Reza Khan as the Commander in Chief

  December 25, 2023   Read time 9 min
Reza Khan as the Commander in Chief
Sayyed Zia’s political fall happened as fast as his meteoric rise. Once he had aroused enough resentment among the Qajar elite and lost both the confidence of the British and his usefulness to Reza Khan, he was forced into exile in Palestine under British mandate, where he would remain for two decades.

If Sayyed Zia’s time would soon come to pass, Reza Khan’s would not. His rise between 1921 and 1925, culminating in his ascent to the throne and the founding of the Pahlavi dynasty, brought to power a new military elite, coopted some Qajar notables but marginalized the rest, crushed the Jangal movement and other centers of autonomy and secession, bulldozed through a state-sponsored program of secular reforms, and pacified the countryside with ruthless efficiency. It was as if a surgical knife had lanced an infested cyst that had long troubled Iran’s body politic. At the outset, the measures implemented by the new strongman of Iran were welcomed by nationalists and left-leaning Democrats alike, but once the autocratic nature of his regime became more apparent, support began to evaporate. Reza Khan and his close circle showed little hesitation to force into silence these independent political and religious voices as long as they could secure the backing of the growing class of professionals, modernist intellectuals, and even a generation of mullahs who exchanged their clerical garb and turban in exchange for European attire. These new sectors laid the foundation for the secular middle class that would form the backbone of Pahlavi Iran.

Resolute and calculative, Reza Khan—by then known by his new military title, sardar sepah (chief of the army)—proved a quick study and a shrewd maneuverer. Giving the cold shoulder to Sayyed Zia from the start, even though at times they appeared to be in the same camp, within a year he consolidated his hold over the Cossack Division and its officer corps, some of whom were senior to him, and merged it with the Iranian Gendarmerie, the police, and Iran’s regular troops. Two months after the coup, when he assumed the position of minister of war, he was widely recognized as Iran’s savior, and treated accordingly. Reza Khan was a figure reminiscent of Nader in 1732, when he elevated himself to the position of Safavid regent. Ahmad Shah was not yet completely ostracized, nor was Reza Khan the absolute master of the political stage, but the grounds were well prepared for the rise of a new autocracy.

Sayyed Zia’s political fall happened as fast as his meteoric rise. Once he had aroused enough resentment among the Qajar elite and lost both the confidence of the British and his usefulness to Reza Khan, he was forced into exile in Palestine under British mandate, where he would remain for two decades. Iran’s new master soon realized that collaboration with select members of the Qajar elite and landed aristocracy was more advantageous than working with a rabble-rousing journalist tarnished by his close association with the British. Soon he began to see the merits of having on his side the likes of Ahmad Qavam al-Saltaneh (later Ahmad Qavam, 1873– 1955), Vosuq al-Dowleh’s younger brother, Hasan Moshir al-Dowleh and Hasan Mostowfi al-Mamalek, members of the old guard who were popular with the intelligentsia.

The situation on the ground also helped lift Reza Khan’s stature. The withdrawal of the British Norperforce in May 1921 coincided with Bolshevik disengagement from the Jangal movement and the subsequent withdrawal of the Red Army from Gilan. The rapid end to military occupation, three years after the end of the war, in turn created a power vacuum. For one, the British envoy in Tehran and his superiors acknowledged that Britain no longer wielded the kind of military presence that could dictate its wishes to the rising Reza Khan, whom Norman had characterized as a “peasant” upstart. It seemed as though overnight British prestige had suffered a setback. Yet Reza Khan’s ascendancy was not achieved without serious domestic challenges. A senior Gendarme officer in Khorasan, Colonel Mohammad Taqi Khan, better known as Pesian (1891–1921), staged what eventually turned into a full-scale revolt against Tehran. A Germanophile romantic, Pesian had earlier served as Kermanshah military commander during the provisional government in exile before escaping to Berlin. After his return, as military commander of Khorasan in February 1921, he was instrumental in the arrest of Qavam al-Saltaneh, which brought him the blessing of a handful of Mashhad notables and the loyalty of subordinate gendarme officers. Wary of Reza Khan’s rapid rise, he chose to resist a merger with the Cossack Division and, upon Qavam’s appointment to premiership, the colonel, resentful of a return to elite politics, resisted disarmament. In October 1921 he died in clashes with government forces, and the Khorasan rebellion collapsed soon thereafter.

Throughout mid-1921, Reza Khan and his troops also scored a final victory against the Jangal movement, the greatest challenge to the Tehran government. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the divided Jangal movement rapidly disintegrated. Even mediation by the legendary revolutionary Haydar Khan ‘Amu-Ughlu, could not heal the ideological and personal divisions. After his exile from Iran in 1910, Haydar Khan had spent several years in Europe, including Germany, and during the war years he organized a socialist brigade to fight the Allies alongside the Young Turks in northern Iraq. The Bolshevik revolution boosted Haydar’s morale. Close to Russian revolutionaries and known to Lenin, he was dispatched by the Bolsheviks first to Central Asia to fight against the Russian Whites. In the mid-1920s, during the famous Baku Congress, he won the leadership of the Iranian-dominated Adalat Party that had been initiated in 1916.

In mid-1921, after the coup in Tehran, he moved from Baku to Gilan to mediate between Jangal’s rival factions. Ehsanollah Khan and his fighters from the Caucasus opted to first fight it out against government forces, but under pressure from the newly appointed Soviet representative in Tehran, Theodor Rothstein, who was anxious to normalize relations with the Iranian central government, they later were forced to leave for Baku with the evacuating Bolsheviks. In Ehsanollah’s absence, Haydar Khan saw an opportunity to fill the gap, possibly with Rothstein’s support. He persuaded Kuchak Khan in August 1921 to appoint him as commisar of foreign affairs for the Gilan Soviet Republic. Soon after, however, Kuchak Khan’s supporters assassinated Haydar Khan in October 1921 because of suspicions that he favored Soviet conciliation toward Tehran. From his beginnings as a socialist agitator in 1907 to a mediator in the forests of Gilan, Haydar Khan left behind a legacy of violent radicalism and often futile agitation that has since been glamorized by generations of Iranians on the left. Ehsanollah’s end was no less tragic. He spent the rest of his life in Baku, where he reportedly was arrested in 1937 and killed in one of Stalin’s purges.

Haydar’s fall anticipated the final collapse of the Jangal movement. With Reza Khan himself leading the troops to recapture Rasht, Kuchak Khan retreated back into the forests. Once his war commissar, leader of a Kurdish affiliate of the Jangal movement, surrendered to Reza Khan, Kuchak and a small band of his loyal disciples took to the high mountains of the Khalkhal region west of the Caspian. In October 1921 Kuchak Khan and a German junior officer and friend who had remained loyal to him through the years, died of exposure, perhaps trying to reach Russian Azerbaijan.

The defeat of the Jangal movement signified the end of a socialist antiimperialist tendency in Iran. Rooted in the Constitutional Revolution, the Jangal movement thrived in its aftermath but lost out to a centralizing state that relied on a superior military aimed to implement a secular statebuilding project. In January 1922, when another Gendarme officer, AbolQasem Lahuti (1887–1957), a socialist revolutionary and poet, rose in the rebellion and briefly captured Tabriz, he was quickly besieged and forced to defect to the Soviet Union. Lahuti’s attempt was fueled by secessionist tendencies in Iranian Azarbaijan. Less than two years earlier, an urban uprising led by a clergyman Mohammad Khiabani (1880–1920), another Azarbaijani nationalist with socialist leanings, had been put down by the governor-general Mahdi-Qoli Khan Hedayat Mokhber al-Saltaneh. Khiabani also died under suspicious circumstances.

Contrary to Azarbaijan’s Iran-centered nationalism throughout the constitutional period, and despite the fact that Azarbaijanis acted as the engine for that revolution, both the Khiabani and Lahuti revolts pointed at an emerging ethnic resentment, which would pan out in a generation during the post–World War II Azarbaijan secessionist crisis. There was no question that Azarbaijan had a distinct ethnolinguistic identity, and the Persiancentric nationalism dictated from Tehran did not go over well with Azarbaijanis or other Turkish-speaking populations, who constituted perhaps a quarter of Iran’s population. Yet one cannot ignore such ideological threads that tied these sentiments to the pan-Turkism of the Young Turks era and later to the Bolshevik-inspired propaganda of Soviet Azerbaijan.

Reza Khan’s military not only curtailed the Jangal movement and wiped out the nationalist-Islamic idealism embedded in it but also crushed nearly all sources of tribal resistance to the centralizing state. There were repeated crackdowns between 1921 and 1931 on the Kurds in the northwest, Boyer Ahmad and other Mamasani tribes of Luristan province, the Shahseven of Azarbaijan, the Qashqa’is of Fars, and the Bakhtiyaris of Isfahan. Employing heavy weaponry as well as air bombardment, the notorious Western Division of the reorganized Iranian army, headed by Reza Khan’s senior officers, pummeled the lightly armed tribal forces. Soon after victory over Jangal, the Iranian army raided the rebellious chief of the Kurdish Shakak tribe, Isma‘il Aqa Simku (Semitqu), who had long wreaked havoc in western Azarbaijan, looting Christian villages and killing the inhabitants. With the blessing of the retreating Ottoman army, in 1918 Simku massacred several hundred Assyrians and committed other atrocities. He wished to unite into a Kurdish republic the Kurdish tribes on both sides of the Iran-Ottoman border, though he never truly succeed crossing over the line from bandit to political leader. In the summer of 1922, Iranian forces drove Simku across the Ottoman border and captured his fortress in Chehriq in the Salmas region. The pro–Reza Khan press celebrated the defeat of the Shakak as a major victory, although it took another eight years of clashes before Simku would die in skirmishes with the Iranian army.

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