Born a peasant, Reza Khan was never supposed to become the Shah of Iran—and considering his scandalous reign and brutal downfall, maybe everything would have been better if he hadn’t risen to the top. Behind all the pomp, circumstance, and power, Reza hid unimaginably dark habits. It’s no wonder his reign ended in tragedy.
Reza Khan Facts
1. He Was Born A Peasant
Given his bloody rise to power, Reza Khan’s beginnings were devastatingly humble. Born in 1878, his parents were regular civilians; his mother was a Muslim immigrant, while his father served in the Iranian Army. According to the customs of the time, he didn’t even have a last name. Yet while Reza’s infancy started modest, it quickly became infamous.
2. He Suffered An Early Tragedy
When little Reza was just eight months old, tragedy struck in the worst way possible. His father passed suddenly, leaving Reza’s mother scrambling to support her son. Meanwhile, the little boy was left without a father figure for the rest of his life. Both those things will mess you up big time, yet it’s safe to say Reza took “dysfunction” to the next level as an adult. But that wasn’t all.
3. His Mother Abandoned Him
In the wake of her husband’s passing, Reza’s mother came to a heartbreaking decision. Just a year after the tragedy, she remarried in order to support herself…and she didn’t take the toddling Reza with her. Instead, she sent the boy to live with an uncle, setting off a period of Reza’s life where he was shuffled between relatives. Okay, okay, I can maybe see why the guy didn’t turn out so well.
4. He Was A Jar Head
By the time he was a strapping, towering teenager, Reza already had an enormous insecurity complex and an even bigger chip on his shoulder. That’s when he made a fateful decision. The headstrong young man decided to join up with the Persian Cossack Brigade, and rose up through the ranks in a matter of years, eventually leading the whole troop.
As it turned out, this was all just preparation for his ignominious destiny…
5. He Was A Teenage Groom
Reza was already an incredibly intimidating young man, and he wasted no time in doing some very adult things. When he was just 16 years old, he married Maryam Savadkoohi in 1894, later having a daughter with her in 1903. Yet this brief moment of family happiness went out like a light. Just a year after she welcomed a baby girl, Maryam passed, leaving Reza a widower and a single dad. Uh, not that he was much of a family man.
6. He Was A Sadist
Around this time Reza started a gaining a chilling reputation. While serving in the Persian Cossack Brigade, everybody knew him as one of the harshest disciplinarians the troop had ever seen. More than that, he seemed to like causing pain. His favorite move? To kick his subordinates in the groin. Yet he quickly graduated to crueller punishments…
7. He Had A Cruel Weapon Of Choice
At the height of his powers, Reza got really into riding crops. And no, this wasn’t because he nurtured an obsession with riding horses. It was because he loved beating any servants or soldiers who got out of line. Maybe most disturbingly, he often punished these men in plain sight at public events. Wow, I can tell this is going to end well.
8. His Looks Intimidated People
Adding to Reza’s growing notoriety, he also had an immensely forbidding look. The young combatant had a strong jaw, a large brow, and a thousand-yard stare that seemed like it could pierce armor. Knowing Reza’s delight in tormenting others, you can bet he used these terrifying looks to his advantage whenever he got the chance.
9. He Married For Power
In 1916, Reza married again, but his “romance” was no fairy tale. Sure, his bride Nimtaj Khanoum was young and pretty, but it was strictly a business deal. She was the daughter of a Brigadier General and the union helped Reza rise to new professional heights. In fact, the marriage may have been a key player in his next infamous move.
10. Her Overthrew His Government
In 1921, Reza made history—but maybe not in the way his mother could be proud of. That year, he and his Persian Cossacks teamed up with the British to launch a coup d’état against the government, which to be fair was both incredibly corrupt and embarrassingly inept at the time. After winning handily, Reza made himself the minister of war. It was the beginning of a dark period.
11. He Named His Heir
Oh, sure, everything looked okay from the outside. By this point, Reza had four children from his second marriage to Nimtaj, including the ever-coveted eldest son, Mohammad. Now Reza was a man who truly had it all, plus an heir who could carry on his line and his virility, natch. Except, well, Reza’s idea of “fatherhood” was chilling.
12. He Played Favorites
Although Reza’s children shared the cushy lifestyle their father had painstakingly built for his family, they suffered in unimaginable ways. Reza played favorites like gambling addicts play cards, and he doted almost exclusively on his son and heir Mohammad, despite the fact that Mohammad also had a twin sister, Ashraf. Ouch.
