The Significance of the Persian Question

THE appeal of Persia to the United States for assistance has given the American people as a whole an interest in the problem of the Middle East which they have hitherto lacked, but has at the same time presented to them a distorted view of the situation. The spectacle of a devoted band of patriots struggling to preserve their independence, must rouse the Americans’ hatred of oppression, and appeal to their belief in the right of all peoples to govern themselves. If the only issue were Persia’s independence, if the only factors in the situation were Russia and Persia, then indeed we might look with sympathy upon this appeal to us, if not with crusading fervor. The glories of Nineveh and Babylon, of Cyrus and Xerxes, still cluster round the peoples living in the valleys of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates, and stir the blood of westerners whose own history is in comparison recent and prosaic. But sympathy is not comprehension, and the American people cannot well be blamed for not understanding what even Europeans as a whole seem to be slow to grasp — the fact that Persia, Morocco, Tripoli, are only three sides of the same question, each representing one movement of the pawns in the great international game of chess whose object is the control of the world.

The old Eastern question, as it looked to our fathers in the days when Disraeli and Gladstone were thundering at St. Stephen’s, was concerned principally with Turkey in Europe, and to that fact the world in time became accustomed. We grew up on the knowledge that England and France considered their interests in the Mediterranean paramount over those of any other powers, and were prepared at all costs to maintain an autonomous Turkey which should, in turn, keep the Russians behind the Bosphorus. The victorious twain secretly divided the spoils of the Crimean War, Egypt to England, Morocco to France, and took possession, — not, indeed, by the crude method of annexation, but by the infinitely subtler ways of ‘peaceful penetration ’ and high finance. Each was to recognize the dominant commercial and political interests of the other, and was to guarantee them against all comers. To their ally, Italy, the two promised in time similar ‘rights’ in Tripoli. There was, however, no apparent breach with the past; all these states retained their autonomy and their nominal allegiance to the Sick Man whom the Allies kept alive at Constantinople.

Then, with the building of the Suez Canal a new road to India was opened for England, and the reason for her interest in Egypt became clearer. She invested vast sums in Egyptian cotton and other industries, and undertook at enormous expense the construction of the dam at Assouan, which has largely increased the arable area of Egypt and been of great benefit to her population. Up the Nile pushed the English, toward the land they already possessed in Central Africa, and at last the projection of the Cape-to-Cairo railway made apparent the full amount that England had at stake in Egypt. Egypt is more than a tributary state with a valuable export trade: it is the gate to India and the East, the spot where all English interests converge. At Gibraltar, England holds the mouth of the Mediterranean; in Malta she has the strategic point where all the commercial and naval roads up and down that narrow sea must pass; Suez and the Canal give her a unique control of the short passage to the East; Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea, with British Somaliland, holds safe the approaches to the Canal, and, as the English fondly believe, those to India, to the golden East, and that trade on which so many English fortunes are founded.

In the northern Mediterranean England has felt safe. Italy is friendly, and controls in Sicily and the heel of the boot the other side of the passage whose centre Malta holds; besides, Italy owns the Adriatic. An independent Greece, wholly of English creation and supported now against Turkey by English prestige, has in its grip the Ægcan Sea and its islands, and furnishes a determined barrier to the extension of Turkish power. The island of Rhodes at the entrance to the Ægcan, and the island of Cyprus in the extreme northeastern corner of the Mediterranean, both in English hands, give that country complete naval supremacy in that quarter. To the north of Turkey, in the very teeth of the advancing Cerberus, English money and diplomacy created and nursed through infancy the Balkan States, as buffers between the weak Turk and the strong Russian, which should thus postpone indefinitely the fulfillment of the Russian ambition, the control of the Dardanelles and the Ægean and a share of the Mediterranean trade.

On the north, then, as on the south, England felt safe. The pawns were well placed: it would not be necessary for the queens and knights to take the offensive.

But it very soon became apparent to the English that the Red Sea route was by no means the only road to India. Napoleon at one time surveyed the roads and investigated the feasibility of leading an army to India through Russia, down the Caspian, overland through Turkestan and Persia, and thence by sea down the Persian Gulf. His officers reported that, while arduous, it was perfectly practicable. As Alexander had used it before, so others (in their own conceit as able as either of the great conquerors) have been mindful of it since. Gradually Russia came to see that Persia alone stood in the way of her egress to the Eastern seas at what might be a most valuable spot for purposes of commerce, as well as a most significant spot for purposes of war upon the English dominion in India.

