Pahlavi Dynasty

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Pahlavi Dynasty

On December 12, 1925, Iran's parliament amended Iran's constitution of 1906–1907 to replace the Qajar dynasty (1797–1925) with the Pahlavi dynasty as the legitimate sovereigns of Iran. On April 25, 1926, Rezā Pahlavi was formerly crowned Rezā Shāh. Rezā Shāh ascended the throne after four years of political intrigue that began when he, as commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade, committed those troops in support of a coup on February 21, 1921. Though his military rank was never higher than colonel during his career in the Persian Cossack Brigade, he rose through the ranks of government from minister of war to prime minister (in 1923) and finally king. Along the way he destroyed political allies, outmaneuvered or coopted the Qajar aristocracy, and crushed provincial and tribal challenges to central government control. With a unified military that was fed by an efficient tax-collection policy (organized in part by Arthur C. Millspaugh, an American financial advisor to Iran from 1922 to 1927) and the Conscription Law (1924), Rezā Shāh wielded the state as his personal tool for Iran's modernization.

Rezā Shāh built on some of the late achievements of the Qajar period: he coopted his generation's "best and brightest" for the development and execution of modernization policy, continued the legacy of "constitutional monarchy," and followed a modernization scheme that owed some of its ambitions to failed or partially realized Qajar policies. There was an expansion in education, the creation of a national railway funded without foreign capital (1927–1938), an expansion of state control over the religious establishment and the judiciary, and the realization of monumental projects that emphasized the theme of Iranian revival (e.g., the thousandth anniversary celebrations of the poet Ferdowsi in 1934 and the creation of a modern administrative and cultural center in Tehran with Sassanian and Acheamenid architectural motifs). His legacy to the institutional and social life of Iran was cemented in revisions to the legal code (some strands of which have survived to Islamic Republican times) and through his "state feminism" projects, which began with minor revisions to the Marriage Law in 1931 and ended with forced unveiling and the expansion of educational and professional opportunities for women under the auspices of the Women's Awakening Project of 1936 to 1943 (the project survived Rezā Shāh's deposition de jure for two years).

Rezā Shāh's anticolonial credentials were mixed. He enjoyed success in abolishing most extraterritorial privileges for foreigners in 1927, but foundered when he attempted to renegotiate the D'Arcy Concession with the British in 1932 and 1933. His increasingly repressive tactics directed against all potential opposition in the 1930s eroded the support he enjoyed in 1925. Furthermore, his effort to secure Iran's borders through regional diplomacy (for example, the Sa dabad Pact of 1937, or the marriage of Crown Prince Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi to the Egyptian princess Fawzia in 1939) proved of no avail in the face of Allied demands in 1941 that Iran expel all German agents and permit military supplies to flow to Soviet Russia from the Persian Gulf. Soviet and British troops occupied Iran in August of 1941 and forced the abdication of Rezā Shāh in favor of his son Mohammad on September 16 of that year.

In what was to be a pivotal moment for U.S.-Iranian relations, some 30,000 American personnel joined the occupation of Iran after America's entrance into the war. Until World War II, Americans had enjoyed a reputation as being a largely disinterested foreign presence—missionary activity and governmental advisors notwithstanding. With the ending of World War II, it became clear that America and not Great Britain would be the main counterweight to Soviet Russia. The United States took the lead in the newly formed United Nations in protesting delays in Soviet withdrawals from Iran and in giving support to separatist Kurdish and Azeri republics in the northwest in Iran in 1946.

America's reputation as an imperialist presence was born in the Anglo-American-sponsored coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, which occurred on August 22, 1953. Mosaddeq had become prime minister in 1951, elected on the strength of his championing of oil nationalization in Iran. Mosaddeq's confrontation with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company over nationalization would be the ultimate source of his undoing, but he also challenged the Pahlavi dynasty. As Mohammad Rezā Shāh looked on, Mosaddeq also used his popularity to further dismantle the control of the Pahlavi court over government institutions, especially the military. The 1953 coup did not reverse the dismantlement of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (through which the British government had dominated the Iranian oil industry), but replaced it with an international oil consortium that now included American oil companies. With American support, Mohammad Rezā Shāh began a program of modernization and political consolidation that culminated in two grand projects. The first was the White Revolution of 1960 to 1963, which, in turn, evolved into the Great Civilization program by the end of the decade. Designed to steal the thunder of leftist opposition to the Pahlavis, the program expanded the welfare state, granted women the right to vote, improved compensation for industrial workers, and distributed land to peasants from the major holdings of the old aristocracy. The second grand project was the creation of a one-party state in 1975. The way to the creation of the Rastākhiz (Resurgence) Party was paved by the Shāh's military and secret police, SAVAK (formed in 1958 with American help). The Shāh's government destroyed or disrupted radical Islamist and Communist opposition in the 1950s and suppressed liberal and clerical opposition in the 1960s. Nonetheless, there was evidence by the early 1970s that the Shāh's twin policies of modernization and political suppression had begun to backfire. Ayatollāh Ruhollāh Khomeini, banished from Iran in 1964 for his opposition to the White Revolution, organized a new generation of clerical opposition from exile in Iraq. Students sent abroad for undergraduate and graduate degrees were politicized by Islamist and leftist opposition to the Shāh. In Iran itself, militant Islamic-Marxist groups had begun a sustained campaign against the regime.

As with his father, Mohammad Rezā Shāh found that foreign policy and royal spectacle added very little to his regime's legitimacy. An elaborate coronation ceremony in 1967 and even more extravagant celebrations of monarchy in 1971 and 1975 earned him little credit in the courts of world or Iranian public opinion. Growing international criticism of Iran's human rights record and state visits of Western leaders (most notably that of Jimmy Carter in late 1977) seemed to confirm his status as a tyrant and Western puppet. As the oil boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s gave way to rampant inflation and unemployment, Mohammad Rezā Shāh found his worst nightmares realized when all sectors of Iranian society rallied in opposition to the regime under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. Cycles of protest and repression escalated from the spring of 1977 until, finally, on January 4, 1979, the Shāh agreed to appoint Shahpur Bakhtiar (d. 1991) as prime minister and leave the country. Mohammad Rezā Shāh fled Iran for a second time on January 16, 1979. On February 1, 1979, Khomeini returned to Iran. The government of Bakhtiar fell and he became one of many members of Iran's social and political elite that fled in the face of the new order. While Khomeini consolidated power in Iran, the Shāh languished in exile. When President Carter allowed the Shāh to visit America for cancer treatment in October 1979, nervous radicals, fearing a repeat of 1953, seized the American embassy on November 4. This escalated into the hostage crisis of 1979 to 1981 that, along with America's economic woes, cost Carter his bid for reelection in 1980. The Pahlavi dynasty effectively died with Mohammad Rezā on July 27, 1980; he was buried with state honors in Egypt. His son, Rezā Pahlavi II (b. 1960), still styles himself as a political leader in exile (not surprisingly, he lives in the United States) and is the head of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran.

see also Iran; Khomeini, Ayatollah Ruhollah.


Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran Between Two Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Cronin, Stephanie, ed. The Making of Modern Iran: State and Society Under Riza Shāh, 1921–1941. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Elm, Mostafa. Oil, Power ,and Principle: Iran's Oil Nationalization and Its Aftermath. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Ghani, Sirus. Iran and the Rise of Rezā Shāh: From Qajar Collapse to Pahlavi Rule. London: I. B. Taurus, 1998.

Keddie, Nikki R. and Richard Yann, eds. Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.