Proxy War in a Forlorn Land

  December 13, 2021   Read time 3 min
Proxy War in a Forlorn Land
The 1941 invasion thus inaugurated an interregnum that lasted a full thirteen years. It put an end to the era when the monarch had ruled supreme through his undisputed control of the army, bureaucracy, and court patronage.

It began a period when the new monarch continued to hang on to much of the armed forces, but lost control over the bureaucracy and the patronage system. This interregnum lasted until August 1953 when the shah, through a coup engineered by the Americans and the British, reestablished royal authority, and, thereby, recreated his father’s regime. In these thirteen years power was not concentrated in one place. On the contrary, it was hotly contested between the royal palace, the cabinet, the Majles, and the urban masses, organized first by a socialist movement and then by a nationalist one.

In this contest, the center of political gravity shifted away from the shah, back to the notables who had ruled the country from 1906 to 1921, but who had been relegated to the background in the period from 1921 to 1941. They now reemerged on the national scene in full force. One British diplomat drew striking parallels with his own country’s experience: “The situation resembles England before 1832, with the landowning class in charge of Parliament and of the Cabinet, and with two classes in the country – one bloated with wealth, and the other abjectly poverty-stricken and powerless.” Bullard, who harbored few illusions about long-term prospects for democracy, cautioned: “It seems extremely likely that once foreign troops have gone, some form of dictatorship, however disguised, will be set up, doubtlessly with the army as a base. But at present it is best (for us) to support the Majles.”

The notables dominated on multiple levels – in the cabinet, in the Majles, and, equally significant, at the local level. The latter level determined who went into the Majles, which elected the prime minister as well as the cabinet ministers. The cabinet ministers, in turn, controlled the state bureaucracies. The country had returned to the rule of the notables with the landed elites again herding their clients, especially peasants and tribesmen, to the polls, and, thereby, dominating both the cabinet and the Majles.

The notables were most visible in the cabinet. In these thirteen years, 148 politicians filled 400 cabinet posts, and 12 headed 31 different cabinets. Of the 148 ministers, 81 were sons of titled notables; 13 were Western-educated technocrats linked to the prominent families; 11 were senior army officers; and 8 were wealthy businessmen. Of the 12 prime ministers, 9 came from titled families and themselves had used titles before their 1925 abolition (the old titles crept back into common usage after 1941). The 3 non-aristocratic premiers, nevertheless, were well connected to the landed upper class.

General Ali Razmara, the only non-civilian among them, was the son of a cavalry officer and had studied at St. Cyr before experiencing a meteoric rise through the military by leading successful campaigns against the Kurds, Lurs, and the Khamseh. He was related by marriage to both the Farmanfarmas and the Qavam al-Mulks. Ali Soheily, the second nonaristocrat, was the son of an Azerbaijani merchant and had entered government service in the 1910s through the patronage of Taqizadeh, the famous Tabriz deputy. In later years, Soheily attached himself to Reza Shah, becoming his minister of roads, interior, and foreign affairs, as well as governor of Kerman, director of the Caspian fisheries, and ambassador to London. Similarly, Abdul-Hussein Hezhir, the third non-aristocratic premier, was the son of an armed volunteer from Tabriz who had fought in the civil war and had been brought into government service by Taqizadeh. He had enjoyed the patronage of Davar and Timourtash.

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