On this day in 1941, Reza Shah, who had been on the Persian throne since 1925, was forced to relinquish his power. With British and Soviet allied forces marching on Tehran, the Shah’s position became untenable, with abdication his only course of action.
That Reza Shah, born Reza Kahn in 1878, should rise to power at all is a remarkable story. One of ten children, with no formal education, Reza joined the army at sixteen, rising through the ranks to eventually hold the position of Brigadier General in the Persian Cossack Brigade. In 1921, with the country rudderless and under serious threat of Soviet invasion, Reza seized the opportunity to stage a coup d’etat, and, with a small army detachment, marched virtually unopposed into Tehran, where strategic parts of the city were taken. The government quickly resigned, and it did not take long for the young Shah Ahmed Qajar to retreat into exile, effectively ending 120 years of the Qajar dynasty.
With Qajar in exile, Reza Kahn called for the establishment of a Persian Republic, but this was a step too far for the more conservative elements of Persian society. He was compelled to accept the title of Shah of Persia on 12 December 1925.
Reza Shah was an unapologetic reformer and moderniser, and was determined to revitalise the lofty ideals of the Persian Constitutional Revolution, which had taken place in 1905. Since its inception, the thirst for social improvement had apparently subsided, but Reza Shah took up the challenge with renewed vigour, implementing a multitude of reforms and programs that would change Persia forever. Under Reza Shah the entire government was restructured, with power becoming increasingly centralised and accountable. Vast sums were spent on modernising and rationalising the army, and ambitious plans to build road, rail, and telephone networks were put into practice. Schools, hospitals, and universities were founded, as well as parks, theatres, and cinemas.
In 1935, Persia was officially renamed Iran. Reza Shah felt this more aptly represented the country, as Persians were only one of a number of ethnic groups that made up the population. It was as a result of this, alongside the unprecedented scale of reform in the country, that he became known as the Father of Modern Iran.
By the time World War II broke out, cracks were beginning to appear in the surface of Reza Shah’s administration, and there were criticisms that the regime was overly bureaucratic, bloated, and corrupt. When the Allied forces suspected that the Shah was brokering a deal with Nazi Germany to provide the Axis Powers with petroleum, military intervention became inevitable. A huge invasion force crossed the Iranian border in August 1941, and it was only a matter of weeks before Reza Shah gave in to the inevitable and resigned.
Reza Shah was succeeded by his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who would himself be forced from power following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Exiled in South Africa, Reza Shah died in 1944, at the age of 66.