By the fall of 1925 all that was needed to remove the Qajars and establish the new Pahlavi dynasty seemed to be in place. Ahmad Shah had long been in voluntary exile, with no serious intentions to return. His brother and regent, Mohammad Hasan Mirza, was isolated in Golestan Palace, and the Qajar loyalists were intimidated and silenced, or else had been co-opted, as were the leading Shi‘i mojtaheds of the time, together with their associates and cohorts. Even Modarres was enticed to collaborate. The tribal rebellions had been largely quashed, and the most defiant khans exiled or destroyed. The rest walked the line prescribed by the state, at least for the time being.

Content with the semblance of order made possible under Pahlavi, the public was willing to endure army officers’ abuses of power. Quelling the political opposition by the boisterous police force also was condoned. The public was no longer willing to come out to the streets, except to see the victory arches erected to honor Reza Khan’s campaigns. The last pro-Qajar call to demonstration in October 1925 was answered by a heavy show of force, machine guns, and counterdemonstrations in favor of Reza Pahlavi. Women protested on both sides, and a few pro-Pahlavi women demonstrators dared to appear without veiling their faces, condemning the “reactionary” mullahs and the “rotten aristocrats” as obstacles to Iran’s road to progress.


On October 31, 1925, with an overwhelming majority—and without any substantive debate—the fifth Majles passed a bill that abolished the Qajar dynasty and appointed Reza Khan as His Royal Excellency in charge of the provisional government. Abolishing the Qajar dynasty was a clear overture to Reza Khan’s accession to the throne. Amending several articles of the 1906–1907 constitution, the Majles dissolved itself and announced the convening of a constituent assembly to determine the country’s political future.

Before the final vote on abolishing the Qajar dynasty, Modarres, in his characteristically disparaging manner, left the chamber in protest, shouting, “Not even one hundred thousand votes will make it right!” Four independent deputies stayed to speak against the bill, however, though all praised Reza Khan’s service to the nation. Hasan Taqizadeh, hero of the constitutional period, questioned the constitutionality of the bill and proposed an expedient way out. The English-educated moderate, Hosain ‘Ala, raised similar concerns. Mohammad Mosaddeq, the most articulate in the group, argued rather shrewdly that elevating Reza Pahlavi to the status of a constitutional king would only deprive the nation of an effective prime minister and reformer. Yahya Dowlatabadi, the most daring of the four spoke—if we trust his memoirs—of the ongoing threats and intimidation by Reza Khan’s agents to deliver votes in favor of the bill. Though appreciative of Pahlavi’s service, he nevertheless aired his displeasure with the hereditary monarchy—perhaps the only regret expressed, and implicitly at that, over abandoning the republican option. Fearing personal harm, each speaker immediately left the chamber after his speech. They all knew that their opposition to the bill was merely symbolic; it was as if they were delivering a eulogy for the Constitutional Revolution just two decades after its birth.

On December 12, 1925, the newly convened constituent assembly unanimously voted for the new Pahlavi hereditary monarchy, and three days later Reza Khan was sworn in as the new shah. The coronation ceremony, in late April 1926, was staged as a joyful celebration, very different from the solemnity of the Shi‘i public culture—it was an event meant to announce clearly the advent of a “modern” era, with street decorations, banners, electrical lights and lanterns, stamp issues, victory arches, and, of course, lengthy homilies glorifying the new reign. Yet the very act of coronation helped to reaffirm, and in the process reinvent, the same monarchical tradition that the Pahlavi regime was replacing, albeit with a touch of borrowed European style, typical of the period. The shah sat on an armchair atop the Marble Throne in the open veranda of Golestan Palace, and donning a royal robe over his military uniform, he received people in the palace courtyard as Fath ‘Ali Shah and Naser al-Din Shah had before him, but without wearing the Kayanid crown of the Qajars. The new Pahlavi crown, crafted for the occasion, was inspired by the Achaemenid scaling up motifs as appeared on the ramparts of Persepolis. The Islamic side of the coronation ceremony was scaled down accordingly.

Long before the coronation, remnants of the Qajar house were cleared out of Golestan Palace and other royal properties. A few days before the detrimental Majles vote, the new regime replaced the palace guards with regular troops. Immediately afterward, the prince regent Mohammad Hasan Mirza and his small entourage left for exile. To humiliate the last icon of Qajar sovereignty, Reza Shah paid the prince regent for his travel expenses in the smallest denomination of silver coins, which were delivered in leather purses by a ranking general of the Pahlavi army who had headed the palace guards. The troops drove the prince and his attendants to the border and unceremoniously dumped them at the Iraqi customhouse in Khaniqain. To symbolically right the wrongs of the founder of the Qajar dynasty, one of Reza Shah’s earliest acts was to order that the remains of Karim Khan Zand be exhumed from the ivan of Golestan Palace and reinterred in Shiraz.

This was the end of 150 years of rule by the Qajars, a dynasty that had survived as only a shadow of itself since the Constitutional Revolution. But if the Qajar dynasty came to an end, its legacy endured not so much in the institutions of the government as in the blood of the Iranian elite, who had long intermarried with the vast Qajar progeny. The Pahlavi regime co-opted this old elite, some to serve in the bureaucracy and the rest to hold on to their land and property. Many were impoverished and eventually lost out to the new classes, but a few survived, and even thrived, for another generation or two. During the first decade in power, Reza Shah and his military and civilian supporters were poised for a massive leap forward. They felt supremely confident that they would be able to fulfill the long-awaited national aspirations for sovereignty and material progress, and that they could successfully recast Iran as a modern nation and Iranians as refashioned citizens of such a nation.

The mixed experiments with constitutional democracy over the previous two decades, foreign interventions, a self-serving political elite, and the inevitable disarray that came first with the Constitutional Revolution and then with World War I, had convinced most urban Iranians of the necessity of the alternative offered by Reza Shah. In Turkey, Italy, the Soviet Union, and soon Germany, many viewed the authoritarian state model as the only solution to postwar maladies. In 1925 and 1926 hundreds of flattering telegrams poured in from the provinces to congratulate the new monarchy. They were manufactured with a good deal of persuasion from army officers, yet they were not entirely empty of genuine sentiments. It was as if the whole nation were ready to make a new start. If the agenda for the new regime was essentially scripted in the constitutional period and set in motion in the postconstitutional era, then Reza Shah was the real agent who brought it to fruition. To do so, he relied heavily on a handful of loyal statesmen on whose vision and efficiency the Pahlavi order was built.

As early as 1924 a group of four officials formed an informal alliance that placed them above the old Qajar cabal of the earlier decades. They aimed to harness Reza Khan’s power toward creating a more institutionalized order and transform the regime’s image from that of a mere military dictatorship. Yet it is wrong to assume that Reza Shah was just an overseer or a puppet in the hands of his chief ministers. To the contrary, reminiscent of Naser al-Din Shah’s court, the shah controlled his ministers and officers with persuasion, rivalry, and outright coercion while increasingly falling into an entangling web of mistrust and fear. On the more positive side, the shah was receptive to initiatives his ministers and advisers proposed and saw them through with tenacity. As long as the blend of ministerial initiative and dictatorial drive worked, there was a visible change in the affairs of state, at least in a material sense.

The four civilian ministers soon dominated the new government and initiated many of the reform projects during the first decade of Pahlavi rule. They were from a younger generation of notables of the postconstitutional period who had gained power, or preserved their privileges, primarily because of their Western education. ‘Abd al-Hosain Teymurtash (1883–1933), son of a provincial Khorasan landowning notable, was a dashing young graduate of St. Petersburg Military Academy when at the age of twenty-nine he was elected to the second Majles. Later, as governor of the province of Gilan, he left behind a record of cruelty, including the execution of Dr. Heshmat, a medical doctor and revolutionary intellectual who had joined the Jangal movement but later was tricked into surrendering himself to the authorities. In 1922 as an influential deputy in the fifth Majles, he was instrumental in the rise of Pahlavi dynasty and soon was rewarded as the shah’s confidante and powerful court minister.

Perhaps more than any other statesman, Teymurtash helped shaping Reza Khan’s public image. He regulated the shah’s access to the public, nurtured his taste for all things modern, dignified and even glamorized the Pahlavi court, and above all helped restore equilibrium to Iran’s foreign policy. Though Russian-educated and for a while an Anglophile, under Reza Shah he steered a steady course in tune with Iran’s nationalist ethos. He was articulate and persuasive, flattering toward his master, and patronizing to his subordinates. His gambling, womanizing, and reckless drinking—reminiscent of the tsarist army officers’ lifestyle to which he had been exposed—was emblematic of the modern hedonism that came with breakdown of the traditional moral order. Reza Shah, who once considered him almost as his alter ego, at first rewarded his services handsomely before turning against him with a vengeance. Dismissed and accused of the groundless charge of spying for the Soviets, in 1933 Teymurtash was arrested and tried on a propped-up charge of bribery. Sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, he was murdered in prison by the shah’s dreaded police chief.

An ally of Teymurtash in high office, Firuz Mirza Nosrat al-Dowleh (1889–1937), was a savvy statesman of impeccable Qajar lineage and the promising senior son of the influential ‘Abd al-Hosain Mirza Farmanfarma (1857–1939), the scion of a powerful family. Having studied first in Beirut and then law in Paris, he was a deputy of the third and fourth Majles, and in 1919, while still young, he had joined Vosuq al-Dowleh’s government as minister of justice and later of foreign affairs. Yet the failure of the Anglo-Persian Agreement did not entirely destroy his career. Despite his apparent ambition for staging a coup in 1921, which was delayed because he was stranded on his way to the capital, he later welcomed Reza Khan’s rise to power and, like Teymurtash, was instrumental in consolidating the new dynasty. In 1925 he joined the cabinet as minister of finance and later minister of justice, and in collaboration with Teymurtash, he carried through the earliest reform measures of the Pahlavi era. As the first of the four ranking aides to Reza Shah, however, in 1929 Firuz was dismissed on a fabricated charge of embezzlement and put on trial. After his conviction, he was barred from government posts. In 1936 he was again arrested and sent into exile on no apparent charge, then murdered two years later. Well informed, shrewd, and diplomatic, Firuz Mirza was an asset to the new shah, strengthening the regime’s ties with the old nobility and adding to Iran’s international reputation. As an early victim of Reza Shah’s paranoia, Firuz Mirza was viewed as a potential risk to the throne for his alleged proximity to the British.

The third in the group, ‘Ali Akbar Davar (1885–1937), who came from a middle-ranking bureaucratic family, was most instrumental in overhauling the government administration. A Swiss-educated lawyer, he began as a left-leaning journalist and politician, and was a founder of the Radical Party. In 1922 he formed a powerful block in the fourth and fifth Majles supporting Reza Khan. A kingmaker, in the true sense of the word, he was the one who put forward the bill to abolish the Qajar dynasty, and he energetically defended the transfer of power to Pahlavi. As minister of public works in 1925, and minister of justice between 1926 and 1932, and thereafter minister of finance, he was responsible for implementing the most radical reforms under Reza Shah: restructuring the judicial system and introducing modern civil and penal codes, as well as consolidating the framework for public finances that had first emerged under Shuster and later under British and American advisers.

Davar was different in character and lifestyle from Teymurtash and distinct from Firuz Mirza in his mild temperament and lack of snobbishness; he was also ambitious and yet prudent and single minded, serving perhaps as the most capable public administrator of the Pahlavi era, with a rare gift for fostering younger talents and transforming Iran’s entire divan culture. As the high priest of the Pahlavi etatism, more than anyone else in high office he promoted the cult of state intervention, which in the long run deteriorated into a malignancy. State hegemony, overreliance on government services, and the waning of civil and private initiatives were predictable outcomes. In February 1937, in his early fifties, Davar committed suicide, apparently for fear of the paranoid Reza Shah and his perceptions of Davar’s misconduct. He had already witnessed the downfall of his colleagues with the same imagined faults.

Ja‘far-Qoli As‘ad Bakhtiyari, son of the Constitutional Revolution leader Sardar As‘ad Bakhtiyari, was the least political of the group. He was an important agent of stability in the early Pahlavi era, for contrary to his aristocratic and civilian colleagues, As‘ad descended from the leadership of Iran’s largest tribal confederacy, which a decade earlier had established a political base in the capital and even stood a chance of constituting a Bakhtiyari dynasty. His multiple appointments as minister of war in early Pahlavi governments were meant to symbolize the compliance of the Bakhtiyaris with the emerging Pahlavi order—a fragile compliance no doubt, but effective enough to keep him in the shah’s favor as an advocate of the policies of pacifying the tribes and making them sedentary. Like his colleagues, however, he too would eventually fall victim to Reza Shah’s suspicion. He was poisoned in prison, and then murdered in March 1934.

That all four victims fell to Reza Shah’s regime denoted something more than Reza Shah’s paranoiac state of mind or sense of inferiority toward men of higher class and superior education—men whom, despite their genuine show of loyalty to him, the new shah still viewed as a liability and potential threat. He utilized them to his own ends before destroying them, just as Naser al-Din Shah did many decades earlier. The Pahlavi ministers, a modern equivalent of the old divan, were exposed even more than their Qajar predecessors to the whims and wishes of the Pahlavi shah. One can attribute this remarkable continuity to the tenacity of a political culture that persisted even after the Constitutional Revolution, even after a mass movement that primarily aimed to contain and regulate the arbitrary power of the monarch and managed against all odds to oust the despotic Mohammad ‘Ali Shah.

Predictably, from the early 1930s, a number of officials and military officers came to occupy positions of power. Some were of the old families who adjusted themselves to Pahlavi rule; others were members of the new middle classes. They proved less resolute and imaginative, more pliant to the shah’s wishes, and increasingly corrupt. Ironically, the fate of the four ministers proved almost identical to that of many intellectuals and political activists, tribal leaders, and elder Qajar statesmen who were spied on, kept under house arrest, sent into exile, put on trial, imprisoned on false charges or quietly eliminated.


The efforts of the new state elite bore material results. For many Iranians the construction of a railroad was the ultimate symbol of empowerment, and it was small wonder that the Pahlavi elite make railroad a priority. In 1925 the sixth Majles passed the railway bill. Immediately the Pahlavi state negotiated with British, German, and Danish firms over the planning and construction of the trans-Iranian railroad, which was to extend from the southwestern oil-producing province of Khuzestan on the Persian Gulf to Mazandaran on the northeastern shores of the Caspian (map 8.1).