Then again, all that attention might not have been a good thing. You see, Reza’s expectations of his son were all kinds of messed up.
13. He Was A Cold Man
A manly man with a big ol’ inferiority complex about his ho-hum background, Reza was terrifyingly concerned with maintaining his masculine image. In fact, he refused to display any affection for his son. Why? Because he thought any shows of emotion might make Mohammad gay, and he certainly wasn’t going to have that. Sadly, however, this was far from all.
14. He Was A Bad Father
Life in the military apparently calcified Reza’s inner emotions, because he also insisted on speaking to the members of his family with the formal Persian “you” instead of the more intimate form of address. I mean, why show your nearest and dearest that you care for them at all? Before long, this would have devastating consequences.
15. He Had A Bitter Divorce
In 1922, Reza gave himself a little treat for all his hard work. That year, he took another wife, Turan, and they soon had a son together named Gholan. By then, though, Reza’s sinister true colors must have shown through. The couple divorced within months of the baby’s birth. No matter—Reza had bigger things on his mind than marriage.
16. He Wore An Cunning Uniform
For many people, overthrowing the parliament would be the beginning and the end of their rise to power, but Reza wasn’t just anyone. He wanted more, and he began to exhibit disturbing signs. Alarmingly enough for those around him, he refused to wear civilian clothes and instead permanently dressed up in military gear. And this was actually part of his ingenious plan.
17. He Was Power Hungry
Reza’s sartorial choices made one thing loud and clear: He was the man in charge. Accordingly, beginning with the 1921 coup, he slowly crawled his way closer and closer to the very top of the Iranian food chain. By 1923, he’d upgraded himself from Minister of War to the Prime Minister of the whole dang country. Oh, if only he had stopped there.
18. He Wanted More
Although the 1921 coup overthrew the government, Iran still kept its ruler, Ahmad Shah of the illustrious Qajar dynasty. After all, although Ahmad was silly and incompetent as a monarch, he nonetheless came from a well-established and powerful lineage, and tradition had to mean something, right? Uh, not to Reza it didn’t.
19. He Was A Master Manipulator
In 1925, Reza pulled off one of the most stunning and unsettling moves in history. He persuaded enough revolutionaries to depose Ahmad Shah, which makes sense because of that whole “revolutionary” thing…and then he convinced them to turn him into the Shah of Iran. Wait, what? In a matter of months, people began to regret—and deeply fear—their decision to put Reza at the top.
20. He Had A Secret Weapon
Okay, but how on Earth did Reza manage to pull off his meteoric rise, going from nobody peasant to dynamo soldier to the freaking Shah of Iran? He had one secret weapon. He was notorious for never speaking unless absolutely necessary, and for keeping his true intentions hidden until he got what he wanted all along. In a word: The guy was cunning as all heck.
21. He Made Himself The King Of Kings
Reza had been building up his entire life to this one royal point, and he wasn’t about to let it pass quietly. He almost immediately declared himself the “King of Kings,” established the Pahlavi dynasty, and turned his first wife Nimtaj into his official consort, Queen Tadj ol-Molouk. It was a lot of changes in a short span of time…and all was not well in paradise.
22. He Took A Teenage Bride
Just before he became the Shah, Reza took his fourth and final wife, Esmat Dowlatshahi, who was royalty herself. But their union had a gross side. Esmat was nearly three decades younger than Reza, and she was just a bare 18 years old when they married. Sure, times they are a-changing and all that, but ew. Still, even putting the age gap aside, Reza’s new marriage caused an entirely different problem…
23. His Marriage Fell Apart
Having multiple wives may be many a man’s secret fantasy, but Reza had to face up to the cold harsh reality: Two current wives is one too many women to please. While Esmat became his favorite wife, he pretty much shunned his official queen Tadj ol-Molouk. In fact, by the time he became Shah, the official royal couple weren’t even living together.
24. He Messed Up His Son
As Reza grew in power, he seemed to require that everyone around him wither in proportion to his might. His son Mohammad was jittery and small next to his broad, 6’4” mountain of a father, and even developed a lifelong obsession with wearing elevator shoes and courting tall women. Man, parents really can screw you up. They can also screw up your country…
25. He Was A Bad Ruler
In case you were wondering, Reza was a pretty horrendous ruler. Need proof? The man actively hated politics, and almost never bothered to do anything remotely bureaucratic like, oh, “talk to his counsellors” or “efficiently run his kingdom.” Indeed, Reza explicitly believed in a “one man system,” where he could just do whatever he felt like no matter the consequences. Yeah, this backfired.