Already by audacity and diplomacy the Russian territory had been pushed to the very gateway of India in the Himalayas, to the doors of Afghanistan, where she found the wild tribesmen friendly, and ready apparently to aid her in an assault on India by the historic road thus far trodden by all India’s conquerors save one. But the Persian route was simpler and less dangerous, and an attack from both sides at once should be crushing indeed. England saw herself circumvented, with Russia in possession of a waterroute protected by the desert of Arabia from land assault and debouching into the sea much nearer to India than her own water-route through the Red Sea. Not only might the invading Cossacks pour down the valley of the Indus, in the footsteps of Alexander and Aurungzebe, but England’s own sea-route might actually be blocked by Russian fleets operating from the Gulf of Oman. Promptly she ’came to the rescue’ of the Shah and extended her sphere of influence over southern Persia, only to be compelled, willy nilly, to recognize the Russian influence in northern Persia. Again, as in Africa, ‘peaceful penetration’ was the motto of both countries. Each was willing to bide its time for a more favorable moment.

Now, however, came a complete change in the game of chess, brought about by the alteration of the position of one very important piece on the board. Germany entered the lists with the selfsame plea of justification on her lips which the contestants already on the ground had originally put forward, and one, therefore, hard for them to deny, — the plea of might. To their excited outcries against such a trespass, she ironically replied that they, too, were trespassing without permission upon territory already occupied and owned for many centuries by Moroccans, Egyptians, Persians. The astute diplomatists of the Wilhelmsstrasse, who played the game with the utmost secrecy and finesse and with a splendid and indeed tangible object in view, succeeded in rearranging the whole scheme of international alliances. They saw nothing less than a Germano-Turkish alliance controlling a great belt of country stretching from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf, including half of Europe and the whole of Asia Minor, and so situated as to be an effectual bulwark against the Slav on the one side, and the English and the French on the other. Such a solid phalanx of interests might soon take Egypt, cut the English cord binding India to her, and thus carry off the capital prizes of the centuries. Moreover, India and Egypt, both conquered countries, trained to obey alien rulers for more than two thousand years, would bow before German efficiency as they had before Anglo-Saxon determination.

But to make feasible such a plan would demand the union of all German stocks under the banner of Prussia. Austria and Servia, Roumania and Bulgaria, all must aid. Turkey must be revived and reorganized, and proper transportation facilities furnished to tie together an empire capable of holding fast in its grip the connection between East and West, the destinies of Europe and Asia. Slowly, secretly, but surely, the various preliminaries were arranged. The German Emperor, filled suddenly with a desire to travel in the Holy Land, visited Constantinople, Syria, and the territories he hoped to use, spying out the land by a Pisgah glimpse, as it seems. A working alliance was made with Turkey, but it soon became apparent that the Sultan was bound by iron-clad agreements to France and England which his government could not in honor disregard. To rid the Turk of these hampering leading-strings, the Young Turk party, eager patriots, anxious to strengthen their country and throw off the shackles of England and France, was helped into the saddle, and the fetters on its hands were stricken off by the making of a new constitution.

General Von der Göllz, one of the ablest officers of the German army, was ‘allowed’ to spend several years in Turkey, in the pay of the Turkish government, building up a new and efficient army, trained in the latest methods and armed with the most recent equipment. And he has succeeded. The foreign military attachés, who witnessed the last Turkish manœuvres, have confessed that the new troops are as fine a body of men as any in Europe. Nor was the navy forgotten. Nevertheless, the understanding of the allies was that Austria should undertake the building of a navy and create suitable ports on the Adriatic as her share, and should act in concert with the new Turkish fleet when ‘the day’ arrived.

From every point of view, the Adriatic— long, narrow, protected from the English and French fleets by the Italian peninsula, and allowing a fleet to operate against Egypt without the necessity of passing the impregnable Malta — would be an admirable asset of the allies. Without that asset, they could not hope in the end to prevail, unless the impossible should happen and a German fleet should fight its way through the Channel, past Gibraltar and the other numerous obstacles strewn by England in the path of her enemies. Moreover, with the French fleet on the ground, and aid certain from Italy, alarmed at the idea of Austrian dominance in the Adriatic, the Turkish fleet and harbors would be too far from the scene of action to furnish an adequate base from which to contest even for a time the naval supremacy of the Mediterranean. Great dockyards, complete machinery for repairing and outfitting modern fleets, excellent communication with the sources of supply at the Krupp factories, would also be essential, not only to win, but to maintain in after years that supremacy of the Mediterranean once won. Nor could there be any doubt that the utmost forethought and ability would be needed to consummate this part of the plan.

