The History of Iran

The History of Iran

In this article, we shall discuss the history of Iran. We shall discuss the politics of the region, dating back to the Safavid Empire, while also discussing the fall of the Safavid, and the rise and fall of the Qajar empire. We will also discuss the role of outside influence in Iran during the 1800s and early 1900s, as well as the rule of Reza Shah and Muhammad Reza Shah. We will then examine the relationship between the Shahs and Britain and the United States. Then we shall examine the protests of the Shah in the 1970s, and the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

The Safavid Empire

The Safavid Empire, which grew in power greatly over the 1200s-1700s, began from a Sunni and Sufi brotherhood in modern day Azerbaijan. It is not known exactly whether the Safavids were Turkish or Kurish in ethnicity (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). According to scholars, the leader following Shaykh Safi (1252-1334) of the brotherhood, Sadr al-Dan (1334-1391) began to bring together various aspects of the religious movement, and, through political ties, began increasing their influence in the region. They often foughts with Christian forces in the Caucasus, and as scholars explain “[t]heir Turkish followers were known as Qizilbash, the Red-Headed Ones, after the red headgear they wore to identify themselves as supporters of the Safavid brotherhood” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 48). In fact, “[w]hat set it [the brotherhood] apart from dozens of informal tribal armies was the that the then leader of the Safavid order realized that he could increase the cohesion and power of the Turkmens who joined him, and also tighten the bond between them and himself, by weaning them away from their own tribes. This he did by distinguishing them, as modern armies are set apart, with a uniform” (Polk, 2009: 37). Thus, with their military power, they continued to expand and gain power throughout the 1400s (Axworthy, 2008). Over the years, the Safavid Brotherhood not only increased their power,but they also built up their military (Polk, 2009).

However, it wasn’t until Ismail that the Safavid Empire further expanded both in power and notoriety. Ismail, who was born in 1487, has been viewed as one of the most influential leaders of the Safavid Empire. Ismail, who was without a father for much of his life, attempted to control the leadership of the brotherhood (Polk, 2009). It seems that he was in charge of the order at the age of seven, and shortly afterwards, in 1501, Ismail and his army took Tabriz. It was then that he labelled himself  King. Shortly after, “[h]e then organized a series of campaigns in which the Qizilbash brought areas of eastern Anatolia and Iraq, including Baghdad, under Safavid control. In 1510 Isma’il extended his authority to eastern Iran, defeating a coalition of Turkish tribesman and establishing the borders of his state at the Oxus River” (48). Then, Isma’il and his forces fought the Ottoman Empire at Chaldiran, where the Ottomans were militarily victorious. Nevertheless, the Safavid Empire was not ended; they continue to expand their dynasty in the region (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013), although some have argued that this loss devastated Ismail (Polk, 2009).

And it was while Ismail was in power that he made Shia Islam the primary state faith of the brotherhood. Again, before this, the order was a Sunni and Sufi brotherhood, although some scholars are debating what presence Shia Islam had in the order before Ismail. It is known that Ismail himself, “for a few years during [his] youth, he was sheltered by a local Shi’a ruler and may have acquired the Shi’a convictions from this experience[,]” (Cleveladn & Bunton, 2013: 48), although we do not know this for certain. Nonetheless, not only did he establish Shia Islam as the faith of the Safavid Empire, but he also specifically adopted Twelver Shi’ism. Then, following this declaration, he and his supporters went after and killed those who were not adopting Shia Islam. Then, “[t]he version of Twelver Shi’ism promulgated by Isma’il contained important deviations from previously accepted doctrine. Isma’il claimed to be descended from the seventh Imam, to be divinely inspired himself, and to be the early representative of the Hidden Twelfth Imam. He thus portrayed himself as guided by the Imam and empowered to render infallible judgements on religious practices and legal issues. Isma’il’s claims were widely accepted, and the religious authority he claimed for himself was acknowledged to be present in his successors as well” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 49). Thus, he emphasized the importance of Ali, even at the expense of the prior Imams or “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (Rashidun), which upset many Sunnis, including the Ottomans (Axworthy, 2008).

