Iran History – Rise and Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty

By | December 16, 2021

The beginnings of the Pahlavi era took place in the sign of a harsh but enlightened absolutism, intended to initiate a demanding process of technical and cultural modernization of the country. On the international level, a series of friendship and guarantee treaties was stipulated in order to stabilize the borders and create a balance between the countries of the Middle East; internally, the greatest effort was directed at the disarmament of the tribes and the establishment of internal security, as well as the reorganization of the state on the model of a moderate and gradual Europeanization. In 1933 the concession for the exploitation of oil, granted to the British in 1901, was renegotiated on a new basis more favorable to the Persian state, which two years later officially took the name of Iran. In the years leading up to the Second World War, Reza Khan, fearful of the growing British influence on the one hand and of the Soviet threat on the other, he drew ever closer to Nazi Germany. At the outbreak of the conflict, Iran declared its neutrality, reaffirmed again in June 1941, when Germany attacked the USSR. Faced with Tehran’s refusal to expel the numerous German citizens present in the country, especially as technicians, Anglo-Soviet troops invaded Iran to ensure the influx of allied aid to the Soviet Union. On September 19, 1941, the allied troops entered Tehran; two days earlier Reza Khan had abdicated in favor of his son Muhammad Reza. Now closely linked to the Allied cause, in September 1942 Iran declared war on Germany and, the following year, hosted the historic conference of the Big Three in Tehran, who traced the lines of the reconquest of Europe and undertook to fully restore Iranian sovereignty after the war. With the abdication of the Shah, the authoritarianism that had held the country in its grip for almost twenty years diminished. The attitude of constitutional reserve initially held by the new sovereign Reza Pahlavi favored, in a climate of resumption of democratic activities, the development of political life around Parliament and the parties, among which the progressive Tudeh, of pro-Communist inspiration, emerged. In February 1949, following an attack against the shah, the government adopted measures restricting the freedom of the press, while a few months later a constituent assembly introduced amendments to the 1906 Constitution, with the attribution to the head of the state of the right of veto and the dissolution of Parliament. But the decisive turning point in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy was triggered by the oil crisis of the early 1950s. Muhammad Mossadeq was the protagonist, several times minister in the immediate post-war years and then retired because he was against the appointment of the old Shah Pahlavi. Founder of the National Front in 1949, Mossadeq managed to have his project to nationalize oil concessions in Iran approved by Parliament. While violent anti-British and anti-American demonstrations were taking place in the country, with the active participation of elements of the Tudeh, to face the contraction of oil production and sales and the political crisis determined by the decisive opposition of conservative circles, fearful of a shift in the regime towards communism, Mossadeq tried to assume more and more powers. Dismissed by the Shah for the first time in July 1952, shortly after, in the wake of popular demonstrations, he returned to the government but the conflicts between Prime Minister and Head of State worsened and in 1953 Mossadeq was overthrown by a coup d’état in favor of the Shah, backed by the US and British secret services. Iranian politics then took a decisive pro-Western turn and American military aid, which had begun as early as 1947, intensified. Thanks to the substantial financial aid of the United States, the country was placed in a position to overcome the serious financial difficulties, until the moment when it began to receive the income deriving from the royalties oil companies, following the stipulation of an international agreement in which the seven major world oil cartels joined. In 1959 Iran joined (together with Turkey, Pakistan and Great Britain) the Baghdad Pact and on March 5, 1959 signed a mutual defense agreement with the United States. With the fall of Mossadeq and the suppression of the Tudeh party (which continued to move underground) Reza Pahlavi began to take an increasingly active role in the administration of the state. In 1961, when Parliament was dissolved, he was able to set up and launch the great agrarian reform implemented in the following two years. Called the ‘white revolution’, the reform aimed at the industrialization of the country and the creation of a national capital, in a project that mainly involved the shah himself and his family. Large estates were confiscated from their owners, offering in exchange stakes in industry, confiscations which also involved large landholdings belonging to religious organizations of Shiite Islam. At the same time, a campaign was launched aimed at reducing the very high rate of illiteracy and removing education from the control of the clergy. The ‘white revolution’ profoundly changed the structures of national power, significantly intensifying the shah’s control over the country’s political life, while at the same time arousing much resistance. From the serious tensions triggered by the new authoritarianism emerged the figure of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Succeeded in 1962 as head of the Shiite community, which has always been politically hostile to the Pahlavi dynasty. For Iran history, please check

The shah’s policy was supported by the United States and Western and Eastern European countries. After the 1967 elections, internal tensions also seemed to subside. As a sign of the stability of the country and of the successes of the ‘white revolution’, on 26 October 1967 the shah encircled the imperial crown with a sumptuous ceremony. On the international level, the intense relations with the USA, suppliers of much of Iran’s armament, and with Western Europe were accompanied by the maintenance of collaboration with the USSR and the re-establishment of relations with China (1971), while towards the Arab states the only tensions were those with Iraq over the sovereignty of a part of the Shatt al-Arab. In cultural politics, the shah followed the now traditional lines of the Pahlavi dynasty, based on the re-evaluation of the ancient pre-Islamic past; in 1971 very sumptuous ceremonies, attended by heads of state and representatives of governments from all over the world, including the socialist ones, celebrated the 25th centenary of the foundation of the empire of Cyrus the Great. The relatively low importance attributed to the Islamic cultural past also aimed at breaking the resistance of a certain conservative Muslim fundamentalism, paradoxically allied with the left-wing opposition. In 1976 the dating from the ègira was even abolished, tracing the beginning of the dates back to the establishment of the empire of Cyrus. In other respects, the changes that took place in Iranian society were completely unsatisfactory: in the industrial field no export sector could be developed; in the agricultural field, where production was already not sufficient for internal needs, stagnation occurred; enormous sums were absorbed by military expenses. Furthermore, social inequality tended to increase, excluding from profits not only the popular strata and the working class, forced to live in miserable living conditions, but also the middle classes, professionals and traders, already deprived of access to any form of decision-making power. All this was matched by a harsh repression in the cultural and political life of the country, exercised by the SAVAK, the secret police. In March 1975, the shah abandoned the fiction of the two-party system to organize a single party. Starting from 1977 there was a strong growth of the opposition movement to the regime which found joint elements of Islamic orthodoxy, led by the religious leader in exile, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the leftist parties. The Shah tried to stem the insurrection by calling to the government a historical exponent of the opposition, Shapur Bakhtiar, former member of the National Front of Mossadeq and undersecretary in the government he directed, but in the face of the unstoppable progress of the revolution Reza Pahlavi was forced to leave for exile on January 16, 1979; on 1 February Khomeini returned to his homeland.

Iran History - Rise and Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty