SOAS University of London

Brunei Gallery, SOAS University of London

The Constitutional Revolution, and the ‘Bakhtiari Domination’

The Ilkhani and Haji Ilkhani factions within the Bakhtiari were increasingly confident, both about their own dominant position within the tribal confederation and also about their commercial status. They therefore eventually started “to play a larger national role”. They were however not closely involved in the initial stages of the Constitutional Revolution.

The Constitutional Revolution had started in 1905. In 1906 Mozaffer ol-Din Shah had yielded to the Constitutionalists demands – but died a mere eight days later. His successor, Muhammad Ali Shah, then reneged on the agreements. There was widespread unrest, with the Tabrizis declaring the Shah deposed.

In Isfahan, a successful revolt against Zill ol-Sultan meant only that he was replaced by the oppressive Eghbal ol-Daulah. The Isfahanis then sought help from the Bakhtiari, who – after agreeing terms – invaded the city (in January 1909). Although he was not recognised by the Shah, Samsam Saltaneh II assumed governorship of Isfahan.

By June 1909, the so-called ‘Secret Agreement of 1909’ was ratified. This linked the Ilkhani and Haji Ilkhani families even more explicitly than the 1894 agreement.
Garthwaite describes it as having been “composed in anticipation of the wealth and power that might be gained if [the Bakhtiari] were to help establish a constitutional government” and suggests that it “reveals the true motivation behind Bakhtiari unity and their pragmatic approach to the revolution”.

Despite the Agreement, Bakhtiari soldiers were both fighting for, and mobilising against, the Shah:

Most of the Khans had, however, come together in support of the Constitutional Movement. In June, three detachments of Bakhtiari cavalry (totalling perhaps 1-2000 men and some artillery) started to move northwards from Isfahan towards Tehran, despite representations from both the Russian and English legations.

Sardar Asad II apparently tried to prevent the two military factions from fighting each other. There was however “a most untoward incident”:

Some of the Royalist Bakhtiaris having disguised themselves as Nationalists, advanced towards the [Constitutionalist] Mujahidin of Rasht with the shouts of ‘Long live the Constitution’ and ‘Long live Sardar Asad’. The mujahidin supposing them to be friends, suffered them to enter their ranks, whereupon they began to fire their guns and to wrest from the mujahidin their weapons. They were soon overpowered and put to flight, after several had been killed; but when Sardar Asad’s Bakhtiaris approached with the same shouts, the mujahidin, thinking that the same trick was about to be repeated, opened fire on them and killed seventeen, before they discovered their mistake.
From: EG Browne, The Persian Revolution, 1910

Even with these hitches, the general Bakhtiari accord held fast. In July 1909, they entered Tehran – without a major battle. Sardar Jang and Amir Mofakham were quickly taken back into the ruling elite of the family. Sardar Jang was sent to the Province of Yazd as Governor, and Amir Mofakham was given the ilbagi of the Bakhtiaris and, later, the portfolio of Minister of War in Samsam Saltaneh (II)'s cabinet.

The Shah abdicated on 16 July and his young son Sultan Ahmad Mirza was selected as his successor, under the regency of Azad ol-Molk – the head of the Qajar family.
In the first cabinet, the leader of the Rasht contingent (Sepahdar) became Prime Minister, and Sardar Asad II Minister of the Interior.

The new government had the same problems as previously – money, political fragmentation, foreign intervention, and the “machinations” of Muhammad Ali Shah. Outsiders like the British pinned their hopes on the two revolutionary leaders. Internally, however, other tribal leaders were increasingly unhappy with Sardar Asad’s growing power – even though he had declared his intention to return to Europe for more medical treatment. Financial and political problems at national level led to multiple cabinet reshuffles, with both Sardar Asad II and Samsan Saltaneh II featuring prominently.

Moving away from Bakhtiari territory, the Great Khans had mainly decamped to Tehran:

Sirdar Ashja “in an outburst of confidence [told Dr Young, an Oil Company officer] ‘The life of nomads is no longer a life for us and to rule the Lurs our children are good enough’”.

The British were, however, concerned about the lack of “proper authority” in the oilfield area, and brokered another internal agreement in 1912. This appointed an ilkhani – Sardar Jang, who was by now obviously completely rehabilitated into the khavanin (the Great Khans) – for the previously unheard of duration of five years

British hopes for stability were, however, not realised. Garthwaite sums up: The Ilkhani faction was jealous of his power, Sardar Jang felt he was not receiving his share of the incomes, and the British themselves withdrew their backing because of his amorphous position in regard to World War One crises . . [So] the British with their failure to bring unity and stability to the Bakhtiyari resorted to direct payments and military support.”