Thus, some have even argued that “[Ismail’s] declaration of Shi’ism in 1501 was a deliberate political act” (Axworthy, 2008: 132). And Polk (2009) argues as much, saying that “[p]erhaps personal conviction played a role, but statecraft cannot be denied. Ismail needed to distinguish his new state. He could not do it on the basis of tribal loyalty; nor could he do it on the basis of ethnicity as he and all of his rivals were Turkish; nor could he do it with religion if his sect of Islam was Sunni. The obvious answer was Shiism which offered the scope for a “national” religion that, if adopted by the Iranians, might solidify his dynasty. In short, Shiism was the best available distinguishing characteristic” (39).

Fall of the Safavid Empire

Part of the problem during the rule of Ismail was that, with the expansion of territory, Ismail needed to ensure that the Qizilbash leaders would continue to not only ensure the protection of the land, but also that they would not revolt against Ismail and the Safavid Empire. Thus, when this happened, it hurt the overall empire. There were many political rivalries, as well as religious ones, with military and political Qizilbash leaders (many of whom were Sufi), and the Shia ulema (Axlerod, 2008). And, after Ismail’s death, his successor Tahmasp (1524-1576) was in charge while many civil wars were taking place. This weakened the empire, and as a result, was unable to maintain all of their acquired lands. Then, following his death, further unrest took place, until the third shah after Tahmasp, Abbas, re-established the alliances and thus came to power in 1587 (Axworthy, 2008: 134).

Abbas (1587-1629), after establishing his rule of the Empire, invested greatly in his own military, in order to challenge current Qizilbash powers. He did this through a ghulam, or military slave system that was not unlike the devshirme system of the Ottoman Empire (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 50).  Through reallocation of land, he was able to fund his military. And thus, he was not only able to extend the life of the Safavid Empire, something that scholars say is credible given the power levels compared to what he was able to do (Polk, 2009). In addition to this, he also ushered in a new era of the empire, one of art and scholarship, following his move of the capital to Isfahan (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

But, the Safavid Empire, following the death of Abbas, was in decline. Part of it was due to ineffective leadership, as well as the fall of the military. While the military was relatively strong under Abbas, there was not much war or security threats in the 1600s for the Safavid Empire, and thus, “in the absence of external military threats, the Safavid Shahs allowed the expensive standing army to decline. Their failure to maintain an effective military force opened the way for a rebellious chieftain based in the territory that is now Afghanistan to seize Isfahan and bring an end to the Safavid dynasty in 1722” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 50).

The Qajar Empire

Fath Ali Shah, in 1794, established the Qajar dynasty in the modern day region of Iran (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 51).



Iran Following World War I

Reza Shah

Iran was one of the few states in the Modern Middle East that was without official outside control. Iran was its own state, although Britain still have large oil interests in the country. Following the end of the war, Iran’s central government lost power, and Britain, keen on protecting its oil interests, become further involved in Iranian politics. They not only supported the government economically, but also militarily. However, many in Iran were upset with what they were seeing. Britain was attempting to use its economic aid to increase their influence on advising the country, and as a result, many protested the Qajar government, until, on Februry 21st, 1921, an individual by the name of Reza Khan, who was “a colonel in the Cossack Brigage” over through the government by setting up Sayyid Zia as the Prime Minister of Iran. Then, following Reza Khan’s appointment as the commander of the army, he over through Zia, and himself continued to build power in Iran. Thus, he was able to become the top political leader, becoming priming minister in 1923, and minimizing his political threats by the mid 1920s (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

Reza Shah’s domestic policies were very much aligned with ideas espoused by Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Reza Shah believed in secularism in Iran. Not only did he re-alter the military (which included a conscription law in 1926), but he also pressed secularization in Iran. For example, he implemented new civil law that was a departure from the previous Islamic based law. Knowing the power of the ulema in Iran, unlike Ataturk, the Shah allowed Shariah to still exist, he just established parallel code the he elevated. Thus, shariah was still there, but not paid attention to (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 173). He further reduced Islamic law by setting up state courts that had secular judges. And, an important point, “[t]he state judges were given the power to decide which cases should be referred to the religious courts and which belonged under the jurisdiction of the state courts” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 174). Furthermore, in 1936, a law was passed in which judges had to have a degree from Tehran University or a degree from an international institution (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 174), which in effect ruled out Islamic scholars from madrassas. 

