Amir Kabir (1807 – 10 January 1852), also known as Mirza Taghi Khan Amir Nezam, Atabak and Amir’e Nezam; was chief minister to Nasereddin Shah Qajar for the first three years of his reign. He served as Prime Minister of Iran and was one of the most capable and innovative figures to appear in the whole Qajar period. He is considered by some to be "widely respected by liberal nationalist Iranians" as "Iran's first reformer", a modernizer who was "unjustly struck down" attempted to bring "gradual reform" to Iran.
Amir Kabir was born into a lowly household at Hezaveh in Markazi province. His father, Karbalai Ghorban, entered the service of Mirza Abol Ghasem Farahani as a cook, and when Mirza Bozorg was appointed chief minister to Abbas Mirza, the crown prince in Tabriz, Karbalai Ghorban accompanied him there, taking his son with him. Amir Kabir first assisted his father in performing domestic duties in the household of Mirza Bozorg, who saw signs of unusual talent in him and had him study with his own children. After he had learned reading, writing, and some mathematics, Amir Kabir, still an adolescent, was appointed by Mirza Bozorg to supervise his stables. After Mirza Bozorg’s death in 1822, he was succeeded in the post of minister to the crown prince by his son, Mirza Abol Ghasem Qaeem Magham. Under his aegis Amir Kabir entered government service, being appointed first to the post of military registrar for the army of Azerbaijan. In 1835 he became responsible for supervising the finances of the army of Azerbaijan. Several years later he was put in charge of the same army’s provisions, financing, and organization.
During his tenure, Amir Kabir participated in many missions abroad, he spent almost four years in Erzurum, participating in the work of a commission to delineate the Ottoman-Iranian frontier and settling certain other differences between the two states. Acting almost independently, he resisted attempts to exclude Khorramshahr from Iranian sovereignty and to make Iran pay compensation for its military incursions into the area of Solaymaniyeh. During his tenure in Ottoman Turkey he studied their progress toward modernization.
Amir Kabir returned to Tabriz in 1847. A year later he was appointed chief tutor to the crown prince Nasereddin, who was still only fifteen years old. Soon after, Mohammad Shah died, and Naserredin had to proceed to Tehran and assume the throne. Naserredin Shah awarded Amir Kabir with full responsibility for the whole Iranian army. After arriving in Tehran, he also appointed him chief minister. His appointment as the chief minister aroused resentment in various individuals who thought themselves more deserving and resented Amir Kabir’s proud and self-confident bearing and his clamp down on their excess spending and allowances.
In 1846 Hasan Khan Salar, with the help of some local chieftains, had rebelled against the central government. Amir Kabir sent two armies against Hasan Khan, defeated his forces and captured him. Amir Kabir had him executed in 1850, together with one of his sons and one of his brothers, a clear sign of Amir Kabir’s intention to assert the prerogatives of the state. With order reestablished in the provinces, Amir Kabir turned to a wide variety of administrative, cultural, and economic reforms that were the major achievement of his brief ministry. His most immediate success was the vaccination of Iranians against smallpox.
Faced with an empty treasury, he first set about balancing the state budget by setting up a budgetary committee and attempting to increase the sources of revenue and to decrease state expenditure. He decided to drastically reduce the salaries of the civil service, often by half, and to eliminate a large number of stipends paid to pensioners who did little or no governmental work. This measure increased his unpopularity with many influential figures and thus contributed to his ultimate disgrace and death. At the same time he strove to collect overdue taxes from provincial governors and tribal chieftains by dispatching assessors and collectors to every province of the country. The collection of customs duties, previously farmed out to individuals, was now made the direct responsibility of the central government. The Caspian fisheries, an important source of revenue, were recovered from a Russian monopoly and contracted out to Iranians. Yield and productivity, not area, were established as the basis of tax assessment for other lands, and previously dead lands were brought under cultivation. These various measures for the encouragement of agriculture and industry also benefited the treasury by raising the level of national prosperity and hence taxability.
He introduced the planting of sugarcane to the Khuzestan province, built the Naseri Dam on the Karkheh River and a bridge at Shushtar, and laid plans for the development of Khuzestan. He also took steps to promote the planting of American cotton near Tehran and Urumieh. He is also credited with the foundation of the Darolfonoon in Tehran with possibly the most lasting effects. Decades later, many parts of this establishment were turned into the University of Tehran, with the remaining becoming Darolfonoon Secondary School. The purpose of the institution was to train officers and civil servants to pursue the regeneration of the state that Amir Kabir had begun. Among the subjects taught were medicine, surgery, pharmacology, natural history, mathematics, geology, and natural science. The instructors were for the most part Austrians recruited in Vienna.
