Part Three


In the seven decades following the Constitutional Revolution, the Pahlavi era (1921–1979) transformed the politics, society, and economy of Iran. In the aftermath of World War I and the upheavals of the postwar period, Reza Shah’s authoritarian rule, boosted by oil revenue and a consolidated military, helped centralize the country, create modern administrative and educational institutions, co-opt the old elite, nurture a nationalist ideology, and conduct a relatively independent course of foreign policy. These were achieved at the expense of democratic aspirations and individual and political freedoms that were at the core of the constitutional experience. Westernization also deepened the rift between the Pahlavi state and the retreating clerical establishment.

In the aftermath of World War II hopes for an open society and for greater economic sovereignty reignited during the short and volatile era of party politics and the oil nationalization movement under Mohammad Mosaddeq. The bitter end of that episode left a lasting impact on the Iranian intelligentsia, who remained weary of foreign intrigue and arbitrary rule. The quarter of a century after the 1953 coup offered Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi a chance to augment his father’s project of state modernization. A program of land reform in the 1960s and rapid growth of oil revenue in the 1970s boosted the shah’s political ambitions, his self-image as a savior of Iran, and his repressive rule. A submissive technocracy and a dreaded security apparatus enhanced his illusion of stability and sense of confidence. Yet as early as the 1960s, opposition to the shah and the Pahlavi order brought radical Islamic trends to the political stage. Ayatollah Khomeini’s criticism of the shah demonstrated a serious rift between the Westernizing state and the radicalized clergy. Other voices of opposition, including the radical left, showed symptoms of greater crisis to come. The changing political horizons were well evident in the literary and artistic expressions of the period. Greater urbanization, growth of education, the presence of women in public spaces, greater prosperity, and the adoption of modern values and lifestyles in turn engendered both new anxieties about the loss of authenticity and a call for return to traditional values. It was as if the Iranian intelligentsia yearned for an alternative to the Pahlavi promises of glory.



On the morning of February 21, 1921, the people of Tehran woke up to the news of a military coup that in the early hours of the day had brought to power a new government. It was headed by a fiery journalist and backed by Reza Khan, a brigadier general in Iran’s Cossack Division. The nine-article communiqué posted on public thoroughfares announcing the new regime carried an unprecedented authoritarian tone. It began with the ominous phrase “I command!” (hokm mikonam) and called upon the people of Tehran to be “quiet and obedient to military commands.” It warned that martial law was in effect; that all press and publications were banned, pending permits from the future government; that public gatherings were illegal; that taverns, theaters, cinemas, and gambling clubs were closed; and that all government departments and communications were suspended. “Whoever fails to obey the above orders,” it sternly concluded, “will be brought before the military tribunal and receive the harshest penalty.” The proclamation was signed, “Reza, Chief of His Majesty’s Cossack Division and Military Commander of Tehran.”1

Reza Khan, an ambitious forty-three-year-old officer soon came to be recognized as a “strongman” who promised to save Iran from perpetual crisis and desperation. His meteoric rise to power and eventual establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925 was as much the outcome of the frustrations and setbacks experienced after the Constitutional Revolution as it was the outcome of a decade-long foreign occupation and imperial ambitions. He was able to rapidly consolidate because of his shrewdness and personal qualities, but also because he operated in a setting in which other options for Iran’s political survival seemed to be exhausted. By 1921, the opportunity for a sovereign and functioning constitutional regime was nearly lost, leading to what Shuster had labeled a decade earlier as the “strangling of Persia.” It was a feat of fortune, perhaps, but also an engaging historical question as to why Iran eventually managed to escape disintegration and remain a sovereign state.

At the outset of World War I, most Iranian nationalists were hopeful that imperial Germany’s challenge to the great powers would liberate Iran from Anglo-Russian hegemony. In reality, however, further misfortunes, prompted by the war, brought the Iranian government to a standstill and the country to further disarray and misery. Iran was not even a party to a war that was fought violently over Europe’s imperial ambitions, pride, and power games. And if the Young Turk regime in the neighboring Ottoman Empire was reckless to side with one power against another, the weakling Iranian government was sober enough to declare neutrality, at least on the surface. It seemed entirely unwise for Iranians to join either of the warring parties, given the high level of resentment toward Russia and Britain at home but also the uncertain gains if Iran officially sided with the Central Powers.

Despite repeated pleas to the fighting parties—Russian, British, Ottoman, and German—Iranian territory was overrun by the first three almost from the start of the war, the country’s sovereignty was undermined, and its people were subjected to starvation and disease directly or indirectly resulting from the military operations. At no time since the civil wars of the eighteenth century had Iran faced a darker political moment than the period between 1915 and 1921. War and occupation coincided with the eclipse of nationalist hopes and the rise of secessionist movements. The rippling effects of the Bolshevik Revolution and Iran’s ill-fated 1919 treaty with Britain further complicated the quagmire.

Long before the outbreak of World War I, the emergence of imperial Germany on Middle Eastern horizons impressed the Iranian nationalists, who viewed it as a dynamic but relatively benign world power. The appeal of Germany, however, went beyond its role as a diplomatic counterbalance. German nationalism as a unifying ideology, one that made possible industrial development and created an efficient state with a powerful military, was an intriguing model for Iranians, as it was for the neighboring Young Turks. Ever since the 1870s, Iranians had admired Bismarck for unifying Germany through war and diplomacy. In 1903, German success in finalizing the agreement with the Ottomans for the construction of the Istanbul-Baghdad railway was viewed internationally as a major strategic breakthrough. It brought Germany, for the first time, close to the shores of the Persian Gulf, a body of water the British considered essential to the security of British India. Further plans to connect Tehran to the Baghdad railway through a line across western Iran equally alarmed the Russians, who saw it an intrusion into their zone of influence (fig. 7.1).

Figure 7.1. Even during the constitutional era the Iranian press portrayed Britain retreating in the face of Russian and German aggression and dragging along enchained Asian nations.

DR: Kashkul, 1:37 (Tehran, 13 Rabi‘ I 1326/April 14, 1908). Courtesy of Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi.


The rise of Germany on the Iranian horizon coincided with the discovery of oil in Iran by a British concessionaire in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. As the site of the first oil exploration in the Middle East, the Khuzestan field proved a vital strategic resource for Britain throughout the war and after. Beyond the 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement, the discovery of oil further tied Iran’s fate to the fortunes of the Great War. After the war, and throughout the twentieth century and beyond, no other resource came to play as crucial a role as oil in shaping Iranian politics and economy.

In 1900 a British financier, William Knox D’Arcy, who met the head of Iranian customs at the Paris world exhibition, was persuaded to acquire a concession from the Qajar government for the discovery, production, and export of the vaguely identified oil fields of southern Iran. The sixty-year monopoly, granted tax-free to D’Arcy, offered remarkable advantages to the concessionaire in exchange for only a £20,000 ($100,000) advance, another £20,000 worth of stocks, and 16 percent of the net profit from the revenue of all the companies that were to be incorporated under the concession. In 1901, Mozaffar al-Din Shah ratified the concession, following a successful campaign led by the British envoy in Tehran and D’Arcy’s representative, who once worked for Julius Reuter and was recommended to D’Arcy by Henry Drummond Wolff. It was as if D’Arcy was to compensate for the failures of the previous Reuter and Regie concessions.

After several years of fruitless explorations, in May 1908 D’Arcy’s British engineers struck a massive oil reserve in the Masjed Soleiman oil field in central Khuzestan, inside Bakhtiyari territory (map 7.1). Soon, the construction of a 140-mile pipeline to the refinery and port facilities in the island of Abadan on the westernmost Iranian shores of the Persian Gulf made possible the overseas export of an increasing volume of oil. As early as 1909, the British Admiralty, with its eye on utilizing D’Arcy’s concession, conceded to forming the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) as a private enterprise. In due course, the huge volume of Khuzestan oil offered an incentive to the British government to switch, following the German navy, from coal to oil, eventually for the entire Royal Navy fleet. Despite much resistance from conservatives, by 1914 the British government had acquired the majority of APOC stocks, allowing the government full control over exploration, production, and export. In his role as the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill was the driving force behind the purchase, an accomplishment he later hailed as one of the greatest in his long career (fig. 7.2). APOC’s purchase, a rare acquisition by the British government, set Iran not against a private concessionaire, but the British Empire.

The popularity of automobiles and greater reliance of all industries on oil revealed the British dependency on the Iranian resource throughout the war and beyond as an alternative to California oil, Russian-owned Baku oil, and the other oil fields explored in Burma and elsewhere. Subsequently, the security of the Khuzestan oil fields and installations became a major concern of the British, concern not only in their dealings with the Iranian central government but also in their dealings with the Bakhtiyari khans and the Arab sheikhs of the Banu Ka‘b confederacy, who had a virtual control over the Iranian port of Mohammara (later Khorramshahr) and its vicinity. As early as 1907, Major Percy Cox, then the British political resident in the port of Bushehr, arranged for the arrival of a detachment of Indian sepoys to boost the security of the installations and pipelines. By 1916 this detachment had been upgraded to a full military force, called the South Persian Rifles, based in Bandar Abbas. Despite stiff resistance from the Iranian nationalists, the South Persia Rifles soon was in control of the entire British zone of influence in southern Iran (fig. 7.3).


Not long after the first shots were exchanged on the European fronts, and ironically, soon after Iran declared its neutrality, as early as October 1914 both the northwestern and southern Iranian provinces became battlefields for the warring parties (see map 7.1). Devoid of an effective force to defend them, the Iranian people witnessed repeated offensives from the Russians and Ottomans along the Eastern Front, where they marched in and out of the provinces of Azarbaijan, Kermanshah, and Hamadan. Between the winter of 1914 and the spring of 1917, parts of these provinces changed hands at least eight times between the Russian and Turkish forces, at an enormous humanitarian and economic cost to the civilian population.

Map 7.1. Iran during World War I, 1914–1918

Figure 7.2. A section of casing for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s pipeline being transported near Masjed Soleiman.

Illustrated London News, June 27, 1914.

Figure 7.3. The British-led Bengal Cavaliers and Russian-led Cossack forces parading in Naqsh Jahan Square in Isfahan in September 1916. In the foreground are the Cossack commandant and Brigadier General Sir Percy Sykes. The 1907 Anglo-Russian agreement made Isfahan the meeting point of the two zones of influence.

British Ministry of Information, First World War Official Collection, catalog no. Q 15925. © Imperial War Museum, London.

Both the Ottoman Turks and the tsarist Russians committed repeated atrocities toward urban and rural inhabitants; houses were looted, women raped, children abducted, fields burned, and their provisions confiscated. The Young Turk operations in neighboring Ottoman Anatolia forced the dislocation of a million and a half of Armenians from their ancestral homeland on a massive, genocidal scale. Tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the Ottoman army and the collaborating Kurdish irregulars, crossed the border to nearby Iranian towns and villages. Tabriz and Hamadan, in particular, bore the brunt of the occupations, which caused, among other things, a typhus epidemic and widespread starvation. British advances on the Mesopotamian front between 1915 and 1917 cut off the western supply route that connected the Persian Gulf to the markets of central Iran through Basra, Baghdad, Kermanshah, and Hamadan (see map 7.1). This further aggravated the depressed state of the Iranian economy and wreaked havoc on the price of commodities.

Tehran could view this state of affairs only with a mix of horror and resignation as the warring armies moved closer to the capital. In December 1914, after a hiatus of two years, the third Majles was convened. Even though the provinces were not fully represented, the very survival of the parliamentary order provided only fleeting solace to Iran’s embattled nationalists. New faces represented the Democrats and Moderates. Most visible among the Moderates was Hasan Modarres (c. 1870–1937), a man of austere lifestyle and forthright demeanor. He was a middle-ranking cleric from Isfahan with oratorical talent and parliamentary skills. Solayman Mirza, the Qajar nobleman who led the Democrats, would be among a handful of socialists to survive exile and assassination in the coming years. In the absence of Taqizadeh, who had fled first to Istanbul, and then Berlin, he would play a significant role in the postwar era. Yet regardless of political orientation, both factions in the Majles soon found themselves facing domestic and international crises beyond the capacity of the feeble parliament and constant government turnover. Between 1914 and 1918, there were no fewer than twelve changes of government, nearly all headed by elite statesmen and manned by a combination of the Qajar nobility and figures who had risen to prominence during the constitutional era. Brazen intervention by the representatives of the two neighboring powers left a limited role for the Majles over the rise and fall of these cabinets.

By 1915, the zones of influence agreed to in 1907 were no longer limited to the northern and southern provinces (see map 7.1). There was a tacit understanding between the two powers that the entire country was fair game, so long as the accepted zones of influence were still honored and, equally vital, Germany and the Ottoman Empire were barred from operating in the two zones at all costs. In November 1915, Russians occupied Qazvin with the intention of marching on Tehran, and soon after an advanced detachment reached Karaj, only thirty miles west of the capital. The pretext was to preempt a pro-German “coup” in the capital. The upheaval brought about the closure of the third Majles.

Iranian nationalists were sympathetic toward imperial Germany, as they were toward the Young Turks and their pan-Islamic advocacy. Before sufficiently becoming disillusioned with the Young Turks’ haughty conduct or outraged by their pan-Turkist (occasionally pan-Turanist) territorial ambitions over Iranian Azarbaijan, they saw collaboration with the German-Turkish axis as a viable counter to Anglo-Russian occupation. Ottoman connections, nevertheless, were always hampering the German efforts in Iran, and Iranians never really warmed up to the idea of pan-Islamism. Backed by the energetic German envoy in Tehran and his staff, members of the nationalist bloc—a coalition of politicians, mostly Democrats, as well as veterans of the 1909 civil war and a number of intellectuals and journalists—created the Committee for National Defense and began to withdraw toward Qom. They were supported by a negligible force from among the constitutionalist fighters of earlier years and some gendarme units led by Swedish officers.

Facing the Russian advancing army, the committee intended to transfer the capital to Isfahan and hoped to persuade the young Ahmad Shah, who at the age of fifteen has just been invested as the new Qajar monarch, to join them there. Once a mismanaged coup, organized by the German military attaché Count Kanitz, failed to move to Qom the government of premier Hasan Mostowfi al-Mamalek (c. 1871–1932), the young shah, under pressure from the British and Russian representatives, abandoned the idea at the last hour. He was vaguely assured by the two powers that his capital would not be overrun and that he would survive on the Qajar throne. With the departure to western Iran of the so-called Mohajerin (immigrants) as the supporters of the Committee for National Defense came to be known, the capital fell even more firmly under the spell of Anglo-Russian influence and their demands for greater compliance (see map 7.1).

