HL Deb 26 July 1921 vol 43 cc7-19

LORD LAMINGTONrose to ask the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he can give any information as to the present political position in Persia. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is some time since we heard anything about the position of affairs in Persia. I do not think there has been a discussion since the time when the Anglo-Persian Agreement was framed—an Agreement which we all hoped would bear fruit, but which has regrettably not been ratified by the Persian Government, and, I believe, has, in fact, been denounced by them. That is a considerable period, and since then there have been kaleidoscopic changes in the Persian Administration. I do not profess to know a great deal of what has been going on, and therefore my Question is put practically solely for the purpose of seeing whether we could be informed by the Government about the position of Persian affairs, both as they affect ourselves, and also as they affect internal matters.

On one point only do I wish to give expression to my own views. We have learnt from the Press that the British forces in Northern Persia, numbering about 3,000 men, have been withdrawn. I do not think that that withdrawal is likely to be hurtful to our interests; rather the reverse. It always seemed absolutely impracticable for us to maintain even the comparatively small force of 3,000 men so far away from our base. The only point in regard to that is whether the force may have been withdrawn prematurely. Perhaps the noble Marquess, the Secretary of State, will be able to say whether any adverse consequences have resulted from that force being withdrawn before the Persian Government had time to form their own force for the maintenance of order in their country.

Then again, I do not know what is the present position of the gendarmerie which used to be officered by Swedes. The Swedes, I believe, were removed, but again no definite information has reached me as to what is the present position of that force. We were told recently in the Press (and this is the one point that I should like to make) that the South Persian Rifles are to be disbanded. If that statement is accurate I regret it very much, for the reason that this country has special interests in the Persian Gulf. Most of us are aware what a wonderful work this country has for many decades past—more then a hundred years—carried on in the Persian Gulf, not for our own selfish interests, but for the good of everybody who wished to trade or to cross the waters of the Gulf. It is, however, obviously impossible for us to safeguard the position of affairs in the Gulf unless we also have some influence over the shores of the country surrounding it. In my view, therefore, whatever happens in Northern Persia, it is absolutely essential that we should be in a position to secure that order and good government are maintained on the coasts of the Gulf. If the South Persian Rifles, whose headquarters used to be at Shiraz, are to be disbanded, I do not see what protection is to be afforded in the future for the special interests we have there.

The noble Marquess himself has made Persia a life study and is a master of every detail connected with that country. I think that in his standard book on Persia, or in one of his speeches, he has referred to Persia and the Persian Gulf as being practically the glacis of the defence of India. I do not think that is any exaggeration of the position. It is, therefore, very serious indeed if we are to have no security for good administration in Southern Persia, from Shiraz right up to Ispahan. We have our special interests, too, in the Bakhtiari oilfields, and along all the shores which enclose the waters of the Gulf. Perhaps the noble Marquess will be able to reassure me that the South Persian Rifles are not to be disbanded, and that our position in that part of the world, therefore, will be safeguarded.

Another point upon which I should like some information is as to whether the Soviet Government have any forces in Persia. I believe they have some still at Enzeli; certainly, some little time ago, they had very considerable forces on the frontiers of Khorassan and Astrabad. Whether those Soviet forces are still on the frontiers of those provinces I do not know, but I shall be very glad indeed if the noble Marquess can say whether any Bolshevist forces at all are at present on Persian territory. Not long ago the Soviet Government sent a representative to Tehran, who went there with all the glory and splendour that attached to the Russian representative in the time of the Tsardom. It was said in the Press that he was attended by a staff of sixty persons, and recently there appeared a notice in the Press of a very splendid fête given at Tehran which our Minister attended, and which was presumably attended by representatives of other countries also, although when the Soviet representative first went to Tehran it was stated that the French Government would refuse to recognise him.

Perhaps the noble Marquess will give some information as to the present attitude of the Persian Government towards the Russian Soviet Government, because that must gravely affect the whole situation in Persia. I do not think any people is less likely than the Persian people to be affected by Bolshevism. At the same time, if the Soviet Government are able to control the Persian. Government the consequences might be very serious. Naturally, the attitude of the Persian Government towards the Soviet Government must also be reflected in their attitude towards ourselves. I have no idea as to whether, or to what extent, they are well-disposed towards us at the present time.

I should be glad to know also what is the present condition of the interior of the country—whether peace and order are maintained in spite of the disbandment, as I understand, of these various forces; whether the present Administration is still in a position to secure good government, or whether there is a renewal of that disorder which a few years ago so disgraced Persia and was such a menace to the whole welfare of that country. After the Anglo-Persian Agreement came to an end I understand that the Persian Government were still very solicitous to have British advisers, and perhaps the noble Marquess will say how many of these advisers are still in Tehran. One of them, Mr. Armitage Smith, was appointed to look after the finances of Persia. We should like to know whether he is still there, and whether he has been able to do anything to put the finances of that country on a better footing. We know that lack of money has long been the cause of weakness in Persia. The internal corruption has been so great that no Administration could possibly have been carried out unless reforms were instituted and made effective. Possibly the noble Marquess will be able to say whether that has been possible under the guidance of Mr. Armitage Smith.

Bearing on this matter there is, of course, the important question of Customs. I am under the impression that a new tariff was framed not very long ago, and I should like to know what effect that has had upon the trade of Persia and upon our trade with Persia. These are the various points upon which I hope that the noble Marquess will be able to inform your Lordships, more particularly in regard to whether the advisers, who, as I understand, were asked for voluntarily by the Persian Government, still remain in the country and are able to carry out effectually any duties allotted to them.


My Lords, the situation in Persia, as my noble friend has said, has very greatly changed since it was discussed by your Lordships' House on November 16 last. Then we had withdrawn our troops from Meshed; but General Ironside was still in occupation of Kazvin and out-post affairs with Bolsheviks were constantly taking place. The Cossack Division had become disintegrated, though efforts were being made to reorganise it with the assistance of British officers. The Anglo-Persian Agreement was, at that time, in suspense, but the noble Marquess told the House that he hoped that that very evasive body the Mejliss would be summoned and that the Agreement might still be ratified.

As matters stand now, I believe, we have no military forces left in Persia, though whether the South Persian Rifles still exist as an organised body under British officers I am not quite sure. The point is one of very great importance. The Cossack Division does not appear to have been reconstituted, as was hoped, and I doubt very much whether any effective body of that kind remains in the employment of the Government of Persia. The Agreement has not been ratified. My noble friend said that it had been denounced, but in any case I assume it is now a dead letter. The much earlier Anglo-Russian Agreement, of course, is also dead, and has been dead for some time. Persia seems to be left to her own resources, both political and military. Persia, therefore, may be said to have self-determination—self-determination which is regarded in some quarters as the most certain passport to contentment, prosperity, and progress.

On January 21, 1918, the noble Marquess said that we desired that Persia should retain her"complete independence after the war." Then he pointed out that the unfortunate condition of that country at the end of last year was"the direct and inevitable result of the war." It is quite possible that when the Germans escorted Communism into Russia they did not know how far it would lead. But, in my opinion, the effect of Bolshevism in Central Asia and throughout the East has not yet reached its culminating point, and may be felt long after Lenin and his accomplices have passed away. General Dunsterville's wonderful expedition to the Caspian, General Malleson's march to Meshed, and General Ironside's occupation of Kazvin, I take it, were all due to the menace of Bolshevism to Persia. The total expenditure thus incurred by the British Government must have been very large, the objects being, as I understand, to save Persia from the fate of Bokhara and also to avert Bolshevist influence from Afghanistan. That is a perfectly defensible policy. We looked on Persia as a helpless country and we sought to enable her to maintain her independence, which the noble Marquess told us was the object of the British Government. The Khalifat Party seems to take very little interest in Persia, otherwise it ought to be grateful to us for the sacrifices we have made to preserve the independence of this Mohamedan country.

The question to-day, on which I am sure the noble Marquess will throw much light, is how far our great efforts for Persia have been successful in safeguarding the interests of that country and our own interests in the Persian Gulf. The Bolsheviks have not been able to set up a Soviet in Tehran, as they seemed once to contemplate, nor have they been able to raise the people against, their Government. I believe with my noble friend that it is a task quite beyond their powers. But they remain at Resht and Enzeli in Persian territory, and I believe they are in Azarbaijan, the conditions of which remain extremely obscure.

