By Jay Holmes
As an intelligence operative, I need a good foundation in history to do my job. After all, if we don’t understand what happened in the past, we can’t understand what is happening today or why. This series outlines Iran’s past as we move toward an analysis of that country’s current nuclear capability and what it means to the West. (See Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.)
Today, we look at the ascension of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the fellow most Westerners alive today know as “The Shah of Iran.”
The early 1900s represents one of the most critical, most frequently twisted, and most frequently misunderstood or ignored periods in the formation of modern Iran.
First Iranian Majlis, 1906, image from iranian.com
The elected Iranian Parliament, the Majlis, appointed a brilliant American lawyer and financier, William Morgan Shuster, to the post of Treasurer General of Iran. The Majlis trusted him because he helped them for several years with his expertise, political connections, and the financial support from his personal wealth as they attempted to form a constitution for Iran. Shuster operated on the belief that a stable Nationalist “pro-Iranian” government in Iran would be better for Iran and for any potential trade partners, including the USA.
Shuster imported a team of American banking experts and white collar crime specialists and began implementing reforms to reduce corruption and build a treasury for Iran. Shuster’s efforts boded well for the future of a constitutional and democratic society in Iran. Naturally, he was unpopular with British oil developers, Russian Czarists, and their Iranian lackeys who grew wealthy from the foreign intervention.
Great Britain used skilled diplomatic pressure on Iran to attempt to oust Shuster. Russia used standard Russian style diplomacy and dispatched an army of 12,000 well-equipped soldiers to invade Iran. The Russians provided muscle for the installation of an obese twelve-year-old named Sultan Ahmed Shah. Russian artillery shelled the Majlis and destroyed it. Democratic Nationalism died an agonizing death across Iran.
In later decades, Iran’s politically ambitious religious fanatics would rail against the filthy Western devils for the invasion, but at the time, many of these fanatics cooperated with the British and the Russians in hopes of destroying democracy in Iran.
Shuster and his Americans departed Iran with their lives intact, due to British maneuvering. Neither the UK nor Russia wanted to drag the US government with its idealistic views into Iran so killing Shuster and his team would have been a political disaster for the UK. The British Foreign Office, with the skilled help of MI-6 and the Royal Navy, and without public disclosures to the voters in the UK, managed to shape the resultant fallout to their advantage, and they gained control of southern Iran and its oil fields.
William Morgan Shuster, image from wikipedia.org
A great opportunity for freedom and democracy in Iran was lost. Shuster later published a book, “The Strangling of Persia.” The book was highly critical of the UK and Russia.
Thanks in large part to the UK’s strong grip on Iranian oil reserves, the already pre-eminent Royal Navy was able to take an important technological leap in naval warfare and convert its navy from coal to oil. The advantages were tremendous. They were able to drive still more heavily armored ships at higher speeds, thanks to the efficiency of oil fired boilers vs. coal fired boilers.
The Royal Navy gained more mobility because they required less frequent refueling. For comparison, the US Navy was able to begin the conversion to oil in 1908 with tests on land-based boilers and machinery mock ups. The US committed to the conversion based purely on science rather than economics because she had a reliable domestic supply of oil.
July 28, 1914
Austria made one of the most asinine political decisions in human history. Backed by assurances from the ever confident Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Austria invaded Serbia. It seemed like a great decision to the apparently intellectually challenged Austrian royalty and their poorly trained military leaders. It required little capital investment (the first week), and victory should have been quick and profitable. The “easy one month victory” turned in to the great human tragedy known as World War One.
Iran had no idea which way to turn. It made no turns and declared neutrality. It seemed like a great idea and required no capital investment. The neutrality worked about as well as any neutral declaration does when not backed up by military capacity. The Ottomans wanted the oil. The British intended to keep it, and the “neutral” Iran became one more bloody battlefield in the madness of World War One. The Iranian economy was disrupted, agriculture suffered, and children went hungry.
Having successfully defended their hold on Afghanistan through World War One, the British government asked itself why it is in Afghanistan. The answer was two fold. One reason was that the British presence in Afghanistan was a response to raids into British controlled India by highly mobile, fast moving Afghan mounted warriors. The second and more critical reason was to simply keep the Russians out.
It occurred to the British Foreign Office that the cruelest thing they could do to the annoyingly communist Soviet Union was to leave them to tangle with Afghanistan. The British withdrew their troops from the profitless Afghan territory and reinforce their border between Afghanistan and India. (If you glance at a map, remember that what is now Pakistan was then part of India.)
Iranian Prime Minister Vosooghoddoleh secretly granted Great Britain direct authority over transportation, financial, and military institutions. Great Britain had stopped paying oil royalties because Iran failed to protect British assets from attack by anti-British gangs and the occasional Soviet agent. The Iranian government was almost completely without authority across Iran.
When word of the secret agreement with the British leaked out, rioting erupted in many areas, and anti-government forces started to organize. The incompetent and unpronounceable Prime Minister Vosooghoddoleh was forced to resign and was replaced by an equally powerless but somewhat more pronounceable Prime Minster named Moshiroddoleh.
The government of Iran was weak and disorganized. A fast-riding, fierce tribe from the north (the Soviet communists) invaded northern Iran. They shelled Anzali in northern Iran for three days and then captured the city and set up a camp for the organization of a massive communist revolution in Iran.
The Islamic Iranians were none too impressed with the offers to join an atheist revolution in exchange for free vodka, and the massive revolution failed to materialize. The Iranian government was up to its neck in poverty and internal strife and agreed to surrender its territory north of the Aras river to the USSR. That area is modern day Turkmenistan.
An Iranian military leader who distinguished himself in World War One, Reza Khan, seized power with the help of the British. He was able to lead the Iranian Cossack Brigade in suppressing the many local uprisings across Iran.
Reza Khan, image from iranian.com
Shia Islamic leader Sheik Abdolkarim Haeri Yadi founded a school for training Shia clerics in Qom. The hitherto insignificant Qom grew into the Iranian center for religion and political discontent.
Reza Khan became the Prime Minister of Iran by unanimous election. There were two votes, his and Great Britain’s. If he lacked legitimacy in democratic terms, he was at least intelligent and able to begin to rebuild and modernize Iran.
The majority of religious leaders across Iran quietly formed an agreement to support Reza Khan because they strongly opposed democracy. In exchange, Reza Khan agreed to leave religious leaders in charge of many local civil matters. To the Islamic religious leaders, it seemed like a good idea and required no capital investment on their part.
Reza Khan ascended the Golden Peacock throne of Persia and was crowned Reza Shah Pahlavi. His eldest son, Muhammad Reza, was declared the crown prince. The shah intensified “Westernization” efforts. The religious leaders started to resent him, but they lacked the power to overthrow him. The Shah ordered the building of Iran’s first cross-country railroad system, new schools, and industrial projects.
The Shah now felt strong enough to declare an official name change for the country from Persia to Iran. He began to resist British influence. He outlawed the use of the veil for women, and as his government became more effective, he regained control of local civil matters.
When there was an uprising instigated by angry Shia Islamic leaders at the sacred Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran, the Shah ordered his military to crush the rebellion. Several hundred protestors were killed.
The Shah started to get too cozy with Hitler and Mussolini. The British and Russians moved in and saw that he was deposed. The crown prince, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, was placed on the Peacock Throne.
Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, image from wikipedia.org
In our next article, we will look at Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi’s struggle to remain in power, his relationship with Western powers, and the eventual collapse of the throne of Iran.