muhammad reza pahlevi

Reza Shah

For the Afghan serial killer, see Reza Khan (Taliban).

Rezā Shāh, also Rezā Shāh Pahlavi ( رضا شاه پهلوی, pronounced []), (March 15, 1878July 26, 1944), was the Shah of Iran from December 15, 1925 until he was forced to abdicate by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in September 16, 1941. Reza Shah overthrew Ahmad Shah Qajar, the last Shah of the Qajar dynasty, and founded the Pahlavi Dynasty. He was later designated by parliament as "Reza Shah the Great". He established an authoritarian government that valued nationalism, militarism, secularism and anti-communism combined with strict censorship and state propaganda. He was known as being highly intelligent, without any formal education Reza Shah introduced many socio-economic reforms, reorganizing the army, government administration, and finances. However, his attempts of modernisation reforms have been criticised by some for being "too fast and "superficial".


In the early stages of his life, Reza Shah was known as Reza Savad-Koohi, because of his birth place (see below). Later on, when he gained territory with his own army, he entitled himself Reza Khan, and later as Reza Khan Mirpanj (Persian: رضا خان میرپنج), his full military title at the time. Upon becoming minister of war, he was known as Reza Khan Sardar Sepah, which in Persian roughly means Reza Khan, head of the armed forces. Upon securing his position as the Shah of Persia, he chose the surname Pahlavi (surnames did not exist in Persia before this date, and were introduced as one of the modernization measures during his reign ).

Early life

Reza Pahlavi was born in the village of Alasht in Savad Kooh county, Mazandaran in 1878. His father, Abbas Ali (1815-26 November 1878), and his mother Zehra were ethnic Mazanderani. Abbas Ali was a member of the regional army. When Reza was sixteen years old, he joined the Persian Cossack Brigade, in which, years later, he would rise to the rank of Brigadier.

He also served in the Iranian Army, where he gained the rank of gunnery sergeant under Qajar Prince Abdol Hossein Mirza Farmanfarma's command. He rose through the ranks, eventually holding a commission as a Brigadier General in the Persian Cossack Brigade. He was the last and only Iranian commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade. He was also one of the last individuals to become an officer of the Neshan-e Aqdas prior to the collapse of the Qajar dynasty in 1925.

Rise to power

The 1921 Coup

In late 1920 the Soviet Socialist Republic in Rasht was preparing to march on Tehran with "a guerrilla force of 1500 Jangalis, Kurds, Armenians, and Azerbaijanis", reinforced by the Soviet Red Army. This fact, along with various other disorders, mutinies and unrest in the country created "an acute political crisis in the capital. On February 21, 1921, Reza Khan staged a coup d'état together with Seyyed Zia'eddin Tabatabaee, to get control over a country which had practically no functioning central government at the time.

Commanding a Russian-trained Cossack Brigade, Reza Khan marched his troops from Qazvin, 150 kilometres to the west of Tehran, and seized key parts of the capital city almost without opposition and forced the government to resign.

With the success of the coup, Tabatabaee became the Prime Minister of Iran. Reza Khan's first role in the new government was as commander of the army, which, in April 1921, he combined with the post of Minister of War. At the same time, he took the title Reza Khan Sardar Sepah (رضا خان سردار سپه).

While Reza Khan and his Cossack brigade were securing Tehran, the Persian envoy was in Moscow negotiating a treaty with the Bolsheviks for the removal of Soviet troops from Persia. Known as the 1921 Treaty of Friendship, its Article IV allowed the Soviets to invade and occupy Persia should they believe foreign troops are using Persia as a staging area for an invasion of Soviet territory. As Soviets interpreted the Treaty, they could invade should events in Persia prove threatening to Soviet national security. The Soviets would hold this Treaty over the heads of Persia leaders for years to come.

The coup d'état of 1921 and the emergence of Reza Khan were assisted by the British government which wished to halt the Bolshevik's penetration of Iran particularly because of the threat it posed to the British colonial possession of India. It is thought that British provided "ammunition, supplies and pay" for Reza's troops.

According to some sources, the involvement of the British Empire through the office of General Edmund Ironside helped Reza Khan come to power in the 1920s. This was noted as early as March 1921 by the American embassy and relayed to the Iran desk at the Foreign Office A British Embassy report from 1932 even states that the British put Reza Shah "on the throne".

In a situation report to the War Office dated 8 December 1920, General Edmond Ironside, the commander of the British Forces in Iran, noted that a capable Persian officer must command the Cossacks and "that would solve many difficulties and enable us to depart in peace and honour.

