Lord Curzon and the Pursuit of Power

George Curzon, as Viceroy of India, 1899-1905
George Curzon, as Viceroy of India, 1899-1905

The 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement was the product of a combination of factors – namely, the audacious personality of acting Foreign Secretary George Curzon, the continued imperial ambitions of the wider British government, and the attempted assertion of the Iranian national interest – which produced a highly controversial situation in which Iran’s sovereignty was effectively subjugated under that of Britain. It came at a time when open colonialism was beginning to establish a tarnished reputation, and the undemocratic nature of its declaration was also criticised as archaic. This article lays of the objectives of the ‘alliance’ from both sides, as well as the material results of, and subsequent reactions to, the agreement, highlighting Curzon’s important role in the matter.

Objectives 

On a personal level, the Agreement was the brainchild of acting Foreign Secretary George Curzon, Marquess of Kedleston, who was unelected – as a member of the hereditary House of Lords – and had an already controversial reputation in international politics, having backed some provocative policies whilst Viceroy of India. For instance, on his advice, the government had partitioned the province of Bengal along religious grounds, between Hindus and Muslims, causing much socioeconomic upheaval and forcing the reversal of the partition just five years later. Later on in the Foreign Office, Curzon envisaged an ‘arc of British influence’, stretching from the Maghreb all the way to modern day Burma, with Iran at the centre. Thus, he sought to fulfil his vision by bringing Iran under the British colonial umbrella, a policy that had not been pursued with any genuine political urgency in previous years. This was because Imperial Russia had vanished from the colonial map, after the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the latter on which, for a few years at least, prevented the Russians from pursuing any genuine imperial foreign policy.

Curzon’s ambitions though were more self-centred than national interest. After his days as Viceroy around the turn of the twentieth century, he had gone into the political wilderness, after the disastrous Bengal incident in 1905 under the Prime Ministership of his future colleague in the Foreign Office Arthur Balfour. He subsequently fell out of favour with the new liberal governments of Henry Campbell Bannerman and Herbert Asquith, being a fervent Conservative, and was thus hungry for power once again when the Tories looked to launch themselves into the post-war political vacuum. It is commonly discussed, therefore, that Curzon was vying for the position of Prime Minister. The 1919 Agreement was therefore entwined in Curzon’s own motivations for power, hence its audacity and neo-imperialist confidence in British colonial power.

Of course, it is naive to suggest that, despite the British preoccupation with the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 where Balfour sat, the Agreement was the product of one man’s political ambition. The British Empire remained the largest in the world, and, given, the costs of war, the British were keen to secure valuable resources that could strengthen their position. Iranian oil was one such resource. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC), 51% owned by the British government, retained its exclusive right to exploit Iranian oil reserves, but political strife in Iran threatened its hegemony. The 1919 Agreement therefore was a move to ensure continued access to oil supplied, for both military and commercial purposes. The APOC had begun to market its oil to the public for huge profits, whilst the reliance of the British naval machine especially had been proven in the Allied victory over the Germans in the First World War. As French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said, “Every drop of oil secured saved us a drop of Allied blood”.

There were, of course, ambitions form the Iranian side; again, it is naïve to suggest that the motivation for the Agreement was entirely Anglo-centric. Iranian Prime Minister Vosouq was the primary delegate in Tehran on the matter of the Agreement, and whilst has developed a reputation for being pro-British and a ‘traitor’ to the national cause, there were clear Iranian objectives contained within the Agreement. Vosouq looked to secure an independent treaty after the Iranian delegation was snubbed at Paris by, firstly, the British, and secondly, the Americans, which was surprising given President Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination rhetoric. Thus, Vosouq looked to assert Iran’s international position, and retain her independence by signing a direct political treaty with Britain. This was, again, a change in tactic, given that the Iranian government had not entered into any direct political alliance or antagonism of any particular consequence for almost a century.

These were the three main objectives of the 1919 Agreement, based on the triple pronged nature of the actors involved. Curzon wished to re-establish his own personal influence in British imperial politics; the British government as a whole wished to maintain its colonial ambitions and retain hegemony over Iranian oil; and finally, Vosouq attempted to use a ‘back door’ as such to assert Iran’s national position. Two of these three objectives, however, would not be fulfilled and the fallout would be monumental for particular actors.