26. He Put His Wife On Display
Reza even managed to somehow turn “progress” into a horror show. The Shah was in favor of modernizing gender relations in Iran, and set laws demanding women stop covering their faces and wearing the hijab. To set an example, he even got his wife Queen Tadj ol-Molouk to show up in public—something unheard of at the time—and released photos of the women in his family to the media. But then these gestures took an incredibly dark turn.
27. His Wife Offended A Holy Man
In March 1928, just three years into Reza’s already volatile reign, Queen Tadj ol-Molouk briefly showed her bare face while performing a religious pilgrimage to a shrine. Tensions were already running high about the visibility of women, so as soon as she did this, a cleric loudly berated the Queen. Oh, but Reza got the man back tenfold.
28. He Beat Up A Priest
As we know, Reza had an utterly infamous temper, and he did not hold back when it came to putting this upstart priest in his place. His reaction was utterly chilling. The next day, he stormed into the shrine and beat the cleric to a bloody pulp, making two things clear. First, Reza was the one who made the rules, and second, he had a mean right hook.
29. He Forced His Children Into Marriage
With his country in an uproar over his “renovations,” Reza went and decided he would shake things up even more in his personal life. By the 1930s, his children were coming of age, and there was no way Reza was going to let them get married without him personally benefitting from their weddings. So, he rolled up his sleeves and played matchmaker—with disastrous results.
30. His Family Was Cursed
Believe me when I say that almost none of Reza’s children found happiness in the partners he chose for them, mostly because the Shah was thinking more about his own political advances and not, you know, his kids’ best interests. Of his four children with Queen Tadj ol-Molouk, none—NONE—of them stayed in their first marriages. Stick to politics, Reza. Wait, actually…
31. He Knew How To Play The Game
In the late 1930s, a little thing called WWII started brewing, and Reza was right in the middle. Literally. For years, Reza had been playing the British and the Soviets off each other, so it only made sense that as Germany started rising, Reza hedged his bets once more and stayed carefully neutral. Except he was keeping a dismal secret.
32. He Had A Scandalous Idol
Despite Iran’s middle-of-the-road stance in WWII, Reza actually loved Adolf Hitler. Even stranger, it wasn’t that he agreed with the leader’s policies—he had actually shown lenience to Iran’s Jewish population before—it was that he had a man-crush on how powerful and in charge the Fuhrer seemed. Okay then, buddy. Yet as it happened, WWII would be his downfall.
33. He Earned Powerful Enemies
In August 1941, Reza suffered a shattering embarrassment. That summer, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union joined forces to batter Iran with attacks from the sea, air, and land in an effort to occupy the neutral territory. For years, Reza had prided himself on being a macho military man, so he happily sent out his troops to meet them. Unfortunately for Reza, things did not go his way.
34. His Men Betrayed Him
Although Reza’s men meant everything to him, they dealt him a cruel betrayal. Many of the officials saw the writing on the wall and didn’t want to wait for the British and Russians to invade by force. Instead, they switched sides and started actively sabotaging the Iranian resistance, right in front of the Shah’s eyes. Oh, but that wasn’t all.
35. His Generals Revolted
It wasn’t only average workaday footmen who became turncoats—some of Reza’s highest-ranking generals started meeting in secret to discuss options for surrendering. Now, the Shah lived and breathed “No retreat, baby, no surrender,” so when he got wind of these clandestine round tables, you can bet he blew an absolute gasket.
36. He Beat His General To A Pulp
The moment Reza Shah found out about his generals’ cowardice, his reaction was so disturbing, it’s impossible to forget. He pulled up one of the prime offenders, General Ahmad Nakhjavan, and brutally beat the man, physically and literally stripping him of his rank in the process. Then, in a split second, the demonstration turned even more horrific.
37. He Had A Violent Temper
Beating the poor general didn’t satisfy Reza Shah’s infamous bloodlust in the slightest. Instead, it only made it rage further out of control. Blinded by fury, the Shah pulled out a gun and prepared to shoot Nakhjavan on the spot. He only stopped because his son Crown Prince Mohammad convinced him to send the man behind bars instead.
