The career of Khan Ra’is ‘Ali Delvari was, in brief, that of a pirate and mercenary. A tribal chief of the Tangestanis who abide in the coastal town of Dilwar, he was unhappy living within Britain’s sphere of influence, which robbed him of proper income befitting a warlord in the utterly corrupted Persia of 1915. With dozens of German agents spreading a Turkish jihad, and spreading guns, gold, and gab all over modern-day Iran, the ‘sideshow’ of January is becoming a main event in world history ten months later October, but Delvari has already been dead for weeks trying to avenge past British reprisals, including the indiscriminate destruction of his boats. It is safe to say that his feud with the British is older than Germany’s.
Yet his death was not so religious a thing as a material and monetary one. With his recruitment ‘closed’ by a salesman named Wilhelm Wassmuss, one of the most consequential German agents of the entire conflict, Ra’is ‘Ali targeted the nearby British Residency at Bushehr (see above), an ancient port on the Persian Gulf that still figures large in global power games a century later. This will later endear the late Khan to Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, but as always, we misread Ra’is ‘Ali’s career by defining his death as mere religious violence, or by projecting overmuch nationalist fervor on his choices. Ra’is ‘Ali was a vindictive profiteer, and he simply chose to serve the wrong empire, for Iran is barely a nation one hundred years ago and riven by imperial lines of influence. In fact, the 96th Berar Infantry of the Indian Army who participated in the defeat of Ra’is ‘Ali, were themselves Muslims from Hyderabad; the British imperial military system is a polyglot affair.
The Great War is a clash of Empires that features religious lines of division, and pitiful Iran is merely trapped between allied belligerents in that war, with Germany beckoning from beyond the neighboring Ottoman caliphate. Weakened by foreign domination to the point of absurdity, Shi’a-dominated Persia cannot maintain order even within the limits of its semi-sovereignty, and Ra’is ‘Ali is a fine example of the brigands who hold the real monopoly of force in their regions of the country. The British Empire means to control Persia’s oil and its access to India, but Persia is more or less an outsourced and internationalized tribal zone in 1915, with all players playing a part. There are no innocents, only neutrals, and Persia is struggling to maintain its neutrality.
The late Khan’s two-pronged attack in mid-July was discovered by Major Edward Havelock Oliphant, who unfortunately also died in reconnaissance by the same principal of fire; the Khan thus fell upon aware and ready defenders, and was repulsed. He died trying again in September, when the crisis notably peaked, but his legacy has taken longer to erase. Three days after the death of Oliphant, British ambassador Sir Charles Murray Marling demanded reparations for the attack, and British troops took formal possession of Bushehr, replacing the Shah’s banner with the Union Jack. Today, that banner is finally struck, and the Persian banner re-flown, as a sign of diplomatic easing of tensions. Yet things are far less settled that that, as a punitive raid on Dilwar in September bears testament.
Just yesterday, the Russian ambassador conveyed a warning to Prime Minister Mostowfi al-Mamalek that the Tsar will not tolerate a Persian alliance of any kind with Germany. A Russian force will arrive at Enzeli, Persia’s main port on the Caspian Sea, on October 28th. Russia is acting on signals from London, for the Army of India is already stretched thin by what its princes are apt to call ‘the Empire War,’ and so the already overstretched Russian bear reaches out with its last available claw.
This incursion has a destabilizing effect on Mostowfi’s government, however, and his conditions to the German government are demanding, for Mostowfi’s government is unable to prosecute the war on its own, and the Persian Army is a sad joke. Swedish gendarmes run the country’s police force, but they have left Shiraz, where the British have installed Habib-Allah Qawām-al-Molk as acting governor of Fars Province. This naked coup followed the assassination of a consul in September, an event also inspired by Wassmuss as he crossed Perisa with other German agents on their way to Afghanistan. In addition to protection, Qawām-al-Molk also receives generous remuneration from the British Empire; the same is not true for Mostowfi al-Mamalek or his government.
Meanwhile, Mostowfi’s conditions for joining the Central Powers are demanding, and perhaps they even contain a poison pill: he wants guarantees of Iran’s independence and sovereignty, loans, military officers, and material support for war — everything or nothing. Unless the Kaiser will provide him with the material means to fight the British and Russian empires at the same time, German activities in Iran must cease, for he has no power to make war on anyone at the moment. The Turks have retreated from northern Persia in a sign of good faith; Germany is quite willing to supply money; not arms, however, there being no logistical scenario for resupplying such a distant ally in a sustained manner.
Despite pretensions of monarchy, a vacuum of power is driving events in Persia. Iran today is aggressive in asserting its neutrality; they are as naturally suspicious of Russia as the United States or Britain, and they celebrate Khan Ra’is ‘Ali Delvari as a national hero.