USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945


Iran, since the fall of the Safavid Empire in the eighteenth century, had been a declining power. The rise of Russia to the north, British domination of India to the east, and the Ottomans to the west kept Iran hemmed in. Over the course of the nineteenth century, both the British and the Russians attempted to exert influence over Iran, most forcefully in the economic realm. Both major powers, the Russians and the British, used their military might to gain economic concessions from the Iranian monarchs. By the end of the nineteenth century, discontent with the monarchy was brewing. In 1905, a group of reformers succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a constitutional government. This nationalist, constitutional government, however, was not playing by the imperialists’ rules. It threatened lucrative economic concessions won by the Russians and British. A severe economic downturn and growing popular discontent with the constitutional government in 1906 and 1907 was just the cover Russia and Great Britain needed to reassert their control over Iran. In 1907, the Russians and the British signed a pact to divide Iran into two spheres of influence, the British in the south and the Russians in the north. In addition, the powers supported a royalist army in its attempt to take back control of the country from the constitutional government. When the fighting proved difficult, the British invaded from the south and the Russians from the north. Iran’s monarchy was preserved, but as a subservient political entity, which entered World War I divided.

The Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent Russian Civil War removed the newly formed Soviet Union from Iran. In fact, the leader of the Bolshevik movement, Lenin, denounced all imperialist goals for his country. Britain, however, was not able to relinquish its claims to Iran for two key reasons. First, Britain wanted to check the spread of Bolshevism, which they saw as a potentially great threat to its imperial interests. And second, oil had been discovered in Iran.

Britain could do little to increase the popularity of the fading Qajar Dynasty, which was overthrown when in 1921 by an army led by the colonel Reza Khan marched on the capital Tehran. When Reza Khan proclaimed himself shah, there was not much the British could do about it. Reza Shah set about, much like Ataturk, moving his country dramatically toward westernization. He instituted secular education, removed the shariah-based Islamic judges and replaced them with secular judges based on a civil legal code. Beneath the reforms, there was a concerted push to increase Iranian nationalism. Schools taught nationalist loyalty. A scouts program for boys and girls supplemented the schools’ message. Radio and newspapers supported nationalist messages. A “Society of Public Guidance” was set up to oversee actions directed at increasing the nationalist spirit of the country. Women were granted more rights, as in the new Turkey. And as in the new Turkey, people’s clothing became a site of political struggle. In 1928, a law was passed regulating “Western-style” dress. In 1935, it became compulsory to wear a hat in public. In 1936, the shah’s government forbade women from wearing veils.

The British could be pleased with these developments. They could also be pleased with the growth of their oil interests in the country, which were extended by the shah again in the 1930s. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) grew into a huge operation for its day, a state within the state. The AIOC was Iran’s largest employer of around 30,000 people. In return for allowing the AIOC to pump out as much of Iran’s oil as possible, the Iranian government received a paltry 16% of the company’s profits.

There was one development, however, that greatly displeased Britain in the 1930s. This was the increased economic and political connections between Reza Shah’s Iran and Adolf Hitler’s Germany. When Hitler launched his massive attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, the British decided that Iranian pro-German neutrality was unacceptable, and wanting to safeguard its vital supply line into Russia through Iran, both British and Soviet forces invaded and again occupied the country.

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