate with the British to the degree that the British wished, Malcolm was to settle two treaties with Persia, one was political and the other was commercial. By virtue of the political engagement the contracting parties agreed to concert measures for joint defence in the event of a French move towards the Persian Gulf. The commercial treaty embodied several measures seeking to encourage trade between the two countries.5

The British Government’s alliance with Persia was primarily, as far as Persia was concerned, an instrument to be used against Russia. However, when in 1800 St. Petersburg annexed Georgia, a territory over which the Persian Emperor had control, Britain refused to reply to Persia’s call for assistance. This British action was consequential of a renewed French drive to incorporate the country within her sphere of influence. Consequently the Persian Emperor, Fath Ali Shah, turned to France for help. Napoleon was only too willing to extend protection to a country which could serve as a base for operations against India.6

Lord Minto, Wellesley’s successor as Governor-General of India, immediately sent Malcolm to Persia again, as the new Franco-Persian relationship caused concern in India, with instructions to prevent the French from occupying a position in Persia. By this time France had become increasingly influential in Teheran. The British envoy was not received by the Emperor of Persia, and was asked to negotiate with the subordinate court of the Prince-Governor of Fars at Shiraz, a Persian province, near the Persian Gulf. The British envoy immediately returned to Calcutta and urged Minto to send an expedition to the Persian Gulf with the object of establishing a base there. General Sir John Malcolm recommended to the Governor-General of India that a base in the Persian Gulf would place a lever in the government’s hand and therefore it would no longer be necessary to rely on the Persians.7

  1. J.B. KELLY, Britain and the Persian Gulf, 1795-1880, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).
  2. Ibid
  3. V. CHIROL, The Middle Eastern Question or Some Political Problems of Indian Defence, (London: John Murray, 1903).

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