Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Monarch Profile: Shah Reza I of Iran

The penultimate Iranian monarch, Reza Shah Pahlavi, was born Reza Khan on March 15, 1878 in the village of Alasht in northern Iran (known internationally as Persia at the time). His father, Abbas Ali Khan, was an officer in the Persian army and served in the 1856 war against British India and Afghanistan. Later the same year his father died and his mother, Noushafarin Ayromlou, moved in with her brother in Tehran, eventually remarrying and leaving Reza with his uncle who, in turn, left him to be raised by another army officer. Given how he spent his formative years it is not surprising that the military emerged as his early calling in life. At only sixteen he joined the Persian Cossack Brigade, an elite unit in the latter days of the Qajar dynasty that had ruled Persia since 1785. Most members of this unit, one of the few reliable forces for the Qajar dynasty, were obviously not Iranian but young Reza proved himself an extremely capable soldier and served from the ranks on up there and in other regular units of the Persian army. Eventually his talent earned him a commission and he eventually rose to be the one and only Iranian commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade, attaining the rank of brigadier general.

Persia had deteriorated considerably in recent years and Reza Khan was as disturbed by this as any proud officer could be. During World War I British and Russian forces clashed with the Ottoman Turks inside the Persian borders and eventually the British occupied Persia as part of their intervention in the Russian Civil War. When that cause was abandoned the newly formed Soviet Union invaded from the north, establishing their own communist puppet-state in the region. The government broke down and eventually the authority of the state under the nominal leadership of the last Qajar emperor Ahmad Shah. Political parties feuded with each other, religious strife was rampant and most of the country was under the control or influence of either the British or Soviet forces. The Soviets controlled much of the rural areas while the British, through financial loans, held control over the nominal government. When a Soviet-controlled army prepared to march on Tehran, General Reza Khan decided to take action and marched on the capitol himself with his Persian Cossack Brigade. Reports suggest that the British helped to arm the general, viewing the Qajar government as impossibly weak and this new military commander as the most effective hope for stopping a communist takeover and restoring stability (allowing the British to withdraw without risking confrontation).

So it was that in 1921 Reza Shah Pahlavi launched the military coup that brought down the existing government. As the strongest leader in the country, he took control and swept out through the countryside eliminating opposition groups and the Soviet-backed invaders. Once peace and quiet had been restored he returned to Tehran where Ahmad Shah made him prime minister and then promptly left the country for an extended vacation in Europe in 1923. By 1925 the governing assembly declared Ahmad Shah deposed, the Qajar dynasty ended and proclaimed Reza Pahlavi the new Shahanshah (“King of kings” or ‘Emperor’) of Persia. Long married by this time to Nimtaj Ayromlou, later known as Tadj ol-Molouk of Iran, she was made queen consort and the eldest son of his many children, Mohammad Reza Shah, was named crown prince and heir to the throne. It was a new dynasty for what was to be a new Persia and one that was meant to represent a new national agenda and period of rebirth and rejuvenation for the once might empire.

This meant that the new Shah embarked on an ambitious modernization campaign, building highways, railroads, factories and schools such as the University of Tehran. The Shah looked at the western countries that had dominated Persia and wanted to emulate their technological progress while pushing out western political influence. This also meant there would be some difficulties with religious leaders, however, such moves as adopting western clothes, showing greater tolerance to religious minorities and granting more rights to women were not done simply to offend religious sensibilities. The new Shah had seen firsthand how Persia had been weakened by internal divisions that allowed them to fall prey to foreign aggression. He wanted a population totally united in its loyalty rather than one which would follow any local cleric with his own agenda. Officially, the country remained a constitutional monarchy (as it had been established under the Qajar dynasty) and elections were still held but they increasingly became more a formality as the Shah concentrated more power in his own hands. He and he alone would guide the destiny of the country at the end of the day. Along with this new direction also came a new name for the country, at least as far as the outside world was concerned. In 1935 the Shah informed the League of Nations that Persia should henceforth be known as Iran (as had actually long been known within the country) which roughly translates to “Land of the Aryans”. In abolishing the use of the name “Persia” the Shah was attempting to show that Iran would no longer allow foreign powers to define his country but would grow in strength to be their equal.