Lt. Colonel Henry Smyth, the British officer who worked with the Cossacks, advised Ironside that the Tabriz battalion had performed remarkably well in pushing back a Bolshevic attack north of Manjeel in the province of Gilan. Subsequently Ironside was introduced to the commanding officer of the Tabriz Battalion, Reza Khan. Ironside was impressed and wrote in his diaries “I decided to make him Commander of the cossack Brigade at least temporarily and at once” . Smyth was appointed the administrator and the financial officer of the Cossacks while Reza Khan was given the task of reorganisation and training. Ironside wrote “What could Persia do with such a ruler? Was it a wonder that she had sunk so low. She needed a strong man to bring her through…It had been a continued mystery to me how she had been able to persevere her independence . Ironside diaries show that from January 1921 he was planning for the installation of strong ruler in Iran and he had found such a ruler in the person of Reza Khan.

To implement the plan Herman Norman, a career Foreign Office diplomat in Tehran, pleaded with the British foreign minister Lord Curzon on behalf of General Ironside for financial help for Cossacks. He met with Seyyed Zia'eddin Tabatabaee, who suggested the creation of a new military unit numbering 15,000 to repel any advance by Bolsheviks towards Tehran. The estimated costs of the plan was one million Pound Sterling. Norman advised Curzon that this sum can be accommodated from a two million Pound loan. General Ironside attempted to force Ahmad Shah to appoint Reza Khan as the commander of the armed forces but the Shah refused.

Reporting on his last recorded meeting with Reza Khan on February 17th, 1921 Ironside wrote: “ I have interviewed Reza Khan and have put him definitely in charge of the Cossacks. He is a man and straightest… I wonder whether I ought to have anything in writing but I decided in the end that writing would be no good. If Reza wants to play false he will and he will merely say that any promises he made were made under duress and that he wouldn’t fulfill them. I made two things clear to Reza when I agreed to let him go:1-that he mustn’t shoot me from behind as he goes or as I go. That would lead to his humiliation and good to nobody except the revolutionary party. 2. That the Shah on no account must be deposed. Reza promised glibly enough and I shook hands with him. I have told Smyth to let him go gradually.”

The request for a promise not to depose the Shah, has been used by some historians as an indication that Ironside was aware of the imminent coup d’etat by Reza Khan. In addition, in a memorandum prepared by Pierson Dixon of Foreign Office and sent to Curzon on 14 May 1921 it is clearly stated that “ Colonel Smyth had prior knowledge of the Coup and co-operated with the principals”. General E.R.Dickson, whose mission as the head of a seven-man military task force was to create a Persian army by integrating the Cossaks, Gendarmerie and other units; and was recalled to London after the coup, in a letter to a member of the US Legation in Tehran dated 6 June 1921 wrote: “I saw Colonel Smyth at Kazvin when I passed through and he admitted what we had all suspected, that it was he who had organised the Cossack Coup in Tehran. He also told that he had done it with the knowledge of the Legation in Tehran. He did not say Mr Norman had a hand in it but admitted that W. A . Smart had. I am rather inclined that Smart, Haig and company ran the business without letting Norman in on the secrete.”

In 1921 there were a number of revolts against the coup In June 1920, a soviet socialist republic had established in Gilan by Mīrzā Kūchak Khān, as the prime minister. Kurds of Khorasan also revolted in the same year.

Overthrow of the Qajar dynasty

On October 26, 1923, Reza had seized control of Iran and forced the young Ahmad Shah Qajar to exile in Europe. As the Prime Minister, Reza Khan wanted to secure his power in opposition to any potential restoration of Qajar house. He now machinated for a republic and his military junta started a massive propaganda campaign for establishment of a republic. However, the idea of a republic was fiercely opposed by the powerful clergymen, and the feudal landlords.. Some leaders of the National Assembly of Iran, known as the Majlis, particularly Hassan Modarres and the young Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh forcefully opposed Reza Khan’s plan to consolidate his autocracy. His supremacy was imposed by 1925 with the subjugation of all tribal insurrections and nationalists’ unrest. He maneuvered against Qajar dynasty and in October forced the parliament to depose the young King. He assured the landlords and the conservative clergy that he would defend Islamic law and would not undertake any radical reform. The Majlis, convening as a constituent assembly on December 12, 1925, declared him the Shah.

Three days later, on December 15, 1925, he took his imperial oath and thus became the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. It was not until April 25, 1926 that Reza Shah would receive his coronation and first place the Imperial Crown on his head. At the same ceremony his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was proclaimed the Crown Prince of Persia – to rule after his father.

Reign and modernization

During Reza Shah's sixteen years of rule, major developments, such as large road construction projects and the Trans-Iranian Railway were built, modern education was introduced and the University of Tehran was established. The government sponsored European educations for many Iranian students. The number of modern industrial plants, increased 17 fold under Reza Shah, (excluding oil installations), the number of miles of highway increased from 2000 to 14,000.

Some of his development has been criticized as wasteful and/or serving special or foreign (British) interests. For example, an economically justifiable an east-west railway system was not built, while an uneconomical north-south system was, this being attributed by some to provide benefit to the British who had a military presence in the south of Iran and wanted to transfer their troops to Russia and the Indian subcontinent as part of their strategic defence plan.

