The rise of Reza Pahlavi

September 7 2013

An account from 1926. Toynbee seems innocent of the idea that Britain had had a hand in the coup of 1921.

The Persian point of view (background in recent post).

Atatürk and Reza Shah

Atatürk and Reza Shah, Flickr credit: zenbuoyzenbuoy

On December 13, 1925, a Persian constituent assembly, sitting in Tehran, elected a King of Kings and made the crown of Persia hereditary in his family. The new shah was Reza Khan Pahlevi, a man of action who, starting from the rank of simple private soldier in a Persian force organized and officered by a foreign power, had risen during five years to be the real ruler of a genuinely independent Persia. The crown and the title that he received at the end of 1925 merely registered what was already the outstanding fact in the internal politics and the international relations of Persia, the personal ascendancy of Reza Pahlevi.

Meanwhile, on October 31, the ordinary Persian Madjless or Parliament had deposed the existing dynasty and its representative, Ahmed Shah, who for two years had been going the round of European watering-places in an indefinitely protracted foreign tour.

Thus Ahmed Shah gave place to Reza Shah, and the dynasty of the Kajars to the dynasty of the Pahlevis. In one sense this was a very old story; in another sense it was part of a new chapter in the history of the Islamic world.

The dramatic personal career of Reza Shah, though it naturally strikes the imagination of the Western public, is not a novelty in the Orient. The boy who mounts from the lowest rung of the social ladder to be a king in the literal sense of the word is as familiar a figure in the East as the self-made coal king, railway king, meat king, or oil king is in Europe or America. Men who have started as peasants or brigands, camel-drivers or coppersmiths, have repeatedly founded Oriental monarchies and handed them down to their heirs – or, rather, to a limited number of heirs, for in politics as in business, the work of the self-made man is likely to be undone by successors who reap where they have not sown.

The greatest of the Moslem political philosophers, Ibn Khaldun, lays down the general law that hereditary political power is invariably lost by the great-grandson of the founder. The deposed Ahmed Shah was the seventh sovereign of his line, but on the whole Ibn Khaldun’s law is as true for politics in Persia as the proverb, “It is three generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves,” is true for business in America.

At the same time, the rise of Reza Pahlevi is not altogether an old story, even from the Oriental point of view, for Reza Shah is one among a new group of leaders who have appeared simultaneously all over the Islamic world since the end of the World War. Reza Pahlevi in Persia is akin to Abd-el-Krim in Morocco, Mustafa Kemal Pasha in Turkey, and Amanullah (the present amir) in Afghanistan. They were all brought up under the shadow of foreign domination. They all, when they were still young and undistinguished, formed the resolve to save their country’s independence. And they all set about their task by deliberately learning from the foreigner in order to fight him with his own weapons. They have not fought Western civilization. They have realized that their countries have been suffering not so much from the immorality of the foreign aggressors as from the operation of a universal and inexorable social law, which decrees that the weak-kneed and incompetent must give place to the efficient and the strong.


Before reviewing Reza Shah’s career, it may be well to take a glance at the Persia in which he grew up and which formed his mental background. During Reza Shah’s childhood and youth (he was born about 1877) the outstanding institution in Persia was an irresponsible despotism. Before completing the cycle of its existence, the Kajar Dynasty had produced shahs of three out of the four recognized varieties: the vicious strong man, the amiable weak man, and the vicious weak man, who is the worst of all. This, though bad, could be borne, for it was a familiar evil; but during the last quarter of the nineteenth century the Kajar sovereigns of Persia discovered the West, a discovery which had always made Oriental despots intolerable to their subjects, sooner or later. The native traditions of Oriental life set a limit to the extortion and extravagance of Oriental rulers by circumscribing their possible self-indulgences, but as soon as they learn to use Western luxuries, and to pay for them by borrowing money in Western markets, there are no bounds to the ravages which they may commit, not only upon the wealth of their subjects but upon the political independence of their countries. An Oriental sovereign who is hopelessly in debt to private Western money-lenders soon finds himself in the political power of the government which claims these money-lenders as its nationals. If he cannot pay in cash, he must pay in concessions, tariff agreements, or leases of territory; and when his subjects become restive at the betrayal of the public interests, he is driven to commit himself still more deeply to the foreign power and to rely on foreign bayonets for protection against his own people. Reza Pahlevi learned his soldiering – and learned it most effectively – by enlisting in the Cossack Brigade which Russian officers were organizing for the reigning Kajar shah with the double object of keeping the shah on his throne by force and of bringing that throne under the shadow of the Russian Empire. The crisis began with the constitutional revolution of 1906, a Persian echo of the greater upheaval which had been convulsing Russia since the Japanese war. Losing their patience at last, the Persian people introduced a parliamentary régime and girded themselves for the task of placing their country on her feet.

