The early Qâjâr rulers saw themselves as the heirs to the Safavid legacy, in much the same way as the Safavids served as heirs to the Timurids. Left to themselves, they would probably have sought to re-create that heritage as much as possible, both territorially and culturally. Âghâ Mohammad Shah had demanded the cession of lands in central Asia and Afghanistan and adopted an aggressive policy in the Caucasus. Fath-‘Ali Shah likewise attempted to restore the Safavid frontier in the Caucasus, reopened the war with the Ottomans, put down a revolt in Khorâsân, and attempted to assert his authority over Herât (as did his successors, Mohammad Shah in 1837 and Nâser-od-Din Shah in 1856). The Qâjârs could not hope to emulate the personal religious charisma of the Safavid monarchs, but they staunchly supported Shi‘ism and cultivated the favor of Shi‘ite religious leaders. They also actively promoted a revival of the arts and literature.

What made the Qâjâr period fundamentally different was Iran’s troubled encounter with European powers and European culture. This certainly had precedents going back for centuries: the overtures between the crusaders and the Mongols; the mission of the Castilian Ruy Gonzalez di Clavijo to Tamerlane; the efforts of Caterino Zeno of Venice and the White Sheep ruler Uzun Hasan to forge an anti-Ottoman alliance; or the English embassies of the Sherley brothers and Dodmore Cotton to the court of Shah ‘Abbâs the Great. When the Qâjârs got swept up in the complicated geopolitical machinations of the era of the French Revolution, however, the relative military and economic relationship was entirely to their disadvantage.

Napoleon first approached the Qâjârs, aiming to use Iran as a threat against the British in India and the Russians in the Caucasus; the Qâjârs were receptive, in the hope of recovering their Caucasian principalities. This was undone by the Convention of Tilsit (1807), as the French and Russians then became allies; Britain was consequently able to make its own alliance with Iran and sent a military mission to help the Qâjâr prince ‘Abbâs Mirzâ reform the Qâjâr army and conduct the campaign against the Russians (although not too vigorously after Britain and Russia once more allied against the French). The end result was that Russia defeated the Iranian armies in the Caucasus, and Iran had to accept the Treaty of Golestân (1813), mediated by Britain, by which it ceded almost all its territories in the Caucasus and gave up its right to maintain a navy on the Caspian. A second war with Russia in 1826 ended in defeat, and by the Treaty of Torkmânchay (1828), Iran was compelled to pay a large indemnity, give up more territory north of the Aras River, and make many other concessions to Russia, such as most-favored-nation trading status. When the Qâjârs attempted to compensate for these losses by moving on Herât, they were consistently blocked by the British, who wanted to guard the lines of communication and defense to India.

The Russians thus came to feel that they had vital interests in the north of Iran, while the British were primarily concerned with their influence in the south of Iran. For the rest of the century, the British and the Russians continued to work to promote their respective positions in Iran, while not coming into overt conflict with each other, and to exclude other countries from any significant role there. This culminated in the notorious Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907. The document’s pledge “to respect the integrity and independence of Persia” was nothing more than a platitude; in fact, it recognized a sphere of influence in northern Iran where Russia would have a free hand to do much as it pleased, and a corresponding sphere of influence was assigned to Britain in the south.

Since Britain and Russia were anxious not to become embroiled in a military confrontation over Iran and did not seek to colonize the country outright, the main vehicle for expanding their influence by proxy was by encouraging commercial and other activities in Iran by their nationals—constructing a telegraph line, establishing banks, extending loans, building factories, setting up shipping companies, obtaining concessions to exploit the natural resources of the country, and even taking over aspects of its military, police, and administrative functions. Sometimes an entrepreneur from one country would push too far, so the other would block the enterprise. This happened in the case of the Reuter Concession in 1872, whereby Nâser-od-Din Shah gave a British subject a monopoly over the development of railroads, mining, and a national bank, all to be financed by running the customs service. Russian pressure forced its cancellation. Another proposed concession in 1891, which would have given a monopoly over the tobacco trade in Iran to a British subject, aroused not only Russian opposition but popular outrage and a boycott of tobacco products. The Tobacco Protest movement that brought about the cancellation of the concession is generally regarded as the first example of effective mass mobilization and national resistance to imperialism in Iran. Of all these economic ventures, the most momentous was undoubtedly the granting in 1901 of the right to exploit gas and petroleum resources in the south of Iran to William Knox D’Arcy. After initial difficulties, oil was struck in 1908 at the Masjed-e Solaymân site near Ahvâz, a development which led to the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Since the British navy was in the process of converting from coal to oil, a source of petroleum so near the Persian Gulf was seen as a major asset; in 1914, the British government itself took a controlling interest in the company. Wealth from oil would of course play a vital role in the future economic development of Iran, but it also gave Britain an incentive to make protection of its oil interests in Iran a major priority of its foreign policy.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the rulers of Qâjâr Iran faced enormous obstacles—poverty, military weakness, political factionalism, and corruption as well as domination by Britain and Russia—to any program of reform and modernization that might have made the country truly strong and independent. Nonetheless, much significant progress was made toward laying the foundations for a modern nation-state during this period. One burst of reform took place under the dynamic prime minister Amir Kabir (1848–51), who sought to strengthen the army, improve the administrative and fiscal practices of the government, stimulate agriculture and industry, regularize the legal system, and introduce new educational institutions (notably the renowned military and technical school, Dâr-ol-Fonun). Unfortunately, Amir Kabir’s enemies at court and in the bureaucracy manipulated the young and insecure Nâser-od-Din Shah into dismissing Amir Kabir from office and then had him murdered. Many Iranians gradually came to see the introduction of a constitutional system of government as the best guarantee against such arbitrary and irresponsible actions and the basis for a genuine national revival, and a number of political societies ( anjomans) were formed to work toward that end.