The Imperial State of Iran (Persian: دولت شاهنشاهی ایران) (prior to 1930, translated as Imperial State of Persia) was a state under the Pahlavi dynasty (Persian: دودمان پهلوی) that ruled Iran from the crowning of Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925, to the overthrow of Reza Shah Pahlavi's son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Its collapse marks a break in the ancient tradition of Iranian monarchy, which celebrated 2,500 years in 1971. The last Shah did much to revive interest in Iran's past, encouraging archeology, research, and scholarship of its ancient legacy. When the Pahlavis came to power, Iran was one of the world's poorest countries. When the dynasty fell, Iran was a regional economic and military power. However, when Reza Khan became Shah, Iran was all but governed and run by the British and Russian ambassadors, and was deeply in debt. Although he and his son tried hard to free Iran from foreign domination, neither succeeded. As the "great game" of nineteenth century imperial rivalry gave way to the Cold War, Iran was caught between Soviet support for its communist opposition on the one hand, and United States assistance in combating this threat on the other.
Mohammad Reza Shah's sympathies lay with the West, writing that "Iran placed itself ideologically squarely in the camp of the Western democracies" even though democracy in Iran was nothing more than a veneer. In 1975, he established a one-party system. Ironically, while he took great pride in Iran's civilization, it was because many saw him as a cultural traitor that his regime was overthrown in a popular, non-violent uprising that swept the Muslim leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, into power. Governance in Iran had, since the creation of the Shi'a state under the Safavids always balanced religious and temporal authority. Had the Pahlavis found a way to maintain this balance, they may have survived. Failing to do so, and accused of having betrayed Islamic ideals, their dynasty was replaced by a system in which the political sphere is subject to the authority of the religious sphere. An ancient monarchy ended, perhaps mainly because its autocratic rulers were unprepared to share power. Unfortunately, the regime that succeeded it is no less repressive; repression, like violence, tends to replicate itself and the new regime does not have to look far to learn how to impose its will on the people of Iran.
In 1921, Reza Khan, an officer in Iran's only military force, the Persian Cossack Brigade, used his troops to support a successful coup against the government of the Qajar dynasty. Within four years he had established himself as the most powerful person in the country by suppressing rebellions and establishing order. In 1925, a specially convened assembly deposed Ahmad Shah Qajar, the last ruler of the Qajar dynasty, and named Reza Khan, who earlier had adopted the surname Pahlavi, as the new shah. He chose the name because of its "deep roots" in Iranian history, "it is the name of the official language and writings of the emperors during the Sassanid era." Under the Qajars, a modernization program was already underway but Reza Khan and his supporters were unhappy with what they saw as the undermining of Iran's sovereignty and with the weak leadership of the Shah. The Qajars had sold-off the concession to Iran's oil cheaply to a British prospector (which gave birth to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company), were in debt to Russia and had allowed the British and the Russian's to more or less control the country. According to Mohammad Reza Pahlavia, between 1857 and 1921, no decision could be taken by the government of Iran without the approval of the British and Russians, "tacit or otherwise." Iran was a playground where the two powers played out their "great game." (This term is attributed to Arthur Conolly, who was an intelligence officer with the British East India Company's Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry.) Foreign monopolies were all but running the country. Belgium ran the customs service, with the revenue being used to reduce Iran's debts. The British printed the currency, ran the telegraph service and some of the Banks. The rest of the banking system was in the hands of the Russians and Turks, while the Swedes were responsible for the police.
Reza Shah had ambitious plans, included developing large-scale industries, implementing major infrastructure projects, building a cross-country railroad system, establishing a national public education system, reforming the judiciary, and improving health care. He believed a strong, centralized government managed by educated personnel could carry out his plans.
He sent hundreds of Iranians, including his son, to Europe for training. During 16 years from 1925 to 1941, Reza Shah's numerous development projects transformed Iran into an urbanized country. Public education progressed rapidly, and new social classes were formed. A professional middle class and an industrial working class had emerged.
By the mid-1930s, Reza Shah's dictatorial style of rule caused dissatisfaction among some groups, particularly the Shia clergy, which was opposed to his reforms. In 1935 Reza Shah issued a decree asking foreign delegates to use the term Iran in formal correspondence, in accordance with the fact that "Persia" was a term used by Western peoples for the country called "Iran" in Persian. After some scholars protested, his successor, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, announced in 1959 that both Persia and Iran were acceptable and could be used interchangeably.