And most important of all, Turkey should undertake, under German direction, and with German capital, the building of an efficient trunk-line railway from Constantinople to Bagdad, which should become the great artery linking Berlin and Vienna with the Orient. This, too, would be a difficult and expensive task. Over mountains and rivers, through deserts and plains, the roadbed must be constructed with materials brought often from a great distance. The initial expense would be huge; the operating expenses could not fail to be large; the income, from a sparsely-populated country, chiefly given over to grazing and agriculture, must be small. The road would be palpably a military highway whose purpose could hardly be concealed or denied. Yet it was a necessity of the first importance: without it, the great scheme would fail; and when the scheme should succeed, the railway would be precisely the artery along which the trade of the East would flow through Vienna and Berlin to European markets; so that the ultimate profits on the investment could not fail to be enormous.

Meanwhile, the Wilhelmsstrasse had not been idle in Europe. Austria was thoroughly pledged to the new naval programme, and had a dozen first-class battleships in commission in 1911. An important step toward the realization of a better connection with the Adriatic had been insured by the seizure of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. Thus the complete control of a most important section of the eastern side of the Adriatic was gained, which is practically supplemented by the excellent harbors of Montenegro because of the very favorable relations between the newly-made king of the latter country and Austria. Certainly the Austrians will not scruple to rob him of crown and kingdom when ‘the day ’ comes.

In Bulgaria, Roumania, Servia, and Macedonia, the German and Austrian agents have been busy, with excellent success. The military attachés of one or the other are drilling troops in all of them, and the fortifications are being strengthened where necessary to insure the control of the roads and to allay the fears of the loss of independence by any one of the Balkan States; for the latter do not trust their allies even when they come bearing gifts. They realize, however, that in this case they are an integral part of the scheme and are almost in a position to dictate terms.

When all should be ready the steps to take would be simple. Persia would give the allies the road to India, and the railway would not only convey troops to the front, but bring the spoils — the Eastern trade — to Europe. Persia would also place the allies in a position to attack Egypt on the one side, while Tripoli, already owned by Turkey, would allow a flank attack on the Nile and Red Sea from any point on its long eastern frontier. On the west it would open to attack the French in Tunis and Algeria. In Egypt, the Young Egyptian party would be a tool ready to do its utmost to knife its English ‘protector’ in hope of finding the hand of the Young Turk, guided by Germany, easier to evade. Above all, the nominal sovereignty of the Sultan throughout the Mediterranean world, and the tie of blood and religion binding the natives to him, would furnish in every case ample justification for any operations that expediency might dictate. Egypt, Tunis, and Morocco could be ‘ rescued ’ from the Infidel by the new Turkish army; Tripoli, Syria, and Macedonia could be ‘subdued,’and thus a real control of the Turkish Empire gained simply through the enforcement of the Sultan’s traditional rights. The Turkish and Austrian fleets, operating from the Adriatic behind the line of English naval stations, ought to prevent interference with the army on the mainland until too late. In India, the Young Hindus would be awaiting with open arms the arrival of a new champion, filled with the hope, already so often disappointed, that he would restore their independence.

England would not or could not send aid because, before the outbreak of war in the Mediterranean, the German fleet would have menaced England itself and roused the fears of starvation should the Channel fall for a fortnight into hostile hands, which ought to be sufficient to keep the Channel fleet at home. Indeed, without fighting a battle or incurring any considerable risk, the German fleet might so alarm the Admiralty as to cause them to weaken the Mediterranean squadron enough to give the AustroTurkish flotilla a chance to fight a decisive battle which might leave the strategic points in their hands. Meanwhile, the mobilization of the German army, destination undisclosed by any of its movements, and the spreading of rumors of its immediate use against either France or Russia, would effectually occupy those countries at home and prevent their interference with the execution of the real object of the great scheme in the Mediterranean. It would not be necessary for Germany to do much openly, for the real movements would be ostensibly in other hands: her strategic position on the French and Russian frontiers, her great fleet, the realization of what she might do, ought to be sufficient to paralyze Europe until the real work should have been accomplished. The enterprise was difficult, hazardous perhaps, but feasible and, above all, glorious.

