Distant Lands, Close Relations: 500 years of Historical and Cultural Relations between Iran and Portugal

Regardless of the historical and cultural relations of the Iranians and Iranian tribes with the Iberian Peninsula in ancient times and the presence of Iranians in Andalusia during the long historical period of Muslims ruling,
5 October 2020
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Morteza Damanpak Jami

   Regardless of the historical and cultural relations of the Iranians and Iranian tribes with the Iberian Peninsula in ancient times and the presence of Iranians in Andalusia during the long historical period of Muslims ruling, the first encounter between Persia and Portugal in modern times was made in early 16th century when the arrival and deployment of Portuguese forces in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman coincided with the establishment of the Safavid national government in Iran. At this time, the fledgling Safavid government ruled by Shah Ismail Iwas more engaged in war with the Ottomans and Uzbeks in the northeast and west of the country, and could not face a new European power claimant in the Persian Gulf. He, therefore, compromised with the new invaders and while dispatching envoys to Goa with messages of friendship, received representatives of the viceroy of Portugal in India. In the light of these contacts and the exchange of diplomatic missions, the Iranian government sought to strengthen its defense against the Ottoman invasions through the formation of an alliance with the Europeans. The Portuguese viceroy of India also sought to strengthen and expand its military bases and trade network in the region, especially Hormuz Island. Such contacts continued inconsistently, after Shah Ismail throughout the 16th century, 

    During the reign of Shah Abbas, I, relations between the two countries entered a new phase with the exchange of several diplomatic and trade delegations between Isfahan, Goa, and Lisbon in the first decade of the seventeenth century. After the suppression of the Uzbeks and expelling the Ottoman forces from Iran, the exploitation of the Persian Gulf trade route was embedded in Shah Abbas's mind. At this time, the Portuguese were in charge of trade and political affairs in the region with the help of the governor of Hormuz and sought to monopolize the purchase of Iranian goods through the Persian Gulf. The rising power of the Safavid king caused sending numerous delegations to the Iranian court by the European countries to conclude trade agreements and form a political alliance against the Ottomans. Shah Abbas also sent several delegations to the European capitals, including Lisbon. The main objectives of the delegations were military cooperation and alliance against the Ottomans, trade relations, and Portuguese fortifications in the Persian Gulf. Notwithstanding, a period of extensive diplomatic contacts between the two lands declined when Bahrain and Gombroon were conquered by Shah Abbas forces respectively in 1602 and 1614, and the Portuguese were expelled from the Hormuz Island in 1622. However, based on several agreements signed between the governments of Iran and Portugal, from 1630 until 1722, Bandar-e Kong became the center of Portuguese trade in the Persian Gulf for about one hundred years. In 1736, when Nader Shah Afshar came to power, the 230-year office of political and trade relations between Iran and Portugal was closed for a relatively long period, and the two countries had no official relations until the middle of the Qajar period in the nineteenth century.

   In the nineteenth century, especially during the long reign of Nasser al-Din Shah, Iran's diplomatic relations with many European countries expanded significantly due to the presence and rivalry of European powers in Iran and the region, the King's travels to Europe and the opening of the first permanent Iranian embassies in major cities of Europe. At this time, while Iran became an important player in international relations, contacts and relations were also established between Tehran and Lisbon. However, these contacts were not pursued institutionally and within the framework of official diplomatic relations. Documents in the diplomatic archives of the two countries show that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, messages were exchanged between the Qajar court and the Portuguese monarchy and then the republican system in Portugal on various occasions. Some of the documents in the archives of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs referred to the efforts by the Iranian Minister Plenipotentiary in Vienna in 1907 to travel to Spain and Portugal to establish diplomatic relations. In April 1908, at the official invitation of the Portuguese government, a delegation from Iran attended the International Telegraph Congress which was held in Lisbon. The two countries also cooperated in concluding an international convention (on production and distribution) of opium, the first conference of which was held in 1912 in the Hague.

    Documents in the diplomatic archives of Iran and Portugal show that since 1935 political relations between the two countries were established at the level of the minister plenipotentiary. According to a document in the archive of the Portuguese Diplomatic Institute, in 1945 the Iranian government through its embassy in Paris informed the Portuguese government of its decision to raise the level of diplomatic relations to (non-resident) ambassador. Since then, the Iranian ambassadors in Paris and the Portuguese ambassadors in Ankara were accredited in two countries.      In 1971, Portugal decided to open its resident embassy in Tehran. In the same year, at the invitation of the Iranian government, a delegation headed by the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs participated in the 2500-year celebration of the Persian Empire which was held in Shiraz. After the anti-dictatorship revolution in Portugal on 27 April 1974, Carlos Henrique Ferreira, the ambassador of Portugal to Iran met the Iran's Foreign Minister to present a briefing on the formation of an emergency national rescue government in his country. Subsequently, the Iranian government recognized the new political system in Portugal on May 2, 1974. Another important development in Iran-Portugal relations in the 1970s was the visit of the then Portuguese Foreign Minister, Ernesto Melo Antunes, to Iran from March 2 to 5, 1976. And finally, the reciprocal abolition of visas for the citizens of the two countries was concluded between the two countries in June 1977 by exchanging correspondences between Francisco Paulo Mendes Delos, the Portuguese ambassador to Tehran, and the Iranian Foreign Affairs.

   After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Portuguese government recognized the new political system in Iran and established friendly relations between the two countries. In this context, in March 1984, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran decided to open its embassy in Lisbon and accredited Jahanbakhsh Mozaffari as its first resident ambassador. Since then (until now), Iranian ambassadors to Portugal have been in charge of the embassy and Portugal has maintained its embassy at the ambassadorial level in Tehran. During these almost four decades of relations, Iran and Portugal have maintained their balanced and friendly relations based on the principle of mutual respect. These relations have been developed in various political, economic, cultural, and academic fields based on common interests. This indicates the high political will of the two countries leadership to maintain and expand relations.

   Considering the history of more than 500 years of relations between the two nations, 85 years after the two countries decided to establish official diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors, and 50 years after the opening of the Portuguese embassy in Tehran, 2020 is an important juncture, or a jubilee, in relations between Iran and Portugal. For this reason, organizing a series of special events such as exhibition of joint historical documents, scientific seminars on relations, cultural week, film, and music festivals in Lisbon and Tehran are on the agenda of bilateral relations. In this regard, the first scientific seminar and exhibition of historical documents of 500 years of relations between the two countries will be held in the Portuguese National Archive of Torre do Tombo from October 8 to 29, 2020, involving the cooperation of various scientific and cultural organizations and institutions of the two countries.

   Given what has been said, Iran and Portugal, although being distant lands geographically, have a valuable and precious historical experience of five hundred years of relations and interaction in various fields that few countries in contemporary international relations enjoy it. This experience can be used to establish and strengthen friendly relationships based on common interests. As President Rouhani stressed during his meeting with the new Portuguese Ambassador to Tehran, "We are nearing the 500th anniversary of the historical relations between Iran and Portugal, and we hope that relations between the two countries develop in all fields, especially economy." On the other hand, Portugal, along with other European countries, has consistently supported international regulations, multilateral agreements, and in particular the JCPOA, and has opposed unilateralism. This can be an important point of common ground between the two countries for international cooperation.


(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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