Introduction and background history From among a wide range of characters and events that would fit into the framework of Russian-Iranian relations since 1800, the choice of Haj Kazem Malek al-Tojjar was dictated by new evidence about his prominent role in three key events that highlight the rivalry over the control of Iran’s resources and trade in the late nineteenth century. Significantly, only R. A. Seyyedov, erstwhile director of the Institute for the People of the Near and Middle East in Baku, has dealt with all three.1 They include Malek al-Tojjar’s crucial role in the Tobacco Rebellion of 1891-1892, a concerted run on the silver reserves of the British-owned Imperial Bank of Iran in 1897 and the founding of Iran’s first public joint-stock company, Sherkat-e ‘Omumi, and its subsidiary, Sherkat-e Tariq-e Mozaffari, which obtained the concession for building the road from Ardabil to Astara. The most relevant to the theme under review is the saga of Sherkat-e ‘Omumi, which, although much publicized in its time, has suffered from misrepresentation in the existing literature. The sensationalist press of the Constitutionalist era, which covered the story to the peak of the crisis and the spectacular flight of its founder to the Russian legation in July 1906, spared no ink in slurring Malek alTojjar without pursuing the matter to its final resolution. The veracity or falsehood of accusations of serving Russia to the detriment of Iran will be assessed here through the complex tale of a business venture that unravels like a detective story with all the ingredients of embezzlement and graft, intrigue, espionage, marital betrayal, a cloak-and-dagger escape and a surprise ending. As natives of Azarbaijan, the Maleks had been involved with Russia since the early-nineteenth-century wars that deprived Iran of much of its northwestern territory. Aqa Mehdi Tabrizi, the father of Haj Kazem, fought alongside Crown Prince ‘Abbas Mirza and served him as treasurer at a time when funds were lacking for campaigns against a foe who, not so long ago, had been viewed as barbarian. After the 1828 Treaty of Turkomanchai and Iran’s capitulation, Aqa Mehdi opted for trade, which was growing exponentially in Tabriz after a long lull, and in 1837 was nominated by royal decree as the first Malek al-Tojjar-e
Mamalek-e Mahruse-ye Iran (King of Merchants of the Protected Domains of Iran) of the Qajar era.2 In that same year he married a Georgian princess entrusted to his care. Mohammad Kazem and his sisters were born of this union after Aqa Mehdi moved to Tehran in 1848 upon the request of his friend, the newly appointed prime minister of Nasser al-Din Shah, Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir.3 Kazem inherited his father’s title of Malek al-Tojjar-e Mamalek-e Mahrusa in 1870. Although he did not embark on a major venture for another twenty years other than what was required by virtue of inherited or acquired official responsibilities, his influence on the society of his time went far beyond that of a leader of the merchant community. The Qajar court depended on his benevolence and, despite occasional defiance, he was a loyal challenger whose blunt tongue and daring initiatives attracted trouble. He fought back against his detractors by sending out town criers, posting leaflets in the public arena, playing off princes and dignitaries against one another, and, in the last resort, seeking Russian protection when other avenues were blocked.