The revolution of 1906, however, was only the first chapter. The Persian Cossack Brigade, under its Russian commander, soon found itself fighting to overthrow the Madjless and restore the absolute monarchy. The counter-revolution was foiled, and in 1909 the reactionary shah, Mohammad Ali, was forced to leave the country and find asylum in Russia; but this constitutional victory was bought at the price of a Russian military occupation of Tabriz, the second city of Persia and the citadel of the constitutional movement. Moreover in 1907 the prospects of Persian independence had received a blow through the reversal of British policy in the Middle East under the stress of the situation in Europe. Fear of Germany had induced the British government to go into partnership with Russia; and the price of Russian cooperation in Europe was that Russia should have things her own way in Persia. Under the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, in the negotiation of which the Persian government was not consulted, Persia was divided into a Russian and a British zone with a neutral zone between them. The spirit of the Anglo-Russian Agreement was tested in 1911, when the Persian government engaged a private American citizen, Mr. W. Morgan Shuster, as its financial adviser, and the Russian government compelled the Persian government to dismiss Mr. Shuster as soon as it became apparent that he was making effective progress in putting Persian finances in order. Not content with Mr. Shuster’s dismissal, the Russian government sought to repress Persian nationalism by methods of barbarism in Tabriz and had the Cossack Brigade fall upon the Madjless at Tehran and disperse it by artillery-fire.

The climax of Persia’s humiliation was reached during the World War; for though Persia was not a belligerent, her territory was marched over and fought over by Russians, Turks, and British like a no-man’s-land. Meanwhile, in 1915, Great Britain had insisted that the neutral zone in Persia should be added to her zone in return for the acquisition of Constantinople by Russia; and Russia had consented on condition that in her own zone in Persia she should receive a free hand. Thus the partition of Persia between the Russian and the British empires was almost an accomplished fact when it was unexpectedly voided by the Russian Revolution. Yet this miraculous escape from one danger only exposed Persia to another. The temporary elimination of Russia left Great Britain in military and political control, not only of all Persia, but of the Russian border territories of Transcaspia and Transcaucasia; and the new situation was reflected in the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, which was negotiated by Lord Curzon – with a Persian government which was almost avowedly unrepresentative of the Persian people – while the Peace Conference was in session at Paris.

These were the sensational and distressing experiences in the midst of which Reza Pahlevi learned his trade. He showed that he had profited by them as soon as he found his opportunity to play an active part in his country’s affairs.

