The War Against Persia (1857)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 27 January 1857


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Written on about January 27, 1857
First published in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 4937, February 14, 1857 as a leading article
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.177-180), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Keywords : England, Persia, War, Afghanistan

This article was compiled by the editors of the New York Daily Tribune from Marx's two articles on the Anglo-Persian war, as can be seen from Charles Dana's letter of March 5, 1857. He wrote: "Two articles on Persia were condensed into one and published in that form." The rough copies of both articles are extant. The heading of the article was taken from them.

To understand the policy and object of the war lately undertaken by the British against Persia, and which, according to the most recent accounts, has been so energetically pushed as to lead to submission on the part of the Shah, it is necessary to take a slight retrospect of Persian affairs. The Persian dynasty, founded in 1502 by Ismael, who claimed to be descended from the ancient Persian kings, after maintaining for more than two centuries the power and dignity of a great State, received, about 1720, a severe shock in the rebellion of the Afghans inhabiting its eastern provinces. Western Persia was invaded by them, and two Afghan princes[1] succeeded in keeping themselves for a few years on the Persian throne. They were, however, speedily expelled by the famous Nadir, acting at first in the capacity of General to the Persian claimant[2]. Afterward' he assumed the crown himself, and not only reduced the rebellious Afghans, but by his famous invasion of India contributed much to that disorganization of the declining Mogul empire, which opened the way for the rise of the British power in India. Amid the anarchy that ensued in Persia after the death of Nadir Shah in 1747, there sprang up, under the rule of Ahmed Duranee, an independent Afghan kingdom comprising the Prin¬cipalities of Herat, Cabul, Candahar, Pechawur, and the whole of the territories afterward owned by the Sikhs[3]. This kingdom, only superficially cemented, collapsed at the death of its founder, and was again broken up into its constituent parts, the independent Afghan tribes with separate chiefs, divided by interminable feuds and only exceptionally rallied under the common pressure of a collision with Persia. This political antagonism between the Afghans and Persians, founded on diversity of race, blended with historical reminiscences, kept alive by frontier quarrels and rival claims, is also, as it were, sanctioned by religious antagonism, the Afghans being Mohammedans of the Sunni sect, that is to say, of the orthodox Mohammedan faith, while Persia forms the stronghold of the heretical Shiites[4].

In spite of this intense and universal antagonism, there existed one point of contact between the Persians and Afghans—their common hostility to Russia. Russia invaded Persia for the first time under Peter the Great, but without much advantage. Alexander I, more successful, deprived Persia, by the treaty of Ghulistan[5], of twelve provinces—the greater part of them south of the Caucasus. Nicholas, by the war of 1826-27, ending in the treaty of Turkmanchai[6], stripped Persia of several additional districts, and interdicted her from the navigation on her own shores along the Caspian Sea. The memory of past spoliations, the endurance of present restrictions, and the fear of future encroachments, alike concurred to spur Persia into deadly opposition to Russia. The Afghans, on their part, although never involved in actual quarrels with Russia, were used to consider her as the eternal foe of their religion, and a giant which was to swallow Asia. From considering Russia as their natural foe, both races—Persians and Afghans—were induced to consider England as their natural ally. Thus, to maintain her supremacy, England had but to play the benevolent mediator between Persia and Afghanistan, and to prove the decided adversary of Russian encroachment. A show of amity on the one hand, and an earnest of resistance on the other—nothing else was required.

It cannot be said, however, that the advantages of this position have been very successfully improved. In 1834, in the matter of the selection of an heir to the Shah of Persia, the English were induced to co-operate in favour of the prince[7] proposed by Russia, and the next year to aid that prince with money and the active assistance of British military officers in maintaining his claim by arms against his rival[8][9]. The English Ambassadors dispatched to Persia were charged to warn the Persian Government against allowing itself to be pushed on to make war against the Afghans, which could only result in a waste of resources; but when these Ambassadors earnestly called for authority to prevent a threatened war of this sort, they were put in mind by the Ministry at home of an article in an old treaty of 1814, by which, in case of war between Persia and the Afghans, the English were not to interfere unless their mediation should be solicited[10]. The idea of the British envoys and of the British Indian authorities was that this war was planned by Russia, which power desired to employ the extension of Persian authority eastward as the means of opening a road by which at some time or other a Russian army might enter India. These representations seem, however, to have made little or no impression on Lord Palmerston, then at the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and in September, 1837, a Persian army invaded Afghanistan. Various small successes carried it to Herat, before which town it encamped and began siege operations under the personal direction of Count Simonich, the Russian Ambassador at the Persian Court. During the progress of these warlike acts, McNeill, the British Ambassador, found himself paralyzed by contradictory instructions. On the one hand, Lord Palmerston enjoined him "to refrain from making the relations of Persia" with Herat a "subject of discussion," as England had nothing to say between Persia and Herat. On the other hand, Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of , India, wanted him to dissuade the Shah from pushing on his operations. At the very outset of the expedition Mr. Ellis had recalled the British officers serving in the Persian army, but Palmerston had them reinstated. So, again, the Indian Governor-General instructing McNeill to withdraw the British officers, Palmerston again reversed that decision. On March 8, 1838, McNeill proceeded to the Persian camp and offered his mediation, not in the name of England, but of India.

