The Shah of Iran and the Road to the 1979 Iranian Revolution

On January 16th 1979, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, accompanied by his wife, Farah Diba, stood at Mehrabad Airport facing a bleak future. He was leaving behind his throne and his country – a country he would never see again. In less than a month, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would disembark from an Air France jet, after many years of exile, to take over and establish an Islamic regime that has ruled Iran to this day. But how did this revolution happen? How was an elderly cleric able to dethrone the Pahlavi dynasty?

The Pahlavi Dynasty

Shah of IranOur story begins in 1921 when Reza Khan, Mohammad Reza Shah’s father, together with the journalist Sayyed Zia, staged a coup d’etat in Tehran. Iran, until then under the rule of the Qajar dynasty, swiftly came under the control of Reza Khan, who quickly gained political power. In October 1925, he moved to dethrone the Qajars and through a parliamentary vote, crowned himself Shah (Persian for ‘king’) and established his own dynasty, the Pahlavis. Over the next decade, he modernised Iran’s infrastructure and its education system. Reza Khan looked to Europe as a model for industrialisation and sought to implement similar changes for Iran. However, in doing so, he sought the help of Germany and in 1941, Britain and Russia invaded Iran. He was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza (pictured).

“Oiling the wheels of chaos”

Mohammad Reza Shah was 21 when he ascended to the throne. Although the first few years of his reign were relatively uneventful, he faced his first major crisis in 1951 when his prime minister, Mohammad Mussadiq, nationalised Iran’s oil industry. This alienated Iran’s British allies who controlled the oil through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mussadiq was popular with the people, but Mohammad Reza Shah considered him a threat to his rule. With the help of the CIA, Mohammed Reza Shah staged a coup and Mussadiq was overthrown. This may have stabilised Mohammad Reza Shah’s position on the throne but the Iranian public saw it as an illegal act. Over the next two decades public resentment against the shah grew.

Reform and Dissatisfaction

In his years as Shah, Mohammed Reza Shah did his best to follow in his father’s footsteps and further modernise Iran. In 1962, he introduced several reforms that were collectively known as the ‘White Revolution’; these included land reforms, a plan to give workers a share of industrial profits, the enfranchisement of women, and the establishment of a Literacy Corps to teach those in the rural areas to read and write.

However, these reforms created their own problems. Although peasants were allowed to purchase land, the land they were allowed was often unsuitable for agriculture. Since the overthrow of Mussadiq, Mohammed Reza Shah had grown closer to the United States. Iran became a huge market for American grain and started importing American cattle and poultry, displacing local farmers and their produce. Hordes of young men left the countryside to seek work in the major cities, but were frustrated by the lack of jobs available.

Reform in a traditional society like Iran was not an easy task.  The bazaars, or markets, were the hubs of all Iranian cities. They were not only places to buy goods, but also to catch up on current events. The Shah wanted to reform the bazaars in order to emulate American-style markets. But in doing so, he alienated small producers in favour of factories, funded by foreign investment, which produced expensive consumer goods. The bazaar merchants were slowly put out of business by the opening of American-style shopping malls.

The regime was intent on modernising Iran to the detriment of its people and traditions, and the Iranians’ sense of dissatisfaction continued to grow.

“The Carrot and the Stick”

The Shah tried to portray himself as a ‘man of the people’, often being photographed distributing food and land deeds to ordinary Iranians. However, while he wanted to be seen to help his people, he was also fearful of opposition; concerned about the stability of his rule, and had faced several assassination attempts. Wielding considerable power over the government, he limited political freedom and appointed prime ministers who would be compliant to his demands. In March 1975, he merged all the political parties into a new single party, Rastakhiz (‘Resurgence’) and university and government employees were required to become members of this new party.

Mohammed Reza Shah also established his own secret police, the SAVAK, in 1957. Members were CIA-trained and known for their brutal tactics and cruel torture methods, infiltrating opposition groups within Iran and abroad. The SAVAK intimidated many out of direct opposition and were widely resented by the Iranian people, who lived in constant fear.

A combination of these factors ultimately put into effect a chain reaction that made revolution inevitable.

Rowena Abdul Razak

In Part Two, Rowena explores the Iranian Revolution of 1979
See Rowena’s blog, The History Cookbook, history presented as recipes.