Reza’s opportunity presented itself because the various foreign aggressors successively canceled each other out, while the Persian nation’s power of passive endurance outstayed the active energy of her neighbors. The Russians and British turned the Turks out of western Persia; the Russian Revolution caused the Russians to withdraw; and the steady pressure of the British taxpayer combined with the sound strategic instinct of the British War Office (which desired, from the moment of the Armistice, to extricate itself from outlying military commitments), and with a well timed military stroke delivered by the Bolsheviki, to bring about the evacuation of Persia by the British forces in their turn. Once the British troops were withdrawn [late 1920?], the administrative, financial, and military advice which was to be furnished to the Persian government by British officials, under the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, was deprived of effective sanctions. Had the advisers got into the saddle at once, they might perhaps even so have held Persia under control; but here they were baffled by the Persian genius for passive resistance. The one point which was apparently overlooked by Lord Curzon and his Persian friends who signed the agreement of 1919 was that under Article 24 of the Persian Constitution of 1906 every public treaty, covenant, or concession negotiated by the Persian government had to be ratified by the Madjless; and the Madjless, like Humpty-Dumpty, proved easier to pull down than to set up again. Artillery can disperse a parliament in session by bringing down the roof about its ears, but it cannot conduct a general election and induce the deputies to assemble. The agreement hung fire while the Madjless omitted to reconstitute itself, and at this point the Bolsheviki gave Reza Pahlevi his opportunity by taking a hand in the game.

The departure of the British troops from Transcausasia [sic] in the summer of 1919, and the collapse of [the White Russian] General Denikin in the last months of the same year, reopened for the Red army the road to Persia. In the early summer of 1920 they landed in force on the Caspian coast, seized General Denikin’s fleet in the Persian port of Enzeli (since renamed Pahlevi in honor of the new shah), and pushed back the advanced detachments of the weak British army of occupation. The Persian government of the day, which was acting in the British interest, sent against the Red invaders the Persian Cossack Division, which was still officered by White Russians, though the force was now financed by a British subsidy. The Cossacks – among whom Reza Pahlevi had gradually risen to one of the highest positions open to a Persian member of the division – advanced against the Reds and gained some successes; but the attitude of the White Russian officers became so dubious that in the late autumn of 1920 the British military authorities in Persia removed them, and the Persian Cossack Division became a purely Persian force with British military instructors. Thus a trained and organized Persian corps, which had been created to serve Russian imperialist interests, passed in the end into Persian hands; and Reza Pahlevi, after serving his long apprenticeship under Russian teachers, found himself with an effective force at his back to be used for Persian national purposes.

The Cossacks now made common cause with the Constitutionalists, and in February, 1921, Reza Pahlevi marched from Kazvin, the Cossack headquarters, upon the capital. Tehran was occupied on February 21, the Anglophile government overthrown, and a nationalist government formed with Sayyid Zia ad Din as prime minister and Reza as commander-in-chief of the army. Zia ad Din’s term of office was signalized by the denunciation of the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 and by the signing of a treaty with the Soviet government on February 26.

From the moment when the Persian Cossacks escaped from both Russian and British control, it was evident that if they produced a strong man from among their Persian officers, he would have the government of Persia in his hands. The opportunity found Reza Pahlevi ready to seize it, and from February, 1921, he has gone from strength to strength. He was appointed minister of war as well as commander-in-chief a few weeks after Sayyid Zia ad Din became premier, and he held this post continuously until he chose to combine the premiership with it [1923]. Meanwhile successive premiers went and came at Reza Pahlevi’s dictation, the first to go (May, 1921) being the sayyid himself.

Reza assumed the premiership on October 28, 1923, and thereupon Shah Ahmed Kajar started on that foreign tour from which, as it has turned out, he has not returned. The day after Reza Pahlevi became prime minister of Persia, the National Assembly at Angora proclaimed Turkey a republic and elected Mustafa Kemal Pasha as her first president. Reza Pahlevi was naturally impressed by the career of a brilliant soldier who was the national hero of the leading country in the Islamic world, and it is almost certain that he intended to have himself elected first president of a Persian republic on the next Persian New Year’s day, which fell on March 21, 1924. In this regard he suffered the only serious rebuff he has encountered so far.

