II. Tehran’s Dramatic Transformation in the First Pahlavi Era

Chapter 2 – Historical Context

In the 1920s and 1930s the state became increasingly involved in economic affairs with the main goal of taking control of foreign trade. In conjunction with the massive feat of road building, the country’s first major railway was built to connect the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, vastly improving the transport of goods. This transportation system was the key to linking the nation both internally and externally. Furthermore, land ownership undertook a major change due to changes in the land tenure system, which resulted in the shah and large landlords to own vast areas of land. The government moved away from agriculture into industrialization by the end of the 1930s, at which the manufacturing industry took up 20 percent of the general budget. Additionally, Reza Shah signed an agreement with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1933 which increased Iran’s proportion of oil revenue to approximately 25 percent.

Abrahamian has mentioned in his book Iran Between Two Revolutions that Reza Shah’s reforms were implemented with the idea of Westernization in mind, despite the Shah having never given any speeches or written thesis regarding the fact. He noted that the Shah’s reforms attempted to drive Iran into a nation “free of clerical influence, foreign intrigue, nomadic uprisings, and ethnic differences”, containing “European-styled educational institutions, Westernized women active outside the home, and modern economic structures with state factories, communication networks, investment banks, and department stores.” Reza Shah’s secular reforms attempted to replace Iran’s religion with a sort of “artificial nationalism” as noted by the British Minister, a sort of attempt at a Western political structure which was never fully stabilized as it not only failed to secure its new class structure but instead raised widespread discontent, particularly among the traditional middle class, as he stripped power from guild elders and contributed majorly to the decline of the bazaar. 

As an example of his implementation of Western values and norms, in 1936, the Shah had banned the veiling of women, despite many of the lower class having been raised under the notion that lifting the veil of a woman was sinful and disgraceful. He imposed threats of violence, forcing women to comply, whilst giving those who complied societal privilege. Many see this as a failure of liberation as well as a contributor to the rising inequalities in Iranian society.

Abrahamian, E (1982) Iran Between Two Revolutions. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
British Minister to the Foreign Office, “Report on the Situation in Iran,” (F.O. 371/Persia 1935/34-18992)
Vogelsang-Eastwood, Gillian. “Reza Shah’s Dress Reforms in Iran.” Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Central and Southwest Asia, edited by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, 308–312. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010.


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