Reza Shah tried to avoid involvement with Britain and the Soviet Union, who under the Qajars had wielded enormous influence. Though many of his development projects required foreign technical expertise, he avoided awarding contracts to British and Soviet companies. Although Britain, through its ownership of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, controlled all of Iran's oil resources, Reza Shah preferred to obtain technical assistance from Germany, France, Italy, and other European countries. This created problems for Iran after 1939, when Germany and Britain became enemies in World War II. Reza Shah proclaimed Iran as a neutral country, but Britain insisted that German engineers and technicians in Iran were spies with missions to sabotage British oil facilities in southwestern Iran. Britain demanded that Iran expel all German citizens, but Reza Shah refused, claiming this would adversely impact his development projects. The Pahlavis could not do away with the Majlis but they found ways of minimizing its role, or of manipulating it. In this, however, they followed the example of the British and Russians, who despite Reza Khan's best efforts were still powers behind the throne. Even in the 1940s, they controlled the election process. Each ambassador would draw up a list of candidates "and that was that."
Following Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) in June 1941, Britain and the Soviet Union became allies. Both turned their attention to Iran. Britain and the USSR saw the newly-opened Trans-Iranian Railway as an attractive route to transport supplies from the Persian Gulf to the Soviet Union. In August 1941, because Reza Shah refused to expel the German nationals, Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran, arrested the Shah and sent him into exile, taking control of Iran's communications and railroad. In 1942, the United States, an ally of Britain and the USSR during the war, sent a military force to Iran to help maintain and operate sections of the railroad. Over the next few months, the three nations took control of Iran's oil resources and secured a supply corridor for themselves. Reza Shah's regime collapsed, and the American, British and Soviet authorities limited the powers of the rump government that remained. They permitted Reza Shah's son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to ascend to the throne.
In January 1942, they signed an agreement with Iran to respect Iran's independence and to withdraw their troops within six months of the war's end. In 1943, at the Tehran Conference, the United States reaffirmed this commitment. In 1945, the USSR refused to announce a timetable to leave Iran's northwestern provinces of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan, where Soviet-supported autonomy movements had developed. At the time, the Tudeh Party of Iran, a communist party that was already influential and had parliamentary representation, was becoming increasingly militant, especially in the North. This promoted actions from the side of the government, including attempts of the Iranian armed forces to restore order in the Northern provinces. While the Tudeh headquarters in Tehran were occupied and the Isfahan branch crushed, the Soviet troops present in the Northern parts of the country prevented the Iranian forces from entering. Thus, by the late autumn of 1945, the North was virtually controlled by the Tudeh and its affiliates.
The USSR withdrew its troops in May 1946, but tensions continued for several months. This episode was one of the precipitating events of the emerging Cold War, the postwar rivalry between the United States and its allies, and the USSR and its allies.
Iran's political system became increasingly open. Political parties were developed, and in 1944 the Majlis election was the first genuinely competitive election in more than 20 years. Foreign influence remained a very sensitive issue for all parties. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), which was owned by the British government, continued to produce and market Iranian oil although Reza Khan negotiated a new deal with the British in 1933, which reduced the area of its operations (opening up the possibility of other oil companies operating in Iran as well) and included an annual payment to Iran, a minimum of 750,000 British pounds.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi replaced his father on the throne on September 16, 1941. He wanted to continue the reform policies of his father, but a contest for control of the government soon erupted between the shah and an older professional politician, the nationalistic Mohammad Mosaddegh.
Despite his vow to act as a constitutional monarch who would defer to the power of the parliamentary government, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi increasingly involved himself in governmental affairs. He concentrated on reviving the army and ensuring that it would remain under royal control as the monarchy's main power base. In 1949, an assassination attempt on the Shah, attributed to the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, resulted in the banning of that party and the expansion of the Shah's constitutional powers.
In 1951, the Majlis named Mohammad Mossadegh as new prime minister by a vote of 79–12, who shortly after nationalized the British-owned oil industry (see Abadan Crisis). Mossadegh was opposed by the Shah who feared a resulting oil embargo imposed by the west would leave Iran in economical ruin. The Shah fled Iran but returned when the United Kingdom and United States staged a coup against Mossadegh in August 1953 (known as Operation Ajax). Mossadegh was then arrested by pro-Shah army forces.
In the context of regional turmoil and the Cold War, the Shah established himself as an indispensable ally of the West. Domestically, he advocated reform policies, culminating in the 1963 program known as the White Revolution, which included land reform, extension of voting rights to women, and the elimination of illiteracy. Major plans to build Iran's infrastructure were undertaken, a new middle class began flourishing and in less than two decades Iran became the undisputable major economical and military power of the Middle East. Iran entered a bilateral treaty with the U.S. which said that the two nations would aid each other in the event of a communist threat.