In addition, he also called for Iranians to wear western clothing, which included a law in which people going out had to wear a hat. Furthermore, he banned the veil in 1936, and also ended gender segregation in public. However, despite these laws, he did not push further on issues of gender; women could still not vote, and polygamy remained a part of civil law. Moreover, divorce was still very difficult for women, whereas it was easier for men to carry out a legal separation (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). In addition, he also invested in secular education. This was often in the form of enrollment increases, as well as scholarships for Iranian students to study abroad. Moreover, similar to Ataturk in Turkey, he emphasizes pre-Islamic Iranian culture. For example, “[t]he name of the country was officially changes from Persia to Iran so as to emphasize its Aryan origins. [Furthermore], “[t]he state school curriculum fostered the development of patriotic attitudes, and a scouting movement, for both boys and girls, was formed to inculcate nationalist sentiments among the youth” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 175). In addition, he also stopped allowing minority languages from being spoken, as well as the presence of minority cultures (such as minority groups’ ethnic garb) in Iran (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

But despite these similarities to Ataturk, Reza Shah was seen as much more of an authoritarian leader. He continued to control land, and was not a populist like Ataturk. He was interested in establishing his family’s power, and ruled Iran with no interest for democratic institutions. In addition, many saw him as corrupt, benefiting from land ownership, as well as from the oil profits with Britain (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). However, his reign came to and end during the Second World War when Britain thought that some of his allies had pro-Nazi ties, and thus, they forced him to leave Iran, leaving his son Muhammad Reza Shah in power (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

Muhammad Reza Shah

With his father leaving, Muhammad Reza Shah came to power in Iran. However, there were many political challenges domestically over the years, and thus, the Shah tried to keep his hold on power. However, he had challenges from different fronts, arguably none more influential than that of Muhammad Mosaddiq and the National Front. Mosaddiq was a political leader in Iran who challenged the rule of the Shah, the lack of democracy in the country, and the influence of outside states such as Britain and the United States of America. Thus, he, along with many other officials, organized and formed the National Front, which focused on these issues of democracy and anti-outside influence. The National Front was particularly upset with the fact that Britain’s Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was controlling Iranian oil, and was operating relatively freely in the country. In fact, it not only dealt with oil, but also had airports, and build roads, all without the Iranian government (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

The National Front was even more upset after Iran’s concessions to the oil company in recent years, going as far back as the 1933 agreement. And frustrated with the continued dominance of the oil company, the National Front not only began protesting, but they also wanted to nationalize Iranian oil. Then, in 1951, with the increased power of the National Front in the Majlis, the government not only nationalized the oil, but appointed Mossadeq as Prime Minister. This infuriated many Western states. Following calls for a boycott of the oil (by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company), Britain and the United States agreed. This hurt Mosaddeq and the National Front, since the lack of resources from oil hurt the economy. However, as a result of tensions with outside states over the oil, Mosaddeq not only asked for emergency powers, but when granted, he began to challenge the Shah. He took control of the armed forces, as well as instituted new land policies in Iran. However, the National Front, due to economic stress, began to break from the National Front (as they were blamed by some for high unemployment due to the lack of oil income). And as a result, amongst other parties was the Tudeh communist party, which was believed to be rising in authority in the country (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