The late Moroccan incident seems to have been a blind, a feint, to mislead the foe as to the quarter from whence the assault might be expected. Of the great scheme, much had been begun but little finished. The new constitution was in operation in Turkey, and the administration was being remodeled, and the finances rescued from the condition of chronic bankruptcy which had always delivered the Sultan bound hand and foot to the English and French bankers, whose governments always insisted upon awkward ‘arrangements’ to insure payment of principal and interest. Independence of England and France was thus assured. Moreover, the form of self-government instituted would have the sympathies of the western world with it and not against it in its struggles for efficiency, and so would be far less likely to furnish foreign governments with excuses for interference than had been the old so-called absolute rule. ’A free Turkey’ is already proving itself a talismanic phrase to conjure with.

The army, however, was not yet large enough; the railroad only partially constructed; the Austrian navy not yet large enough to think of taking the offensive; the Balkans not yet fully Germanized; the moment had not come, and yet the enemy was restive and curious. Something ought therefore to be done, and the financial prostration of Russia seemed to make it likely that an aggressive movement against France could be undertaken without danger at home. It might win the territory asked for, and would at the very least compel England and France to reveal the wellkept secret of their relations. It would be well to find out, if it could be done without risk, whether the English promises to the French really would be kept. From England, laden with domestic troubles, no danger was anticipated. Nor would there be anything improbable in a German policy to extend the Cameroons to the Congo. No interest would be threatened except Belgium’s, and that unfortunate country could not well resist. Advances to Spain had also revealed a willingness in that quarter to assist in robbing the French of some of their monopoly in Morocco, while the position of Spain at the mouth of the Mediterranean could not fail to be useful to the great scheme.

But the stroke at Agadir had most unexpected results. To the amazement of the Wilhelmsstrasse France was supported by England, which at once hinted at her cognizance of the larger issues involved. To the astonishment of the world — with the exception of a few astute bankers in London and Paris — a financial crisis of the first magnitude was precipitated in Germany by the recall of the French and English loans, and it became apparent that the vast business of the Fatherland was being done on credit, and that the country was without the ready money to begin a war, much less carry one on. Germany was practically in the hands of the foreign bankers, who refused to relieve the situation unless assurances of peace were given.

The financial condition of Russia had caused the Germans to move; so the crumbling of Germany’s credit-structure showed England, France, and Russia,— the new Triple Entente,— that the moment had come to checkmate the great scheme itself. Hence the firm stand of France and England on the question of Morocco, the settlement of all doubts as to the readiness of England to support her ally, and the consequent retreat of Germany, at any rate for the time being. Then, to prevent the utilization of Tripoli against Egypt by the Germano-Turkish alliance, Italy was allowed to take possession. Tripoli, independent save for a nominal allegiance to Constantinople, would be always a menace, and must be placed in hands which would possess a definite personal interest in keeping it out of the hands of Germany, Austria, or Turkey. In addition, Lord Kitchener, England’s most active and able soldier, was sent to Egypt, to organize the defense and prepare for any eventualities whatever.

If any proof were needed of the serious nature of the crisis which the English believe to be at hand, the appointment of this distinguished man would afford it. To strengthen the fleet in the Indian Ocean and protect India and the colonies without weakening the home fleet, the colonies will build and maintain battleships. To quiet the discontent supposed to be seething in India, and at any rate remove its specious justification, the King has just announced at the Durbar the granting of a new constitution which will give the educated Hindus some of that share in the government of their country for which they have been clamoring.

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In addition, an independent Persia, with a constitutional government and an American treasurer, means the complete destruction of English and Russian influence at precisely the moment when circumstances make it most essential. Such a Persia would be simply a plum ready to be picked by the owner of the Bagdad Railway at his own convenience. To checkmate Germany, a more definite control of Persia will be necessary than any independent state could possibly countenance. Persia for the Persians became unthinkable when it involved the dismissal by Mr. Shuster, for financial reasons, of most of the English and Russian secret agents, and the entire destruction of the system of underground wires by which the two powers had so long controlled the Shah’s government. Neither England nor Russia can believe that the Persians themselves are really responsible for this movement for independence. They see Germany instigating and subsidizing it. The hands may be the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob.