The breakdown of Iran’s fragile resistance after brief engagements with Russian forces in the vicinity of Qom and Hamadan forced them to withdraw further west to Kermanshah and beyond toward the Ottoman border once the Young Turks had prevailed over the British army in Kut, in the summer of 1916. There, under the Turkish shield and with the backing of the German agents who were assigned to help the Iranian nationalists, the Committee for National Defense formed a provisional government in exile. There the provisional government maintained a precarious presence until the winter of 1917, when a new Russian offensive drove the Turks—and with them, most of the Mohajerin—out of Iran. With an odd mix of Majles deputies, elderly statesmen, political activists, clerical leaders, soldiers, and intellectuals, the provisional government aimed to organize a resistance movement through a network of urban and tribal supporters. It further concluded an agreement that obligated Iran support the Central Powers in exchange for German and Turkish efforts to wipe out the Allied presence in Iran and restore the nationalist government in Tehran. With the Russian defeat of the Ottomans in Kermanshah in April 1916, however, most of the Mohajerin were forced to retreat further to Anatolia, Kurdistan, and southern Iraq, where they awaited an uncertain future. Disillusioned and out of funds, the struggling resistance quickly fizzled; some trickled back to Iran, and others wandered in Iraq and Syria, gravitating toward Istanbul and beyond.

The provisional government was the peak of German efforts to build an anti-Allied coalition of nationalists and tribal forces in Iran. By the middle of 1915, German agents, playing on Iranian resentment toward the Allies, successfully penetrated the southern and central provinces. Through propaganda, agitation, the supply of firearms, and financial reward (or the promise of it), tireless German agents and operatives in Hamadan, Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, and Kerman were able to create a network that stretched from the Kurdish tribes of the Kermanshah to the Qashqa’is and Tangestani in Fars and to the Banu Ka‘b Arab tribes of southern Khuzestan (see map 7.1).

Most famous among these, Wilhelm Wassmuss, a free agent of the sort operating in Fars province who coordinated his efforts with the German Intelligence Bureau of the Orient (responsible for covert operations in the east) was able to mobilize, along with other German officers, the Qashqa’is of the Fars province and smaller tribes of southern Fars. They fielded a sustained insurgency against the British and their Khamseh tribal allies. Von Kardroff, taking refuge with the Bakhtiyari and protected by Bibi Maryam, the influential sister of Sardar As‘ad, the chief of the tribe, fostered a momentary pro-German pact among the Bakhtiyari. Rudolf Nadolny, the chief of the Intelligence Bureau, helped mobilize the Sanjabis and other Kurds of Kermanshah into an effective force. Oskar von Niedermayer, a senior German agent, was active in Afghanistan even though Iran proved more fertile ground for German war efforts.

The German agents represented a new brand of covert operation that relied on dedication, knowledge of the terrain, military savvy, and the promise of large monetary reward. To facilitate war efforts in western Iran, the German treasury even distributed German marks with equivalents in Persian qeran printed on the banknotes. The proxy war fought in Iran relied on resources of modern German armaments that were crucial for the spread of firearms throughout the Iranian countryside. German gold—which was promised and at times spent lavishly—bought the notoriously shifting tribal loyalties only to an extent (fig. 7.4).

The war operation in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf gave the German agents an aura of heroism that contradicted the unfulfilled financial promises made to the khans of the collaborating tribes. A number of Iranian Germanophiles among intellectuals and poets of the period, including Mohammad Taqi Bahar, composed popular poems in support of Germany and Perso-German symbiosis. They even employed wandering dervishes to recite these poems in the mosques and bazaars of Isfahan and elsewhere. Sayyed Ahmad Adib Pishavari, a reclusive scholar and poet originally from Peshawar, who nursed a deep grudge against British colonialism, composed numerous panegyrics in praise of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He also composed Qaysar-nameh (Book of kaiser), an epic poem of about five thousand verses in honor of the German emperor, in the style of the Shahnameh. By 1918, however, hopes for a German victory over the Allies fizzled, and with it the prospects of ending the Anglo-Russian hold over Iran. Later during the interwar period, German cultural symbiosis with Iran, underscored by archeological excavations and philological studies of shared Aryan roots, held powerful sway over the Iranian imagination.

Figure 7.4. To advance its war efforts in 1916 and 1917, the German Treasury issued a tuman and mark banknote, including this twenty-five-qeran (ten marks) note, for circulation in the German sphere of influence in western and central Iran.

Courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History.

The short-lived provisional government in exile, barely lasting until 1917, revealed all the flaws of the nationalist resistance since the days of the Constitutional Revolution. It brought to the fore factional bickering between the Democrats’ leadership and their Moderate rivals, the generational gap between the elder statesmen and younger firebrands, and petty rivalries and flickering loyalties. The episode also heightened romantic cries for the plight of the beloved country among such poets of national fame as Bahar, ‘Aref, and Mirzadeh ‘Eshqi (1893–1924). Chiefs of the western frontier from the Sanjabi tribe of the Kermanshah region, who closely collaborated with the Mohajerin, also paid heavily for their loyalties. The ancient tactics of nomadic warfare proved inadequate in the face of European superior firepower when in 1918 they were heavily defeated by the assault of the advancing British forces of the Mesopotamian front at the very end of the war (see map 7.1).


In the Fars province, the Germans allied with Qashqa’i khans and further south in the “warm” country (garmsir) with tribes of the Persian Gulf region among them the Tangestanis north of Bushehr, and the adjacent partisans from the Dashtestan region. The chief of Tangestan, Rais-‘Ali Delvari, who put up a stiff resistance, was killed in clashes with Indo-British forces, and his positions were pounded by British battleships. The German infiltration, and prospects for a combined urban and tribal armed resistance in western and southern Iran, was a legitimate pretext in the eyes of the British authorities for them to undertake, as early as 1915, similar countermeasures. The arrival of Brigadier General Percy Sykes and his British and Indian officers in March 1916, and the creation of the South Persian Rifles (SPR), secured the southern oil fields but also countered, and eventually supplanted, the Iranian gendarme units in the south (see map 7.1).

First initiated by Morgan Shuster in 1911 under Swedish officers, the Iranian Gendarmerie had turned into an effective arm of the state in the countryside, replacing the older Qajar rural police. By the time of the war, a number of Iranian officers in the Gendarme ranks openly sympathized with the nationalist cause during the “immigration” and effectively fought against the Russians in Kermanshah. Their Swedish counterparts, though first supervised by British officers, also gravitated to the German side and openly sympathized with the Tangestani and Dashtestani tribal partisans, as they did in the north with the Lur and the Kurdish fighters. They served as a counterforce not only to the SPR but also to the Russian-led Cossack Division, which until 1917 had held strong ties to imperial Russia.

Relying in part on local recruits, the SPR force of up to eleven thousand, under a British officer corps and Indian petty officers, operated throughout the region, stretching from the Baluchistan border with British India to Kerman, Fars, Khuzestan, and Bakhtiyari lands, linking in the southwest with British forces in Basra and across the Mesopotamian front. Control over the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Iranian interiors proved a formidable task even for Sykes, a diplomat, historian of Iran, and experienced colonial officer who traveled widely inside Iran and wrote about it. By the time he took over the new post, he had produced his two-volume History of Persia, the most extensive in the English language, nearly a century after John Malcolm’s and predictably from a colonial British perspective.

By the end of the war, the fate of the SPR had become another complex issue in the already-strained relationship between Britain and Iran. Responding to repeated objections from Tehran, the British authorities, who earlier had given their tacit agreement to hand over command of the force to Iran, made the transfer conditional on implementing the terms of the more comprehensive 1919 agreement. Specifically, the transfer was tied to the creation of a national army under British supervision. It took the coup of 1921 and the rise of Reza Khan for the British authorities to terminate the SPR in favor of a centralized state with a national army.


By the middle of 1917, it seemed that the British and the Russian forces and their proxies had been able to strike heavy, perhaps fatal, blows to the fragile Iranian resistance in western, central, and southern Iran. German capabilities to offer meaningful support to any sustained insurgency also diminished. The eventual defeat of the Ottomans on the Mesopotamian front and the British capture of Baghdad in January 1917 shattered the nationalists’ hopes for recovery on the western Iranian front. To many it appeared as if their country would never recover from the bouts of political chaos and foreign intervention.

Yet the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 rekindled Iranian aspirations at a time when Germany and its Turkish ally were rapidly losing their strategic gains—and with it their credibility. With the exception of the Great War itself, perhaps no other international event left as lasting an effect on Iran’s early twentieth-century history. The collapse of tsarist Russia, then in control of nearly two-thirds of Iranian territory, both terrified and exhilarated Iran. Fear of the Bolshevik regime and its communist ideology heightened among the elite as the Red Army moved closer to the Caucasus and the Iranian border. On the one hand, as became apparent in early 1918, the collapse of imperial Russia promised an end not only to Russian occupation but also to more than a century of its hegemonic ambition. That Iran could escape what had appeared to be almost certain disintegration—the north annexed by Russia and the south by Britain—could hardly be considered anything less than a miracle.

As early as December 1917, the vulnerable Bolshevik regime, searching for regional allies, denounced the 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement as a ploy of Western imperialism and called on the world to allow Iran to decide its own destiny. By June 1919 Moscow not only rescinded all of Iran’s loan commitments due to Russia but also repealed all the public and private concessions acquired by the tsarist regime as early as the capitulatory privileges of the 1828 Treaty of Torkamanchy. Moreover, it handed over to Iran most of the Russian port facilities on the Persian side of the Caspian and the sector of the Julfa railroad on Iranian soil, and it gave Iran control of the Russian Mortgage Bank. Nullification of these concessions was finalized in the 1921 Soviet-Iranian Treaty of Friendship, which was skillfully negotiated by Iranian diplomats in the face of British obstruction.

Despite these friendly gestures, the appeal of communist ideology to many Iranian nationalists was by no means imminent. Many Democrats who entertained a homegrown socialist ideology admired the Bolshevik revolution and the new Soviet model, but not slavishly. Democrats in Shiraz, for instance, well equipped and in good morale, welcomed the Russian Revolution as a lifesaving breakthrough that could unravel the SPR’s hold over the south (fig. 7.5). The conservative statesmen in Tehran were mostly accustomed to the Anglo-Russian rivalry or, worse, subservient to Britain and its hostility to the Bolsheviks. Nevertheless, by 1918 the premier Samsam al-Saltaneh took advantage of the new regime’s friendly gestures and, much to the anger of the British, unilaterally denounced the 1907 agreement and canceled all privileges for any foreign powers in Iran.

The instability of successive short-lived governments in Tehran, however, did not allow for more serious engagement with the Bolsheviks. Yet, despite the cool reception at the capital, soon the majority of the Iranian polity began to feel the Soviet ideological and military presence. As early as the end of 1919, Bolshevik partisans landed in the Caspian port of Anzali, with the apparent intent to recapture the Russian fleet and dislodge the loyalist detachments of the Russian counterrevolutionary White Army from northern Iran. They advanced as far south as the vicinity of Qazvin before being pushed back by Iranian regular forces and units of the Cossack brigade.

Figure 7.5. Local militia supporting Democrats in Shiraz in 1917. Fars province was the hotbed of pro-German resistance against British occupation.

Fathollah Chehrehnegar, M. Sane‘, Paydayesh-e ‘Akkasi dar Shiraz (Tehran, 1369/1990), 112.

This happened at a critical juncture, when the newly created North Persian Force (Norperforce), under British command, had come to the rescue of the White Army (map 7.2). Earlier, in late 1917, immediately after the Russian withdrawal from World War I, the British Norperforce had consolidated its gains in northern Iran by occupying Hamadan, Kermanshah, and Qazvin and had moved toward the Caspian shores, where it joined forces with the White Russian detachments. The default occupation of northern Iran as far as northern Khorasan, which was outside the traditional scope of British interest, was a remarkable gain but also a huge liability. As it turned out, the British move had important consequences for Iran’s political future.

Map 7.2. Iran after World War I, 1918–1921

By the spring of 1920, the Soviet Red Army replaced bands of Caucasian Bolshevik partisans in an operation aimed not only to remove the remnants of the White Russian detachments and the local Caucasian nationalists in Baku and Tiflis but also to aid the Iranian nationalist Jangal movement in Gilan (see map 7.2). The chief aim of Russian revolutionaries, such as the war commissar Leon Trotsky, in landing troops in Iran was to frighten the British and hamper their support for the White Army. They held the view that Iran was not ripe for a Bolshevik-style revolution, while others, mostly communists from the Caucasus, firmly believed in exporting revolution by covert or overt assistance to the indigenous nationalist movements.

As in neighboring Republic of Turkey, the lure of Bolshevism grew stronger among Iranian nationalists once the Great War came to an end and the Iranian political landscape appeared ever more bleak. In 1918 hope for the Paris Peace Conference and President Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination to address Iran’s grievances soon evaporated. This was at a time when British forces occupied nearly the entire country, and the Jangal movement was divided and distraught. It was as if Iran had gotten a worse deal than it had when tsarist Russia had occupied much of the country. Nationalists were further disillusioned and disarmed as the weakling central government struggled to remain relevant. On the more positive side, the Bolshevik invasion of the north provided a justification for Iran to be accepted into the League of Nations. Soon after, by March 1920, to counter growing British influence, the Iranian government reached out to Moscow in the hope of stabilizing the situation in the north.


The Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 was a clear indication of how Iran was about to be shepherded into a semiprotectorate status. This was in contrast to the buffer status that had defined its geopolitics for more than a century. The controversial agreement was the brainchild of two men and their evolving visions for the British imperial presence in the region: George Curzon, then the British acting foreign secretary and a longtime observer of Iranian affairs, and Percy Cox, then the British envoy in Tehran and, as it turned out, one of the most influential players in the shaping of the Arab Middle East. Earlier in his career Curzon visited Iran, in 1891, as the Times of London’s special correspondent, and produced the voluminous Persia and the Persian Question—an overview of everything Iranian, with unmistakably imperial overtones. He viewed Iran’s material development under the benevolent aegis of the British as key for securing long-term British interests. Cox, educated in colonial India, shared with his superior the view that the agreement would grant Iran an undeclared British protectorate status under the guise of financial and military cooperation.

