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By Jose Rodriguez

When Reza Khan took power in 1926, and crowned himself Shah of Persia, he began a process of Westernization and modernization. Mostly, however, these were efforts designed to strengthen his own power. Fearing the influence of the religious establishment, the Shah discouraged religious identification, and took steps to reduce the participation of the ulama in society. The Shah imposed a forbidding women from wearing a chador or a hijab and mandated that people wear Westernized clothing. Another step he took, which angered the religious clerics, was the allowance of men and women to socialize in public places and Universities. This allowed women to pursue careers as doctors, lawyers, judges, or any other professional employment they desired. The Shah was trying to bring his nation into the twentieth century, which included an insistence that foreign countries refer to Persia as Iran.

As is often the case in Iranian history, his rule was interrupted by foreign interference. In 1933, he granted Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later known as Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) a renewed oil contract, extending their agreement to 1993 and provided the Iranian government 21% of the profits. To the dismay of Iranians, it also meant that Iranians would have to house foreign technicians, engineers, consultants, and advisers. While Iranians would be employed, they were not compensated as well as the foreign experts nor were they provided decent housing. Less than a decade later, as World War 2 raged on, the British and Soviets invaded Iran because they feared an imminent German invasion. Reza Shah was furious with the decision and demanded they leave. A few days later, the Shah abdicated his throne in protest. In order to keep his dynasty alive, however, he crowned Muhammad Reza, his son, the new Shah of Iran. Reza Khan fled to South Africa, where he died three years later in exile.

The young Muhammad Reza Shah, the spoiled son of a Cossack army officer, took control of the Iranian monarchy in 1941. He, like his father, wanted to transform Iran into a great nation. Unfortunately, he was hamstrung by external and internal forces. Internally, his nation was divided. Taking advantage of the occupation of foreign powers and the young Shah’s inexperience, several opposition groups formed among the religious establishment, the Army officer corps, and Marxist groups. The ulama, long ignored by the monarchy and denied any influence in Iranian society, began to grow in support and started demanding a greater role in government. They also started a campaign to urge women to re-don the veil, to end the mixing of the sexes, to end the education of girls in public schools, and to generally reverse all the changes made under Reza Shah‘s rule. Another prominent opposition group was the Army officer’s corps, who saw an opportunity to challenge the Shah‘s rule. A group of Marxists also vied for power. The Tudeh party sought land reform and greater political rights for women. The young Shah was off to a precarious start.

Adding to his vulnerability was the struggle for influence between the British, Soviets, and the Americans. The British, veterans at the colonial business, mostly supported the existing institutions, so long as they did their bidding. The Soviets were a major supporter of the Tudeh party. To oppose the Soviets and their surrogate, the United States supported the Army officer corps. This political crisis lead to the obvious question: who was in charge?

In 1943, a charismatic and well liked man named Muhammad Mossaddegh was elected to the Majlis, the Iranian legislature. Educated in Paris, a strong supporter of democracy, he was placed under house arrest in the 1930’s for criticizing Reza Shah. In 1949, Mossadegh created the National Front, a group devoted to the interests of the peasants and the middle class, secularism, opposition to the growing power of the monarchy at the expense of democracy, as well as opposition to foreign powers in Iran. The National Front was a collection of parties that supported the rise of Mossadegh.

Mossadegh’s primary issue, which gained him tremendous support, was his opposition to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. AIOC was heavily invested in by the British, though they also employed many Iranians. But the profits from Iranian resources went into British pockets, which was a serious source of grievance. This issue gained popular support, including support from many of the ulama. Due to the efforts of Mossadegh, in 1951 the majlis nationalized Iran’s oil, which infuriated the British and Americans, who benefited from Iran’s oil. Mossadegh was soon named Prime Minister; unfortunately, the British and Americans imposed sanctions and began a global boycott of Iranian oil. Iran’s economy plummeted. Despite the setback, Mossadegh held strong and broke off diplomatic ties with Britain.

In 1952, in an attempt to enforce the Constitution of 1906, Mossadegh took power over the military, introduced land reform, and limited the Shah’s power. However, his changes were frightening the conservatives and those who supported the monarchy, which included the officer corps and many in the ulama. Also, as the economy deteriorated due to the punishment inflicted by Britain and the U.S., the National Front deteriorated as different factions began to compete for power. The Tudeh Party, for instance, began to take advantage of rising unemployment and unhappiness, and they found that their influence was on the rise. It was the army officer corps, however, who took steps to destroy Mossadegh.