The first stages went well. The Madjless assembled on March 13; a meeting of forty ex-premiers, cabinet ministers, and other notables called upon Reza to declare in favor of a republic and to make arrangements with the Madjless for the election of a president; pro-republican demonstrations were made in Tehran; pro-republican telegrams poured in from the provinces. Meanwhile, however, there had been fresh developments in Turkey which again influenced the course of events in Persia, though this time in a contrary sense. On March 3 the Turkish National Assembly had not only abolished the caliphate but had secularized the Turkish state and had drastically disestablished the Islamic ecclesiastical organization. Persia and Turkey belong to different sects; but the Persian ecclesiastics argued nevertheless that the proclamation of a republic in Persia would involve them In the same fate as had overtaken their Turkish confrères. They therefore threw the whole weight of their influence into the anti-republican scales; anti-republican counter-demonstrations began; and before the Persian New Year’s day arrived, Reza felt it advisable to beat a retreat. He went off to confer with the leading religious jurisconsults in the holy city of Kum, and he proclaimed at the beginning of April that the establishment of a republic was contrary to religion and that all further mention of the subject was prohibited.

Superficially, at any rate, Reza’s position was weakened by this fiasco, and he had to demonstrate that he was indispensable by resigning office on April 7 and resuming it with some show of reluctance at the pressing entreaty of his countrymen. If Reza Pahlevi had failed to become the first president of a new Persian republic, he might still become the first shah of a new dynasty on the ancient throne of the Persian Empire.

The first step in this new move was taken on February 14, 1925, when the Madjless passed a bill appointing Reza generalissimo of all the armed forces of Persia and making him irremovable except by the same body. The next step was the deposition, by another vote of the Madjless on October 31, 1925, of the reigning Shah Ahmed and the whole Kajar Dynasty into the bargain. By the same resolution, the maintenance of a provisional government was intrusted to Reza Pahlevi, pending the election of a constituent assembly.

The final inevitable step occurred on December 12, when the constituent assembly, duly meeting, conferred the crown of Persia upon Reza Pahlevi and his heirs forever. The new shah took the oath on the fifteenth of the same month.


What is the secret of this meteoric career, and what has Reza Shah Pahlevi done to deserve so well of his fellow-countrymen? To these two questions there is a single answer. He has built up a national army which, though small in numbers (it probably does not exceed forty thousand men all told), has nevertheless proved itself an efficient fighting force and, almost for the first time in history, has established the effective authority of the central government over all the territories and populations within the Persian frontiers.

How has he achieved this? At first sight it seems miraculous, considering the poor reputation of the Persian as a fighting man. Yet this miracle, if it is a miracle, has been performed by the same simple means that have enabled a number of modern Western powers to acquire vast Oriental empires.

How did the English make themselves masters of India? Not by importing legions of Nordic supermen, but by turning a small select body of Indian troops into better soldiers than their fellow-countrymen. And how did they endow their Indian troops with this military superiority? Simply by making sure that they should be properly and regularly fed, clothed, and housed and properly and regularly paid; in other words, by the prosaic but fundamental Western virtues of business honesty and efficiency, by superiority in the arts of the caterer and the accountant rather than by superiority in physique and valor. From 1921 onward, Reza has systematically asserted the authority of the central government in one sector of the country after another, his crowning triumph being the unconditional surrender, at the end of 1924, of Sheikh Khaz’al, the Arab ruler of Mohammerah on the Persian bank of the Shat-el-Arab, who, since before the World War, had been virtually a sovereign prince with a private agreement of his own with the British government.

It must not be supposed, however, that, because his policy is simple, it is also crude. When Dr. Millspaugh arrived at Tehran in the autumn of 1922, he found that certain revenues had been deflected from the Ministry of Finance and were being paid direct into the coffers of the Ministry of War; but Reza’s vision was not bounded by this provisional solution of his financial problem. He realized that if the general public finance and administration of the country remained unsound, the exaction of his pound of flesh would only hasten the hour of death and dissolution, and that then, in the general ruin of Persia, the Persian new-model army would perish irretrievably.