On the surface, the 1919 agreement indeed promised in benign terms collaboration between the two sovereign states. Britain consented to provide Iran with financial, technical, and military assistance in exchange for Iran’s exclusive reliance on Britain for such matters as defense and foreign advisers. The preamble to the agreement reaffirmed the “ties of friendship” between the two countries and promoted “progress and prosperity” of Persia, while article 1 reiterated “in the most categorical manner . . . the independence and integrity of Persia.” Other articles stipulated the appointment of British financial and military advisers at Iran’s expense, promised a long-term British loan to finance military and economic development for which government revenues and customs were sought as security. The agreement also recognized the need for growth in trade and for development projects such as the railway. A supplementary loan agreement set the amount of the loan at £2,000,000 ($9,580,000), with 7 percent interest, and subordinated it to the servicing of an earlier loan due to be paid to Britain.2

Yet below the veneer of diplomatic platitude lurked an agenda. The British motives for entering into the 1919 agreement sprang primarily from Curzon’s desire to create a chain of mandatory states and protectorates to guarantee a secure overland connection throughout the empire. He had long argued that only through active engagement in the Iranian economy, and with the control of its government apparatus and reconstruction of its army, could Britain expect a secure and stable Iran. The arrangement served not only as a bulwark against the threat of Bolshevism but also as a sure way to include Iran, a vital but weak link, in a pax britannica that stretched from India and the Persian Gulf to Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt. The grand strategy that Curzon prescribed appealed to like-minded politicians such as Winston Churchill, who in 1919, as secretary of state for war, underscored the importance of the security of the Iranian oil fields to British postwar supremacy.

From the perspective of Iranian statesmen, most notably the premier Hasan Vosuq al-Dowleh (1868–1951) and chief members of his cabinet, the agreement carried the promise of saving Iran from domestic disarray and Bolshevik threat. The agreement, moreover, provided the state with much-needed funds and technical expertise. By the second decade of the twentieth century, it appeared to Iranian statesmen, such as Vosuq al-Dowleh, that with the collapse of imperial Russia, Iran’s role as a buffer state had come to an end and that its sovereignty and territorial integrity could be guaranteed only through the backing of British Empire, the winner of the war and the new master of the Middle East. In an exchange of letters between Cox and Vosuq al-Dowleh, Britain reassured Iran of its support for war reparations in the Paris Peace Conference and favorable renegotiation of all Anglo-Persian treaties.

Yet behind the seemingly benign terms of the agreement, most Iranians detected the ghost of British hegemony. If any proof was needed, it was furnished, after the collapse of Vosuq al-Dowleh’s government in June 1920, in large monetary gifts paid by Cox to the premier and two of his chief ministers to lubricate the ratification of the agreement. The rumor-ridden political circles of Tehran opposed the agreement, and the nationalist press, with few exceptions, portrayed it as compromising Iran’s sovereignty. In this regard, the efforts of Vosuq al-Dowleh to present the agreement as the best Iran could afford under the circumstances did not succeed. A capable and cultured statesman of great erudition, who once served as the speaker of the first Majles, Vosuq hoped to leverage the agreement to bring political stability and economic reform.

Vosuq al-Dowleh, and his energetic foreign minister Firuz Mirza Nosrat al-Dowleh, were unfairly labeled in nationalist circles as traitors to the Iranian cause. Almost unanimous opposition to the agreement—which had yet to be ratified by the then suspended Majles—expressed by the burgeoning, though often naively sentimental, press. After a decade of national struggle, compliance with the spirit of the 1919 agreement discredited the Qajar nobility and its associated bureaucratic elite in the eyes of the urban intelligentsia.

Iranian public opinion was further buoyed by international condemnation of the British desire to unceremoniously devour Iran as yet another client state. The Woodrow Wilson administration in particular was incensed by the disingenuous methods the British employed in the Paris Peace Conference to keep Iran from presenting its grievances, even though it is quite possible that earlier the United States had condoned the agreement. In contrast to the Egyptian Wafd Party, whose presence at the conference highlighted the Egyptian nationalist struggle for independence, the Iranian delegation was barred from even bringing to the table its demands for mere recognition, let alone compensation, of the foreign occupation and economic and human losses that Iran had sustained during the war.

The British delegation, overruling the Americans, argued that the Iranian case could not be heard in the conference since Iran was not a party to the war and thus did not have a place in the postwar settlement. Informally, Curzon assured the American and French delegations that Britain respected Iran’s sovereignty and would help rectify its grievances. With the prospects of Britain as the mandatory power in Palestine and Iraq, the implementation of both to be presided over by Percy Cox, such assurances about Iran appeared highly suspicious. The 1919 agreement was thus seen by Wilson administration as a backdoor method to greater British colonial expansion. The French had their own ax to grind. They were evidently unhappy with the 1919 agreement because the implementation of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement had left Palestine out of the French Syrian mandate and under British control.

Domestic and international uproar cast a shadow over the ratification of the Anglo-Persian Agreement, although this did not stop its advocates from trying to implement some of its terms. The Vosuq al-Dowleh government began employing British civilian and military advisers, who practically were to run government ministries, reform the country’s finances, and try to realize the long-standing aspirations for a uniform Iranian army. With British financial backing—essentially resuming the monetary payments negotiated during the war—the Iranian government managed to score a few successes, primarily in quelling unrest in the provinces. The persistent Jangal rebellion, sustained heavy blows from the joint operations of the Iranian regular army and the Iranian Cossack and Gendarme regiments. Since the end of the war, they had both enjoyed the logistical backing of British forces. In Kashan, too, the highly disruptive Na’eb Hosain, a bandit whose raids terrorized the entire region, was captured and hanged. Most of his men were disbanded as well.

Yet the possibility of Bolshevik advances toward Tehran, however remote, never dissipated. Nor were the Iranian nationalists or the young Ahmad Shah ever convinced of British sincerity. In a rare display of courage in his otherwise unhappy career as the last Qajar monarch, Ahmad Shah showed evident signs of dismay over the conclusion of the agreement during his official visit to Britain in September 1919. It is likely, however, that his hesitation was motivated by his exclusion from receiving a share of the British commission for the conclusion of the agreement surreptitiously paid to his minsters. Having lost backing from Britain, in June 1920, the Vosuq al-Dowleh government was dismissed by the shah. With domestic and international pressure, the chances of the agreement ever being ratified by the prospective fourth Majles had faded. By early 1920, it became evident even to Curzon, and his critics in the British parliament, that the Anglo-Persian Agreement was essentially dead. In Iran no one celebrated the demise of the agreement, not even the vociferous nationalist press. Most people recognized that as long as Britain maintained a military presence, held sway over the political elite, and controlled the southern oil fields, it was unlikely to give up its interests in Iran.


If one individual can characterize all the hopes and despair of nonelite Iranians of the postwar period, that individual most likely is Mirza Kuchak Khan (1880–1921). Likewise, if one movement epitomizes the tragic ideological drifting and factional conflicts of postconstitutional Iran, that movement is the Jangal movement. Together Kuchak Khan and his Jangal resistance would become part of the martyr narrative that permeates Iran’s mythical memory and marks its historical landscape.

Born to a family of petty landowners in the provincial capital of Rasht, Kuchak Khan was a student in the local seminary when he first heard and was moved by the message of the Constitutional Revolution. Following flocks of Iranians to the oil rich-city of Baku and later to the Georgian capital of Tiflis, he was exposed to the revolutionary trends among the Azarbaijanis and Armenians in the Caucasus, and to the émigré merchants, home-brewed revolutionaries, and drifters. On his return to Iran, he joined the Gilan constitutionalists during the civil war of 1908–1909, but in Tehran the euphoria of the 1909 victory quickly gave way to disillusionment as Kuchak Khan witnessed the return to power of the old elites joined by wealthy provincial landowners.

By the time he volunteered in July 1911 to fight against the deposed Mohammad ‘Ali Shah in the battle of Gomish Tappeh north of Astarabad, where he was wounded and captured by Russians, he seemed to have lost hope in the success of the parliamentary process. Upon his release from detention, distraught and penniless, he returned to Rasht, where his anti-Russian activities forced him into hiding from the Russian occupying force. A devout and austere Muslim, at the outset of the Great War he seems to have been sufficiently enamored of the message of pan-Islamism, which at the time was heavily promoted by the Young Turks regime, to contact the Ottoman and German legations in Tehran. He entertained the idea of organizing a partisan war in the thick forests of his homeland in the province of Gilan.

With little logistical support and even less local backing, Kuchak and a handful of like-minded local supporters managed to mobilize a small guerilla force. By 1914 they had consolidated in and around the village of Pasikhan near Rasht, the birthplace of the fourteenth-century founder of the Noqtavi movement (see map 7.2). Soon after he was joined by local peasants, artisans, shopkeepers, and petty landowners, but also by journalists, intellectuals, and former revolutionaries. Handsome, charismatic, and witty, yet also easily irritable and fatalistic, the thirty-three-year-old Kuchak Khan founded what is perhaps the twentieth century’s first guerilla movement, with its revolutionary ideology and a semblance of partisan organization (fig. 7.6).

He may also be considered a crucial link between romantic nationalism with a socialist flavor and new interpretations of Islam as an anti-imperialist force. He was dressed in an iconic local outfit of the Galesh peasant of Gilan: a round felt cap, coarse leather shoes, and the thick sleeveless felt jacket worn by the shepherds of the Fuman region. With wild, uncut hair and a massive black beard, the sight of Kuchak and the Jangali fighters was utterly and deliberately divorced from the urbane world from which most of their leaders had come. Posing proudly for cameras, often with their rifles held diagonally across their chest and with bulky rounds of ammunition strapped to their torso, they embodied patriotism and a love affair with firearms. Towering high over his disciples, Kuchak Khan loomed as a prophet in the wilderness, defying occupation and corrupt authorities and seeking to make right all the wrongs his nation had sustained. That he chose a forest (jangal) to launch a partisan war may in part be because of his familiarity with his native terrain but also because of the symbolism that the forest invoked as the birthplace of a salvation movement.

Figure 7.6. Kuchak Khan (center) meets with Bolshevik emissaries in Anzali, c. 1919. Present were his Caucasian, Iranian, and German supporters and Kuchak Khan’s Kurdish allies.

Ibrahim Fakhra’i, Sardar-e Jangal (Tehran, 1376/1997), 242.

Before 1917 the small band of Jangalis was little more than a nuisance to the Russian occupiers and the provincial authorities who collaborated with them. They occasionally ambushed Russian troops, looted their arsenals, and extorted revolutionary levies from local landowners and merchants under the pretext of protecting peasants against their oppressive landlords. In collaboration with the Committee for Islamic Unity in Rasht, itself motivated by the Young Turks Pan-Islamist propaganda, Kuchak Khan organized a Jangal committee of local dignitaries from the towns and villages of Gilan to expand his grassroots network beyond his base in the forests of Fuman. He even published a newspaper, Jangal, as an organ of the movement and issued a stamp.

Government and military attempts to defeat the Jangalis failed, even with Russian help. Repeated emissaries sent to negotiate a peaceful surrender bore little result. Nor, though, did the Jangalis achieve a breakthrough in its first objective to control Gilan and therefrom to launch a liberation movement and capture the capital. Several skirmishes with the Iranian and Russian detachments resulted in casualties on both sides, but there was no strategic or popular victory on either side. In mid-1917 it seemed as though the Jangal movement had been contained to the level of a native rebellion. It had lost much of its steam and stood little chance of ever coming out of the woods.

The Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent withdrawal of Russian troops from Gilan, however, helped transform the Jangal movement. The October Revolution, as it turned out, also hastened the collapse of the Jangal resistance. By 1918, the demise of the Young Turks had resulted in the loss of logistical support for the Jangalis. The withdrawal of Turkish officers, who provided military support to the movement, also prompted an ideological shift. Kuchak Khan and his followers deemphasized pan-Islamism and instead highlighted revolutionary socialism. They nonetheless strived to remain loyal to their anti-imperialist ideals while preserving their Islamic identity. With Bolshevism in the air so close to the Jangal base, a greater tilt toward socialism in the movement seemed unavoidable. British military advances toward Gilan, as well as government troops and the prospect of implementing the 1919 agreement, served as other incentives.

With the collapse of the White Russian resistance under General Anton Denikin along the Caspian coast, the Russian fleet that had taken shelter in the port of Anzali fell to the Bolsheviks (see map 7.2). Declaring their support for the Jangalis, the Bolsheviks and their supporters from the Caucasus soon took the initiative away from Kuchak Khan. Backed by the Red Army, they aimed to use the Jangal movement as a springboard to incite a socialist revolution on the Russian model. Most important among the newcomers from the socialist Adalat Party of Baku was Ehsanollah Khan, an Iranian, French-educated native of Azarbaijan who came from a Baha’i background. He was previously an active member of a revolutionary cell in Tehran known as Komiteh-e Mojazat (the punishment committee) that plotted the assassination of a number of government employees and conservative clergy. As much as Kuchak was a nationalist with Islamic sentiments, Ehsanollah and his band were unabashed secularists with a Marxist program. Relying on Bolshevik support in June 1920, Ehsanollah and his supporters declared the short-lived Soviet Socialist Republic of Iran, better known as Gilan Socialist Republic, with Ehsanollah himself the first president. Kuchak Khan was left with no choice but to give his consent. He was bestowed with the largely ceremonious title of president of the Council of People’s Commissars.

Backed by a Bolshevik commissar and an assortment of Russian partisans and other revolutionaries anxious to establish a socialist regime in Iran, the Jangalis managed to capture Rasht in June 1920. They not only defeated the local gendarme detachment but pushed back British troops to Manjil, forty-five miles south of Rasht on the way to Tehran. The assault inflicted great damage on the mercantile community of the city, destroyed the bazaar, and resulted in the Bolsheviks’ looting of merchandise. The affluent merchants and landowners were terrorized and their properties confiscated. Although Kuchak Khan left Rasht in protest, the socialist wing of the Jangal movement hailed the capture of the provincial capital as a great victory and the first step toward installing of a Soviet-style republic.