The north-south axis aimed to open the Iranian markets on both ends to the ports of the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea, a strategy reminiscent of the Safavids’ export of Gilan silk through the Persian Gulf, and later the British initiative to open the Karun-Bakhtiyari link to Isfahan. Yet the Iranian railroad, as it turned out, functioned more as a means of hauling imports into the interior rather than exporting Iranian goods abroad or facilitating the domestic economy. By the mid-1920s early signs of a rejuvenated Soviet economy built upon the ruins of industries of imperial Russia raised Iranian hopes for a renewal of the old trade partnership with Russia, even though the world was at the outset of a global depression. In the south, the port of Khorramshahr (the old Mohammara) seemed a logical terminus for the railroad, given the growing domestic consumption of Khuzestan refined oil as well as the vital need for modern port facilities for international shipping. Although economic and geopolitical realities later revealed the strategic vulnerabilities of the Iranian railroad, at the time it seemed a perfectly sound infrastructural project. True, the planners failed to design a national system to connect the major commercial cities of the interior—a northwest-to-southeast line seemed more viable for connecting Azarbaijan to Tehran and Isfahan and through Yazd and Kerman to Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, and from Tehran to the northeast to Mashhad.

Yet one should be wary of conspiratorial myths common after World War II that accused Reza Shah of constructing the railroad to advance British strategic interests. The Khuzestan line, it can be argued, helped incorporate the oil-rich province into the state system and enforced Iranian sovereignty in the south despite British vested interests in the oil fields and the British alliance with the Banu Ka‘b and the Bakhtiyari khans. Maintaining control of Khuzestan was crucial for the Pahlavi state, not only to boost its nationalist credentials but also to facilitate Reza Shah’s desire to claim a bigger share of the oil fields and their enormous revenue. In the long run, Khorramshahr became Iran’s largest commercial harbor, facilitating the massive growth of trade with Europe, and later with Japan and the United States, and catering to domestic demands for imported manufactured goods and raw materials.

Map 8.1. Communication and industrial development in early Pahlavi era, 1924–1941

Financing the Tehran-Khuzestan line in 1927 with revenue from the state’s sugar monopoly—one of several monopolies on consumer goods introduced during this period—the southern line became operational by 1929. By 1930 with the construction of the Karun Bridge, two-thirds of a mile long, then the longest steel bridge in the Middle East, the railroad reached the Persian Gulf. By 1936 the eighty-two-mile stretch of picturesque mountainous railroad from the capital to the newly constructed Caspian port of Bandar-e Shah (now Bandar-e Torkaman) became operational. A project of considerable complexity, the trans-Iranian railroad negotiated steep gradations of the Alborz and Zagros ranges through numerous tunnels, bridges, and passes. When in 1938 it officially opened, the total cost of the trans-Iranian railroad was estimated at 10.1 billion rials (US$500 million), making it the most expensive and most extensive project ever in modern Iranian history (except perhaps for the British-owned oil industry and refinery installations) (fig. 8.1).

Figure 8.1. Ascending the Alborz terrain to build the trans-Iranian railroad was an engineering feat.

Gaduk on the northern sector. A. von Graefe, Iran das neue Persien (Berlin and Zurich, 1937), 41.

The rail system was the cornerstone of the infrastructure revolution under the early Pahlavids, even though it was never fully incorporated into the country’s traditional commerce or into the new network of roads that linked the capital to the provinces. Centralization required easy access to the provinces, and a growing number of motorcars offered new roads as an alternative to rail. Already by 1921 there was a network of dirt roads navigable by cars. These were either improved Qajar carriage roads, such as the Tehran-Rasht and Tehran-Qom roads, or were roads inherited from the Allied armies that connected northern and western cities to the capital, or the ports of the Persian Gulf to Shiraz, or cities like Isfahan and Mashhad to their surroundings (see map 8.1). The Pahlavi reliance on motorized logistics to quell the Jangal movement and tribal uprisings in the provinces, especially in Fars and Luristan, soon demonstrated the relatively low cost of road transportation compared to the railroad for moving troops, and soon after the movement of peoples and goods (fig. 8.2).

In 1926 the new Firuzkuh road connected the capital through the Alborz range to Reza Shah’s birthplace in Savadkuh. It was followed in 1928 by the opening of the Luristan road across the Zagros range. The former facilitated the development of the north, and the latter signified a desire to pacify the south. In 1933 the new hundred-mile “special” (makhsus) road was completed; this third access to the Caspian through the central Alborz was a feat of civil engineering, for it negotiated the high Chalus Pass through tunnels and bridges, halving the travel time to the newly developed tourist resorts along the Caspian. For ordinary Iranians who were accustomed to the hardships and slow pace of caravan travel, such triumphs over the rugged Iranian terrain earned the Pahlavi state awesome prestige (see map 8.1).

Figure 8.2. In 1916 an omnibus operating between Tabriz and Julfa, on the Russian frontier, was the only means of access to the trans-Russian railroad.

W. Warfield, The Gate of Asia: A Journey from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea (New York and London, 1916), opp. 127.

By the end of 1930s, the road network of fourteen thousand miles—and along with it the culture of motorcars, trucks, and buses—had already began to transform the face of Iranian cities and facilitate the demise of the provinces’ isolation. For the rugged terrain of the Iranian plateau, roads and motor vehicles proved as much an agent of change as they were in industrial Europe and the United States, and despite incredible obstacles. At first, it was mostly Iranian Armenians and Assyrians or foreign nationals from Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey who chauffeured expensive cars for the wealthy, Ford Model Ts, passenger station wagons of the 1930s, and British-manufactured Leyland trucks. In 1928 Tehran registered 1,099 rental and taxicabs and 490 private cars, in comparison to 459 horse carriages. All these vehicles were to abide by a traffic code introduced the same year.

Less than two decades after the introduction of mass-produced cars in the United States—which was manufacturing 80 percent of motorcars in the world—Iranians, like people across Asia and the Middle East, adopted cars, created makeshift city and intercity transportation services, and hauled agricultural and semi-industrial goods to urban markets. With motor vehicles there emerged a homegrown industry of repair and the manufacture of spare parts, dominated by the technologically savvy Armenians. As in the Safavid and Qajar periods, the Armenians of the postconstitutional and early Pahlavi periods, some of whom had emigrated from the Caucasus or eastern Turkey, contributed more than any other community to Iran’s material modernization and technological culture.

Rapid change was also visible in aviation. As early as 1916, British airplanes appeared over Iranian skies, first for reconnaissance, and then in 1918, to bomb remnants of the Kurdish resistance in western Iran. By 1928 the German Junkers had established regular air service in Iran and neighboring lands. By the early 1930s Iran had developed a viable air force of its own (fig. 8.3).


No other modern invention changed the face of Iranian cities as the motorcar did. This was the most visible impact of American mass culture on Iran’s traditional cities. As early as 1921, the Pahlavi municipalities accelerated the overhaul of the late Qajar-era city administration, improving urban sanitation and establishing regular garbage collection, centralized telephone and electricity networks, street lighting, and police precincts. By the early 1930s the most visible impact was the new thoroughfares for motor vehicle traffic, first along the newly developed northern edge of the capital and then right through the heart of the old neighborhoods.

Figure 8.3. An advertisement in the first tourist guidebook on Iran identifies ten destinations.

Guide Book on Persia, ed. Gh. H. Ebtehaj (Tehran, 1933), endpaper.

Rebuilding and beautifying the capital and improving its sanitation were major priorities for the Pahlavi state, as well as a material projection of its power. Beyond functionality, which in the main meant removal of heaps of garbage and eliminating neighborhood luti street gangs, orderliness imbued a sense of power and confidence, which was conspicuously tied up with displays of Western-style progress. Urban advancement, often thinly concealing a sense of inferiority toward the West, was dressed up with broad avenues and the ever-present statue of the shah in public squares. It was no surprise, therefore, that for most of the Reza Shah era, the replication of European city planning and street grids was presided over by a senior army officer and Reza Shah’s former Cossack colleague, Karim Aqa Buzarjomehri. As mayor of Tehran, Buzarjomehri lumped together military-style doggedness with a crude version of Baron Haussmann city planning, so as to implant in the capital, or impose upon it, an image of Pahlavi grandeur.

With vengeance he unleashed throughout the neighborhoods of old Tehran an army of immigrant laborers, superimposing on the centuries-old slow and undisciplined Qajar urban growth a grid of parallel avenues and streets. In the process he destroyed the old fabric of city neighborhoods, demolished their urban symbols, and forever ruined Tehran’s delicate character of a walled city surrounded by gardens and green spaces at the southern slopes of the Alborz range. According to one count at the turn of the twentieth century, there were at least twenty-four major Persian gardens in and around Tehran, nearly all of which fell victim of urban growth and construction booms over a period of half a century.

As the novelist Bozorg ‘Alavi put it, it was as if Pahlavi modernity could not be brought into the capital without first destroying all twelve city gates built in the Naseri era. The bazaar neighborhood was cut through with a characterless broad street, bisecting the old business and economic center. It was appropriately named after the mayor himself. The adjacent Sangelaj neighborhood, important as a center of activity during the Constitutional Revolution, was emptied of its inhabitants and completely razed to ground to provide space for a Western-style city park. As European-style residential and commercial buildings went up in northern Tehran, often replacing the grand old houses in Persian or Perso-European style or replacing barren land, old gardens, and agricultural plots, the older neighborhoods fell into disrepair and eventually housed the urban poor and new immigrants. In the short period between 1921 and 1941, the face of Tehran substantially changed: avenues and cars replaced narrow alleys and horse carriages; new neighborhoods of modern houses were constructed, often in the Western style but built with traditional Persian construction materials.

From the late 1920s, Tehran witnessed the construction of a number of grand public buildings. Among the earliest was Rolleston Hall of the Alborz American Presbyterian College, completed in 1927, and the Tehran central post office, completed in 1934, both designed by the Georgian architect Nikolai Markov (1882–1957) and inspired by Persian architecture of the Islamic era. The Iran Bastan Museum and the National Library of Iran, both completed in 1937, were designed by André Godard (1881–1965)—a French architect and director of Iran’s Archeological Service under Reza Shah—in a tasteful style inspired by Sasanian architecture. From 1934 to 1941 a mixed group of European and Iranian architects oversaw the construction of the campus of Tehran University. Yet other public buildings, such as national police headquarters, completed in 1935, and the National Bank of Iran, completed in 1938, were examples of an architectural archaism then in vogue. These buildings were inspired by the ancient Persian colonnade style of Persepolis and employing the Zoroastrian symbol of Ahura Mazda atop Achaemenid-style columns (fig. 8.4).

Figure 8.4. Central branch of Iran National Bank (Bank-e Melli-e Iran) under construction, c. 1936.

A. von Graefe, Iran das neue Persien (Berlin and Zurich, 1937), 8.

Most of these public buildings, as well as a chain of luxury hotels on the Caspian’s shores, public schools in major Iranian cities, and royal palaces, were designed and constructed under Reza Shah’s supervision. He was well aware of the importance of public buildings as physical projections of state authority, just as his Safavid and Qajar predecessors were. The presence of many European and European-educated architects engaging in public projects, though, transformed Iran’s architectural style. Plans for most of these public building complied with requisites of modern functional architecture, but they were often clad in a thin veneer of Persian architectural references.

Even the old royal citadel (the Arg) that had developed over a century under the previous dynasty was not spared from the new construction boom. Major buildings of the Qajar complex, including the royal residential quarters, were razed to make room for the Ministry of Justice and later on the Ministry of Finance, and for other government departments. These new structures represented the growth of the state’s sprawling bureaucracy. Symbolically and physically they were built in place of the Qajar royal palaces and divan buildings, as if the new regime were anxious to erase traces of the previous dynasty’s physical manifestations of kingship and statecraft.

Soon thereafter, and increasingly in the 1940s and 1950s, most provincial centers were also subjected to the forces of Europeanized modernity and with mixed outcomes. Nearly in all towns and cities the walls and city gates were the earliest victims of urban growth. Thereafter the old neighborhoods were gradually demolished or badly segmented by the introduction of the Western grid; many instantly turned into slums. With the coming of Western-style architecture, the existing swirling pathways and gated alleys, local shopping rows, subterranean irrigation network of qanats, public reservoirs, ice-making structures, bathhouses, madrasas, takkiyehs, and “houses of strength” (zurkhanehs)—where young and old in the neighborhood exercised and fraternized—either demolished or left to become dilapidated. Many old houses with magnificent cooling towers, outer and inner quarters, quadrangles with a refreshing mix of symmetrical gardens surrounding a fresh water pool, fell to disrepair. Many were divided and sold, often replaced by cheap and ugly residential quarters that were shabby imitations of Western modern architecture. Some of the most egregious demolitions of old quarters and historical edifices took place without the slightest alarm in Shiraz, Isfahan, Kashan, and Kerman, wiping out some Safavid, Zand, and Qajar residents.

Yet in Tehran and in the provinces, urban amenities improved in the prosperous neighborhoods, streets and avenues were paved, and rows of trees appeared along the newly constructed avenues. New shops and small shopping centers offering Western imports served the more affluent middle classes, and European-style hotels and restaurants popped up. An inevitable Pahlavi Avenue in every major city, a symbol of order, cleanliness, and security, was a contrast in the eyes of citizens with the crooked, dark, and unsafe alleys of the old neighborhoods (pl. 8.1).


The centralizing economy of the early Pahlavi era was characterized by the state’s intervention in finance, modern banking, trade, and industrialization. Some of the state’s initiatives echoed aspirations of the constitutional period, and others in the 1920s and 1930s were modeled on the economic policies of the neighboring Soviet Union and the Republic of Turkey. Thanks to the growing population, urbanization, greater consumption, and new sources of revenue—including royalties from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company—the economy grew in size and diversified. The overhauling of state finances and the state’s investments in infrastructure and industry were in contrast to the noninterventionist, and chronically bankrupt, economy of the Qajar state.

