Related Topics:

A century and a half before Iranian radicals seized the U.S. embassy and took fifty-two hostages, a frenzied Iranian mob spurred on by the mullahs stormed the Russian legation in Tehran and massacred all but one member of the mission. Among those murdered was Alexander Griboyedov, playwright and Russia's chief diplomat in Tehran. While largely forgotten, the massacre illustrates yet another example of the Iranian clergy's xenophobic and violent reaction to foreign challenges.

In 1828, the tsar dispatched Griboyedov to Iran in order to implement the humiliating Treaty of Turkmanchai that ended the second Russo-Iranian war. Under terms of the treaty, Iran forever forfeited its claim to what is now Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia; paid exorbitant reparations; and granted diplomatic immunity and other privileges for Russian merchants.

The treaty's implementation was complicated by a culture clash. Griboyedov offended the royal court by not removing his boots in front of the shah and further antagonized the shah by demanding the release of numerous Christian slaves seized by Iran in the preceding decades.

Well-written, with extensive notes and sixty-five illustrations, Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran is worth the price for those interested in the tragic life of a young writer and diplomat. For historians of Iran, however, the value will be limited. Kelly seeks to absolve the English from persistent accusations that they egged on the Iranian mobs who slaughtered the Griboyedov mission. Point taken, but irrelevant to all but one hundred or so historians of Qajar-era Iran.

Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran is not for those seeking a more general introduction into Iranian history. Less than one-quarter of the text follows Griboyedov's experiences in Tehran and Tabriz. Other chapters cover his experiences in Georgia and the Crimea and Griboyedov's early life in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Far more engaging for those interested in the great diplomatic competition between Russia and Britain over Iran and Central Asia will be Peter Hopkirk's Great Game, a broader account of the spies and diplomats sent into deadly competition in the region.[1] Also excellent is Denis Wright's The English amongst the Persians, which reproduces excerpts and accounts from a number of early visitors.[2] While many accounts exist of Europeans' experiences in the Middle East, readers may enjoy the opposite in English translation of the diary of Nasir ad-Din Shah (r. 1848-96) during his 1873 European tour.[3]

[1] New York: Kodansha International, 1994; reviewed in the MEQ, June 1995.
[2] New York: Palgrave-St.Martin, 2001.
[3] J.W. Redhouse, trans., The Diary of H.M. the Shah of Persia, during His Tour through Europe in A. D. 1873 (London: J. Murray, 1874).