The Rise of Colonel Reza Khan

  June 11, 2022   Read time 2 min
The Rise of Colonel Reza Khan
On the surface it seemed that sheer luck had saved Iran from being broken up or otherwise subordinated to a British regional scheme. Yet a complex set of political and cultural factors made possible the coup of February 1921 and the subsequent rise of Reza Khan.
There were as many rumors about an imminent takeover of the capital and partition of Iran into a Bolshevik north and a British south as there were yearnings in nationalist circles for the rise of a leader who could offer a viable alternative to the bleak state of affairs. The coup of 1921 would prove this point, though with a curious twist. The process that brought to power Sayyed Zia al-Din Tabataba’i, with Reza Khan as the military leader of the new regime, was an alternative to the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement—a backdoor solution to the troubling political impasse that Iran faced at that time. The solution was brewed at least in part by British diplomats and senior army officers and manned by ambitious Iranian upstarts. The astute British minister in Tehran, Herman Norman, sensed the futility in adhering to the disempowered Qajar elite while in the wake of postwar demobilization there was an urgent call to evacuate the British troops stationed in Iran. With socialist aspirations on the rise, Democrats returning to the Tehran political stage, and the threat of the Gilan Socialist Republic on the horizon, it stood to reason that the British minister search for an alternative ally. An Anglophile distant from the Qajar elite who could resonate with larger sectors of the Iranian public and at the same time appear sufficiently distant from the British.
Sayyed Zia al-Din Tabataba’i (1888–1969), a young fiery political activist known for his pro-British sentiments, was about the only Iranian journalist who consistently advocated the ratification of the 1919 agreement and its benefits for Iran in his newspaper Ra‘d (“thunder”). Contrary to the maligned image of him as a British proxy in later Iranian historiography, Sayyed Zia may well have proposed the idea of the coup to the British legation in Tehran rather than being a mere catalyst for the coup. A madrasa novice-turned-journalist with a dramatic style and sensational rhetoric, Sayyed Zia was a product of the post-constitutional era. Though still in clerical garb, he epitomized a new breed of political activists at a time when religious training was no longer valued and the dent in clerical prestige was substantial.
Known for his sensational attacks on the old Tehran political guard, he allegedly used his newspaper as an extortion tool. Initially mentored by the premier Vosuq al-Dowleh to counter criticism of the 1919 agreement and raise the alarm of the threat of Bolshevism, he was dispatched in 1919 to Baku to sign a friendship treaty with the anti-Bolshevik nationalist regime, in the illusive hopes of forging a new confederation between Iran and Azerbaijan. The mission was aborted over disagreement with the premier on the terms of the treaty. After the collapse of Vosuq’s government, Sayyed Zia remained in contact with the British legation. With the change in the political climate and the surge in antielite propaganda in the Persian press, Sayyed Zia became a more viable choice to head the semiclandestine Iron Committee, a quasi-revolutionary party financed by the British legation to foster popular anti-Bolshevik sentiments.