A Brief History of 20th-Century Iran

Woman at Pro-Shah Demonstration, Tehran, 1979, Gelatin silver print, Courtesy of Magnum Photos, New York

A Brief History of 20th-Century Iran

By Shiva Balaghi

Colonialism and Constitutionalism: Iran at the Turn of the Century

At the outset of the 20th century, Iran was embroiled in a bifurcated struggle. On the one hand, Iranians struggled to maintain their national independence in the face of growing colonial pressures. Iran’s geopolitical importance made it a central focus of the colonial “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain. Ultimately, in August 1907, the two great powers decided to carve Iran up into spheres of influence; the agreement sealed Russian supremacy in the north and British supremacy in the south of Iran.

At the same time, a struggle was taking place within Iran’s borders, as the country was undergoing the Constitutional Revolution (1905–11). A dispute over sugar prices finally sparked the first public protests of that revolution. In 1905, the governor of Tehran ordered that some sugar merchants be bastinadoed for refusing to lower their prices. A group of merchants, tradesmen, and mullahs took sanctuary (bast) in a Tehran mosque. Government officials dispersed the group, who then took refuge in a shrine south of Tehran. By January 1906 the Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar agreed to their demands, which included the formation of an ‘adalatkhanah (house of justice).

Despite his assurances, the Shah did not follow up on his promises, leading to growing discontent and unrest. Finally, there was a confrontation involving a group of clerics and their students in which a student was killed. This violent encounter led to another bast. This time, between 12,000 and 14,000 protestors gathered in the British legation, demanding the formation of a majlis, or parliament. The Shah finally relented, and in August 1906 he issued a decree calling for the formation of a national assembly in Iran. The first majlis convened in October 1906 and set about the task of writing a constitution. An ailing Muzaffar al-Din Shah decreed the document they produced into law in December 1906, a few days before his death. In October 1907 the new king signed the Supplementary Fundamental Law. Together, the two documents formed the core of the Iranian Constitution.

The course of the Constitutional Revolution would remain rocky for some years to come. Internal differences amongst the revolutionaries, reluctance by the Qajar shahs to relinquish power to the national assembly, and colonial interests in maintaining control over key aspects of governance severely hampered Iran’s first experience of democratization. By the Fall of 1911, matters came to a head, and Russia, with the support of England, gave the majlis an ultimatum that would essentially nullify Iran’s independence. The majlis refused, and Russian troops entered northern Iran; they brutally killed some of the leading constitutionalists. Other intellectuals and activists fled Iran. Russian troops stormed the majlis. Under threat of foreign occupation of Iran, the second majlis was dissolved.1 Though the parliament and the constitution were retained as Iran emerged from its first revolution of the 20th century, the spirit of constitutionalism was dealt a serious blow.

The Rise of the Pahlavi Dynasty

World War I found Iran in difficult straits. Its economy was shattered, and the country suffered from a growing power vacuum. In 1921 Reza Khan led a group of soldiers into Tehran. He demanded that the cabinet be dissolved and that the failing Qajar shah appoint him commander of the military. Using the army as his primary instrument, Reza Khan sought to restore a sense of national unity within Iran’s borders. In 1923, the last Qajar shah named Reza Khan as prime minister and then traveled to Europe to seek medical attention, never to return. The Qajar dynasty, which had ruled Iran since 1785, was deposed in 1925. Shortly thereafter, Reza Khan assumed the position of Shah and established the Pahlavi Dynasty.

Throughout the 19th century, the British and the Russians had vied for concessions to build railroads across Iran, but by the time Reza Shah came to power, no national rail system existed. The cornerstone of Reza Shah’s economic reforms was the Trans-Iranian Railroad, linking the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. The project was financed largely through taxes on sugar and tea; construction was completed in 1938. Reza Shah also initiated reforms in the areas of education and law, which were historically the domain of the clergy. Compulsory education for all Iranians was decreed, and hundreds of schools were built. In 1934, the University of Tehran was established. As he undertook various development projects, Reza Shah also consolidated his own power; the people of Iran “had been denied all share in political and social activities.”2

By 1941, with the outbreak of World War II, the Persian Gulf and Iran’s vast oil resources became critical for the success of the British Navy. Iran declared itself neutral, but Reza Shah, who had established strong cultural and technological ties with Germany, was perceived as problematic by the Allies. With Iran under virtual occupation by Allied forces, he was forced to abdicate his throne, and his young son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was crowned as the new king. Reza Shah would die in exile in 1944.

The Reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was twenty-two years old when he assumed his position as the Shah of Iran. Allied forces occupied much of the country. After the end of World War II, Russia continued to occupy regions of northern Iran. The young Shah visited the United States, meeting with US officials and addressing the United Nations. Under pressure, the USSR withdrew from Iranian territory. The 1940s saw a resurgence in parliamentarism in Iran. In 1949, Mohammad Mossadeq formed the National Front Party, with the aim of upholding the 1906 Constitution. One of the main goals of the National Front was to nationalize Iran’s oil industry; the British continued to control most of Iran’s oil revenue through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. In 1951, the Shah appointed Mossadeq as prime minister. Mossadeq followed through on his plans to nationalize the oil industry, and the National Iranian Oil Company was formed. For many Iranians, Mossadeq became a nationalist leader. To some Western leaders with economic interests in the Middle East, his actions set an unwelcome precedent. In 1952 Mossadeq was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. In 1953 the British MI-6 and the CIA undertook Operation Ajax, which toppled Mossadeq from power. To many Iranians, Mossadeq became a symbol of yet another moment in history when foreign intervention played a pivotal role in thwarting a democratic movement in Iran. Meanwhile, as Iran emerged from the political unrest of the 1950s, its economy was in tatters.

