The Islamic Republic of Iran Brief History up until 1944

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a country located in the Middle East and has a very rich historical background. The country was also known as Persia up until 1935 and became an Islamic Republic after the 1979 revolution (CIA Factbook).

Ancient Persian Empire was one of the oldest civilizations and it is known as the first Global Empire in history. The Achaemenid dynasty under Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC) [Farsi: Kurosh II] conquered all ancient civilizations in the Near East. These conquests also resulted the end of existing free peasantry and spread slavery throughout the empire. Local populations were administered by autonomous governments called satrapies. Beginning with Cyrus the Great, Persian emperors used the title shahanshah (king of kings) in reference to rulers of “both Arian and non-Arian peoples.” The name “Iran” was driven from Il Aryan, (land of the Arians). The Persians had a policy of tolerance towards different cultures and religions. Yet, as the empire grew richer the poverty of its enslaved subjects also increased. Unsuccessful military campaigns, especially the ones caused by fierce resistance of the Greeks against Xerxes I [Sarhas I], and regional revolts illustrated a sharp clash between imperial interests of the state and the public interests of the unhappy masses.  (From Cyrus To Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire, Pierre Briant)

As a result, Alexander the Great was welcomed by local populations as he conquered the Achaemenid empire in 330 BC. Yet, Alexander was amazed by the high culture of the Persians. He allowed them to practice Zoroastrianism, the oldest Persian religion based on dualism and transmigration of souls, and he did not change the existing admistrative system. After Alexander’s death, his empire was divided amongst his generals as they have become new satraps.

However, Arsaces I [Ashkan I], decendant of a Persian satrap family in Parthia (modern NE Iran) led a successful revolt and founded the Parthian Empire (247 BC-224 AD). Yet, the Parthians like future Persian dynasties would never become as mighty as the Achaemenids. Parthians were most powerful rivals of the Romans. Yet, Hellenism was more widespread under their rule. The tribal characteristics of this East Aryan or Khorasanian dynasty led to numerous civil wars and internal coups. (Cambridge History of Iran)

Finally the Parthians were ended by Ardeshir I who founded the Sassanid Empire (224-651); known to its inhabitants as Eranshahr or “The Iran Empire.” The Sassanian emperors came from a line of a Zoroastrian priest family who were critical of the Hellenized Parthians accusing them of betraying Persian culture. In order to  seperate themselves from the Parthians ideologically, they invested in culture, art, architecture and learning centers. The greatest challange the regime faced was Mazdak’s communistic revolt which was brutally suppressed in 528 by Anushirvan. Under his reforms, a new class of lower landed aristocracy emerged from cavalrymen in the military, called dihqans.

Wars with the Byzantines exhausted the Sassanid military, consisted of many dihqans, and they were totally overran by Muslim Arabs in 652. The political structure of the Arabs were based tribal confederacy as opposed to the Persians who had a long tradition of dynastic rule. These factors were important for Arabs to become Sunnis and Iranians to become Shiites, the followers of Prophet Muhammad’s family. In the beginning majority of Iranians were still Zoroastrians, but they were treated as second class citizens (mawali) under the Umayyad dynasty (661-750). After the massacre of Hussein the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, in Kerbala (680), unsucceful Shiite rebellion was followed by a successful Iranian mawali revolt (the Kaysanites) that avenged the death of Hussein. Although quickly suppressed, this underground movement slipped from the eyes of the Umayyads due to their usage of -the Zoroastrian concept of- transmigration of souls. They ended up supporting the Abbasids cause which toppled the Umayyads. The revolution had begun in Khorasan with the crucial support of the dihqans and it was completed by the victorious Khorasanid army in 750.

Under the Abbasids, the capital moved from Damascus to Bagdad where Persian cultural influence flourished again. Abbasids turned against their Persian followers. Many revolts were suppressed but evolved into cults that were seen as heretical by the Sunni caliphate. Many of these cults and underground movements were neo-Mazdakian in character, especially the Khurramites in Azarbaijan region. These groups later assimilated into Shiite sects. The majority of Iran was Sunni, however. Islamization of Iran was complete by 900s thanks to growing urbanization which also led to “Golden Age of Islam.” Many philophers, scientists, poets, architecs, mathmeticians, doctors and intellectuals were Iranian; such as Biruni, Farabi, and Ibn Sina, whose works were translated into many languages. Eventually urbanization in Iran transformed dihqans into the future Bazaaris.