Moreover, the establishment by Mr. Shuster of an efficient administration, the collection of a regular revenue, the training of an army, the education of the Persians in self-government, would at once remove the plausible excuse which England and Russia had given for interference in Persia in the first place. The English commercial commissions had reported that no civilization existed in Persia; that the Persians were incapable of self-government; and that the powers ought, therefore, to take control. To prove the falsity of this specious plea, to show the world that Persians could establish and maintain a model state according to the most approved western notions, was the prime object of the recent revolutions. The nationalist movement aimed at the cessation of foreign influence altogether, — whether from Russia, England, or Germany mattered little to the Persians, — and at the creation of a state capable of holding them all at bay. If the leaders are in league with Germany, the people certainly are not. The very degree of Mr. Shuster’s success in providing a revenue; the steady and enthusiastic support accorded him by the officials, the Mejliss, and the populace; the manifest hatred of England and Russia evidenced by mass-meetings and processions, by violent denunciations of the foreigner by orators on street corners and priests in the mosques, only convinced the two powers that German influence was even stronger than they thought.

Accordingly, to Russia was assigned the active part in upsetting the new state. She quickly found that Mr. Shuster had committed ‘grave’ offenses against her citizens and consuls, and demanded his dismissal and the payment of indemnity. The determination of the Persians not to yield only showed the powers that they had not gone far enough; the troops were at once ordered forward; and the final ultimatum from the two powers, to which Persia at last acceded, demanded practically the definite recognition of the right of England and Russia to control Persia’s destiny. As a guarantee, the Persians must sign away their financial independence. The allies are demanding heavy money ‘indemnities’ which they will take good care to make large enough to preclude the possibility of their payment without recourse to a large foreign loan. This in turn will be furnished the unfortunate Persians only on such conditions as will effectually mortgage for years to come as many of their resources as can be found not already assigned to foreign syndicates. The powers will do their best to leave no money for future Shusters to collect. The Persians, poor wretches, cannot be allowed to govern themselves well or ill; they are misguided enough to live in a country possessed of strategical importance, and they must take the consequences.

The outcome does not seem at present to admit of much doubt. France will secure absolute control of Morocco; Italy will keep Tripoli; Russia and England will restore something like the old inefficient rule in Persia unless the Persians themselves force an annexation and partition which England certainly is anxious to avoid. Then the weak link in the German chain, the Balkans, can perhaps be severed by judicious promises, coupled to assurances from Russia of pacific intentions. Austria-Hungary is far from invulnerable. The Magyars have been planning for years a separation of the nations; the Czechs in Bohemia have been in potential revolt for centuries. and only await an opportunity; the Croatian peoples are more than anxious to assert their independence. The death of the present Emperor, likely to occur at any moment, is believed to be the signal for which the malcontents are waiting. Nor is it by any means clear that race-hatred and traditional dislike of Austrian rule would not be the strongest forces in those countries and lead them to take advantage of a state of European war to obtain the objects of national ambition jealously nourished for centuries.

Prussia is by no means popular in southern Germany; the Social-Democrats are vehemently opposed to war; and to carry the German Empire itself solidly for the great scheme, when its main objects should have been made public, might be no easy task even for the self-confident Wilhelm. At best the great scheme rested upon a coalition of many divergent interests which have oftener opposed each other in the past than worked in unison. To sow suspicion, to create discord, to rouse the ‘national’ spirit, and thus to weaken, if not destroy, the entente so carefully built up by Prussia, should be no difficult task.

And there will be plenty of time in which to win such battles with the pen. The German plans are so far from finished, the danger of financial depression, if not of national bankruptcy, is so great, that the German diplomatists have felt it to be imperative to take every possible precaution against, the outbreak of hostilities at present. To this end the Imperial Chancellor has made the most emphatic disclaimers in the Reichstag of any intention on the part of Germany to take hostile action against either England or France within the last six months, and practically pledged his nation to peace for some time to come.

His speech was greeted by incredulous shouts of boisterous merriment from the Conservatives, and by open gestures of disapproval from the Crown Prince. It will be no easy task for the warlike Wilhelm and his aides to restrain the Frankenstein they have been so industriously putting together for the last fifteen years. But it must be done. War of any kind is expensive to-day, and the great scheme means that Germany must finance not only herself but Turkey and the Balkans. After all, as the Saturday Review reminded the English some months ago, ‘We still hold our trumpcard, money; and that for the completion of Turkish plans is absolutely necessary, and can in the end only be obtained on reasonable terms, if at all, from France and Great Britain.' Until the domination of England, France, and America in the financial world can be decisively offset by German capital, little of the great scheme can be executed.