The following are excerpts from “Iran: The Illusion of Power” by Robert Graham. The book was written in 1979 and that is why in many placed it talks in present tense about the events of the time.
Tehran, literally ‘warm place’, became the capital of what was then Persia at the turn of the eighteenth century under the first of the Qajar kings, Agha Mohammad Khan. Under the Qajars Tehran remained essentially a large walled city built of mud brick, and centered round the covered Bazaar and its accompanying mosques.
In 1900, Tehran was just beginning to distinguish itself from the other major cities of the time – Isfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz – by being the first to possess some of the attributes of the industrial world. Tehran had acquired the only railway in the country – a total of eight moles of single-meter track operated by a Belgian company, primarily designed to go to and from the shrine of Shah Abdol Azim. It also had a small Russian-financed tramway. It further boasted the only electric power generating plant which doubled up as the energy supplier of a private brick plant to which it belonged. By 1910 the Capital’s inhabitants could witness an automobile – it belonged to the ruler, Ahmad Shah, but never went more than walking pace as it was accompanied by foot servants!
At this time Iran’s population was predominantly rural, with a high proportion of nomads. Tribalism was strong and the nomadic tribes accounted for almost 25% of the total population. One medium estimate of the country’s total population was 9.8 million. Of these some 20% lived in 100 towns of over 5000 inhabitants. Tehran itself had no more than 200,000 inhabitants, virtually the same as Tabriz, roughly 2% of the country’s total population.
Even in 1919, when the present Shah was born, Tehran was still a walled city surrounded by a dry moat. The only entrance was through the city gates which were closed at night ‘to keep out robbers and cut throats’. When Reza Shah knocked down the city walls some six years later, this action was considered symbolic of his determination to modernize Iran.
Once Reza Shah began to exert central government control throughout the country and improve road and rail communications, including his famous Trans-Iranian railway, the exodus to Tehran started. By 1939 Tehran had a population of 540,000. The process was accelerated by the Second World War and the presence of Allied forces in Iran, and by the gradual increment in oil revenues. People were attracted both from other cities and from rural areas. Between 1900 and the first census in 1956 Tehran absorbed 60 per cent of the total internal migration of 1.76 million. Between 1960 and 1970 Tehran’s population increased at roughly 6 per cent a year to reach 3.2 million – This was over double the national average. By the time of the next census in 1976 the growth rate had slowed to around 4.2 per cent a year; but in fact people were merely settling further outside the city, especially at Karaj, 40 Kilometers away, where the population was increasing by 12 per cent a year. A survey conducted in 1975 by the University of Tehran concluded that if the population continued unchecked it would reach 16 million in twelve years.
The attraction, moreover, is not just towards larger cities. Iran now has 365 towns of over 5,000 inhabitants. The urban population is 46 per cent of the total and it is increasing at three times the rate of the rural population.
This is an extraordinary fast switch for a traditionally rural society. The International Labour Office commented in 1973:
“ In the 1960s rural-urban migration transferred 400,000 job seekers to the towns from rural areas. This is a normal trend in a rapidly growing and industrialising country. However, it was perhaps more rapid than was economically necessary and socially desirable.”
This observation was made before the massive injection of funds from the 1973 oil price rises.
“Because of our huge petroleum output people commonly think of Iran as being primarily an oil producing country. But that is a mistake. For thousands of years we have been primarily an agricultural country, and we still are.” [Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi]
Few Foreign banks were anxious to lend money to the Shah at the turn of the century. Their reluctance was not surprising: the risk was high and the country had few resources to guarantee a loan. When the British owned the imperial bank agreed to lend money there were only two assets that fitted the necessary criteria of being easy to sell and easy to seize – the customs due of Persian Gulf ports and the caviar-producing Caspian fisheries. Such humiliating terms may seem a far cry from the groups of foreign bankers lobbying the Iranian government for business since the 1973 oil price rises. But humiliating terms then were the price imposed on a weak government and a poor country.