The population growth was particularly remarkable. In 1921 the population of Iran was estimated to be slightly above 11 million, with less than 1 percent annual growth; by 1941 the first official census placed the total population at 14,760,000. The annual population increase of about 1.5 percent for the two decades of Reza Shah’s rule resulted in part from lower infant mortality but also from fewer outbreaks of cholera and typhus. Urban growth was particularly notable, with the population of Tehran in 1941 for the first time exceeding 500,000; Isfahan, 200,000; and Shiraz, less than 130,000. Between 1929 and 1941, the state budget also grew more than eleven-fold, from 31 million tumans income and 34 million tumans expenditure to more than 361 million tumans income and 432 million tumans projected expenditure.

Old patterns persisted especially in the countryside. The economy remained essentially agrarian, with no major changes in landownership or mechanization, while the pastoral nomadic economy remained at a standstill or took a turn for the worse. The bazaar began to lose its age-old grip on commerce and manufacturing, resulting in the decline of the traditional mercantile sector, and this in turn hindered the growth of a capitalist bourgeoisie in the bazaar. The global economic depression and collapse of the financial markets in the United States, and subsequently in Europe, also had dire repercussions in Iran, as in the rest of the world, leading to rampant bankruptcies in the 1920s and 1930s among the cash-strapped and credit-laden bazaar merchants. Unemployment rates also rose in the traditional sectors that relied on workshop weaving and carpet industries and on small-scale imports and exports. The slow recovery of the Soviet economy also contributed to Iran’s recession, as much of the Iranian network in Baku, Tiflis, Ashgabat, and Tashkent had perished during the Stalin era due to confiscation, forced repatriation, and economic hardship.

The arrested growth of the private sector, the widening gap between living standards in the city versus the countryside, and the rise of the state’s reliance on independent income through monopolies on commodities and oil revenue were the most significant legacies of the first Pahlavi era. While the state became less dependent on its citizens and the meager revenue it could extract through taxation, it sped up military and police spending to safeguard the increasingly unpopular regime. To maintain its presence in nearly all economic sectors meant that the state should become the largest employer in the country by far. These patterns persisted through the whole of the Pahlavi era and beyond, with few exceptions—a curse on the modern Iranian political economy that continues to the present. Like other state-run economies, the early Pahlavi period also proved increasingly inefficient, another legacy handed down through the decades.

Centralizing and modernizing state finances was the Pahlavi regime’s first priority. The Shuster mission in the constitutional period and later British and other European administrators employed by the Iranian government had partially reformed the state’s financial machinery and helped increase public revenue despite domestic and foreign opposition. In 1922 the Iranian government employed Dr. Arthur Millspaugh (1883–1955), a former adviser to the US State Department’s Office of Foreign Trade, and his team of American financial experts to update Iran’s finances and generate greater state revenue, especially through taxation of the tribal territories. Employing Millspaugh was a gesture of defiance in the face of the bitter memory of the 1911 ultimatum and Shuster’s forced departure. Over the course of nearly five years as treasurer general, Millspaugh tried with some success to apply the American model of internal revenue collection while the British war subsidy was being phased out, as well as to rationalize fiscal policies, produce detailed annual budgets with set goals for incomes and expenditures, and reduce inefficiency and influence peddling.

The relative success of the Millspaugh mission helped consolidate the Pahlavi state at a critical juncture. The still-minuscule 16 percent royalties from production and export of Iranian oil that began to trickle in—after a great deal of postwar altercations and in the face of Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s disingenuous accounting practices—was a vital shot in the arm, but it was not sufficient. Even though Millspaugh contemplated increasing income through monopolies, he resisted direct state intervention in the market. Yet a greater challenge for Millspaugh was Reza Shah and his ministers’ desire to increase military expenditures through, among other ways, exclusive allocation of the oil royalties, which the American adviser resisted. Under pressure from the shah, in June 1927 Millspaugh resigned, giving way to swift implementation of a series of measures that reshaped Iran’s economic future.

By 1928 the oil revenue reserve had reached six million tumans (US$3,518,000), a hefty sum that was meant to be devoted to economic development but was instead appropriated by the state to consolidate the military and pay for the growing bureaucracy. The sugar monopoly was imposed in 1927 to pay for the construction of the railroad, followed in 1929 by a monopoly on the sale and export of opium, and thereafter on tobacco and other commodities. As a sign of the changing times, control of the commercial markets faced no resistance from the bazaar, in stark contrast to the Tobacco Protest of 1891–1892 or the protests against government price controls on the eve of the Constitutional Revolution. This was another cause of the bazaar’s reluctance to abandon the small-scale patterns of patronage and networking in favor of investment in modern financial and industrial sectors. A weakened bazaar and the relative worsening of the affairs of the bazaar merchants meant that the middle and lower ranks of traders and guilds suffered. The ensuing growth of conservatism in the bazaar surfaced in a firmer alliance with the conservative clergy, the other losing sector in Pahlavi society.

The new banking network further strengthened the state’s hold over the market at the expense of the bazaar. By the end of the Reza Shah era, at least four major Iranian banks were operating: the National Bank, the Pahlavi Bank for army veterans (Bank Sepah), the Mortgage Bank, and the Agricultural Bank. They partially replaced not only the old moneylending institutions of the bazaar and their system of promissory notes and pledges, but also the small-scale financial networks that had been in operation since the late Qajar era, such as the Armenian Tumanian Brothers, who had branches in Iranian cities and partners in European capitals, and the Zoroastrian banking houses. Fulfilling one of the earliest demands of the constitutional period, in 1928 the National Bank of Iran (Bank Melli Iran) was established, with initial capital of two million tumans (approximately $1,172,000) that only partially was paid. It was envisioned in the Banking Act of 1927 as an institution to promote commerce, agriculture, and industry; in practice, it functioned more as the central bank.

Employing German expertise, the National Bank soon replaced the British-owned Imperial Bank of Persia in the issuing of Iranian currency. For the first time since the 1880s the portrait of Naser al-Din Shah on the banknotes was replaced with a portrait of Reza Shah, ending nearly half a century of the Imperial Bank’s monopoly. This was followed in 1932 by a change in the name of the unit of currency from the old qeran and tuman of the Qajar era to the new rial, mostly a symbolic move to reflect the nationalist resolve to break with the Qajar memory.

Banking became an integral part of Iran’s modern commerce, mostly conducted with European countries. Britain, Russia, and increasingly Germany were main partners in state-dominated trade. Between 1928 and 1939 the total volume of Iranian imports grew more than 250 percent, whereas the volume of non-oil exports remained stagnant, an indication of Iran’s growing dependency on foreign imports. The widening deficit in Iran’s balance sheets had to be paid off by a steady increase in oil exports, of which only a fraction reached the state’s coffers. During the same period, the volume of oil exports nearly doubled. The Iranian royalties from oil production constituted about 25 percent of the state’s annual revenue during the same period. By 1940, they amounted to $19,150,000. Reliance on royalties thus anticipated a long-term pattern in Iranian finances as the state became addicted to oil revenue to finance its needs and less accountable to its citizens.

The Pahlavi initiative to pioneer large-scale industrialization was another outgrowth of the state’s centralizing mission (see map 8.1). The textile mills, part of any early industrializing project, developed especially in Mazandaran province on or near Reza Shah’s vast private estate. His estate almost entirely was appropriated by force from large landholders and petty sharecroppers. He also allocated plots of appropriated land to senior army officers and officials whom he favored. Several state-run textile mills in Shahi, Tabriz, Isfahan, and Tehran produced a variety of consumer and specialized fabrics to meet domestic demands. These had been preceded by privately owned mills earlier in the century in Isfahan and Qom, but they were crucial for training a skilled workforce. The cement factories, sugar refineries, and power plants were other sectors of Iran’s infant modern industries. Aspiring to revive Iran’s traditional textile industry and handicrafts, the early Pahlavi state aimed for self-sufficiency. A textile mill in Chalus in Mazandaran used local silk to produce fine silk clothes. It harkened back to the Safavid memory of silk production in Gilan, even though like other state-run projects, soon after Reza Shah, it fell on bad times and closed down.

Carpet production also received a new lease of life in the early Pahlavi era. As an important item of export and representative of Iran’s handicraft industry, the promotion of carpets became a source of national pride. Production of Persian handmade rugs and carpets reached a semi-industrial level as early as the 1870s, when Iranian merchants as well as European and American firms began to invest in the production and export of Persian carpets to Western Europe, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States, where demands were on the rise. Carpet workshops of different capacities, some having tens of carpet looms and employing up to a hundred weavers, began to appear in Tabriz, Kerman, Kashan, Sultanabad, Isfahan, and Hamadan (see map 8.1). As early as 1874 in some 150 villages around Sultanabad (today’s Arak), for example, at least five thousand looms were manufacturing carpets and employing as many as ten thousand weavers.

By the turn of the twentieth century, firms such as Ziegler, Oriental Carpet Manufacturers, and Castelli Brothers independently, or in collaboration with Iranian carpet manufacturers and exporters, developed new designs and color schemes suitable to the Western market. By 1914 Ziegler and Oriental Carpet had invested at least £400,000 ($1,755,000) in Iran’s carpet industry. The high volume of exports boosted Iran’s status as the biggest and finest supplier of handmade carpets throughout the world. The highly appreciated Persian carpet became a requisite luxury item during the Gilded Age in America and was part of the opulent home decor during the Belle Époque when Persian carpets became Iran’s most closely identified artifact. By 1914 the total exports of Persian carpets had risen to about £1 million ($4,930,000), and exported via Tabriz-Trabzon or through Persian Gulf ports.

Growth of the carpet industry transformed the Iranian textile industry and quickly replaced the declining silk and cotton handlooms. Some of the carpet designs were reminiscent of carpets manufactured in the Safavid royal workshops. Most, however, were designs indigenous to various urban, rural, and tribal regions; others were inspired by designs of shawls and other silk fabrics, the production of which were no longer economically viable. Patterns of the Kerman shawl, in particular, were adopted for the high-quality Kerman carpets, even though traces of European tapestry designs, such as millefleur, were not rare. With remarkable versatility, master designers in Kerman, Tabriz, Kashan, and elsewhere came up with novel ways to meet the demands of the export and domestic markets while at the same time trying to preserve the integrity of authentic patterns and color schemes.

Transformative though carpet production was for the Iranian economy, it barely propelled the country forward into an industrial age. More tribal and semitribal regions were incorporated into the production processes. High-quality wool and natural dyes were essential items supplied by nomadic herders from around the carpet-producing centers. The workforce largely consisted of women and young children, whose small hands were suitable for producing very fine carpets with a high number of knots and complex designs.

The early Pahlavi era witnessed a greater awareness of the carpet as a national heritage worthy of protection and improvement. The state-owned Iran Carpet Company aimed to improve carpet design and quality and to introduce standardization. Yet throughout the 1920s and 1930s carpet production continued to follow the demands of the international and domestic markets rather than complying with government standards. Even the working conditions for most of the workforce did not substantially improve. Child labor, dark and dusty workshops, exploitative wages, and long hours continued to undermine the industry up to the end of the twentieth century (fig. 8.5). The quality, too, was later compromised. The shift to affordable synthetic dyes, inferior wool, designs reproduced en masse, and bastardized techniques plagued commercial carpet production. Yet throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, still a considerable number of high-quality pieces were manufactured all over Iran. Despite a gradual change in consumer taste, especially in the American market, solid demand for Persian carpets continued to make it the second-largest export, after oil, all through the period and a major employer in Iran.

Figure 8.5. Carpet manufacturing workshop in Tabriz.

A. von Graefe, Iran das neue Persien (Berlin and Zurich, 1937), 47.

Workers in industrial sectors, together with workers in the carpet industry, the oil fields, and the service industries, would form the core of the working class. In the postwar era this workforce began to organize itself into unions. Often in close partnership with the Tudeh Party these unions called for higher wages and better working conditions. In the private sector, except for a few textile mills, there was little large-scale industrial investment, which in turn meant that most of the industrial workers up to the 1940s were state employees. The early Pahlavi administration offered housing and other benefits to workers and their families, even though it kept wages low and discouraged unionization. The high inflation of the postwar era wiped out much of the workers’ job security, adding to the discontent and radicalization of labor.


More than the army, economy, or infrastructure, the growth of public education shaped Pahlavi society and its nationalist culture. Between 1921 and 1941 state-run public schools grew by more than fifty times, and the budget for education increased by nearly two hundred times. In 1901 there were only 17 all-male modern primary schools and a single high school; by 1924 there were 638 and 86, respectively, and by 1940, there were 2,331 and 321. Although the literacy rate increased only meagerly from an estimated 5 percent in the 1900s to nearly 15 percent in the 1940s—a malady only partially remedied in the postwar era—the growth was tangible among the urban population, laying the foundation for a middle class that would staff the army and bureaucracy and create the core of Iran’s professional sector for the coming decades.

The state’s emphasis on education, evident from the outset of Pahlavi rule, was the outcome of the modernizing project of the late Qajar period and the constitutional era. Like the Ottomans and Egyptians, but at a somewhat slower pace, the Iranians adopted a primarily French model that stressed public education as key to the state’s social engineering and mission to shape its citizens’ outlooks and mores. Primary schools first established in 1887 in Tabriz by Mirza Hasan Tabrizi, better known as Roshdiyeh (1851–1944), the aforementioned educator who prior to coming to Tabriz had taught in Iravan. He produced the earliest modern pedagogical tract in Azarbaijani Turkish. These schools grew in the late 1890s under the aegis of ‘Ali Khan Amin al-Dowleh and were prototypes for primary schools of the constitutional period (fig. 8.6). As early as the early 1900s, the reform-minded Yahya Dowlatabadi also established a modern school for girls of the sayyed lineage. Though from the middle decades of the nineteenth century missionary schools were active in the capital and provinces, among them American Presbyterian schools in Oromiyeh and Tehran, and soon after the Alliance Israélite Universelle, it was only after the Constitutional Revolution that they were allowed to admit Muslim pupils. The American Alborz College in Tehran, established in the 1870s, came to be an institution of higher education that during the long tenure of Samuel M. Jordan (1871–1952), from 1899 to 1940, strived to adopt the American liberal arts model (with a Presbyterian bent) to the Iranian environment. As in the rest of the Middle East, the missionary schools in Iran for boys and girls not only contributed to the education of the new elite but also provided an organizational and curricular model for private community schools.