The Abbasid era also witnessed small independent Iranian kingdoms. They were taken over by Seljuks. Seljuks were nomadic Ghuzz Turks who were Persianized and had Persian viziers for administration. They eventually entered Anatolia yet couldn’t prevent Mongol invasions that destroyed Iran. The end of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258, created an environment favorable to Sufi orders and other cults to reemerge. While the Ottomans, as a regional power, affiliated with Sunni cults, Shah Ismail I, a Ghuzz Turk, was a member of a Shiite cult. He united Iran after 8 centuries of non-Persian rule, and in 1501 declared Shiism as the offical religion of Iran. It is important to note the significant role of the Azeri minority in the creation of modern “Shiite” Iran at a time of foreign powers’ covert attempts to provoke Azeris against the current Iranian regime.

Shiite Safavids (1501-1736) and Sunni Ottomans became bitter rivals for regional supremacy. In order to confront Iran, the Ottomans first took over Syria, then Egypt. Ottoman-Safavid confrontations were largely stalemates. Yet the Ottoman conquest of Iraq was complete by 1638. Safavids had to deal with Uzbeks and Afghans on the east as well. Sunni Afghan armies defeated the Safavids, however, they were unwelcomed by most Iranians whom by now mostly Shiites.


This country has a rich history that goes back to the Achaemenian Empire established by the Cyrus the Great in 550 BC. The fall of the Achaemenians came as a result of the rise of another great empire lead by Alexander the Great who managed to overpower the region in 330 BC. This region always drew interest among many powers. The region, known today as Islamic Republic of Iran, fell to the Parthians and Sassanians before being conquered by Arabs in 642 AD. It is crucial to note that at this time Arabs brought with them the religion of Islam that eventually predominates to this day. The word “IRAN” is a cognate of “Aryan”: these words were used by that branch of Indo-European peoples who migrated southeast before 1000 BC, the Iranians staying in Iran and the Aryans going to on to India. Persia, on the other side, was the Greek name for Iran, taken from the southwestern province of Fars. Reza shah, the autocratic leader of Iran did not change the name of the country in the 1930s; rather he asked foreigners to use the indigenous name (Keddie, N).

After the Arabs, various rulers invaded Iran until the 1501 when the Iranian Safavis managed to construct a strong empire under the leadership of Ismail I who also established Shia Islam as the official religion for the country. However, it is worth noting that before 15th century, great majority of Shia were not Iranian and majority of Iranian were Sunni (Keddie, N. p. 8).

Isma’il I, also known as Shah Isma’il, a founder of Safavid Dynasty who managed to unify Iran by 1509, demanded that all preachers and mollas publicly curse the first three Sunni caliphs, usurpers of the place of Ali, and this loyalty remained a characteristic of many Safavid rulers. This was mainly because Isma’il was trying to give Iran an ideological distinction vis-à-vis Sunnis. As a result, in 1511-12 Ottomans attacked Safavids and this was one of the many battles between them Iran- Ottoman Empire. By the end of 1722, most Iranians identified strongly with shiism (Keddie, N. p. 11)

The conflict with Ottomans increased the West to offer Iran a political and economic relationship due to the common enemy that the two were sharing at the time. In addition, this relationship allowed Iran to begin trading with Europe (Keddie, N).

It was in the late 18th century that Iran begins to see some stability that was mainly the success of Qajar family that managed to rule the country up until the beginning of the 20th century. However, the country suffered many more centuries due to many civil wars and regional threats that rose during the history.  (Library of Congress – Federal Research Division, 2008)

The Qajar shahs ruled uneasily for a century and a half. In the 19th century, a country habituated to invasion found itself subject to a new form of foreign pressure – the diplomatic and commercial competition between Russia and Britain for dominance over Persia, which inevitably became a preoccupation of the Qajar shahs, as they sought to play the two great powers off against each other (Yergin, D. p. 120). The foreign pressure left Qajars acting like a shadow government because main politics occurred behind their back by westerners and other entities that frequently occurred outside Iran (Yergin, D. p. 36). Nonetheless, despite being very unpopular with the people of Iran, the Qajars remained in power and kept Iran unified with the support of the British and the Russians (Keddie, N).

Such attractions from different powers came as a result of a French geologist who began to publish reports in 1890, based upon extensive research he did in Persia, that pointed to considerable oil potential (Yergin, D. p. 119). The British government was particularly active in helping its subjects to attain concessions, including the Tobacco monopoly concession of 1890 and the very important D’Arcy Oil concession of 1901 (Yergin, D. p.35).

Iran remained unified but within its borders it remained very fragile due to the tribal feudalism where local tribe leaders managed the domestic affairs and these tribal leaders usually managed the people living in their lands (Keddie, N. p. 23). But Iran was less controlled by nomadic tribes, despite its major number of people ruled by them, rather was more centralized than other countries where tribes had major influence. Hence, Iran early centralization gave them an advantage to industrialize before other tribal countries in the region (Keddie, N. p. 36).

