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Iranian resistance to Tobacco Concession, 1891-1892
In the late nineteenth century foreign governments were increasingly asserting control, and in some cases Iranian governmental figures adopted a fatalistic attitude about being colonized by Britain or Russia, both of which were competing for power inside Iran. In this atmosphere the shah of Iran signed a secret agreement with a British company in March 1890 granting a concession over all Iranian tobacco. The tobacco trade constituted a significant part of the Iranian economy, and the concession gave the company a monopoly over not only the export of Iranian tobacco, but also the internal sale, trade, and growing of tobacco. Iranian farmers would have to sell their tobacco to the British company and then buy it back again to use. This concession would affect not only the wealthy landowners and traders in the tobacco business, but also small merchants and peasants who depended on tobacco sales. Furthermore, the concessions were an affront to Iran’s independence and looked to a lot of Iranians like the march of colonialism.
It wasn’t until late 1890 that a Persian newspaper in Istanbul revealed the existence of the concession, after which the news made its way to Iran. In January of 1891 pamphlets appeared inside Iran criticizing the shah on a number of fronts, including the inflation of silver money and the increasing numbers of concessions, including the tobacco concession. The government thought that leading Muslim reformer and thinker Jalal al-Din al-Afghani was behind the pamphlet, and had him exiled across the border to Iraq. In his absence his students continued to make more pamphlets attacking the concession.
In the spring of 1891 massive protests began to rock Iran, after the agents of the British tobacco company arrived and began to make clear their intentions for asserting control over the tobacco business. Member of the Iranian Shi’i ‘ulama, or religious leadership, began preaching against the concession around the same time.
Members of the ‘ulama in Shiraz, one of the major cities in Iran, received news from Tehran about the concession and how it might be resisted. One member of the ‘ulama, Sayyid ‘Ali Akbar, was particularly vocal, so the shah exiled him to Iraq. Upon news of his exile the bazaars closed in protest and residents joined together in the first large-scale protests against the concession.
The Russian government, which was competing for power over Iran, also worked against the concession.
In Tabriz, another major city, the protests became so severe that the shah suspended the concession there. The ‘ulama also led mass demonstrations in the cities of Mashhad, Isfahan, and Tehran. In all of these protests there were leaflets and placards against the government and the concession, and the ‘ulama joined in condemning the concession from the pulpit.
When the leader from Shiraz, Sayyid ‘Ali Akbar, was exiled to Iraq he met up with Jalal al-Din al-Afghani and they wrote a letter to the most revered Shi’i leader in Iran, Hajj Mirza Hasan Shirazi, asking him to weigh in against the tobacco concession. He issued no immediate response, but in December of 1891 Shirazi sent to all parts of Iran a religious ruling against the concession, which called on all Iranians to boycott the sale and consumption of tobacco. The boycott succeeded to such an extent that even the shah’s wives refused to use tobacco during the boycott. The religious establishment joined with merchants, reformers and many parts of society to resist the concession. The telegraph made possible frequent communication between all parts of Iran about the progress of the boycott and resistance to the concession.
During one mass demonstration in Tehran the police fired on the crowd, killing a number of participants and further angering the population, though not scaring them away from standing against the foreign encroachment.
The government offered to give up on the concession governing internal sales of tobacco, but it was ignored. The protesters wouldn’t accept a partial remedy. Having no other choice the government abandoned the concession in early 1892. The shah had to compensate the company and acquired a large foreign debt in paying that compensation.