On the whole, I think, it may fairly be claimed that our policy in regard to Persia has been reasonably successful though it has, of course, been exceedingly costly. We have, however, failed to keep Bolshevist influence out of Afghanistan, and I do not know of any way in which we could have done so. The attitude of the Amir appears to be to wait and see whether the Bolsheviks, or the Nationalist Turks, or ourselves are likely to prove the strongest. Our Mission, as your Lordships know, has been in Kabul for more than six months. Meanwhile, the Amir appears to have made a Treaty with the Bolsheviks and another with the Nationalist Turks, both of which may be hostile to our interests. Whether he has also been negotiating with Tehran I have no idea. For the sake of our prestige in the East I hope that the Mission to Kabul will terminate as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, events appear to be moving rapidly in Russia. A fortnight ago a Bolshevik paper stated that in the districts not famine-stricken the people were waiting "for the collapse of the Soviet règime." This paper went on to boast that those who succeed us will have to build on ruins, a completely devastated country, in the dead silence of a cemetery. That is the natural result of nationalisation applied on a grand scale. In the appalling conditions which now prevail in Russia I can hardly think it possible that the Red Armies will be able to develop much more activity, and, as Communism and the dictatorship of the proletariat depend absolutely upon military force, their collapse may now be nearer at hand than some of us believe. If that is so, and if also the Greek victories prove decisive, I think the whole situation may become much clearer and there will be a repercussion of these events in Persia and Afghanistan, though, as I said, I still believe that Bolshevism as a propagandist force may be able to maintain itself in Central Asia for some time longer.

In any case, I assume that military pressure upon Persia is no longer possible and that the Persian question, therefore, will become a purely domestic one. As the noble Marquess said— A peaceful Persia, a stable Persia, a friendly Persia, and an independent Persia are the corner stones of British policy. A friendly Persia we certainly ought to have after the great sacrifices we have made for her. Independent I assume that Persia now completely is. Whether she will be "peaceful or stable"will depend entirely upon the working of the democratic system with which she has been endowed. I hope the noble Marquess will be able to say whether the Central Government will be able now to maintain order in the provinces, and whether our interests in the Gulf region, to which my noble friend referred, will not be endangered by promiscuous brigandage which so easily arises in those parts. I hope also that any future British activities in Persia will be limited to advice and the loan of British officers, and that we shall not embark on any more military adventures in that country which, at the present moment, I think we are not able to afford. So far as I can see, Persia must mainly regenerate herself, and if she fails in that task, it seems to me that the only course before her will be one of complete disruption.


My Lords, the series of questions which have been put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Lamington, supplemented, as they have been, by the query of the noble Lord, Lord Sydenham, are practically an invitation to me to give your Lordships some account of the present situation in Persia. Both noble Lords have alluded to the last occasion when we had a discussion on the matter in your Lordships' House—that was on November 16, 1920—and perhaps your Lordships will permit me for a moment to recall the point up to which I had taken the narrative of Persian events at that date. In the remarks I then made I gave a short r èsum è of the position and experiences of Persia during the war, and. in the course of which it was owing to the sacrifices and exertions of the British Government and the British forces alone that she had been saved, firstly, from the machinations of the Germans, secondly, from Turkish inroads, and lastly, from the invasion of Soviet forces on the North.

In those remarks I also gave a short summary of the Anglo-Persian Agreement which had been concluded between our Government and hers in August of the previous year. I indicated how, in the darkest hour of the Persian misfortunes, and in the almost complete collapse of her Government, we had offered by the terms of this Agreement, to re-organise her finances, to reform her military administration, to enable her to create a national Army, and to proceed to the development of her means of communication and her internal resources. For these purposes, I mentioned that the British Government had been willing to make a loan of £2,000,000 to the Persian Government. I ventured to say that no more disinterested and single-minded attempt was ever made by a Western Power to re-establish the existence, and secure the prosperity, of an Eastern country.

At the stage which had then been reached, I three times, in the course of my remarks, alluded to the position in which the Anglo-Persian Agreement then stood. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me in a sentence or two to remind you of what I said. I said— If the Persian Parliament accepts the Agreement, subject to such modifications as I indicated a little while ago, we shall do our best to help them through. Again, I said— If, on the other hand, the Persian Parliament declines to accept the Agreement, the Persian Government must take its own course. We shall have done our best to help them, and, if they are unwilling to accept our assistance, the responsibility must be theirs. The third quotation is as follows— They—that is, the Persian Government—have our earnest sympathy in their endeavours, but it rests with them to determine the orbit in which Persia desires that she shall henceforward move. If they desire the faithful execution of the Anglo-Persian Agreement, they may rely upon us to complete our part; but if they prefer to pursue their own course, and to trust to their own resources, we cannot place any obstacle in their path. The responsibility will be theirs and not ours. Such, my Lords, was the position in the latter part of last year.