Having grasped this simple but fundamental truth, Reza Pahlevi gave his hearty support to the policy of engaging private American citizens as financial experts. It is interesting to observe the difference in his attitudes toward the unfortunate British financial adviser who was attempting to establish control when Reza made the coup d’état of February, 1921, and toward the American advisers who arrived at Tehran the next year on the invitation of the Persian government with no political ax to grind. Reza kept the Englishman’s hands off the finances of the Persian army by that kind of stolid passive resistance at which Persians are adepts; but the sequel showed that he was pursuing a patriotic and legitimate aim in thus concentrating as much power as possible in his own hands. Less than two years later, when Dr. Millspaugh asked him to restore to the Ministry of Finance those revenues which he had diverted in the meanwhile to the Ministry of War as security for the army budget, he agreed without demur, because he understood that Dr. Millspaugh’s sole object was to restore Persian finance without any thought of simultaneously establishing an American political ascendancy, and because he perceived that if Dr. Millspaugh succeeded in his endeavor, this would enable Reza himself to increase the efficiency of the army proportionately. Evidently Dr. Millspaugh acted with great tact in this delicate negotiation; nevertheless the transaction, which has been the foundation of Persia’s remarkable recovery during the last few years, could hardly have been concluded satisfactorily if the Persian soldier of fortune had not shown the same breadth of view as the American financial expert.

Enough has now been said to demonstrate that Reza Shah Pahlevi is a remarkable man, but what about the Pahlevi Dynasty? How many generations, the skeptical reader will ask, is it to be this time from shirtsleeves to shirt-sleeves? Is Ibn Khaldun’s law of dynastic cycles destined to be repeated again? Certainly there is no reason to suppose that the descendants of Reza Shah Pahlevi will maintain his level of character and ability any better than the nephews and great-nephews of Agha Muhammad Khan Kajar; yet there is one fresh factor which must be taken into account. The new dynasty has been founded in a new Persia, a Persia with a national consciousness and a national parliament, and if Reza Shah’s heirs turn out to be lesser men than he, they are less likely to be overthrown as incompetent despots than to survive as harmless constitutional monarchs. It may be, therefore, that the old series of dynastic cycles has been broken and that Persia’s feet are now securely set upon a westward road. The new national consciousness is very much alive, and Reza Shah Pahlevi, the self-made man, is a true representative of his nation, for, in spite of the foreign quality of his Parthian surname, he comes from the province of Mazandaran, which in times of adversity has often been the citadel of Persian national independence. The only condition which the constituent assembly attached to the hereditary principle was that Reza Shah’s successors on the throne must be born of Persian mothers, and this was a deliberate reversal of the law of the Kajar Dynasty, which was that successors to the throne must be born of Kajar princesses. The strange fact was that the Kajars were not Persians at all but a Turkish clan, speaking a Turkish dialect as their household language. Thus, until last year, a necessary qualification for succeeding to the Persian throne was that the candidate should be of non-Persian descent on both sides! In this as in other respects the Kajar Dynasty stood for a dispensation under which Oriental peoples existed for the benefit of their rulers, whereas Reza Shah Pahlevi has been elected to the Persian throne by the chosen representatives of the Persian people because he has served the nation well in the past and is expected to serve it no less faithfully hereafter.

He writes in his usual tone of jaunty optimism about rulers emerging in a post- or neo-colonial age.

Reza Shah was anti-British, anti-Russian (despite the friendship treaty with Russia) and pro-German in his sympathies and was forced to abdicate by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1941. His son took over and reigned until deservedly overthrown by the Islamic revolution of 1979.

The Strong Man of Persia: Reza Shah Has a Firm Grip on the Reins, The Century Magazine, Vol 112, No 5, September 1926

2 Responses to “The rise of Reza Pahlavi”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    In 1931 he refused to allow Imperial Airways to fly in Persian airspace and gave the concession to Lufthansa.

  2. […] The rise of Reza Pahlavi […]

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