Labeled by Tehran as “intruders” (motejaserin), the Bolsheviks and their Jangali allies were declared a national threat, especially after having quashed the Iranian Cossack regiment that Tehran had dispatched from Qazvin to counter their advances (see map 7.2). Among the Cossack officers taking part in the operation was Reza Khan who would later remind his officers and troops of the humiliating defeat as the lowest point of his military career and single it out as a motive for the February 1921 coup. Moreover, the poorly equipped and starving Cossack regiment was not helped by friendly fire from the British Royal Air Force, which mistakenly bombed the central government’s positions in the thick of the Caspian forest.

These advances put the Jangal movement on Iran’s political map as a revolutionary counterpoint to the weakling Tehran establishment and the doomed 1919 agreement. The chances of the Jangal-Bolshevik forces breaking through British defense lines in Qazvin and marching on Tehran caused great anxiety. Surprisingly, despite visible signs of a rift, the Tehran government proved incapable of exploiting the ideological divisions within the Jangal movement. In July, subject to an internal coup, the marginalized Kuchak Khan found himself at an unwelcome impasse. Retreating to the forest, he was unable to stop the movement’s bent toward revolutionary socialism or enter into a reliable alliance with the rejuvenated Democrats in Tehran.


The bleakness of the Iranian situation went beyond occupation, political disarray, banditry, troop movements, skirmishes, and domestic strife. Even more, human and material losses came to haunt the people of Iran. By the close of the Great War, a famine ravaged Iran, claiming a vast number of lives. It was primarily a result of successive droughts, which in turn caused repeated crop failures and disruptions to the agricultural cycle. Excessive production of cash crops at the expense of foodstuffs also contributed to shortages, and a lack of efficient road and communication networks barred the transport of relief to remote towns and villages. Not since 1869–1871 had Iran experienced such widespread starvation, and in some instances towns and villages in the central provinces experienced massive depopulation. Along with Armenia, greater Syria and Greece, the Iranian plight drew Western public attention, especially in the United States, and encouraged charity collections and an organized relief operation (fig. 7.7).

The casualties from the famine were further exacerbated by an outbreak of cholera, endemic to the region, and the more deadly Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–1919, whose virulent worldwide spread was facilitated by troop movements. Unlike in Europe and the United States, where the spread of influenza was partially checked by preventive measures, in Iran there was next to no prevention or even recognition of the disease known as “European common cold” (zokam-e farangi). The casualties from influenza are difficult to assess, but a conservative estimate of loss of life in Iran due to famine and disease exceeded one million. This was an enormous loss for a country with a total population of no more than nine million, that did not field a single soldier in the war, and was not allowed to bring its grievances to the table after the war.

Figure 7.7. Famine in the Near East and Persia motivated the American Committee for Relief in the Near East, the oldest US nonreligious relief organization, to set an ambitious fund-raising goal.

Poster designed by W. T. Benda, 1918.

Foreign occupation no doubt also intensified the Iranian famine. Large consignments of grain and foodstuffs were both purchased and confiscated by Russian and British armies for consumption by their troops. The starving population in the countryside had no choice but to move to towns and cites in search of food. The growing population in urban centers not only overwhelmed the miniscule relief operations but also increased the spread of disease (fig. 7.8). Some popular historians claim that the famine was a result of deliberate and sinister starvation policies of the British, but such claims are not substantiated.

Figure 7.8. Poorhouse in Shiraz in 1918 established by the governor of Fars province, ‘Abd al-Hosain Mirza Farmanfarma. The famine-stricken in this picture exemplify the widespread starvation throughout the country at the time.

F. Chehrehnegar, M. Sane‘, Paydayesh ‘Akkasi dar Shiraz (Tehran, 1369/1990), 116.

For those Iranians who survived, the future was no more promising. Worldwide inflation at the end of the war sharply raised the prices of imports, and the export of traditional commodities declined. War increased Iran’s dependency on European markets at a time when the economy of its major partner, Russia, had come to a complete standstill because of the revolution there. The German economy was in recession, and Ottoman markets were depressed because of the defeat in the Great War and the ensuing civil war. Britain remained the only viable partner, and trade thrived along the newly revived Basra-Kermanshah-Hamadan route. Yet even the British economy was in the grips of hyperinflation, with a labor revolt both at home and in British India. As a result, Iranian export commodities such as wool, carpets, cotton, tobacco, and opium became less marketable.

The Iranian countryside was more volatile than it had been since perhaps the eighteenth century, largely because of the volume of firearms dispersed by German and British agents during the war among the Qashqa’i, the Bakhtiyari, the Lurs, the Kurds and the tribes of the southern Fars or looted after 1917 from Russian armories. The effects of gunrunning and increased tribal unrest were twofold: they reduced the economic productivity of nomadic regions and made the trade routes through those regions insecure. Aside from tribal rebellions, by the close of the Great War there were at least fifteen groups of bandits wreaking havoc in smaller cities and ravaging the countryside. No doubt the war economy did create its own profiteers, smugglers, and suppliers of provisions to the occupying armies. This class of traders and merchants gradually came to compete with, though not supplant, established merchants in large cities.

Throughout the 1910s, political unrest and economic downturn weakened the enterprising spirit of the mercantile bourgeoisie that had emerged from the Constitutional Revolution. Enthusiasm sapped for new industrial initiatives such as cotton mills, textile factories, sugar refineries, and banking establishments. By the end of the war, the merchant class that a decade earlier had acted as the engine behind the revolution in Tabriz, Baku, Isfahan, Kerman, and Tehran had run out of steam. Even in the province of Gilan, where the merchants of Rasht and Anzali first collaborated with Kuchak Khan in hopes of maintaining a semblance of stability, soon came to be terrorized by the excesses of Jangal radicals. The pro-Bolshevik faction of the Jangal movement adapted a hostile attitude toward large landowners and merchants of the province. Their Russian Bolshevik counterparts had already ruined the affluent merchant community of Baku across the Caspian, a community once supportive of the Iranian constitutionalists.

On a broader scale, starvation and abject poverty became familiar features of the Iranian landscape. Memoirs, reports, and photographs from the end of the war reveal multitudes of beggars in rags; malnourished children clinging to their parents searching for food; day laborers with sunken eyes weakly searching through the rubble; and crowds of angry women gathering in front of government offices to protest food shortages, the deteriorating quality of bread, and swindlers. The sight of strangers dying of hunger or disease on street corners was not uncommon. Even more common were starving people hunting stray dogs and cats, and rats in basements and water holes. Rumors of young children being snatched and eaten circulated with the same rapidity as reports of the Bolsheviks breaching Tehran’s walls.

For the Iranians, it was as if the entire world around them were crumbling. Looking beyond their borders, they saw how the neighboring Ottoman Empire, in its death throes, had birthed competing nationalist entities. That Arab nationalist regimes were first nursed by European powers and then exploited by them under the guise of the “mandate” regimes, so as to advance the British and the French colonial ambitions, was a fact not entirely missed by the Iranian intelligentsia. The Russian Empire was no more, and there was no imperial Germany to counter the unnerving pressures of the British Empire. Britain appeared to be the victorious party throughout Palestine, Mesopotamia, and the Persian Gulf, and even in the newly emerging Wahhabi-dominated central Arabia. For Iranians with historical ties to the Shi‘i lands of southern Mesopotamia, the 1920 Shi‘i revolt against British occupation aroused much sympathy if for no other reason than the fact that the revolt included in its leadership several activist Iranian ulama. By October 1920 the British crushed the revolt, a disheartening message especially for a sector of the Iranian population in contact with the large community of mojaverin (those who took residence in the Shi‘i shrine cities of Iraq) or followed the marja‘s in Najaf. Shortly after the creation of Mandatory Iraq, assigned to Britain by the League of Nations in 1921, was an even more striking development: the Mandate almost instantaneously patched together a new country from three heterogeneous and ethnically and religiously diverse provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire. The emergence of the Republic of Turkey from the ruins of the Young Turks’ military adventures, in contrast, was a success story for neighboring countries. The carving up of the Ottoman lands nevertheless generated more despair and resentment than optimism in the Iranian press (fig. 7.9).


On the surface it seemed that sheer luck had saved Iran from being broken up or otherwise subordinated to a British regional scheme. Yet a complex set of political and cultural factors made possible the coup of February 1921 and the subsequent rise of Reza Khan. There were as many rumors about an imminent takeover of the capital and partition of Iran into a Bolshevik north and a British south as there were yearnings in nationalist circles for the rise of a leader who could offer a viable alternative to the bleak state of affairs.

Figure 7.9. “A spectacle of a country of donkey-camel-cow-leopard, and its moral standing among its neighbors.” This curious drawing of unknown origin seems to be a satirical commentary on post–World War I Iran. A mullah carrying the club of excommunication in one hand and a book of superstition in the other rides the animal that is Iran. He is led by colonial Britain, whose feet are India and Egypt, and whose arms are the Hashimite Amir Faisal and British agents in Iran. The nosebag is the Imperial Bank of Persia, tied to the mullah’s annuity via the government and Majles. The hammer and sickle threaten the commerce and politics of the country, and the press dangles like a cowbell. Political parties are its testicles. The angels of honor and Islamic civilization are kicked out while the angel of nationhood has fallen under the creature’s hoof.

Iranian contemporary postcard, Tehran, c. 1919. Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, Photo Gallery.

The coup of 1921 would prove this point, though with a curious twist. The process that brought to power Sayyed Zia al-Din Tabataba’i, with Reza Khan as the military leader of the new regime, was an alternative to the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement—a backdoor solution to the troubling political impasse that Iran faced at that time. The solution was brewed at least in part by British diplomats and senior army officers and manned by ambitious Iranian upstarts. The astute British minister in Tehran, Herman Norman, sensed the futility in adhering to the disempowered Qajar elite while in the wake of postwar demobilization there was an urgent call to evacuate the British troops stationed in Iran. With socialist aspirations on the rise, Democrats returning to the Tehran political stage, and the threat of the Gilan Socialist Republic on the horizon, it stood to reason that the British minister search for an alternative ally. An Anglophile distant from the Qajar elite who could resonate with larger sectors of the Iranian public and at the same time appear sufficiently distant from the British.

Sayyed Zia al-Din Tabataba’i (1888–1969), a young fiery political activist known for his pro-British sentiments, was about the only Iranian journalist who consistently advocated the ratification of the 1919 agreement and its benefits for Iran in his newspaper Ra‘d (“thunder”). Contrary to the maligned image of him as a British proxy in later Iranian historiography, Sayyed Zia may well have proposed the idea of the coup to the British legation in Tehran rather than being a mere catalyst for the coup. A madrasa novice-turned-journalist with a dramatic style and sensational rhetoric, Sayyed Zia was a product of the post-constitutional era. Though still in clerical garb, he epitomized a new breed of political activists at a time when religious training was no longer valued and the dent in clerical prestige was substantial.

Known for his sensational attacks on the old Tehran political guard, he allegedly used his newspaper as an extortion tool. Initially mentored by the premier Vosuq al-Dowleh to counter criticism of the 1919 agreement and raise the alarm of the threat of Bolshevism, he was dispatched in 1919 to Baku to sign a friendship treaty with the anti-Bolshevik nationalist regime, in the illusive hopes of forging a new confederation between Iran and Azerbaijan. The mission was aborted over disagreement with the premier on the terms of the treaty. After the collapse of Vosuq’s government, Sayyed Zia remained in contact with the British legation. With the change in the political climate and the surge in antielite propaganda in the Persian press, Sayyed Zia became a more viable choice to head the semiclandestine Iron Committee, a quasi-revolutionary party financed by the British legation to foster popular anti-Bolshevik sentiments.

In December 1920, the political impasse reached a point of crisis. After the resignation of Moshir al-Dowleh (1872–1935), a respected statesman with a far-reaching program of reform who headed a short-lived coalition, no one among the Tehran statesmen seemed to be capable of forming a government or even volunteering to undertake such a task. Fath ‘Ali Khan Sepahdar Rashti (1878–1947), a large landowner from Gilan with no political talent to speak of, also gave up, after twice tinkering with creating a cabinet. The fourth Majles, which was elected in the long shadow of the 1919 agreement, was incapable of even convening its inaugural session, lest it face the prospect of ratifying the hated agreement. The Bolshevik-Jangali threat loomed large in Gilan and in the provinces of Azarbaijan and Khorasan new revolts were in gestation. The south was almost in the hands of the Qashqa’is, and most of the other tribal powers of greater Fars, Isfahan, and Luristan were restive.

The “constitutional monarch,” Ahmad Shah, was a timid procrastinator who regarded his constitutionality as one of cynical nonaction. He was genuinely frightened by the prospect of British military withdrawal from Iran and baffled by the consequences of such an event for the survival of his throne. Major figures of the constitutional era, on the other hand, were invariably disillusioned and divided. Some lost credibility or went into exile; others were retired from politics or killed in action. The most distinguished among the exiles, Hasan Taqizadeh, the ranking member of the first Majles, had resided in Berlin since 1915. He was invited there by the German government to organize a resistance circle of Iranian nationalists, intellectuals, and activists to be dispatched back to Iran as agent provocateurs. Taking advantage of the occasion, together with a group of talented writers and intellectuals, he founded the influential periodical Kaveh. By 1920, the Berlin circle was nearly at its end, but Taqizadeh was still uncertain of a political prospect in Tehran. Closely identified with the vanquished party in the war, he lingered there.

It was in such a climate that the British envoy Norman endorsed Sayyed Zia’s plan to stage a coup and subsequently form a national government. He did so perhaps without the Foreign Office’s prior knowledge and full support. By the last months of 1920, more than two years after World War I ended, the British forces stationed in northern Iran were ready to leave. With Mandatory commitments in Iraq and Palestine straining British finances, the budget for the upkeep of British forces faced serious opposition in the House of Commons. These considerations made any plan for a successful coup dependent on a viable military partner that could stand as a substitute for the departing British forces. The search for such an alternative had preoccupied for some time the British command in Qazvin, the headquarters of the Norperforce (see map 7.2). Major General Edmund Ironside (1880–1959), the commander of the Norperforce, his second-in-command Lieutenant Colonel Henry Smyth, and a few other middle-ranking officers were saddled with the task of reorganizing the Cossack Brigade, which they ultimately hoped to incorporate into a uniform Iranian army—an objective of the 1919 agreement.

After 1917, the Cossack Brigade, deprived of moral and material support from imperial Russia, found itself underbudgeted, poorly equipped, demoralized, and devoid of a strong command; it was a shadow of what it had been only a few years earlier. Defeated by the Jangal forces and their Bolshevik allies in Gilan, it became clear that Russian senior officers, even if unsympathetic to the Bolsheviks, could no longer reliably command the entirely Iranian rank and file, given the Russian officers’ deep hostility toward the British and their Iranian supporters. Ironside was anxious to find a capable Iranian senior officer with combat experience and anti-Bolshevik credentials to lead the force.

Colonel Reza Khan, recommended by another Iranian senior Cossack officer, seemed to be the desirable person to match such a job description. Tall, dark, broad shouldered and charismatic, with piercing eyes, Reza Khan’s rugged military demeanor and management skills, as it turned out, were ideal for the task. As a Cossack officer he had demonstrated leadership and savvy but also severity and ruthlessness, qualities that had allowed him to rise through the Cossack ranks from his humble beginnings as a stableboy at the age of fifteen to senior officer in the Hamadan Cossack regiment at the age of forty-three.

Born around 1877 to a soldiering family from the Palani clan in the remote village of Alasht in the mountainous Savadkuh district of the Caspian province of Mazandaran, Reza Khan’s father and grandfather had served in the Qajar army. His mother was the daughter of a Muslim émigré (mohajer) from Iravan who had settled in Tehran after the population exchange at the conclusion of the Russo-Persian War of 1826–1828. Reza’s father died while he was still an infant, so his destitute mother took her son to Tehran, where she lived with her brothers, one of them a soldier in the newly established Cossack Division. Reza had lost his mother at the age of six, and his childhood and early youth were filled with forlorn neglect and virtually no education.

The first available record of Reza Khan’s service dates to 1911, when as a petty officer he fought in the northwest against the counterrevolutionary prince Salar al-Dowleh. By 1918, when the Cossack Brigade, now renamed Cossack Division, repelled the Na’ebi rebellion in Kashan, Reza was promoted to the rank of colonel. Involved in the inner politics of the Cossack Division, he took an active part in the removal of a commanding Russian officer because of his alleged Bolshevik proclivities. As he sensed an opportunity for power, he further gravitated toward the British officers in their headquarters at Qazvin. With the changing political climate, which put the British officers in control of all resources, promotions, and the very existence of the Cossack Division, it is difficult to imagine how a shrewd and ambitious officer like Reza Khan could have done otherwise.

It is also hard to believe that Reza Khan’s involvement in the coup in the making could have been organized without at least tacit British knowledge. Without subscribing to the wild speculations common at the time, or the later hypotheses that the British hatched the coup, reliable evidence points to some British effort to facilitate collaboration between the civilian wing of the coup and its military counterpart. The Cossack force of about four thousand under Reza Khan’s command was partially reequipped and financed in Qazvin by officers of the Norperforce. They may even have encouraged Reza Khan to march on the capital to block perceived Bolshevik advances. However, it was only in the vicinity of Tehran that Reza Khan came to know Sayyed Zia. Even at this stage, the latter did not have a clear idea of the practicalities and logistics of the coup. Yet if Colonel Reza Khan had collaborated with British officers, or was even handpicked by them, he was by no means their poppet or even willing to succumb to their wishes.


The Cossack regiment, which arrived at Tehran walls three days earlier, entered the capital on February 21, 1921, without resistance (see map 7.2). The ranking Iranian Gendarme officers were willing participants, and the Tehran police force, led by a Swedish chief, immediately surrendered. The Cossack troops were stationed in Maydan-e Mashq (Drill Square), and in the early morning hours of the same day, they began to round up high-ranking Qajar statesmen and notables. Soon, similar arrests were followed in the provinces. By the end of Sayyed Zia’s government some three months later, nearly five hundred officials were in government custody.

The detentions and house arrests, a joint initiative of Sayyed Zia and Reza Khan, were meant to emphasize the revolutionary character of the coup, presumably to counter the socialist propaganda of the Jangalis, but also to scare the ruling elite and perhaps even extort from them the assets they were accused of amassing through corruption and nepotism. All telegraph, telephone, and road communications with the provinces were temporarily cut off, and key government offices taken over. Three days later, the vexed Ahmad Shah, sufficiently intimidated by the coup organizers and persuaded by the British minister as well as by his own advisers and courtiers, issued a decree appointing Sayyed Zia prime minister with full authority. His appointment registered a significant shift, for it was the first made from outside the circles of the Qajar elite, anticipating a new era of middle-class politics.

In Reza Khan’s second communiqué two days later, possibly penned by Sayyed Zia, Reza Khan assumed the title of commander in chief of the armed forces. There he made it abundantly clear that he entertained ambitions beyond mere leadership of the Cossack Division. The tone was indignant, underscoring the Cossack forces’ suffering and highlighting the troops’ wounded honor and depravity, but there was nothing that amounted to a program of reform, just an early taste of an autocrat in the making. The reform program came through, however, in Sayyed Zia’s first communiqué, on February 26. It was a manifesto of sorts, aiming to justify the coup as a last resort to save the country from corrupt and inept statesmen who for the previous fifteen years had betrayed the Constitutional Revolution and the sacrifices made by the people. Yet it made no reference to the fourth Majles, which at the time was yet to be convened.

Instead, Sayyed Zia called for the downfall of the landowning and aristocratic elite who long sapped the nation of its riches. “Destiny called on me,” he declared, to save the country and the monarchy from these predators by relying on the loyal armed forces to shoulder his sacred duty and end misery and insecurity. The communiqué further called for measures to stop corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency, to promote reliance on domestic income in order to improve national security and the standard of living of working people, and to overhaul the dysfunctional judiciary. He also highlighted the need for greater social justice through land reform and distribution to the peasants the crown and state lands, and called for an end to the chaos in the government’s finances. He further called for the promotion of a spirit of patriotism and national pride, and promised modern schools for children of all classes, growth of trade and industry, a campaign against high inflation and racketeering, a better communication network, urban amenities and the beautification of the capital.

On the sensitive question of foreign policy, Sayyed Zia promised peace and coexistence with all neighbors but called for an end to the capitulatory rights of the so-called most favored nations—the discriminatory extraterritorial privileges extended to foreign subjects as early as the 1828 Treaty of Torkmanchay. Shortly thereafter, in another statement, he renounced the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement, although for all intents and purposes it was already dead. Praise for British assistance in Iran over the past century, as well as for the Iranians’ loyalty toward Britain, were other predictable features of the communiqué, as was Zia’s hope that revoking the 1919 Agreement would remedy the misunderstanding between the two nations.

With minor variations, Sayyed Zia’s program following a course already set out by the governments of Vosuq al-Dowleh and later Moshir al-Dowleh, and it served as a blueprint for the forthcoming Pahlavi reforms. As an important counterbalance, the new regime also announced the conclusion of a friendship treaty with the newly established Soviet Union. Although in 1918 Iran was among the first countries to recognize the Bolshevik regime, the signing of the treaty in Moscow actually took place on February 26, 1921, five days after the coup in Tehran. As early as 1919, Vosuq al-Dowleh and his successors in office—and the insightful foreign minister ‘Ali-Qoli Ansari Moshaver al-Mamalek, who had negotiated the treaty—realized the value of normalizing relations with the Soviets. Like the abrogation of the 1919 agreement, the signing of the 1921 agreement with the Soviet Union further vindicated a return to Iran’s traditional “buffer” position.

The twenty-six-article treaty, which remained in effect until the early days of the Islamic Republic, reaffirmed the Soviets’ renunciation of Russian imperial concessions, economic interests, and unpaid loans. It recognized Iran’s full sovereignty, called for nonintervention in internal affairs, recognized existing boundaries, and called for resolving border disputes through negotiation. In return, the treaty stipulated a unique concession to Soviet Union: the right to intervene militarily in Iran in the case Iran was threatened by a third party, in effect reaffirming the conduct of tsarist Russia since 1909. In a reference to Britain and its anti-Bolshevik policy, article 6 stipulated the following:

If a third party should attempt to carry out a policy of usurpation by means of armed intervention in Persia, or if such power should desire to use Persian territory as a base of operation against Russia, . . . and if the Persian Government should not be able to put a stop to such menace . . . Russia shall have the right to advance her troops into the Persian interior for the purpose of carrying out the military operation necessary for its defiance.3

Moscow’s further clarification in December 1921 defining the contingencies for any military intervention and confirming the Bolsheviks’ evacuation from Gilan persuaded Iran to ratify the treaty. The initiative demonstrated a certain degree of agency on the Iranian side even at a time of great turmoil and uncertainty. Whether the conclusion of the treaty was also a motivation for British support for the coup is a matter of debate. What is clear, however, and important for future the of Iran, was that by the end of 1920—what we might call Iran’s “Wilsonian moment”—a new equilibrium between the two powers began to emerge that allowed Iran to join the League of Nations and enjoy a period of relative freedom in its foreign affairs.

Sayyed Zia’s critics almost instantaneously labeled his government as “divorcer” (mohallel) and the “black cabinet.” Its hundred-day term, nevertheless, was a major shift, for it relied on a coup by a populist British proxy and a Cossack officer to implement a course very different from Curzon’s vision to incorporate Iran into the British colonial sphere. The move cost Norman his career. The seasoned diplomat who knew Arabic and Turkish and earlier had served in Cairo and Istanbul and then at the Paris Peace Conference grasped the depth of Iranian resentment toward British designs better than his superior. Curzon, who called him back from Tehran after only sixteen months, refused to meet with him and soon after Norman was forced to retired at the age of fifty-two.


If Sayyed Zia’s time would soon come to pass, Reza Khan’s would not. His rise between 1921 and 1925, culminating in his ascent to the throne and the founding of the Pahlavi dynasty, brought to power a new military elite, co-opted some Qajar notables but marginalized the rest, crushed the Jangal movement and other centers of autonomy and secession, bulldozed through a state-sponsored program of secular reforms, and pacified the countryside with ruthless efficiency. It was as if a surgical knife had lanced an infested cyst that had long troubled Iran’s body politic. At the outset, the measures implemented by the new strongman of Iran were welcomed by nationalists and left-leaning Democrats alike, but once the autocratic nature of his regime became more apparent, support began to evaporate. Reza Khan and his close circle showed little hesitation to force into silence these independent political and religious voices as long as they could secure the backing of the growing class of professionals, modernist intellectuals, and even a generation of mullahs who exchanged their clerical garb and turban in exchange for European attire. These new sectors laid the foundation for the secular middle class that would form the backbone of Pahlavi Iran.

Resolute and calculative, Reza Khan—by then known by his new military title, sardar sepah (chief of the army)—proved a quick study and a shrewd maneuverer. Giving the cold shoulder to Sayyed Zia from the start, even though at times they appeared to be in the same camp, within a year he consolidated his hold over the Cossack Division and its officer corps, some of whom were senior to him, and merged it with the Iranian Gendarmerie, the police, and Iran’s regular troops. Two months after the coup, when he assumed the position of minister of war, he was widely recognized as Iran’s savior, and treated accordingly. Reza Khan was a figure reminiscent of Nader in 1732, when he elevated himself to the position of Safavid regent. Ahmad Shah was not yet completely ostracized, nor was Reza Khan the absolute master of the political stage, but the grounds were well prepared for the rise of a new autocracy (fig. 7.10).

Sayyed Zia’s political fall happened as fast as his meteoric rise. Once he had aroused enough resentment among the Qajar elite and lost both the confidence of the British and his usefulness to Reza Khan, he was forced into exile in Palestine under British mandate, where he would remain for two decades. Iran’s new master soon realized that collaboration with select members of the Qajar elite and landed aristocracy was more advantageous than working with a rabble-rousing journalist tarnished by his close association with the British. Soon he began to see the merits of having on his side the likes of Ahmad Qavam al-Saltaneh (later Ahmad Qavam, 1873–1955), Vosuq al-Dowleh’s younger brother, Hasan Moshir al-Dowleh and Hasan Mostowfi al-Mamalek, members of the old guard who were popular with the intelligentsia.

Figure 7.10. Ahmad Shah and Reza Khan, c. 1922, while Reza Khan served as minister of war.

Contemporary photograph, Tehran, c. 1922. Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies, Photo Gallery.

The situation on the ground also helped lift Reza Khan’s stature. The withdrawal of the British Norperforce in May 1921 coincided with Bolshevik disengagement from the Jangal movement and the subsequent withdrawal of the Red Army from Gilan. The rapid end to military occupation, three years after the end of the war, in turn created a power vacuum. For one, the British envoy in Tehran and his superiors acknowledged that Britain no longer wielded the kind of military presence that could dictate its wishes to the rising Reza Khan, whom Norman had characterized as a “peasant” upstart. It seemed as though overnight British prestige had suffered a setback.

Yet Reza Khan’s ascendancy was not achieved without serious domestic challenges. A senior Gendarme officer in Khorasan, Colonel Mohammad Taqi Khan, better known as Pesian (1891–1921), staged what eventually turned into a full-scale revolt against Tehran. A Germanophile romantic, Pesian had earlier served as Kermanshah military commander during the provisional government in exile before escaping to Berlin. After his return, as military commander of Khorasan in February 1921, he was instrumental in the arrest of Qavam al-Saltaneh, which brought him the blessing of a handful of Mashhad notables and the loyalty of subordinate gendarme officers. Wary of Reza Khan’s rapid rise, he chose to resist a merger with the Cossack Division and, upon Qavam’s appointment to premiership, the colonel, resentful of a return to elite politics, resisted disarmament. In October 1921 he died in clashes with government forces, and the Khorasan rebellion collapsed soon thereafter.

Throughout mid-1921, Reza Khan and his troops also scored a final victory against the Jangal movement, the greatest challenge to the Tehran government. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the divided Jangal movement rapidly disintegrated. Even mediation by the legendary revolutionary Haydar Khan ‘Amu-Ughlu, could not heal the ideological and personal divisions. After his exile from Iran in 1910, Haydar Khan had spent several years in Europe, including Germany, and during the war years he organized a socialist brigade to fight the Allies alongside the Young Turks in northern Iraq. The Bolshevik revolution boosted Haydar’s morale. Close to Russian revolutionaries and known to Lenin, he was dispatched by the Bolsheviks first to Central Asia to fight against the Russian Whites. In the mid-1920s, during the famous Baku Congress, he won the leadership of the Iranian-dominated Adalat Party that had been initiated in 1916.

