Thursday, April 05, 2007

Modern Iran: From Pahlavi to Islamic Revolution (1921 – 1979)

The rise of modernization and encroachment of stronger Western powers in the late nineteenth century led to the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911. Reformers hoped the constitution would strengthen Iran against imperial Russia and Britain by centralizing and modernizing it. Ultimately the constitution became law, but its provisions were seldom followed during most of its history. In 1921, Cossack army officer Reza Khan (known as Reza Shah after assuming the throne) staged a coup against the weakened Qajar dynasty. An autocrat and supporter of modernization, Reza Shah initiated the development of modern industry, railroads, and establishment of a national education system. Reza Shah sought to balance the influence of Russia and Britain by seeking out assistance and technology from European powers traditionally not involved in Iranian affairs, but when World War II started his closeness to Germany alarmed allied powers Russia and Britain, Germany's enemies.

In summer of 1941 Britain and the USSR invaded Iran to prevent Iran from allying with the Axis powers. The Allies occupied Iran, securing a supply line to Russia, Iran's petroleum infrastructure, and forced the Shah to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1951, a nationalist politician, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh rose to prominence in Iran and was elected Prime Minister. As Prime Minister, Mossadegh became enormously popular in Iran by nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum, BP) which controlled the country's oil reserves. In response, Britain embargoed Iranian oil and began plotting to depose Mossadegh. Members of the British Intelligence Service invited the United States to join them, convincing U.S. President Eisenhower that Mossadegh was reliant on the Tudeh (Communist) Party to stay in power. In 1953, President Eisenhower authorized Operation Ajax, and the CIA took the lead in overthrowing Mossadegh and supporting a US-friendly monarch; and for which the U.S. Government, in 2000, eventually apologized.

The CIA faced many setbacks, but the covert operation soon went into full swing, conducted from the US Embassy in Tehran under the leadership of Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. Iranians were hired to protest Mossadegh and fight pro-Mossadegh demonstrators. Anti- and pro-monarchy protestors violently clashed in the streets, leaving almost three hundred dead. The operation was successful in triggering a coup, and within days, pro-Shah tanks stormed the capital and bombarded the Prime Minister's residence. Mossadegh surrendered, and was arrested on 19 August 1953. He was tried for treason, and sentenced to three years in prison.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi returned to power greatly strengthened and his rule became increasingly autocratic in the following years. With strong support from the US and UK, the Shah further modernized Iranian industry, but simultaneously crushed all forms of political opposition with his intelligence agency, SAVAK. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became an active critic of the Shah's White Revolution and publicly denounced the government. Khomeini, who was popular in religious circles, was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months. After his release in 1964, Khomeini publicly criticized the United States government. The Shah was persuaded to send him into exile by General Hassan Pakravan. Khomeini was sent first to Turkey, then to Iraq and finally to France. While in exile, he continued to denounce the Shah.


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