There were already apparent serious obstacles in the path, to some of which the two noble Lords have referred. In the first place, there was the chronic instability of Persian Governments. The noble Lord, Lord Lamington, alluded to the rapid and almost bewildering succession of Persian Ministries during the period referred to. There have been over five in little more than a year, and your Lordships will understand how irreconcilable such conditions are with any degree either of contentment or good government in the country. Secondly, there was the reluctance of these successive Persian Ministries to summon the Mejliss or Parliament. I had always, from the date of the signature of the Anglo-Persian Agreement, pleaded that the Mejliss should be summoned; that the Agreement should be laid before it; and by its judgment I for one was willing to abide; but, for one reason or another, successive Persian Ministers, in spite of their promises, failed to call this body together, and it has never been called together until this moment. It is not even called together now. The third difficulty was also alluded to by Lord Lamington—namely, the atmosphere of incurable intrigue that prevailed among Tehran politicians. Fourthly, our position in the North, at any rate, was successively weakened by the withdrawal of the British forces from kazvin and the neighbourhood, which was imposed upon us by considerations partly of expediency and partly of finance. I think the noble Lord asked whether their disappearance had meant any substantial change in the situation. I will come to that in a moment. Certainly, their disappearance was attended by an inevitable and natural weakening in the influence which we have been able to exercise at Tehran. Lastly, among these obstacles to which I refer, may be mentioned the fact that already, at that period, the Persian Government was beginning to be afraid of revived Soviet Russia, and at the same time that her Ministers were endeavouring to extricate themselves from, or to repudiate, the Anglo-Persian Agreement, they were negotiating and they finally concluded, a new Treaty with the Soviet authorities at Moscow, that Treaty was signed in February, 1921, and a copy of it was published in an enterprising journal, the Manchester Guardian, in this country.

It is a little difficult for any one; even from the inside, to follow the kaleidoscopic changes of this period. Prime Minister succeeded Prime Minister, as I said, with almost bewildering rapidity, and there were, in the time to which I refer; almost as many Persian policies as there were Prime Ministers. One week the policy would be that of abandoning the Anglo-Persian Agreement, but still keeping in touch with the British, and getting as much out of us as could be got. Another week the policy would be that of breaking with the British, but getting Swedes and Frenchmen and Americans to interest themselves in various aspects of the administration. In a third week we were confronted with complete subjection to Soviet forces. As an interlude in this drama, one of these Prime Ministers amused himself by putting into prison all his principal political opponents.

It was in the midst of this perplexing jumble of events that the Soviet Minister, to whom one of the noble Lords referred, Mr. Rothstein, appeared on the scene at Tehran, in the circumstances of show and self-advertisement to which the noble Lord referred. This was in April of the present year. Since his arrival there he has pursued the familiar Bolshevist methods; the exercise of ceaseless political propaganda; the promise, if not the payment, of money to those whose support he solicits; while always in the background there has been the presence of the Soviet forces, as to which the noble Lord was quite right when he said that, irrespective of the terms of the Russo-Persian Treaty, they still remained in the Persian province of Gilan.

That is, as I understand, the present position, and it seems to me that in the attitude it has adopted towards the Anglo-Persian Agreement the Persian Government has, in the exercise of what is now called self-determination, made its own choice. It has deliberately rejected the chance of recovering its fortunes with British aid. It has preferred to fall back upon the familiar game of playing off one foreign country against the other, and in the last resort it appears to be not unwilling to accept the caresses of the Soviet Government, caresses which usually end by strangling those to whom they are applied.

If the noble Lord asks me how I view the situation thus created, I am fain to confess that I regard it with a feeling of disappointment, almost of despair. The noble Lord, Lord Lamington, paid me the compliment of saying that during thirty years of my public life I have been interested in Persia. That is true. I do not think that during that period any foreigner has laboured harder for the independence and integrity and well-being of that country than I have done, and certainly no Government has done more, or has willingly accepted greater sacrifices, than the British Government throughout that period to re-establish, strengthen, and guarantee, the future existence of the Persian nation. As far as I can see, these labours have been largely in vain, and I am unaware of any encouragement at the present moment to persevere in this task.

It would be singularly unbecoming of me to make any complaint or utter any reproach against the Persian Government. They are entitled to follow their own courses, and if they prefer to find salvation in Moscow they have a prefect right to do so. But I may be permitted, as an old friend, to speak to them and to utter a word of warning, and to say that in the long run the main sufferers by the policy that is now being adopted will not be Great Britain and other countries, but will be Persia herself.

