Iranian Tobacco Protest Movement, 1891-1892

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Iranian Tobacco Protest of 1890–1892, directed at the monopoly on tobacco declared by the state in 1890, occurred against the background of an insolvent Qajar government, a population suffering from hard economic times and angry at rulers who were largely unresponsive to their plight, and a religious leadership that was deeply distrustful of the growing role Westerners had come to play in the country's economy. The movement, which brought together disparate groups with divergent motives and interests, has been called the first successful alliance between Iran's religious leaders, its modernizing reformers, and its discontented populace—an alliance that was to come to fruition in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1911.

On March 20, 1890, Nasir al-Din Shah granted a concession to Major G. F. Talbot for a full monopoly over the production, sale, and export of tobacco for fifty years. In exchange, Talbot paid the shah an annual sum of £15,000 in addition to a quarter of the yearly profits after the payment of all expenses and a dividend of 5 percent on the capital. By the fall of 1890 the concession had been sold to the Imperial Tobacco Corporation of Persia, a company that some have speculated was essentially Talbot himself as he heavily promoted shares in the corporation. At the time of the concession, the tobacco crop was valuable not only because of the domestic market but because Iranians cultivated a variety of tobacco "much prized in foreign markets" that was not grown elsewhere. A Tobacco Régie was subsequently established and all the producers and owners of tobacco in Persia were forced to sell their goods to agents of the Régie, who would then resell the purchased tobacco at a price that was mutually agreed upon by the company and the sellers with disputes settled by compulsory arbitration.

At the time the Persian tobacco industry employed over 200,000 people and therefore the concession represented a major blow to Persian farmers and bazaaris whose livelihoods were largely dependent on the lucrative tobacco business. Now they were forced to seek permits from the Tobacco Régie as well as required to inform the concessionaires of the amount of tobacco produced. In essence the concession not only violated the long-established relationship between Persian tobacco producers and tobacco sellers, but it also threatened the job security of a significant portion of the population.

In September 1890 the first resounding protest against the concession manifested, however it did not emerge from the Persian merchant class or ulema but rather from the Russian government who stated that the Tobacco Régie violated freedom of trade in the region as stipulated by the Treaty of Turkmanchai. Despite disapproval from the Russian Empire concerning the monopoly, Nasir al-Din Shah was intent on continuing on with the concession. In February 1891 Major G. F. Talbot traveled to Iran to install the Tobacco Régie and soon thereafter the shah made news of the concession public for the first time, sparking immediate disapproval throughout the country. Despite the rising tensions, director of the Tobacco Régie Julius Ornstein arrived in Tehran in April and was assured by Prime Minister Amin al-Sultan that the concession had the full support of the Qajar dynasty. In the meantime, anonymous letters were being sent to high members of the Qajar government while placards were circulating in cities such as Tehran and Tabriz, both displaying public anger towards the granting of concessions to foreigners.

During the spring of 1891 mass protests against the Régie began to emerge in major Iranian cities. Initially it was the bazaaris who led the opposition under the conviction that it was their income and livelihood which were at stake. Affluent merchants such as Hajj Mohammad Malek al-Tojjar played a vital role in the tobacco movement by organizing bazaari protests as well as appealing to well known mujtahids for their support in opposing the Régie.

The cities of Shiraz, Tehran, and Tabriz would subsequently develop into the most prominent centers of opposition to the tobacco concession. In May 1891 Sayyed Ali Akbar, a prominent member of ulema of Shiraz was removed from the city by orders of Nasir al-Din Shah due to his preaching against the concession. During his departure from Iran, Sayyed Ali Akbar met with prominent pan-Islamist activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and at Akbar’s request Afghani wrote a letter to the leading Shia cleric Mirza Hasan Shirazi asking the mujtahid to "save and defend the country" from "this criminal who has offered the provinces of the land of Iran to auction amongst the Great Powers." Though Shirazi would later send a personal telegram to the shah warning him about the pitfalls of giving concessions to foreigners, this personal appeal did nothing to put an end to the Régie.

Government intervention may have helped in mitigating the hostilities in Shiraz following Akbar’s removal however other regions of Iran still saw a proliferation in protests. Bazaaris in Tehran were among the first groups of people to protest against the concession by writing letters of disapproval to the shah even before the concession was publicly announced. Although Iran’s Azarbaijan was not a tobacco-growing area, it saw tremendous opposition to the concession due to the large concentration of local merchants and retail traders in the region. In Isfahan a boycott of the consumption of tobacco was implemented even prior to Shirazi’s fatwa while in the city of Tabriz, the bazaar closed down and the ulema stopped teaching in the madrasas. The cities of Mashhad and Kerman also experienced demonstrations in opposition to the concession. Other cities around the country such as Qazvin, Yazd, and Kermanshah were also involved in opposing the shah and the Tobacco Régie.

In December 1891 a fatwa was issued by the most important religious authority in Iran, marja’-i taqlid Mirza Hasan Shirazi, declaring the use of tobacco to be tantamount to war against the Hidden Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi:

"In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful, the tobacco use in any form is considered as a war against the 12th Imam, the Shiite absent Imam".

Iranians in the capital of Tehran refused to smoke tobacco and this collective response spread to neighboring provinces. In a show of solidarity, Iranian merchants responded by shutting down the main bazaars throughout the country. As the tobacco boycott grew larger, Nasir al-Din Shah and Prime Minister Amin al-Sultan found themselves powerless to stop the popular movement fearing Russian intervention in case a civil war materialized.

Despite the popularity of tobacco, the religious ban was so successful that it was said that women in the shah's harem quit smoking and his servants refused to prepare his water pipe.

By January 1892, when the shah saw that the British government "was waffling in its support for the Imperial Tobacco Company," he canceled the concession. The shah had to compensate the company and acquired a large foreign debt in paying that compensation. By January 26 Shirazi issued another fatwa repealing the first and permitting tobacco use, "and Iranians began smoking again.” The fatwa has been called a "stunning" demonstration of the power of the marja’-i taqlid, and the protest itself has been cited as one of the issues that led to the Constitutional Revolution a few years later.

As a result of the tobacco movement, the ulema firmly established not only their religious legitimacy but also their political legitimacy. Furthermore their alliance with the bazaaris proved to be a resounding success. From 1892 onwards the clergy were seen as defending the interests of the common individual while the shah was portrayed as placing his own personal benefit ahead of the welfare of the Iranian population.

This is often cited as the first national mass uprising of its kind in Modern Iran. Other Iranian cases with similarities include the 1905-1909 Iranian Constitutional Revolution and the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Other Iranian uprisings in the same time period include the forced resignation of the mayor of Shiraz in 1893.

Source: The Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies (IICHS), Global Nonviolent Action Database, Cambridge University Press, Wikipedia

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