Erfan Fard

Reza Shah The Great: The Iran’s Nationalist Hero

Reza Shah The Great, Picture National Archive, free for all platforms


The early 20th century in Iran, under Reza Shah Pahlavi‘s rule, marked a pivotal moment of profound transformation aimed at modernizing the nation and challenging the clerical establishment’s entrenched power. This period witnessed significant efforts to revamp societal, economic, and political landscapes, introducing sweeping reforms in education, infrastructure, legal systems, and women’s rights, seeking to secularize and modernize Iran. However, these initiatives faced considerable resistance from clerics who viewed them as a threat to traditional religious and social authority. This article delves into the historical context of this dynamic struggle between modernization and traditional clerical authority, examining the socio-political dynamics, resistance encountered, and the lasting impact of Reza Shah’s efforts on Iran’s journey towards modernity.

In the annals of Iran’s modern history, Reza Shah The Great stands as a towering figure, celebrated as a valiant leader and the cherished redeemer of the nation. The narratives spun by communists allied with the Soviet Union and mullahs aligned with Britain are widely discredited as fabrications. Reza Shah The Great was the architect of constitutionalism and a staunch advocate for the rule of law, harboring a vision for a forward-looking Iran. He emerged as the beacon of hope for a country ensnared in the throes of backwardness, degradation, inefficacy, turmoil, and fragmentation, rekindling the essence of an Iran that longed for rejuvenation—a longing deeply rooted in the hearts of its people. Iran, at a critical juncture in its history, was in dire need of his leadership. Without Reza Shah’s pivotal role, the very existence of Iran as we know it might have been in jeopardy. He was acutely aware that the mullahs lacked a genuine concern for the welfare of Iran. His insight into the mullahs’ malevolent and obstructionist tendencies revealed their antagonism towards the nation’s progress and cultural advancement.

Ecclesiastical Ascendancy: Iran’s Pre-Pahlavi Historical Context

Since the Arab conquest, clerical influence in Iran has deeply intertwined with the nation’s fabric, shaping its spiritual and political realms. The Safavid dynasty‘s promotion of Shi’a Islam solidified this influence, integrating clergy into Iran’s political and social spheres. By the Qajar era, clerical power, often to the detriment of national progress, became more pronounced, intertwining religious authority with political strategies. This period highlighted the clergy’s significant impact on governance and societal norms, setting the stage for future confrontations with modernization efforts, marking a complex legacy of clerical authority in Iran’s journey towards reform.

The clash between modernization and traditional clerical authority in Iran has deep historical roots, stretching back to the Arab conquest and intensifying under subsequent dynasties. The Arab conquest of Persia in the 7th century led to the imposition of Islam and the gradual rise of clerical influence in Iranian society. However, this influence was often contested, particularly during periods of political upheaval and foreign invasion.

The Safavid dynasty, which rose to power in the 16th century, played a crucial role in shaping Iran’s religious identity by promoting Shi’a Islam as the state religion. This move consolidated clerical power, with religious leaders assuming significant roles in both religious and political affairs. However, the Safavid era also witnessed tensions between clerics and the ruling elite, as competing factions vied for control over state policies and resources.

By the Qajar era, the influence of mullah’s religious octopus had reached its zenith, with religious leaders exerting considerable control over state institutions and public life. This period saw the emergence of clerical figures who wielded immense political power, often at the expense of national interests. The clerical establishment’s collusion with foreign powers further exacerbated tensions, leading to widespread discontent and resistance among the Iranian populace.


In 1934 Reza Shah ordered a new construction for Ferdowsi’s tomb/ Picture: National Archive, Free for all media

Reza Shah’s Quest: Modernization Vision and Crusade

In the early 20th century, Reza Shah Pahlavi‘s ascension marked a significant shift in Iran’s trajectory, initiating a comprehensive modernization program inspired by Western models. Targeting military, educational, infrastructure, and governance sectors, his reforms aimed to diminish foreign and clerical influences, advocating for a secular, sovereign Iran. This period of ambitious reforms sought to transform Iranian society, confronting traditional power structures and clerical opposition, and represented a critical juncture towards establishing a progressive national identity and sovereignty on the global stage.

Reza Shah Pahlavi‘s rise to power in the early 20th century marked a decisive break from Iran’s clerical past. As a secular nationalist, Reza Shah sought to modernize Iran and assert its sovereignty in the face of foreign interference. His ambitious reforms targeted various aspects of Iranian society, from education and infrastructure to governance and women’s rights, laying the groundwork for a modern, secular state.

