By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
In 1926, a military officer and former prime minister named Reza Khan crowned himself shah of Persia (modern-day Iran) and began a new ruling dynasty: the Pahlavi. Reza Shah lacked royal or aristocratic heritage, but he promised to bring stability and prestige to the country. Under his predecessors, Persia had become a pawn in the “great game” between the British and the Russians.
Persia: A Tumultuous History
Iran has had its share of turmoil. Rich in resources and strategically located, the former Persian empire attracted the attention of Britain and Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries. And European military intervention and economic exploitation kept it subordinated well into the 20th century. Much like China during the same period, Persia’s Turkic Qajar monarchy granted Russia and Britain economic concessions in exchange for financial loans.
Persia’s economic dependency led to rising prices and a shortage of goods. Between 1905 and 1911, the Persian people overthrew one monarch, installed another, experimented with constitutionalism, and ultimately established a liberal representative government.
But neither Britain nor Russia respected the sovereignty of this constitutional regime. They divided Persia into British and Russian spheres of influence at the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. The next year, a British geologist’s discovery of oil ensured a continuing foreign presence.
As Persia struggled to find consensus among its various factions, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company extracted an oil concession from the government. The arrangement was essentially ruinous for Persia, receiving only a fraction of the profits from oil found in its territory. Anglo-Persian Oil later became British Petroleum, now BP.
Reza Shah’s Reforms
Once in power, Reza Shah sought to reassert Persia’s sovereignty. He invested in the military and worked to develop the nation’s educational and industrial capacity. He was determined to modernize along a Western model and to promote the cause of nationalism.
Reza Shah’s projects enjoyed considerable success. He built railroads and industries and improved education and health care. While this established a basis for greater sovereignty, the advances also brought increased Western cultural influence and personal power for the shah.
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Reza Shah’s Success Came at an Expense
Reza Shah initially enjoyed strong popular backing. But his secular reforms, such as banning traditional Islamic dress, including veils for women, eroded his support among learned religious men known as the ulema, who were tremendously influential. Pious Iranians looked to the clergy as a source of stability, leadership, and guidance. This made Iran’s religious leaders a force to be reckoned with.
Reza Shah’s affinity for Nazi Germany didn’t help matters. In the 1930s, he tried to balance British influence in his country by establishing economic relationships with other foreign powers, including Germany. As a result of his entanglements, he declared Iran neutral at the start of World War II, allowing Germans to remain in the country.
This initiated an unexpected crisis. The British and Soviets, who were fighting Germany, feared that German forces might sabotage British oil facilities in Iran. So, with Reza Shah’s declaration of neutrality, Britain and the Soviet Union intervened and occupied Iran. Reza Shah saw no option other than to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and go into exile.
Fast Forward to the Iranian Revolution
While Persia became Iran in 1935, the British maintained their economic dominance in the region into the 1950s. After the Second World War, the Iranians initially viewed the Americans as allies. But US interventions in Iranian state affairs, including a 1953 coup against a popular prime minister, eroded the goodwill.
Ultimately, the anti-American sentiment would help to fuel the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But tensions between the US-supported shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and an exiled Shia Muslim cleric, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, simmered for decades.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 is unique in the modern era. It didn’t seek to advance secular notions of liberalism and democracy. Rather it was theological in orientation, privileging conservative ideals and state governance on the basis of Sharia law. Furthermore, its leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, enjoyed widespread support virtually unmatched in any other revolution.
The country’s political history, and global position, engendered a sense of nationalism rooted in Shi’a Islam. And while the objectives of the Iranian Revolution were unique, the process in which it triumphed was consistent with that of other revolutions in the modern era.
Common Questions about How Reza Shah’s Reforms Spread the Seeds of Iran’s Revolution
Iran was in a strategic spot and full of valuable resources. The economic concessions that the monarchs before Reza Shah traded for financial loans also didn’t hurt. The discovery of oil in Iran made foreign powers stay much longer.
Reza Shah’s goal was to modernize Iran, which he tried to do through westernization. He built railroads and succeeded in improving education throughout the country. He financed the military and planned to enhance Iran’s industries.
At the start of World War II, because of Iran’s relations with foreign powers such as Germany, Reza Shah declared to be neutral in the war. The British feared that the Germans would sabotage their oil industries in Iran, so they and the Soviet Union occupied the country leading to Reza Shah’s forced exile.