Tehran 1943 II: Politics and Political Contestation

When the Allied leaders—Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin—met in Tehran in November 1943 to forge their common strategy against Nazi Germany, it is often forgotten that Iran was itself an important terrain of the war. As the delegates met in Tehran, the war boiled around them. The Tehran conference is a central event in international diplomatic history, but much about it—particularly its Iranian context—is not known. Iran’s proximity to the vital battlefields of southern Russia (Stalingrad), and its long border with the Soviet Union, transformed it into a highly mobile wartime space. It became both a transfer zone for Allied war material and a place of safety for war refugees. This project demonstrates that the 1940s were not a forgotten decade but a generative period for Iran’s political and economic modernity. In three interconnected panels, participants explore the 1940s in Iran as a global moment in Iranian and international history and assert the historical importance of exploring Tehran as a site for the unfolding of twentieth-century global history with regard to both the Second World War and the Cold War that followed.

The second panel, “Tehran 1943: Politics and Political Contestation,” addresses the 1940s as a foundational decade in Iranian political history characterized by broad and diverse political mobilization. Victoria Tahmasebi starts the panel with a discussion of women’s central place in the political ferment of the 1940s, asserting that the formation of women’s organizations and the presence of women’s voices were vital in the making of a new political public. Alireza Haghighi explores the “religious revivalism” of the 1940s, focusing specifically on the mobilization of Iranian clerics and their conception of a modern political Islam in the context of the war and the occupation. The removal of Reza Shah, and the cessation of his brutal policies of clerical suppression, made such a period of dissemination and rethinking possible. Delbar Khakzad’s paper explores the temporal reorientation of religious discourses in the 1940s. Mina Yazdani’s paper details the shadow side of such political initiatives, exploring the increasing violence toward Iran’s Baha’is in this period. She explores the tension between political mobilization and the scapegoating of Baha’is as an irretrievably foreign element in a fractured and threatened nation.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi
University of Toronto


Homa Katouzian


Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi
University of Toronto


Room 32
Wed, 2016-08-03 10:30 - 12:00


by Delbar Khakzad / University of Toronto

In the first four decades of the twentieth century, some Iranian thinkers and prominent clerics provided some new religious interpretations that were focused on the “rationalization” of Shi’a theological beliefs. However, these rationalized interpretations prescribed a future informed by the golden past of the Muslim community. The outbreak of World War II transformed these temporal orientations. The massive violence associated with the World War II, the reconfiguration of power structures in Iran during the War, and the kind of ideal future that was desired and imagined by other religious communities, like Christians, Jews, and Bahais, transformed the temporal preoccupation of shi’a ideologues from the past to the future. In this new temporality, the earlier discourse of religious rationalization was kept but the temporal orientation changed. This paper examines how the futural reorientation of Shi’a ideologues was formed after the outbreak of World War II, how this reorientation prioritized a planned future over an apocalyptic end of time, and how this reorientation paved the way for the development of an orderly Shi’a clerical institution in Iran in the 1940s.

by Victoria Tahmasebi / University of Toronto

During the 1940s, Iran began to experience the age of transnationality and globalization, decades before the term emerged as an analytical category in the 1960s, or was popularized by Joseph Levitt (in the context of the globalization of the market) in the 1980s. The occupation of the country by the Allied Forces, and the subsequent establishment of a government still in transition, offered Iranian social reformers and activists a unique opportunity to establish nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), political parties, free publications, and professional, charity, and religious associations, and to forge public debates and form national and international conversations about visions for change, the future direction of the country, and its place within the international, global community.
Iranian women were at the forefront of this wave. After Reza Shah’s abdication from the throne in 1941, women’s publications and organizations began to emerge, and feminist national and international networks began to flourish. On the national level, for the first (and maybe one of the only) time, Iranian feminists and their respective organizations built intricate networks, forged conversations, and built coalitions across class, ideology, and political lines. On the international level, representatives of women’s organizations attended various international conferences to connect, converse, and create alliances with women activists, feminists and female social reformers around the world. It is obvious that some of the most skillful women activists, negotiators, lobbyists, and advocates in Iranian history were trained during this decade and through these processes.
This paper presents findings on two questions pertaining to women’s activism during this incredibly complex decade. What sort of labour (i.e.: lobbying, coalition building, networking, advocacy), and with whom, went into the unsuccessful, yet groundbreaking first suffrage campaign of 1943-46? And how did women navigate between the masculinized nationalist cause on the one hand and their international feminist commitments on the other?

by Mina Yazdani / Eastern Kentucky University

On 15 September 1944, Muhammad Parvin Gunabadi (d. 1979), a member of Iran’s parliament, wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Muhammad Sa‘id (d. 1973), expressing his concern about disturbing news coming in from different parts of the country. From these reports, Parvin concluded that "a coordinated plan" had been devised. He further informed the Prime Minister that some five hundred religious groups in Khurasan had formed and were preparing a “major uproar.” Parvin Gunabadi’s letter was a rare attempt by a member of the parliament to prevent anti-Baha’i attacks that had exacerbated since Reza Shah’s abdication. During the war-stricken years of the first half of the 1940s, as Iran became a refuge for displaced peoples from other countries, its own Baha’i population faced mob attacks, raids, arsons, looting, and sporadic murders. The resurging power of the clerics, the emergence of several Islamic and Islamist groups that were anti-Baha’i to the core, weak and unstable cabinets, a young and inexperienced Shah, and local and national governments that were unable or unwilling to challenge fiery clerics and radical Muslims—these factors made the 1940s the most turbulent decade of the Pahlavi era for Iran’s Baha’i community. This paper focuses on the interactions among the people, the clerics, and the government vis-à-vis this religious community during those years.

by Alireza Namvar Haghighi / University of Toronto

With the 1941 invasion and occupation of Iran by British and Soviet powers, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate. With this suspension of state surveillance, there were new opportunities to disseminate and publicize religious discourse. The new Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was inexperienced and insecure, and his reign was unstable; historical records show that his reign did not have the full backing of the main superpower, Britain, which continued to exercise an inexorable influence over Iranian politics, especially since its occupation of the southern province Khuzestan. It was within this context that the young Shah decided, or was forced, to put aside his father’s harsh policies towards religious authorities (in particular the clerical establishment) and adopt a more moderate approach towards them.

Faced with formidable rivals, i.e. Marxists and nationalist forces, members of the clerical establishment as well as religious intellectuals began to reconstruct and modernize their discourse, focusing in particular on their mode of publicity and religious advertising as well as their communication strategies. During this decade, these forces also tried to adopt a more modern interpretation of Islam, and worked to demonstrate Islam’s compatibility with science. The religious establishment also quickly realized that they needed to change their approach to media, overturning a previous ban by clergy on its use. Before long, religious authorities began to use new forms of media (Magazine, newspaper) to broadcast their message and disseminate their political agenda, in an effort to influence the younger generation of Iranians, for whom these new modes of communication were extremely attractive. Finally, in order to survive and flourish in the public sphere, religious forces began to carve out new public spaces for themselves (by constructing new mosques, establishing formal neighborhood religious associations, and sending young members of the clergy to small cities and villages as religious missionaries), and to form and build informal religious networks. These institutional and network-building initiatives played a crucial role in subsequent social and political development in Iran.

This research project will focus on four aspects of religious “revivalism” in 1940s Iran: it will focus on the major players, the discourses produced, the media structures used for religious propagation, and finally the networking strategies that were adopted by religious establishment and non-clerical religious intellectuals.