The British and U.S. government welcomed the interest of the army officer corps in developing a plan to remove Mossadegh from power. In August 1953, the United States dispatched Kermit Roosevelt (the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt) to inform the Shah of plans for a coup d‘etat. The CIA would be heavily involved, he promised, with millions of dollars at their disposal. The CIA, under direction from Roosevelt, paid money to newspapers to run libelous headlines denouncing the Prime Minister, calling him a homosexual and a “Jew”. They also organized mass protests in Tehran to oppose Mossadegh’s rule. Within four days, Mossadegh was arrested by the Royal Army, and was immediately replaced by a new Prime Minster, who was loyal to the monarchy. The Shah was restored to power. The relieved Shah praised Roosevelt, saying, “I owe my throne to God, my people, my army, and to you.” Thus, as American control over Iran began, so too did the disdain for the U.S. in the Iranian heart.

The Shah was not interested in losing his power again, so he took steps to retain that power. He quickly put the former Prime Minister on trial and put him in jail; he moved to restore diplomatic ties with Britain; and he reopened Iran’s oil to foreign companies, provided Iran received 50% of all profits. The U.S. rewarded the Shah’s good behavior by granting him diplomatic and economic support, some $500 million dollars between 1953-1963. The Soviet-supported Tudeh Party was disbanded, as was the National Front. The Shah also created a Gestapo-esque security force known as the National Intelligence and Security Organization, otherwise known as the SAVAK. The SAVAK was advised by the U.S. and Israel, who had a keen interest in keeping Iran under its thumb. The SAVAK repressed Iranians, shut out political debate, and ensured that gatherings did not contain political opposition sentiment towards the monarchy. On college campuses across Iran, the SAVAK spied on students and prevented any serious debate about the political state of the country, breaking up protests before they started. Similar efforts were underway throughout the streets of Iran. Any activity seen as being even remotely hostile to the monarchy was suppressed violently, with the participants put on trial for sabotage and jailed for years. This was the reality in Iran until 1979.

There were, however, periods of unrest. One of the more notable periods occurred between 1960-1963. A fiery Ayatollah by the name of Ruhollah Khomeini began to rally his followers in opposition to the Shah, who he condemned for his efforts at secularization. The SAVAK arrested Khomeini in June 1963, detained him for a short period of time, but forced him into exile after a number of angry protests. The Shah was compelled to exile the Ayatollah in 1964, who fled to Turkey, Iraq, and then Paris. The Shah was frightened by the ability of the Ayatollah to rally the public through religious invocations and appeals to the public’s disdain for foreign interference in Iran’s government. The Shah had to change in order to stay in power.

Beginning in 1963, the Shah introduced what he called the “White Revolution” (“white” because it was a bloodless revolution). Though the Shah wanted to Westernize the his nation, he was not willing to democratize his government. The revolution had 12 points, which included a land reform proposal, literacy program, and an effort to improve Iran’s roads and railways. The White Revolution succeeded in raising Iran’s literacy rate to 80%, which was carried out by the armed forces who were required to spend 15 months teaching people in rural areas how to read. It also provided 92% of sharecroppers their own land, though most failed to subsist on their crops, let alone make a profit. Most people during this time fled the country side to urban areas. The roads and railways in Iran also improved, which improved communication and manufacturing. This allowed Iran to become a major industrial player, though the Iranian people were still forced to accept low wages, keeping them impoverished.

The profit from oil revenues greatly improved the people’s access to public schools, universities, and hospitals. This had a positive impact on the public.

As part of the revolution, the Shah encouraged women to participate in public life. Women were allowed into public schools and universities. They were also allowed to become professionals: lawyers, judges, teachers, and doctors. In terms off equality before the law, they still had a long way to go, but there was some progress. Women, for example, were allowed to prevent their husbands from taking a second wife. But they were also allowed to be in mixed company, and they were encouraged to wear Westernized clothing. The hijab (veil)and chador were banned, a move that upset the religious conservatives who sought to keep women subjugated. Thought society in general was still patriarchal, there were reforms that benefited women and advanced their rights.

Despite the gains and improvements, the Iranians still were not thrilled with the Shah. He was still regarded as a puppet for foreign interests, and they did not appreciate their dominance in Iranian markets. The Bazaars bore the brunt of their dominance, which affected the ability of the merchant class to grow. The bottom line for many was that the Shah was still maneuvering to retain his power, regardless of the people’s wishes.

In 1971, the Shah declared that the White Revolution was a success. To celebrate, he threw a lavish party in Persepolis to commemorate their 2,500 year Persian history. Price tagged at $300 million dollars, the impressive and extravagant ceremony drew condemnation from many, including the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini denounced the ceremony’s blatant waste of money, and invoked the suffering of the millions of poor Iranian peasants. “The crimes of the Kings of Iran have blackened the pages of history… what happened to all the gilded promises, those pretentious claims… that the people are prosperous and content?” the Ayatollah raged from Najaf.

From 1971 until 1979, the Shah was coming under tremendous pressure from the ulama and Marxist groups, who cultivated a growing sense of dissatisfaction among Iran’s poor. In a move designed to increase his control over Iran’s anemic democracy, the Shah limited the number of political parties to one: the National Resurgence Party. He also increased the SAVAK’s activities, including more brutal oppression, more arrests, and wide-spread censorship. Despite his efforts, his control was slipping through his fingers and revolution was well under way.

In January 1978, Iranians watched as U.S. President Jimmy Carter, champagne in hand, toasted the Shah and hailed Iran as an “island of stability.” Unfortunately, that was not the case. Soon afterward, the religious establishment began a series of protests, which provoked the government into wide-spread crackdowns. Mosques became a place for anti-government expression. The Ayatollah, however, was directing much of the dialogue and protests from exile. By the summer of 1978, the Muslim clerics had turned the public against the Shah, and in favor of the Ayatollah.

The loose coalition of secularists, clerics, and Marxists was finding itself directing the imminent fall of the Shah. Huge numbers of people met in Tehran to protest the Shah’s rule and to advocate for his overthrow. These protests led to more violent and deadly clashes with government forces, resulting in a tremendous number of protesters killed. This event, known as Black Friday, led to strikes that brought the Iranian economy to a stand-still and for growing calls for Khomeini to take the reins of power. The protesters ignored the Shah’s demand that people not march in Tehran, despite the deaths of 700 protesters. All of this culminated on December 12, 1979, with a march that drew 2 million people. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Shah knew he had to flee. On January 16, 1979, the Iranians took to the streets to celebrate the Shah’s departure. He left, with a box of Iranian soil, in exile. He died of brain cancer a year later.

On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Iran for the first time in 16 years. He immediately took control of the state, declaring that they need to cut off the hands of Iran’s enemies. Little did the supporters of the revolution realize that they had overthrown a tyrant in favor of a more vicious, conservative, intolerant, and religious tyrant. The relative freedoms they had secured during the Shah’s rule were now gone, and a new Islamic Republic was in charge.

By Jose Rodriguez

“We shouldn’t be playing into that.”

“If America stands for democracy and all of these demonstrations are going on in Tehran and other cities over there, and people don’t think that we really care, then obviously they’re going to question, ‘Do we really believe in our principles?'” said a visibly agitated Senator Grassley (R-Iowa). The Senator, like many of his GOP colleagues, was caught up in self-righteous rhteoric, designed to undermine President Barack Obama. These remarks, and similar remarks made by Senator John McCain, as well as other members of the GOP, came in response to the somewhat measured White House remarks on the Iranian elections held on June 12, 2009. On June 22, 2009, during an interview on CBS’ “The Early Show,” the President expressed a very rational reason for his cautious remarks: “The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States. We shouldn’t be playing into that.”

Of course, the President has a great knowledge of history, unlike most Americans, and certainly unlike many in the GOP. But that has little to do with trying to score political points.

To understand why the Obama approach was not only correct, but safe, one needs to turn back the clock and review the history of Iranian-American relations. To begin, however, allow me the opportunity to conduct a brief survey of modern Iranian history.

The Safavid Dynasty

Today, when we look on maps of the world, we can find the country of Iran. However, for much of that country’s history, it was known as Persia, which was flanked by the Ottoman Empire (in the west) and, until about the end of the 18th century, the Mughal Empire (in the east). In 1501, a young man named Isma’il commanded forces into Tabriz, which he captured. Isma’il proclaimed himself Shah of the new Persian state, thus marking the beginning of the Safavid dynasty. Not only did they expand their territory into parts of Iraq (including Baghdad), but Isma’il also introduced Shi’ism as the official state religion, which, at the time, was regarded as a heretical threat to the Sunni followers of Islam. The Sunni Ottoman Empire regarded the Safavid empire a threat, and the two empires often clashed. In fact, this concern was justified as Shi’ite preachers from Persia ventured into Ottoman territories to promote rebellion and revolution among the Sunni population. Within the Ottoman Empire it was dangerous to be a Shi’a; within the Safavid Empire it was dangerous to be a Sunni. However, under the rule of Shah Abbas 1 the Great, the Ottomans and the Persians reached a peace deal, under which the latter lost a considerable amount of territory to the Ottomans.