In the aftermath of the Constitutional Revolution, the Baha’i schools in Tehran and the provinces also offered rigorous curricula for pupils of all religions, ethnicities, and classes. Adopting a mix of Persian and American methods, the flagship Tarbiyat School in Tehran—and others in cities with sizable Baha’i communities—tried to forge an Iranian identity through the study of Persian literature and history. They were open to Western innovations while avoiding both the cultural alienation of missionary schools and the conservatism typical of madrasa education. Even before the missionary and community schools, the Baha’i schools were the first victims of the government’s nationalization of education. Their closure in the late 1930s at least in part was tainted with growing anti-Baha’i propaganda.

Figure 8.6. Roshdiyeh boys’ school celebrating its second year. The message on the blackboard complains of the eleven-thousand-tuman school fund being squandered.

Postcard, c. 1898. Private collection.

From the mid-1920s, with the growth of state-run schools, a standardized curriculum, and a highly regimented pedagogical outlook came to dominate Iranian public education. The state system bore stigmas of Pahlavi authoritarianism: a cumbersome bureaucracy, inadequate funding, unimaginative pedagogy, and cruel punishments. Introducing reading, writing and arithmetic at the primary level and sciences at the high school level, modern schools operated on an entirely different plane from that of the customary maktabs (often rendered in English rather inaccurately as “Koranic schools”) and madrasas. The new program of study at regular hours during an academic calendar, a twelve-grade system with a set curriculum, class periods, textbooks, uniforms, a grading system, and examinations—all were governed by a hierarchy of teachers, school principals, and centralized administrators. It was a new system with many shortcomings that had to adapt to the realities of a changing society with a short period of two decades.

The schoolchildren who learned geography, history, and Persian literature as well as modern sciences internalized a different perspective of the world from that of their parents, one that gave prominence to secular knowledge and material progress. Yet the shift from instructing elites to a system of public education, part of a trend that revolutionized literacy worldwide, often reinforced uncritical learning. It rewarded uniformity and obedience and punished imagination and diversity. The prevailing pedagogical culture, to the extent perceived by its framers, militated against the body of knowledge in the sciences and humanities that was supposed to open intellectual horizons and change worldviews. Modern sciences in particular augmented Western achievements and were considered key to future material success both individually and collectively. Humanities, in contrast, instilled a spirit of Iranian nationalism that glorified the distant past, especially the pre-Islamic imperial past, at the expense of the more relevant recent past, which often was labeled “decadent” and “corrupt.” It promoted a canonized body of Persian high literature and a standardized Persian language that significantly improved average students’ language skills but played down Iran’s regional and ethnic diversity. The study of geography, too, emphasized national harmony, homogeneity, and territorial integrity. The subtext for the entire design of modern education thus was to promote the place of a powerful state as the embodiment of an awakened nation, a new positivist spirit that called to duty the new generation of educated Iranians as soldiers for reconstructing a modern and secular Iran. Conspicuously left out of this nation-building project, except for the bare minimum, was Iran’s Islamic, and more specifically its Shi‘i, identity.

Yet pedagogical blind spots aside, public education under Reza Shah made impressive gains. Its system of primary schools, high schools, and vocational schools helped train a new workforce. Despite its relatively humble beginnings, these institutions served as the engine of economic progress and were the marker of social status and political advancement. Most students in the schools’ early years were children of government employees, army officers, landowners, small and large business owners, proprietors of new street businesses and members of traditional middle classes, including bazaar merchants and even the upper-ranking ulama. For a disproportionate number of students from religious minorities—Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Jews, Armenians, and Assyrians—modern education served as a social ladder to improve their economic lot and social status. For children of tribal chiefs and provincial notables, too, education served as a threshold of access to the centralized state and a means of stabilizing their otherwise diminishing local influence.

Established in 1934, Tehran University was the pinnacle of Pahlavi higher education. Incorporating a number of professional state schools, it educated generations of lawyers, medical doctors (and other medical professions), engineers, and scientists, as well as scholars of humanities, architecture, fine arts, and social sciences. In the postwar era it also became a hotbed of political dissent and a core for antiregime protests and rallies. All shades of political opposition, from Marxist to nationalist to Islamic, were present among the students and the faculty. Higher education became inseparable from the Iranian political dissent.

Typical of the reforms of the Pahlavi era, the rise of Tehran University became synonymous with the mindless ruination of Dar al-Fonun, which was established eighty-three years earlier. Even before receiving its deathblow at the hands of Reza Shah’s educational bureaucrats, in the postconstitutional era, Dar al-Fonun had already fallen by the wayside. As with other symbols of Qajar material culture, Dar al-Fonun was also deemed unfit by the artless Pahlavi modernists. By the early 1920s having been starved of funds and fallen into disrepair, it was demoted to a high school. Some of its old buildings were demolished to give way to the ugly architecture of Ministry of Post and Telegraph. Some of the teaching staff was reassigned to Tehran University, and the remainder were sent off to teach in high schools.

The demise of Dar al-Fonun was also hastened by new educational possibilities abroad. By the turn of the twentieth century, when the informal ban on travel aboard enforced during the Naseri period was lifted, an increasing number of students of the elite, and occasionally the nonelite, found their ways to schools, colleges, and universities in Lebanon (the American University of Beirut a favorite destination), then increasingly to France, Switzerland, imperial Russia, and later Germany. Far fewer opted for England or the United States. By the mid-1920s a state-run program selected the cream of the crop among Iranian high school graduates and dispatched them mostly to French and later to German universities and polytechnics. Upon their return, they were employed as faculty of Tehran University or held high government posts.

‘Ali Akbar Siyasi (1896–1990), a Sorbonne-educated professor of psychology whose 1930 dissertation on the theme of Iranian cultural contacts with Europe won him an award from the French Academy, was a notable example. A year after his return to Iran, he founded the Iran-e Javan (Young Iran) club, a cultural society favored by many of the Pahlavi educational elite and cultural reforms who found it a venue at a safe distance from state intervention. He was also a central figure in the framing of Tehran University’s charter and was for many years the university’s rector. His administrative skills and academic rigor characterized many of his French-educated cohorts among the first generation of Iranian students abroad. Whereas most French graduates who came to dominate Iranian higher education remained loyal to the post–World War II nationalist cause, the Iranian graduates of the German system often tilted toward the left and were influential in shaping of the Tudeh Party and other independent socialist tendencies.

By the mid-1930s the Pahlavi administration had gained enough confidence, though barely operational sophistication, to take over most private-run missionary schools and try to further regulate the educational system—a move concurrent with the introduction of a new dress code, restrictions on religious madrasas, and a ban on some Shi‘i mourning rituals. With high demand for graduates in government offices, the military, industries, and the private sector, there were new incentives for the lower middle classes—shopkeepers, the bazaar middlemen, urban émigrés, seminarians who abandoned the madrasa, and even motivated village boys—to enter public schools. In 1941 the 3.3 million urban Iranians—22 percent of the total population of nearly 15 million—received close to 90 percent of the educational budget of 155 million rials. They were mostly boys. Only in the capital and in larger cities, and among the upper middle classes, was there a desire to educate girls. These represented meager strides that state modernization had made in a still firmly patriarchal society.

The old maktab system was no match for public schooling and thus was doomed to disappear in the larger cities. Everything worked against it: the informal surroundings, haphazard attendance, almost no curriculum, and arcane textbooks, if any. The teachers often were low-rank mullahs with rudimentary training but a reputation for ferocity. Memories of former pupils who later became Pahlavi-style modernists described frequent caning, thrashing, and bastinado as the norm. As elsewhere, including Europe, corporal punishment in the maktab was seen as a character-building exercise. The historian Ahmad Kasravi, who like many of his contemporaries started at the maktab, recounts in his memoirs a maktab teacher who would hit the heads of innocent pupils with long canes of weeping-willow branches for no apparent reason. No other memoirist of the period reserved any cherished memories of the maktab.

The hierarchy of harassment that was thus implanted in the hearts and minds of maktab pupils became lifelong baggage that could not easily be cast aside. The state public schools successfully blended the legacy of maktab cruelty with the accepted severity of European pedagogy the same way they adopted the maktab memorization practices into uncritical adaption of the Western curriculum. Yet despite the obvious inadequacies of the maktab and the madrasa, the inclusion of such texts as Sa‘di’s Golestan, passages from the Qur’an, the utterly impenetrable Sarf-e Mir in Arabic grammar and syntax, and Jami‘ al-Muqaddimat, a compendium of rudimentary logic, did nurture a level of Perso-Arabic erudition that was largely missing from modern schools.

Such texts as the thirteenth-century Nisab al-Sibyan (children’s handbook), a long poem of two hundred verses to be memorized by young schoolchildren (even as late as the 1930s), probably was among the most influential in the Persian language. Essentially an Arabic-Persian vocabulary list in verse, this incredibly dull and impenetrable text instructed schoolchildren in the rudiments of both languages as well as in complex poetic meter; names of Prophet Mohammad, his offspring, and his wives; names of the Shi‘i Imams; chapters of the Qur’an; calendrics and basic astronomy; names of musical modes; names of animals and properties of horses, camels, and sheep; names of various metals; as well as recipes for ink making and details on how to select a reed pen. Such a mélange of medieval erudition must have perplexed even educated adults in thirteenth-century Herat, where it was composed, let alone young pupils in the twentieth-century Iranian maktab.

In contrast, the modern school curriculum entailed a paradigmatic shift from an overtly Shi‘i identity expressed in Arabic to a rarefied Iranian cultural identity manifest in Persian. In addition to elevating standardized Persian to a superior status, the new education oversaw the establishment of a Persian literary canon and a historical narrative. Emphasis on the luminous Persian heritage in the textbooks, as in higher education, public media, and state propaganda, as well as celebrating memories of classical poets, and attempts to “purify” the language of its past “pollutants,” were all part of a cultural project with parallels in the neighboring lands.


By the turn of the twentieth century the Persian language and Persianate culture, which had once spread as far as Bengal in the easternmost corner of the Indian subcontinent to the outer edges of Central Asia, and was an important part of the high culture of both the Mughal and the Ottoman worlds, became largely confined to Iran’s geographical boundaries. In Afghanistan, where it was known as Dari, and in Tajikistan, where it was called Tajik, the Persian language faced new and debilitating challenges. By the late 1940s Persianate culture in the rest of the region had been orphaned, if not entirely lost, in the collective memory, often the victim of exclusive cultural nationalisms and their accompanying educational apparatus.

Cultural nationalism was the order of the day as much outside Iran as it was inside. The state sponsorship of Persian high culture, inevitable though it may have seemed since the time of the Constitutional Revolution, came at the cost of ignoring, or actively suppressing, a plethora of languages and dialects throughout Iran, along with their associated regional cultures and folklores. Equally prevalent was an obsession with “purifying” Persian of its foreign words—from Arabic, Turkish, and Mongolian—as relics of what was considered an alien and embarrassing past. In both respects, the Pahlavi state and its cultural officialdom held a vital stake in standardizing Persian and pushing for purification of the language. Elevating Persian to Iran’s national language, often at the expense of the regional languages of the periphery, served to homogenize the Iranian population through education, press, and the media.

In the early twentieth century speakers of Azerbaijani Turkish, about 20 percent of the total population, and Kurdish (the three dialects of Kormanji, Sorani, and Gorani), about 10 percent of the population, accounted for nearly one-third of the people of Iran. Speakers of Gilaki and Mazandarani dialects, Luri dialects of Western Iran, Baluchi of the southeast, the Arabic dialect of Khuzestan, Turkic of eastern Iran, and other dialects together accounted for another 20 percent of the population. Although they dominated the geographical periphery, these languages and dialects were in the main within the family of Iranian languages and coexisted with Persian as language of state and high literature. This was a powerful tool in the hand of the Persian-speaking cultural elite not to encourage regional vernaculars. From Tehran’s standpoint, the inclusion of vernaculars in the school curriculum was tantamount to acceding to demands for political autonomy or even secession. The centralizing project of the state and its pacification policies also revealed such fears.

Highlighting the resilience of Persian against historical odds—and its roots in the pre-Islamic Pahlavi language of the Sasanian period and the ancient Persian of the Achaemenid Empire—was another tool of the Pahlavi state. After all, the very name of the new dynasty implied—and in the mind of Reza Shah, himself a Mazandarani, affirmed—an ancient connection ethnically as well as linguistically. This tracing of Persian to ancient times went hand in hand with renewed interest in Zoroastrianism as the indigenous religion of an “authentic” past, and archeology further buttressed such claims (fig. 8.7).

In particular, works of the acclaimed German archaeologist and philologist Ernst Emil Herzfeld (1879–1948) greatly contributed to a better understanding of pre-Islamic Iran in the broader context of Middle Eastern civilizations of the period. One of the greatest archeologists of his time, Herzfeld, throughout the 1920s and up to 1934, excavated the first Achaemenid capital, Pazargadae, and later Persepolis, as well as Sasanian Ctesiphon in Iraq. Although the rise of Nazi Germany seriously disrupted Herzfeld’s academic career—he was forced to retire from his prestigious post for being of Jewish descent—he was able to continue writing on Zoroastrianism and on aspects of Iranian past while taking residence in the United States. In his many years of residence in Iran, he was instrumental in raising awareness about Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage among officials in charge of cultural affairs and scholars alike. Despite rivalries with French archeological mission, which held a monopoly over excavation in Persepolis and Shush, and quarrels with André Godard, the director of the Iranian archeological service, Herzfeld influence loomed large, comparable only to Edward Browne a generation earlier.

Figure 8.7. French archaeological excavation in Shush, site of the ancient city of Susa in upper Khuzestan. Excavating Iran’s pre-Islamic past contributed to the nationalist narrative.

A. von Graefe, Iran das neue Persien (Berlin and Zurich, 1937), 60.

Iranian cultural archaism and the coining of “pure” Persian words, in part a legacy of archaeology, were never as severe as critics often alleged. Very few of the linguistic atrocities that ravaged Turkish, Hindi, or even Tajik (the latter adopted the Cyrillic alphabet thanks to Soviet cultural hegemony), succeeded in taking root even at the height of Reza Shah. The measured reforms introduced by an influential cultural circle tangibly improved the quality of written and spoken Persian and its adaptability to new education, press and media, and scientific needs. Discouraging the use of quaint Persian words; coining new terminology for foreign terms, ideas, institutions, and new technologies; and standardizing Persian grammar and syntax proved essential for modern education and for society’s emerging needs.

