Post-Constitutional-Revolution Persia: New Dynasty and New Challenges

  November 27, 2021   Read time 2 min
Post-Constitutional-Revolution Persia: New Dynasty and New Challenges
In the seven decades following the Constitutional Revolution, the Pahlavi era (1921–1979) transformed the politics, society, and economy of Iran.

In the aftermath of World War I and the upheavals of the postwar period, Reza Shah’s authoritarian rule, boosted by oil revenue and a consolidated military, helped centralize the country, create modern administrative and educational institutions, co-opt the old elite, nurture a nationalist ideology, and conduct a relatively independent course of foreign policy. These were achieved at the expense of democratic aspirations and individual and political freedoms that were at the core of the constitutional experience. Westernization also deepened the rift between the Pahlavi state and the retreating clerical establishment.

In the aftermath of World War II hopes for an open society and for greater economic sovereignty reignited during the short and volatile era of party politics and the oil nationalization movement under Mohammad Mosaddeq. The bitter end of that episode left a lasting impact on the Iranian intelligentsia, who remained weary of foreign intrigue and arbitrary rule. The quarter of a century after the 1953 coup offered Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi a chance to augment his father’s project of state modernization. A program of land reform in the 1960s and rapid growth of oil revenue in the 1970s boosted the shah’s political ambitions, his self-image as a savior of Iran, and his repressive rule.

A submissive technocracy and a dreaded security apparatus enhanced his illusion of stability and sense of confidence. Yet as early as the 1960s, opposition to the shah and the Pahlavi order brought radical Islamic trends to the political stage. Ayatollah Khomeini’s criticism of the shah demonstrated a serious rift between the Westernizing state and the radicalized clergy. Other voices of opposition, including the radical left, showed symptoms of greater crisis to come.

The changing political horizons were well evident in the literary and artistic expressions of the period. Greater urbanization, growth of education, the presence of women in public spaces, greater prosperity, and the adoption of modern values and lifestyles in turn engendered both new anxieties about the loss of authenticity and a call for return to traditional values. It was as if the Iranian intelligentsia yearned for an alternative to the Pahlavi promises of glory.