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Pahlevi or Pahlavi is the name of the monarchical dynasty of 20th century Iran, comprising two Shahs or rulrs, Reza Shah Pahlevi and his son Mohhamed,  Pahlavi was also the language of ancient Persia.

Reza Shah - A coup d'état in February 1921speeded Reza Khan's rise to power. Reza Khan became Shah in 1925. Reza Shah's government transformed Iran in many positive ways, but his dictatorial politics caused unrest and hate, and his foreign policy failed to keep Iran independent, and managed at the same time to alienate both the Soviets and the British.

Essentially  Reza Shah created the Iranian state. The previous dynasties such as the Qajar dynasty that the Pahlevis replaced were like European medieval kingdoms, in that they were collections of duchies with little central state bureaucracy and no means of collecting taxes. Not surprisingly, previous rulers were unable to build a modern state apparatus or to pay for it.

Reza Shah had ambitious plans for the modernization of Iran, including large-scale industries, major infrastructure projects such as railroads, a national public education system, a reformed judiciary, and improving health care. He wanted a strong, centralized government managed by educated personnel to carry out his plans. He sent hundreds of Iranians including his son to Europe for training.  Reza Shah's numerous development projects transformed Iran into an industrial, urbanized country. Public education progressed rapidly, and new social classes-a professional middle class and an industrial working class emerged.   In 1935, the name of the country was changed from Persia to Iran.

Reza Shah tried to avoid involvement with Britain and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Though  many of his development projects required foreign technical expertise, he avoided awarding contracts to British and Soviet companies.  Britain, owned of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and through it, controlled all of Iran's oil resources, but Reza Shah shunned Britain and  got technical assistance from Germany, France, Italy and other European countries. In 1939, when WW II broke out, Reza Shah proclaimed Iranian neutrality. However, Britain insisted that German engineers and technicians in Iran were spies and demanded that all German citizens must be expelled. Reza Shah refused, claiming this would adversely impact his development projects. The suspicion was not absent that in fact the Shah had concluded a secret agreement with Nazi Germany.

After Britain and the Soviet Union became allies in WW II,. they turned their attention to Iran. Both countries eyed the newly opened Trans-Iranian Railroad as an attractive route to transport from Persian Gulf to the Soviet region. In August 1941, because of Iranian refusal to expel German nationals, Britain and the USSR invaded Iran. They arrested and exiled Reza  Shah, and took control of Iranian communications and railroad. In 1942 the United States, sent a military force to Iran& to help maintain and operate sections of the railroad.

Mohamed Shah - The British and Soviet authorities constrained constitutional government and  permitted Reza Shah's son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to succeed to the throne on September 16, 1941.

In January 1942 Britain and Russia signed an agreement with Iran to respect Iran's independence and to withdraw their troops within six months after the end of the war. In 1943 Tehran Conference U.S. reaffirmed this commitment. In 1945, the USSR refused to announce a timetable to leave Iran's northwestern provinces of East Azerbaijan and West Azerbaijan, where Soviet supported autonomy movements had developed. The USSR withdrew its troops in May 1946; this episode was one of the harbingers of the emerging Cold War.

Iran's political system began to mature. Political parties were organized, and the 1944 Majlis election were the first genuinely competitive elections in over 20 years. Foreign influence and interference remained very a sensitive issue for all parties. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), owned by the British government, continued to extract and market Iranian oil. At the end of the war, Iranians began to demand nationalization of the oil industry, a demand that became the centerpiece of Iranian nationalism.

Despite his vow to act as a constitutional monarch who would defer to the power of the parliamentary government, Mohammad Reza Shah increasingly involved himself in governmental affairs and opposed or thwarted strong prime ministers. Prone to indecision, however, Mohammad Reza relied more on manipulation than on leadership. He concentrated on reviving the army and ensuring that it would remain under royal control as the  main power base of the Monarchy. In 1949 the Tudeh communist party was banned after an assassination attempt on the Shah, and the Shah's powers were expanded.

