Chapter 9
Determination in Persia

After the death of Fath Ali Shah in 1834, most of Khorasan revolted. Restoring order occupied the new Shah’s brother most of the next year and only after this could any plans be made. Mohanimed Shah’s number one objective was the unfinished business of Herat. He was determined to capture it to make up for his own failure in 1833 as well as to continue the repeated efforts going back to the founder of the Kajar dynasty. The conquest of Herat was seen as the solution to many problems on Persia's eastern frontier. The encouragement that Herat always gave to rebels in Khorasan would be ended. It would also be an indirect blow at the Turkmen and would serve as a warning to Khiva and Bukhara. Finally the possession of Herat could lead to the recovery of Seistan, Kandahar, and Baluchistan, all of which had owed allegiance to the Safavis.

In June 1836 the Shah announced his intention to march against Khiva and Herat. In this he was overly ambitious. There was cholera in Khorasan which precluded any operations in that direction. The Persian army then marched against the Goklan and Yomut Turkmen but it could not come to grips with them. Desultory warfare went on for several months and by November the army had fallen back to Astrabad, still skirmishing with the Turkmen. At Astrabad food was short, pay was in arrears, and morale was very low. The campaign was a dismal failure. 1 The contrast between this operation and the wars of Abbas Mirza four years earlier, in the same area, with the same army, against the same enemy, seems to indicate that the greatest failure was that of leadership.

The British Minister had done his best to discourage Mohammed Shah from marching east in 1836, but he had to contend not only with the Shah1s determination but also with the activities of the Russians. There was a change in Russian policy in Persia that apparently coincided with the arrival of the new Minister, Count Ivan Simonich, in 1835. In 1834 the Russians had cooperated with the British in Persia, but in 1836 Simonich was actively promoting the campaign in direct opposition to British policy. More than that, Simonich promised Russian aid and possibly helped the Persians with their financial preparations. 2

The question arises as to why the Russians were doing this. The British were sure that it was for the purpose of subverting their rule in India. They always assumed that a Persian Herat would become a center of Russian influence, which would then spread to the borders of India, and they feared the effects of this on the internal peace of India. The more extreme Russophobes thought that the march on Herat would be the first step in the anticipated Russian invasion of India. 3 However the Russian motives were perhaps not so sinister. It may be assumed that they knew about British opposition to the Persian plans for Herat. Knowing this, they could see that if the Shah carried out his plans, the dispute could lead to a complete alienation between Britain and Persia. The British gains of the last few years would then be nullified and Russia’s earlier position of primacy in Persia would be restored. This could possibly be accomplished by merely encouraging the Persians to do what they had already decided to do and at no risk to Russia.

Late in 1836 a new British Minister, Sir John McNeill, arrived in Persia. His mission was to restrain Persia from attacking Herat and also negotiate a new treaty. The 1811 treaty had become embarrassing, especially the clause that pledged Britain not to interfere in a Persian-Afghan war. 4 But McNieill was in an impossible position. Mohammed Shah was not inclined to favor the British in spite of the aid provided him in securing the throne. In the first place the British had refused to aid Persia during the Russian war in spite of treaty obligations to do so. Then they had taken advantage of Persia's desperate position to get out of the obligations altogether. Now, in violation of another article of the treaty, they objected to the Persian conquest of Herat, a project that the Shah saw not only as a legitimate national goal but also as a matter of personal honor. Simonich's task was made easy.

After the unproductive campaign against the Turkmen, Mohammed Shah dispersed his troops with orders to muster again the following spring. During that time McNeill worked hard to arrange a diplomatic settlement. The Persians were agonizingly slow getting started in 1837, and in June McNeill was able to obtain an agreement from Herat to cease all hostile acts against Persia and resume payment of tribute. But Yar Mohammed would not admit Persian sovereignty, and even if he had the Shah would not have accepted it. Herat had agreed to all this before and never kept its promises. McNeill was only wasting his time. 5

Yar Mohammed was definitely not wasting his time in these last few months. While the Persian army was dispersed he kept strengthening Herat’s defenses and cementing his ties with the surrounding tribes. He also worked to consolidate his hold on Seistan. 6 Kohendil Khan in Kandahar was exceedingly alarmed by these moves. He wrote to the Persian governor of Khorasan urging him to strike at Herat while Yar Mohammed was fighting in Seistan. 7 While this brought no response from the Persians, the British took note of it and it greatly increased their worries.