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The Modern History of Iran and Arab Nations

1. Introduction

Ali Ansari ends his short introduction to Iran by saying:

Iran was midwife at the birth of the idea of the West. It was the context against which the west would come to be defined…’.

He was referring to the ancient wars between the powerful Persians and the Greek underdogs. To fight against the Persian, the Greeks united and identified themselves as an entity, giving rise to the foundation of the western thoughts that we know today. The globe has expanded since and Iran is no more the major power. Yet, this regional entity continues to prick the ‘west’ of today. The story of Iran starts with the Cyrus the Great, paving way for many more dynasties until monarchy was declared un islamic in the Islamic revolution of 1979.  This is how we know the Iran of today, a Shia theocracy which provides US presidents too much troubled engagement. This theatrical started in the beginning of the 19th century.

2. Western Interference and the Constitutional Revolution

Western penetration in Iran started when Russia took control of the large Iranian Caucasus land after defeating the Qajar dynasty in two wars and the imposition of treaties. Similarly, British took Herat from them and imposed another humiliating treaty of Paris (1857). These treaties opened up Iran for other foreign powers to come and seek over them for commercial and diplomatic concessions called capitulations.

Image: Agha Mohammad Khan

The Qajar dynasty, started by Agha Mohammad Khan in 1796, lacked any real instrument of coercion and administration. The taxation system during those times was also inefficient and the state was too weak to raise taxes to narrow down its deficits. As a result, Naser al-Din Shah started selling concessions and borrowing money from foreigners. This gave rise to protests in the region amidst which Britain got the right to establish the imperial bank with full control over the printing of banknotes and the concession to drill for oil in south west. This paved way for the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) which became a significant name in the later years. The Russians also got the right to fish in the Caspian Sea and drill for oil in the north. In the mean while, the shah was assassinated. 

The roots of revolution, therefore, can be traced back to these western penetrations. This gave rise to the “paranoid style of politics” which shapes the conscience of the modern Iran.

The revolution’s immediate cause was the government’s bankruptcy and inflation caused by a combination of bad harvest, a cholera epidemic and a sudden disruption in the northern trade prompted by the 1905 Russo-Japanese war. This crisis was compounded by various other conflicts as well. One of them pertains to Russian bank buying a cemetery and digging it up for its office space. These confrontations compelled the forceless Muzaffar al-Din Shah to sign the royal proclamation on August 5, 1906 and to hold nationwide elections for the formation of a constituent assembly. 

3. The Episode of World War I

Externally, the British were worried of the rising position of the Germans and thereby, it decided to resolve its long standing dispute with Russia. Consequently, through the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, the Qajar’s court directed by the foreign advisors was eventually partitioned Iran into three zones. This ended the great game and was a precursor to the formation of the triple Entente.

Image: Anglo-Russian Convention

At the same time, the constitutional government was suffering from a weak state – as on one side, when the state was humiliated by the treaty, on the other side, Majles faced backlash owing to the introduction of reforms in the society. The liberals also increased the problems by proposing far reaching secular reforms like giving rights not only to minorities but also to women. 

In this scenario, the Shah got the opportunity to strike back. The martial law in the region was declared in 1908 because of which many parliamentary leaders escaped into exile while some were executed. This coup by the royalty triggered a civil war which forced Shah to abdicate in favour of his twelve years old son, Ahmad Shah in July, 1910. In the end, the second Majles was formed but without any authority. They had to rely on loans from London and St. Petersburg. At the same time, the conflict between the liberal and the moderate continued.

Externally, Iran had declared neutrality in the World War I but it became the ground for conflict between the Ottomans and the Russians along with several episodes of the German and British activities. All this coincided with the bad harvests, cholera and typhus epidemics, and the deadly influenza pandemic of 1919. Amidst this crisis, the viceroy of British India Lord Curzon drafted the Anglo-Persian Agreement which gave Britain the sole right to provide Iran with loans, arms and advisories, military instructor and even teachers. But the political atmosphere of Iran had become anti-British. Russia had now become Soviet Union and there were possibilities of Bolshevik revolution in Iran exacerbated by the British presence. 

4. Establishment of the Last Dynasty

By 1920, Iran had become a failed state. The grim situation and anarchy in Iran invited a coup in 1921. This coup was hailed as the glorious liberation marking the launch of a new era. Reza Khan dismissed the Anglo-Iranian agreement and signed a Soviet-Iranian agreement which cancelled all the tsarist loans, claims and concessions-everything except the Caspian fisheries. He also deposed Ahmad shah in 1925-26 and declared himself the Shah of Pahlavi dynasty.

Reza Shah, thus, came to power with a government having little power outside the capital. He left the country with an extensive state structure. The expansion of state was fuelled by the oil royalties, higher customs duties and new taxes on consumer goods. He also introduced the concept of the use of family name, replaced Islamic lunar calendar with the ancient Persian solar calendar, standardized weight and time, and brought several dressing reforms among the various other controversial reforms like forcing women to come out unveiled in public.