Of course, to modern ears (especially in the west), whenever one hears the word “Aryan” and talk about the 1930’s someone is going to bring up Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. There has been a great deal of misinformation put out regarding the relationship between Nazi Germany and the first Pahlavi Shah of Iran. Much of this comes from later efforts to justify Allied aggression against Iran. However, the truth is that there were no close ties between Iran and Germany. During the reign of Shah Reza the amount of investment by Germany in Iran did increase quite a bit but this was due simply to the fact that Iran felt safer dealing with Germany as opposed to other European countries because Germany was not a colonial power and could be trusted not to have designs on the country such as Britain and Russia had displayed in the past. There is also nothing sinister about the use of the term “Aryan” and it only goes to show how odd it was for Hitler to describe blue-eyed blondes in northern Europe using the name of an actual historic people from the northern India, central Asia region. Iran was nothing like Nazi Germany, was not racist or anti-Semitic. In fact, one of the reasons certain religious fanatics in Iran opposed the new Shah was because he did not persecute the Jewish population and granted greater equality to religious minorities than had ever existed before. In fact, over a thousand European Jews were saved from the Holocaust by being granted Iranian citizenship during World War II.

If the Shah was guilty of repression it was only by repressing the forces of repression themselves. His most determined foes were the religious fundamentalists who opposed such things as the Shah allowing men and women to appear in public together, allowing women to be educated and uncover their faces. “Monstrous” things like that. There were also those influenced by communism, mostly spread from the Soviet Union next door and which was infiltrating the higher education system, most of which only existed thanks to the Shah. That’s gratitude for you. He also came to have staunch enemies outside the country in both the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom which had earlier supported him. Each tried to increase their influence in Iran and finally the Shah cut ties with both of them, which was part of the reason why trade with Germany increased so much. However, so long as Britain and the USSR both wanted to dominate Iran, they tended to cancel each other out. The British had supported the Shah coming to power in the first place as a way to stop the Soviets from dominating the country. However, that all changed in 1941 when the Axis countries in Europe invaded the Soviet Union. The British Empire and the USSR, once inveterate enemies, suddenly became wartime allies and the Shah was effectively doomed from that moment on.

As soon as World War II broke out the Shah had declared Iranian neutrality, wishing to focus on the continued modernization of his own country and his hope of building a coalition of countries across the Middle East to support their own interests. Nonetheless, for the Allies, there was no such thing as neutrality really. If you were not with them you were considered to be on the side of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. After the UK and USSR joined forces a short ultimatum was sent to Iran ordering the Shah to expel all nationals from Axis countries or face immediate invasion. This was a flimsy excuse for aggression of course as there were Axis nationals in most every other neutral country in the world but they were not threatened with invasion. He refused and the British and Soviets launched a massive air, land and sea attack on Iran. As the tanks were rolling across the border, the Shah summoned the Soviet and British ambassadors and demanded to know why they had attacked his country without a declaration of war. He was told it was because of the presence of “German nationals” but when he asked if the Allies would withdraw if he turned out every German in the country the Shah was met only with silence. Apparently, as far as the Allies were concerned, attacking a country before declaring war only became outrageous later in the year…sometime around early December it seems.

The Iranians were taken by surprise and the modernization of the armed forces started by the Shah had not yet been completed. So, resistance was crushed fairly rapidly between the Soviets, who occupied the northern half of Iran, and the British who occupied the southern half of the country. Faced with a hopeless situation, after four days the Shah ordered his forces to cease resistance. The British advised him to abdicate the throne in favor of his son if he wished his regime and dynasty to survive so, on September 16, 1941 he did just that, handing over power to the young Shah Mohammad Reza, who would go on to be the last monarch to reign over Iran. For the Allies, the invasion worked out very well. Iranian roads and railroads were used to send supplies to the Soviet Union with Winston Churchill calling the country the “Bridge to Victory”. The British had originally thought to restore the Qajar dynasty to power (as they had a history of being friendly to British interests) but feared the Qajar heir would not be acceptable to Iranians as he could not even speak their language. So, the Pahlavi dynasty would go on while the British arrested the former Shah and took him into custody. The British moved him around a bit before settling him in South Africa where they announced that he died of heart problems on July 26, 1944 at the age of 66. His remains were taken to Egypt and buried before later being taken back to Iran for reburial. Shortly before the 1979 revolution his remains were moved back to Egypt. After the revolution the Ayatollahs ordered his mausoleum destroyed. He is currently buried in the Al Rifai Mosque in Cairo alongside his son and a number of members of the Egyptian Royal Family.


  1. The deposition of this dynasty has caused much strife and harm in the world. 'tis a grand shame. The Pahlavis were rare Monarchs of the sort admired and supported by the West, much as the Hashemites of Jordan are today. Their continued leadership of Iran would have only benefited its people.

  2. It's so sad such an amazing man was cut unfairly by the monster communists, and the devil of churchill that would harm such a man that brought glory to Persia, and Iran. As a Turk, I will always be friends of the Persian Empire, and Iranian monarchists. Rest in peace beloved Shah.


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