Britain, Persia and Petroleum: Roger Howard Asks How the Discovery of Oil, One Hundred Years Ago This Month, Affected Relations between Britain and Persia in the Early Twentieth Century

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Dramatic events in a remote Persian wilderness exactly a hundred years ago heralded the beginning of a new era in the Middle East. A wealthy British entrepreneur, William Knox D'Arcy (1849-1917), had secured a concession to prospect for oil in the country in 1901. After several years of exhausting and seemingly fruitless work, a drilling team led by a maverick British explorer, George Reynolds (1852-1925) was about to strike gold. During the early hours of May 26th, 1908, a short distance from an ancient settlement known as Masjid-i Suleiman, in south-western Persia, the ground suddenly started to rumble and, as men shouted with excitement and fear, a gushing, stinking black torrent spurted high into the air.

Within minutes, news of the great discovery was cabled to the British legation in the Persian capital, Tehran. Poetically, it was written in Biblical code and ran 'See Psalm 104 verse 13 third sentence and Psalm 114 verse 8 second sentence". Intrigued, the legation official reached for his Bible and was astonished by what he found. 'That he may bring out of the earth oil to make him a cheerful countenance,' went one of the Psalms, while the other referred to 'the flint stone into a springing well.'

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The news would equally have reverberated through the corridors of political power in Tehran. Traditionally only the shah, or monarch, and his senior ministers had exercised real influence, but by 1908 Persia was in the midst of a 'Constitutional Revolution'. Less than two years before, a dying Mozaffar al-Din had bowed to massive popular protest and agreed to the establishment of an elected parliament, or Majlis, which went on to establish a new constitution that placed the shah 'under the rule of law'.

It was foreign powers that really pulled the strings of power in Persia, however. In particular, British and Persian fortunes were already closely linked. Over the course of the preceding century London had established a political, administrative and military grip--in effect a protectorate--over huge swathes of territory in the kingdom's southern and south-westerly regions. The Russians had also carved out their own sphere of influence in five northern provinces, while in between these two protectorates was a neutral zone over which both powers kept a close eye but within which neither overtly interfered. Prior to the discovery of oil, the British had not been interested in Persia for any indispensable resources or assets it may have harboured. The kingdom was considered to be a largely barren, poverty-stricken, lawless and bankrupt backwater over much of which the shah exerted powers that were merely nominal. What mattered to the British was Persia's proximity to the jewel in their imperial crown--India. Whitehall had long been alarmed that Russia, its rival in the 'great game' of central Asia, could use Persia as a launchpad for an attack on India. The Russian fleet could conceivably have used Persian ports to disrupt shipping to and from the Indian subcontinent, while a land force might perhaps have forced its way across Afghanistan and into India's turbulent North-West Frontier. At the height of the Indian Mutiny in 1857, indeed, rumours were rife on both sides that the Persian army was marching towards India to link up with the rebels and throw the British out: 'we cannot verify the news', one journalist in India wrote, 'but it is not an impossibility'. The security of India was high on the agenda of a conference held at Balmoral in the summer of 1907, when the British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey made a proposal to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Sazonov. So that the two powers could remain on good terms at a time of growing German power, he suggested, they should formalize the existing spheres of influence in Persia: the British zone of influence would run from the Afghan frontier, east of Birjand, to Kerman further west and then to Bandar Abbas on the south coast while the Russians could maintain their grip in the far north. …