The behaviour of the two dominant powers, Britain and Russia, was eloquent testimony to this state of affairs. Regarding the country in almost exclusively strategic terms, they acted with the kind of muscle and self-interest, particularly in the case of the British, that typified the zenith of imperial power.
At the age of fourteen he [Reza Shah] joined the Russian-commanded Persian Cossack Brigade and worked his way to through the ranks, first as an illiterate private and then, by dint of study and force of personality, became an officer. The Cossack Brigade was the country’s only fighting force, some 3000 strong. Reza Khan was an imposing figure with cold piercing eyes, who distinguished himself among his fellow officers as a man of action and high integrity with a burning patriotism. As the British prepared to withdraw their forces from the north of the country in late 1920, Reza Khan was regarded as the most outstanding soldier in the Cossack and his promotion was accelerated as the Russian officers were dismissed for fear they might sympathise with their Bolshevic comrades.
On the eve of British withdrawal Reza Khan was put in effective charge of the Cossacks by the British commander in the area, Major General Sir Edmund Ironside, in the knowledge that he might well use his position to depose or confront the Shah. This was precisely what he did – marching on Tehran from Qazvin, and presenting the Shah with an ultimatum to change his government on 21 February 1921.
After an uneasy interregnum of four years, Sultan Ahmad Shah was diposed by parliamentary vote in October 1925, thus ending a dynasty that had the distinction of providing only one ruler that relinquished his throne through natural death during 146 years. Having graduated from being minister of War to Prime Minister at the time of Sultan Ahmad’s deposition, Reza Khan was a logical, though not inevitable, choice as Shah.
Reza Khan, much impressed by the example of Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk) who had declared a republic in Turkey toyed with the idea of republicanism. “ I am sure that my father for a time preferred the concept of a republic,” His son said later. At this stage his overriding concern was how best to unify the country, establish law and order and sweep away the decadence of that had characterized the final years of the Qajar dynasty. There are two plausible explanations why he opted a monarchy. Given the traditional fera of Russia and concern over the effect of the Bolshevik revolution, the creation of a republic might well have frightened many Iranians and confused them about what he was trying to do. Second, The Mullahs the powerful clergy, would have been very suspicious of the idea of a republic. Thus at a moment unity was critical, the creation of a republic might have provided the grounds for further strife and disunity.
He was an outright nationalist. He appreciated the importance of modernization for Iran even if he did not always understand it. He approved the sending of students abroad, encouraged the foundation of Tehran University – the first secular institute of higher learning – and abolished the full veil for women.
He restored a sense of national dignity and laid the groundwork for a modern state by establishing a civil service and a proper army. He also broke the power of the tribal chieftains who in the past had made government authority a fiction in many provinces.
Reza Shah’s emphasis on centralisation concentrated industry round the capital. Against professional advice, he altered the siting of a proposed steel plant from Semnan to Karaj near Tehran. However, with the Allied occupation of Iran in 1941 the project collapsed, leaving in its wake 8,500 tons of unwanted equipment and Iran had to wait another 37 years before its first steel mill was operational. In January 1966 agreement was finalised with the Soviet Union on the construction of a steel complex at Isfahan with an initial 600,000 ton capacity.
“If he had not treated them [the clergy] somewhat roughly, it might have taken three to four times as long as it did to carry out his programme of modernising the country,” his son observed later. This no doubt is true but his unwillingness or inability to break the reactionary force of religion was to prove a serious handicap to his son, and also a political threat.
In the end Reza Shah was destroyed by events bigger than himself. His country and its oilfields had become of major significance to Britain. He rarely travelled outside Iran and failed to appreciate the extent to which his pro-German sympathies antagonized the British and the Soviets at the outbreak of the Second World War. Or if he appreciated this, he failed to realise that both Britain and the Soviet Union were capable of riding roughshod over Iranian sovereignty if they felt their vital interests were at stake. The signal for this was Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Two months later allied troops moved into Iran, forcing an ignominious abdication which led to exile, first in Mauritius then Johannesburg, where he died in 1944.