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The Modern History of Iran and Arab Nations 

Ali Ansari ends his short introduction to Iran by saying that, ‘Iran was midwife at the birth of the idea of the West. It was the context against which the west would come to be defined…’. He is referring to the ancient wars between the powerful Persians and the Greek underdogs. To fight against the Persian, the Greeks united and identified themselves as an entity. Giving rise to the foundation of western thoughts that we know today. The globe has expanded since and Iran is no more the major power. Yet, this regional entity continues to prick the ‘west’ of today. The story of Iran starts with the Cyrus the Great, paving way for many more dynasties until monarchy was declared unislamic in the Islamic revolution of 1979.  This is how we know the Iran of today, a Shia theocracy which provides US presidents too much troubled engagement. This theatrical started in the beginning of the 19th century.

Western Interference and the Constitutional Revolution

Western penetration in Iran started when Russia took control of large Iranian Caucasus land after defeating Qajar dynasty in two wars and imposed treaties. Similarly, British took Herat from them and imposed another humiliating treaty of Paris (1857). These treaties opened up Iran for other foreign powers to come and seek for them, commercial and diplomatic concessions called capitulations. 

The Qajar dynasty, started by Agha Mohammad Khan in 1796, lacked any real instrument of coercion and administration. The taxation system was inefficient and the state was too weak to raise taxes to narrow down its deficits. Naser al-Din Shah started selling concessions and borrowing money from foreigners. Amidst protests, Britain got right to establish the imperial bank with full control over the printing of banknotes and the concession to drill for oil in south west. This paved way for the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) that would be a significant name later. The Russians got the right to fish in the Caspian Sea, drill for oil in the north. The shah was assassinated. 

The roots of revolution can be traced back to these western penetrations. This gave rise to the “paranoid style of politics” which shapes the conscience of the modern Iran.

The revolution’s immediate cause was the government’s bankruptcy and inflation caused by a combination of bad harvest, a cholera epidemic and a sudden disruption in the northern trade prompted by the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. This crisis was compounded by various other conflicts. One of them pertains to Russian bank buying a cemetery and digging it up for its office space. These confrontations compelled the forceless Muzaffar al-Din Shah to sign the royal proclamation on August 5 1906, to hold nationwide elections for a constituent assembly. 

The Episode of World War I

Externally, the British were worried of the rising Germans and decided to resolve its long standing dispute with Russia. The Qajar’s court came to directed by foreign advisors who eventually partitioned Iran into three zones by the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 that partitioned Iran into Russian and British region. The treaty ended the great game and was a precursor to the formation of the triple Entente.

Meanwhile, the constitutional government was suffering from the weak state. Firstly, they were humiliated from the treaty. The Majles also saw a backlash when it tried to reform the tax system. And the liberals caused increase in the backlash by proposing far reaching secular reforms like giving rights not only to minorities but also to women. 

The Shah got the opportunity to strike back and declared martial law in 1908. Many parliamentary leaders escaped into exile, some were executed. This coup by the royalty triggered a civil war which forced Shah to abdicate in favour of his twelve years old son, Ahmad Shah in July, 1910. The second Majles was formed but without any authority. They had to rely on rely on loans from London an d St. Petersburg. Moreover, the conflict between the liberal and the moderate continued.

Iran had declared neutrality in the World War I, but became the ground for conflict between the Ottomans and the Russians with episodes of German and British activities. All this coincide with bad harvests, cholera and typhus epidemics and the deadly influenza pandemic of 1919. Amidst this crisis, the viceroy of British India Lord Curzon drafted the Anglo-Persian Agreement which gave Britain the sole right to provide Iran with loans, arms and advisories, military instructor and even teachers. But the political atmosphere of Iran had become anti-British. Russia had now become Soviet Union and there were possibilities of Bolshevik revolution in Iran exacerbated by British presence. 

