Opium in Iran 1850-1955

A review of The Most Sovereign of Masters: The History of Opium in Modern Iran, 1850-1955, by Ram Baruch Regavim.

Ram Ragavim sets out in his dissertation to dismantle the myths and often erroneous assumptions about the development of opium production in Iran, the trade of opium, and the national and international ramifications involved. The time frame concentrates on the late Qajar period, in particular the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah and the Constitutional Era, and concludes with offering an outlook into the interwar period and the first decades of Pahlavi rule. He addresses a number of historiographical problems and uncovers the diverse agendas and contradictory evaluations presented in the literature. In his own words, he aims “to tell the multi-faceted history of modern opium production in Iran as a multi layered, harmonious and continuous narrative” (p. 3).

The thesis is divided into three sections, six chapters and an epilogue. It follows roughly a chronological order, based on the author’s initial division of the hundred years under discussion into four periods: 1) the rapid expansion of opium production from 1850–1880, 2) the stabilization of production until World War I and Iranian responses to international efforts of market regulation, 3) the gradual establishment of a state monopoly under Reza Shah, and finally 4) the transition period from occupation to the post-coup period and the official ban of opium production.

The first chapter provides us with a résumé of opium consumption and production in Iran during the early modern period, as well as background information on poppy cultivation in Iran and other regions. This chapter serves as a general introduction and summarizes previous research by Willem Floor, Rudi Matthee and Ahmad Seyf. Regavim understands the new developments in the second half of the nineteenth century as part of a “modernization” process. In particular, he points out that cash crop production involved new relationships between merchants and peasants, with merchants buying entire yields of opium in advance, and the establishment of central “factories” for processing opium.

This leads straight to the question, addressed in Chapter 2, of who initiated this expansion of land devoted to poppy cultivation and who was behind the introduction of this new division of labor. Regavim discusses very carefully the diverse interpretations offered in the historiography of Qajar Iran. While Mehdi Bamdad attributed the idea to develop the opium industry to Mirza Hussein Khan Sepahsalar and others suggested elaborate conspiracy theories, Regavim builds on the arguments presented by Shoko Okazaki in stressing the role of individual merchants. He also takes issue with the widespread view that the introduction of cash crops to Iran was responsible for the economic stagnation of Iran during this period and responsible for events such as the great famine of 1870–1872. Weighing both sides carefully, he sides rather with Gad Gilbar and Ahmad Seyf. His lucid discussion makes it evident how far our understanding of the economic history of the late Qajar period has been shaped by ideological bias and preconceived theories.

The author uncovers another bias in Chapter 3, which is devoted to an analysis of what he designates as the narcophobic discourse. Regavim claims that the medical concept of addiction is not helpful to understand historical consumption patterns of drugs and, in particular, the commercial success of opium in the course of the nineteenth century.

In Chapter 4, Regavim returns to the discussion of economic history and completes the first section. Based on a close reading and analysis of archival material – of particular importance are the National Archives of India – he delves deep into the intricacies of the international opium trade, the protectionist policies of the EIC and how Iranian merchants were able to actively gain a share in the lucrative Chinese market. He concludes that the production of opium did not at all serve foreign interests and that growth and progress of the productive sectors (opium included) in Iran was of benefit not only to the ruling elites and large landowners, but to the majority of the population.

In the second section, comprising Chapters 5 and 6, Regavim treats a number of issues that arose after 1890 and are basically related to the growing international opposition to the consumption and trade of opium. Many of his findings here are not very well known and most of them are based on archival research. The interaction between Iran and Japan in this early period, for example, is highly interesting as Iran became the main supplier of opium to Japan-controlled Taiwan (Formosa). The problem of how to explain the rise of domestic consumption of opium inside Iran is controversial. Regavim argues that there is no direct relation between the growth in production and the growing domestic demand for the drug. Rather, the rise of opium consumption should be seen as related to a change from eating to smoking this drug and in the context of the general move towards goods such as tea and sugar that only recently had become available to larger segments of the population. While a certain skepticism towards opium may also be observed inside Iran already, there was no organized anti-opium movement in the late Qajar period. Chapter 7 again sheds more light on the international arena and discusses Iran’s participation in the international Opium Commission and major international conferences, which were concerned with the regulation of opium on the Chinese market. As a consequence, the government initiated the first Iranian law on opium in 1911. During the Great War, Iran was able to raise its production once more and direct its exports to the U.S. and Great Britain, where opium and morphine were direly needed in military hospitals.

Section 3 is entitled an epilogue. In this postscript we follow the narrative of opium in Iran from the time after World War I, through the increasingly negative estimation of opium and the attempt by Reza Shah’s government to control the production completely and turn it into a monopoly. The end of official opium production in Iran in 1955 was due to strong American influence and probably part of a package that involved a renegotiation of oil revenues after the coup of 1953.

The most important contribution of this dissertation lies in the fact that it adds considerably to the discussion of two fields that are not directly involved with opium as the main theme of this study. First, Regavim’s thesis successfully challenges the still dominant paradigm of decline, corruption and backwardness in the late Qajar period. While the author points out the lack or absence of structural reforms on the state level, he emphasizes the initiative and foresightedness of other actors, especially merchants and individuals among the ruling elites. Thus, the introduction of large-scale opium production is evaluated quite positively. Equally important is the problem of often moralistic and ideologically biased evaluations in contemporary Qajar historiography. This concerns attempts to whitewash one’s own family history as well as ongoing efforts to blame all ills of late Qajar society on the influence of imperialist and colonial powers. Not surprisingly, the opium trade is right at the center of such discussions.

Second, again related to the issue of agency, Regavim’s thesis proves that Iranian diplomacy from the Constitutional period onwards was highly successful on an international level. Iranian diplomats were able to pursue and defend their own strategies and interests. Iran’s position is clearly located in a global framework that is not bidirectional (Britain-Iran), but involves Japan, China, India and the U.S. Taking opium as a case study, this dissertation shows that Iran during the late Qajar period was not just a victim, but within certain limits was able to pursue innovative economic and diplomatic policies.

Prof. Dr. Christoph U. Werner
Department of Iranian Studies
Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany

Primary Sources

The United States National Archives
National Archives of India
National Archives of the United Kingdom (FO / CO)
Reports International Opium Commission
Pharmaceutical Journey

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2012. 221 pp. Primary Advisor: Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet.

Image courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu/photo/52094.

Leave a Reply