Pahlavi Shahs Attempt to Modernize Iran Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The numerous social and economic reforms instituted by the modernizing Pahlavi shahs over a period of more than forty years were imposed at the expense of political freedom and social justice.

Locale Iran

Summary of Event

On February 21, 1921, General Reza Khan led a coup d’état in Iran, effectively ending the rule of the Qājār Dynasty. Qājār Dynasty[Qajar Dynasty] By the time of his coronation, in 1926, as the first ruler of the Pahlavi Dynasty, his reform program was well under way. Both Reza Shah Pahlavi (he gave himself the title of shah) and his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who succeeded him in 1941, believed that Iran should become part of the modern world as quickly as possible. Although Reza Shah repeatedly emphasized the need for Iran to be rid of foreign influence, even rejecting foreign loans, the Pahlavi shahs were convinced that modernization meant Westernization. [kw]Pahlavi Shahs Attempt to Modernize Iran (1925-1979) [kw]Shahs Attempt to Modernize Iran, Pahlavi (1925-1979) [kw]Iran, Pahlavi Shahs Attempt to Modernize (1925-1979) Pahlavi Dynasty Iran;Pahlavi Dynasty [g]Iran;1925-1979: Pahlavi Shahs Attempt to Modernize Iran[06320] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1925-1979: Pahlavi Shahs Attempt to Modernize Iran[06320] [c]Human rights;1925-1979: Pahlavi Shahs Attempt to Modernize Iran[06320] [c]Social issues and reform;1925-1979: Pahlavi Shahs Attempt to Modernize Iran[06320] [c]Government and politics;1925-1979: Pahlavi Shahs Attempt to Modernize Iran[06320] Reza Shah Pahlavi Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Kennedy, John F.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (left) with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943.

(Library of Congress)

The challenges of modernization were great. Iran had experienced little economic development before 1925, and the country was on the verge of bankruptcy when Reza Khan ascended to the throne. There was little centralization of services; a small, ineffective army was trying to keep order; the Muslim clergy’s influence was pervasive; and only slightly more than half of the population was educated. The Pahlavi shahs turned Iran around through their policies of nationalism, industrialization, centralization, secularization, and emancipation of women.

One of Reza Shah’s first reforms was to establish a centralized bureaucracy. This centralization was further expanded under Mohammad Reza, so that by the mid-1970’s, Iran had nineteen ministries with 560,000 civil servants whose authority reached out to all aspects of Iranian life.

Until 1920, there was no national army in Iran. To keep internal order and fend off foreign invasion, Reza Shah created a large army equipped with modern weapons. Mohammad Reza was even more obsessed than his father with having a large, well-equipped army. The Iranian army grew from a force of 23,000 in 1920 to 410,000 in 1977. Mohammad Reza built his regime around the army and used the army to suppress opposition to his regime.

In order to accomplish his goal of creating a unified state, Reza Shah emphasized the importance of the Persian language. Non-Persian languages were forbidden, and schools and printing presses using other languages were closed. Ethnic differences were to be eradicated through the creation of a genuine Iranian identity (modeled on the West). Consequently, the Iranian parliament (Majles) passed the Uniform Dress Law, Uniform Dress Law (1928) which made the wearing of Western clothes compulsory. In 1928, Reza Shah ordered every adult male in Iran, with the exception of the clergy, to wear the rounded, peaked Pahlavi cap. Eight years later, he decreed that all men must replace their Pahlavi caps with European felt hats. This law created great opposition among devout Muslims, who found it impossible to pray with the European-style hats on their heads. When Muslims defied the order, troops were dispatched to make sure they obeyed.

Closely related to nationalism were Reza Shah’s policies toward the tribes. He considered nomadic tribes, a key group in rural Iran, to be a serious impediment to the creation of a modern state. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Iran’s nomadic tribes accounted for almost one-fourth of the total population. Tribal leaders were very powerful and posed a threat to the shah’s one-man rule. Consequently, in 1933, Reza Shah embarked on a policy of settling the nomadic tribes in order to bring them under control of the central government. This policy was continued under Mohammad Reza, so that by 1979, the tribal population had dwindled to 1 percent of the total population. Under the policy of forced sedentarization, grazing lands were confiscated, so that tribes were deprived of a means of support, and tribal leaders were often imprisoned and executed.

Reza Shah opened up society to Iranian women. Traditionally, women had been confined to the home, married off at an early age, and rarely given an education. Both shahs are credited with increasing women’s opportunities for education, although the benefits of higher education accrued most often to middle- and upper-middle-class urban women.

