The coup d’état by which Aqa Seyyed Zia’ od-Din Tabataba’i and Reza Khan took power in Tehran occurred on 21 February 1921. Only five days later, on 26 February 1921, the Soviet-Iranian Treaty was signed in Moscow. Simply because of the date on which it had been signed, this treaty has been habitually credited to the new regime, even directly to the diplomatic genius of the future Reza Shah himself. Indeed, in most academic histories, and certainly in Iran’s collective memory, the 1921 coup d’état represents a caesura of such profundity that it becomes tantamount to the hour zero of a new and entirely separate era in Iran’s modern history.1 Consequently, the treaty that was signed in the coup’s wake has usually been perceived as an illustration of this new era’s allegedly far more realistic and independent approach to foreign policy characterised by breaking free from the shackles of the ill-fated Anglo-Iranian Agreement and by making the reasonable decision to come to terms with Soviet Russia. Even Homa Katzouzian, whose writings on the period tend to be more nuanced than most, sustains this narrative of rupture: ‘Within a few days of assuming office, the Sayyed had taken two radical but highly popular steps: denouncing the 1919 Agreement and signing the Irano-Soviet treaty which had been concluded by Moshaver in Moscow and awaited signature in Tehran.’2 Thus, the general perception remains that the new rulers (who did indeed formally renounce the Anglo-Iranian Agreement) had the good sense to seek an agreement with Soviet Russia and concluded a treaty in merely five days. Since this is obviously not conceivable, the question begs to be asked as to how the treaty actually came about. An investigation into the roots and gestation of this accord, which provided the framework for Soviet-Iranian relations for nearly sixty years, is all the more called for if we take into account the fact that the treaty is usually mentioned because of its content, and in particular for the clauses that granted the Soviets the right to intervene if a third power should make attempts at using Iran as a staging post for military action against Soviet Russia. However, very little, if any, interest has so far been shown in the treaty’s inception.3 I therefore draw on Russian, British and especially Iranian sources to trace the genesis of the Soviet-Iranian Treaty of 1921, adopting an Iranian perspective. Indeed, I aim at giving a voice to the Iranian protagonists of this crucial
episode. This attempt at ‘making’ the Iranian side ‘speak’ is part of a broader challenge to a prevailing historiographical orthodoxy that tends to treat the era’s Iranian politicians as quantités négligeables, dismissing them as either helpless victims of foreign powers or as those powers’ willing executioners. As part of this challenge, I am seeking to contribute not only to the history of Russo-Iranian relations but also to the early-twentieth-century political history of Iran, in general contesting the caesura narrative of Reza Khan’s 1921 coup d’état; to the history of the Paris peace settlements, including the formation of the League of Nations, from which Iran’s case has been all but missing so far; as well as to the wider question of the agency and/or dependency of Middle Eastern political elites in the face of post-World War I European imperialist ambitions in the region.