Hostilities towards the west remained very active within Iranian population. Such frustration came as a result of the rulers in Iran giving concessions to western governments who used their resources. For instance, the Tobacco concession granted by the Shah to the British in 1890 raised a major revolt, great instability to the Shah’s reign that ended up with his death. Shah was killed by Sayyed Jamal ad-Din, known as “al-Afghani” born in Iran (1839-97), who was a prominent intellectual that worked hard against western interests in Iran and against the Iranian government that favored concessions with the west.  He was one of the prominent players that led to the rising against the Shah’s Tabaco concessions with England. In 1895, al-Afghani met with one of his devout followers, Kermani, in Istanbul, and Afghani gave him the idea of killing the shah. Kermani went back to Iran and while the shah was preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of of his reign, Kermani suddenly shot him on May 1896. According to David Yergin’s book The Prize(2008), another reason for the uprising, first in Iran, was the interest from different classes and tribes in Iran who depended on Tobacco farming. The government was forced to cancel such concession and this was the first mass uprising in modern Iran.

Russians on the other hand took advantage of the situation and supported the Tabacco movement. This increased the Russian influence in Iran and the forced Tabaco concession turned out to be counterproductive for the British. For example, Amin as-Soltan, a prominent 19th century intellectual and prime minister to three Qajar Shah’s took loans from Russians in 1900 and 1902. As-Soltan’s loan raised suspicion among Iranians and several of his policies such as D’Arcy concession raised more opposition within Iranian people and the British once more got involved and helped Ulama with funds to bring down as-Soltan and in 1902 his government was ousted  (Keddie, N).

D’Arcy was a very successful businessman who had a tremendous success in gold mining industry in Australia and he was the main actor pushing for oil concession with the shah. On May 28 1901, D’Arcy signed the historic agreement with the Shah Muzzaffar al-Din despite the Russia’s objection that slowed the agreement but did not stop it.   Deal was, $20,000 of cash for the Shah, with another $20,000 of shares and 16% of annual net profits (Yergin, D).

After a terrible hardship with shipment, weather conditions and politics of the region, D’Arcy began drilling in 1902. He almost gave up when different banks rejected most loan applications because he started running out of his own money. However, the British warned that if D’Arcy gives up his concession, there was a risk that the region will fall under Russian control. Hardinge, minister in Tehran, warned that the Russians might take control of concessions and expand their reach (Yergin, D. 125).

1905 started the major discontent of people that were lead by reformers who were asking for Majles (house of representatives). In addition, reformers began also talking about a constitution, or Mashruteh. The Shah gave in and he accepted Majlis that opened in October 1906(HR). Two laws were signed that were largely influenced after the Belgian model and the Shah signed them  (Yergin, D. p. 68).

In 1906, people rose against the regime in Tehran and the arrest of a famous religious preacher fueled more water to the fire. Riots ended Mozzafar-al-Din Shah’s regime, a new constitution, and the establishment of a Majlis Parliament. This Parliament’s first list on the agenda was to investigate the concessions signed by Shah. But the new political system did not have much credibility outside its borders (Keddie, N. p. 129).

1907 the son of Mozzafer, Mohammed Ali Shah, with the help of the British and the Russians he took over and abolished the constitution signed by his father and dissolved the Majlis.

In 1908, D’Arcy discovered oil in. May 25, 1908, oil had been struck in Southwest of Iran. Seven years after the concession was signed with Shah. However, D’Arcy was quickly taken out of the picture when he was pushed to sell of his investment. Burmah Oil reimbursed D’Arcy for his investment and counted his share to a $55 million and his influence over the riches slipped away when he said, “ I feel like signing away a child” (Keddie, N. p. 132).

1909, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed. The British influence grew drastically after Churchill decided to have the navy switch from coal in 1912 to Oil in 1914.

Further EDITING required!!!!

1914 – 1941 War and Reza Shah

In many ways, WWI was very disorientating for Iran. Germans played anti-British and anti-Russian sentiment and was trying to be seen by many in Iran as pro-Islamic ally. Turks on the other hand called also Holy War on allies and major number of Iranians sympathized with them.

By 1917, the British increased in power and gained the south part of Iran whereas the Russians had control of the North. Russian Revolution in 1917 left vacuum and the British took advantage to move in the areas where Russians have left. This entire scramble for Iran had a devastating effect on the country by killing many people and destroying much of the farming land. This has a major devastating effect on Iranian people who live in rural areas and depended on farming. This created a famine in the Northern part of Iran where one-fourth of the population died as a result. British stepped in and tried to calm the situation by giving subsidies to Iranian government (Keddie, N).