The Farhangestan-e Iran (Iran Abode of Culture), founded in 1935, similar to the Académie Française, helped supervise the development and reform of the Persian language. It promised a balanced approach to language reform and a consistent response to the “crisis” of neologisms. In addition, the new institution was mandated with regulating methods of teaching Persian and with standardizing grammar, facilitating the production of dictionaries and other reference works, collecting the folklore of Iran, enlightening the public about the true meaning of literature, and encouraging new literary talents. The twenty-four members, including distinguished cultural figures of the time, were led by one of the most influential figures of the Pahlavi era, Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi. Over the course of six years, Farhangestan proposed Persian equivalents to Arabic, Turkish, and French terms that found public acceptance and became part of everyday language of Iranians. Prudently, however, it avoided the sensitive debate about reforming the script, which Farhangestan’s constitution had called for.

Concurrent with language reforms was a movement of literary and lexicographical production. Influenced in part by European Orientalist scholarship and in part by traditional Persian biographic dictionaries and lexicographical works, numerous critical editions of classical texts, encyclopedic lexicons, literary histories, and textual commentaries were published throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Close paleographic and bibliographic research unearthed forgotten texts and laid the foundation for a Persian literary canon. In turn, a new cultural and linguistic style was made current through textbooks, the press, literary journals, and later radio broadcasts. Pioneered by intellectuals of the constitutional period, found in scholarship an escape from the suffocating political milieu of the time. Editing a classical text while in exile or while sequestered at home was far safer than venturing into public office and ending in the dungeons of the Pahlavi regime. For people like Forughi, being relegated to the political wilderness at least had the unintended consequence of laying the foundation of modern Persian literary and historical identity.

The aforementioned Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi (1877–1942) was typical of this circle of the literati. Coming from a cultural family in the Qajar service, he presided over translation projects, editing, and historical publications even before serving as the first prime minister of Reza Shah (and as it turned out, the last one, who in 1941 negotiated the shah’s abdication). He produced, between 1931 and 1941, the first general history of Western philosophy in Persian, a seminal text not only in offering the Iranian reader an insightful treatment of Greek and Western thought but also in pioneering a technical prose that would become the hallmark of modern Persian scholarship for decades to come. In 1937 he also translated from Arabic into Persian part of a major work by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) dealing with the philosophy of natural sciences. As much as his history of European philosophy accentuated the desirability of understanding in one’s mother tongue the West’s rich intellectual tradition—in contrast to the often impenetrable Arabic prose of Islamic philosophy—his translation of the section on natural sciences from the Arabic text reflected a positivist perspective that at the same time strove to incorporate the Persian Ibn Sina into the narrative of modern Iranian nationalism. Such a balancing act may also have had in earnest other objectives for it came at a time when the regimented nationalism of the Pahlavi state threatened to undermine Iran’s Islamic intellectual heritage. Moreover, Forughi’s translation came at a time when the identity of Ibn Sina was being heatedly contested by neighboring nationalisms in Turkey, Central Asia, and the Arab world.

Not surprisingly, for a man as well versed in European and Islamic cultures as in Persian culture, Forughi also produced during his years in the political wilderness a standard edition of the works of the thirteenth-century Sa‘di of Shiraz, one of the four “greats” of Persian classical literature. His editing project can be viewed as another cultural statement that aimed to highlight the centrality of Sa‘di’s prose and poetry to Iran’s intellectual reawakening. Sa‘di’s didactic works, Golestan and Bustan, could in effect offer a conceptual framework toward a socially tolerant and politically open society. His lyrical odes, along with those of Hafez, promised a liberating worldview very different from the strictures of legalistic Shi‘ism. It was as if through the medium of Sa‘di’s Divan or his history of Western philosophy, Forughi intended to promote a blueprint for an Iranian national identity, one that was free of the conservatism of the Shi‘i jurists and of oppressive rulers and their blind Westernism.

Preserving Persian at the core of cultural identity is also evident in the lexicographic production of ‘Ali Akbar Dehkhoda, who became an avid scholar of the language and popular culture. His ambitious compilation of a multivolume encyclopedic dictionary was not the first in Persian. For centuries, scholars in India, Iran, and elsewhere (including since the eighteenth century in Europe) had produced massive Persian dictionaries. Yet Dehkhoda’s effort stood out to his Iranian contemporaries as a monumental attempt to preserve a literary tradition, beyond mere words and expressions. Completed posthumously, the Loghat-nameh of Dehkhoda is the closest work in Persian to a historical dictionary for it contains extensive poetic and prose citations from classical sources. That in 1946 the fourteenth Majles passed a special bill sponsoring the completion and publication of the Loghat-nameh reveals a desire to establish Persian as a component of national sovereignty. Earlier, Dehkhoda’s four-volume dictionary of Persian proverbs and aphorisms, Amsal va Hekam, an impetus for his dictionary project, was a response to the national desire to preserve people’s language and folklore in fast-changing times, something that tied Dakho of the Sur-e Esrafil era to the Dehkhoda of Loghat-nameh.

Mohammad Taqi Bahar who was of the same generation as Dehkhoda and bore the brunt of Reza Shah’s repression, also loomed large on the cultural landscape. His Sabk-shenasi (A study of stylistics), published in 1942, was a systematic study of Persian prose over a millennium, tracing its roots to the pre-Islamic Pahlavi and Avestan languages. As professor of Persian literature in the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences of the newly founded Tehran University, Bahar wrote this study for the doctoral program to stress the versatility of evolving Persian prose in the face of religious encroachment and nomadic invasions. As Iranian intellectuals of Bahar’s generation became more familiar with textual studies, philology, and critical methodology of the European Iranists, their awareness of the link between pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran served as the impetus to form a Persian canon. Along with the historian Ahmad Kasravi and a few other Iranian intellectuals, Bahar studied ancient Iranian languages with Ernest Herzfeld.

During World War I and through the early 1920s, the Berlin circle of Iranian intellectuals in exile had already sown the seeds of cultural nationalism. Influenced by cultural trends of the Weimar Republic, Hasan Taqizadeh, who founded the circle, and his cohorts (including the pioneering short-story writer Mohammad ‘Ali Jamalzadeh, renewed scholar Mohammad Qazvini, and Ibrahim Purdavud, a specialist in Zoroastrianism and ancient Iranian texts), who mostly were former activists of the constitutional period, experimented with new literary genres and historical interpretations. Witnessing the German defeat and the crises of postwar Germany, Taqizadeh and his colleagues shifted their attention to cultural issues. The Berlin circle’s mark on Iran’s nationalist culture of the period is well evident in the periodical Kaveh, named after the Shahnameh’s legendary blacksmith who rebelled against the tyranny of Zahhak, hinting, no doubt, at powers who had occupied Iran during World War I. Published between 1916 and 1922 in two series, the biweekly journal gave voice to Iranian anxieties and indignation under occupation. Its barrage of anti-Russian and anti-British articles, some of the most poignant the Iranian readership had seen up to that time, were complemented by in-depth analyses of Iran’s geopolitical perils and its economic difficulties, its troubled history of relations with the two powers, and the humiliation of living under occupation.

At the end of the war, Kaveh noticeably turned to Persian history, especially European scholarship on ancient Iran, Persian art, calendar and time reckoning—a favorite of Taqizadeh—as well as philology and Persian prose and poetry. A series of articles on the Shahnameh and its historical sources by Taqizadeh, among the earliest modern Persian scholarship on the seminal epic, was typical of the journal’s focus on Iranian identity and its historical roots and mythical memories. The earliest short stories in the Persian language, authored by Jamalzadeh were first read to the Berlin circle, and some were published in Kaveh.

An enduring collections of Persian short stories, Jamalzadeh’s Yaki Bud Yaki Nabud (once upon a time), first published in 1922, masterfully employed street language, folk expressions and proverbs, and nuances of regional, class, and ethnic parlance to poignantly depict life in the postwar era. In his “Farsi shakar ast” (Persian is sweet), a plain-speaking peasant finds himself in the Anzali customs-house (on the Caspian coast) in a detention cell together with both a Westernized Iranian fresh from Farang whose faulty Persian can barely be understood, and a mullah in traditional garb whose Arabicized Persian is utterly incoherent to others. The terrified peasant, a symbol of average Iranians, cannot understand either of his compatriots’ utterances. In desperation he takes refuge with the narrator, another detainee in the jail who is able to communicate with the peasant and share his fears and anxieties. The cultural gulf between the three types in Jamalzadeh’s story, and himself as the observer, is an early depiction of the sharpening class differences that were about to emerge in the Pahlavi era.

In another story in the same collection, Dusti-ye khaleh kherseh (With friends like that), inspired by Jamalzadeh’s own experience during World War I, a humble coffeehouse waiter on his way to Kermanshah rescues a wounded Russian Cossack on the side of the road despite the advice of his fellow travelers, who are suspicious of the wounded solider. Only later, when the travelers reach their destination, the kindhearted waiter falls victim to the treachery of the Cossack, who had eyed his humble savings. Perhaps the most compelling story in the collection, the story of the waiter and the Cossack, symbolized the tragedy of the occupation.

In 1922 when publication of Kaveh was coming to an end, Taqizadeh also published in Berlin a number of Persian literary and historical classics, including works of Naser Khosrow, the great eleventh-century Persian Isma‘ili dissident poet, traveler, and philosopher. It was as though Naser Khosrow’s travelogue was a statement about Taqizadeh’s own “turbulent life” (as he later named his memoirs), a life in exile that took him from Berlin to Tehran and back to Europe with many ups and downs. After having served in sensitive ministerial posts under Reza Shah, Taqizadeh was eventually forced into exile in England, where out of desperation he became an instructor of Persian language at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. After World War II he returned to Iran to become a deputy in the fifteenth Majles and later the president of the Iranian Senate. In the 1930s, Taqizadeh oversaw the publication in Iran of another series of Persian classical texts, the production of which he assigned to literary figures such as Mohammad Qazvini, an old friend and colleague. Published by Iran’s Ministry of Education on the model of European classical text series, they allowed greater access to a rich repository of classical works of history and literature and in turn fostered a tradition of critical Persian editions.


As were with a whole host of figures among Iran’s cultural elite of the period, Mohammad Qazvini (1877–1949) was a hybrid scholar between traditional madrasa education and modern Orientalist scholarship. A literary expert, bibliographer, and editor of classical texts, Qazvini held sway over a generation of Iranian literary scholars. He started out as a young seminarian, with a remarkable command of Arabic and a meticulous literary taste for classical Persian. Later he developed an aptitude for the kind of Orientalist discipline that had fascinated him over the thirty-five years he spent in European libraries and manuscript collections. He viewed the mission of Iranian scholars as one of textual studies, critical editing, and a Renaissance-like unearthing of Iranian heritage. Among many works, he coedited with Qasem Ghani the Divan of Hafez, which helped reaffirm the poet’s place in the Persian literary canon as a favorite bard of nearly all Iranians.

The greatest methodological influence on Qazvini—and a host of his cohorts—was the English Orientalist Edward Granville Browne. Contrary to the stereotypical image of an Orientalist, Browne was an exceptional blend of nineteenth-century romanticism, literary and historical scholarship, and anti-imperialist advocacy. His four-volume The Literary History of Persia—written between 1902 and 1924—chronicled a millennium of Persian literature with vigor and originality, setting the field against a panorama of political and cultural developments. His editing and publications, which included important Persian classics, were complemented by his encouragement and support for the likes of Qazvini and Mohammad Iqbal Lahori (1877–1938). It is wrong to assume, however, that the discourse of Orientalism was one-way. The movement to publish texts spearheaded by Browne owed much to a complex interplay between the Orientalist, who was equipped with tools of modern methodology and print culture, and learned scholars from Iran, Hindustan, and elsewhere who had mastered bibliographic and paleographic skills.

Beyond the work of Browne, the narrative of Persian cultural endurance against hostile forces of nomadic invasions and an imposed religion is also evident in new readings of Iran’s pre-Islamic past. This Orientalist scholarship and the state’s support for new archeological expeditions emphasized the Achaemenid Empire of the sixth to fourth century BCE as Iran’s moment of civilizational inception and the Zoroastrianism revival of the Sassanian era in late antiquity as a moment of rebirth. Such reorientation in Iran’s historical narrative from traditional historiography in the nineteenth century to modern incorporation of the pre-Islamic past was slow and complex. Beginning in the Qajar era, early accounts such as Jalal al-Din Mirza’s Nameh-e Khosravan and later Aqa Khan Kermani’s A’ineh-e Sekandari (Alexandrian mirror), a history of ancient Iran, struggled to bridge the ancient past to the Islamic past by reconciling the Shahnameh legends with modern archeology, Greek and Latin texts, and Western scholarship. The Constitutional Revolution and its aftermath further inspired intellectuals to seek a soothing alternative not only in classical Persian literature but also in attention to ancient Iranian past.

Hasan Pirnya’s reissued history of ancient Iran, completed in 1933, proved a boost to the Pahlavi state’s legitimacy and its claim to the ancient Persian past. Beyond the traditional Persian sources, Iranians for the first time were learning about the might of the Persian empire, its expanse and its conquests, its administrative and civil organizations, and its commercial and cultural exchanges with Greek and Roman worlds through archeology, as well as through ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine sources and modern Western scholarship. The vital link that Iran created for more than a millennium between civilizations of the east—China and South Asia in particular and the Mediterranean world—through trade, economy, administration, and culture, and contributions of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Iranian languages, were reassuring signs of endurance and hope for renewal. The 1934 millennial celebration of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, which brought to Iran scholars from around the world, and the completion of Ferdowsi’s mausoleum by Iranian architect Karim Taherzadeh Behzad, which had started in 1928, proved important markers on Iran’s map of cultural history.

Public display of cultural symbols and the commemoration of Iranian literary and intellectual icons such as Ferdowsi (and later Ibn Sina), made the Iranian nationalist narrative to gradually trickle down to the level of general public. Even men and women outside the immediate reaches of the state—clerical classes in the mosques and the madrasas, the merchants of the bazaar, and villagers and nomads in remote parts the country—began to adjust to the standardized Persian language and the Persian cultural symbols and historical narrative even though some consciously resisted the state’s monopoly over what constituted “Iranian” and the homogenizing policies employed to implement it.