A number of questions about individual episodes, or branches of the subject, have been put to me by the two noble Lords, and I will endeavour to reply to them. Lord Lamington alluded to the presence at Tehran of Mr. Armitage Smith, a capable Treasury official, who, in pursuance of the terms of the Anglo-Persian Agreement, was sent out there last year to re-organise its finances. He has had a very troubled career. After the disappointment of the first few months he returned to this country, but in the hope of being able to do good work for the country to which he is so much attached, he returned there in the spring of the present year. He has with him a British staff of five members, and there are also two British advisers in the Ministry of Public Works. These are, I think, the sole British officials now in the administrative service of the Persian Government. The various British officers, who, in connection with the Agreement, were engaged in assisting Persia to re-organise her forces, have either retired, or are about to retire, in disgust the way they have been treated. The position of Mr. Armitage Smith, as I have indicated, is one of exceeding difficulty. Against him are arrayed all the forces of selfishness, corruption and intrigue; and he finds himself in the same position as Mr. Schuster, the American, when he was in Persia attempting the same task. Whether Mr. Armitage Smith will be able to triumph over these difficulties I cannot say. At any rate, I wish him, and I am sure your Lordships do also, all success in his exceedingly delicate task.

Another question was about the present position of the South Persian Rifles. This force, as I think your Lordships know, was organised in the year 1916, under British and Indian officers, in order to preserve order, in the main, in the southern and eastern Provinces of Fasa, Yezd, and Kerman. Its maximum strength at any time was 8,000, and its strength is now something short of 6,000 men. It was, during the heyday of its existence, the only stable element in the centre and south of Persia, preserving order, keeping open the trade routes and rendering invaluable service to the Persian Government. I need hardly say that it was never intended to be a British force; or to typify the British occupation of that part of the country. On the contrary, it was a Persian force, and was intended to be the nucleus of the Persian Army of the future to which we were always prepared to hand, it over.

Up till March 31 of this year this force was financed by the British and Indian Governments in combination. At that date, the Indian Government, in despair at the vacillation of the Persian authorities, withdrew their contribution. His Majesty's Government made a final contribution in order to facilitate the ultimate disbandment of this force, or its transference to the Persian authorities, should they so desire it. The present position is this: when that contribution is exhausted the force must inevitably be disbanded. The Persian Government have adopted towards this force the characteristic attitude. They profess a warm desire to take it over, but that desire is compatible with a proposal to dispense with the British officers who are responsible for its discipline and its utility, and with an extreme reluctance to find the pay. Lord Lamington said that he would regret the disbandment of this force. So would I. I think it would be calamitous, because one realises what the consequences would be. The disbanded soldier usually becomes in most countries, not only in eastern countries, a bandit. He becomes a highway robber on the roads, and, unless the Persian Government see wisdom in the interval, I can anticipate no other result than that the trade routes will again be insecure; that the lives of those who are engaged, in business or otherwise in those parts of Persia, will become precarious; and that we may have a resumption of the old conditions of anarchy and disorder from which, exclusively by our efforts, that part of Persia was recovered.

I have answered, as I believe with absolute truth, the questions which have been put to me by the noble Lords. The picture that I have drawn has been the picture of a country with a great and historic past, a country for which we have had the warmest sympathy, for which, as Lord Sydenham pointed out, we have made countless sacrifices and upon which we have spent millions of money since the beginning of the war; but it is a country which now appears to be marching, of its own accord, with deliberate and logical steps, towards an end which I do not attempt to forecast, but which cannot, I think, be otherwise than most unfortunate. I wish I could have given a more roseate account of Persia or a more sanguine estimate of the situation than I have been able to do. Of all the speeches that I have ever had to make upon Persia—and they have been many—the one which I make this afternoon has been delivered with the greatest regret.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to thank the noble Marquess the Leader of the House for his very complete, although very gloomy, picture. May I say that I was specially glad to hear his repudiation of the rumour that His Majesty's Government had been always indisposed to the summoning of the Mejliss. It was bruited about that this was the case, and I am very glad that he has given his denial on that particular point. I only say in conclusion that I hope the noble Marquess will not be discouraged. If, in the future, there is any chance of getting Persia on a better footing again, of making her independent and friendly to ourselves, I am sure he will be the one person in His Majesty's Government who will most endeavour to do so.

[Front Minutes of July 21.]