At this time, the British interests were based on two factors. First, they tried to prevent Russian influence in Iran, and, second, they aimed at benefiting economically from it. For example, they bribed Iranian officials to get the Anglo-Persian Treaty in 1909 that aimed at favoring the British and put heavy tariffs on Russians (Keddie, N. p. 76).

The economic and political environment did not improve with the British. As a result, many radical and non-radical forces inside Iran joined forces against a pro-British cabinet that brought the resignation of Vosuq ad-Dauleh in 1920. A new government formed under new Moshir al-Dauleh that denounced the Anglo-Persian Treaty and asked Russian and British troops to leave until Majles (representatives) could debate freely without anyone influencing their decisions. However, this was not the case since the British with their influence managed bribing down Dauleh and soon after they installed another pro-British government. (Keddie, N. p. 78).


Sayyed Zia became a prime minister in 1921, with Reza Khan as War Minister. The new government showed interest in land and social reforms and aimed at centralized state.

Sayyed also announced the annulment of the Anglo-Persian Treaty and signed another Treaty with Russians that normalized the relationship between the two countries.

Personal disagreements with Reza Khan forced Sayyed to flee Iran and Reza Khan began to contain more power than ever before (p.82).

1921-1925 – Reza Khan managed to suppress many revolts in various parts of the country due to his strengthening of the army and the Iranian government allowed publishing of papers like Iranshahrthat promoted more secular society and government programs.

1923- Reza Shah became Prime minister and took strong control over Iran with a modern military that Iran never seen before.

In 1925, he claims heroic ancient dynasty and was also known as Reza Shah. The British maintained high status in the country and despite country’s harsh economic hardship, regions where the British operated benefited the people in the area and the oil production increased from 80,000 tons to 4,5 million tons in 1926 (p.86).

However, the British did not find support among the Iranian people because the majority of people in Iran were poor, uneducated and very few at the top benefited from the British concessions.


Reza Shah reign took the autocratic path where he began eliminating all of his potential competitors, including clerics, Mosaddeq (western educated liberal) and many of his advisors. He further banned officially the Communism and socialism in 1931 law.

1925-1941 Iran saw partial modernization programs that had never been attempted in Iran due to many reforms attempted during this time (89) and by 1940, the country had twice as much industrial corporations the total capital was twice as high (95).

Commercial Code 1925; Criminal Code 1926; Civil Code 1928; 1939-40 Sharia courts were abolished and Eu model codes adopted and the role of the cleric, who objected to Shah’s decision, did not have much effect due to the powerful military and increasing commercial middle class.

By 1928, Iran undertook education reforms and the country adopted French models that required teaching in Persian and follow school curriculum and also sending Iranian students to be educated abroad (91). s

However only 4% of budget went to education where 1/3rd went towards military. Military benefited students, government employees and few elites but not the poor. This caused more hardship for them and every revolt was crushed down by the Shah’s modernized military  (91). In addition, the oil money coming from corporations provided only 10% of government budget where the rest of 90% came from indirect taxes(95).

Shah’s modernization continued but the investment in the railway road that linked Iran from North to the South costed the government great deal of money ($150-200 million) that drain country’s finances. Taxing the working people who worked under tough conditions that encompassed long working hours and cheap wages paid for the railway funds. The outlawing of Unions 1936 law made it even more difficult for many workers exploited (95).

Few landlords owned the majority of land in Iran and 1934 study of agriculture showed that 95-98% of agriculture people was landless (96).

Landlord and poor rural reforms were the weakest points of Shah policies that hindered fundamental economic change (98). This hardship doubled when the world crises hit Iran and the price level of imports doubled (99).

Another policy that contributed towards his unpopularity was the unveiling of women that took place in 1935-36 where women were ordered to dress in western veil clothing. All this caused a major upset among many Iranians while Shah was trying to copy Turkish policies implemented there, not for the first time (p. 100).

British maintained great royalties in their oil investment and Shah had to concede to their demands fearing British influence to cause domestic uprising (101).

Shah’s policies created two classes of people. One, there were the middle-class and the elite who benefited from the government jobs and businesses and were more secular, and, on the other hand, there were the poor rural people who paid major taxes and produced very little. They also lived the hardship that found much more appeal among the clergy who were against Shah’s policies and attracted them as a consequence. (103).

After many trading with Germans who led the building of railroad and many other investment, Germans declared Iran a pure Aryan country (p. 101)


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