Ibrahim Purdavud (1885–1968) can be regarded as a key scholar responsible for incorporating ancient Iranians languages and texts into the Pahlavi nationalism. Another product of the madrasa, in Rasht, his eventful life took him during the 1910s and 1920s to Lebanon, Paris, Berlin, and Mumbai. His studies over three decades ranged from Shi‘i jurisprudence, Arabic grammar, and traditional medicine to the study of law in France and Germany and learning a host of European languages. During World War I he joined the Berlin circle and returned to Kermanshah as an agent provocateur. There he coedited with Jamalzadeh the antioccupation journal Rastakhiz (Resurrection). On his return to Berlin, and as part of the nationalist discourse of the Berlin circle during the Weimar years, he was involved in the study of Zoroastrianism and ancient Iranian languages and came to know a number of important German and later French, English, and American Iranists. The experience profoundly transformed Purdavud. He later moved to India, where he collaborated with Parsi scholars to translate Avesta from original Avestan into Persian. On his return to Iran in 1937, he was appointed as professor of ancient Iranian languages at Tehran University. In his life and his scholarship, during which he trained generations of students in Tehran University, Purdavud, like Bahar and Ahmad Kasravi, clearly displayed the shift from the activism of the constitutional era to Iranian nationalist discourse of the Pahlavi period.


Awareness of Zoroastrianism and revival of the ancient Iranian memories incited a challenge to the whole project of Pahlavi secularism on the side of the Shi‘i clerical establishment. Even though in the earlier years of Pahlavi rule relations with the ulama classes were relatively amicable and mutually beneficial, by the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s a widening rift had begun to occur, with lasting consequences. Even before the rise of Reza Khan, a marked decline was evident in clerical prestige, symbolized by the 1909 execution of Shaykh Fazlollah Nuri. By 1939, a generation later, the introduction of new dress codes and mandatory unveiling culminated the state’s success in undermining the conservative mores and values of the clerical establishment and its loyal following. The secularizing agenda, conceived and enforced largely by the Pahlavi cultural elite and overseen by the shah himself, further eroded an ancient social accord that tied, at least in theory, the “good government” with the “good religion,” the “inseparable twins” as they were known to classical authors. This was a principle that had been in operation in one form or another since the Sasanian era, and since the Safavid times had defined sociopolitical norms. The unraveling of this pact, an inevitable outcome of the state’s secularizing policies, proved more potent than subduing the tribal countryside or keeping at bay European imperial ambitions. In due course the experiences of the Reza Shah era transformed the Shi‘i clerical establishment into a force of political dissent.

Earlier signs of a widening gap between the Pahlavi regime and the clerical class had appeared in 1927, with the compulsory military service for all males, including students of the madrasa. The ulama of Isfahan, who feared that the godless Pahlavi military was brainwashing Muslim youth, called for resistance but rallied little popular support; their appeal quickly withered. Likewise, other reform measures carried out by the state, such as introducing a Westernized dress code for men, deemphasizing and eventually eliminating religious education from schools’ curricula, and even the government’s greater control over charitable endowments, did not result in mass support in favor of the clergy. The real test, however, came in the 1935 protest in various cities against the compulsory unveiling of women. In Mashhad popular demonstrations led to a bloody scene in the Gowharshad Mosque, adjacent to the shrine of the Eighth Imam, where provocations of Shaykh Mohammad Taqi Bohlul (c. 1900–2005), a low-ranking, rabble-rousing preacher, led to the mob lynching of a government official. In response, security forces indiscriminately opened fire on protesters, killing more than a dozen and injuring a few hundred more. The ominous incident signaled not only the state’s audacity in violating the sanctuary of an important mosque but also the ulama’s futile objections.

Reza Shah and the Pahlavi elite categorically regarded the clerical establishment and what it stood for as an impediment to progress and sought to reduce it in size and substantially emasculate its influence among the conservative bazaar sector. To further weaken opposition voices among the ulama, the Pahlavi government also adopted a conciliatory course toward moderates. Despite restrictions on preaching in the mosques and donning clerical attire, the state never dismantled the clerical hierarchy or the institution of the madrasa, the waqf, and other means of revenue. Remarkably, in the early Pahlavi era although the number of madrasas decreased, Qom acquired greater visibility as a clerical center.

A majority of moderate ulama succumbed to the diminishing status of their class with a mix of resignation and remorse (the latter for not fighting hard enough for Qajar survival). They viewed Reza Shah and Pahlavi modernizing as an inevitable, even a necessary, evil so long as the residue of their clerical power remained in place. Unlike the Sunni clerical institutions in other Muslim lands, which for centuries were under the aegis of the Ottoman state, the Shi‘i Iranian ulama had maintained their institutional independence even after the demise of the Qajars. Even if they lost Pahlavi patronage, and the unwritten contract with the state was about to be abrogated, their group solidarity was not entirely lost. As it turned out, the immediate hardships imposed on them added to overall clerical resilience and their rebound after Reza Shah.

Many members of the cultural elite—the influential culture minister ‘Ali Asghar Hekmat (1893–1980), the nationalist historian Ahmad Kasravi, and the polemical journalist ‘Ali Dashti (1896–1982), for instance—themselves were products of the madrasa and felt a certain affinity with their educational past, especially when faced with the brutish Pahlavi army officers or with the hedonistic conduct of such powerful statesmen as Teymurtash. Yet the Westernizing Pahlavi culture could not help but mock the arcane mentality and demeanor of the clergy. The nationalist narrative, moreover, marginalized, and even belittled, the experience of Iranian Shi‘ism as an unfortunate historical aberration, an affliction. To the extent that Shi‘ism was incorporated into this national narrative—in school textbooks or state propaganda—the potent Shi‘i story was diluted into a facile history of the Imams. Even the role of Shi‘ism in the rise of Safavids and as an important element of national identity was downplayed. It was valued, and thus tolerated, for being part of the Iranian identity that set it apart from the Arab and Turkish Sunnis. In this setting, the story of Hosain and Karbala, and the rituals of Moharram, were seen through a modernist prism as embarrassing symptoms of superstitious religiosity.

Most displays of collective rituals were banned: Moharram processions with banners, flags, and other symbols; the recitation of mourning liturgy; performance of ta‘ziyeh passion plays; the self-punishing acts of chest biting, chain biting, wearing shrouds, inflicting wounds on one’s forehead with a saber (ghameh-zani), and piercing one’s body with spikes and padlocks. Characteristic of its cultural hostility, the Pahlavi state even went on to demolish the magnificent Tekkiyeh-e Dowlat, a visible example of the Qajar tribute to Shi‘ism. The destruction of this remarkable structure in the 1930s was replaced, tellingly, with a branch of the Iran National Bank built in a faux Persian style on the aforementioned Bozarjomehri Avenue—a rude reminder, no doubt, to the religiously minded bazaar merchants that the days of ritual Shi‘ism were over.

The quiet renouncing of the clergy on the charge of obscurantism further helped debase their public standing. And from the modernist perspective, there was plenty to be critical of: the clergy’s outmoded demeanor, their pseudo-Arabicized accent denoting their pride in long years of study in Najaf, their obsession with ritual purity and pollution, and above all their aversion to all things Western. These offered opportunities to the modernist detractors to disparage at least the middle and lower clerical ranks as ignorant, flea-infested, starved mullahs raving for a handout or a session of rawzeh-khwani.

More damaging to their public image, however, was a brain drain that sapped the clerical ranks, pulling many into the government bureaucracy and state institutions. The new avenues to prestige, even if they meant a meager but regular source of income, were enticing. A desk job in a government bureaucracy had gained a certain mystique because of the association with government, even though it was often as tedious as cramming the intricate rules of Arabic syntax in the madrasa. Becoming a civil servant, and hence being included in the machinery of government, meant success. Earning degrees in engineering or modern medicine, and engaging in business or teaching in modern schools, also attracted the younger generation, including the children of the ranking clergy, who saw little future for themselves in donning clerical garb when sources of clerical incomes were drying up. Journalism, practicing law, and even politics, and especially opportunities in the reformed judiciary as judges and advocates were all alternatives for the best and the brightest. Above all, however, it was running the government-approved registry offices that provided a safe job: conducting state-regulated marriage and divorce; drawing up official documents, deeds, and contracts; and serving as public notary.

The judicial reforms under Davar, beginning in the winter of 1927 with the temporary dismantling of the existing Ministry of Justice and continuing throughout the Reza Shah era, introduced codified statutes and monitored judicial appointments. These measures diminished the clergy’s reach in the judicial sphere and deprived the study of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) of nearly all its practical applications. The elaborate, though bookish and cumbersome, Shi‘i law of contracts (mo’amelat) was no longer considered valid, even though the authors of the new statuary laws made ample use of it to adjust the French civil code to Shi‘i contingencies. Nor were Shi‘i “roots of jurisprudence,” a system at the core of the clerical profession, considered the sole source for civil or penal law. More important, interpretation of law and its enforcement were now squarely in the hands of state courts and thus outside the traditional domain of the jurists.

What was left unregulated, however, was the devotional and obligational aspect of the shari‘a dealing with purity and pollutants, as well as rules on prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, alms, and other devotional acts. Such aspects, predictably, became the chief preoccupation of the ulama and received ample attention in a new genre of legal manuals known as tawzih al-masa’el (explication of legal problems) being catechisms and fatwas in response to real or hypothetical queries. These treatises in due course would become mandatory for leading ayatollahs who were recognized by the community, or who wished to be recognized, as a “source of emulation” (marja‘-e taqlid).

The judicial reforms under Davar put the final touch on a process that had begun with the Constitutional Revolution. Since the early Qajar era, the rise of the mojtaheds as a powerful interest group effectively barred any codification or universal enforcement of law through regulated courts. In contrast to the Ottoman Empire and Khedivate Egypt, especially after 1882, and Muslim law in colonial India, state intervention in the Qajar period was minimal and ineffective. Despite the impressive conceptual development of Shi‘i jurisprudence and legal methodology and despite halfhearted attempts by reformist administrations, the notion of a universal code applicable to all remained largely foreign to Iranians. The practice of law within a regulated judicial framework was held ransom by the ambiguities of the shari‘a, contradictory interpretations of the mojtaheds, the vagaries of their verdicts, arbitrary court procedures, and the jurists’ notorious propensity for corruption and bribe taking. The postconstitutional judicial reforms of various administrations set the stage for statutory legislation but also helped complicate the situation by creating a parallel legal framework.

The new Pahlavi legal reforms, primarily based on the Napoleonic Code, adopted the French system to reasonable dictates of the Shi‘i shari‘a, and did this perhaps more effectively than many other Muslim countries in the twentieth century. Under Davar’s supervision, a council of legal experts, consisting of middle-ranking mojtaheds and state administrators of madrasa background who were familiar with European law, reviewed the French codes in a relatively short period of time, refashioning them according to Islamic contingencies. The 1927 Penal Code and the subsequent 1931 Civil Code replaced, in stages, the mojtahed-run shari‘a courts. The new codes featured all the deficiencies of a state-dominated bureaucratic system, yet the Islamic provisions in the system proved vital for the state’s legitimacy.

The new statutory codes rooted in the 1906–1907 Constitution aimed to protect the rights of citizens, due process, and equality before the law. Yet the arbitrary rule of the Pahlavis, the passivity of a rubber-stamp legislature, the lack of public scrutiny, and the residue of the traditional legal culture posed serious obstacles. Family law—particularly issues of marriage, divorce, and custodianship—remained firmly congruent with the dictates of Islamic law and its patriarchal underpinnings, as did the laws of inheritance and, to a lesser extent, penalties for sexual offenses and domestic violence. The law allowed for polygamy, though subordinated it to some conditions, and in general granted little protection to women beyond being wives and mothers in the traditional framework of Islamic law. Women’s lives were ransomed to a variety of traditional deprivations and insecurities, with few incentives for legal, financial, or professional independence. The striking disregard for women’s legal rights was often blamed by the Pahlavi reformers on the society’s conservative values and fear of the ulama’s opposition. Yet the Pahlavi modernizers were not devoid of a patriarchal mentality and were tainted by the European culture of male superiority of their time.

The new reforms, moreover, obligated most upper and middle ranks of the clergy to be content with meager incomes through registry bureaus, the fast-diminishing income of the charitable endowments (waqfs), and the generosity of bazaar merchants. Their loss of income was further exacerbated by the bleak economy of the Depression era, which hit Iranian trade and agriculture, and by the mismanagement and corruption that had long beset the institution of waqf. Between 1927 and 1933 the passage of new laws gave the state custodianship of all public endowments—most significantly the extensive endowments of the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad and control of the private waqfs presumed abandoned or with unknown trustees.

State intervention also struck a blow to the incentives for creating new waqfs. Whereas in the past creating a charitable foundation was a safe way to preserve control over family fortunes and avert state intrusion while performing an esteemed religious duty that was beneficial to the public, in the Pahlavi era it came to be considered an outmoded, cumbersome institution of little significance. Bureaucratization of the waqf and failure to enforce effective supervision led to decay or the expropriation of many endowed qanats, bathhouses, water reservoirs, takkiyehs, bridges, and libraries. Many villages, farms, and bazaar shops, which provided support for the upkeep of these public institutions, were also misappropriated or their potential diminished. Yet the clergy did not entirely lose their control. The government appointed many as custodians and set up pensions for others that were sufficient to let them carry on with their duties.


Even as the state’s intervention into the judicial, educational, and economic domains was considerable, intrusion into citizens’ private lives was the most glaring. The dress code of December 1928 required all male citizens from school age onward to dress in a European-style jacket and trousers and a short, cylindrical rimmed hat, known as the Pahlavi hat, similar to the French kepi. By the turn of the twentieth century selective Westernization had made a wide range of European clothing fashionable among the urban elites. Yet Iranian society was still conscious of attire as a powerful social marker that determined social status, region, profession, communal loyalty, and even sexual orientation. The introduction of dress uniformity, with its militaristic undertones, was a radical departure from this landscape of apparel diversity whereby mullahs, merchants, craftsmen, government functionaries, khans, peasants, dervishes, and lutis, as well as women of various social classes, the nomadic men and women of Iran’s vast network of tribes and ethnicities, and religious minorities were all identified not only by their dialect but also by their distinctive appearance.