Results and Reactions 

Generally, the Agreement fulfilled its immediate and primary goals. The British retained their hegemony over Iranian oil, and, along with the League of Nations mandates over Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq, reaffirmed their position as imperial master of the Middle East. Curzon’s ‘arc of influence’ therefore was pretty much in place. The Iranians, too, achieved some of their objectives. Iran retained her political independence, unlike its ex-Ottoman provincial neighbours, and secured financial funding for reform and development. It is clear, however, that there were distinct problems with the agreement that rendered many of the objectives unfulfilled, caused primarily by the Agreement itself, but also by the reaction to it from both the international and domestic political communities of both Iran and Britain.

Curzon was perhaps the greatest loser in the diplomatic incident. Despite the parallels between his own imperial ambitions, and that of the wide British government, to the international community the agreement looked very much like an audacious, power-grabbing operation by the temporary Foreign Secretary. Although Curzon would retain his cabinet position, his ambitions to become Prime Minister were severely damaged after the announcement of the agreement. He was passed over for candidacy by the Conservatives in 1922, in favour of Andrew Bonar Law then Stanley Baldwin. Curzon then died in 1925 having never reached his goal of premiership. The 1919 Agreement thus failed Curzon in his objectives.

To the wider British government, however, who effectively hung Curzon out to dry in the political breeze, the Agreement was a success. Despite international opposition to the treaty, the Lloyd-George coalition was able to lump the blame onto Curzon himself whilst reaping the benefits of the Agreement. These benefits included the control of Iranian political affairs such as the model and style of the army, infrastructural development, the presence of British administrators in Iranian government, and a loan that plunged Iranian economic sovereignty into the hands of the Bank of England. Combined, Britain had safeguarded her interests in Iranian oil, defending her hegemony whilst surviving the fallout from critical opposition.

In Iran, however, objectives were far from met. The intention was to establish Iran as an international player, after almost a century of abuse by foreign forces. Vosouq, however, only succeeded in subjugating Iran futher, at the hands of the British who, after the withdrawal of the USSR from the imperial game, were left to reap colonial havoc on the last remaining independent nations in the Middle East. Vosouq effectively signed over national sovereignty to the British – certainly he compromised Iranian ability to harness the most powerful social actors, such as the bazaari merchants and the ulema, who had hoped for increased Iranian autonomy in the aftermath of the First World War. In fact, it could be argued that the fallout from the Agreement contributed directly to the rise of Reza Khan and the Cossack brigade, after the diplomatic episode revealed the pathetic strength of the Qajar government – which was still only loosely accountable to the sporadically-formed Majles – in the face of British imperial might.

Thus, all in all, response to the 1919 Agreement was critical. The Americans, backed by Wilson’s self-determination rhetoric, criticised the blatant British attempt to prevent the Iranians form retaining and using their national sovereignty. They also were critical of Curzon himself, who, when confronted by the American ambassador in London, attempted to claim that the US had known about the Agreement all along and in fact coveted a similar treaty. This angered the US, primarily because American presence in the international system was based almost entirely on staying out of ‘old world’ colonial disputes – conveniently ignoring America’s own colonies in Cuba and the Philippines, supposedly ‘acquired’ after the Spanish-American War in 1898.

The fallout of the Agreement, and the subsequent criticism of British attitude, also had an impact on British foreign policy, and not in a peaceful or constructive way. No longer did Whitehall feel it particularly necessary to hide behind a veil of ‘liberation’ or that of a ‘civilising mission’. In Iran especially, British policy became increasingly frank and interventionist, as hegemony over Iranian oil reserves was challenged with increasing regularity. The backing of the Cossack coup, then the exploitative behaviour at the 1933 oil renegotiations, in which the British forced further detrimental oil contracts on the Iranians, are testament to this idea.

In Iran too, the fallout caused a response of great criticism. Having found a protest based means of negotiation a during the Tobacco Revolt of 1892 and then again during the Constitutional Revolution if 1906-11, mass protest forced Prime Minister Vosouq to from power in early 1920. Even if his intentions had been honourable, the impact of the Agreement on the political health of the Iranian nation had been too detrimental for him to survive. Hence, the multi-faceted objectives, results and reactions to the 1919 Agreement make it a crucial, and politically fascinating episode of both British imperial and Iranian history. Importantly, the impact and narrative of the individuals and their politics, namely, Curzon and Vosouq, should not be underestimated in analysing the episode.

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