It was during this period of relative peace that Abbas began to transition the Safavid Empire away from a collection of tribes (Turkish, Kurdish) and into an established Empire, complete with a ruling bureacratic elite. To combat the growing tensions with the tribal leaders, Abbas created an army composed of slaves captured during a previous war. Personally financed and completely loyal to the Shah, this army reached a strength of 37,000 troops. He also began a process of dispossessing tribes and aristocrats of their land, keeping them for the state and pocketing the revenues. He used these funds to begin beautiful construction in the empire’s capital Isfahan. He created an urban center, while making the city’s mosque more elaborate and ornate. This transformation, along with a policy of patronge, attracted scholars and artists, who accelerated the empire’s cultural and intellectual growth. The textile industry saw an explosion in creativity and production, particularly among the weavers, whose imaginative work led to a global demand for Persian rugs. Artists also saw a transformation in style and subjects. The Persian culture flourished under the rule of Abbas 1 the Great.

Abbas was really the last effective leader of the Safavid Empire. However, though his successors were incompetent, he had made the neccessary changes to the central government to ensure its survival after his death in 1629. The glory of Isfahan continued, the culture persisted, and a truce was reached with the Ottomans in 1638. Unfortunately, this inward focus, and a lack of outward threats, the Safavids allowed their military to fall into disarray. The weakened army was unable to put up much resistance against Afghan forces in 1722. By the following year the Safavid Empire collapsed, Isfahan had been captured, and an era of decentralization began.

The Qajar Dynasty

It was not until 1794 that another ruler took effective control over Persia. Fath Ali Shah, a Turk, took control of central Persia from Lotf ‘Ali Khan and established the Qajar dynasty. Seeds sown in the creation of the Safavid Empire hampered efforts to create a centralized power in Persia; the major obstacle was the religious establishment, who saw their power as being derived from God. The Qajars, they argued, were temporary rulers, while the Shi’a ulamas were exercising God’s will and thus retained ultimate authority. By the 20th century, the most learned of ulama were granted the title Ayatollah. The Qajar government attempted to bring about social/political/economic reforms, but they were blocked by the ulama, who had the support of the public. It was not as though the Qajars could mobilize the state’s military, as they were pitifully outnumbered by militias run by tribal chieftains who supported the ulama’s claim to authority. The Qajars would seek alternative ways to secure their power.

The Qajars moved the capital from Tabriz to Tehran, a secluded town surrounded by mountains, just south of the Caspian Sea. In order to counter the ulama’s power, the Qajars began to rely more and more on foreign powers, such as Russia and Britain. One leader, Nasir al-Din Shah (1848-1896), sought to reform the Persian army. Unfortunately, he lacked the funds to undertake such a project, which forced him to seek assistance from the Russians. His army initially stood at 3,000, but he was able to expand his army through the creation of a Cossack Brigade, which was armed and commanded by Russians. His administration also suffered from corruption and nepotism, which stifled the growth of a professional class. Caught in the middle were the peasants, who suffered the whims of the local chieftains or the Qajar government. Persia as a whole, however, would suffer as Russia and Britain began to exercise its colonial interest in Persia.

Foreign Interference

As Russia made sure to secure itself safe transport of goods through Persia, and as Russia conquered lands surrounding Persia (including Turkestan and Tajikstan), the British grew increasingly concerned about its interests in India. In 1857, the British were able to succeed in gaining the same low tariffs and extraterritorial privilges as the Russians enjoyed. Nasir al-Din, finding himself in an awkward position, began to take advantage of his situation. He allowed both countries to develop and monopolize certain markets within Persia, while personally gaining financial rewards and perks (such as paid trips to Russia and Europe). The prostitution of Persia (particularly the concession in 1872 to the British to build railroads, canals, and dams) led to the creation of a nationalist movement, which sought to overthrow the Qajar dynasty and throw out foreign powers. In 1890, after al-Din granted the British exclusive rights to sell tobacco in Persia, a grassroots movement was undertaken to oppose the Shah. The religious elites, peasants, and merchant class, united to organize a boycott. It was decreed, by a Shi’ite religious leader, that consumption of tobacco as forbidden until the al-Din government revoked its agreement with the British. The resistance was so great that the agreement was revoked in 1892, a sign that the religious establishment in Persia still carried tremendous influence. Broken politically and financially, the al-Din government was forced to subsist on Russian loans. In 1896, al-Din was assassinated, ending his 48 year reign.

