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History, Reza Shah Pahlavi

Reza Khan, Qajar dynasty, Reza Shah, new social classes, exercise influence

The continuing political strife in Iran alarmed many nationalists, including Reza Khan (later Reza Shah Pahlavi), an officer in Iran’s only military force, the Cossack Brigade. Joining a newspaper publisher known for his admiration of British politicat institutions, Reza Khan used his troops in 1921 to support a coup against the government. Within four years he had established himself as the most powerful person in the country by suppressing rebellions and establishing order. In 1925 a specially convened assembly deposed Ahmad Shah, the last ruler of the Qajar dynasty, and named Reza Khan, who earlier had adopted the surname Pahlavi, as the new shah.

Reza Shah had ambitious plans for what he called the modernization of Iran. These included developing large-scale industries, implementing major infrastructure projects, building a cross-country railroad system, establishing a national public education system, reforming the judiciary, and improving health care. He believed only a strong, centralized government managed by educated personnel could carry out his plans. He sent hundreds of Iranians, including his own son, to Europe for training. Between 1925 and 1941 Reza Shah’s numerous development projects transformed Iran. Industrialization, urbanization, and public education progressed rapidly, and new social classes—a professional middle class and an industrial working class—emerged. However, by the mid-1930s Reza Shah's dictatorial style of rule, including the harsh and arbitrary treatment of his opponents and restrictions on the press, caused increasing dissatisfaction in Iran.

Throughout his reign, Reza Shah tried to avoid involvement with Britain and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR; formed from the Russian Empire in 1922). Although many of his development projects required foreign technical expertise, he tried to avoid awarding contracts to British and Soviet companies, believing—as did most Iranians—that this would open the way for their governments to exercise influence in Iran. Although Britain, through its ownership of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, controlled all of Iran's oil resources, Reza Shah preferred to obtain technical assistance from France, Germany, Italy, and other European countries. This created problems for Iran after 1939, when Britain and Germany became enemies in World War II. Although Reza Shah proclaimed Iran's neutrality, Britain insisted that the German engineers and technicians in Iran were spies with missions to sabotage British oil facilities in southwestern Iran. Britain demanded that Iran expel all German citizens, but Reza Shah refused, claiming this would adversely impact his development projects.



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