Along with the modernization of the nation, Reza Shah was the ruler during the time of the Women's Awakening (1936-1941). This movement sought the elimination of the Islamic veil from Iranian society. Supporters held that the veil impeded physical exercise and the ability of women to enter society and contribute to the progress of the nation. This move met opposition from the religious establishment. The unveiling issue and the Women's Awakening are linked to the Marriage Law of 1931 and the Second Congress of Eastern Women in Tehran in 1932.

Despite the support initially given to him by the British, the Shah worked to balance British influence with other foreigners and generally to diminish foreign influence in Iran. In 1931, he refused to allow Imperial Airways to fly in Persian airspace, instead giving the concession to German-owned Lufthansa Airlines. The next year he surprised the British by unilaterally cancelling the oil concession awarded William Knox D’Arcy (then called Anglo-Persian Oil Company), which was slated to expire in 1961. The concession granted Persia 16% of the net profits from APOC oil operations. The Shah wanted 21%. Following a brief challenge by the British before the League of Nations, the British acquiesced. He previously hired American consultants to develop and implement Western-styled financial and administrative systems. Included among them was US Economist, Dr. Arthur Millspaugh who acted as the nation's Finance Minister. Reza Shah also purchased ships from Italy and hired Italians to teach his troops the intricacies of naval warfare. And began bringing in hundreds of German technicians and advisors for various projects. Mindful of the Persian’s long period of subservience to British and Russian authority, Reza Shah was careful to avoid giving any one foreign nation too much control. He also insisted that foreign advisors be employed by the Persian government so that they would not be answerable to foreign powers. This was based upon his experience with Anglo-Persian which was owned and operated by the British government.

In his campaign against foreign influence he annulled the 19th century capitulations to Europeans, granting them extraterritorial jurisdiction. The right to print money was moved from the British Imperial Bank to his National Bank of Iran (Bank-i Melli Iran). The administration of the telegraph system from the Indo-European Telegraph Company to the Iranian government as was the collection of customs by Belgian officials. He eventually fired the American Millspaugh, and prohibited foreigners from administering schools, owning land or traveling in the provinces without police permission.

Reza Shah would discredit and eliminate his ministers whom he considered as his rivals. His minister of Imperial Court, Teimurtash, was accused and convicted of corruption, bribery, misuse of foreign currency regulations, and plans to overthrow the Shah. He was removed as the minister of court in 1932 and was murdered while in prison in September 1933. His minister of finance, Firuz who played an important role in the first three years of his reign was convicted on similar charges in May 1930 and was murdered in prison in January 1938. Davar, his minister of justice, was suspected of similar charges and committed suicide in February 1937. As Ghani writes with the elimination of these ministers “Iran was deprived of her most dynamic figures… and the burden of government fell heavily on Reza Shah.

On 21 March 1935, he issued a decree asking foreign delegates to use the term Iran in formal correspondence in accordance with the fact that "Persia" was a term used for a country called "Iran" in Persian. "Persia" (or "Fars" or "Parseh") is actually a province in Iran. It has however contributed more to the Iranian people than others, particularly its language, "Persian". Opponents claimed that this act brought cultural damage to the country and separated Iran from its past in the West (see Iran naming dispute). The name “Iran” means “Land of the Aryans”.

Reza Shah was the first Iranian Monarch after 1400 years that paid respect to the Jews by praying to the Torah and bowing in front of it, when visiting the Jewish community of Isfahan. An act that boosted the self-esteem of the Iranian Jews and made Reza Shah their second most respected Iranian leader after Cyrus the Great. Reza Shah's reforms in opening new occupations to Jews and allowing them to leave the ghetto.

By the mid-1930s, Reza Shah's constructive, but dictatorial style of rule had caused intense dissatisfaction to the Shi'a clergy throughout Iran, thus widening the gap between religion and government. He forbade photographing aspects of Iran he considered backwards, like camels, he banned Islamic dress and chadors in favour of Western dress. Women who resisted this compulsory unveiling had their veils forcibly removed. He dealt harshly with opposition: troops were sent to massacre protesters at mosques and nomads who refused to settle; newspapers were closed and liberals imprisoned. He also used his power to vastly increase his fortune, becoming the biggest landowner in Iran, proprietor of nearly three thousand villages, as well as many factories and enterprises.

By the late 1930s, Reza Shah had become increasingly despotic and disliked. The parliament assented to his decrees the free press was suppressed, and swift incarceration of the political leaders like Mossadegh and murder of some like Teymourtash, and Davar halted the formation of any democratic process. He treated the urban middle class, the managers and technocrats with iron-hand, as a result his state-owned industries remained unproductive and inefficient. The bureaucracy fell apart before him since anyone could be whisked away to prison at any moment for disobeying his whims He confiscated land from the Qajars and from the rivals to usurp it into his own estates. The corruption continued under his rule and even became institutionalized. Progress toward modernization was spotty and isolated . He became totally dependent on his military force, and the army, which in return regularly received up to 50 percent of the public revenue to guarantee its loyalty.

