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The Life and Times of the Shah
By Gholam Reza Afkhami
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
On a soft October evening in 1919 a young theology student walked slowly along a narrow alley in a recently built part of Tehran, not far from the city gate that opened on the road to the town of Qazvin. He was headed to a house his father, also a cleric, visited often, sometimes taking the young man along. The young cleric remembered his father and the master of the house sitting on the stone platforms in the narrow street at each side of the entrance to the house chatting about various subjects. The elder cleric was a hujjat al-Islam, learned in shii jurisprudence, and a religious leader in this part of the town. As a member of the ulama, the body of mullahs trained in Islamic law and doctrine, he had the right and the duty to advise on practically all aspects of believers' lives and therefore wielded considerable social and political power. Tonight, however, the hujjat al-Islam was ill, unable to preside over the ceremony that would launch his friend's expected child into the world armed with his blessing. He had sent his son instead.
The man the young cleric was visiting, Reza Khan, was a Cossack, a member of a military establishment organized and run by Russian officers. The Cossack Brigade had been established in 1878, the year Reza was born. When Nassereddin Shah, the Qajar king, passed through Russia that year on his second visit to Europe, Tsar Alexander II entertained him with a parade of his personal Cossack guards at Champ de Mars in St. Petersburg. The shah fell in love with these mounted soldiers and forthwith asked the tsar to lend him a few officers to establish and train a similar outfit in Tehran as his own personal guard. The Russian, foreseeing the merits of the proposition for his country's interests in Iran, obliged, and the two royals put their signatures to an agreement drawn up for the occasion. Russian military officers, commanded by Colonel Alexey Ivanovitch Dumantovitch, arrived in Tehran in July 1879 and a Cossack Brigade was born.
Reza Khan was one of the thousands of ordinary Iranians who joined this force over the years. He had been born in Alasht, a village in Savadkuh in the heart of the Alborz Mountains in Mazandaran, a province by the Caspian Sea. Many of the men in his family had military careers, and some had held middle-rank positions in the Cossack units protecting the Qajar shahs. His father, Abbasali, died of unknown causes when Reza was only a few months old. His mother, Nushafarin, who was of Georgian origin, died not long after, leaving Reza in her brother's care in Tehran. The uncle, Abolqasem Beig, was a warrant officer with the Cossacks. His ability to provide for the young boy was limited, though he tried to be a good father. Reza received no formal education and passed his time in the streets playing marbles with stray boys. Being taller and stronger than most, he was respected by some and considered a bully by others.
To take Reza off the streets, Abolqasem Beig enlisted him in the Cossack Brigade in 1891 when the boy was fourteen. Still too young to be a soldier, Reza was given odd jobs cleaning the canteen or working as an orderly for junior officers. A year later, he was allowed to join an artillery unit, where he became proficient in the use of machine guns, particularly the type called Maxim. His mastery of this sixty-rounder helped him become an officer and gained him the sobriquet "Reza Maxim." In the meantime, Reza learned the ways of the military and the culture of soldiering. Part of being a soldier in those days was to build a reputation for toughness. Reza became known as a rough soldier, strong-willed, hard drinking, and daring. Russian Cossacks had always fostered a certain rash adventurousness and now encouraged the same in the Iranian Cossacks. Reza built a reputation for himself as a kind of luti, a man somewhere between a lout and a knight, rough in manners yet ready to risk his life to help a friend, rescue a woman in distress, or save a man in need of saving. In time, he worked at learning how to read and write whenever he got a chance, though no one knows exactly who taught him the skill or how literate he actually became.
In 1903, at the age of twenty-five, Reza married a young orphaned girl named Tajemah, who lived in his uncle's house. The marriage, however, soon ended in sorrow. Tajemah died as she gave birth to a baby girl, leaving Reza with a baby whose needs he could neither comprehend nor fulfill. This time another uncle, Kazem Aqa, a mid-ranking Cossack officer, and his wife came to the rescue, taking Reza and the baby into their home. (The aunt and uncle became the baby's surrogate parents, and she remained in their care until she was grown.) For the next five years Reza worked and fought under Kazem Aqa's command and protection.
* * *
These were the fateful years in which ideas of individual freedom, limited and responsible government, and popular sovereignty, which had been germinating for some time in the minds of a small number of Iranians, came to a head in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. Widespread protests forced Mozaffareddin Shah to accept a constitution known as the Basic Law, which established a National Consultative Assembly (the Majlis) and included a Supplement defining the duties, obligations, and limits of the government and enumerating the rights of Iranian citizens.
The movement that led to the adoption of the Constitution had begun rather innocently within the tradition of the common folk seeking redress. The people were unhappy with the conductor of the only existing train in Iran that took them on pilgrimage to the shrine of Shahzadeh Abd ul-Azim, a few miles to the south of Tehran—the man was dictatorial and charged high prices. The people were also unhappy with Joseph Naus, the Belgian customs director recently appointed head of the treasury, for his strict observance of customs rules matched by a callous disregard of local lore. They were unhappy with the governor of Tehran for his tyrannical rule, particularly his proclivity to punish corporally anyone disobeying his edicts, including the clerics. What the simple folk wanted was "'adalat," justice according to the traditional rules of equity. What they asked for was an "'adalatkhaneh," a house of justice, where their complaints could be considered and redressed. These demands, however, would be overtaken by ideas grounded in histories and cultures alien to the experience of a majority of those who participated in the movement known as the Constitutional Revolution.
