Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944) was the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty. He rose from the ranks to become minister of war, prime minister, and then shah of Iran. As a reformer-dictator, he laid the foundation of modern Iran.
Reza Khan, later Reza Shah Pahlavi, was born in the Caspian province of Mazandaran. He was orphaned in infancy, and at the age of 14 he chose the military career of his father and enlisted in the Persian Cossack Brigade, which was under the command of Russian officers. A tall and rugged young man, Reza Khan rose by sheer courage and ability. He was highly intelligent without any formal education, had vision without much information, and was a champion of Westernization without having seen any other country but Iran.
Reza Khan was also very sensitive, and from his youth he must have been disgusted with the despicable condition of the country and also of the army. As a soldier, he took part in many engagements, but what bothered him most was the fact that he was under the command of foreign officers. After the Russian Revolution, some of the Russian officers in the brigade left, but the White Russians, who could not go, remained in command. In 1920 Reza led his fellow Persian officers in ousting the Russians, and he himself became commander of the brigade.
On Feb. 21, 1921, he, together with Sayyed Ziya al-Din Tabatabai, a brilliant journalist, overthrew the government in Tehran. Sayyed Ziya became prime minister and Reza Khan minister of war and commander in chief of the armed forces. During the next 3 months it became evident that the civilian and the soldier could not agree on specific goals or methods. Since Reza Khan was the stronger of the two, it was Sayyed Ziya who was forced to leave the country. From 1921 to 1925, as minister of war and later as prime minister, Reza Khan built a strong modern army, subdued the rebellious tribes, and brought about a peace and security which the country had not experienced for a century.
Ahmad Shah, the last of the Qajar kings, was so overshadowed by the popular Reza Khan that he left for an indefinite stay in Europe. The creation of a republic in Turkey influenced many Persians, including Reza Khan. For a time there was a movement to create a republic, but it soon became evident that, although Persians did not mind changing kings, they were reluctant to do away with the monarchical principle. So on Oct. 21, 1925, the Majles (Parliament) deposed the absent Ahmad Shah and in December of the same year proclaimed Reza Khan as the shahanshah (king of kings) of Iran.
The Persian Revolution, which had started in 1906, had at last produced a leader to implement its ideals, even though some of the early revolutionaries had not envisaged the methods used by Reza Shah. He was at first popular among the masses and peasants because he gave them security. He was also popular among the educated classes because he was for modernization and reform.
In the field of foreign affairs he ended the system of capitulation; created an autonomous customs; terminated the right of the British Bank to issue currency notes; and in 1931 negotiated a new oil agreement with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company which, he believed, was more advantageous to Iran.
Reza Shah's main activity, however, was in internal reforms, which he carried out with the help of the army, which remained the object of his special devotion. He built roads, established a wireless service, and took over the management of the telegraph service from the British. He was rightly proud of the trans-Iranian railway from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian, which he had built without a loan from any foreign government. He set up trade monopolies, thus limiting the freedom of the merchants, and established the National Bank of Iran.
Like his predecessors Shah Abbas I and Nader Shah, Reza Shah tried to break down the power and prestige of the clergy. Islamic law was partially discarded; Islamic education was abandoned; religious processions were forbidden; the Islamic calendar was replaced by the old Persian-Zoroastrian solar calendar; mosques were modernized, and some of them were equipped with pews; the call to prayer was frowned upon; and pilgrimage to Mecca was discouraged.
All titles were abolished, and people were asked to choose family names; Persian men were ordered to don European attire and headgear, and Persian women were encouraged to discard the veil. Reza Shah founded the University of Tehran in 1934 and established the Persian Academy, whose task was to rid the Persian language of borrowed Arabic and other foreign words.
These and many other far-reaching and essential reforms in a country ridden with illiteracy, superstition, and vested interests could not be accomplished without the use of force. So, in order to silence the critics of the reforms, all criticism was banned. In order to have internal security, the army had to be strengthened, but this very act made tyrants of a number of officers who suppressed the masses.
Reza Shah's greatest weakness was his desire to amass wealth, especially real estate. In the acquisition of property he had to depend upon others, who in the process acquired wealth for themselves. Being a self-made man, he was loathe to delegate power to others. Unlike other reformers, he had no ideology, no party, and no well-defined program. Being in complete control of every aspect of life, he improvised and made decisions on the spot as he saw fit. Perhaps his ideas of modernization were superficial, but undoubtedly he forced the country to face the necessity of change, without which modernization would not be possible.
At the outbreak of World War II, Iran declared its neutrality. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Iran, already important to the allies for its oil, became the best supply route to Russia. Reza Shah failed to comply with the Russo-British plan of using Iran as a supply route and with their demand to deal effectively with the German agents active in Iran. On Aug. 26, 1941, Russian and British troops entered Iran; the Persian army put up a token resistance which lasted less than a week. Reza Shah abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Reza Shah died in exile in South Africa.
Further Reading on Reza Shah Pahlavi
There is no adequate biography of Reza Shah. A sketch of his life is in his son's Mission for My Country (1961). Ramesh Sanghvi, The Shah of Iran (1969), is less a study than an enumeration of Reza Shah's political achievements. A brief, but probably the most sophisticated, treatment of him is in Richard Cottam, Nationalism in Iran (1964). The Shah is discussed in Peter Avery, Modern Iran (1965; 2d ed. 1967), and Yahya Armajani, Middle East: Past and Present (1970).