Establishment of the Last Dynasty

By 1920, Iran had become a failed state. The grim situation and anarchy in Iran invited a coup in 1921, This coup is hailed as glorious liberation and the launch of a new era. Reza Khan dismissed the Anglo-Iranian agreement and signed a Soviet-Iranian agreement which canceled all the tsarist loans, claims and concessions-everything except the Caspian fisheries. He deposed Ahmad shah in 1925-26 and declared himself the Shah of Pahlvi dynasty.

Reza Shah came to power with a government having little power outside the capital. He left the country with an extensive state structure. The expansion of state was fueled by the oil royalties, higher customs duties and new taxes on consumer goods. He introduced the use of family name, replaced Islamic lunar calendar with the ancient Persian solar calendar, standardized weight and time, brought dressing reforms among various other controversial reforms like forcing women to come out unveiled in public.

In 1933-34, the Shah signed a new agreement with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, extending the concession till 1993 for a meager four percent royalty. This confirmed that the Shah under the guise of patriotism was a British puppet. Following an outrage against this, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in 1941 in favour of his twelve years old son.

The Episode of World War II

The Anglo-Soviet Alliance, joined by the USA recognized that Iran can give them physical control over oil and a land corridor to the Soviet Union, an alternative to the Archangel which was frozen most for the time. They invaded the country. Reza Shah’s army could not stand against the allies for more than three days. Allies again divided the country into two zones, much like the world war I situation. They promised to withdraw within six months of the war’s end. The new Shah Muhammad Reza agreed to cooperate fully in return of keeping control of the armed forces. It was period when the Shah had much of the army under him but had lost control over the bureaucracy and the patronage system. This period lasted until 1953, when the shah reestablished royal authority through a coup engineered by Americans and British. 

The end of Reza Shah’s rule resulted in release of many political prisoners. The notables who were active between 1906 to 1921, reemerged with full force. These notables dominated the cabinet, the Majles and the local politics. The period saw a brief socialist revolution and a nationalist revolution in Iran.

A socialist party, Tudeh had become the party of the masses by 1945-46. It drew most of its support from urban wage earners and from salaried middle class. It compelled the AIOC to implement the eight-hour day, Friday pay, overtime scales, higher wages and better housing. It was opposed to any concession to foreign nationals but suffered a major setback in 1945-46 when the Soviet demanded an oil concession. Moreover, being a Socialist party it also suffered in popularity when the Soviet supported Kurdish and Azerbaijan movements in September 1945.

The government got an excused to round the Tudeh party. It declared martial law in Tehran, clamped down on trade union and closed down may Tudeh clubs and party offices. Incidentally, a failed attempt on Shah’s life gave him an excuse to declare nationwide martial law and outlaw the Tudeh Party. He convened a constitutional assembly to grant him more power and took total control of armed forces. 

The Nationalist Revolution and Rise of Mossadeq

Tudeh’s decline in late 1940s gave space for the nationalist movement to emerge in early 1950s led by charismatic Muhammad Mossadeq. He had been a prominent participant in national politics since the constitutional revolution of 1906. He was had two causes; strict constitutionalism at home and ‘negative equilibrium’ abroad to assure independence from foreign domination. He took up the cause of oil nationalization first voiced by the Tudeh Party. 

As Prime Minister, Mossadeq created the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and began negotiations with the AIOC for a smooth transfer of control. When AIOC resisted he ordered NIOC to take over AIOC. When Britain lodged a complaint in UN, he personally appeared before UNSC to condemn Britain and closed down its consulates as well as embassy. Britain attacked back by freezing Iranian assets and reinforcing its naval presence in the Persian Gulf. The crisis was full blown now internationally as well as domestically. Mossadeq wanted to weaken the monarch and take back the military from him. When Shah resisted he went to public saying that he needed the supervision over military lest they try to undo the nationalization of oil. Public came out to streets in July 1952 and forced the Shah to back down. 

Iran’s control over its valuable oil resources could inspire others- especially Indonesia, Venezuela, and Iraq- to follow suit. This could drastically change the dynamics of global power in favour of the oil producing third world country.

