The Qajars—who ruled Iran prior to the Pahlavi dynasty founded by the father of the late shah—were not true rulers, in the sense that they exercised their writ throughout the farthest regions of Iran. They ruled only a small area, tightly circumscribed around the capital. The rest was held in fief by powerful tribal chiefs.
The late shah’s father, Reza Khan, was able to topple the Qajars with practically no effort. He commanded the so-called Cossack Brigade, an elite unit that guarded the royal family. Once he had decided to move against them, their fate was sealed, there being no other unit in the Qajars’ forces capable of standing up to the Cossacks. The coup took place in 1925, and Reza went on to proclaim himself emperor.
Reza was one of the great modernizing autocrats of the twentieth century. In this respect he cast himself in the mold of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Ataturk, who had seized power several years prior to Reza, presided over the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the new Turkish state. He imposed secular rule, sharply curbing the power of the religious establishment. As a concomitant of his attack on the religious authorities, Ataturk emancipated Turkish women. He rebuilt the Turkish army along modern lines, and launched Turkey on the road to industrialization.
Reza tried to emulate all of these reforms. He stripped the veil from Iranian women, created a modern, secular university system, crisscrossed the country with rail lines, built factories, and, most spectacularly, launched an all-out war on the Iranian clergy, whom he regarded as a totally regressive force in the country. In his fight against the clergy Reza did not hesitate to employ the most drastic methods, even physically attacking them.
Reza failed in one key aspect of his reform program—he did not build strong institutions to support his rule. Here he parted company with Ataturk, who had created the Republican People’s Party to carry on his work after he died.25 In Iran, Reza ruled mainly by the force of his personality. Moreover, he was saddled with a form of rule—an autocratic monarchy—that was an anachronism in the twentieth century. In today’s complex world, it is extraordinary that a country should be run by a lone individual who must personally approve all actions before they can be carried out.
Because there was so little to undergird Reza’s regime, when the Allies decided in World War II to force his abdication—for, they claimed, favoring the Axis Powers—they simply pushed him aside. His removal was barely contested. No loyal army stood up to resist the forced abdication, no loyal retainers went underground to agitate for Reza’s return from exile. His son, who took over from him, had to build a base of power anew.