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Armenians in Iran
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Armenians in Nineteenth-Century Iran

In 1801, Russia annexed eastern Georgia and began its final penetration of Transcaucasia. In 1804 Russia started the First Russo-Iranian war (1804-1813) and a year later, with the assistance of the Armenians of Karabagh had captured half of eastern Armenia. The chaotic political and socio-economic conditions of the previous century and the departure of many Armenians to Georgia hurt the economy of Yerevan, the center of the Iranian defence of Transcaucasia. Iranians, in order to save the rest of eastern Armenia, heavily subsidized the region and appointed a capable governor, Hosein Qoli Khan, to administer it. The khan, together with the Iranian crown prince, `Abbes Mirza, initiated a number of administrative and military reforms and, aided by Napoleon's campaigns in Europe, managed for two decades to thwart Russian designs on the remaining territories in eastern Armenia. In the end, superior Russian forces conquered all the lands north of the Arax River during the Second Russo-Iranian war (1826-1828). Transcaucasia became part of the Russian Empire, and the fate of eastern Armenia, henceforth known as Russian Armenia, was inextricably tied to that of Russia (see map 5). Some 30,000 Armenians left northern Iran and settled in Russia. The Armenian community in Iran revived in the second half of the nineteenth century, thanks to commercial ties with Armenian merchants in Russia and to the benevolence of the Qajar shahs. New Julfa re-emerged as well and its cathedral-monastery complex of the Holy Saviour organized an excellent library. The first Armenian periodical, and a history of the Armenians of New Julfa were published in 1880. The Armenian school in New Julfa received a state subsidy, Armenian clergy and churches were exempted from taxes, and confiscated Church property was returned. Armenian merchants opened new trading houses in the Caspian and Persian Gulf regions and traded with Russia, India, and Europe. Dried fruit, leather, and carpets were exported, and machinery, glassware, and cloth were imported. Royal sponsorship brought Armenians to Tehran, where, taking advantage of their linguistic abilities and foreign contacts, Nasr al-Din Shah (1848-1896) used them as envoys to Europe. Some of them, like Mirza Malkum Khan, David Khan Melik Shahnazar, and Hovhannes Khan Maschian were responsible for the introduction of Freemasonry, Western political thought, and technological innovations into Iran. Armenian tailors and jewellers introduced European fashions, and Armenian photographers were among the first in that profession. Armenians were also among the first Western-style painters and musicians. By the end of the nineteenth century there were some 100,000 Armenians living in a dozen cities in Iran (see map 6). The Armenians in Iranian Azerbaijan were soon exposed to the national and political ideas of the Armenians in Transcaucasia and, as will be seen, were to play a significant role in the history of twentieth-century Iran.

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Armenians in Twentieth-Century Iran

By the twentieth century, Iran, like Egypt, was a major center of Armenian life in the Middle East. As we have seen, by the end of the nineteenth century, there were some 100,000 Armenians in Iran. The proximity of the Armenians in Iranian Azerbaijan to Transcaucasia and eastern Anatolia brought them under the influence of the political activities of Russian and Turkish Armenians. Armenakan, Hnchak and Dashnak cells opened in Tabriz and Salmas and a number of Armenian revolutionaries sought refuge from the tsarist and Turkish police there. The massacres of 1895-1896 brought Armenian refugees to north-western Iran. The Revolution of 1905 in Russia had a major effect on northern Iran and, in 1906, Iranian liberals and revolutionaries, joined by many Armenians, demanded a constitution in Iran. Although the shah signed the document, his successor dissolved the majlis or parliament and it was only in 1909 that the revolutionaries forced the crown to give up some of its prerogatives. The role of Armenian military units under the command of leaders such as Yeprem Khan and Keri, in the Iranian Constitutional Movement is well-documented. Thousands of Armenians had escaped to Iran during the genocide. The Turkish invasion of Iranian Azerbaijan during World War One devastated a number of Armenian communities in that region, such as Khoi. The community experienced a political rejuvenation with the arrival of the Dashnak leadership from Armenia in 1921. The establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty began a new era for the Armenians. The modernization efforts of Reza Shah (1924-1941) and Mohammad Reza Shah (1941-1979) gave the Armenians ample opportunities for advancement. Armenian contacts with the West and their linguistic abilities gave them an advantage over the native Iranians. They soon gained important positions in the arts and sciences, the Iranian Oil Company, the caviar industry, and dominated professions such as tailoring, shoemaking, photography, auto-mechanics, and as well the managing of cafes and restaurants. Immigrants and refugees from Russia continued to increase the Armenian community until 1933. World War Two gave the Armenians opportunities to increase their economic power. The Allies decided to use Iran as a bridge to Russia. Western arms and supplies were shipped through Iran and Armenians, with their knowledge of Russian, played a major role in this endeavour. The Hnchaks, especially, were active and the Iranian Communist Party had an Armenian contingent. The majority of the Armenians remained loyal to the Dashnaks, while the minority, who had communist sympathies, either went underground or left with the Iranian Socialists when they fled to Russia in 1946. In 1953 the Iranian and few Armenian communists made a brief comeback during the Mossadeq period, but the return of the shah, once again decimated their ranks. Most Armenians, under Dashnak leadership, however, had remained neutral or loyal to the regime and were rewarded by the shah, For the next quarter of the century Armenian fortunes rose in Iran, and Tehran, Tabriz, and Isfahan became major centers with some 250,000 Armenians. The shah trusted and liked his Armenian subjects and Tehran, like Beirut, became a major center of Armenian life. Armenian churches, schools, cultural centers, sports clubs and associations flourished and Armenians had their own senator and member of parliament, Thirty churches and some four dozen schools and libraries served the needs of the community. Armenian presses published numerous books, journals, periodicals, and newspapers. such as The Wave (Alik). The better educated upper classes, however, were fewer in number and, compared to their counterparts in Lebanon, were relatively unproductive culturally. Although the Islamic Revolution has ended the second golden age of the Armenian community in Iran, the community has not lost its prominence altogether. Ayatollah Khomeini's restrictions, the Iran-Iraq war, and the economic problems resulting from Iran's isolation forced the exodus of 100,000 Armenians. The current government is more accommodating and Armenians, unlike the Kurds and Iranian Azeris, have their own schools, clubs, and maintain most of their churches. The fall of the Soviet Union, the common border with Armenia, and the Armeno-Iranian diplomatic and economic agreements have opened a new era for the Iranian Armenians.

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Courtesy Link: Elektron, the ITS student-server
Source: A History of the Armenian People Volume II
By: George A. Bournoutian

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