Foreign policy and World War II

His foreign policy, which had consisted essentially of playing the Soviet Union off against Great Britain, failed when those two powers joined in 1941 to fight the Germans. To supply the Soviet forces with war material through Iran, the two allies jointly occupied the country in August 1941.

Reza Shah initiated changes in foreign affairs as well. In 1928 he abolished the capitulations under which Europeans in Iran had, since the nineteenth century, enjoyed the privilege of being subject to their own consular courts rather than to the Iranian judiciary. Suspicious of both Britain and the Soviet Union, the shah circumscribed contacts with foreign embassies. Relations with the Soviet Union had already deteriorated because of that country's commercial policies, which in the 1920s and 1930s adversely affected Iran. In 1932 the shah offended Britain by canceling the agreement under which the Anglo-Persian Oil Company produced and exported Iran's oil. Although a new and improved agreement was eventually signed, it did not satisfy Iran's demands and left bad feeling on both sides. To counterbalance British and Soviet influence, Reza Shah encouraged German commercial enterprise in Iran. On the eve of World War II, Germany was Iran's largest trading partner.

During WW II, Iranian consular office in France was instrumental in saving Iranian and non-Iranian Jews from persecution by Nazi Germany. In the context of Iran's good diplomatic relations with Germany, Iran saved some lives of Iranian Jews and non-Iranians stating they were citizens, this shows that Iran, who had a strong relationship, did not fully agree with the "Third Reich".

During WW I, when Reza was a colonel in the Cossack Brigade, he contacted Germany’s embassy in Tehran and solicited their help in fighting British and Russian encroachments upon Iran. The Germans agreed to sell him the steel factory he coveted and considered a sine quo non of progress and modernity. Nevertheless, according to the British embassy reports from Tehran in 1940, the total number of German citizens in Iran - from technicians to spies - was no more than a thousand.

Deposition and death

In August 1941, the Allied powers United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, occupied Iran by a massive air, land, and naval assault subsequently forcing Reza Shah to abdicate in favour of his son (see also Persian Corridor).

The Shah received with disbelief, as a personal humiliation and defeat, news that fifteen Iranian divisions had surrendered without much resistance. Some of his troops dispersed and went home, while others were locked up in their barracks by the Allies.

The British left the Shah a face-saving way out:

Would His Highness kindly abdicate in favour of his son, the heir to the throne? We have a high opinion of him and will ensure his position. But His Highness should not think there is any other solution.

The invasion was allegedly in fear that Reza Shah was about to align his petroleum-rich country with Nazi Germany during the war: However, Reza Shah's earlier Declaration of Neutrality and refusal to allow Iranian territory to be used to train, supply, and act as a transport corridor to ship arms to Russia for its war effort against Germany, was the strongest motive for the allied invasion of Iran. Because of its importance in the allied victory, Iran was subsequently called "The Bridge of Victory" by Winston Churchill.

The Shah's son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, officially replaced his father on the throne on September 16, 1941. Reza Shah was soon forced into exile in British territories, first to Mauritius, then to Durban thence Johannesburg, South Africa, where he died on July 26, 1944, of heart ailment from which he had been complaining for many years. (His personal doctor had boosted the King's morale in exile by telling him that he was suffering from chronic indigestion and not heart ailment. He lived on a diet of plain rice and boiled chicken in the last years of his life) He was sixty-six years old at the time of his death.

After his passing, his body was carried to Egypt, where his body was embalmed and kept at the royal Al Rifa'i Mosque in Cairo (poignantly, the future burial place of his son, the exiled Muhammad Reza Shah). Many years later, the remains were flown back to Iran, where the embalming were removed (Islamic laws do not allow for embalmment of the dead), and buried in a beautifully designed and decorated mausoleum built in his honor at the Shia shrine town of Ray/Shah-Abdol-Azim, in the southern suburbs of the capital, Tehran. The Iranian parliament (Majlis) later designated the title "the Great" to be added to his name.

Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Reza Shah's mausoleum Satellite map was destroyed under the direction of Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, which was sanctioned by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.


Reza Shah's first wife, whom he married in 1894, was Maryam Khanum (died 1904). They had one daughter:

His second wife was Tadj ol-Molouk (1896-1982), by whom he had five children:

In 1922 (divorced 1923), Reza Shah married Turan (Qamar al Molk) Amir Soleimani (1904 – 1995), by whom he had one son:

Reza Shah's fourth wife was Esmat Dowlatshahi (1904-1995), by whom he had five children:


See also


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