Like the ideologies obsessed with uniforms in Europe and in neighboring Turkey, the Pahlavi dress code was a powerful tool to transform Iranian society into a bland and featureless mass, amnesic of its diversity and ready to be recast in a Westernized mold. Reza Khan, a Savadkuh peasant who was transformed in the Cossack barracks into the “man of destiny” was the prototype. Dressed in a plain military uniform, short cape in the style of Mussolini, and knee-high leather boots, he exuded power. Ordinary Iranian citizens, however, appeared frightened and awkward in their new ill-fitting outfits. Even so, the swift currents of change were all-embracing.

For the ulama the mandatory dress code was anathema even though they were partially exempted from it. They resented the Pahlavi outfit primarily because Westernized uniformity was a symbolic statement against what they stood for. Besides fear that the rimmed hat was a deliberate move by the godless state to make it impossible for believers to prostrate during daily prayers, they considered the Western trousers and short jacket as scandalously revealing. Moreover, the indignity of being subjected to the state’s qualifying criteria, which also included a written examination on the madrasa curriculum—made the clergy feel degraded and resentful. Losing the privilege to put on clerical attire, particularly from the mid-1930s as new restrictions began to take effect, meant that many could no longer be recognized outright as holy, as they had for centuries, solely by wearing a turban: black for the presumed descendants of the House of the Prophet (a disproportionately high number among the clergy) and white for others. The turban, at times a domelike structure made of layers of twisted cloth, was complemented by a robe (‘aba), slippers—preferably yellow—and a loose cloak known as rada, items of clothing with a sacred lineage in the biographies of the Prophet and the Imams. A long, dyed beard, the scent of rosewater, green rosary beads, and at times a white or green shawl around the waist were essential vestments that clashed with the prevailing exigencies of the profane state. Having been excluded from the mandatory dress code, the clergy stood out as a historical anomaly and were looked upon by the modernizing middle classes with condescension, if not disdain.

More provocative than any other reform measure under Reza Shah, however, was the unveiling of women, the removal of both the facial hijab and the all-body chadorfirst in selective venues such as public gatherings organized by the government, and from 1934 as a mandatory, state-enforced policy. What was at stake did not concern the ulama only but touched on a core issue of the society’s mores and patriarchal identity. Women’s cover, and their social exclusion, had been practiced since ancient times, and assiduously since the early Qajar era in the male-controlled urban setting. Women’s cover was seen as a symbol of male honor (Persian namus, from the Greek nomos, “universal law”), family virtue, and female sexual and moral chastity—considered building blocks of the social universe and its strict maintenance through rules of reproduction, lineage, and gender boundaries. It was this order that was challenged.

Yet it is naive to assume that unveiling was a Pahlavi invention ex nihilo. Besides the Babi legacy and memories of Tahereh Qurrat al-‘Ayn, some seventy years earlier, the progressive constitutionalist press and poets of the period—‘Aref Qazvini and Iraj Mirza (1874–1926), among others—and a handful of women’s journals after 1910 called for women’s inclusion in the Iranian national discourse through education, control over their own lives, combating legal discrimination, and emancipation from social depravities. ‘Aref called upon “regiments of women combatants” to fight along with the poet against superstition and tyranny. In a famous piece from the late 1910s, Iraj masterfully satirized the bigotry of his clerical contemporaries. Once a female image was carved on the portal of a caravansary (presumably in Mashhad), the news soon reached the “masters of turbans,” who rushed to the scene. Worried that the unveiled image would instantaneously wipe out the believers’ faith, the seminarians (tollab) soon imposed on the image a makeshift veil. “The honor [namus] that was about to be weathered thus was saved with a handful of dirt.” Now the ulama could rest assured, Iraj sneered, that female seduction no longer could sink the public “into an ocean of sin” and the undisturbed nomos barred all hell from breaking loose. “With such [zealous] ulama,” he concluded, “why are our people still gloomy about progress in our kingdom?”1

In the aftermath of Reza Khan’s rise to power, and especially during the debate over republicanism, support for unveiling grew as women’s groups organized and demonstrated, casting off their veils and clashing with opponents. But it was after 1927 that sporadic voluntary unveiling was visible among Tehran’s elite. By 1932 unveiling was encouraged for schoolgirls and for wives and daughters of military officers and civil servants. By 1934, in the aftermath of Reza Shah’s official visit to Turkey—the only foreign visit he ever made—the new government decree required nationwide mandatory unveiling among all classes. The rigorous enforcement of the new policy, which continued up to the end of the Reza Shah era, meant that women belonging even to the most conservative families were to remove their veils and chador (fig. 8.8). Carefully monitored by the shah himself, the universal enforcing of unveiling was not free of social tension. Ugly scenes of the police forcefully removing women’s chadors in the streets, reprimands and sacking of military and civilian officials who were reluctant to abide by the new policy, and general disregard for conservative sentiments against unveiling cast a shadow over the whole episode.

Yet contrary to a common perception that mandatory unveiling was unpopular and oppressive, its liberating effects were undeniable. A large sector of the female population, especially younger women, welcomed unveiling with the same enthusiasm as they welcomed modern education, participation in public life, and greater control over their lives. It is telling that after 1941, when mandatory enforcement was quickly abandoned, only a fraction of urban women—mostly in smaller cities and among the more religious classes—took up chador again, and almost none, even wives and daughters of the clergy, readopted the facial veil (neqab). This was in clear contrast to the universal use of facial covering for women before 1927, as imposed invariably in all Muslim societies of the time (fig. 8.9).

Figure 8.8. First public gathering in Shiraz attended by government employees and city notables and their unveiled wives (c. 1935). The mandatory event was to enforce the lifting of the facial veil.

M. Sane‘, Paydayesh-e ‘Akkasi dar Shiraz (Tehran, 1369/1990), 149.

Figure 8.9. Learning to work with Singer sewing machines. As early as 1921 Azizeh-Jahan Chehrenegar (standing) held such classes in Shiraz.

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

The generational divide also played a part. Older women, who in compliance with the requirement of the shari‘a had seldom, if ever, ventured out from the inner quarter (andarun) of their houses, opted to stay inside for good, out of fear of the dishonor that casting off of their neqab and chador might bring to them; the younger generations, however, were far more willing to cast aside the suffocating traditional mold (fig. 8.10). Violent enforcement aside, the unveiling was simultaneously a credit to Reza Shah’s secularization program and a loss to the clergy’s prestige.

Intimidated and unsure, the clergy had little choice but to accept the reality in silence; no major fatwa against unveiling was issued at the time, though in later years there was ample resentment toward enforcement of the hijab. Even families of modest means soon began to adapt to the unveiled appearance and acquire sentiments that were unmistakably modern.

Figure 8.10. This image of a woman in chador with her facial veil lifted and her young child in Western dress was symbolic of the changing times. Behind them is an old Persian poster of the 1927 German silent movie Der letzte Walzer (The Last Waltz).

A. von Graefe, Iran das neue Persien (Berlin and Zurich, 1937), 10.

Opposition to unveiling was symptomatic of the clerical failure to forge an alternative to the Pahlavi model. The jurist establishment conceivably could have addressed, but never did, the predicaments of the shari‘a, the arcane teaching methods, the textbooks and the curriculum, and the conservative worldview associated with them. It was as if the ulama within the madrasa walls remained unperturbed and in a state of denial, despite a revolution that had shaken their very social foundations. The shrinking of the clerical horizons had begun long ago, when they rebuffed alternative modes of thinking—even something as benign as Islamic philosophy—and rejected innovation (bed‘at) as heretical even within the well-guarded bounds of jurisprudence, instead augmenting the fundamentals of their legal corpus as sacred and thus unchallengeable. Even such mild revisionist traits emerging on the margins of the clerical community—as in the views of Mohammad Hasan Shari‘at Sangelaji (1892–1944), were roundly condemned by the mainstream as sacrilegious.

Himself a mojtahed, Sangelaji proposed, to the dismay of his detractors, a rational approach to shari‘a that aimed to accommodate some measure of modernity in theology and law compatible with the legal reforms of the Pahlavi era. He called for an unambiguous reading of the Qur’an as a window to a new jurisprudence that was not obfuscated by the dubious hadith, scholastic convolution, and popular superstition. His rationalistic approach, blended with elements of Salafism and messianism, brought Sangelaji to the point of rejecting the literal Shi‘i narrative of the Hidden Imam’s violent and vengeful Khoruj (apocalyptic return). He opted instead for a gradual transformation of the community—a view that brought him somewhat close to the Baha’i idea of moral reconstruction. The proximity may explain his antagonism toward the Baha’is and his anxiety over increasing numbers of conversion to the new faith. The ulama remained equally unmoved by lay critics such as Ahmad Kasravi (1890–1946), the influential journalist and prophet of moral reconstruction in the 1930s and 1940s. Blissfully proud of their heritage, they brushed off critiques of their theology and jurisprudence, in the same way they reacted to the Baha’i missionaries (moballeghs)—whom they viewed as their gravest doctrinal enemies—and later to socialists and to Islamic modernists.

Such predicaments of Islamic law and theology as denying equal rights to all citizens regardless of gender and creed; intolerance toward non-Muslims, non-Shi‘is, and religious dissenters; institutional and legal discrimination of women; sanctioning of such punishments as stoning, vengeance killing (qesas), blood retribution, punishment of homosexuality, and execution of sexual offenders and heretics; denial of freedom of speech and the press; obstinate anti-intellectualism; and the assumption of an elevated status for the clerical elite—all these remained unresolved.

The shrinking social domain of the Shi‘i clerical class was undeniable, and so was the greater cleavage between the modern and traditional sectors of Iranian society. The clerical community who survived doctrinal challenges, the state’s secularizing policies, and counter-incentives of the economic market became more conscious of itself as a deprived and persecuted community. Qom, more than older theological centers such as Isfahan and Mashhad, from the late 1920s came to represent this ethos of isolation, most starkly evident in the impoverished life of the students of the madrasa. For the most part they were dependent on pensions from the marja‘s, handouts from “mourning societies” to recite eulogies at the rawzeh sessions during Moharram and Ramadan, and alms distributed by pilgrims to the Shi‘i shrines in Iran and southern Iraq.

The clergy also lost ground in the public forum against the media and entertainment. The establishment of a small government radio station in 1927, later to be expanded to a more powerful broadcast as Radio Iran in 1940, and the growing number of theaters and cinemas in the capital and later in the provinces through 1930s and 1940s, were competition for sessions of rawzeh-khawni and preaching in the mosques. Hollywood movies, early Persian films produced in Mumbai, and the introduction of gramophones and recordings of Persian classical and popular music opened new avenues for leisure, though roundly condemned as blasphemous by the ulama.

From the early twentieth century, the growing production of discography for the Iranian market made various genres of Persian music, classical and popular, accessible to an eager public. They gave Persian music and musicians a new public forum, different from parties in nobility’s houses and revelry in the lowly taverns on city outskirts. By the late 1930s there were at least three Western recording companies, and their Iranian subsidiaries, producing in London, Istanbul, Baku, Tashkent, and later in Tehran recordings that captured the best of the Persian musical ensembles and vocal performances, both male and female. The Iranian public came to admire such composers and virtuosos as Darvish Khan (1872–1926), who recorded the Persian dastgah system on tar—and the celebrated female singer Qamar al-Moluk Vaziri (1905–1959). These lent to Persian music a new aura of prestige and respectability. Patriotic anthems and popular songs, comical parodies, and popular comedies were also released.

Western films introduced dashing male movie stars in exotic costumes, glamorous actresses, spectacular epics, slapstick, Westerns, and Hollywood melodramas, with growing appeal to the younger public. Cafés and restaurants, a novelty for the upper classes in the capital, also offered a secular ambiance. For ordinary Iranians the traditional coffeehouses, now almost exclusively serving tea and inexpensive bazaar dishes, remained a venue for listening to storytellers (naqqals) narrating tales of the Shahnameh and other classical and popular texts. With the growth of modern entertainment, storytelling in coffeehouses and by wandering dervishes, who displayed large-scale paintings as visual aids for their narratives of the Shi‘i tragedies and the Shahnameh stories, gradually disappeared. The Shi‘i ulama no longer objected to or approved of these forms of public entertainment, as they had in the seventeenth century. They had other displays of heathen leisure to worry about. Many among the ulama and their conservative followers avoided radio broadcasts altogether, and did not even own a receiver, on the grounds that possessing a medium that broadcasts music is religiously unlawful.


By the mid-1930s Reza Shah’s regime had turned increasingly oppressive and unpredictable. The old elite had been cowed into submission and in time was replaced by a new generation of technocrats; the army generals were subdued to the shah’s whims and wishes; the clergy were demoralized and in retreat; the Majles was reduced to a nonentity; the tribes by and large were pacified and their leadership eliminated or exiled; and a police apparatus—including a vast number of secret agents—became a vicious tool of the shah’s paranoiac fears. Despite the appearance of absolute power, however, the popular base for the Pahlavi order had been eroded and its legitimacy questioned. World War II made these cracks more obvious, and the foreign policy quagmire in which Iran found itself unfathomable. In August 1941 Reza Shah was forced to abdicate, and Iran was occupied by Britain and Russia for the second time in twenty-five years. The irony of this was borne out by the Iranian people with a mix of cynicism and despair.

At the outset of World War II in August 1939, Iran declared neutrality, as it had done in 1915, but as it turned out with no effect. Suspicious of Reza Shah’s true intentions, and concerned with the sizable German presence in Iran, as early as January 1940 Britain began mobilizing a British-Indian force with the intention of occupying the oil fields of Khuzestan. Given the vitality of Iranian oil for the British economy and war efforts, Reza Shah’s 1933 renegotiation of the oil concession made British authorities even more suspicious, especially after Winston Churchill’s ascendancy in May 1940 as prime minister of Britain. His unabashed hegemonic sentiments took on a new patriotic ring and resonated through the British diplomatic ranks. The British minister in Tehran, Reader Bullard, a diplomat with profound colonial biases, qualified his condescension toward Iranians with concerns for Reza Shah’s collaboration with the Nazis and thereby the threat of German infiltration in Iran.

