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The Pahlavis & The Last Shah of Iran

Iranian History - The Pahlavis

The Last of the Shahs

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Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-1941)

Reza Shah came to power aiming to push Iran in a radical new direction both economically and culturally. Impressed by the successes of the reforms of Kemal Ataturk in neighbouring Turkey, Reza Shah wished Iran to become a similarly modernised, secular society with strong central leadership.

That he took for the name of his dynasty the name Pahlavi, was a sign that he also wished to infuse Persia with a new spirit of nationalism. Not only is Pahlavi the name of the ancient language of pre-Islamic Iran but also echoes the word pahlavan, literally meaning "champion".

The word was used around the time of the Arab invasion to refer to anti-Arab Persians who trained as wrestlers after being deprived of the right to bear arms. In 1934, he also changed the name of the country from Persia to Iran, the name by which it was known in the Ancient East. The name is derived from the word "Aryan" and implies a cultural and ethnic distinction between it and Arab Middle East.

Reza Shah in military uniform, Iran.

Reza Shah in military uniform, Iran.



Reza Shah as Minister of War in 1921, Iran.

Reza Shah as Minister of War in 1921.

The Iran that he inherited was backward in comparison to the developed countries of the West and rapidly modernising Turkey. The population was still primarily rural and largely illiterate.

Industry was stagnant and transport infrastructures were rudimentary at best. Reza Shah embarked on an ambitious plan to remedy this through developing modern infrastructures and expanding foreign trade – all under the guiding hand of strong central government.

One of his most ambitious projects was the construction of the Trans-Persian Railway, a 1400km long railroad passing through formidable mountains to connect Tehran with the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea.

It was completed ahead of schedule in 1939. In addition, Reza Shah ordered the construction of over 20,000km of roads and introduced modern communication systems. State-owned factories began to produce basic consumer goods domestically.

The pervasive influence in politics of the religious establishment was considered by Reza Shah to be an obstacle to modernisation. Education, previously the domain of the mullahs, was reformed along the lines of Western systems and was made compulsory.

Reza Shah also wished to raise the status of women and went so far as to make the wearing of the chador illegal. He even commanded his own wife and daughters to appear in public unveiled, a step which encouraged many Iranian women to follow suit. Neither did men escape legislation, being forced to shave their beards and adopt Western dress.

Reza Shah did, initially, enjoy great popular support for his reforms but as time went on his rule became increasingly authoritarian and despotic. He had deprived the Majlis of all effective power, muzzled the press and arrested his political enemies. Even certain members of his own government were put to death.

Religious leaders too were jailed or sent into exile. This came to a head in 1936 when an anti-government protest being held in the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashad was brutally put down by the police force. Dozens of worshipers were killed and many injured.

With industrialisation came the emergence of an urban working- and middle class but large sectors of society still remained undereducated and underemployed. The rural population continued to live in isolated communities and suffered under heavy taxation and the increased power of landowners.

The nomadic tribes of Iran, who made up one-quarter of the population, were alienated and persecuted in the name of the push towards modernisation and centralisation. The Shah arranged for many tribal leaders to be executed.

A backlash against his policy of reducing the influence of the British in Iran would spell the end of his reign during the Second World War. Though the modernisation of Iran had relied heavily on European expertise, Reza Shah had been at pains to award government contracts to any country other than Iran's historical overlords, Britain and Russia.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Tehran, Iran, 1973.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Tehran, Iran, 1973.



Official photograph of the Coronation of the Shah of Iran.

Official photograph of the Coronation of the Shah of Iran in 1967.

German technicians were thus working extensively in Iran at the time of the outbreak of the Second World War. The British demanded that all German nationals be expelled from Iran but Reza Shah refused.

Britain and Russia were also eyeing the Trans-Iranian Railway as a potential supply line for Allied troops but as Irans official neutrality prevented this, British and Russian forces occupied the country in 1941 forcing Reza Shah to abdicate.

The Allies permitted his son, the Crown Prince Mohammad Reza, was permitted to succeed him. Reza Shah was refused permission to emigrate to Canada and was instead sent to Mauritius and then Johannesburg, South Africa, where he died in bitter sadness in 1944.

Mohammad Reza Shah (r. 1941-1979)

Mohammad Reza came to the throne at a time of great hardship and social disarray. The Allied occupation had brought development plans to a virtual standstill and the nation was facing famine, economic stagnation and galloping inflation.