In 1936, Reza Shah banned women’s wearing of the chador (a head-to-foot black cloth covering everything but the face). This law was often implemented mercilessly. Women wearing the chador were not permitted in movie theaters or in public baths, and taxi and bus drivers could be fined for transporting veiled women in their conveyances. After 1935, government officials who refused to bring their wives, unveiled, to office parties could be dismissed from their positions. There were even recorded instances of police forcibly ripping off the chadors of women who defied the order.

In 1963, women were permitted to vote and to hold public office, and in 1967 important reforms were made in marriage and divorce law under the Family Protection Law. These changes were violently opposed by the clergy.

The reigns of both shahs were weakened and strained by their relations with the Muslim clergy. Both shahs endeavored to break the power of the religious hierarchy, which often resisted their reforms. From the onset, Reza Shah’s policies emphasized creating an Iranian nationalism distinct from Islam. From 1925 to 1928, he replaced sharia (the religious law of Islam) with civil codes modeled on French law. State courts were created, weakening the power of religious courts. The educational system and registration of documents, formerly the province of the clergy, were turned over to secular authorities, depriving many clerics of jobs. General restrictions on religious observance were instituted. Public demonstrations on certain religious holidays were forbidden. Exit visas were denied for those wishing to make religious pilgrimages. The economic strength of the clergy was weakened when the government seized control over the administration of the vaqfs (large religious endowments).

When the secular reforms were greeted with violent opposition by the clergy, the shah’s army units did not hesitate to use force. Reza Shah himself once entered the shrine at Qom without removing his boots and personally flogged the mujtahid (religious leader), who had dared to criticize the queen for removing her veil. Mohammad Reza continued the antagonization of religious authorities begun by his father, seizing control of virtually all religious education, cutting subsidies to the clergy, and replacing the Islamic calendar with a royal calendar.

The bazaars (clusters of small shops, sometimes numbering in the thousands, in particular sections of urban areas, where merchants, moneylenders, and commodity producers do business) played a crucial role in Iran’s economy, but Mohammad Reza claimed the bazaars were relics of the past and obstacles to modernization. In actuality, he felt threatened by their independence from the state and their close alliance with the religious elements. With the creation of new companies, the proliferation of modern financial institutions, and the invasion of foreign consumer goods sold in modern supermarkets, the monopoly the bazaars had over the economy was gradually weakened.

Bazaar merchants began to speak out against rapid modernization, infuriating the shah. He embarked on an antiprofiteering campaign to scapegoat bazaars for inflation, and the government planned to build a superhighway right through the Tehran bazaar. To weaken bazaar wholesalers and retailers further, the government created state purchasing corporations for such essentials as wheat, meat, and sugar. Many neighborhood shops were replaced with supermarkets that received cheap bank credit. When economic pressures on the bazaars failed to eliminate them, the government took more drastic steps. During the antiprofiteering campaign of 1975, forty thousand shops were closed and more than eighty thousand bazaar shopkeepers were imprisoned or exiled.

With the creation of new industries, growth exceeded expectations. From 1925 to 1976, Iran’s gross national product multiplied seven hundred times, per-capita income two hundred times, and imports almost one thousand times. Although industrial development was important to Iran’s modernization, it often led to exploitation of workers under both shahs. Under Mohammad Reza, the state supported workers’ demands for higher wages but kept them from creating independent unions. Workers were allowed to enter only state-created labor unions. Savak, an intelligence agency, set up branches in factories to harass workers and suppress strikes, using violence if necessary.

Although Reza Shah pursued a vigorous industrialization policy, his agricultural policy continued traditional practice. Large landlords were allowed to remain in possession of their lands and wealth. By 1941, Reza Shah, who did not have any property before coming to power, possessed 2,670 villages. At the end of his reign, Iran remained basically a semifeudal agricultural system.

It fell to Mohammad Reza to break up the traditional landholding system. In 1963, acting under pressure from U.S. president John F. Kennedy, the shah issued an ambitious program of reforms known as the White Revolution. White Revolution Particularly noteworthy was the land reform program, through which Mohammad Reza hoped to destroy the influence of the landlords, improve agricultural output, and create a base of support for his regime among the peasants and the working class.

Before land reform, less than 1 percent of the total population owned close to 60 percent of the land under cultivation, and the vast majority of tenants lived at subsistence level. Under the land reform policy, landlords’ holdings were cut to a single village. All other holdings were to be sold to farmers who were already tilling the soil. Approximately eight thousand villages, or one-seventh of the total number, were affected by the reforms. Under later phases, farmers were given leasing options and agricultural corporations were established to improve farming methods.