In mid-1921, after the coup in Tehran, he moved from Baku to Gilan to mediate between Jangal’s rival factions. Ehsanollah Khan and his fighters from the Caucasus opted to first fight it out against government forces, but under pressure from the newly appointed Soviet representative in Tehran, Theodor Rothstein, who was anxious to normalize relations with the Iranian central government, they later were forced to leave for Baku with the evacuating Bolsheviks. In Ehsanollah’s absence, Haydar Khan saw an opportunity to fill the gap, possibly with Rothstein’s support. He persuaded Kuchak Khan in August 1921 to appoint him as commisar of foreign affairs for the Gilan Soviet Republic. Soon after, however, Kuchak Khan’s supporters assassinated Haydar Khan in October 1921 because of suspicions that he favored Soviet conciliation toward Tehran. From his beginnings as a socialist agitator in 1907 to a mediator in the forests of Gilan, Haydar Khan left behind a legacy of violent radicalism and often futile agitation that has since been glamorized by generations of Iranians on the left. Ehsanollah’s end was no less tragic. He spent the rest of his life in Baku, where he reportedly was arrested in 1937 and killed in one of Stalin’s purges.

Haydar’s fall anticipated the final collapse of the Jangal movement. With Reza Khan himself leading the troops to recapture Rasht, Kuchak Khan retreated back into the forests. Once his war commissar, leader of a Kurdish affiliate of the Jangal movement, surrendered to Reza Khan, Kuchak and a small band of his loyal disciples took to the high mountains of the Khalkhal region west of the Caspian. In October 1921 Kuchak Khan and a German junior officer and friend who had remained loyal to him through the years, died of exposure, perhaps trying to reach Russian Azerbaijan.

The defeat of the Jangal movement signified the end of a socialist anti-imperialist tendency in Iran. Rooted in the Constitutional Revolution, the Jangal movement thrived in its aftermath but lost out to a centralizing state that relied on a superior military aimed to implement a secular state-building project. In January 1922, when another Gendarme officer, Abol-Qasem Lahuti (1887–1957), a socialist revolutionary and poet, rose in the rebellion and briefly captured Tabriz, he was quickly besieged and forced to defect to the Soviet Union. Lahuti’s attempt was fueled by secessionist tendencies in Iranian Azarbaijan. Less than two years earlier, an urban uprising led by a clergyman Mohammad Khiabani (1880–1920), another Azarbaijani nationalist with socialist leanings, had been put down by the governor-general Mahdi-Qoli Khan Hedayat Mokhber al-Saltaneh. Khiabani also died under suspicious circumstances.

Contrary to Azarbaijan’s Iran-centered nationalism throughout the constitutional period, and despite the fact that Azarbaijanis acted as the engine for that revolution, both the Khiabani and Lahuti revolts pointed at an emerging ethnic resentment, which would pan out in a generation during the post–World War II Azarbaijan secessionist crisis. There was no question that Azarbaijan had a distinct ethnolinguistic identity, and the Persian-centric nationalism dictated from Tehran did not go over well with Azarbaijanis or other Turkish-speaking populations, who constituted perhaps a quarter of Iran’s population. Yet one cannot ignore such ideological threads that tied these sentiments to the pan-Turkism of the Young Turks era and later to the Bolshevik-inspired propaganda of Soviet Azerbaijan.

Reza Khan’s military not only curtailed the Jangal movement and wiped out the nationalist-Islamic idealism embedded in it but also crushed nearly all sources of tribal resistance to the centralizing state (map 7.3). There were repeated crackdowns between 1921 and 1931 on the Kurds in the northwest, Boyer Ahmad and other Mamasani tribes of Luristan province, the Shahseven of Azarbaijan, the Qashqa’is of Fars, and the Bakhtiyaris of Isfahan. Employing heavy weaponry as well as air bombardment, the notorious Western Division of the reorganized Iranian army, headed by Reza Khan’s senior officers, pummeled the lightly armed tribal forces.

Soon after victory over Jangal, the Iranian army raided the rebellious chief of the Kurdish Shakak tribe, Isma‘il Aqa Simku (Semitqu), who had long wreaked havoc in western Azarbaijan, looting Christian villages and killing the inhabitants. With the blessing of the retreating Ottoman army, in 1918 Simku massacred several hundred Assyrians and committed other atrocities. He wished to unite into a Kurdish republic the Kurdish tribes on both sides of the Iran-Ottoman border, though he never truly succeed crossing over the line from bandit to political leader. In the summer of 1922, Iranian forces drove Simku across the Ottoman border and captured his fortress in Chehriq in the Salmas region. The pro–Reza Khan press celebrated the defeat of the Shakak as a major victory, although it took another eight years of clashes before Simku would die in skirmishes with the Iranian army.

Map 7.3. Reza Khan Pahlavi and the pacification of Iran, 1921–1929

Insurrections aside, major sources of resistance in tribal regions were against the state’s relentless tax collection and various forms of extortion by army officers. Moreover, the weakening of Iran’s political center, especially since the start of World War I, had encouraged regional autonomy along the periphery, which at times benefited from real or potential economic opportunities. Later on, the state’s policy to make nomadic communities sedentary—profoundly disruptive to the nomadic way of life—triggered revolts. For Tehran, as for any modern centralizing state, nomads were a potential threat, for they constituted a population difficult to control, especially if armed and in command of their terrain.

The amalgamated armed forces, further consolidated by the merger of the South Persian Rifles in September 1921, were reorganized into four divisions, with central command firmly in Reza Khan’s hand. Taking advantage of the prolonged martial law that had been in place since the beginning of the coup, a small group of army officers, perhaps no more than two dozen, became masters of the country, ruling with impunity as military governors over provinces and cities. In their new uniforms—shiny riding boots, rimmed caps, and fancy accoutrements—they instilled in the heart of ordinary Iranians fear and hatred, but also admiration.

For many officers, a violent demeanor and disdain toward the general public were considered natural and necessary. Peasants, nomads, and urbanites had to pay tribute to officers with flattery, cash, and gifts—or else face grave repercussions. Appropriation of land and property, summary executions, cruel public punishments, and severe beatings of civilians and troops were accepted norms of this military culture. A facade of discipline and efficiency held by officers of all ranks was complemented by military pride and loyalty to the new commander in chief. The military became a new moneyed class with an appetite for luxury, leisure, and promiscuity.

The funds for military modernization, recruitment, and campaigns were secured by appropriating indirect taxes and state income from the crown lands. Reza Khan attached both departments to the Ministry of War. Soon, a large chunk of the back payments from the country’s share of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, nearly £1 million (US$5 million), negotiated earlier by Vosuq al-Dowleh, was also appropriated. This shot in the arm made military expenditures the largest item in the budget and a burden for still-ailing state finances. Attempts by statesmen like Mohammad Mosaddeq al-Saltaneh, then minister of finance in Qavam al-Saltaneh’s first cabinet, to negotiate a fair budgetary deal with Reza Khan ended in frustrating deadlocks, and Mosaddeq resigned in protest in January 1922. It was apparent that the Qajar statesmen had lost to the military upstart.


By October 1922, a bread shortage in the capital resulting from the army’s misuse of the state’s wheat monopoly brought the public to Baharestan Square in front of the Majles, which had been in session since July 1921. With women at the forefront protesting the shortages, this act of public discontent ended in a violent showdown with security forces. The opposition newspapers and a handful of deputies of the Majles, notably Hasan Modarres, criticized Reza Khan and his military machine for mishandling the demonstration and misappropriating funds. Gradually, a unified opposition, timid though it appeared at first, began to take shape.

The parliamentary minority was backed outside the Majles by a handful of journalists and intellectuals, middle-ranking clergy in Tehran and elsewhere, a few tribal chiefs, discontented merchants of the bazaar, and elements of the Qajar court and aristocracy buoyed by the prince regent Mohammad Hasan Mirza (1899–1943). After Ahmad Shah departed for Europe—an exile from which he never returned—the shah’s younger brother became the focus of Qajar solidarity. As the prince regent, he symbolized the last bastion of resistance against Reza Khan and all that he and his supporters stood for. By autumn 1922 the anti–Reza Khan coalition was able to put a temporary halt to the otherwise irrepressible rise of the commander in chief. Reza Khan was unprepared for a showdown, and politically did not feel confident enough to oust the old regime. Reza Khan’s performance as a military commander and a political operator nevertheless earned grudging praise not only from the new British minister Percy Lorraine but also from the Soviet minister Theodore Rothstein, who after his arrival comfortably slipped into the role of a Russian diplomatic counterweight to the British minister. Both sides were impressed with Reza Khan’s discipline and resolve, as well as his detachment from everyday politics and his display of political astuteness. No longer did his “peasant” and “humble” origins bother the class-conscious British diplomats who were accustomed to hobnobbing with refined members of Iranian nobility. The Soviet comrades, too, forgot that he had crushed the Jangal movement as soon as they discovered Reza Khan’s proletariat origins and later the redeeming qualities of the national bourgeoisie.

In what appeared to be a shrewd maneuver, Reza Khan resigned from the War Ministry only to be invited back by the Majles. He reconciled with Modarres, the prince regent, and the willing nobility, and even with the leader of the Majles’s ever-shrinking socialist faction, Solayman Mirza. Martial law was suspended, the army budget was regulated, and momentarily there was hope for greater freedom of the press—yet this would prove to be only an interval. The one-year respite gave Reza Khan the chance to learn more, to consolidate his base, and to gather around him a capable cadre of civilians with vision. By October 1923, when Reza Khan formed his first government, with himself as the prime minister, he extended his power base beyond the military and presented a program of reforms. He was backed by a public prepared to see him not as the rough and ready military commander, but as a national savior who had pacified the country, secured its sovereignty, boosted national confidence, and pledged to fulfill Iran’s long-awaited dreams of structural reforms.

After three years of an effective presence on the political stage, it seemed almost inevitable that Reza Khan would entertain higher ambitions. There was very little, it appeared, that could stop him from claiming total control as the head of a republican state. After Ahmad Shah’s departure for Europe, the fate of the Qajar monarchy was virtually sealed. The fourth Majles had come to its end and the election of the fifth Majles, at least in part, was manipulated in such way as to favor Reza Khan’s ambitions, though it was still not clear in which fashion. With very few exceptions, the Iranian notables were willing collaborators, and large segments of the public were ready to accept a change in regime. In 1907, radicals among the constitutionalists advocated republicanism as an alternative to the Qajar dynastic rule, though soon they were marginalized by a conservative landowning elite and a clerical establishment that preferred monarchy, even a new Pahlavi monarchy, over a republic.

By November 1923, the declaration of the Republic of Turkey, with Mustafa Kemal as its first president, deeply impressed the Iranian political milieu. The story of Kemal’s departure from Istanbul in May 1919 to embark on an endeavor that eventually resulted in the creation of the new republic appealed to Reza Khan and his supporters, but also to the Iranian intelligentsia. Kemal Pasha was also an army officer—albeit trained in a military academy—a war hero, and a strong-willed leader with nationalist zeal who stood firmly against occupying armies and crushed secessionist tendencies. The parallel with Reza Khan was unmistakable. Not surprisingly, the first calls for the creation of an Iranian republic appeared in an Istanbul newspaper. Less than three months later, the abolition of the Qajar monarchy and the establishment of a republic was the first order on the agenda of the fifth Majles. Thousands of telegrams encouraged by pro–Reza Khan army commanders were sent from the provinces urging the Majles to act without delay. Indeed, in the days leading up to Nowruz festival, coinciding with March 21, 1924, the change in regime seemed likely to be ratified by the Majles. And yet the campaign eventually failed, causing Reza Khan a great loss of prestige.

A grand coalition of pro-Qajar elements led by Hasan Modarres and supported by remnants of the Qajar aristocracy loyal to the Crown, the conservative preachers of the mosques, and liberal journalists afraid of Reza Khan’s dictatorship managed to kill off the “republican commotion,” as it came to be known. Fear of Reza Khan’s dictatorial ambitions affected liberal intellectuals such as the poet Mirzadeh ‘Eshqi, the editor of the fiery newspaper Qarn-e Bistom (Twentieth century), who eventually paid with his own life for mocking the republican campaign as a charade. In one of his popular song (tasnif) he wrote:

To ruin the land of the Persians, the agents of the aliens

Spread the word, put it in people’s mouths:

“Republicanism is sweet, like the Indian sugarcane.”

But a voice from the invisible duly cautioned:

“Republicanism is [nothing but] a sugarcoated sheep dropping,

“It is beautiful, it is attractive . . .”

“But what appears in republican clothing

Is bigotry and tyranny . . .”

Of this ugly clamor the motherland trembles,

For it brought conflict and vengeance between the nation and the state.

The chaste child of liberty is aborted at birth,

And we forgot [even] the name of unity.4

Yet what brought the Tehran public to the streets, via mosques, was in greater part the clergy’s deep fears of Reza Khan’s secularizing agenda. They reckoned that like Mustafa Kemal in Turkey, Reza Khan’s republicanism would establish a laic order hostile to the precepts of Islam and the Qur’an, allowing the atheists, the Baha’is, and other anti-Islamic elements to gain primacy.

Manifold displays of “irreligion” in the public space terrified the mosque-going public and vindicated local preachers and their pleas to defend the shari‘a against open displays of profanity: makeshift movie theaters, the earliest in Iran, screening farangi silent one-reelers, taverns offering opium and home-brewed ‘araq, musicians and dancers and storytellers narrating in coffeehouses the legends of the Shahnameh and the romances of Nezami’s “Seven Domes.” Promiscuity and prostitution were available for the affluent, and popular painters depicted erotica from One Thousand and One Nights. More men were appearing in European attire with beardless faces, and there were more mustachioed dandies wearing white shirts with detachable collars. Even daring women were appearing in lighter and less suffocating facial hijab.