Even before 1933 and rise of the National Socialist Party to power in Germany, Iran relied on German technical and financial expertise for building new industries, railroad construction, the banking system, and training the workforce at a German-run technical school. German industrial ascendancy from the early 1930s made that country an attractive choice for Iran’s trade and industry and a willing partner. Hoping to be on the side of the winner and reap the potential benefits, in August 1939, at the outset of the war, the shah appointed as the new premier the French-educated Ahmad Matin-Daftari (1891–1971), who was known for his Germanophile tendencies.

The memories of German support in World War I for the Iranian nationalists were reinforced by Nazi propaganda highlighting the presumed common Aryan origins of the Germanic and Iranian peoples. The change of the country’s official name in European languages in 1935 from Persia to Iran was a gesture of nationalist assertion implying Iran’s “rebirth.” In the Persian language the country’s name always was Iran (at least since the third century CE), yet the Pahlavi decision to use a new nomenclature abroad may have been influenced by the etymological association between Iran and Aryan. Undermining two and a half millennia of historical and cultural memories associated with the name Persia, the ultranationalist officials and military officers in the Pahlavi service argued that the old nomenclature projected an image of weakness and subservience abroad. In reality such an argument was grounded less in a desire to pay homage to Iran’s ethnic and regional diversity than in raw nationalist sentiments.

The fear of British retaliation over ties with Germany, however, soon persuaded Reza Shah to change course and even propose to the British a secret defense pact and proposal for military assistance, primarily to withstand what seemed an imminent incursion by the Soviet Union, then an ally of Germany, into the Iranian territory. London turned down both proposals. Mindful of the impending British occupation of the southern oil fields, in June 1940 in the midst of uncertainty about the fate of the war, out of desperation the shah even sacked and arrested his premier Matin-Daftari and replaced him with an Anglophile, ‘Ali Mansur (1886–1974), a move that unleashed the wrath of Nazi Germany and its sympathizers. Though a group of German residents, numbering a thousand, were working in Iran, Radio Berlin’s Persian broadcast, the first of foreign broadcasts beamed to Iran, began to attack Reza Shah as a British stooge and anticipate his forthcoming downfall. The forecast, which enjoyed a wide listening audience, gave further credence to the popular fear of a pro-German coup while diminishing the shah’s stature in the public eye.

A rapid sequence of events, almost fatefully, terminated Reza Shah’s effort to balance the two powers and sealed his political fate. Early in 1941 the pro-German coup led by Rashid ‘Āli Gailani was staged in neighboring Iraq. Its subsequent collapse in late May, once British forces captured Basra and Baghdad, underscored the possibility of a similar hazard being perpetrated against Iran’s fragile sovereignty. Gailani and his cohorts fled to Iran in early June presumably on their way to Germany, a move that added to the British suspicion of Reza Shah’s pro-Axis sentiments. The invasion of Syria and Lebanon, too, by a joint operation of the British and the Free French forces further drove home the message of an impending thereat to Iran. Yet what ended for good Reza Shah’s time on the throne was the grand Anglo-Soviet alliance after Hitler’s decision to invade Russia, his former ally, in June 1941. The Grand Alliance—backed by American support under the Atlantic Charter—was reminiscent of the World War I Anglo-Russian alliance. Likewise, the survival of both powers in war against their nemesis once more was destined to wreck Iran’s political and social stability.

Even though Britain and Russia gave assurances that they would respect Iran’s territorial integrity, in what seemed a predetermined course, both powers in July 1941 submitted an ultimatum demanding the immediate expulsion of all German nationals in the service of the Iranian government. Although earlier Iran had reasserted its neutrality in this new phase of the conflict—as did Turkey—and promised to ask all nonessential German civilians to leave, and even though Berlin intensified its attacks on Reza Shah on the airwaves, the signs of open Anglo-Soviet hostility were not abating. The Red Army began to amass troops along Iran’s northern border while the British Broadcasting Corporation began to heighten its criticism of Reza Shah’s tyranny and his amassing of a huge fortune through misappropriation of land, especially in Mazandaran province. That the BBC championed the liberal and constitutional cause in Iran was a surprise shift from its earlier condoning of many years of the shah’s autocratic rule—no doubt with a clear goal of inciting anti-Pahlavi sentiments. The skeptical Iranian public interpreted the change in tone as proof that Reza Shah was no longer in control, even as a presumption that he was no longer a useful puppet in the hand of his British masters. Resentful of British machinations—real and imagined—some openly sympathized with the Axis and their advances on the Russian front. Bewildered and demoralized, the shah, too, felt that he was caught in the middle of a deadly conflict with no certain end.

The end game came in a crushing order that started with the Allied ultimatum and Iranian appeasement in July 1941 and ended in a checkmate that removed Reza Shah less than two months later. Demanding expulsion of all Germans from Iran and abdication of Reza Shah, both obvious ploys to facilitate the joint invasion of Iran, the Allies appeared uncompromising from the outset. The Iranian government tried in vain to satisfy the Allies’ demands not only to expel all German nationals but also to provide full access to the Iranian road and railroad network to transport cargo, military hardware, and supplies across Iranian territory and through the Caspian and the Caucasus to the besieged Red Army in Stalingrad and on other fronts. In a faint hope of saving Iran from another invasion, the government of ‘Ali Mansur, barely free of Reza Shah’s iron fist, agreed to most of the terms. The two powers were to benefit free and unconditional access of the same rail network that they—Britain and Russia—had prevented Iran from constructing for more than half a century. They were about to depose the person who built it and occupy a nation that paid for the railroad through taxes on sugar and tea.

Before negotiations could come to any conclusion, on August 25, 1941, the coordinated Allied armies marched into Iran through its northern and southern borders (map 8.2). The two powers did not even declare war or serve any other notice to the Iranian government; a sheer display of force tinged with a dose of colonial conceit was meant to deliver the message. It also implied that occupation was not an act of aggression but a wartime contingency. Facing the overwhelming superiority of the Allied forces, the demoralized and ill-prepared Iranian army soon caved and, shortly after, almost completely dissipated. The Red Army took over the whole of Azarbaijan and the Caspian provinces and rallied toward Tehran, while the British-Indian forces crossing the frontiers in southern Iraq and entering through the Persian Gulf ports rushed in the same direction.

Map 8.2. Iran during World War II, 1941–1946

Allied air forces began bombing civilian and military targets in major cities, causing havoc and undermining civilian confidence, while leaflets dropped from the air spoke of the occupiers’ benevolence, friendship toward the Iranian people, and desire to leave Iranian territory at the close of the war. The small Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf offered a heroic resistance, only to be soundly crushed; the sizable army, on the other hand, abandoned the lines of defense or surrendered. An effort to organize the defense of the capital failed, and even senior officers deserted, leaving thousands of starving conscripts to slowly head home to their towns and villages. Since the turn of the nineteenth century, this was the seventh time the frontiers of Iran had been violated by one or both of the European powers.

On the same day of the invasion, in an audience at dawn with Reza Shah requested by the British and Soviet envoys, they repeated demands for the expulsion of all Germans and for unconditional access to Iranian railroads and roads. The shah had no choice but to comply with a fait accompli. The envoys’ real intent, however, came in a subsequent communiqué demanding the immediate abdication of Reza Pahlavi, with the assurance that his son Mohammad Reza would replace him. Under Allied pressure, a new government was formed by the elderly statesman, Mohammad ‘Ali Forughi, who was brought out of retirement to undertake a formidable task. In the midst of panic and confusion, Forughi in a public announcement assured the public that the Allied occupation was transient and declared the cessation of hostilities, which in effect put the final touch on the dismantling of the Iranian armed forces. The shah’s abdication seemed inevitable.

It is startling how quickly the forces of chaos set in. The ensuing tribal unrest, economic havoc, and public panic caused by food shortages and fears of starvation were compounded by the uncouth conduct of the Indian Army’s sepoys and the Red Army’s tavarishes, as well as by the prospects of the Allied march on the capital. The shah’s plea telegraphed to President Franklin Roosevelt proved to be of no avail. Yet the shah’s customary wrath had not diminished completely. In the last meeting with his army command he showered invectives on all for destroying an army he had built up for over two decades and physically beat up the chief of staff for cowardly conduct. He ordered the army commanders to be detained on the charge of treason and to stand a military trial, which in the end was never held.

On September 3, 1941, while the people of Iran were hearing on the newly established Radio Iran the still unbelievable news that Reza Shah had abdicated, he was on his way to Isfahan, where he was to be united with his family. On September 16, after formally abdicating the throne, the shah and his family departed from the port of Bandar Abbas aboard a British postal ship to an undisclosed destination. The most that Reza Shah could secure from the Allies, through the good offices of Forughi, was the promise of his elder son’s succession, an issue briefly debated by the British in favor of a Qajar prince, but then quietly set aside. On September 26 while the Allied forces were establishing their headquarters on the outskirts of the Iranian capital, the twenty-two-year-old crown prince Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980) was sworn in as Iran’s new constitutional monarch. In less than three months the reign of the once invulnerable Reza Shah came to an ignominious end.

After a brief stay on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, then a British possession, Reza Shah and his family were transferred to Johannesburg in the British colony of Southern Africa, where they lived a life of seclusion destined for many former foes of the empire. Two years later, on July 26, 1944, Reza Shah died at the age of sixty-seven of a heart ailment. In his last photographs he is in a civilian suit—a notable contrast to his lifelong public appearances in military uniform—a broken man, humiliated and visibly aged. His coffin was sent to Cairo, where it was temporarily buried in the crypt of the Rifa‘i Mosque and later brought back to Iran in May 1950 to be buried in an impressive mausoleum built near the shrine of ‘Abd al-‘Azim in southern Tehran.


The downfall of Reza Shah came at the end of a career of contested legacies. Perhaps the most influential ruler in Iranian history since Isma‘il I in the early sixteenth century, he was instrumental in carrying out massive changes that transformed Iranian society, culture, and economy. He has been remembered as a man of vision and resolve but also as autocratic, avaricious, and increasingly paranoid. With the benefit of hindsight, he may be seen as the most realistic option for Iran in the post–World War I era, a leader who reasserted sovereignty and carried out nearly all the nonpolitical objectives of the Constitutional Revolution. He and his cohorts created a centralized state with modern institutions, infrastructure, education, and improved health, new industries, and modern finances. The Pahlavi order engendered an optimistic sense of national identity that revolved around cultural heritage, collective memory, and national symbols. It put an end to the political impasse in the center and pacified Iran—albeit with brute force—and helped the rise of a new middle class. It increased government revenue and efficiency and restrained foreign influences in domestic affairs. It curbed the power of tribal leaders, checked the conservative clergy, and lessened—if not demolished—the long-held monopoly of the Qajar ruling elite.

Reza Shah’s successes came at a high price. Despite his emphasis on institutional modernization—as in finances, judiciary, and education—and despite a semblance of cultural modernity, the reforms of the Pahlavi period remained decidedly lopsided. The agrarian economy—still the largest economic sector—remained essentially intact and the landowning culture of exploitation was reinforced by Reza Shah’s own greed. He built a vast estate through brazen appropriation of the lands belonging to Mazandaran’s small and large landowners. The industrialization and trade policies relied heavily on government monopolies and state ownership, at the expense of fostering an expansive industrial bourgeoisie. The hasty introduction of new secularized institutions, with few exceptions, was marked by uncritical borrowing of Western models and misconceived positivist values, and it was often combined with contempt for Iran’s indigenous traditions and cultural mores.

The nationalist ideology of the Pahlavi era, too, tended to undermine Iran’s ethnic and linguistic diversity and to accommodate Iran’s long and complex Shi‘i past. Yet the budding aspirations of the constitutional period for democracy and popular representation were not completely crushed. Iranians received the news of Reza Shah’s ouster with a mix of indignation, for it came with yet another foreign intrusion, and with relief, ending an era of political repression. Soon after his death, however, ordinary people remembered Reza Shah more for his transforming reforms than his police apparatus.

Yet Pahlavi absolutism was far less loyal to the checks and balances that under the rubric of the “circle of equity” had for centuries kept the Persian kingship in a functional relationship with the society over which it ruled. The two arms of the traditional state—the executive consisting of the divan and the army—no longer were kept at bay, and the judiciary, consisting of the clerical establishment, had no place in the structure of power. One can attribute the rise of the new culture of unbridled autocracy under Reza Shah above all to the environment of frustration and insecurity that thrived in the postconstitutional era. This spirit of militarism was reinforced after the virtual collapse of the Qajar social contract and during World War I. Reza Shah in effect stood at the pinnacle of a power pyramid that with shrewd maneuvering had incorporated an assortment of the existing military forces and glued them together by appropriating a large chunk of Iran’s oil revenue. The military culture that came to dominate the new Pahlavi armed forces was the despotic ethos of the Russian Cossack barracks in which Reza Khan and his senior officers had been trained. The nationalistic ideals of a few Gendarmerie officers who joined the Pahlavi army and the more familiar rough-and-ready conduct of the officers of the regular Iranian armed forces who also were incorporated both had their part in the shaping of the Pahlavi military elite. Even some of the civilians in Reza Shah’s service, such as Teymurtash, were graduates of European military academies. The German and Turkish officers who in the course of the World War I came into contact with their Iranian counterparts, mostly the Iranian gendarmes, also conveyed a much-admired spirit of Prussian military.

That such an authoritarian model prevailed in Europe after World War I and brought to power fascist regimes resonated with the Pahlavi regime. As in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union, and to some degree in the early Turkish Republic, in Iran too, the new ethos quickly overcame the democratic ideals of constitution, division of powers, popular representation, rule of law, and individual rights. In Iran, arguably, there were even more causes for this shift of paradigm, given all that was experienced by Iranians in the period between 1907 and 1921, with disarray in Majles and incapacitated postconstitutional governments, persistence of the old elite and their feeble governance, foreign occupation, and the economic and human prices that society endured.

It was from this milieu that emerged a culture of empowerment well reflected in military uniforms, shiny riding boots, ready-to-use riding crops, rough tone of speech, and harsh treatment of inferiors. The sense of superiority that the ranking officer under Reza Shah came to display and the proud esprit de corps that held them together as a new privileged class, proved more potent than shaky political parties, daring journalism, moving poems, and fiery speeches from the pulpit of the mosques and the podium of the Majles.

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