The 1953 Iranian Coup

As a response to this fear, Britain and the United States set up a coup to take Mossadeq out of power, and to re-install the Shah. Britain was furious that they lost their influence over oil in Iran. And in fact, “Britain agents began conspiring to overthrow Mossadegh soon after he nationalized the oil company. They were too eager and aggressive for their own good. Mossadegh learned of their plotting, and in October 1952 he ordered the British embassy shut. All British diplomats in Iran, including clandestine agents working under diplomatic cover, had to leave the country” (Kinzer, 2008: 3). Britain, having little influence in the country, looked to the United States for aid. However, the United States under Truman was not going to help Britain. It wasn’t until Eisenhower that Britain got the U.S. backing, when the President stressed the need to remove communist movements in the country, something that quickly got backers in the U.S. government (Kinzer, 2008). Scholars explain that “[t]he plan for Operation Ajaz envisioned an intense psychological campaign against Prime Minister Mossadegh, which the CIA had already launched [in 1953], followed by an announcement that the Shah had dismissed him from office. Mobs and military units whose leaders were on the CIA payroll would crush any attempt by Mossadegh to resist” (Kinzer, 2008: 6). However, the first U.S. and British attempt failed, when military supporters of Mossadegh were able to reach him before those carrying out the coup (Kinzer, 2008). It was not until the second try that the United States and Britain were successful in removing Mossadegh from power (Kinzer, 2008) (for a detailed account of the events related to the coup, see Stephen Kinzer’s work entitled All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror“).

After the Shah regained power, the British and the United States worked hard to ensure that he would not leave power. For example, “Diplomatic relations with Britain were restored in 1954, and the shah proclaimed his commitment to the Western alliance and to a program of economic development on the Western model. Such diplomatic loyalty and economic emulation would, he hoped, result in substantial infusions of US aid. The shah was not disappointed on that score; between 1953 and 1963 the United States provided Iran with $500 million in military aid” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 272).

In the later years of his region, Muhammad Reza Shah continued to oppress his population, and any semblance of opposition in his country. Not only did the Shah get rid of opposition groups such as the National Front, as well as Tudeh, but he also removed the two party system. In its place, he introduced a single party, known as the Resurgence Party. As scholars explain, “[t]hrough the Resurgence Party and its affiliated organizations, the regime attempted to gain control of the groups that had managed to retain a certain degree of autonomy from the government, especially the bazaar merchants and the ulema. The government tried to force the party apparatus into the bazaars and launched a simultaneous attack on the religious establishment by seeking to reduce the role of Islam in daily life and glorifying the monarchy at the expense of Islamic norms of identity” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 348). One example of this was the introduction of a new calendar that was not based on the Islamic calendar, but rather, on Cyrus the Great (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). 

Furthermore, he strengthened his hold on civil society, not allowing freedom of the press or freedom of speech for much of the time in power until 1979 (except for a brief period in 1960-1963) (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013).

Economic Problems During the Shah

Along with citizen frustration towards the Shah’s further consolidation of political power, they were also upset at the weakening economy throughout the 1970s. The regime, while have significant oil revenues, did not invest the resources wisely, but rather, wasted them on frivolous spending. This led to inflation, which further destabilized the economy. Plus, people began to ask how a country rich in oil reserves could be so bad economically. They understood that the oil profits were going to certain classes of society, as well as members of the Shah’s family directly. However, this negatively affected the poor and middle economic classes of Iran.

The Shah and the West

In the history of Iran, both Reza Shah and Muhammad Reza Shah had very good relationships with Britain, and then in the case of Muhammad Reza Shah, with the United States as well. This was quite evident not only with the Western support in the overthrow of Muhammad Mossadegh, but in the later years when the Shah became even more reliant on Western military weapons and advisers. For example, “With the purchase of advanced weapons systems and the inauguration of large-scale development projects, the regime was compelled to recruit ever-increasing numbers of foreign technicians and military advisers; by 1977 there were more than 60,000 of them in the country. To a broad cross-section of Iranian opinion, the presence of so many non-Muslim foreigners acted as a constant reminder of the shah’s rush to copy the West and his dependence on the agents of Western imperialism” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 348). As we shall see, the beginning of the protests in the late 1970s criticized not only the authoritarianism of the shah, as well as the economic problems within Iran, but also the reliance on Western states, and the negative effect that Iranians believed these actors had within their society.

Iranian Revolution

While one could argue that there were always some seeds of protest within the history of Iran decades before the overthrow of the shah, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International began to be quite critical of the developing policies of the shah in Iran. As a result of such reports and complaints by human rights organizations, United States and other allies wanted to put additional pressure on the shah to reform some of his activities. The shah was willing to do this to appease the United States. However, what it did was offer a platform for opposition groups and movements to directly challenge the political legitimacy of the shah.

