Iran Table of Contents

Tabatabai became prime minister and Reza Khan became commander of the armed forces in the new government. Reza Khan, however, quickly emerged as the dominant figure. Within three months, Tabatabai was forced out of the government and into exile. Reza Khan became minister of war. In 1923 Ahmad Shah agreed to appoint Reza Khan prime minister and to leave for Europe. The shah was never to return. Reza Khan seriously considered establishing a republic, as Atatürk had done in Turkey, but abandoned the idea as a result of clerical opposition. In October 1925, a Majlis dominated by Reza Khan's men deposed the Qajar dynasty; in December the Majlis conferred the crown on Reza Khan and his heirs. The military officer who had become master of Iran was crowned as Reza Shah Pahlavi in April 1926.

Even before he became shah, Reza Khan had taken steps to create a strong central government and to extend government control over the country. Now, as Reza Shah, with the assistance of a group of army officers and younger bureaucrats, many trained in Europe, he launched a broad program of change designed to bring Iran into the modern world. To strengthen the central authority, he built up Iran's heterogeneous military forces into a disciplined army of 40,000, and in 1926 he persuaded the Majlis to approve a law for universal military conscription. Reza Shah used the army not only to bolster his own power but also to pacify the country and to bring the tribes under control. In 1924 he broke the power of Shaykh Khazal, who was a British protégé and practically autonomous in Khuzestan. In addition, Reza Shah forcibly settled many of the tribes.

To extend government control and promote Westernization, the shah overhauled the administrative machinery and vastly expanded the bureaucracy. He created an extensive system of secular primary and secondary schools and, in 1935, established the country's first European-style university in Tehran. These schools and institutions of higher education became training grounds for the new bureaucracy and, along with economic expansion, helped create a new middle class. The shah also expanded the road network, successfully completed the trans-Iranian railroad, and established a string of state-owned factories to produce such basic consumer goods as textiles, matches, canned goods, sugar, and cigarettes.

Many of the Shah's measures were consciously designed to break the power of the religious hierarchy. His educational reforms ended the clerics' near monopoly on education. To limit further the power of the clerics, he undertook a codification of the laws that created a body of secular law, applied and interpreted by a secular judiciary outside the control of the religious establishment. He excluded the clerics from judgeships, created a system of secular courts, and transferred the important and lucrative task of notarizing documents from the clerics to state-licensed notaries. The state even encroached on the administration of vaqfs (religious endowments) and on the licensing of graduates of religious seminaries.

Among the codes comprising the new secular law were the civil code, the work of Justice Minister Ali Akbar Davar, enacted between 1927 and 1932; the General Accounting Act (1934-35), a milestone in financial administration; a new tax law; and a civil service code.

Determined to unify what he saw as Iran's heterogeneous peoples, end foreign influence, and emancipate women, Reza Shah imposed European dress on the population. He opened the schools to women and brought them into the work force. In 1936 he forcibly abolished the wearing of the veil.

Reza Shah initially enjoyed wide support for restoring order, unifying the country, and reinforcing national independence, and for his economic and educational reforms. In accomplishing all this, however, he took away effective power from the Majlis, muzzled the press, and arrested opponents of the government. His police chiefs were notorious for their harshness. Several religious leaders were jailed or sent into exile. In 1936, in one of the worst confrontations between the government and religious authorities, troops violated the sanctity of the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad, where worshipers had gathered to protest Reza Shah's reforms. Dozens of worshipers were killed and many injured. In addition, the shah arranged for powerful tribal chiefs to be put to death; bureaucrats who became too powerful suffered a similar fate. Reza Shah jailed and then quietly executed Abdul-Hosain Teimurtash, his minister of court and close confidant; Davar committed suicide.

As time went on, the shah grew increasingly avaricious and amassed great tracts of land. Moreover, his tax policies weighed heavily on the peasants and the lower classes, the great landowners' control over land and the peasantry increased, and the condition of the peasants worsened during his reign. As a result, by the mid-1930s there was considerable dissatisfaction in the country.

Meanwhile, 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 detiorated 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress