A People’s History of Iran: Part I

However, most people in the United States know little about the history of the Iranian people since foreign imperialist powers began intervening in Iran‘s internal political and economic affairs in the late 1800s.

By the early 1900s, Iran (which was then more commonly known as “Persia“) was pretty much a semi-colony of England and Czarist Russia.  A government controlled by the Qajar royal dynasty of Iranian feudal landowners had handed out telegraphy, railroad and other commercial concessions to British and Russian business people during the late 1800s, after the British imperialists opened the Shahanshah Bank in 1889 and the Russian imperialists opened the Discount-Loan Bank in 1890.

In the early 20th century the British imperialists received what would turn out to be their most lucrative concession from the Qajar dynasty’s government: a concession for the exploitation of Iranian oil.  By 1909, the British company that exercised a special influence in Iranian society for much of the 20th century, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, had been founded.  By the early 1900s, foreign advisers had also been put in charge of Iranian customs and finances by the subservient feudalist Iranian government.  The southern part of Iran was dominated by British imperialist interests and the northern part of Iran by Russian imperialist interests.

Not surprisingly, in reaction to increased domination by foreign imperialist economic interests, nationalist consciousness began to grow in Iran in the late 19th century and various secret anti-government societies were formed by Iranian intellectuals who sought democratic reforms and an end to Iran‘s semi-colonial status.  By 1905, the Iranian Revolution of 1905-1911 had begun.

The demands of the revolutionary movement were anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist; and, during this revolutionary period, there was an uprising in the Iranian city of Tabriz in 1909.  But both the Czarist Russian government and the British government decided that their special imperialist economic interests were threatened by the Iranian Revolution of 1905-1911.  So at the end of 1911, the Czarist Russian troops and the British troops that were stationed in Iran united with their reactionary Iranian domestic allies and suppressed by force the Iranian Revolution of 1905-1911.

During World War I, an increased number of Czarist Russian army troops occupied Iran in the north, while an increased number of British troops occupied Iran in the south.  Following the Russian Revolution of October 1917, however, Russian troops were soon withdrawn from Iran.  But in 1918, British imperialist troops occupied all of Iran, created a puppet Vosugh al-Dauleh government on August 6, 1918 and forced the puppet government to sign an even more exploitative Anglo-Iranian Treaty than the one that the previous feudalist Iranian government had signed.

In reaction to these moves by British imperialism in Iran, Iranian tribes in rural Iran, predictably, began an uprising between 1918 and 1922 in which they attacked British occupying troops.  By early 1919 the anti-imperialist Iranian mass uprising had forced the Iranian puppet regime to revoke its Anglo-Iranian Treaty; and by 1920 some Iranians had even formed the country’s first communist party.

After the now-deceased Shah of Iran’s father, Reza Khan, pulled a coup in February 1921 that overthrew the previous puppet government of British imperialism in Iran, the anti-imperialist revolt in Iran began to wind down.  A constituent assembly in Iran was then established and, by December 12, 1925, Iran‘s constituent assembly had stripped the Qajar royal dynasty members of their royal family privileges.  Reza Khan was, instead, then proclaimed “Shah of Iran” and renamed “Reza Shah Pahlavi.” 

Reza Shah Pahlavi ruled Iran between 1925 and 1941.  During his reign, workers and peasant movements were persecuted and, in the 1930s, strikes of Iranian workers at the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refineries were suppressed by his regime.  After Soviet Union troops and British government troops both marched into Iran during World War II in August 1941, Reza Shah Pahlavi was compelled to abdicate because of his previous expressions of support for a Nazi Germany military victory.  His son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (who wasn’t considered as pro-Nazi), however, was allowed to replace him as the new Shah of Iran.  For most of the years between 1941 and early 1979, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi would rule Iran as a dictator–with the help of a 1953 CIA coup and the bipartisan support of the U.S. Establishment’s government.


Stay tuned for part II of this people’s history.

Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based U.S. anti-war Movement writer-activist.