However, Reza Shah’s reforms faced staunch opposition from the clerical establishment, which viewed them as a threat to its traditional authority and religious orthodoxy. Clerics rallied public sentiment against Reza Shah’s reforms, portraying them as un-Islamic and contrary to Iranian values. This resistance culminated in several attempts on Reza Shah’s life and widespread unrest across the country.

Despite these challenges, Reza Shah’s reforms left a lasting legacy on Iran’s socio-political landscape. His efforts to modernize the country laid the groundwork for future development and helped shape Iran’s national identity in the 20th century. However, the legacy of Reza Shah’s era remains complex, with ongoing debates about the balance between modernization and tradition in Iranian society.

The Clerical Stand: Modernity and Religious Tradition

The clerical establishment or the mullah’s religious octopus strongly opposed Reza Shah Pahlavi’s modernization efforts, viewing them as a significant threat to their traditional authority and religious orthodoxy. Clerics used their influence to rally public sentiment against these reforms, framing them as contrary to Islamic values. This resistance went beyond ideological opposition, manifesting in actions aimed at actively undermining the state’s projects and even plotting against Reza Shah’s life. Such actions underscored a profound conflict between the pursuit of modernity and the preservation of tradition, highlighting the clerical establishment’s struggle to maintain relevance in a rapidly evolving Iran.

Reza Shah’s Era: Transforming Iran and Shaping Its Modern Legacy

Despite formidable challenges, Reza Shah Pahlavi’s reforms left a lasting impact on Iranian society, modernizing various aspects from infrastructure to education and reducing clerical power. Yet, his legacy is complex, marked by authoritarian tendencies and a resurgence of clerical influence after his departure. This period illustrates the intricate balance between modernization efforts and traditional religious authority, highlighting the enduring tension and the transformative yet contentious nature of Reza Shah’s rule in shaping Iran’s socio-political landscape.

The Legacy of Reza Shah’s Era: “Reza Shah, God bless your soul”

Reza Shah Pahlavi’s rule has a complex legacy, marking a significant phase of transformation and sparking debates on Iran’s modernization versus its religious traditions. His era, characterized by efforts to modernize while contending with the country’s deep-rooted religious practices, laid the groundwork for ongoing discussions about Iran’s future direction. The dynamic tension between the push for modernity and the pull of tradition during his reign continues to influence Iran’s socio-political landscape, highlighting the significance and controversy of his policies.


Reza Shah Pahlavi’s era is a defining moment in Iran’s history, marked by the clash between modernization efforts and traditional clerical authority. This period illustrates the challenges of embracing modernity in a society rooted in religious tradition, providing valuable insights into the ongoing tension between progress and piety. His reign, while transformative, sparked debates on governance, religion, and reform, highlighting the complex interplay between historical forces and Iran’s national identity. As Iran continues to navigate its future, Reza Shah’s legacy serves as a reminder of the complexities in reconciling progress with deep-seated traditions.

Under Reza Shah’s rule, the clergy did not establish a feared terrorist network. Indeed, over the course of his nearly 15-year reign, Reza Shah The Great was instrumental in laying the foundations of a modern Iran. He unified a fragmented nation, rebuilt a devastated country from the ashes, fostered national unity, established a dominant central government, and, through sheer perseverance, breathed new life into Iran. His legacy endures in the collective memory of the Iranian people. Even after his demise, Reza Shah reignited the flame of Iranian nationalism, a flame that was on the verge of extinction. He cultivated a sense of national pride that persisted beyond his death, reinvigorating the Iranian people’s affinity for him. Today, he is heralded as a symbol of patriotism, a testament to his profound love for a dignified Iran. In contemporary discourse, the mere mention of Reza Shah and his moniker as the sovereign of Iran instills unease among those who indulge in fantastical notions of an Islamic nation, the regressive elements, and the spiteful.

Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran / Picture: National Archive, Free for all media
About the Author
Erfan Fard is a counter-terrorism analyst and Middle East Studies researcher based in Washington, DC. He is in Middle Eastern regional security affairs with a particular focus on Iran, Counter terrorism, IRGC, MOIS and Ethnic conflicts in MENA. \He graduated in International Security Studies (London M. University, UK), and in International Relations (CSU-LA), and is fluent in Persian, Kurdish, Arabic and English. Follow him in this twitter account @EQFARD
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