Mohammad Reza Shah Galloping Ahead

  January 27, 2022   Read time 4 min
Mohammad Reza Shah Galloping Ahead
In return for keeping control of the armed forces, Muhammad Reza Shah agreed to cooperate fully with the Allies. He offered to contribute troops for their war effort and talked of expanding the army to half a million men. It is often said that the 1970s oil bonanza fueled the shah’s megalomania.

In fact, he harbored such aspirations long before the oil boom. Bullard, the British representative, politely declined the offer of troops and talked instead of more realistic goals. He wrote that the Allies had agreed to give the young shah a “trial (period) subject to good behavior, which would include the granting of extensive reforms, the restoration to the nation of the property illegally acquired by his father, and the exclusion of all his brothers from Persia.” The new shah handed over to the government with much fanfare some 600 million rials. He also quietly transferred to his bank account in New York a $1 million “nest egg in case of an emergency.” Immediately after the invasion, Britain came to the crucial decision that it was in its best interests to preserve not only the Iranian state, but also the Pahlavi dynasty and the latter’s special relations with its armed forces. It concurred with the royalist motto: “No Monarchy, No Military.” The British even tried to get the shah to improve his family image by persuading his Egyptian-born wife, Queen Fawzieh, to spend less time buying clothes and more time learning Persian. Fawzieh, however, did not last long, preferring to return in 1943 to more cosmopolitan Cairo. The shah remarried seven years later, taking as his new wife Soraya Esfandiyari, a Swiss-educated daughter of a Bakhtiyari khan. The new royal couple communicated in French.

On his accession, the shah took a number of other well-publicized measures to improve his public standing. He took his oath of office before the Majles wearing civilian clothes; vowed to reign – not rule – as a constitutional monarch respecting the fundamental laws; sought out civilian advisors; and highlighted his democratic credentials, notably his Swiss education. He earmarked the sum he had transferred to the government to be spent on hospitals, medical laboratories, and public libraries; on a water system and shelter for the poor in Tehran; on new medical colleges in Tabriz, Mashed, and Shiraz; and on a nationwide campaign against malaria and eye diseases. He handed over his father’s estates to the government so that the latter could return them to the original owners – these estates, however, became a major bone of contention. He also relinquished the religious endowments which his father had transferred to the ministry of education. He took a number of well-publicized pilgrimages – including to Mashed and Qom. What is more, he assured Grand Ayatollah Aqa Hussein Qomi, the senior mojtahed in Najaf, that the state would no longer wage its campaign against the veil. Women – or rather, their immediate communities – could decide whether or not to wear the veil – and what form the veil should take. The British legation reported that the propertied classes, as well as the shah and the government, were eager to forge an alliance with the clergy so as to “turn men’s minds away from communism to religion.”
The 1941 invasion thus inaugurated an interregnum that lasted a full thirteen years. It put an end to the era when the monarch had ruled supreme through his undisputed control of the army, bureaucracy, and court patronage. It began a period when the new monarch continued to hang on to much of the armed forces, but lost control over the bureaucracy and the patronage system. This interregnum lasted until August 1953 when the shah, through a coup engineered by the Americans and the British, reestablished royal authority, and, thereby, recreated his father’s regime. In these thirteen years power was not concentrated in one place. On the contrary, it was hotly contested between the royal palace, the cabinet, the Majles, and the urban masses, organized first by a socialist movement and then by a nationalist one. In this contest, the center of political gravity shifted away from the shah, back to the notables who had ruled the country from 1906 to 1921, but who had been relegated to the background in the period from 1921 to 1941. They now reemerged on the national scene in full force. One British diplomat drew striking parallels with his own country’s experience: “The situation resembles England before 1832, with the landowning class in charge of Parliament and of the Cabinet, and with two classes in the country – one bloated with wealth, and the other abjectly poverty-stricken and powerless.” Bullard, who harbored few illusions about long-term prospects for democracy, cautioned: “It seems extremely likely that once foreign troops have gone, some form of dictatorship, however disguised, will be set up, doubtlessly with the army as a base. But at present it is best (for us) to support the Majles.”