Toward the end of May 1838, the siege having now lasted about nine months, Palmerston sent a menacing dispatch to the Persian Court, for the first time making the affair of Herat a subject of remonstrance, and for the first time inveighing against "Persia's connection with Russia"[11] Simultaneously, a hostile expedition was ordered by the Indian Government to sail to the Persian Gulf and seize upon the Island of Karak—the same lately occupied by the English. At a still later epoch the English Envoy withdrew from Teheran to Erzeroum, and the Persian Ambassador[12] sent to England was refused admission. In the mean time, in spite of a very protracted blockade, Herat had held out, the Persian assaults were beaten back, and on Aug. 15, 1838, the Shah[13] was forced to raise the siege and to retreat in hurried marches from Afghanis-tan. Here one would have supposed the operations' of the English might have ended; but so far from that, matters took a most extraordinary turn. Not content with repelling the attempts of Persia, made, it was alleged, at the instigation and in the interest of Russia, to seize a part of Afghanistan, the English undertook to occupy the whole of it for themselves. Hence the famous Afghan war[14], the ultimate result of which was so disastrous to the English, and the real responsibility for which still remains so much a mystery. The present war against Persia has been undertaken on grounds very similar to that which preceded the Afghan war, namely, an attack upon Herat by the Persians, resulting, on the present occasion, in the capture of that city. A striking circumstance, however, is that the English have now been acting as the allies and defenders of the same Dost Mohammed, whom, in the Afghan struggle, they so unsuccessfully undertook to dethrone. It remains to be seen whether this war is to have sequences as extraordinary and unexpected as those which attended the former one.

  1. Mahmud and Ashraf.—Ed.
  2. Tahmasp II.—Ed.
  3. The Sikhs—a religious sect which appeared in the Punjab (North-West India) in the sixteenth century. Their teaching on the equality of people was used by the peasants who fought against the Hindu feudal lords and the Afghan invaders at the end of the seventeenth century. Subsequently a local aristocracy emerged among the Sikhs and its representatives ruled the Sikh state, which in the early nineteenth century included the Punjab and some border regions. In 1845-46 and 1848-49 Britain waged aggressive wars against the Sikhs which ended with the subjugation of the Punjab. The conquest of the Punjab completed the British colonisation of India.
  4. Sunnites (Sunni) and Shiites (Shiahs)—members of the two main Islamic branches which appeared in the seventh century as a result of conflicts between the successors of Mohammed, founder of Islam.

    The Shiites differ from the Sunnites in their views on the provenance of supreme power. They believe that the Caliph, as a successor of Mohammed, should not be elected by people. At their inception the Shiites, being a political party, defended the rights of Ali, Mohammed's son-in-law, and his descendants from the Prophet's daughter, to spiritual and secular guidance in the Moslem world. With the Sunnites the election of the Caliph rests on the "consent of the whole community". Subsequently, the rites and laws of the Shiites too became slightly different from those of the Sunnites.
  5. The Treaty of Ghulistan, which ended the Russo-Persian war of 1804-13, was signed on October 24 (November 5), 1813. Under this treaty the Russian Empire acquired Daghestan, Georgia with Shuragel province, Imeretia, Guria, Mingrelia and Abkhazia, and also the khanates of Karabakh, Ganja, Sheki, Shirvan, Derbent, Kuba, Baku and Talyshin. Russia also received the exclusive right to have a fleet in the Caspian Sea. In her turn Russia undertook to support the heir to the Persian throne chosen by the Shah. This treaty was in force until 1828, when the Turkmanchai Treaty between Russia and Persia was concluded.
  6. The Treaty of Turkmanchai, which ended the Russo-Persian war of 1826-28, was signed on February 22, 1828. Under this treaty Russia received the territories of the Erivan and Nakhichevan khanates (Eastern Armenia), and Russia's exclusive right to have a fleet in the Caspian Sea was confirmed. Persia was to pay war indemnities (see also K. Marx, Lord Palmerston, MECW, Vol. 12, pp. 355-56).
  7. Mohammed Mirza.—Ed.
  8. Mohammed Mirza's rivals were the three sons of his grandfather, Fath Ali Shah.—Ed.
  9. After the death of Abbas Mirza, the heir to the Shah of Persia, in October 1833 his son, Mohammed Mirza, who had been appointed the governor of Azerbaidjan was proclaimed his successor. After the death of Mohammed Mirza's grandfather, Fath Ali Shah, in October 1834 several pretenders to the throne appeared. Supported by Russia and England, Mohammed Mirza became Shah of Persia at the beginning of 1835. With a view to consolidating their position in Persia the English sent a big military mission, which stayed in Persia till 1838, and a large shipment of arms. The British officer H. Lindsay Bethune commanded the Shah's troops for some time.
  10. Marx is referring to Article 9 of the Definitive Treaty of Friendship and Alliance between Great Britain and Persia, signed on November 25, 1814.
  11. See Palmerston-McNeill correspondence from May 21, 1838, especially Palmerston's letter to McNeill of July 27, 1838, Correspondence Relating to Persia and Afghanistan, pp. 81-89.—Ed.
  12. Husayn Khan.—Ed.
  13. Mohammed Shah.—Ed.
  14. This was the first Anglo-Afghan war (1838-42) which began with the invasion of Afghanistan by British occupation troops in Sind. The immediate cause was Persia's attack of Herat in the autumn of 1837; the siege of it lasted till August 15, 1838. The invasion was carried out under the pretext of rendering assistance to the pretender, Emir Dost Mohammed's brother Shuja. However, a popular uprising in November 1841 against the British invaders and their puppet Shuja compelled the British, who sustained a severe defeat, to withdraw.