Great Britain & Reza Shah: The Plunder of Iran, 1921-1941

By Zirinsky, Michael P. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Great Britain & Reza Shah: The Plunder of Iran, 1921-1941


Zirinsky, Michael P., The Middle East Journal


Great Britain & Reza Shah: The Plunder of Iran, 1921-1941, by Mohammad Gholi Majd. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001. xiii + 386 pages. Notes to p. 412. Sel. bibl. to p. 414. Index to p. 429. About the author. $59.95.

Reviewed by Michael P. Zirinsky

The title of Mohammad Gholi Majd's book, Great Britain & Reza Shah: The Plunder of Iran, 1921-1941, encapsulates his thesis: Britain invaded Iran in 1918 for its own nefarious purposes, placed Reza Pahlavi in power, and encouraged him to loot the country; in 1941, deciding that Reza Shah was too transparently their agent, Britain again invaded and replaced Reza Shah with his son.

Majd's book is largely based on US diplomatic records, preserved at the National Archives. Its greatest strength lies in extensive quotations from these records. Unfortunately, Majd has not compared American diplomatic accounts with other primary sources, including Iranian ones. Unfortunately as well, Majd fails to provide context for British actions in Iran.

By European standards, Iran before 1914 was chaotic: government was weak; tribes and notables worked with foreigners as easily as with the ruling Qajars; cities were small and isolated, but often experienced riots, frequently caused by food shortages; unrest was channeled by authorities into violence against religious minorities, in the manner of Russian pogroms or American race riots. Iran's ability to remain nominally independent in the face of these pressures owes a good deal to its physical isolation, as well as to Tehran's skill in playing powers against each other. Nevertheless, foreign influence grew.

This disordered situation became much worse during World War I. Iran could not defend itself against invasions by Ottoman, Russian, British, German, and French forces. Foreign governments worked with whomever they could, encouraging civil war. Movement of armies and peoples disrupted agriculture, and famine and epidemic disease killed a quarter of the Iranian people before order was restored.

After the war, Iran was transformed. Reza Pahlavi seized power with British help in 1921; he crowned himself king in 1926 with the approval of foreign powers, most of the 'ulama', and most Iranian progressives; and he abdicated in 1941 under pressure from both Russia and Britain. During Reza's rule internal security improved. Iran's population grew, and cities were rebuilt in the Western style. Centrally controlled military forces and bureaucracy transferred power to Tehran, which thus was able to collect taxes. A national system of public education was established, including schools for boys and girls and the University of Tehran. Contacts between Iran and the outside world became more frequent.

Despite this transformation, Iran again fell to foreign occupation during World War II. Rather than maintaining strict neutrality in 1939-1940, as did Turkey, Reza Shah's government became increasingly pro-German. In June 1941, Germany attacked its Soviet ally, and in August of that year Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran in turn. Reza's vaunted army, on which half the government budget had been spent since 1921, evaporated, and the country celebrated his removal from the throne. …

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