Iran at the Turn of Twentieth Century

  November 28, 2023   Read time 5 min
Iran at the Turn of Twentieth Century
At the turn of the Iranian New Year in March 1941, Reza Shah, the autocratic ruler of Iran for sixteen years and the virtual master of Iran for even longer— twenty years—could look back with some satisfaction at what he had already accomplished: nothing less than the transformation of his country.

Yet, ever restless, he was pushing for more—more modern factories, more railroad lines, more paved roads, more electrification, more equipment for his beloved army. The one cloud on the horizon was the war raging in Europe; but by declaring Iran’s neutrality, he believed he had protected Iran from entanglement in the conflict and its ravages. In this, he gravely misjudged what lay ahead for his country and for himself. Reza Shah’s rise to the pinnacle of power in Iran had been stunning. Born in 1876 or 1877 to a family of modest means, he grew up in Alasht, a small village nestled on the slopes of the Alborz Mountains north of Tehran. His father, who had served as an officer in the Qajar army, died when Reza was still an infant. He was raised by his mother, a woman whose family had immigrated to Iran from the Caucasus. She was helped by an uncle then serving in the Cossack Brigade. The brigade was a Russian-trained, Russianofficered outfit of about three thousand men, established in 1878 and the only effective military force in the country. Reza joined the Cossacks in his early teens and rose rapidly through the ranks. By age 40, Reza Khan, as he was then known, was commander of the Hamadan otryad (detachment) of the Cossacks.

He took part in a number of campaigns against unruly tribes and, later, local breakaway movements. It was in this period that he grew acutely aware of the unhappy state of his country. The Iran Reza Khan would take over in 1921 was in a state of disorder and decline. The problems were legion. The young Ahmad Shah Qajar was inexperienced, timorous, greedy for money, and always impatient to leave Iran, preferring the pleasures of Paris to the drabness of Tehran. The central government was weak, and the large tribal areas were beyond its control. The leading politicians running the government and ministries were divided and ineffective; six cabinets changed hands in a brief nineteen-month period. Revenues were inadequate to meet even basic expenses, and the government relied on British subsidies both to keep the government going and to pay and maintain the Cossack Brigade. Plans to establish a national army had gone nowhere, despite the assignment of British advisers and the injection of British money. Russian officers commanding the Cossack Brigade often acted in the interests of their own government, not in the interest of Iran. Aside from the Cossack Brigade and a small Central Brigade stationed in the capital, Iran had no military forces to speak of. The Cossack Brigade, as noted, was Russianofficered; the gendarmerie, a force charged with maintaining internal order in the countryside, was Swedish-officered. Its pay was often in arrears; the men were ill-clothed and ill-equipped and, according to a British diplomat, by 1920 the gendarmerie had practically “ceased to exist.” Reviewing the men of the Cossack Brigade in October 1920, the new British commander of British forces in Iran, General Edmund Ironside, found even the men of this favored unit to be “in a pitiable condition.” Both officers and men lacked winter clothing; many lacked boots and had wrapped their feet in sacking.1 The roads between major cities were unsafe for travelers or the transport of goods.

Iran’s great power neighbors, Britain and Russia, interfered in internal affairs, including, in the case of Britain, in the making and unmaking of cabinets and the selection of the prime minister. During the First World War, the government proved unable to prevent British, Russian (then Bolshevik), and, briefly, Ottoman troops from using Iranian territory to pursue their own strategic interests. The British established the South Persia Rifles (SPR) to maintain order and protect British interests in the south; the East Persia Cordon to guard the approaches to India against incursions from Central Asia; and the North Persia Force (Norperforce), with headquarters in Qazvin, just north of the capital, to guard against possible Bolshevik intrusions from the Caucasus and to keep secure the border area and roads leading from Iraq to Iran. Only in the case of the SPR had the British bothered to secure the Iranian government’s formal (and very grudging) agreement. The turmoil of the Russian revolution spilled over into Iran. When the White Russian officer Anton Denikin fled with his ships to take refuge in the Iranian port of Enzeli in the spring of 1921, Bolshevik forces attacked and occupied the port. Fear of a full-scale Bolshevik invasion was widespread; and Europeans were already fleeing the capital. In brief, Iran was not master of its own fate.

Domestic forces also threatened the central government. A rebel with radical leanings, Mirza Kuchik Khan, had raised the banner of rebellion in the city of Rasht. He wrote an admiring letter to Lenin, received Bolshevik assistance, declared a “soviet republic” in the whole of the province of Gilan, and threatened to spread his movement across the entire Caspian littoral. In the northeastern province of Azarbaijan, Mohammad Khiabani, a socialist, a nationalist, and a former member of the Majlis, or Parliament, seized control of the provincial capital, Tabriz, renamed the province Azadistan (the land of freedom), and, before he was defeated and killed, progressed from advocating provincial autonomy to flirting with separation from Iran. In Khorasan, in northwestern Iran, a gendarmerie officer, Mohammad Taqi Pesyan, also rebelled against the central government. Corruption was widespread. Provincial governors squeezed the peasants to recoup the money they had paid the shah and officials to secure their appointments. Funds the British had advanced to maintain the Cossack Brigade went into the pockets of the shah and the brigade’s Russian officers. The officers skimmed the pay of the soldiers to line their own pockets and to share with politicians in Tehran, and the commanding officer kept on the books one thousand men who received pay but did not exist.2 A particularly striking example of the depth of corruption was the negotiation leading to the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919.

Write your comment