His successor, Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar ruled for a short period of time (1896-1907). Mozaffar was not much different from Nasir al-Din. He too granted foreign powers exclusive rights within Persia, which aggravated the public. He also was forced to take loans from Britain, France, and Russia in order to pay off earlier loans or to pay for his own personal extravagances. This continuation of Nasir al-Din’s much hated policies led to growing opposition from three segments of Persian society: the merchant class, the ulamas, and a growing group of radical reformers. These three groups formed a coalition, which stood up to the Mozaffar administration in an effort to tear down the Qajar dynasty.

The Constitutionalists

United in their opposition to the Mozaffar administration, this group was able to stage large protests in Tehran in December 1905, and these protests persisted until August 1906. The crowds were so large, and the protests so virulent in their opposition, that Mozaffar was forced to capitulate to the protestors’ demands. The major concession they demanded was the creation of a Western-based constitution. An assembly was selected to draft a constitution, which included two provisions: power was to be allocated between the monarch and an elected legislative body; the second provision outlined the basic rights of Iranian citizens and granted the legislature several more powers, including the approval of ministers. The ulamas were also able to secure their power in the constitution by declaring Shi’ism the official religion, and created a committee to determine the conformity of laws passed by the legislature with shari’ah law. The radicals and the ulama were finding their relationship to be tenuous, as their aims were clearly contradictory. However, they had succeeded in limiting the power of the monarchy.

Or so they thought.

Russia and Britain had an agreement that designated spheres of influence: Britain in the southeast, Russia in the north. In the center of Persia, the government was allowed to retain control. Since Mozaffar had died in January 1907, he was succeeded by
Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar. Mohammad, eager to see his government retain power, he was able to point to the power grabs by Russia and Britain as clear failures of the new constitutional power. There were many in the ulama who supported the monarchy, and were used by Mohammad to condemn the constitutionalists as atheists. He even used the Cossacks to shut down the legislature, round up political opponents, and execute the constitutionalists. His actions threw the country into chaos, thus starting a civil war.

After 11 months of fighting, Tehran was seized and the constitution was restored. With Mohammad in exile in Constantinople, Ahmad Shah Qajar took the role of monarch. He was the last of the Qajar dynasty. Despite the success of the constitutionalists, actually governing Persia turned out to be a difficult task. The coalition began to fracture between those who sought to bring about equality and progressive reform and the ulama, who wanted to retain shari’ah law. These ideological differences broke out into armed violence, and the country was again thrown into chaos.

The Inability to Govern

Persia’s internal disturbances frightened the Britsh and Russians, who each used their military to occupy their half of the country. The legislative body was dissolved, the government was given control to conservative people who were loyal to their foreign masters. The constitution, more importantly, was dissolved, and the country, despite the purpose of the constitution to limit foreign influences, was dominated by the Russians and British. This was the situation in Persia until World War 1.

Reza Khan

Following World War 1, the Persian economy was devastated, the country was in turmoil, and it lacked a centralized power. In February 1921, as the country was in the midst of popular unrest over foreign control (again), a young colonel in the Cossack Brigade named Reza Khan marched his troops into Tehran and overthrew the shah. He demanded that Sayyid Zia Tabatabai be appointed Prime Minister, while he took the role of commander. It was only a matter of months, in May 1921, when Reza Khan forced Sayyid to relinquish the post of Prime Minister, that Reza Khan began assuming more and more power. In 1923, Ahmed Shah was asked by Khan to take a European vacation, which he did. He never returned to Persia, living in exile until his death in 1930. With the shah gone, Khan took the position of Prime Minister, and in 1925 bestowed the power of the monarchy to the Reza Khan family, thus granting Khan the status of shah.

The Wrath of Khan

The Pahlavi dynasty began in 1926. The Reza Shah, while not an enthusiastic supporter of reform, nonetheless viewed some reform as neccessary to maintain his hold on power.

I’ll pick up this discussion in my next blog.


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