The young king had himself been deprived of his father, the greatest influence in his life, and faced a steep learning curve in the world of international politics into which he had been so suddenly thrown.

His first test was the Azerbaijan crisis of 1944-45 when a Russian supported separatist movement in Azerbaijan announced the establishment of an autonomous republic. International pressure eventually led to a withdrawal of Russian troops from the area and without their backing the rebel government collapsed.

The next major issue was a power struggle between the young Shah and a radical nationalist politician named Mohammad Mossadeq. The conflict erupted over the renegotiation of the oil concession to the British-run Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which was by now earning many millions of dollars.

Talks with the AIOC failed to reach a satisfactory settlement and in 1951, Britain's oil production facilities in Iran were expropriated under Mossadeq's nationalisation plan. In response, Britain boycotted Iranian oil, depriving them of their largest market and leading to serious economic hardships.

Mossadeq's leanings towards socialism and his links with the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party now attracted the attention of the USA. In 1953, the CIA began a campaign to undermine the prime minister which included overt means such as the support of the opposition press as well as other, more secretive tactics.

Mossadeq was aware of the plots around him and called a referendum which returned a highly suspicious 99.9% vote in favour of dissolving parliament and granting him emergency powers. Mohammad Reza demanded that Mossadeq step down and when the beleaguered prime minister refused, the Shah left the country, anticipating trouble.

Protests all over the country turned violent with clashes between supporters of Mossadeq and those loyal to the Shah resulting in hundreds of casualties. In the confusion, the CIA and MI6 helped pro-monarchy forces gain the upper hand. Tank divisions moved on Tehran and bombarded the prime ministers residence.

Mossadeq surrendered in August 1953 and the Shah returned from his brief period of exile. Mohammad Mossadeq was sentenced to three years imprisonment and was then placed under house arrest until his death in 1967.

In reaction to these events, Mohammad Reza both extended and consolidated his monarchical power. An assassination attempt attributed to supporters of the Tudeh Party in 1949 gave him the justification he needed to abandon multi-party government and rule through a one party system. He also established SAVAK, the Iranian secret police force which was to become infamous for its persecution of dissidents.

Continuing the process of modernisation that his father had begun, Mohammad Reza instituted his White Revolution in 1963. This was a five-year plan of reforms and national projects that touched all areas of Iranian society. It included an expansion of transport and agriculture infrastructures, industrial aid and land reform.

Suffrage was extended to women and education projects were introduced to eliminate illiteracy. It was also in this year that nationwide protests against the Shah by supporters of a religious leader named Ruhollah Khomeini were violently put down by the police leaving thousands dead. Khomeini was imprisoned and later exiled.

Strong economic growth followed in the 1960s and 70s but the nation's increased wealth was, to a large extent siphoned off by the Shah and his supporters and did not filter down to the middle or poorer classes.

Anger at the cronyism and decadence at the heart of the regime was compounded by a 3-day royal party held in 1971 at the ruins of Persepolis to celebrate 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. Featuring such extravagances as a ton of caviar prepared by 200 chefs flown in from Paris, the celebrations which cost a total of $300 million clearly showed scant regard for the many Iranians who lacked basic necessities at the time.

Rising oil prices in the 1970s only exacerbated the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. Since reforms were doing nothing to improve their lot, Iran's poorest came to identify modernisation with Western decadence and they increasingly called for a return to simple Islamic values.

Even the most pro-Western elements of Irans urbanised and educated middle classes became disturbed by the Shahs self-serving economic policies, abuse of the constitution and the repressive activities of his secret police.

Street protest in Tehran, Iran in 1978.

Street protest in Tehran, Iran in 1978.

By September 1978, the nation was rapidly destabilising with violent protests becoming a regular occurrence. The Shah only answered with further repression and violence soon escalated to the point where the tanks, helicopter gunships and machine guns were killing hundreds every day.

In December 1978 a libellous story in the official press attacking the Ayatollah Khomeini brought 2 million protesters to Tehran's Azadi Square. The army disintegrated as conscripts refused to fire on the crowd and switched sides. Attempts at appeasement were by now too late and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced to flee on January 16, 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1 with the revolution already in progress.

Ayatollah Khomeini, Tehran, Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini.

Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari

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