Image: Anglo-Iranian oil company

In 1933-34, the Shah signed a new agreement with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, extending the concession till 1993 for a meagre four percent royalty. This confirmed that the Shah under the guise of patriotism was a British puppet. Following an outrage against this, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in 1941 in favour of his twelve years old son.

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  • According to UPSC Syllabus
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5. The Episode of World War II

The Anglo-Soviet Alliance, joined by the USA recognized that Iran can give them physical control over oil and a land corridor to the Soviet Union, an alternative to the Archangel which was frozen most for the time. They, thus, invaded the country.

Reza Shah’s army could not stand against the allies for more than three days. Allies again divided the country into two zones, much like the World War I situation. They promised to withdraw within six months of the war’s end. The new Shah Muhammad Reza agreed to cooperate fully in the return of keeping control of the armed forces. It was this period when the Shah had much of the army under him but had lost control over the bureaucracy and the patronage system. This period lasted until 1953, when the shah re-established royal authority through a coup engineered by the Americans and the British. 

The end of Reza Shah’s rule resulted in the release of many political prisoners. The notables, who were active form 1906 to 1921 thereby, re-emerged with a full force and started dominating the cabinet, the Majles and the local politics. Therefore, the period saw a brief socialist revolution and a nationalist revolution in Iran.

In the meantime, a socialist party, Tudeh, had become the party of the masses by 1945-46. It drew most of its support from the urban wage earners and from salaried middle class. It compelled the AIOC to implement the eight-hour day, Friday pay, overtime scales, higher wages and better housing. It was opposed to any concession to foreign nationals but suffered a major setback in 1945-46 when the Soviet demanded an oil concession. Moreover, being a Socialist party it also suffered in popularity when the Soviet supported Kurdish and Azerbaijan movements in September 1945.

Thus, the government got an excuse to round the Tudeh party. It declared martial law in Tehran, clamped down on trade union and closed down May Tudeh clubs and party offices. Incidentally, a failed attempt on Shah’s life gave him an excuse to declare nationwide martial law and outlaw the Tudeh Party. He also convened a constitutional assembly to grant him more power and took total control of armed forces. 

6. The Nationalist Revolution and Rise of Mossadeq

Tudeh’s decline in the late 1940s gave space for the nationalist movement to emerge in the early 1950s, led by the charismatic leader- Muhammad Mossadeq. He had been a prominent participant in the national politics since the constitutional revolution of 1906. He employed two tools – strict constitutionalism at home and a ‘negative equilibrium’ abroad to assure the independence from the foreign domination. He also took up the cause of oil nationalization first voiced by the Tudeh Party. 

Image: Mossadeq

As the Prime Minister, Mossadeq created the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) and began negotiations with the AIOC for a smooth transfer of control. When AIOC resisted, he ordered NIOC to take over AIOC. However, when Britain lodged a complaint in the UN, he personally appeared before the UNSC to condemn Britain and closed down its consulates as well as embassy. In response to, Britain attacked back by freezing the Iranian assets and reinforcing its naval presence in the Persian Gulf. The crisis was now fully blown both internationally as well as domestically.

Mossadeq wanted to weaken the monarch and take back the military from him. When Shah resisted he went to public saying that he needed the supervision over military lest they try to undo the nationalization of oil. Public came out to streets in July 1952 and forced the Shah to back down. 

Moreover, Iran’s control over its valuable oil resources could inspire others- especially Indonesia, Venezuela, and Iraq- to follow suit. This could drastically change the dynamics of global power in the favour of the oil producing third world countries.

In his book ‘All the Shah’s Men’, Stephan Kinzer writes that ‘to convince the US for the regime change in Iran, Britain had to provide them with another cause than the cause of international oil cartel’. Thus, they brought the communist flavour in the crisis. Iran shared border with the Soviet Union and had an active communist party with a nationalist prime minister. The question of what if it becomes the next China? – started haunting the world. This made to US to have a close watch on these events.

At the same time, the Operation Ajax was staged on August 19 on 28th Mordad and the general Fazlollah Zahedi became the Shah’s new lawful prime minister. Further, the destruction of the National front and the Tudeh party paved the way for the eventual emergence of the religious movements. According to Abrahamian, ‘the coup helped replace nationalism, socialism, and liberalism with Islamic Fundamentalism’.

“The west was involved in toppling the Mossadeq government. That ultimately led to the Iranian revolution.”

Salman Rushdie

7. The White Revolution and the Last Act

Muhammad Reza Shah started building his three pillars of state; the military, the bureaucracy and the court patronage system. He was able to build this massive state structure given the rising oil revenues. Shah also launched the White revolution to prevent a red revolution from below which consisted of Land Reforms, Literacy movement, family reforms, and women’s rights. 

Image: Mohammad Reza Shah

These changes intensified social tensions by expanding the intelligentsia and the urban working class. The land reforms reduced the influence of the rural notables who had always controlled their peasants and tribesmen. The rise of population increased pressure on the arable land. In short, the white revolution and the oil boom raised people’s expectations but they were not met with same rigor. 