38. His Men Fled
By the end of that August 1941, Reza’s country was in complete shambles. Only, the worst was yet to come. His cowardly men eventually began straight-up fleeing the fighting in the Iranian capital, leaving the royal family’s residence vulnerable. It was almost the final straw, and the Shah had to make a heartbreaking decision.
39. He Didn’t Back Down
With the city of Tehran collapsing around him, Reza decided to send his family south to Isfahan, far away from the fighting. Still, being brave and stubborn, the Shah insisted on staying in Tehran alongside his son and heir Mohammad Reza to face whatever his enemies decided to throw at him next. He likely regretted this choice for the rest of his life.
40. He Tried To Surrender With Grace
As a Hail Mary move, Reza installed a man named Mohammad Ali Foroughi as Prime Minister of Iran. Then, putting Foroughi to the test, he demanded the politician enter into peace negotiations with the British and the Soviets to help save his country. It was a fatal mistake. See, Reza had chosen way wrong; Foroughi despised him, and he used the opportunity to get a vicious revenge.
41. His Enemy Got Payback
While negotiating with the Shah’s enemies, the Prime Minister not only accepted strict terms for Iran, which included expelling some German nationals to near-certain death, he also kept dropping major “hints” that he and the rest of the country would just love it if some foreign nation liberated them from their no-good Shah. Uh oh.
42. He Was Stubborn To A Fault
When Reza heard about these peace conditions, he was not happy. Hard-headed as ever, he decided to ignore them as best he could, and especially kept stalling when it came to expelling those pesky German nationals. This…probably wasn’t the best idea. Britain and Russia grew more impatient by the day—until things hit a disturbing climax.
43. He Had A Swift Downfall
On September 17, 1941, Reza Shah’s life unraveled before his eyes. Fed up with the ruler’s civil disobedience, the fearsome Red Army busted right into Tehran to “liberate” the country from their despotic Shah. Masses of people fled for their lives in the chaos. Meanwhile, the Shah’s reply was immediate and crushing.
44. He Gave Up His Throne
At long last, Reza Shah accepted that everything he’d striven for was turning to dust. With the help of his old “pal” Prime Minister Foroughi, Reza officially abdicated from the Iranian throne. In his handwritten resignation note, he passed off the legacy of the Pahlavi dynasty to his son, the former Crown Prince Mohammad. But Reza’s drama wasn’t over quite yet.
45. He Was Forced Into Exile
Reza escaped this coup with his life—but barely. Sure, the British let him live and kept his son on the throne, but only under the condition that the former Shah exile himself. After bopping around countries for months, Reza and the younger members of his finally settled in Johannesburg, South Africa…where tragedy almost immediately struck.
46. He Banned One Kind Of Photo
Reza was super concerned about appearances. Not only did he wear his military uniform practically everywhere, his obsession with control even extended to wildlife. The Shah insisted on only showing a modern face of Iran to the world, so he forbid publications from displaying photographs of camels, which he thought were a backwards, backwoods symbol.
47. He “Created” Iran
For all his flaws, Iran actually became Iran under Reza Shah’s rule. No, I really mean that. Before 1935, most Westerners called the country “Persia,” which was actually a misnomer derived from just one ethnicity and area within the larger country. The Shah made sure to correct (white) people on this error, demanding his kingdom officially become “Iran.”
48. His Wife Abandoned Him
Maybe the most wrenching thing about Reza’s exile was how it separated the people who were loyal to him and the people who, well, weren’t. While Reza’s favorite wife Esmat followed him into foreign lands, his official queen Tadj ol-Molouk said, “Um, no thanks” and stayed in Iran to help her son Mohammad Reza rule instead. Ice cold or fair enough? You decide.
49. His End Was Tragic
In the end, Reza didn’t have to endure exile for too long—because a sadder fate awaited him. For years, he had been suffering from mysterious chest pains. After all, his sycophantic doctor kept claiming they were just “indigestion” to help boost Reza’s morale. The physician prescribed simple diet changes to “fix” the problem. Spoiler: It did not get fixed.
50. He Had A Larger-Than-Life Monument
On July 26, 1944, Reza passed from heart complications at the age of just 66, probably to the great shock of his shoddy doctor. In the end, though, Reza got what he wanted one last time. Although he was initially embalmed far away in Egypt, in 1950 he was at last laid to rest inside a massive and imposing mausoleum in Iran.