Triumphs and Travails of Authoritarian Modernization in Iran

The reign of Reza Shah radically transformed the configuration of state-society relations in Iran and marked the transition from an antiquated empire to a modern secular state. The profound changes introduced into Iranian society between the 1920s and the 1940s were a continuation of the aspirations of the 1905 Constitutional Revolution. While Reza Shah’s period in office resolved a number of debates which arose during the Constitutional revolution, it failed to establish pluralism or a genuine parliamentary system in which the executive branch could be held accountable. Convinced of the secular raison d'être of the state, Reza Shah embarked on a nationalist state-building project which aimed to eradicate ethnic and tribal particularisms in favor of forging a modern civic consciousness. Relying on the armed forces as the pillar of secularism, he simultaneously fought the Shi`ite clergy, leftist movements, tribal warlords, and the ancien regime aristocracy. Considering secularism as the necessary precursor to nationalism, Reza Shah did not shy away from resorting to secular regulatory ordinances, legitimated by imperial fiat, to advance his agenda.

Two factors paved the way for Reza Shah's secularist drive. First, there was a dramatic decline in the power base of the clerical establishment. Secondly, religion ceased to be the sole means through which political opposition could be legitimized. The emergence of various secular political movements, professional syndicates, intellectual circles, and socio-political journals offered avenues for political participation. Moreover, Reza Shah realized that in order to strengthen national consciousness he needed to do more than merely celebrate Iran’s pre-Islamic glories, thus fetishizing the past. In the economic arena, he pursued a policy of etatisme, which emphasized industrialization. While this policy did not produce free-market capitalism or create a politically assertive class of private entrepreneurs, members of this latter group still gained greater opportunities for investment due to the Shah’s industrialization drive, restrictions on tribal movements, the banking system’s reforms, and Iran’s gradual incorporation into the global capitalist market. Hence, taking issue with the conventional wisdom that often sums up this period as the era of ephemeral changes and intellectual repression, the essay maintains that despite the autocratic nature of his rule, Reza Shah's reforms laid the foundations of a secular state machinery and made possible the dominance of a new class of political-intellectual elite. Early secularization in Iran may have been primarily a state-led enterprise, yet an investigation of the diffused and protoplasmic social forces that participated in Iran’s secularization is most necessary.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi
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