The Zand Dynasty

The rule of the Zand Dynasty can be considered a mere interlude in the post- Safavid, pre-Qajar period of Iranian history. Although at least during the reign of its founder, Karim Khan, the Zand territories enjoyed a centralized, organized, and well managed state power, the death of Karim Khan by itself effectively meant the end of the dynasty as well. The struggles of the remaining Zand princes with the founder of the Qajar Dynasty, Agha Mohammad Khan, more than anything contributed to further destabilization of the country and its weakening, with rifts that became quite apparent under the Qajars.

The Zand tribe, part of the Lak confederacy of Lur tribes, was an old tribe which had spent part of its time under the Safavid rule in Khorasan, where they were exiled to as part of Safavid policies of keeping tribal loyalties at a minimum. Upon their return to their ancestral homeland in the Zagrod highlands, west of the Safavid capital of Isfahan, the Zands, under the leadership of Karim Khan, quickly entered the political arena of Isfahan. Allying himself with the powerful Bakhtiari khans, Ali Mardan Khan and Abolfath Khan, Karim Khan raised a grandson of Soltan Hossein, the last Safavid king, to the position of kingship, under the title of Ismail III. This was in fact the state of affairs after the fall of Nader Shah and the chaos that was created, and the puppet ruler Ismail III was indeed a simple excuse for the Zand and Bakhtiari Khans to take over territories of western and southern Iran for themselves. The ambitions quickly ran high and Ali Mardan Khan soon defeated and killed Abolfath Khan, while Karim Khan himself defeated and removed Ali Mardan Khan, and eventually Ismail III, claiming the throne for himself in 1760.

Refusing the title of the King (Shah), Karim Khan instead chose the title of Vakil ol-Roayaa “the Advocate of the Subjects” as his reigning title. He moved his capital to Shiraz, where he built a fortress (Arg-e Karim Khani), presumably to have better access to the Persian Gulf, the economic life line of his kingdom. In this region, in fact, Karim Khan for the first time allowed the British East India Company to start direct trading with the Iranian domains. He then started campaigns against the Ottomans in the west, which resulted in the Zand control of the Basra province. In the northwest, he curbed the power of Azad Khan, the former Afghan commander under Nader Shah, who was now controlling most of Azarbaijan and the Caucasus. In the north, his biggest enemy was Mohammad Hassan Khan Qajar, son of Fathali Khan, the chancellor of Tahmasb II. Karim Khan managed to defeat and kill Mohammad Hassan Khan in 1759, and took his two eldest sons, Agha Mohammad Khan and Hosseingholi Khan, as hostages in Shiraz, thus rendering the Qajar designs on power effectively moot. In Khorasan, however, Karim Khan allowed the Afsharid Shahrokh Shah to continue to rule, as a result dividing the Iranian territories into two parts.

When his major military campaigns were finished in the middle of the 1760s, Karim Khan devoted the rest of his rule in organizing his kingdom. A shrewd politician and diplomat, he managed to conclude lucrative contracts with the British East India Company and thus promoted international trade. Internally, his policies regarding taxation were quite promotional, temporarily helping the agricultural sector to rise. He is known to have exported several light industries, including promoting modern weaving methods in Kerman, trying to create a manner of competition for local industrial sector. His fair taxation, effective diplomacy, and abilities to provide relative internal calm brought an unprecedented amount of prosperity to Fars, Isfahan, Khuzestan, and central Iran, which was unknown since the high Safavid times in the early decades of the 17th century.

Karim Khan died peacefully in 1779, leaving the Zand throne to his weak son, Abolfath Khan. The rule of both Abolfath Khan and his brother, Mohammad Ali Khan, were overshadowed by the power of Zakki Khan, their half-uncle, who acted as a regent. The competition among Zand princes continued into the 1780’s, with a short period of relative stability under a nephew of Karim Khan, called Jafar Khan. However, the rising power of the Qajar Khan, Agha Mohammad Khan, who had escaped Shiraz following the death of Karim Khan, was a major threat to the weak Zand throne. Competition from a rival branch also further weakened the rule of Jafar Khan, and upon his death, the power was nominally inherited by his son, Lotf Ali Khan. The latter, a brave and capable military commander, despite his young age, spent most of his rule fighting the ruthless Qajar Khan. He was finally defeated in the city of Bam, in eastern Kerman, tortured, and finally killed as a captive, with his remains being buried in two different cities. The bloody end of the Zand dynasty, their reputation as fair leaders, and Karim Khan’s skills as an administrator, however, guaranteed their place as one of the most popular, and nostalgic, Iranian dynasties.


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