The Pahlavi shahs’ reforms radically transformed Iran within a relatively short time from a backward Middle Eastern outpost into a thriving modern country. Although the oil flowed, bringing great wealth, and state-of-the-art weapons poured in, the impact of too-rapid modernization eventually tore Iranian society apart and was partially responsible for the revolution in 1979 that overthrew the Pahlavi regime and established an Islamic republic.

The land reform program was a dismal failure. The best land in the country was chopped up into inefficient small pieces, and productivity declined. In the end, only a small group of peasants benefited from land distribution. Two-thirds of the peasants did not acquire land or received minuscule plots. The majority of the peasants who gained land later lost it because they could not obtain enough credit or because they could not keep up with the rising cost of agricultural production. Peasants were forced to join cooperatives in which they were excluded from making decisions by government bureaucrats who had in fact assumed the role of the former landlords. Richer peasants were soon buying out poorer peasants and creating a new small landlord class. Millions of peasants left the farms and flocked to the cities to become discontented laborers for the new agribusinesses, often living in shantytowns of cheap houses lacking electricity, water, and gas.

Although economic growth was impressive, the political apparatus of the state continued to be underdeveloped and unable to serve the needs of a modern society. The drive for modernization lacked a wide base of support and a prominent ideology. The newly emancipated modern middle class demanded political rights and institutions to channel its views. The shahs refused to grant these, and those who were foolish enough to speak out against the shahs’ reforms were brutally suppressed. As alienation to the regime increased, Mohammad Reza began to rely more and more on repression and foreign support. Like his father, Mohammad Reza instituted reforms under a dictatorship backed up by the army and Savak.

The shah’s internal policies widened the existing cleavages in society. As some scholars have pointed out, the rapid modernization from above and secularization created two cultures. The upper class and new middle classes became increasingly Westernized and unwilling to understand the traditional and religious values of the peasants and traders in the bazaars. As the pace of social change accelerated and traditional values were frowned upon, the family and ethical values began to disintegrate.

The campaign against the religious authorities begun under the first shah intensified during the latter part of his son’s reign. The increasing Westernization and secularization of society, along with suppression of the clerical class and expropriation of clerics’ lands, increased the hostility of this group toward the regime and resulted in its alliance with other alienated groups in society to undermine the shah’s rule. The shah had failed to realize that the majority of Iranians were attached to the Islamic part of Iranian culture.

The shahs’ emphasis on nationalism was contradicted by their dependence on Western values and advisers. As more and more of Western culture was imported, Iranians became increasingly alienated from their roots. Resentment built against the shahs’ foreign consultants, who took away jobs, caused rents to soar, and often displayed an acute insensitivity to traditional Iranian cultural mores and religious beliefs. Demands on the government intensified. In the end, by resorting to political repression and overly rapid modernization, Mohammad Reza could not deliver the better life he had promised. He succumbed to a revolution headed by Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini and fled Iran in 1979. Pahlavi Dynasty Iran;Pahlavi Dynasty

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran Between Two Revolutions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982. Analysis of the social bases of politics in Iran focuses on how socioeconomic development gradually transformed the shape of Iranian politics from the late nineteenth century to 1979.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arjomand, Said Amir. The Turban for the Crown: The Islamic Revolution in Iran. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Provides an excellent chronology of significant events in Iranian history. Chapters deal with the rise of the modern state, constitutional revolution, formation of a modern bureaucratic state, and the Islamic Revolution. Excellent appendix including tables and charts showing Iranian institutions and economic sectors before and after reforms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banani, Amin. The Modernization of Iran, 1921-1941. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1961. Examines the reforms instituted by Reza Shah and evaluates the consequences of Westernization in Iran in general. Based primarily on Persian sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cronin, Stephanie, ed. The Making of Modern Iran: State and Society Under Riza Shah, 1921-1941. New York: Routledge, 2003. Collection of essays by various scholars reflects the recent revival of interest in the years of Pahlavi rule in Iran. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keddie, Nikki R. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Updated and revised version of Roots of Revolution (1981) provides an in-depth study of the tensions in Iran between the secularized middle and upper classes and the religiously oriented bazaar class as well as coverage of the aftermath of the revolution. Includes illustrations, select bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lenczowski, George, ed. Iran Under the Pahlavis. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1978. Compilation of articles by a team of international scholars describes and evaluates the changes that occurred in Iran after the Pahlavi Dynasty came to power. The authors are generally favorable to the shahs and conclude that the Pahlavis brought a real revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reza Shah Pahlavi. Mission for My Country. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961. Autobiography includes the shah’s life story and discussion of Iran’s social and political problems as well as his views on various issues such as land reform, education, the role of women, and modernization.

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