However, these measures and the increasing arbitrariness of the Shah's rule provoked religious leaders who feared losing their traditional authority, and intellectuals seeking democratic reforms. These opponents criticized the Shah for his reforms or for violation of the constitution, which placed limits on royal power and provided for a representative government.
The Shah saw himself as heir to the kings of ancient Iran, and in 1971 he held a celebration of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. In 1976, he replaced the calendar (year 1355) with an "Imperial" calendar (year 2535), which began with the foundation of the Persian Empire more than twenty-five centuries earlier. These actions were viewed as un-Islamic and resulted in more religious opposition by the clergy.
The Shah's government suppressed its opponents with the help of Iran's security and intelligence secret police, SAVAK. Such opponents included members of the Communist Tudeh party, who tried to assassinate the Shah and his son on multiple occasions. They also included many past and active members of today's government. With the U.S. as a close ally of the Shah and the Soviet supporting the Tudeh, Iran was a venue for Cold War espionage and intrigue, as it had been for the "great game" in the pre-World War I era.
By the mid-1970s, relying on increased oil revenues, the Shah began a series of even more ambitious and bolder plans for the progress of his country and the march toward the "Great Civilization." But his socioeconomic advances increasingly irritated the clergy. Islamic leaders, particularly the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were able to focus this discontent with an ideology tied to Islamic principles that called for the overthrow of the Shah and the return to Islamic traditions, called the Islamic revolution. The Shah was depicted as a puppet of the U.S., which was denounced as the "Great Satan." The Shah's government collapsed following widespread uprisings in 1978 and 1979. The Islamic Republic of Iran changed SAVAK to SAVAMA. It was run after the revolution, according to U.S. sources and Iranian exile sources in the U.S. and in Paris, by Gen. Hossein Fardoust, who was deputy chief of SAVAK under the former Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and a friend from boyhood of the deposed monarch. SAVAMA is run and organized exactly as was its predecessor.
The Shah (who had a form of cancer) fled the country, seeking medical treatment to Egypt, Mexico, United States, Panama and finally resettled with his family in Egypt as a guest of Anwar Sadat. Country after country refused him a visa, and after the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran he was asked to leave the U.S. as soon as it was "medically possible." Upon his death, his son, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, succeeded him as Head of the Pahlavi Dynasty. Today the Pahlavi family lives in Potomac, MD, with their three daughters. In his memoirs, the last Shah expresses puzzlement at the way in which his allies and friends abandoned him in the face of the Islamic revolution, commenting that their actions appeared "confused and contradictory."
The Pahlavi dynasty came into power at a time when Iran was in debt to the European powers and, although not officially a colony was more or less a British protectorate. During the reign of the two monarchs of this short-lived dynasty, Iran emerged as a major economic and military power in the region. Until 1980, too, Iran was the only nation in the region that recognized Israel (subsequently withdrawn by the Islamic republic) and was regarded a stabilizing power. Indeed, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi wanted to establish a "zone of peace and stability around the Indian Ocean" and called for the demilitarization of the region. In his opinion, however, not only was the region too volatile with a series of Arab wars against Israel but neither of the Cold War super-powers were prepared to "admit that their armed presence in the Indian Ocean was not necessary." Halliday says that both Pahlavi rulers ran Iran as a dictatorship with total control of the political machinery, allowing no "independent political activity of any kind."
After the "great game" of imperial rivalry between Britain and Russia gave way to the Cold War, Iran still found itself of interest to the competing powers. Soviet Support for the Tudeh was matched by U.S. support for the Shah, not least of all through helping set up SAVAK. Iran's oil wealth added to its strategic importance. It is perhaps ironic that the last shah was brought down on the as a puppet of the West, given that he had actually tried hard to neutralize Iran. Unwisely, the Pahlavis alienated the religious leadership, which had historically partnered with the temporal leadership in administering the country. For most Shia, no government except that of the Mahdi has complete legitimacy. Once the religious leaders withdrew support for the Shah, his government enjoyed no legitimacy at all. If the Pahlavis had enjoyed more freedom to work out Iran's destiny without outside interference, their dynasty might still be in power. Sadly, the great powers past and present rarely considered or consider what impact their proxy battles have on the people in whose territories they played out, or play out, their ideological or imperial contests.
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