The Great Game in the Persian Gulf II

The fear of czarist advances toward India and Persia was soon revived. In January 1881 the last stronghold of the Central Asian Turcomen was annexed by Russia. By 1885 agents working for the British, operating out of Mashhad, were able to report that the Russians had augmented their strength in Turkestan (today’s Central Asia) to a total of 50,000 men and 145 guns. An intelligence assessment showed that a Russian attack on Herat with this strength would successfully tie up the entire Indian army, leaving only the Royal Navy and about 36,000 troops in the United Kingdom as a counteroffensive force. As a solution to the dilemma, Captain James Wolfe Murray, an intelligence officer, examined the possibilities of a British attack through the Caucasus via Persia or Turkey to save India. An offensive here, providing Turkish or Persian cooperation could be secured, would sever the Russian lines of communication to Trans-Caspia and force the czar’s troops to make the far more difficult journey from Orenburg to Turkestan. However, he concluded that secrecy was almost impossible to maintain in the region. This would mean “it would be almost useless to undertake the operations without having a force most fully equipped for an immediate advance upon landing [in the Persian Gulf].” To achieve surprise, he considered the transmission of false telegraph messages that might tie up Russian forces for some time. Others felt there ought to be a permanent British presence in Persia with a more extensive espionage screen of local agents.

The British consulate at Mashhad was clearly designed to resist Russian covert operations and diplomatic intrigue in the Persian province of Khorasan. Although the first efforts exposed the inexperience of the personnel, the aim was to deny the growth of Russian influence, to counter Russian propaganda, and, if necessary, to spread disinformation in northern Persia. The consulate had a responsibility for a long frontier some five hundred miles in length, but Mashhad was selected because it lay close to the Russian lines of communication between Krasnovodsk and the rest of Trans-Caspia.

Throughout the 1880s there were frequent border incidents that kept the intelligence agents on the frontiers busy and the politicians in the capitals anxious for news. The British Foreign Office believed that building railways might offer the chance for Persia to develop and be less susceptible to the commercial temptations or political pressure offered by Russia. A railway link down to the Persian Gulf would, it was reasoned, tie Persia more closely to the maritime trade of Britain and India. The head of the Intelligence Branch at Simla, the summer capital of British India, Colonel Mark Sever Bell, concurred enthusiastically with this assessment. He went to visit Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, the minister at Tehran, and suggested that a line might link Quetta, the forward base of the Indian army, with Seistan in Persia. Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, was nevertheless lukewarm, and after further inquiries the Foreign Office realized that the volume of Russian trade and the development of Russian roads and railways in Persia had been exaggerated, and that the costs for the British would not merit the project. The Intelligence Division in London believed that any British-backed railway in Persia would provoke the Russians into actually building a rival line toward northern Afghanistan. But Drummond Wolff continued to take the view that the Russian railway project was inevitable. Moreover, when built, he argued, it would raise the prestige of Russia in the eyes of the Persians. Only the construction of a British railway, partly funded by Baron Reuters, offered the opportunity of a strategic balance of power.

The December 1888 edition of the Indian Intelligence Branch report noted that Russian agents were “active in Persia.” Major General Sir Henry Brackenbury, the director of Military Intelligence in London, thought this alarmist, but the Russians were indeed pressing the shah for an answer on their railway schemes and Wolff was anxious that Britain was losing its influence over northern Persia, perhaps even the whole country. The Intelligence Division, in fact, believed Persia was already a lost cause. Brackenbury didn’t think “the advance of a single line of railway to a remote corner of Persia would make our influence in that country equal to that of Russia,” which virtually “controlled” Persia anyway. Britain fell back on the idea of developing Baluchistan as a base of operations while winning over the local tribesmen there. Salisbury urged Wolff to block the Russian railway schemes and ensure that any concessions to the Russians in the north were balanced by concessions to the British south of Tehran. In the end, Evgenii Karlovich Butzow, a new Russian minister to Persia, concluded an agreement with the Persians and the British to ban all railway development for ten years, much to everyone’s relief. Sir Edward Morier, the British ambassador in St. Petersburg, revealed that the Russians had been just as fearful of a British railway into the heart of Persia, and concluded, with some feeling: “We are quit of the question.”