The Constitutional Revolution is commonly dated from the late autumn of 1905 when Tehran's governor, Ala-ud-Daula, supported by the chancellor, Ain-ud-Daula, accused the sugar merchants of hoarding and ordered them to release their sugar to the public. The merchants refused. The governor went to the warehouses and ordered his men to open up the stores and distribute the sugar among the people. He also ordered two merchants flogged in public. After several like incidents, a group of ulama left Tehran in protest to take shelter (bast) first in the holy city of Qom and subsequently in the shrine of Shah 'Abd al-'Azim, where they were joined by some two thousand religious students, mullahs, merchants, and ordinary people. The bast lasted twenty-five days and, according to Edward Browne, was financed by disgruntled merchants and a former chancellor's supporters. The shah dispatched his uncle to negotiate, but Chancellor Ain-ud-Daula ordered his troops to surround the Friday Mosque, where many had taken shelter, prevent food from reaching the refugees, and arrest anyone suspected of working against the government. On 20 July 1906 a small number of merchants, tradesmen, and ordinary people took refuge in the British legation in Tehran, according to the British against the wishes of the legation, though provisions had been assembled in anticipation of the event. Gradually the number of refugees rose, reaching by some accounts twelve thousand and by others twenty thousand.
The ideas of democracy, constitutionalism, a legislature, and elections came mostly from those who had taken shelter in the legation. From there they spread to other parts of the town and eventually to most of the country, taking on a life of their own, though not many citizens understood them in their historical context. The framework remained local until writing a constitution became the issue. In the meantime, popular pressure forced Governor Ala-ud-Daula to resign and the shah to dismiss Chancellor Ain-ud-Daula and to replace him with Moshirus-Saltaneh, a man on better terms with the revolutionaries. On 5 August 1906, the shah issued a farman (decree) for the establishment of "an assembly [Majlis] of the representatives of the princes, the ulama, the Qajars, the nobles, the landowners, the merchants, the guilds—in the capital to consult on the important business of the government ..." and charged the chancellor to implement his decree. The chancellor invited the leaders of the groups mentioned in the shah's farman to meet and asked them to choose from among themselves those who would prepare the code for electing a Majlis. The leaders chose five men—all grandees of the realm who would play important parts in the political events of the future, as they had in the past. They prepared the code in less than a month, according to which, of the 120 members of the proposed Majlis, 60 were to be elected from Tehran and 60 from the provinces, and had it signed by the shah. The Tehran elections were finished in October, and before the end of the month the shah, who was ill and had to be carried into the hall in a pushchair, opened the Majlis with an emotional message. This first Majlis, representing the estates general of Iran, wrote a Basic Law (Qanun-e Asasi), which the shah signed on 30 December 1906. This document and its Supplement, signed by Mozaffareddin Shah's successor on 4 October 1907, became Iran's Constitution.
The Basic Law set the number of deputies from Tehran and provinces at 136 (the number could be ultimately increased to 200), elected for two years and eligible to be reelected as long as the "electors were satisfied." The Basic Law of 30 December 1906 also stipulated (articles 43 – 48) a Senate, to be composed of sixty members. Thirty were to be appointed by the shah and thirty elected by the people; in each category, half were to be from Tehran and half from the provinces. The two houses had equal power except in budgetary matters, in which the Majlis had the final say. In fact, however, no Senate was convened until 1949. The Basic Law and the Supplement further stipulated a governmental structure based on the principle of separation of powers, which meant that no deputy could serve as a government executive and Majlis deputy simultaneously.
When the constitutional decree was issued and the First Majlis convened, no one seemed to have a clear idea of the character, functions, and powers of this new assembly. The farman seemed to suggest that the proposed Majlis was to help the king's ministers in the discharge of their duties. A corrective to the original farman referred to the Majlis as the Islamic Consultative Assembly. Slowly ideas began to evolve within the Majlis that gave it a truly legislative role—not only watching over the government and holding it answerable for its deeds, but also making laws. The 1907 Supplement to the Basic Law was a document borrowed mainly from the Belgian and French constitutions, introducing a bill of rights and specifying the powers and responsibilities of the shah as well as those of the executive and judicial branches. Although it pronounced the shah exempted from responsibility, it gave him substantial powers as the head of state, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, head of the executive branch, with power to appoint and dismiss the ministers, and a partner in legislation, among others. At the same time, faced with the combined forces of the court and the clergy, the constitutionalists agreed to the inclusion of an article whereby a body of five mujtahids (those learned in Islamic law) was empowered to pass judgment on the admissibility of laws based on their agreement with the shari'a (Islamic law). Thus, the Constitution was at best a dream and a promise. Reza's future—and that of the son who would be born in 1919—would unfold largely against the incongruities between the ideals contained in the dream and the society that was to host them.