For example, as a result of his willingness to allow protesters, many of the groups in Iran (urban professionals, university students and professors from the more secular institutions, as well as merchants, and students from the religious institutions) to publicly denounce the actions of the shah. Over time, they were demanding that the shah allow political parties in Iran. The shah acquiesced. As a result, many Iranians began forming different political organizations. Groups such as the Freedom Movement, which was first organized in 1961, as well as groups within the ulema were arguably two of the most influential in protesting the shah (Cleveland & Bunton 2013: 349). 

Thus, individuals such as Ali Shari’ati (1933-1977), as well as religious leaders such as Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) began to criticize the politics of the shah. Shari’ati–for example, was well versed in the writings of anti-colonialist writers, and he himself applied similar ideas, coupled with reformist Islamic ideas (and the stressing of Shia activism politics), Marxism, etc… to challenge the direction that the shah was taking Iran. Similar to Shari’ati, Khomeini also had a large following within Iran, and used his voice to call for the removal of the shah from Iranian politics. Khomeini believed that the history of Iran was shaped negatively by the shah and his father, and called for society to overthrow this secular system. He also challenged the shah’s relationship with the United States. Criticizing the shah, as well as the non-theocratic system the shah established, Khomeini quickly became known to he shah. Further criticizing the shah’s policies of being “unIslamic”, Khomeini arrested in 1963, and then in 1964, only this time he was exiled (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). 

In 1978 and early 1979, Iranians took to the streets to protest the policies of the Shah. In fact, in the history of Iran and Iranian politics, 1978 was a critical year in the anti-shah protests. The protests began that year in January, after a government newspaper criticized Khomeini. As a result, many of the theological students and businesspersons organized a public protest in Qum. However, at the protests, the government forces used violence against the demonstrators, killing many students. This protest not only sparked further protests, but it also allowed protesters to use religion as a driving force in challenging the shah. For example, as is custom in Shia tradition, forty days following the deaths, individuals would go to pray for the deaths of those killed. These congregations of people then led to further protests, and more government brutality and murder, which only further moved protesters to condemn the regime (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013). 

So, people were going to the streets to speak out against such injustices. In addition, it was also in 1978 that the government implemented policies in an attempt to fix the economy. Specifically, “[i]n order to reduce inflationary pressures, the government decided to slow down the economy. The regime imposed wage freezes, canceled dozens of construction projects, and introduced a general austerity program. The policies very quickly created a recession that led to unemployment among urban workers and eventually to widespread labor unrest” (Cleveland & Bunton, 2013: 352). In addition, now the business and labor groups became more vocal agains the shah. In September of 1978, despite martial law, protesters went into the streets in Tehren to call for the the overthrow of the shah. The military responded with force, killing hundred. This event, “Black Friday” was seen as “a turning point in the mobilization of public opinion against the shah’s regime” (Clevleand & Bunton, 2013: 353). Then, on December 2nd, 1978, during the week of the Shia holiday of Muharram, protesters again defied shah orders and publicly protested his policies and reign. Here, roughly 700 protesters were killed in the first few day sod the holiday. However, the protests intensified, and on December 12th, 1978, about two million protesters in Tehran. This sort of mounting pressure was too much for the shah, and on January 16th, 1979, the shah left office. The Iranian revolution was complete. 


The history of Iran is important to understand, particularly if one want to examine current Middle Eastern relations, and also international relations. As we see, there is a detailed history that includes the history of colonialism, the politics of the shah post World War I, the role of Britain and the United States in Iran following World War II, as well as the policies of Muhammad Reza Shah. In addition, the role of various political and religious actors helped establish and then carry out a protest movement that eventually forced the shah to leave power. 



Axworthy, M. (2008). Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran. New York, New York. Basic Books.

Kinzer, S. (2008).  All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Hoboken, New Jersey. Wiley

Polk, W.R. (2009). Understanding Iran: Everything You Need To Know, From Persia To The Islamic Republic, From Cyrus To Ahmadinejad. New York, New York. Palgrave Macmillan

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