Britain, Persia and Petroleum

Roger Howard asks how the discovery of oil affected relations between Britain and Persia in the early twentieth century.

Within minutes, news of the great discovery was cabled to the British legation in the Persian capital, Tehran. Poetically, it was written in Biblical code and ran ‘See Psalm 104 verse 13 third sentence and Psalm 114 verse 8 second sentence”. Intrigued, the legation official reached for his Bible and was astonished by what he found. ‘That he may bring out of the earth oil to make him a cheerful countenance,’ went one of the Psalms, while the other referred to ‘the flint stone into a springing well.’

The news would equally have reverberated through the corridors of political power in Tehran. Traditionally only the shah, or monarch, and his senior ministers had exercised real influence, but by 1908 Persia was in the midst of a ‘Constitutional Revolution’. Less than two years before, a dying Mozaffar al-Din had bowed to massive popular protest and agreed to the establishment of an elected parliament, or Majlis, which went on to establish a new constitution that placed the shah ‘under the rule of law’.

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