Rise and Fall of Mosaddeq - In 1951, the Iranian Parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, then controlled by Britain.  Legislators backing the law elected its leading advocate, Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq, as prime minister following the assassination of his predecessor. Britain responded with threats and sanctions. However,  Britain could not persuade the USA, under the Truman administration to take any action at the time. Mosaddeq was an aging and eccentric academic, immensely popular because of his stands for the common people. He was a nationalist, and not a communist, though the Tudeh (communist) party supported him for a time. Nonetheless, the British and US governments were eventually able to persuade themselves that Mosaddeg was about to align Iran with the USSR.

Dr. Mosaddeg  took very inflexible positions, and was  unable to compromise with Britain, which won the support of the major oil companies in imposing an effective global boycott on Iranian oil.

Dr. Mosaddeq became an anti-imperialist hero to the developing world. His eccentricities, which became his trademark,  included conducting business in bed dressed in pajamas, weeping publicly and frequent complaints about poor health. Raised by a wave of popularity, Mosaddeq showed signs of demagoguery and dictatorial government.  When the Shah refused his demand for control of the army forces in 1952, Dr. Mosaddeq resigned. He was reinstated in the face of popular riots as he very probably knew he would be. Next he conducted a national referendum to dissolve parliament.

By 1953, General Eisenhower had become president of the US. Anti-communist hysteria was reaching its peak. An Iranian general offered to help in overthrow Mosaddeq, and the British were able to persuade the American CIA to go ahead with the coup in August. With very scant resources and a shoe-string operational plan, the CIA set out to remove Mosaddeq. The plan almost failed, and the Shah, never very resolute, had fled to Baghdad and had to be enticed to continue playing his part from there. The army was loyal to the Shah and Mosaddeq was overthrown and arrested. This coup earned the USA and Britain the lasting hatred of large sectors of Iranian public opinion, uniting communists, nationalists and Shi'ite clericalists behind enmity to foreign meddling. Mosaddeq became a folk hero of  Iranian nationalism.

In the context of regional turmoil and the Cold War, the Shah established himself as an indispensable ally of the West. In the Middle East, Iran  stood out as one of the few friends of Israel, a friendship that allegedly extended to Israeli help in running the SAVAK, the hated Iranian secret service.  Domestically, he advocated reform policies, culminating in the 1963 program known as the White Revolution, which included land reform, the extension of voting rights to women, and the elimination of illiteracy.

These measures and the increasing arbitrariness of the Shah's rule provoked both religious leaders who feared losing their traditional authority and intellectuals seeking democratic reforms. These opponents criticized the Shah for violation of the constitution, which placed limits on royal power and provided for a representative government, and for subservience to the United States. The Shah saw himself as heir to the kings of ancient Iran. In 1967 he staged an elaborate coronation ceremony, styling himself "Shah en Shah" - King of Kings.

Downfall of the Shah - In 1971 the Shah held an extravagant celebration of 2,500 years of Persian monarchy. In 1976 he replaced the Islamic calendar with an "imperial" calendar, which began with the foundation of the Persian empire around 500 BC. These actions were clearly aimed at  sidelining the Islamic religion, and excited the opposition of Muslim groups, which rallied around the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Shah suppressed and marginalized opponents with the help of Iran's security and intelligence organization, the Savak, using arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, exile and torture, and exciting profound and widespread discontent.  Islamic leaders, particularly the exiled cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, channeled  this discontent into a populist Islamist ideology.  Ayatollah Khomeini had been exiled in 1964 and had been living Najaf Iraq since 1965, and from 1978 in France. In Najaf, Khomeini expounded his ideology of absolutist theocratic rule, Velayat e Faqih, led by a supreme leader, an authority worthy of emulation, the Marj al Taqlid. This ideology was spread through books and cassettes smuggled into Iran. However, beginning about 1978, Khomeini began publicizing more democratic views and pretended that he envisioned democratic rule in Iran and that he would not be a leader of the government. Riots erupted in Iran, ignited by various real or manufactured pretexts.

Suffering ill health, the Shah left Iran on January 16 1979. He announced that he was leaving for an eighteen month leave of absence. He had appointed  Shapour Bakhtiar as Prime Minister. Shapour Bakhtiar was unable to keep order with the help of Supreme Army Councils. Inexplicably, Bakhtiar not only allowed the Ayatollah Khomeini to return to Iran, but publicly invited him to return.

Ami Isseroff

October 30, 2010


Synonyms and alternate spellings: Pahlavi

Further Information: A Brief History of modern Iran 

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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