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Cover story

The self-made king
With a little help from the British

    February 22, 1999
    The Iranian

    The following is from the chapter "Reza Khan and the Coup d'Etat of 21 February 1921" in Cyrus Ghani's Iran and the Rise of Reza Shah, (1998 I.B. Tauris Publishers). To know more about the author, click here. To see selected photos from the book, click here.


    - Reza Khan's Ancestry
    - Born to Noush Afrin
    - A Cossack soldier at 15
    - Four marriages
    - Co-conspirator
    - Promotion
    - British attention

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    Reza Khan's Ancestry

    Little is known about Reza Khan prior to the coup [of 21 February 1921]. He was born in the village of Alasht in the region of Savad Kouh in the province of Mazandaran. Alasht was an isolated village some 6,000 feet above sea level and at the turn of the century its population did not exceed 1,000.

    Reza Khan's grandfather, Morad Ali Khan, had been an officer in the local provincial army regiment and had been killed about 1848 in the siege of Herat. A genealogical chart prepared by the descendants of Morad Ali Khan, the Pahlavan family, traces the lineage to the late seventeenth century and cites a Mohammad Khan as the first known member of his family, with Jahan Bakhsh Khan the elder as his son, Jahan Bakhsh the younger as grandson and Haji Mohammad Hassan as the great grandson and father of Morad Ali. The chart lists some 300 living descendants of Morad Ali Khan.

    In a recently published book on Reza Shah, Reza Niazmand, having conducted the definitive research on Reza Khan's ancestry believes that it is difficult to ascertain his forbearers beyond his grandfather Morad Ali Khan. Morad Ali had seven sons. The eldest, Cheraq Ali, was also an officer in the provincial army and apparently reached the rank equivalent to colonel. The youngest, Abbas Ali Khan also known as Dadash Beik, was in the same regiment and probably reached the rank equivalent to major. The other known sons were Nasrollah, Fazlollah and Abbasqoli. The remaining two cannot be identified with certainty.

    The family were members of the small clan of Palani of the Savad Kouh region. Although small in numbers the clan has been mentioned in the history of the region as having furnished soldiers to the local armies. Several writers, among them Arfa and Wilber, state that the family came from the much larger Bavand clan of the region. This is apparently an error. The Bavand clan was in fact a rival and relations between the Bavand and Palani clans were often strained.

    Abbas Ali, the youngest of Morad Ali's children was born around 1815. As a member of the Savad Kouh regiment he took part in the third Afghan War in 1856 as a junior officer. Abbas Ali's background and military record has been substantiated by the recent surfacing of a letter he had written to Ali Reza Khan Azd al Molk, an elder of the Qajar tribe and later regent, who at one time as Governor of Mazandaran had been the honorary commander of the Savad Kouh regiment. In the letter, dated around 1977, Abbas Ali refers to his past military service and seeks financial assistance from Azd al Molk.

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    Born to Noush Afrin

    Abbas Ali Khan married at least twice and had four children who survived infancy: three daughters from his first marriage and a son, Reza, from the second. He married his second wife, Noush Afrin, around 1877. She was a girl of Persian-speaking stock whose father had come to Iran from Erivan. The following year 1878, a son, Reza, was born. Abbas Ali died some three to six months after Reza's birth.

    The new wife had not had a good relationship with Abbas Ali's other wife and children and shortly after Ali's death, Noush Afrin, at the urging of her youngest brother, decided to leave Alasht and settle in Tehran. Nosh Afrin had three known brothers. The eldest, Ali, was one of the many physicians at Naser al Din Shah's court. The second brother, Abol Qasem, who had done some soldiering in Erivan, had enlisted in the Cossack Brigade.

    The third brother, Hosein, had accompanied Noush Afrin to Alasht and on her return to Tehran. There is an often-told story that the infant Reza almost froze to death on the journey. It was thought that the child was dead but the heat inside a carvanserai revived him.

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    A Cossack soldier at 15

    Probably at the urging of his uncle, Abol Qasem, and because of his meager circumstances, Reza joined the Cossacks in 1893-94 at about the age of fifteen. Most of the volunteers and recruits in the Cossack Brigade from humble backgrounds. There is no existing or available record of Reza's service until 1911. There are some references by several Iranian writers to Reza Khan having served as a guard at either the Dutch, Belgian or German Legation. Although there is no convincing evidence of such service it should not be entirely discounted.

    In 1911, serving under the overall command of Farmanfarma, Reza Khan took part in battles against Salar al Dowleh who was attempting to topple the Government in Tehran and reinstate his brother Mohammad Ali on the throne. Reza gave a good account of himself in that campaign and was promoted to First Lieutenant. His proficiency in handling machine guns elevated him to the rank equivalent to Captain in 1912.

    By 1915 he had come to be regarded as a brave and fearless soldier and was hand-picked by successive senior commanders to accompany them on expeditions to quell tribal uprisings. Reza Khan's military reputation, his native intelligence and professionalism served him well and he was soon known by some prominent Iranians in Tehran and the provinces. By 1815 various sources refer to him as Col. Reza Khan. In 1918 Reza Khan is referred to as a Brigadier General (Sartip) in the campaign of Cossacks in the Kashan area against the bandit Na'eb Hosein and his sons.

