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Signed on August 31, 1907, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 brought shaky British-Russian relations to the forefront by solidifying boundaries that identified respective control in Persia, Afghanistan, and Tibet. This agreement seemingly ended a long-standing struggle for power that had gone on at the expense of less-developed regions throughout Central Asia. Though these imperial powers had experienced relatively few major conflicts between them over the previous hundred years, an underlying rivalry, otherwise known as “the Great Game”, had exacerbated the situation to such an extent that resolution was sought by the early 20th century. As a consequence of the Anglo-Russian agreement, they crushed any chance of Persian autonomy. The idea of a reformed Persian state was not what these powers had in mind; they enjoyed both stability and control in Persia and planned to keep it that way. Overall, the Convention represented a carefully calculated move on each power's part in which they chose to value a powerful alliance over potential sole control over various parts of Central Asia.
The Great Game
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During the 19th century, Britain had firm control over India and considered that control a top priority. However, Russia had been wielding its imperial sword as well by expanding south and east into Central Asia toward India. “The Great Game” refers to the rivalry between Britain and Russia over territorial and political control in Central Asia. The middle zone of land that was located between India and Russian holdings: Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet.
Britain feared that a Russian presence might result in a Russian invasion—a situation that might challenge the British hold on India. In essence, the British aimed to keep “Russian influence from the borders of British India.” On the other hand, Russia wanted more land on its southern border, namely in Afghanistan, and feared a British surge towards their territories. Furthermore, by the 20th century a new issue had arisen, and an influential British official, George Nathaniel Curzon, pushed for British security of Middle Eastern petroleum.
This push only compounded the issue, and kept Britain diplomatically neurotic of every Russian move. Using tactics similar to its economic marriage to Iran, Britain took Tibet under its wing by first invading it in 1903 and then making it a trade partner, ultimately allowing Tibet to accumulate a large debt and forfeit even more power over to Britain. Though each of the Great Powers was spared from outright war, “The Great Game” was a constant factor in Britain and Russia's political psyche.
By the early 20th century, however, alarmed by the quick expansion of the Russian rail network in Central Asia and the high costs that an increase in Indian troop strength would necessitate, Britain began to pursue a two-pronged policy to clear the Russian threat. The first step involved an agreement with Japan, in order to bind Russian forces and attention in Manchuria and Korea. The second move encompassed the Entente Cordiale with France, partly in the hope of France restraining the ambitions of her Russian ally, as well as acting as a facilitator for better relations between Britain and Russia.
Likewise Russia began to seek rapprochement with the British Empire after the disaster following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. On the one hand the Russian leadership hoped to gain breathing space in dealing with the domestic problems plaguing the country, on the other hand they hoped to gain greater freedom of external action.
The rise of Germany
On May 20, 1882, Germany entered into the Triple Alliance with Italy and Austria-Hungary, complementing its industrial and socio-political climb in the world arena. Furthermore, Germany dramatically increased its military output from the early 1900s up to the outbreak of World War I. Under a new “Prussian-German” empire, the German government worked to increase the nation's wealth and reach what was then the zenith of German power. While Britain and Russia were skeptical of Germany's imperialistic motives, members of the Triple Alliance were in turn somewhat threatened by Britain's and Russia's aggressive foreign policy tactics and wealth derived from their colonies. Thus, military and territorial expansion was Germany's key to making itself a major player in the international arena of power. Germany's Middle East took a secondary position—one subordinate to Germany's primary policy toward Europe and America—throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While of secondary importance, it was a tool that was used to manipulate the Middle Eastern attempt to play off the Western powers against each other. Berlin peacefully penetrated the Ottoman Empire, and it had few colonial aspirations in the region.
Trouble in Iran
In 1905, revolutionary activity spread throughout Tehran, forcing the shah to accept a constitution, allow the formation of a majles (parliamentary assembly), and hold elections. Major figures in the revolution had secular goals, which then created rifts in the clergy to the advantage of the monarchy. Neither Britain nor Russia approved of this new liberal, unstable, political arrangement—-they preferred a stable, puppet-like government that submitted to foreign concessions and worked well with their imperialist goals.
In order to facilitate the situation in Iran, Britain and Russia discussed splitting Iran “into three zones. The agreement they wanted would allocate the north, including Isfahan, to Russia; the south-east, especially Kerman, Sistan, and Baluchistan to Britain; and demarcate the remaining land between the two powers as a “neutral zone.” This division of Iran reinforced Great Power control over these respective territorial and economic interests in the country as well as allowed for contrived interference in Iran's political system. With foreign influence, revolution was outflanked by a combination of European and monarchist activities. As a result, Iranians learned “that however predatory the two 'neighbors' were, they were even more dangerous when they put aside their rivalries.”
Formally signed by Count Alexander Izvolsky, Foreign Minister of the Russian Empire, and Sir Arthur Nicolson, the British Ambassador to Russia, the British-Russian Convention of 1907 stipulated the following:
- That Persia would be split into three zones: A Russian zone in the north, a British zone in the southeast, and a neutral “buffer” zone in the remaining land.
- That Britain may not seek concessions “beyond a line starting from Qasr-e Shirin, passing through Isfahan, Yezd (Yazd), Kakhk, and ending at a point on the Persian frontier at the intersection of the Russian and Afghan frontiers.”
- That Russia must follow the reverse of guideline number two.
- That Afghanistan was a British protectorate and for Russia to cease any communication with the Emir.
A separate treaty was drawn up to resolve disputes regarding Tibet. However, these terms eventually proved problematic, as they "drew attention to a whole range of minor issues that remained unsolved".
Direct consequences of the Convention
After the signing of the convention, Russia began to “partake in British military manoeuvres and extend reciprocal invitations.” The Convention served as the catalyst for creating a “Triple Entente”, which was the basis of the alliance of countries opposing the Central Powers in 1914 at the onset of World War I.
- "Central Asia: Afghanistan and Her Relation to British and Russian Territories". World Digital Library. 1885. Retrieved 2013-07-28.
- Clark, C. (2013). The Sleepwalkers. How Europe Went to War in 1914. London: Penguin Books., pp. 138-40
- Ibid., pp. 158
- "Agreement concerning Persia" - Full Text
- Abrahamiam, Ervand, A History of Modern Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
- Adelson, Roger, London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 1902–1922 (St. Edmundsbury Press, 1995)
- Klein, Ira. "The Anglo-Russian Convention and the Problem of Central Asia, 1907-1914," Journal of British Studies (1971) 11#1 pp. 126-147 in JSTOR
- Palace, Wendy. The British Empire and Tibet (Studies in the Modern History of Asia), (Milton Park, England: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005)
- Siegel, Jennifer, Endgame: Britain, Russia and the Final Struggle for Central Asia (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002)
- Tomaszewski, Fiona K., A Great Russia: Russia and the Triple Entente (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002)