These social tensions also brought in political radicalism among the intelligentsia, the modern middle classes, the Ulama and the traditional middle class. Along with this, the two significant figures of the time Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini – who were exiled after 1963 for accusing shah for granting capitulation to the US, came to the forefront. 

Shariati brought in the idea of Islamic socialism and translated several books like ‘Wretched of the Earth’ by Fanon and Che Guevara’s ‘Guerrilla Warfare’. He was also credited for transforming Islam from a din/ religion to a political ideology or as known to us Islamism.

Image: Ayatollah Khomeini

Khomeini, on the other hand, gave the concept of Velayat-e-Faqeh which means Jurist’s guardianship. This would form the cornerstone of the 1979 revolution. According to this new concept, the ultimate authority to rule was with the religious leader having specialization in feqh (law). He also denounced monarchy calling it as a pagan and the Shah for supporting Israel against the Muslim world, while allying with the west in the cold war spreading gharbzadegi (plague from the west) among various other grievances. 

In return, the Shah abolished the two party systems and installed a ‘Resurgence Party’. From now onwards, all the facets of the society were to be looked by the Party. This monopolization suffocated the society. The Shah thought that everything was under control, while he didn’t new that he was sitting on a volcano ready to erupt. 

On 19 August, on the anniversary of the 1953 coup, a large cinema in the working class district of Abadan went up in flames and more than 400 women and children died. People marched into Abadan after a mass burial. The Washington post reported that the marches had a clear message, “the shah must go”. Now the gap between the king and his people were unbridgeable.

Khomeini flew back to Iran on 1st February 1979 while the Shah had already left two weeks before. The military declared to pursue neutrality. The final act of the theatrical was concluded on 11th February with Radio Tehran making the historic statement: “This is voice of Iran, the Voice of true Iran, the voice of Islamic revolution”

The Iran-Iraq war, thus, gave the state an opportunity to expand. The new government undid the social rights given to women although they retained their right to vote, as a result of this, even today women of Iran are fighting against the imposition of headscarves. 

8. Conclusion

The Shah was permitted entry in the USA for his cancer treatment. This gave birth to the USA-Iran relation that we know of today. The USA generosity towards the Shah convinced many students that CIA would repeat the 1953-like coup. They climbed over the walls of US embassy and the rest is history.

Ali Ansari points out that, the proximity of Islamic revolution both in terms of time and through wonders of modern mass communication has ensured that for many this event remains the seminal event of modern Iran, and because of its effects on the United States, one of the turning points of the late 20th century”.

Today, Iran is a balancing state in west Asia. Its relations with the surrounding nations has mostly been in form of collisions. The US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, establishment of military bases in Caucasus and central Asia and Iran’s leadership of the Shi’is (Shia) in the region are some of the factors for these collisions. Today the rivalry, however, revolves around the issue of the nuclear technology. Wherein, Iran insists on its right as a sovereign to develop its own nuclear technology, though on the other side, US opposes it in the fear of drastically shifting of the balance of power from Israel and the Gulf sheikhdoms.

  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
  • PYQ Analysis
  • Plenty of Maps, Images for Illustration
  • Also useful for State PSC Examinations
  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

9. Multiple Choice Question

1] The Qajar Dynasty was started by whom?
a) Ayatollah Khomeini
b) Mohammad Ali
c) Agha Mohammad Khan
d) None of the above

Show Answer

Ans: c) Agha Mohammad Khan

2] Which factor contributed to the formation of Anglo-Persian Oil Company?
a) Britain forming the imperial bank
b) Britain got full control over the printing of money
c) Both a and b
d) Rise of Qajar dynasty

Show Answer

Ans: c) Both a and b

3] When the Anglo-Russian convention took place?
a) 1914
b) 1907
c) 1910
d) 1912

Show Answer

Ans: b) 1907

4] Which alternative was sought against Archangel by the Anglo-Soviet Alliance?
a) Iran
b) Iraq
c) Saudi Arabia
d) Turkey

Show Answer

Ans: a) Iran

5] The book ‘All the Shah’s Men’ was written by whom?
a) Ronald Reagan
b) Henry Kissinger
c) Stephen Kinzer
d) Khomeini

Show Answer

Ans: c) Stephen Kinzer

6] What do you mean by the concept Velayat-e-Faqeh?
a) Jurist guardianship
b) Divine rule of King
c) God is one for all
d) Purity in deeds

Show Answer

Ans: a) Jurist guardianship

8] What was the outcome of the resurgence party?
a) Formation of coalitions
b) Monopolization of the society
c) The decline of monarchical rule
d) Rise of the constitutional government

Show Answer

Ans: b) Monopolization of the society

9] Who forwarded the idea of Islamic socialism?
a) Khomeini
b) Reza Shah
c) Shariati
d) Mossadeq

Show Answer

Ans: c) Shariati

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