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Conscription and Popular Resistance in Iran, 1925-1941

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 April 2001

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For the nationalist regimes of the inter-war Middle East, Riza Shah's Iran, Mustafa Kemal's Turkey and Hashemite Iraq, the construction of a strong national army based on universal military service was an essential element of state-building and nation-formation. Yet although conscription was ardently advocated by the nationalist intelligentsia, wherever it was actually imposed it aroused intense resentment. Nonetheless, although enforced conscription was almost universally unpopular, mass, collective and organized resistance was comparatively rare. In Iran such resistance occurred in three waves in the late 1920s. Uniquely in the Middle East, opposition in Iran was most sustained not in the rural areas but in the towns, in Isfahan and Shiraz in 1927 and in Tabriz in 1928, where it was led by the guilds and the ulama, although violent opposition was also manifested by the tribes in 1929. Riza Shah was irrevocably committed to conscription, which was a central pillar of his programme of modernization and secularization, and although prepared to temporize, was ultimately determined to crush collective resistance. By 1930 he had largely succeeded in so doing. The subsequent implementation of the policy was aided by a deliberate decision to defuse popular anger by tolerating, even encouraging, individual strategies of avoidance, in particular by allowing the manipulation of the exemptions system through bribery. As the 1930s progressed, conscription became established as an indelible feature of the new Iran.

Conscription as Military Labour: The Middle East Experience
© 1998 Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis