This is not something someone else can place on my head

  February 22, 2022   Read time 4 min
This is not something someone else can place on my head
Reza Khan kept his promises – at least for the time being. He facilitated British withdrawal, abrogated the Anglo-Iranian Agreement, and instead signed a Soviet–Iranian Agreement.

The Soviets agreed not only to withdraw promptly from Gilan, but also to cancel all Tsarist loans, claims, and concessions – everything except the Caspian fisheries. They, however, reserved the right to return in full force if a third power ever invaded the country and posed a threat to the Soviet Union. This gave Iran a protective umbrella. The British, meanwhile, with a straight face and no sense of irony, presented Tehran with a bill for weapons delivered to the Cossacks and the South Persian Rifles. The bill totaled £313,434 17s. 6d. In abrogating the 1919 agreement, Reza Khan assured the British that this would “throw dust in Bolshevik eyes.” He also assured Theodore Rothstein, former Manchester Guardian editor who had just been appointed Soviet minister in Tehran, that his government was determined to eradicate British influence and pursue a policy of strict neutrality in foreign affairs.

The Soviets soon elevated their legation to a full embassy. The British legation summed up the post-war situation:6 From an external point of view Great Britain was generally regarded as the enemy, Russia as the possible friend. Although the obvious Russian efforts to diffuse Communist ideas and propaganda caused certain uneasiness, the apparent generosity of canceling Persia’s debts to Russia, of returning all Russian concessions acquired in Tsarist times, of handing over the Russian Banque d’Escompte to the Persian Government and surrendering the Capitulations had made a profound impression, and the Russian-inspired idea that Persia had everything to gain by association with a Russia purged by the fires of revolution and everything to lose by succumbing to the imperialist and colonizing ambitions of Great Britain, was sufficiently plausible to gain many Persian adherents.

Reza Khan, however, for the time being kept his promise to the Qajars even though he lost no time in making himself, in the words of the British legation, a “virtual military dictator.” He established himself as the real power behind the throne, first as army chief, then as war minister, and then as premier as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. During these years, he made and unmade ministers and premiers, including Sayyed Ziya who was packed off to exile after ninety-nine days. He did not openly venture on to the central stage until 1925–26 when he convened a Constituent Assembly, deposed Ahmad Shah, accepted the crown, named his son heir apparent, and crowned himself monarch – much in the fashion of his heroes, Napoleon and Nader Shah.

It was rumored that at the coronation the Speaker of the Majles stepped forward to bestow the crown, but he took it in his own hands, declaring “This is not something someone else can place on my head.” The ceremony was choreographed along the lines of European as well as Safavid and Qajar coronations. It opened with a prayer by the Imam Jum’eh, and closed with a flowery oration by the prime minister with long passages from the Shahnameh. Reza Khan had become Reza Shah. He remained so until the Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1941. These fifteen years, together with the preceding five, can be described as the Reza Shah era.

The hallmark of the era was to be state-building. Reza Shah came to power in a country where the government had little presence outside the capital. He left the country with an extensive state structure – the first in Iran’s two thousand years. It has been said of Stalin that he inherited a country with a wooden plough and left it with the atomic bomb. It can be said of Reza Shah that he took over a country with a ramshackle administration and left it with a highly centralized state. In assessing him, historians, especially Iranian ones, have invariably raised two loaded questions. Was he a true patriot or a British “agent”? Was he comparable to other contemporary strongmen, especially Ataturk and Mussolini?

The first question was made obsolete by later events – especially his removal by the British. The second is anachronistic since these other rulers had inherited centralized states. A more apt comparison would be with the Tudors, early Bourbons, or sixteenth-century Habsburgs – monarchs whose goal had been to create centralized states. Reza Shah drove like a steamroller toward this goal, crushing all opposition, whether from the left or right, from the center or the provinces, from the aristocratic notables or the nascent trade unions. A man of few words, he had little time for rhetoric, philosophy, or political theory. The main ideological baggage he carried stressed order, discipline, and state power. He conflated his own persona with the monarchy; the monarchy with the state; and the state with the nation. Not averse to harnessing religion, he gave the state a motto containing three words: Khoda (God), Shah, and Mehan (Nation). Some quipped that as his power increased, the middle word rose to dwarf the other two. In his eyes, however, the trinity was so interwoven that opposition to him was tantamount to opposition to the state, the nation, and even religion. In other words, political dissent was tantamount to subversion and treason.

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