In 1920, Britain agreed to withdraw her troops from Iran, as the Soviets promised to withhold their support of the secessionist movements in Azerbaijan (Democrat party), Gilan (Mirza Kochak) and Khorasan (colonel Pesian). Apparently, an implicit accord was also struck to support a new reformist government in Tehran. The British had tried to maintain their de-facto protectorate in Persia, but failed with their aborted 1919 treaty, which created a groundswell of nationalist emotions. However, the ineffective government of the Qajar nobility in Tehran was also helpless in even establishing a modicum of national sovereignty and security. Hence, as the deadline of spring 1921 approached for the promised British withdrawal from Persia, a dramatic action became necessary.
The 1921 coup-d’état by Seyyed Zia (reformist journalist) and Reza Khan (Cossack brigade) commenced with the promise of removing the chokehold of Qajar nobility from the government, establishing Persian sovereignty throughout Iran, and providing security for the suffering masses. The coup masters forcefully obtained premiership for the Seyyed and the war ministry for Reza, from the bewildered Ahmad Shah who was fully aware of the British role in that whole affair. As a show of force and promise, Seyyed quickly ordered the arrest of some hundred Qajar nobilities on grounds of treason and embezzlement; threatening to execute them, if they did not return their dubiously acquired riches. He also engaged the renegade rebellion leaders of the North to interest them in supporting his government. Both moves aggravated the rich and powerful of Tehran, who in turn approached Reza Khan with all sorts of promises and gifts; if he would just remove the Zia.
Reza Khan was a forceful but illiterate military man, who as a poor orphan had to fend for himself since the tender age of 12. The brutish army life had made him both resourceful and ruthless. He accepted the nobility’s lavish gifts and within 3 months, toppled his co-conspirator to exile. A scion of Qajar politics (Qavam-al-sultana) became prime minister; Reza Khan maintained the war portfolio, and the Majles was reopened after six years. Shortly after the 1921 coup, the Soviets recognized the new government, and even signed a friendship treaty with the new cabinet. This spelled trouble for the Northern democratic and secessionist movements, who were one-by-one suppressed by the rejuvenated army of Reza Khan. Reza then focused his attention on establishing sovereignty in the oil-rich South, and toppled the powerful and British-backed governance of Sheikh Khazal in Arabestan (today’s Khuzestan).
Reza Khan’s glorious victories, which had finally reunited Persia after ten miserable years, endeared him to most ranks of nobility, intellectuals and the general populace. His avid supporters (like Teymourtash) even started a campaign to abolish the monarchy, and like the Turkish republic of Kamal Ataturk, install Reza Khan as the president. However, the conservative right and the liberal left, who were both wary of Reza’s dictatorial intentions, united around the notion of “republic is against Islam” and organized mass religious demonstrations. Unfazed by the opposition’s populist tactics, Reza Khan’s camp reshaped their campaign and made a case for the outright removal of the corrupt Qajar dynasty (blamed for all problems); and the installation of a powerful Persian ruler, without resorting to the ‘un-Islamic republic’! At the conclusion of that bizarre horse-trading, Iran was denied the more modern republic system, and Majles installed Reza as the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty, in 1926.
When Reza Shah was crowned, Iran (then called Persia) was one of the poorest Asian countries! During the first six years of his reign, Reza Shah made a constructive pact with his intellectual backers, lead by Teymourtash, to let them run the country, while Shah built and lead the army. With that active encouragement, the government intellectuals rapidly weaved a number of social, legal, financial, cultural and industrial innovations into the ancient country’s fabric. Western style (non-religious) schools were built for both boys and girls. Civil Law was instituted based on the European codes. Tehran University was founded as the new backbone for training doctors, engineers and other professionals. Roads, railways and industrial facilities were constructed, to facilitate agricultural trade and modern manufacturing. The peace and security provided by Reza Shah’s new army, as well as the increased oil income, made all those improvements possible.