The greater visibility of the junior army officers in uniform, younger officials, and professionals educated in secular schools were also unwelcomed by the conservatives. They witnessed the young generation abandoning madrasa training, leaving behind clocks and turbans, shaving their beards, and putting on ties and Western-style suits to be government employees, defense lawyers, judges, tax collectors, journalists, or officials in registry offices. These were members of a new urban middle class who, though small in number, were distancing themselves from the old elite and their constituency. The landed notables, mojtaheds, petty merchants, artisans, and shopkeepers of the bazaar formed the backbone of the conservative sector. The multitudes of the poor, unemployed, and downtrodden were their foot soldiers, often frequenting mosques and pilgrimage sites and eking out a living at the margins of society with handouts from the mojtaheds.

On March 22, 1924, nearly five thousand demonstrators gathered in Baharestan Square. The protestors were mostly bazaar merchants and members of the poor urban classes who came to demonstrate against heathen republicanism and its advocates and to show support for the constitutional monarchy. They clashed with the Tehran police and the auxiliary troops, and the subsequent shots fired over the crowd injured dozens and added to public fury. Reza Khan, who appeared in person to boost the morale of the security forces, was booed and missiles thrown at his carriage. Inside the Majles, the speaker confronted him and—in a rare show of courage—rebuked him for breaching the parliamentary sanctuary. Shortly afterward, Modarres, who was slapped in the face by a prorepublic deputy on the floor of the Majles, was able to capitalize on Reza Khan’s haughtiness and his own aggrieved demeanor to carry a majority and defeat the proposed bill calling for establishment of the republican regime. Reza Khan, dejected and furious, left the Majles and, as a sign of his disapproval, left the capital for a village nearby. But soon thereafter he reassessed his options and sought an alternative route.

Modarres was a savvy maneuverer who had built for himself a reputation for honesty and frugality, a “man of the people” who lived simply, voiced the plight of the weak, and challenged excesses of the power. A master of persuasion, his commonsense parliamentary debates, in an unadulterated Isfahani accent, won him many admirers. He first rose to significance as a representative of the Najaf mojtaheds in the third Majles but soon transformed himself into a consummate politician guided more by realpolitik than by the dictates of Najaf. His rise typified a new kind of public figure who did not belong to the nobility, a man propelled to power by the Constitutional Revolution and kept there because of his public appeal.

If Modarres’s opposition to establishing a republican regime was based on the best intentions—that he sensed the coming of a military dictatorship and moved against it—in the end his recourse only helped monarchical autocracy to endure. It is questionable whether Modarres’s campaign to stop Reza Khan was entirely altruistic or merely a power grab, for there is little doubt that he held an alliance with reactionary mullahs in the city, the lutis of Tehran’s city quarters, the Qajar prince regent Mohammad Hasan Mirza, and the defeated Qajar nobility who were anxious to preserve their privileges.

What eventually allowed the opponent of republicanism to prevail, however, was Mustafa Kemal’s abolition of the Islamic caliphate in neighboring Turkey. Between the demise of the Ottoman sultanate in October 1923 and the end of the caliphate on March 3, 1924, Kemal utilized his symbolic office to consolidate power over the republic. After the Great War Shi‘i Iranians paid even less attention to the Sunni caliphate yet the fact that the new president of the Turkish Republic—a devout secularist—was able to abolish the much-augmented caliphate may have suggested to the Shi‘i mojtaheds that the same fate would await the clerical establishment should Reza Khan succeed in turning Iran into a republic. The uncanny parallel between Turkey and Iran scared the high-ranking mojtaheds in Najaf and in Iran.

The strategy to rein in Reza Khan and defeat republicanism paid off at a time when public sentiments were high and the lethargic Qajar monarchy was still lingering. For a moment, it seemed as if Modarres had succeeded in forcing Reza Khan to bow to the authority of the Majles. But as it turned out, he underestimated Reza Khan’s resilience and overestimated his own popularity. Four days after the demonstration of March 22, Reza Khan made a pilgrimage to the shrine city of Qom, where he met with three grand ayatollahs of Najaf who were temporarily residing there after having been deported from Iraq by the British Mandatory authorities in the aftermath of the 1920 Shi‘i revolt. Thankful to Reza Khan for negotiating with the British authorities for their safe return, they were willing to mediate a solution. After a closed-door meeting with the three marja‘s, Reza Khan issued a public statement renouncing republicanism as unsuitable for Iran and assuring the public that he would focus on promoting “Islam’s prominence,” “Iran’s sovereignty,” and a “nationalist government.”

Shortly thereafter, the three ayatollahs also issued a statement to all religious authorities, elites, merchants, guilds, and the rest of the Iranian nation reiterating the undesirability of establishing a republic:

Since there have been some utterances about establishing a republican regime that was not acquiesced to by the majority (of the people) and was incongruent with circumstances in this country, at the time when his Excellency the Prime Minister, may he be forever prominent, was visiting Qom, the Abode of Faith, to say farewell (to us), we requested and he (graciously) accepted that this issue be obliterated and such debates abandoned and an announcement (to that effect) be sent to all provinces. God willing, everyone would appreciate the value of such a blessing and remain fully grateful for this benevolence.5

The three signatories were ‘Abol-Hasan Isfahani (1860–1946), a marja‘ with a large following; Mohammad Hasan Na’ini, the mojtahed who had previously produced the treatise on the compatibility of a constitutional regime with Shi‘i idea of government, and ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’eri (1859–1937), who was instrumental in developing Qom as a major center for study of jurisprudence. Ha’eri would later be Ayatollah Khomeini’s teacher and mentor.

Despite all the negative publicity surrounding the republican initiative then and later—that it was a backdoor to Reza Khan’s dictatorship, contrary to Iranian political tradition and against Islam—its defeat proved a major loss for Iran’s political future. It could be argued that Reza Khan’s opting for a dynastic monarchy as an alternative to the republic only a year later perpetuated a long tradition of dynastic rule. It undermined the Majles and crushed all sources of opposition, including Modarres. Moreover, the Pahlavi hereditary succession in and of itself would be a major obstacle to long-term political change even after the fall of Reza Shah in 1941. Adopting a monarchy allowed the Pahlavi regime to bank on the historical tradition of Iranian kingship and earn for itself political legitimacy far beyond what a president of a republic, even a dictatorial one, could have done.

In the course of the sixteen months leading up to the abolition of the Qajar dynasty and the investiture of Reza Shah Pahlavi in December 1925, the political climate noticeably shifted in favor of Reza Khan and his drive toward the Persian throne. In July 1924 the minority in the Majles, headed by Modarres and supported by, among others, the poet and Majles deputy Mohammad-Taqi Bahar, held a vote of no confidence in the government on the grounds of the unconstitutionality of Reza Khan’s conduct in office, disrespect for the Majles, mistreatment of citizens, and financial misappropriation.

Yet their maneuver was defeated by a vast margin. In a short period, the climate had dramatically changed against Modarres and his supporters. Fearing intimidation, physical attacks, and threats to their life from agents of Reza Khan’s police and their hired thugs, members of the dwindling minority did not feel safe even taking their seats in the Majles.

Bahar, who earlier had welcomed the rise of Reza Khan but soon became one of his eloquent critics, expressed the mixed feelings that intellectuals of the period reserved for the emerging dictator. In one of his masterpieces, Damavandiyeh (on Damavand; also known as enchained white demon), composed in 1922, he calls on the highest summit of the Alborz range, Mount Damavand, overlooking Tehran, to burst open on the Iranian capital and destroy its sinful inhabitants. Once an active volcano, Damavand is the center of Iran’s mythological geography in the Shahnameh. Bahar writes:

O, Damavand! the enchained white demon,

The dome of the world! . . .

You, the heavy fist of the Time,

Untouched by the passage of Time.

Rise to the heavens!

And blow on the land of Ray a few times . . .

From the fire of the oppressed,

And flame of divine punishment,

Send clouds over the land of Ray,

Rain fear, war and terror . . .

Like fire and brimstone,

That blow Sodom to oblivion,

Like the city of Pompeii,

That Vulcan brought to instant death.

Destroy the pillars of this deceit,

Tore apart this race and this kinship . . .

Take the revenge of the wise,

From these ignoble idiots.6

Calling on the enchained white demon is an obvious double entendre, for it is an allusion not only to the volcano’s white cap but also to the white demon killed by Rostam in the Seven Trials he undertook in Mazandaran. The white demon can be taken as an allusion to the Jangal movement and the Bolshevik support for it that was eventually brought to an end by Reza Khan. That is all the more plausible since the mythical Damavand also holds inside the tyrant Zahhak of the Shahnameh, who usurped Jamshid’s throne and ruled over Iran for a millennium before the hero-savior Fereydun eternally chained him on Mount Damavand. It is as though here Bahar were making a second reference to Reza Khan, who has turned into a tyrant. Moreover, in Bahar’s poem, Damavand is portrayed as the dome of the Giti, the Iranian mythological goddess of the fast-revolving terrestrial universe with fatalistic potency. She nurtures then destroys humans and civilizations. The reincarnated Zahhak, therefore, is destined by the fortune of the Giti to make his climb to absolute power before an inevitable fall. The volcanic task that the poet thus invites Damavand to perform is to destroy the old Qajar order and whatever is associated with it, just as Zahhak was invited to overthrow Jamshid’s once-glorious but fast-decaying kingdom. Despite its apparent pessimism, Bahar’s complex imagery makes sense only if the unleashed Zahhak of Damavand is to be seen as the lesser of the two evils, but one that is also destined for eventual destruction.

Later, in October 1925, on the eve of the abolition of the Qajar dynasty, Bahar’s criticism of Reza Khan almost cost him his life. In a case of mistaken identity, the plainclothes henchmen of the new regime assassinated in front of the Majles an unfortunate person who resembled Bahar. The other deputies got the message. Landing in Reza Shah’s jail a few years later, Bahar got the message. He gave up politics and became a renowned professor of Persian literature in Tehran University. One of the twentieth century’s greatest students of Persian culture, he was far from the revolutionary fire of his youth, though not devoid of the modern values that shaped his generation.


What would come to be known as the Imbrie Affair (or saqqa-khaneh incident), embarrassing as it was for the Iranian government, greatly contributed to the atmosphere of fear and intimidation and may have struck the final blow to Reza Khan’s opposition. In July 1924, Tehran was abuzz with reports of a miracle in a water fountain (saqqa-khaneh) where the sick would be cured and wishes granted. This would have been a familiar occurrence in Shi‘i Iran, had it not been for the fact that it fit too well with the struggles between Reza Khan and his opponents to be seen merely as a coincidence. It was rumored that a Baha’i who had refused to pay a customary donation to the sacred fountain had instantaneously gone blind, but once he repented his heretical beliefs and paid the tribute, he was immediately cured.

The story of the blessed fountain had its political beneficiaries and was likely orchestrated from Reza Khan’s quarters. Greater social freedoms since 1921 no doubt had given the Baha’i a degree of visibility, and Reza Khan was accused of favoring them. Now that the crypto-Azali radicals of the constitutional era were no more, the Baha’is briefly came to offer a moderate path to modernity, one in tune with the emerging Pahlavi order. A long history of anti-Baha’i campaigns made such a design plausible, though not perhaps its unintended results. Reza Khan’s agents probably hoped for a short and manageable uproar to display his loyalty to Shi‘ism, dispel the rumors of his anti-Islamic project of reforms, and possibly even set the stage for reinstating martial law. Yet the episode brought about serious consequences.

Among the growing number of onlookers who visited the now-sacred fountain was the acting consul of the US legation in Tehran, Robert Imbrie, who also freelanced as a journalist for the National Geographical Society. Imbrie was not a professional diplomat but a special agent, a maverick with a strong anti-Bolshevik credentials. An Indiana Jones of sorts, he was a graduate of the 1906 Yale Law School and a protégé of Allen Dulles, the future head of the US Central Intelligence Agency in the 1950s. Imbrie was dispatched to Iran by the US State Department to facilitate the implementation of an ongoing oil concession between an American company and the Iranian government. Sinclair Oil, the first American attempt to explore oil in Iran’s Caspian shores, had faced serious opposition from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which considered the Iranian oil as it exclusive tenure.

Hoping to make an illustrated report out of miracle-making water fountain, a piece of Oriental exotica no doubt appealing to the readers of the National Geographic, Imbrie set up his camera near the site. But he soon faced angry bystanders’ objections to an infidel’s photographing what had become a sacred site. Mayhem broke out, in the course of which Imbrie and his associate were deliberately beaten and bruised. With the help of some bystanders they managed to reach the carriage that had brought them to the scene and headed for the hospital. But quite inexplicably, the carriage was stopped by a police officer on duty. Later, when they were brought to the government hospital for treatment, Imbrie was followed by a group of thugs who soon entered the operating room and resumed beating and stabbing him, in the presence of policemen. He died shortly after.

The ugly incident generated an outcry. Several arrests were made, presumably the culprits were later executed, and the Iranian government accepted making monetary compensation, but it never became clear if the incident was a fantastic mob outburst perpetrated against the American diplomat, or against the Baha’is, or more likely a maneuver orchestrated by Reza Khan’s agents that had gotten out of hand. Whatever the case, the incident allowed Reza Khan to declare martial law and round up more of his critics. They had become vocal especially after the assassination of the dissident poet and journalist Mirzadeh ‘Eshqi, whose assassination was also traceable to Reza Khan’s police. With martial law again in place, opponents were arrested or silenced. The Imbrie Affair also allowed Reza Khan to outmaneuver Arthur Millspaugh, the American financial adviser to the Iranian government, who was soon forced to resign. Millspaugh had resisted allocating all the revenue that the Iranian government earned from APOC concessions to the Iranian armed forces. By doing so, he outraged Reza Khan, who relied heavily on that revenue to reorganize the army and consolidate his hold over the political establishment and the country.

The Imbrie Affair served to cast off the stigma of irreligion from Reza Khan. Not long before the night of ‘Ashura mourning ceremonies during Muharram 1343 (August 1924), Reza Khan, accompanied by some senior officers, joined the procession of the “night of the bereaved” (sham-e ghariban). Clad in black, candles in hand, and beating his chest, he recited along with the mourners tragic verses about the martyrdom of Imam Hosain and his family. In another show of devotion, then premier Reza Khan received from the shrine of ‘Ali in Najaf a medallion portrait of the First Imam. It was offered as a token of gratitude on behalf of the two ayatollahs upon their safe arrival in Najaf. The medallion, a nineteenth-century rendering, was presented to Reza Khan with pomp and circumstance, in a ceremony reminiscent of Naser al-Din Shah’s investiture of an ‘Ali decoration seventy years earlier on the occasion of his ephemeral victory in Herat. It was as if Reza Khan were toying with the idea of kingship.


