It is well known to students of Iranian history that the Great Powers of Britain and Russia played important roles in shaping events and their course during the period of the Constitutional movement (1905-1911). And nowhere was Russia’s involvement greater than in the northwestern province of Azerbaijan, the closest Iranian province to Russian territory in the Caucasus. Beginning in 1907, the extent of Russia’s involvement in the province increased, although it continued to be restricted to material support for the royalists in their struggles with the province’s constitutionalists. The first example of direct intervention on the part of the Russians came when their forces arrived to lift the royalist siege of Tabriz in 1909 and deliver food to a starving population. That action brought the unwelcome arrival of troops into the province. Thereafter followed an uneasy two years of coexistence wherein the Russians repeatedly tried to weaken the constitutionalists. That came to an end in December when the troops went on the offensive, defeated the constitutionalists, and executed many of those whom they

apprehended. The overall result of that victory was the elimination of the most radical exponents of constitutionalism in Iran, the end of the second phase of the movement, the severing of Azerbaijan from the rest of Iran, and the beginning of a Russian occupation of the province that lasted for the next six years. As the historian Janet Afary points out, the conflict between Iranian constitutionalists and royalists “took place in the context of imperialist rivalries – especially between the two major contenders for power in the region, Russia and Britain.”1 The intensifying antagonism between the supporters of the constitution and their royalist opponents led by the shah constituted only part of the picture as it began to unfold after Mohammad ʿAli’s assumption of power. “The problem with Iranian politics,” Mehdi Qoli Khan Hedayat concluded, “is Azerbaijan and Fars. In one place the finger of the incitement of Russia and the Ottomans is at work; in the other place Britain wants security of the roads.”2 Russian imperial expansion toward the Iranian border and Azerbaijan had begun at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1795, Catherine the Great sent an army to take the Caucasus from the newly established Qajar dynasty in response to Aqa Mohammad Khan’s earlier raid into Georgia. The conflict between the two states over the Caucasus started in earnest in 1805 with the outbreak of the first RussoIranian war. That lengthy conflict finally ended in 1813, with Iran losing the entire region to Russia save for the khanates of Yerevan and Nakichevan. Those came under Russian suzerainty in 1828 with the termination of the second Russo-Iranian war. The Iranian loss of the Caucasus had major repercussions for Azerbaijan. During both wars it served as the staging area for the Iranian forces defending the Caucasus. The province, under the energetic leadership of ʿAbbas Mirza, bore the brunt of the military and financial costs. With the end of that second war, the province became contiguous with the new Russian territory just across the Aras River to the north. It was also in 1828 that Tabriz was occupied by Russian forces, a precedent that was to be repeated twice more in the course of modern Iranian history, in 1909 and again between 1911 and 1917.3 Three events in particular accounted for the alteration in Russian policy that clearly emerged in 1907, namely the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Iranian Constitutional Movement (1906-1911), and an agreement reached in 1907 between Russia and Britain to divide Iran into two spheres of influence. At roughly the same time that the Constitutional Movement began in Iran, the Russian government, headed by Nicholas II, became embroiled in its own struggle with democratic forces within its empire that were seeking to limit royal autocracy and institute the elements of a representative government. The Russian Revolution of 1905 was, to a great extent, fueled by the reaction to Russia’s disastrous performance and eventual defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Because of the pressure that that rebellion brought to bear upon government officials and even the Tsar himself, elections were held and the first Duma convened in the summer of 1906. It was closed the next summer, and followed by a second Duma in 1907.4 Two other events that occurred in 1907 bore particular relevance to what would come afterwards in Azerbaijan with respect to preparing the ground for later Russian intervention. The first was Mohammad ʿAli Mirza’s ascension to

the Iranian throne early that year. The former governor of Azerbaijan was far less inclined to accept limits to his autocratic power than his father, Mozaffar od-Din Shah, had been. “In spite of the many oaths of fidelity to the Constitution which Muhammad ‘Ali Shah had sworn,” Edward G. Browne said in his famous history of the Constitutional Revolution, “his enmity to the National Assembly was deadly and sleepless, and during his short reign manifested itself in a hundred ways.”5 Mohammad ʿAli Shah’s antagonistic attitude toward the Constitutional Movement led to a steady intensification of the conflict between him and Iranian constitutionalists over the next year and a half. Constitutionalists from Azerbaijan reciprocated his animosity and demonstrated a particularly strong distrust of Mohammad ʿAli based on their experiences during his decadelong governorship, and they did not consider his acceptance of the constitution to be sincere. They were suspected of “fanning the fires” of resentment against him, the primary suspects when attempts were made on his life, the first to advocate his removal from the throne, and they maintained that he was completely dependent upon the Russians.6 The other significant event to occur that year was the termination of the Great Game conflict between Russia and Britain that had begun in 1832. The so-called Agreement or Convention of 1907 between St. Petersburg and London effectively removed the barrier presented by British opposition to Russian encroachment into Iran that had heretofore existed for three-quarters of a century and thereby allowed the Russians to take steps to protect whatever they perceived to be their interests.7 Robert A. McDaniel has a slightly different view and avers that the agreement represented a realization by the Russians that they were reaching their imperial limit and that they “lacked the resources to digest any further acquisitions with the primordial impulse to expand.”8 Vanessa Martin maintains that at the time the agreement was concluded, St. Petersburg was “determined to pursue a non-aggressive policy in Asia, intent only on protecting its existing position.”9 It may have signaled the attainment of a limit, but Russia was still prepared to protect what it considered its interests and position in Iran. Rouhollah Ramazani claims that the Convention gave Russia the freedom to do that. During the Great Game, Britain’s role as a “counterweight kept Russia from unilaterally absorbing Iran,” but the “rapprochement” that took place between the rivals in 1907 offered St. Petersburg “an unprecedented opportunity to intervene” in the country.10 The observations of the young ʿAbdullah Mostowfi, who served as an official in the Iranian embassy in St. Petersburg from 1904 to 1909, more or less corresponded with that interpretation of Russian policy. He said:

After the Russian and British agreement of 1907 regarding the division of power in Iran, the two rivals of 150 years had at last reached an understanding. The Russians did not observe formalities with Iran anymore. Besides, the democratic movement in Iran was another source of grievance for the Russians. The penetration of the democratic movement into Caucasia and eventually to Russia could not be avoided. They blamed the entire issue on Iran and retaliated.11