Reza Shah truly instigated the wide ranging modernization of Iran from a filthy, backward and lawless shell-of-an-state, to a functioning and advancing society. With the new roads and trucks, the all too frequent famines of the earlier twentieth century disappeared. Under the new army’s watchful eyes, bandits and tribes could no longer rob the caravans or invade towns and villages. The new schools and colleges gave hope and purpose to many youths for a better future and the flourishing of their talents. Emancipation of women encouraged that half of the population to play a more active role in public life. Municipal modernizations, public health initiatives and vaccinations, lowered the infant and general mortality rates and provided a brighter outlook for young families.
Unfortunately, Reza Shah was fundamentally an illiterate bully who soon became intoxicated with power! As the power corrupts, Reza became more and more callous, suspicious and brutal in the treatment of, first the opposition, and then even his own allies and friends. The opposing members of parliament (e.g. Modarres, and Mosaddeg) were banished and exiled. All the political parties were pushed out, and the Majles elections became a process of backroom nominations followed by routine vote rigging by the army and police chiefs. The government intellectuals (like Teymourtash) were initially complacent in that sordid departure from the principles of constitutional monarchy, until they too became victims of the dictator’s unrelenting greed and paranoia. One by one, the same team of luminaries who had elevated Reza Khan from a Cossack to the war minister, the prime minister and finally the Shah; became targets of the secret police investigations; ended up in jail on trumped up charges; and were poisoned or tortured to death by Reza Shah’s notorious gang of henchmen.
By the mid 1930’s, Reza Shah had complete control of the country and was treating it like his own property, and the populace like helpless servers. Thirty years after the constitutional revolution, the country had again fully digressed from liberty to tyranny. Shah was not only after the absolute power, but also absolute wealth; as he forced most landowners to relinquish their properties or face persecution and death. It is estimated that by the end of his reign, Reza Shah had unlawfully obtained titles to 40% of the best agricultural lands in Iran! He also extended his reach to the oil contract with the British (Anglo-Persian Oil Company), tore it up and secretly set up a new arrangement to siphon a sizable share of that income into his own foreign accounts.
At the same time in central Europe, Nazi (Germany) and Fascist (Italy) sentiments brought racist maniacs like Hitler and Mussolini into power. Reza Shah was mesmerized by the powerful images of those super thugs; and soon expelled most of the English and French advisors and replaced them with the German agents. He was so intoxicated by the Aryan hallucinations of Hitler, that even changed the country’s name country; tried to remove all Arab insignia (camels, turbans and mosques); and engaged in secret pacts regarding the future power struggles in Europe.
During the first two years of the Second World War, the Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan) forces were extremely successful. Hitler was able to pacify the Russians by signing a friendship treaty with Stalin, and avoided direct action against the neutral Americans. German troops successfully blitzed Poland, France, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and Greece; and many other nations (e.g. Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) joined the Axis. All of Europe was falling under the bleak reign of fascist terror! In East Asia too, the Japanese captured Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore and most of China. England itself looked alone and miserable, under the constant German aerial bombardments and submarine attacks!
Reza Shah’s position of apparent neutrality combined with implicit collaboration with the Nazi’s, was initially sustainable; because Iran’s northern neighbour (Russia) also had a friendship treaty with Germany. Therefore, the beleaguered British who were based in both Iraq (English protectorate since 1918) and today’s Pakistan (then part of India), could only hope and try to appease Reza Shah, in order to avoid threats on their Khuzestan oil fields. But the treacherous surprise German attack on the Russians, in the summer of 1941, changed that entire balance!
All of a sudden, Iran was surrounded by anti-German forces on all sides; and the allies desperately needed to send aid and supplies to the beleaguered Russians, who were being mercilessly massacred by the advancing Nazi forces. Britain and Russia gave formal ultimatums to Reza Shah, requesting the expulsion of thousands of German advisors and personnel from Iran, and the opening of national railway for aid transport to Russia. When Reza Shah foolishly declined, the Allied forces easily occupied Iran from north and south; the army collapsed within two days; and Reza Pahlavi had to abdicate, relinquish most of his wealth and leave for exile.