Having learned his lesson from the republican campaign, Reza Khan acted with greater circumspection. In an effort to acquire public confidence and greater legitimacy during his second term in office, he even acquiesced to the minority in the Majles. He and his cohorts, civilian and military alike, not only displayed Islamic sentiments but also began to borrow from historical memory and Persian nationalist icons that were prevalent during and after the Constitutional Revolution.

Persian legendary and historical memories were powerful tools for augmenting the Pahlavi image. By 1924, the pro–Reza Khan press routinely depicted their hero as a second Nader Shah—a savior who emerged at Iran’s darkest hour, drove out the foreign intruders, pacified rebellions, reunited the country, and successfully pursued a program of reform. Like Nader, Reza Khan was of humble origins, and his determination, military gifts, and sharp mind outshone the weaknesses of his enemies and allowed him to outmaneuver restive khans, bandits, and rebels. It did not take long before new pre-Islamic royal figures complemented Reza Khan’s heroic image. References to the Achaemenid Cyrus the Great and Darius (Dara in Persian sources of the period), also prevalent in the postconstitutional literature, accompanied references to Reza Khan in newspaper articles and books. His public statements also relied on the revived memories of the rulers of the fifth century BC to augment his new age of revival.

Crafting his own image after these glorious narratives of Iran’s distant past—a notable feature of the emergent Pahlavi era—made Reza Khan and his modernist project appear wholly distinct from the ethos of the Qajar era. The Constitutional Revolution had already turned the Qajar monarchy and its Turkic-Mongolian roots into a liability, an image of alien rule, despotism, and weakness (pl. 7.1). The new Pahlavi power, in contrast, invoked the ancient Iranian past. A gradual shift from myth to history, from legends of the Shahnameh to the modern description of the Achaemenid and Sasanian empires, was grounded in archeological discoveries and greater knowledge of ancient Greek texts, which boosted public awareness and national pride. As early as 1914, a decade before the rise of Pahlavi dynasty, Iranian postal stamps—a public marker of nationalist sentiment—showed Darius I on his throne under the Zoroastrian Faravahar insignia (fig. 7.11). Another scene of Persepolis showed Tachara, the residential palace of the Achaemenid kings (fig. 7.12).

Such publications as the Berlin-based periodical Kaveh, edited by Hasan Taqizadeh and his associate—the gifted short-story writer Mohammad ‘Ali Jamalzadeh—contributed to Iran’s budding cultural nationalism. With centralization at its core, the nationalist awareness promoted by the Berlin circle anticipated the rise of a strong state. Hasan Moshir al-Dowleh’s 1927 Iran-e Bastani (Ancient Iran), the first of several versions of his canonical history of Iran’s pre-Islamic past, is a notable example of a metamorphosis from legendary kings of the Kayanid dynasty in the Shahnameh to the Persian Empire of Herodotus and the Achaemenid dynasty of the archeological digs. The new Pahlavi potentate strived to be the apex of this reconstructed historical pyramid.

The Majles passed a new bill in 1925 abolishing all Qajar titles and in favor of adopting family names through a national registry, a novel idea for Iranians and the first of several measures that augmented the state’s power over its own citizenry. First and last names fixed citizens with a clear personal identity that was only implicitly, if at all, connected with their paternalistic lineage. New family names were meant to be short and simple. For the nobility, they were often much shorter versions of their Qajar titles. Others identified themselves by their ethnic, tribal, clan, or family identity. And others by their father’s first name, their town or village origin, their profession, a chosen virtue, or by nationalist, religious, or other real or imagined affiliations. The abolition of titles was a further blow to the old class system, for it removed symbols of proximity to power, giving the appearance of a more egalitarian society.

Figure 7.11 and Figure 7.12. As early as 1914, images of Persepolis appeared on Iranian stamps. The Zoroastrian image of Faravahar (left), above Darius’s throne, symbolized pre-Islamic sentiment in the postconstitutional era.

Author’s collection.

Reza Khan himself adopted the family name Pahlavi, presumably a variation of Palani, the name of his subtribe in the Savadkuh region. As a family name, however, Palani had an unfortunate association with palan, a cargo saddle for beasts of burden, especially donkeys, whereas Pahlaviclearly resonated with a pre-Islamic past—specifically, an aristocratic clan of the Sasanian period. Even more edifying, Pahlavi was a general reference to the Middle Persian of the Sasanian period and the written culture in that language. Mentioned in the Shahnameh, the word Pahlavievoked historical continuity particularly since Pahlavi was still in use as the liturgy language of Zoroastrians of Iran and their Parsi coreligionists in India. Modern scholarship of pre-Islamic Iranian languages in Europe largely recovered Pahlavi texts and resolved their many ambiguities. A glorious, though vague, association with the Iranian past, Pahlavi became the name of the new dynasty.

Beyond hearsay and from the newspapers on his payroll, Reza Khan came to learn more about Iran’s past, its history and culture in the months before his accession to the throne. For a while, a group of erudite Majles deputies were invited to meet with him on a regular basis to discuss the idea and practice of constitutionalism, political and international affairs, and programs of reform, as well as to allow Reza Khan to absorb more of Iran’s long history and geography. Among them was the aforementioned Hasan Moshir al-Dowleh, now with the family name Pirniya, who had wisely given up on politics for scholarship. Others included Yahya Dowlatabadi (1862–1940), a leading constitutionalist of prominent Azali background and later a gifted memoirist, and Mohammad Mosaddeq (1882–1967), a Swiss-educated lawyer and member of the Qajar nobility.

For a while, the advisory group met with Reza Khan in the spirit of mutual understanding. While the participants hoped to nurture in him a commitment to constitutional principals, he evidently aimed to appease the Majles’s liberal opposition, if not co-opt it. The informal advisory group, however, failed to instill in the ambitious Reza Khan a lasting love for democracy or much respect for the constitution. Efforts to educate him succeeded only in allowing Iran’s strongman to articulate a nationalist vision of his own of territorial integrity, centralized and effective state power, independent foreign policy, and a program of cultural reconstruction. Once they were dismissed as a group, and then individually snubbed into isolation, they began to recognize, along with a vast majority of constitutionalists, that the Pahlavi path to absolute power was at the point of no return. Most resigned to this inevitability and hoped for its benevolence while only a few resisted.


One outcome of the Pahlavi show of patriotic resolve was the Khuzestan campaign in the fall of 1924 (fig. 7.13). It boosted Reza Khan’s prestige and reasserted control over this oil-rich but otherwise isolated and impoverished province. Also known as ‘Arabestan, in the Qajar era, Khuzestan was a sparsely populated land with few urban centers, virtually no major agriculture except for palm groves, and a large minority population that spoke an Arabic dialect common to the northwestern coasts of the Persian Gulf. Organized into a tribal system, the Banu Ka‘b and Banu Tarf were the most powerful Arab confederacies in Khuzestan. At least since the eighteenth century, they had been active as a political player in the region. The interior highlands were the Bakhtiyari winter resort and a vital asset for the confederacy’s pastoral economy.

In between the quarreling chiefs of Banu Tarf and Banu Ka‘b and the competing branches of the Bakhtiyari, there was limited space for Tehran’s presence in cities such as the ancient Shushtar, Dezful, and Ahvaz. Most initiatives to penetrate Khuzestan since the eighteenth century and attempts to develop it since the nineteenth century had failed because of a scarcity of resources and technology. The port of Naseriyeh south of Ahvaz, later named Bandar-e Shahpur under Pahlavi rule (and Bandar-e Khomeini under the Islamic Republic), was one exception. It had been developed under Naser al-Din Shah as an alternative to the strategically vulnerable port of Mohammara and to compete with the Ottoman port of Basra. Naseriyeh was also the home port for Persepolis, Iran’s only battleship in the Qajar era.

Figure 7.13. Units of the Southern Division (Lashgar-e Jonub) in 1924 leaving Shiraz for Khuzestan province. The four divisions of the newly amalgamated armed forces played a crucial part in Reza Khan’s consolidation.

Fathollah Chehrehnegar, M. Sane‘, Paydayesh-e ‘Akkasi dar Shiraz (Tehran, 1369/1990), 137.

Since the 1880s, the interiors of Khuzestan were somewhat revived as a result of the British-operated Lynch Navigation Company, which operated a steamboat service on the river Karun, Iran’s only navigable river, from Mohammara some 140 miles north to Shushtar. From there, construction of Shushtar-Isfahan commercial road through Bakhtiyari lands opened up the hard-to-access Iranian countryside to the southwest of Isfahan for the first time. The Anglo-Persian oil exploration, moreover, proved a major factor in changing the province’s economic and political landscape. The Masjed Soleiman oil fields were in Bakhtiyari territory, whereas the newly built Abadan refinery—which by the 1930s would be the largest in the world—fell within the Banu Ka‘b territory on the eastern shore of Shatt al-Arab.

Tehran’s campaign to reclaim Khuzestan, under the initial pretext of collecting taxes in arrears, naturally alarmed the British, APOC, and chiefs of the Banu Ka‘b. London felt that Tehran’s ambition to administer Khuzestan directly would spoil its careful arrangements with the Bakhtiyari and Bani Ka‘b, who had been granted minuscule shares of the oil revenue in exchange for land use, security, and labor. Bakhtiyari tribesmen were employed at the oil rigs with negligible wages as oil workers or as guards, and they were treated with little mercy. The growing influence and wealth of Shaykh Khaz‘al of Āl-e Mahsin, the chief of the Banu Ka‘b, was but one example of the transformation of tribal chiefs of the Shatt al-Arab and Mohammara regions under British auspices. A shrewd maneuverer, Khaz‘al colluded with APOC, along with some Bakhtiyari and Lur chiefs, in the hopes of finding a common front against Tehran’s advances.

By November 1924, the cavalry and armored columns of the Iranian army ventured toward Khuzestan in a pincer movement through Luristan and Isfahan, which already were pacified. With great speed, the government forces managed to occupy Ahvaz, remove Khaz‘al, and capture the entire province. Once their mediatory efforts failed, the British bowed to Tehran’s daring measure. They were assured that British hold over the oil fields and the oil industry, then one of the most profitable oil operations in the world, was secure. The assurances were confirmed by Reza Khan’s action. Khaz‘al’s efforts to coordinate with Reza Khan’s opposition in Tehran, through Modarres, among other channels, also failed, and Khaz‘al was forced to take back his bold disowning of Reza Khan and his claims that he was a usurper who undermined the country’s constitution and illegally seized power. Khaz‘al was sent off to Tehran, and soon his wealth and property were confiscated.

Reclaiming Khuzestan marked the last stage of moving away from the concept of the Guarded Domains of Iran toward the centralizing “Sublime State of Iran” (dowlat ‘alliyeh Iran). That the British condoned the Pahlavi centralization program is astonishing, given their enormous diplomatic and military presence only four years earlier. The change of heart was understandable, given that the British inadvertently discovered in the new regime some fulfillment of the 1919 agreement, at least insofar as it created a centralized military capable of securing Britain’s investment and strategic interests, albeit in the hands of a nationalist modernizer. Reza Khan was not entirely of their making, but he was not entirely opposed to their vested interests either. In the months following Curzon’s departure, the Foreign Office quickly condoned a utilitarian policy of accommodating the new Iranian regime. Even when Reza Khan postured to capture the Persian crown, the British bowed to his ambition. They abandoned their pledge since 1828 to keep the Qajar house on the throne. They complied not only because Reza Khan’s rise proved irresistible, and because he dislodged within the Iranian polity most agents of British influence, the so-called Anglophiles, but also because he offered a reliable bulwark against the Soviet threat.

Even before the fall of the Jangal movement, Reza Khan had managed to establish friendly relations with the Soviet legation. Later, during the campaign for republicanism he even instructed some of his trusted military and civilian supporters to surreptitiously hoist a few red flags in the style of the Bolsheviks. Yet his anticommunist credentials were intact, and that is what mattered most for British interests at a time when there seemed to be no viable Russian party with whom the British could negotiate Iran’s status as a buffer state.


More than at any time in its modern history, during World War I and its aftermath, Iran was affected by the military, economic, and human repercussions of a global conflict. Iran was incorporated deep enough into a geopolitical system not to be able to ignore threats to its neutrality or to weather conflicting imperial pressures on its borders. Despite such threats, however, the Iranian state survived heavy blows to its sovereignty. This was all the more remarkable because the decade-long upheavals between 1911 and 1921 not only revealed serious rifts in the ruling elite but also brought about the Qajar monarchy’s eventual demise. The war also brought into light political players, intellectuals, and military officers who were the product of the Constitutional Revolution. It was to the credit of this mix of the old and new classes, rather than the goodwill of the occupying powers, that Iran barely avoided partition along the lines set in the 1907 Anglo-Russian agreement. Despite obvious limits to its authority and its effectiveness, and despite all its failings, the Iranian state managed to navigate the stormy waters of the war period and its aftermath through diplomacy and political maneuvering. If there was a single event beyond its borders that saved Iran, it was the destruction of the Russian Empire.

Remarkably, before 1921 none of the nationalist-inspired movements that hoped to liberate Iran from foreign occupation and from the declining Qajar elite succeeded in their task. The government in exile of the Committee for National Defense, German covert operations inside Iran and the Berlin resistance circle, and subsequently the Jangal movement in Gilan and the nationalist rebellions in Khorasan and Azarbaijan failed, while the center continued to hold a degree of legitimacy and political agency. The Iranian state employed its meager financial resources, including revenue from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and its limited military capabilities, such as the Cossack Division and the Gendarmerie after 1918, to withstand secessionist challenges. In despair, the ruling elite also subscribed to a halfhearted British effort to resuscitate the Qajar state. Yet the nationalist polity took advantage of the international uproar to successfully resist the semiprotectorate status that the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement offered. Its failure paved the way for the rise of a rough and ready strongman in the person of Reza Khan. He and the Cossack Division under his command came to the rescue of the central state by systematically quashing the rebellious periphery. The implicit blessing of the British representatives and shortly after the consent of the Bolsheviks upheld the new regime in its drive for state building. In retrospect, Reza Khan’s consolidation between 1921 and 1925 appeared as an unavoidable outcome of World War I; a price that Iran had to pay to conclude two decades of political revolution, economic vacillation, and sociocultural change.

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