The continued decay of Persian central authority fuelled the rivalry between British and Russian officials. When, in 1898, Tehran decided to sell off customs revenue to raise capital for the near-bankrupt Persian government, it provided an opening for foreign interference. Joseph Rabino, the manager of the British-owned Imperial Bank of Persia, pointed out that a proposed road from the Persian Gulf to Tehran had been abandoned as the £80,000 allocated from British sources had been insufficient. By contrast, Russia had spent £250,000 on a road from the Caspian Sea town of Resht to Tehran. General Vladimir Kosogovsky, commander of the Russian-officered Persian Cossack Brigade, claimed that the British were “predatory” when it came to obtaining concessions from the shah, while his own side was “inactive.” However, the Commercial Bank of St. Petersburg was eager to loan money to Persia in return for control of all Persia’s customs revenues to manage debt repayments. This would mean, in effect, the whole country, including southern Persia, would fall under Russian influence. Henry Mortimer Durand, the British foreign minister of the government of India, tried to block it, and suggested a joint Anglo-Russian loan. The Russians rejected the idea and continued to penetrate Persia commercially: mine concessions were obtained, and port taxes at Enzeli on the Caspian were payable to the Russian government.

There was considerable resentment in Persia of British commercial power and the Royal Navy presence in the Persian Gulf In 1888, the Karun River, a tributary to the Shatt al-Arab, was opened to international navigation, largely to Britain’s advantage, and in 1891 a tobacco concession was granted to a British company. However, the latter events proved to be the trigger for nationalistic anti-British rioting. In this environment, and promoting their loan offers aggressively, the Russians put forward monopolistic terms that included the total exclusion of the British in any national fiscal arrangements. The Iranian historian Firuz Kazemzadeh noted that the British saw loans in a commercial sense (asking themselves whether the Persians could repay any amount), but the Russians subordinated economic interests to political ones: they simply intended to gain a monopoly of influence over Persia. As far as commerce was concerned, that could be developed after they had secured control.

In January 1900, when a large part of the British army was committed to the war in South Africa, Count Mikhail Nicholayevich Muraviev, the Russian minister of foreign affairs, urged the czar to authorize a more determined effort to penetrate Persia economically and to block British influence there. Above all, he wanted to push Russian influence farther south in the future. Consequently, he did everything he could to encourage Russian commerce in the region, including the development of trans-Caspian shipping, and postal and telegraphic links. Others at the Russian court advised caution and stressed the far greater importance of reaching the Bosphorus rather than the Persian Gulf. The final decision rested with the czar, who, according to General Aleksei Nicholayevich Kuropatkin, “had grandiose plans in his head: to take Manchuria for Russia, to move toward the annexation of Korea to Russia. He dreams of taking under his orb Tibet too. He wants to take Persia, to seize not only the Bosphorus but the Dardanelles as well.” Yet pragmatism prevailed in St. Petersburg and there was, in the end, no dash for the Persian Gulf.

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, the viceroy of India (1899–1905), was deeply alarmed by Russian intrigues and demands to open diplomatic relations with Afghanistan, which suggested a desire to interfere in India. He believed that Persia was in such a state of decay that it could not be revived, and that it was particularly vulnerable to Russian imperialism. As a solution, he proposed the country should be considered as a set of zones with consulates in every quarter, high-profile visits to the Gulf by the Royal Navy, and urgent improvements to the telegraph system so as to provide early warning of a Russian coup de main. Ever critical of the snail’s pace of British officialdom, he was soon frustrated by the British government’s focus on the South African War. His memorandum on Persia and the Gulf got little reaction from London and his reminders in 1901 were ignored. Curzon privately warned: “One day the crash will come, and then my despatches will be published and in my grave I shall be justified. Not that I care for that. But I long to see prescience, some width of view, some ability to forecast the evil of tomorrow, instead of bungling over the evil of today.”

Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister, wrote to Curzon that any schemes for Persia could not be put into effect because of their cost. He stated: “We must cut our coat according to our cloth. It is obvious that our fighting power in the Persian Gulf must be confined to the sea coast. In the rest of Persia we could only fight at the cost of efforts which would swallow up twice or thrice as much income tax as the Transvaal.” Reminders were sent to the Persians that customs in southern ports must not be handed over to any foreign power, but Curzon grew more belligerent. He advocated reciprocal moves to any aggression, including the landing of troops along the southern coast if the Russians seized the northern provinces. By the early 1900s, the Russians also began to believe that the disintegration of Persia into satellite zones was the best policy, avoiding any firm boundary that might give the British reason to block future development or expansion in the region. It appeared to Curzon that Persia could no longer serve as an effective buffer state, and it seemed to be on the brink of a colonial partition.

Curzon had therefore looked to increase British connections with the rulers of the Gulf principalities and authorized the British Resident in Bushire to conclude a secret alliance with the sheikh of Kuwait in 1899. This move seemed all the more important when the Russian cruiser Askold made a high-profile visit to the Persian Gulf in 1902, a move that had greatly impressed the local populations. With a deliberate exaggeration designed to shame the British government into action, Curzon asked:

Are we prepared to surrender control of the Persian Gulf and divide that of the Indian Ocean? Are we prepared to make the construction of the Euphrates Valley Railroad or some kindred scheme an impossibility for England and an ultimate certainty for Russia? Is Baghdad to become a new Russian capital in the south? Lastly, are we content to see a naval squadron battering Bombay?

Curzon had argued that Russia intended to take all of Persia and therefore any agreement with the czarist regime to limit their expansion would, ultimately, fail. Curzon was confident, however, that if a consistent line was taken by the British government, any Russian schemes could be thwarted. If the Russians ever managed to reach the Gulf they could not actually threaten India and the trade routes unless they established a naval base in the Persian Gulf, and this could only happen, he posited, if the British government showed inadequate resolve. He urged that the British should grant a loan to the Persian shah similar to that of Russia, but felt that Persia might have to be coerced into greater compliance. The conclusion of the South African War in 1902 and Curzon’s promptings eventually paid off. The Askold visit finally persuaded the Foreign Office that Russia may indeed have intended to establish a naval base in the Gulf. In a House of Lords speech in the summer of 1903, Lord Lansdowne, the foreign secretary, warned Russia that any attempt to establish such a base would be “resisted with all means at [Britain’s] disposal.” The same year, the British loan to Persia was made available, and the British government acquiesced to Curzon’s demand for a high-profile tour of the Persian Gulf, but, anxious about Curzon’s intentions, they warned that no commitments were to be made.

Curzon’s Persian Gulf tour was a success. His party on board the SS Hardinge was accompanied by four British warships and was clearly designed to demonstrate Britain’s naval supremacy in the region. Curzon also hoped to get a clearer picture of the strategic possibilities the Persian Gulf might offer. At Muscat the British Resident had prepared the ground, and Curzon got an enthusiastic reception, complete with an artillery salute. Although an 1891 treaty had established Muscat as an independent partner with Britain, the sultan of Muscat made references to Britain’s new paramountcy in the region, and his own intention to uphold it. The second stop was to convene a durbar, a ceremonial gathering under the British Raj, at Sharjah for the Trucial Coast sheikhs. After awarding them swords, rifles, and gold watches, Curzon reminded his guests that Britain had brought the local violence to an end, ensured their independence, and expected that British supremacy would be maintained. The tour then continued to Bushire, Bahrain, and finally to Kuwait. The Kuwaitis had no port facilities or wheeled transport, so Curzon’s party had to land on a beach and bring its own carriage, but the reception was probably the most exuberant of all the states, with a guard of honor firing joyously into the air. The sheikh himself presented Curzon with a sword of honor, professed his admiration for Britain, and stated that he considered himself part of the military system of the British Empire. The British government was somewhat embarrassed by the exuberance of the Arabs at Curzon’s receptions, but the visit had been an undeniable success: local rulers felt that British power was manifest, not least in the form of welcome prosperity and the protection of the ships of the British fleet. Moreover, Russia believed that Lansdowne’s declaration in the House of Lords was not empty rhetoric, and the Royal Navy had gained valuable information about the hydrography of the Persian Gulf waters in preparation for future operations there.

