SOAS University of London

Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London

The Bakhtiari and the British: Oil in SW Persia

by Nezam Bagherzade, with Caroline Mawer

In 1901, the Shah of Persia granted a concession to William Knox D'Arcy to explore for oil deposits in South Persia. These explorations were extended into Bakhtiari territory in 1905. As the Khans – always protective of their autonomy – paid no heed to the original concession, a local agreement between D'Arcy and the Bakhtiari had to be negotiated. This included a payment to the Khans for 'guarding' the drilling operations and was achieved with the help of the British Consul-General in Isfahan.

Not surprisingly, the Central Government in Tehran saw this as an unacceptable usurpation of their authority. This situation was further aggravated when, with security on the drilling sites continually undermined by tribal disunity, the British Government afforded "assistance and protection" to the oil explorers – in the shape of twenty Bengal Lancers. Only then did a "quite phenomenal state of tranquility [sic]" supervene.

Co-opting the Bakhtiari had been important for the British, with their fears over potential Russian influence in Persia, and the importance of Persia as a military and trade corridor to India. However, when oil was struck at Masjid-e Sulaiman on 26 May 1908, a new dynamic behind British-Bakhtiari relations emerged. Previously oil was a pretext for British influence in Persia. But now it became a consideration in its own right – as a vital raw material underpinning Britain's prosperity and imperial posture. And by 1914, oil had become essential to fuel the wartime Royal Navy.

From the Bakhtiari viewpoint, however, the discovery of oil provided the tribesmen with a new interest in national politics. The fact that the Bakhtiari march on Isfahan and Tehran in 1909 under the anti-royalist banner occurred only a year after oil was struck in May 1908 was therefore no mere coincidence.