Reza Khan: Modernization or Westernization?

  November 02, 2021   Read time 3 min
Reza Khan: Modernization or Westernization?
In 1921 Reza Khan and Seyyed Zia Tabatabai, a well-known Anglophile journalist, launched a coup d’état against the politically paralyzed prime minister Sepahdar. Tabatabai became prime minister while Reza Khan assumed the post of war minister.

Ahmad Shah (r.1909–25) was given assurances that these steps did not aim to overthrow, but rather protect, him from the Bolshevik threat. By 1923 Reza Khan became prime minister. Two years later he deposed the Qajar monarch and ascended the Peacock Throne. The country’s situation was catastrophic. The 1906 Constitutional Revolution had failed to create the conditions for state centralization, the implementation of reforms and the end of imperialist exploitation. Educated and elite opinion had coalesced around ideas that transformative action by a decisive leader was needed to preserve Iran and that a country in such circumstances could not be governed by constitutional forms, especially when the illiteracy rate was around 90 per cent. Ali Dashti, a literary and political figure, in his newspaper, Red Dusk, noted at the time: ‘The best method for achieving this [reforms] is the establishment of an efficient, powerful government that, while enlightened and virtuous, can with the end of the bayonet achieve modernization and welfare and eliminate moral corruption’.

This sentiment had already prevailed in the Berlin Circle – a small group of influential Iranian intellectuals living in Germany’s capital where they published under the editorship of Hassan Taqizadeh the well-known journal Kaveh. This group consisted of figures such as Hossein Kazemzadeh Iranshahr and Morteza MoshfeqKazemi. Given the country’s conditions they were able to play an important role in steering ‘Iranian nationalism away from liberal constitutionalism and social democracy [and] toward enlightened despotism and spiritual revivalism, flirting even with fascism’.2 In the words of Ali Akbar Davar, the founder of Iran’s secular judicial system during Reza Shah’s reign, ‘Iranians will not voluntarily and willingly become human [in other words, civilized in the Western sense]. Salvation must be imposed on Iran’.

Official Pahlavi historiography propagated this narrative, stressing the chaotic and dangerous situation in which Iran found itself during and after the First World War and the failure of the constitutional system and its politicians to address it. Mohammad Reza Shah portrayed his father’s forceful measures as the logical manifestation of that period’s conditions. A gifted and individualistic people, we had disintegrated into lethargy and political and social anarchy. … Unfortunately, by the time of World War I we were in a great state of decline. The First World War was, as they say, the straw that broke the camel’s back and our country was occupied. Foreign powers strove to take advantage of our weakness and achieve and maintain whatever they wanted. After that war, in reality a miracle [his father’s emergence] saved us.These conditions constituted only the latest stage in the country’s progressive decline, increasingly obvious from the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The loss of territory and spread of Russian and British economic and political influence prompted intense debates concerning the reasons for the West’s rise and Iran’s decline. By the end of the nineteenth century, that conclusion that the key to the West’s power was culture and race was becoming increasingly popular. Thus, Reza Shah, building on intellectual and political tendencies that emerged during the last half-century of Qajar rule, initiated cultural transformations that would create the conditions for replicating the West’s various forms of power. In his son’s words, he ‘was … determined to Westernize Iran’. The first Pahlavi monarch in his coronation speech stressed that his rule would be based on the ‘implementation of fundamental reforms’ in all spheres of life and governance. Vital initial goals were creation of national unity from among Iran’s varied ethnic, tribal and confessional groups, countering the geopolitical threat posed by the West’s power (including the USSR) and laying claim to the empire’s historical right to be a great power. Henceforth, the emergence of the Pahlavi state was portrayed as the beginning of the end of this decline.