In his book ‘All the Shah’s Men’, Stephan Kinzer writes that to convince the US for the regime change in Iran, Britain had to provide them with another cause than the cause of international oil cartel. They brought the communist flavor in the crisis. Iran shared border with the Soviet Union, had an active communist party and a nationalist prime minister. What if it becomes the next China? Now the US was listening carefully.  

Hence, they staged the Operation Ajax on August 19 or 28th Mordad. General Fazlollah Zahedi became the Shah’s new lawful prime minister. The destruction of the National front and the Tudeh party paved the way for the eventual emergence of religious movements. According to Abrahamian, ‘the coup helped replace nationalism, socialism, and liberalism with Islamic Fundamentalism.

The White Revolution and the Last Act

Muhammad Reza Shah started building his three pillars of state; the military, the bureaucracy and the court patronage system. He was able to build this massive state structure given the rising oil revenues. Shah launched the White revolution to prevent a red revolution from below which consisted of Land Reforms, Literacy movement, family reforms, and women’s rights. 

These changes intensified social tensions by expanding the intelligentsia and the urban working class. The land reforms reduced the influence of rural notables who had always controlled their peasants and tribesmen. The rise of population increased pressure on the arable land. In short, the white revolution and the oil boom raised people’s expectations but they were not met with same rigor. 

These social tensions brought in political radicalism in intelligentsia and modern middle class, as well as the Ulama and the traditional middle class. The two significant figures of the time are Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini who was exiled after 1963 for accusing shah for granting capitulation to the US. 

Shariati died in 1977. He brought in the idea of Islamic socialism, translated books like ‘Wretched of the Earth’ by Fanon and Che Guevara’s ‘Guerilla Warfare’. Many credit Shariati for transforming Islam from a din/ religion to a political ideology or as known to us Islamism.

Khomeini gave the concept of Velayat-e-Faqeh, meaning Jurist’s guardianship. This would form the cornerstone of the 1979 revolution. According to this new concept, the ultimate authority to rule was with a religious leader having specialization in feqh (law). He denounced monarchy as pagan. He denounced the Shah for supporting Israel against the Muslim world, allying with the west in the cold war spreading gharbzadegi (plague from the west) among various other grievances. 

In return, the Shah abolished the two party system and installed a ‘Resurgence Party’. From now on all the facet of the society were to be looked by the Party. This monopolization suffocated the society. The Shah thought he was in total control, while he was sitting on a volcano ready to erupt. 

On 19 August the anniversary of the 1953 coup, a large cinema in the working class district of Abadan went up in flames. More than 400 women and children died. People marched into Abadan after a mass burial. The Washington post reported that marchers had a clear message, “the shah must go”. Now the gap between the king and his people were unbridgeable.

Khomeini flew back to Iran on 1st February 1979, the Shah had left two weeks before. The military declared neutrality. The final act of the theatrical concluded on 11th February with Radio Tehran making the historic statement: “This is voice of Iran, the Voice of true Iran, the voice of Islamic revolution”. 

The Iran-Iraq war gave the state an opportunity to expand. The new government undid the social rights given to women although they retained their right to vote, even today women of Iran are fighting against the imposition of headscarves. 


The Shah was permitted entry in USA for his cancer treatment. This gave birth to the USA-Iran relation that we know today. The USA generosity towards the Shah convinced many students that CIA would repeat the 1953-like coup. They climbed over the walls of US embassy and the rest is history.

Ali Ansari points out that, “the proximity of Islamic revolution both in terms of time and through wonders of modern mass communication has ensured that for many this event remains that seminal event of modern Iran, and, because of its effects on the United states, one of the turning points of the late 20th century.

Today, Iran is a balancing state in west Asia. Its relations with the surrounding has mostly been in form of collision. The US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, establishment of military bases in Caucasus and central Asia and Iran’s leadership of the Shi’is in the region are some of the factors. Today the rivalry revolves around the issue of nuclear technology. Wherein, Iran insists on its right as a sovereign to develop its nuclear technology, US opposes it in the fear of drastically shifting the balance of power from Israel and the Gulf sheikhdoms.

Posted in World History

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