In 1963, the Shah announced his White Revolution, a program that included land reform, the nationalization of forests, the sale of state-owned enterprises to the private sector, a profit-sharing plan for industrial workers, and the formation of a Literacy Corps to eradicate illiteracy in rural areas. The White Revolution also granted Iranian women the right to vote, increased women’s minimum legal marriage age to 18, and improved women’s legal rights in divorce and child custody matters. These reforms were opposed by some of Iran’s clergy, in particular Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini led the June 5, 1963 uprising, opposing the Shah and the White Revolution. In the course of this uprising, the authorities quelled resistance among the religious students in a seminary in the city of Qum, and a number of students lost their lives. Khomeini’s activities eventually led to his exile to Iraq in 1964.

The oil boom of the 1970s ushered in an influx of petro-dollars, with which the regime spearheaded major development programs. The accelerated rate of development exacerbated unequal distribution of wealth and led to a variety of social problems in Iran.3 Discontent with government policies was spreading through various segments of Iranian society. In 1976, leading members of the National Front published an open letter to the Shah, calling on his government to comply fully with the 1906 Constitution. In the Fall of 1977 the Iranian Writers’ Association organized a series of poetry readings at the Goethe Institute in Tehran known as “Dah Shab” or Ten Nights. Towards the end of the ten nights, the writers and some students took to the streets, demanding an end to censorship. By the winter of 1978, major demonstrations became increasingly common in Iran’s major cities. 4 On January 16, 1979, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi left Iran. On February 1, 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned.

Alternative Histories of Modern Iran

In the summer of 1883, the first American minister to the Persian court, S.G.W. Benjamin, traveled to Tehran and reported his impressions to the US Secretary of State:

No city in the east after Canton, Bombay, Calcutta, and Constantinople surpasses it in appearance of vitality. The number of carriages owned by Persian and European gentlemen is nearly 500, all imported. Teheran also contains a European bakery, a European carriage maker, a European cabinet maker and upholsterer, a corps of foreign instructors of the army, a steam engine at the arsenal, a mint formed on [a] European system, several town clocks, a hose in the public garden imported from the United States, gas in the grounds surrounding the palace, and public squares besides other evidences of a progressive tendency.5

In 1975, American feminist Betty Friedan chronicled her first impressions of the city:

My first few days in Tehran were strictly caviar and jet lag and a sense of being strangely at home. Tehran, a Middle Eastern city, seems like an American Western boom town—buildings going up overnight, international banks next to
a Persian Wimpy stand, and no beggars.6

Near the end of the 19th century, Benjamin suggested that the prevalence of European objects throughout Tehran held a certain promise of progressive change. Nearly a century later, Friedan described the results of this promise—Tehran had become “an American Western boom town.” Both Benjamin and Friedan focused on the material manifestations of progress and equated that progress with things European or American. Neither looked for the underpinnings of modernity in the Iranian cultural sphere, where modernity was actively constructed, debated, and contested. The truncated narrative of 20th-century Iranian history presented in this essay highlights major events and political actors. It does not provide a nuanced, textured explanation of how these events were experienced, how political currents were shaped by individuals. The visual arts can offer alternative narratives of Iranian history. The work on display in Between Word and Image provides important insights into Iranian modernity in the critical decades of the 1960s and ’70s.


1 For a more complete history of the Persian Revolution see E. G. Browne, The Persian Revolution of 1905–1909 (London: Frank Cass, 1966), reprinted edition; Mangol Bayat, Iran’s First Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Nikki Keddie and Mehrdad Amanat, “Iran Under the Late Qajars, 1848–1922,” Cambridge History of Iran, v. 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 174–212; and Nikki Keddie, Qajar Iran and the Rise of Reza Khan, 1796–1925 (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Press, 1999).

2 Ann Lambton, as quoted in “The Pahlavi Autocracy: Riza Shah, 1921–41,” Cambridge History of Iran, v. 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 243.

3 For discussions of the social implications of accelerated development, see Farhad Kazemi, Poverty and Revolution in Iran: The Migrant Poor, Urban Marginality and Politics (New York: New York University Press, 1980) and Misagh Parsa, Social Origins of the Iranian Revolution (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989).

4 For a detailed chronology of the Revolution, see Nicholas M. Nikazemerad, “A Chronological Survey of the Iranian Revolution,” Iranian Studies (1980): 327–68.

5 Benjamin to Frelinghuysen, Tehran, October 2, 1883, Diplomatic Series no. 28, Despatches from United States Ministers to Persia, United States National Archives.

6 Betty Friedan, “Coming Out of the Veil,” Ladies Home Journal (June 1975), p. 98.


Categories: Essays