Seen in the light of the past forty years, since the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty and the rise of the present day theocracy, relations between Britain and Iran look dismal. Hopefully this will now turn out to be a historical blip and the two countries will once more enjoy a more fruitful relationship.
In the 17th century things were very different. Iranian culture was admired throughout Europe and it was seen as a beacon of civilization. It also sat right at the heart of Central Asia, and was not only a potential trading partner, but was also seen as a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire to the west, and Russia to the north. This can clearly be seen in the separately published map, Persia and Afghanistan, 1906 (above).
The Sherley brothers, Robert and Anthony, were despatched by the British government to forge relations with Iran. Arriving in 1600, Robert was tasked with modernising the Safavid army to better defend themselves against the Ottomans. He was to stay in Iran on and off until his death in the 1620’s. Anthony didn’t stay so long but successfully concluded trade treaties protecting English merchants in the region. We have the first collected edition of their original works, The Three Brothers; or the travels and adventures of Sir Anthony, Sir Robert, and Sir Thomas Sherley, 1825. A most beautiful copy in contemporary morocco gilt.
In the 18th century the Iranian empire more or less collapsed following an invasion from Afghanistan. Britain was very much in the ascendency at this time and was developing an empire in India. This drew the two countries together as much of northern India had been within the Iranian sphere of influence and there was a shared culture. This state of affairs continued into the nineteenth century when things started to get messy with the rivalry in central Asia between Britain and Russia, the so-called ‘Great Game’.
A publication which encapsulates the complex nature of Iranian politics at the time is the rare, privately printed account of the Persian princes in England, Journal of a Residence in England, 1839. These princes, the sons of a defeated pretender to the throne following the death of Fath Ali Shah, were effectively held by the British in case the new Shah got too friendly with the Russians.
For the first and only time, Britain and Iran went to war in 1856, basically over the border with Afghanistan. This ended with the Treaty of Paris. Relations between the two countries improved and in 1873 Britain welcomed Nasir Al Din Shah to Britain.
There had been a lot of unrest amongst the Iranian middle-class who wanted more freedom and constitutional rights and Britain supported their interests. Although the Shah was to agree with Britain on the need for reform, making the visit a success, he was to go back on his undertaking on his return home. The Shah’s account of his visit was published as The Diary of H.M. the Shah of Persia during his Tour, 1874.