Tehran – a city of revolutions

Despite my enforced early start yesterday it was still mid/late afternoon by the time I hit the outskirts of Tehran due to all my stuffing around looking for a money-changer and the too-numerous photo stops.

And this landed me smack bang in the middle of Friday afternoon peak hour traffic. Tehran is a BIG city – on a par with London and New York, except the driving is much worse. Much, much worse! Not as bad as Delhi, mind you. Nothing is as bad as the driving in Delhi. Driving/riding in Delhi is beyond description. It has to be seen/heard/smelt/felt to be believed. But at least you don’t have feral goats and cattle in Tehran, just feral M-series BMWs and CLK Mercs.

But I digress.

With a little bit of help from a friendly surveyor I found Ferdowsi St without too much trouble (it would have been a bit hard to miss – it runs due south from Ferdowsi Square. Duh!) But, despite my many attempts, I could not find the hotel in the chaos of the crazed traffic. Eventually I pulled up beside a policeman who seemed to be completely mortified that a western tourist had stopped to talk to him. After a bit of mime and mapping he pointed to a small side street about 100m away. The hotel was not on Ferdowsi Street at all. It fronted a small side street coming off Ferowsi.

The Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel

The so-called mid-range Ferdowsi Hotel was actually called the “Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel”. And it certainly lived up to its grandiose title. One look at the ornate, almost life-size prancing horse statues guarding the entrance and the doorman wearing a cap and jacket said it all.

At first, I was reluctant to even approach the main entrance but the “help” were very helpful and took me to a desk clerk who spoke quite good English. She told me single rooms were 1700 toman/night (which is 17000 rial). This was equivalent to about US$80/night. For what it was the price was a steal. A similar room in Sydney would have been $150-200/night at least. I hadn’t stayed in such a fancy hotel since the Awari Hotel in Lahore nearly 3 months ago. And after the flea-pit in Gorgan I was looking for an upgrade! They also changed money at an unbelievably  generous rate. I took it.

And so the “Ferdowsi International Grand Hotel” became my home for the next few days while I tried get a feel for Tehran.

WARNING: If you find history boring, skip this part.

So what is one to make of Tehran?

Thanks largely to western media Tehran, along with Baghdad, Beirut and Pyong Yang, are probably some of the most vilified cities in the world. Tehran, in particular, is portrayed as a hotbed of revolution and discontent. But this is nothing new. Tehran has been home to political manoeuvring and military action for centuries. To begin to understand Tehran, it is important to appreciate how Tehran’s history has shaped its character.

Originally, Tehran was nothing more than a dusty market town on the outskirts of the famous ancient city of Rayy. In the second half of the 11th century, Rayy was the capital of Tughril-beg’s Seljuq Empire. But in the early 13th century the Khwarazm Shah’s army had reduced most of Rayy to ruins. And by the time the Mongols finished the job in 1224 many of the inhabitants had already fled to Tehran. And so the scene was set for the rise of Tehran in Persian history.

By the middle of the 16th century Tehran had become a major centre of the Safavid Empire. And when  the Qajars came knocking in 1758, Karim Khan of the ruling Zand dynasty fortified Tehran and its reputation as a place of military intrigue and resistance was sealed. Unfortunately Karim Khan’s Zand dynasty didn’t last long and it was the Qajars who benefitted from their former enemy’s diligent defensive effort when they finally seized Tehran and made it their capital.

But it was in the 20th century that Tehran’s reputation as a city of revolutions reached global proportions. And the Western superpowers (US and UK) and Russia have been involved in most of  them in some way.

Firstly, there was the Constitutional Revolution in 1906. The last years of the Qajar dynasty had almost bankrupted the country by squandering the treasury’s funds on their extragance and opulence. The shah, Mozaffir al-Din,  was eventually forced to introduce the first constitution and parliament (Majlis) in all of Asia. Tsarist Russia became alarmed at the prospect of revolting peasants on its southern flank and geared up to invade northern Iran to put a stop to this disturbing development.

Unfortunately for democracy the  shah died soon after, to be replaced by his son, Muhammad Ali.  Ali, like his worried Tsarist supporters, did not share his father’s  embracing of democracy and arrested all the members of parliament. Then, with artillery  kindly supplied by Russia, shelled the crap out of the Majlis building. In 1907, an Anglo-Russian agreement divided Iran in half with Russia controlling the north and Britain the south. Local militia forces hostile to the new Shah began a military campaign to seize Tehran and depose the Shah. But in 1909 Russian troops moved to prevent the militia reaching Tehran. The Russians were unsuccessful and Tehran was seized by the militia and the shah was deposed and exiled to Russia.

About the same time British interests were exploring for, and discovering in huge quantities,  the latest must-have commodity – petroleum. At the time, nobody foresaw the critical role petroleum would play in 20th (and 21st) century politics.

In 1908, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was established and a deal was signed where APOC got the lion’s share of the profits.  In 1913 Churchill not only wanted to convert his navy from coal to oil but wanted Britain to control the entire production and supply of oil in Persia. Consequently, the British government bought a controlling interest in APOC.

And so the precedent of a Western government mixing politics, petroleum and war in the Middle East had been set. This was 1913. Does any of this sound familiar?

Detail from Bagh-e Melli Gate in central Tehran. Love the combination of traditional mosaics with the machine gun.

Detail from Bagh-e Melli Gate in central Tehran. Love the combination of traditional mosaics with the machine gun.

This was followed in 1921 by the  coup d’état by Reza Khan, a Brigadier in the Persian Cossack Brigade. Reza’s military overthrow effetively ended about 150 years of the Qajar’s rule of the “Sublime State of Persia”. Soon after Reza Khan crowned himself Shah and became Reza Shah Pahlavi. But during WWII Reza fell out of favour with his erstwhile supporters for his increasingly pro-Nazi stance and was forced into exile in 1941. Britain was desperate to retain control of its oil assets and Reza was replaced by the his more compliant son, Mohammad Reza. Initially a puppet of Britan, Mohammad Reza eventually became a willing instrument of US foreign policy.

But the most widely documented, yet least publicised, coup was the infamous 1953 coup –  planned, financed and executed by Kermit Roosevelt and the CIA with the tacit support of the Shah, Mohammad Reza. The democratically elected leader of Iranian  parliament, Mohammad Mossadegh was forced from office for trying to get a better deal for Iran’s oil resources from the AIOC (the new name of the APOC). The coup was the CIA’s first attempt at overthrowing a government and the story makes fascinating reading. It became the CIA’s “how to” manual for removing unco-operative politicians – whether they be democrat and dictator.  You can read all about “Operation Boot/Ajax” in the famous article, published in 2000,  by the New York Times here: http://www.nytimes.com/library/world/mideast/041600iran-cia-index.html

And the most recent revolution, of course, is the Islamic Revolution of 1978/79 that saw the final overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza, the end of direct Western interference and the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini.

For almost the entire 20th century, the West and Russia (both Tsarist and Soviet) have  tried to orchestrate revolutions in Persia/Iran to further their own geopolitical foreign policy goals. Ultimately all have failed.

But we are all still paying the price for those misadventures today.

Categories: 09. Iran | Leave a comment

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