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    Four marriages

    About 1903 Reza Khan married Tajmah, a girl from Hamadan, from whom a daughter, Fatemeh, later known as Hamdam al Saltaneh, was born. He divorced Tajmah soon after the birth of Fatemeh and her name was rarely mentioned thereafter.

    In 1916 he married Nimtaj (Taj al Molouk), the eldest daughter of Teimour Khan (Ayromlou), a Brigadier General in the regular army whose family had come to Iran from the Caucasus. (Many Iranian families left the Caucasus and emigrated to Iran proper in 1828, after the Russo-Persian War). Taj al Molouk gave birth to four children including the Crown Prince, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. [The other children were daughters Shams and Ashraf, and son Ali Reza.]

    In 1922 Reza Khan married a third time to Turan (Qamar al Molouk) Amir Soleymani, the daughter of Issa Majd al Saltaneh and grand-daughter of Mehdi Qoli Majd al Dowleh, one of the most respected and prominent men of his day. From this marriage a son was born [Gholam Reza]. Reza Khan divorced her in 1923.

    Reza Khan's last wife was Esmat Dowlatshahi, the daughter of a Qajar Prince Mojalal al Dowleh, whom he married in 1923. From this marriage four sons and a daughter were born [Abdol Reza, Ahmad Reza, Mahmoud Reza, Fatemeh and Hamid Reza].

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    From early 1918 we have more information about Reza Khan. In that year he rose from an obscure military officer to catch the attention of the higher levels of the Iranian Government and the British Legation. Probably the most important contributing factor was his role in the removal of Col. Clerge, the commander of the Cossack Division recently appointed by Kerensky.

    Reza Khan joined the conspiracy organized by Starosselsky, the deputy commander, to oust Clerge from his command. Clerge was accused, probably falsely, or pro-Bolshevik sympathies by the subordinate Russian officers.

    Reza Khan's motives in this episode are not entirely clear. As a patriot he was surely disturbed by the rebellions and secessionist movements in northern Iran openly supported by the Bolsheviks. He was therefore amenable to accepting Starosselsky's accusations against Clerge. More importantly, as an ambitious officer Reza Khan was probably promised advancement if he threw in his lot with Starosselsky.

    That Reza Khan played a prominent, if not decisive role in the ousting of Clerge is unquestioned. The newspaper Ra'ad in January 1918, referred to a Col. Reza Khan as having been one of the major participants in the events surrounding the removal of Clerge. The article stated that a Col. Filartov, the Commander of the Cossacks in Hamadan, together with Col. Reza Khan, the ranking Iranian officer in the Hamadan Cossack Brigade, ousted Clerge from his command.

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    Bahar has stated that at the time his own newspaper referred to Reza Khan's role in the incident. British Foreign office sources confirm this and even speak of Reza Khan having been involved in "other plots" in addition to the Clerge affair. There is, however, no elaboration of the "other plots".

    The immediate reward for having supported Starosselsky to become the new commander of the Cossacks appears to have been Reza Khan's promotion to the rank of Brigadier General in mid 1918. The matter of Reza Khan's rank and promotions from 1918 to the eve of the coup in February 1921 is cloudy. Arfa states that Reza Khan was promoted to Brigadier General immediately after the removal of Clerge as part of a bargain with Starosselsky. Bahar maintains that in September 1920 Reza Khan signed documents as Reza Sartip (Brig Gen. Reza).

    The very few British Foreign Office documents that make mention of Reza Khan before the coup do so mostly as Colonel. Ironside in his Diaries is indifferent to the Rank of Reza Khan and and refers to him by various ranks but never as a Brigadier General.

    The ancillary benefits which Reza Khan gained from this episode far outweighed his promotion. In July 1918 and in several subsequent campaigns Reza Khan led troops in the north, enhancing his reputation as a courageous leader. As he became more prominent his relations with the Russian officers, and especially Starosselsky, deteriorated.

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    British attention

    By 1919 he came to the attention of senior British officers who had been employed either directly by Vosouq or sent to Tehran by the war office as part of the military advisory team. It is at this time that it appears Reza Khan came to the direct attention of Gen. Dickson, who soon formed a high opinion of him.

    There are other complimentary references to Reza Khan in this period. He is described as "handsome and distinguished and a first rate soldier who grasped things quickly." Furthermore, his hostility towards the Russian Cossack officers had not gone unnoticed by the British.

    Reza Khan rose through the ranks on merit enduring hardships which included recurrent bouts of malaria which plagued him to the end of his life. He had a disciplined and austere mode of living with few material pleasures, a regimen he maintained throughout his life.


    These photos, taken from Cyrus Ghani's Iran and the Rise of Reza Shah, show some of the key players at the end of the Qajar dynasty. Click on images to see larger photos:


    Ahmad Shah


    Reza Khan


    Reza Shah


    Lord Curzon


    Gen. Ironside


    Sir Cox


    Seyyed Zia







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      Cyrus Ghani is a scholar who has undertaken considerable research in the field of modern Iranian history. He is the author of Iran and the West: A Critical Bibliography (1987) and is currently engaged in further research on the twentieth-century Iran. He also edited the thirteen-volume Memoirs and Diaries of Ghasem Ghani.

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