Deposing Reza Shah Not the Pahlavi Reign

  December 13, 2021   Read time 3 min
Deposing Reza Shah Not the Pahlavi Reign
The 1941 Anglo-Soviet invasion destroyed Reza Shah – but not the Pahlavi state.

The two Allies – joined by the United States in December 1941 – realized that the Iranian state could be useful in achieving the two goals for which they had invaded the country: physical control over oil – the British nightmare in World War II, even more so than in World War I, was loss of these vital supplies; and a land “corridor” to the Soviet Union since the alternate route through Archangel was frozen much of the year. Ironically, the Trans-Iranian Railway as well as the new roads made Iran a more tempting “corridor.”

To facilitate the flow of both oil to Britain and supplies to the Soviet Union, the Allies found it expedient to remove Reza Shah but to preserve his state. As Sir Reader Bullard – the British minister who was soon elevated to the rank of ambassador – made clear in his typically blunt and frank reports, the Allies kept his state but engineered his removal in part to curry much-needed favor among Iranians. “The Persians,” he wrote, “expect that we should at least save them from the Shah’s tyranny as compensation for invading their country.”

On September 15, three weeks after the initial onslaught, Reza Shah abdicated in favor of his twenty-one-year-old son, Crown Prince Muhammad Reza, and went into exile, first to British Mauritius and then to South Africa, where he died in 1944. His army, which had been equipped to deal with internal opposition and not with foreign invasion, had been able to resist for only three brief days. The Allies raised few other demands besides the abdication. They insisted that he should take with him into exile headstrong members of his family. They arrested as a Nazi “Fifth Column” some two hundred Iranian officers and technicians as well as Germans working on the railways.

They took direct control over the main transport routes from the Gulf to the Soviet Union, and split Iran into two zones – much like in World War I – with the Russians taking the north and the British the south – including the oil regions. Otherwise, they left the actual administration of the country to the central government. They guaranteed Iran’s territorial integrity; promised to withdraw within six months of the war’s end; supplied the government with grain to ward off famine; discouraged tribes from causing trouble; and, most crucial of all for the new shah, agreed to retain his armed forces at the minimum strength of 80,000 soldiers and 24,000 gendarmes.

In preserving the armed forces, the Allies tacitly agreed to leave the regular army under the young shah’s direct control. He continued to communicate directly with his chiefs of staff and field commanders, bypassing the war minister. He also continued to cultivate the officer corps – much as his father had done. He managed throughout the 1940s to get as much as 24–26 percent of the annual budget allocated to the war ministry. He took personal interest in all matters military, including inspection, uniforms, barracks, maneuvers, and arms purchases. He often appeared in public wearing military uniforms. He – like much European royalty – enjoyed flying modern planes. He jealously guarded all senior appointments to the war ministry and general staff. He personally vetted all promotions above the rank of major in the army – especially in the tank brigades. He was soon arguing that as commander-in-chief he had the prerogative to control the armed forces and that the main function of the war ministry was to provide the military with necessary supplies. He treated the ministry as a mere office of military supplies and the minister as a regimental quartermaster.