The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907

The defeat of the czar’s armies and fleets in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) and the subsequent revolution in Russia in 1905 marked a turning point in Anglo-Russian relations. The external defeat of its land and naval forces combined with widespread internal unrest graphically demonstrated Russia’s weaknesses. Financially too, it was evident that Russia lagged far behind the Western powers, and, despite its size, it lacked the industrial capacity of Britain and Germany. The logic of Britain’s Entente Cordiale with France in 1904 was now, as Lansdowne had predicted, to settle their differences with France’s ally Russia. Just two years later, on 31 August 1907, the British government concluded the Anglo-Russian Convention.

The terms of the convention provided for two spheres of influence in Persia, the north to Russia and the south to Britain with a neutral strip between. The Persian regime, now seen as decrepit and on the verge of collapse, was not consulted about the arrangement. Farther east, both countries guaranteed the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and Tibet, and Russia also obtained Britain’s approval for the eventual Russian occupation of the Bosphorus, provided other leading powers agreed.

Russia’s sincerity in the convention of 1907 may not have been questioned in London, but in India the old suspicions remained, and with good reason. Russian intrigues in Persia did not abate. The Russians seemed just as active in trying to extend their influence throughout the country, with the effect that the Persian state was destabilized further as rival factions sought foreign backing. However, it was the arrival of German consuls in the region and their blatant attempts to win over the Muslim world to further their own territorial ambitions that tended to draw the British and Russians into some semblance of cooperation.

What alarmed the British the most was Germany’s rapid naval building program, which seemed deliberately designed to threaten the British Empire. In Persia and the Ottoman Empire, German agents were sent on thinly disguised “archaeological expeditions” to gather intelligence and visit the oil fields, and a number of German banks and businesses appeared offering low rates of interest to undercut the British-owned Imperial Bank of Persia. The much-vaunted idea of a railway from Berlin to Baghdad also raised the possibility that commerce would be drawn away from the coasts, on which Britain depended, to the interior, where the continental powers like Germany and Russia would be favored. Such a railway might also provide a strategic route for the deployment of German troops deep within the Middle East, or even the establishment of a Gulf port.

The government in London now seemed reluctant to do anything similar lest it jeopardize the Anglo-Russian Convention. The government of India therefore sent Major Percy Cox, an officer in the Indian army and in the political service and former Resident of Muscat, to southern Persia to monitor German intrigue and to befriend the local Persian elites by extending the informal networks that already existed. It was to prove a prescient decision, as Cox, schooled in the art of the Great Game, would go on to thwart German espionage in the Gulf during World War I and assist in the establishment of the modern state of Iraq.

For the British, prestige and informal controls or influences could reduce the need for physical and costly occupations, although the policy came with risks. Given the impossibility of occupying every littoral of the British Empire, or extending security zones for its possessions deep into the interior of Asia, the British “soft power” policy was the pragmatic and cost-effective solution. British interests in the region were essentially the promotion and protection of trade, the security of India, and the exclusion of rivals from the Persian Gulf. Britain had the advantage of “force multipliers,” namely local agents, the personnel of the Indian army (who provided all the local security for Britain’s residencies, consulates, and commerce), and the ships of the Indian navy. Britain also had the strategic advantage in the nineteenth century that its enemies had no comparable fleets, which gave it considerable power and reach.

However, Britain nonetheless faced a number of challenges. There were asymmetrical problems that were difficult to resolve, particularly intrigue by Russia, unstable buffer states, and unreliable allies. There were also broader strategic weaknesses to confront. The British government had to take a global strategic view, and regarded the Persian Gulf as relatively unimportant compared with the Mediterranean or the Channel, but the government of India saw things differently, and regarded the Persian Gulf and Persia itself as important elements in the security of the subcontinent, and this conflict meant that policies with regard to Persia appeared to be inconsistent. The fact was that the British Empire was not as strong in land forces and simply could not afford to occupy Persia or the Arab littoral sheikhdoms. The consistent aspect of British policy was that it needed Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan as bulwarks for its security, but the challenge was that they were weak and Britain found itself trying to shore up failing states. A settlement of differences with Russia alleviated the pressure in 1907, but this fundamental dilemma was never quite resolved.