Amir Kabir made a second indirect contribution to the elaboration of Persian as a modern medium with his foundation of the newspaper Vaghayeh Ettefaghiyeh, which survived under different titles until the reign of Mozaffareddin Shah. A minimum circulation was ensured by requiring every official earning more than 2,000 rials a year to subscribe. In founding the journal Amir Kabir hoped to give greater effect to government decrees by bringing them to the attention of the public. He also wished to educate its readers in the world’s political and scientific developments. Among the items reported in the first year of publication were the drawing up of the Suez Canal project, the invention of the balloon, and a census of England.
All of the measures enumerated so far had as their purpose the creation of a well ordered and prosperous country, with undisputed authority exercised by the central government. This purpose was in part challenged by the mullas, who throughout the Qajar period disputed the legitimacy of the state and often sought to exercise an independent and rival authority. Amir Kabir took a variety of steps designed to curb or eliminate their influence upon affairs of state. He established indirect control over the sharia courts by giving prominence to one of them that enjoyed his special favor and by establishing the Divan Khaneh. All cases were to be referred to it before being passed on to a sharia court of the state’s choosing and any verdict the sharia court then reached was valid only if endorsed by the Divan Khaneh. In addition, any case involving a member of the non- Muslim minorities belonged exclusively to the jurisdiction of the Divan Khaneh. Amir Kabir took stringent measures against sharia judges found guilty of bribery or dishonesty. Amir Kabir also sought to reduce clerical power by restricting the ability of the clerics to grant refuge, in their residences and the mosques under their control, to criminals and others pursued by the state. Less capable of fulfillment was Amir Kabir’s desire to prohibit the self-flagellation that took place during the mourning season. He obtained the support of several clerics in his attempt to prohibit these rites, but was obliged to relent in the face of strong opposition, particularly from Isfahan and Azerbaijan.
Amir Kabir took a benevolent interest in the non-Muslim minorities of Iran. He exempted the priests of all denominations from taxation, and gave material support to Christian schools in Azerbaijan and Isfahan. In addition, he established a close relationship with the Zoroastrians of Yazd and gave strict orders to the governor of the city that they not be abused or subjected to arbitrary taxes. He also forbade attempts made in Shushtar to convert forcibly the Sabean community to Islam. Amir Kabir regarded the followers of Babism, the predecessor of the Bahai Faith, as a threat and repressed them. He suppressed the Babi upheavals of 1848-51 and personally ordered the execution of many Babis including The Bab, the movement's founder.
The foreign policy of Amir Kabir was as strikingly innovative as his internal policies. He has been credited with originating the policy of negative equilibrium, i.e., refusing concessions to both of the rival powers pressing on Iran, Britain and Russia, and avoiding alignment with either of them. He attempted to put an end to the Russian occupation of Ashuradeh, an island in the southeastern corner of the Caspian Sea, as well as the anchorage rights enjoyed by Russian ships in the lagoon of Anzali. In the south of Iran he made similar efforts to restrict British influence in the Persian Gulf and denied Britain the right to stop Iranian ships in the Persian Gulf on the pretext of looking for slaves. In order to counteract British and Russian influence, he sought to establish relations with powers without direct interests in Iran, notably Austria and the United States.
From the get-go, Amir Kabir’s policies incited animosity within the influential circles of Iranian elite – most notable being the inner circle of the monarchy whose pensions and income were slashed by his financial reforms and policies. He was also later opposed by those who envied him for his numerous posts. They regarded him as a threat to their interests and formed a coalition against him in which the Queen Mother was active, in spite of him being married to her daughter. She convinced the young Shah that Amir Kabir wanted to usurp the throne. In October 1851 the Shah dismissed him and exiled him to Kashan where he was kept in isolation by the Shah's decree. His execution was ordered six weeks later after the Queen mother and his executioner, Ali Khan Farash-bashi, had convinced the King that Amir Kabir would soon be granted immunity by the Russians – possibly allowing him to make an attempt to regain control of the government with force. In the end, Amir Kabir was murdered in Fin Garden in Kashan on January 10, 1852. With him, many believe, died the prospect of an independent Iran lead by meritocracy rather than nepotism.
Following his death, Amir Kabir received praise from several poets of the age, but his services to Iran remained generally unappreciated in the Qajar period. Modern Iranian historiography has done him more justice, depicting him as one of the few capable and honest statesmen to emerge in the Qajar period and the progenitor of various political and social changes that came about half a century later. Tehran Polytechnic University, established during the Pahlavi dynasty in 1958, was renamed Amir Kabir University of Technology after him in 1979. Amir Kabir Dam was constructed on the Karaj River and was the first multi-purpose dam in Iran. In 2010 a bronze sculpture of Amir Kabir, created by Abolhasan Seddighi in Italy was flown to Iran and found its final home at Tehran’s Mellat Park.