The history of Iran between 1918 and 1953 is a story of economic domination and imperial manipulation on the part of the European powers. Iran emerged from the First World War with a devastated economy and a weak central government headed by the Qajar ruler Ahmad Shah. However, while Ahmad presided over his court in Tehran, real authority rested with the occupying powers, Britain and Russia. Although Russia ultimately chose to withdraw its troops, the British remained determined to guard and develop their lucrative oil interests. From 1918 to 1921, British military advisors attempted to reorganize what was left of Iran’s army to their liking while administrative advisers manipulated the numerous political factions in a manner that most suited the needs of Britain. The imperial success of the British abruptly ended when their attempts to gain exclusive advisory privileges sparked anti-foreign demonstrations, which, coupled with widespread dissatisfaction with the government, brought about the overthrow of the government by the Iranian military commander Reza Khan Pahlavi. Reza Khan then persuaded the Iranian Parliament (known as the Majlis) to depose the Quajar dynasty and entrust the crown of the Iranian monarchy to his own family.
As Shah of Iran, Reza Shah led his country into a period of relative stability through authoritarian reform. With regards to Europe, Reza Shah opposed British intervention in all its form from the start. To combat Britain’s oil dominance in the oil-producing regions and its influence in the southern portions of Iran, Reza Shah developed diplomatic and commercial ties with Germany; by the late 1930s, Germany had become Iran’s largest trading partner. However, as a result of Reza Shah’s relationship with Germany, the British and Soviets invaded Iran in 1941, despite the fact that Iran had proclaimed neutrality in the early stages of the Second World War. The Iranian government was quickly forced to surrender to the Allies, who claimed that occupation was essential to the war effort because Iran offered vast oil reserves and provided a much-needed supply corridor to the Soviet Union. Thus, Iran was utilized by the Allies to serve the needs of the war effort, a reality that destroyed the local economy and social structure. The Iranian people came to view the occupation as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and an insult to the nation’s pride, an opinion that cultivated increased nationalist and anti-foreign sentiment. This feeling manifested itself in 1951 with Muhammad Mosaddiq and the National Front’s seizure of power from the Iranian monarchy, a monarchy that in the post-war years submitted to foreign domination, representing the interests of British oil experts and U.S. military advisers instead of the Iranian people. Mosaddiq’s overthrow of the Iranian monarchy, though short-lived (power was restored to the royal Iranian family after a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953), served as an early articulation of the frustration and anger felt by the Iranian people as a result of European interference, a mindset that would again reveal itself in the Iranian revolution of 1979.