* * *
Mozaffareddin Shah died unexpectedly not long after agreeing to the new Constitution, which was soon rescinded by his son and successor, Mohammad Ali. War then broke out between the constitutionalists and the new shah, who sought support from Russia. In 1907, Russia and England, longtime rivals in the "Great Game" of influence in the Middle East and Central Asia, took advantage of the unrest and divided Iran into "zones of influence," Russia in the north (including Tehran) and England in the southeast, with the central region left nominally to the Iranian government as a buffer. In the midst of this Reza saw himself as a soldier fighting for the king, or more likely for whomever Kazem Aqa fought for. Kazem Aqa, however, was killed in 1908 in a battle near Tabriz. Although Reza was by now indispensable for his prowess with the artillery, he nevertheless insisted on and received permission to take his uncle's body to the holy city of Qom for burial. The conflict ended in 1909 with the defeat of the government forces. Mohammad Ali Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his underage son, Ahmad, under a regency of constitutionalists. Now, Reza fought for the new shah, on the side of the constitutionalists against the enemies of the Constitution—the deposed shah and his allies, who wished to reinstate him as king. In due course, Mohammad Ali Shah's forces were once again defeated, his claim to the crown coming to naught. In early 1914, Ahmad Shah came of age and was formally crowned. Two months later, the Austrian crown prince was assassinated, and World War I was launched.
The world war was, paradoxically, a godsend to Iranian nationalists. Many of them believed that it saved Iran from the disintegration that had threatened the country since the Russo-British Agreement of 1907 and even before. Neither the Russians nor the British had ever been shy when expressing what they expected from Iran. In 1904, Russia's foreign minister, Count V. N. Lamsdorf, sent a memo to A. N. Shteyer, his minister in Iran, explaining to him Russia's aims: "We have tried gradually to subject Persia to our dominant influence, without violating the external symbols of its independence or its internal regime. In other words, our task is to make Persia politically obedient and useful, i.e., a sufficiently powerful instrument in our hands. Economically—to keep for ourselves a wide Persian market using Russian work and capital freely therein."
By 1914, Russian influence in the Iranian north had become fully entrenched. Two months before the outbreak of the war, George Buchanan, the British ambassador in St. Petersburg, complained to the tsar that "Northern Persia was now to all intents and purposes a Russian province." The tsar, according to Buchanan, offered to divide the neutral zone also, but fortunately for the Iranians the war broke out and nothing came of the offer.
Throughout the turmoil of the years before and during World War I, Reza mostly fought in western Iran—in Hamadan, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, and Luristan. He began as a captain, finished as a colonel. A good part of this period he served under Abdolhossein Mirza Farmanfarma, a major prince of the realm. Reza observed the ways of politics and the culture that framed the practice of ruling. He developed a close relationship with the prince, but had little taste for his politics. These were the years that built his military stature among his colleagues. His regiment, first the Hamadan, and later the Kermanshah, was recognized as the most valorous, used wherever the situation hardened and the circumstance demanded. He fought for the government, not necessarily the side he preferred and not always winning. But he was brave and increasingly respected by his colleagues. As he matured, he began to think about the plight of the country—the squalor, the inhumanity, the corruption, the weakness, the helplessness. He hated the cruelty of his command, talked to his officers about his feelings, and found them sympathetic to his complaints and receptive to his ideas. These were the years he built both camaraderie and leadership; many of the officers who would serve him later—some with brutality, many with distinction —became his devoted followers during this time. He became more self-confident, mastered the details of military command, tried to learn about Iran and the world, and questioned the legitimacy of civilian politics. The higher he climbed in rank, the more he resented the Russian presence and control. But he understood hierarchy and submitted to the order of things.
Excerpted from The Life and Times of the Shah by Gholam Reza Afkhami. Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsPreface
Notes on Transliteration and Translations
PART I. FATHER AND SON
1. The Father
2. Father and Son
3. The Man
PART II. HARD TIMES
4. Ascending the Throne
6. Nationalizing Oil
7. Toward the Abyss
PART III. SECURING THE REALM
9. A New Vista
10. The White Revolution
11. Women and Rights
12. Mastering Oil
14. Development and Dreams
15. Gas, Petrochemicals, and Nuclear Energy
PART IV. REVOLUTION AND IRONY
16. Politics and Terror
18. A Celebration and a Festival
19. The Rastakhiz Party
20. The Gathering Storm
21. "I Heard the Message of Your Revolution"
22. "Melting Like Snow"
PART V. EXILE
23. Trek to Nowhere
24. The Ayatollah's Shadow
25. Almost Bartered
26. Closing in a Dream
Brief Chronology of the Pahlavi Dynasty
Appendix 1: Iran's Prime Ministers under the Shah
Appendix 2: Principles of Iran's White Revolution
Appendix 3: U.S. Ambassadors to Iran, 1941-1979
Selected Glossary of Terms and Events
What People are Saying About This
"A comprehensive and well-researched reexamination of a well-meaning but tragic figure."Booklist
"A magisterial biography . . . painstakingly researched and meticulously sourced."Iranian Freedom Blog
"An easily accessible book, which should prove useful to people who are interested in the history and politics of modern Middle East."The Historian