34.5.1: Iran under the Shah
After the 1953 coup to overthrow Prime Minister Mosaddegh, the Shah of Iran became increasingly autocratic, and Iran entered a phase of close relations with the United States, modernization, and secularization – all of which contributed to the Shah’s overthrow in 1979.
Describe Iran’s political climate under the governance of the Shah
- In 1941, following an Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Pahlavi; subsequently, Iran became a major conduit for British and American aid to the Soviet Union until the end of the ongoing war.
- Mohammad Mosaddegh, elected as the prime minister in 1951, became enormously popular in Iran after he nationalized its petroleum industry and oil reserves.
- He was deposed in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, which was supported by the American and British intelligence agencies (CIA and MI6), thereby increasing the Shah’s power.
- After the coup, the Shah became increasingly autocratic and sultanistic, and Iran entered a phase of decades-long, controversial close relations with the United States and other foreign governments.
- While the Shah increasingly modernized Iran and claimed to retain it as a fully secular state, arbitrary arrests and torture by his secret police, the SAVAK, were used to crush all forms of political opposition.
- Mohammad Reza also introduced the White Revolution, a series of economic, social, and political reforms with the proclaimed intention of transforming Iran into a global power and modernizing the nation by nationalizing certain industries and granting women suffrage.
- Several factors contributed to strong opposition to the Shah among certain groups within Iran, the most significant of which were U.S. and UK support for his regime and clashes with Islamists and increased communist activity. By 1979, political unrest had transformed into a revolution which on January 17 forced him to leave Iran.
- Tudeh Party
- An Iranian communist party formed in 1941, with Soleiman Mohsen Eskandari as its head. It had considerable influence in its early years and played an important role during Mohammad Mosaddegh’s campaign to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and his term as prime minister. The crackdown that followed the 1953 coup against Mosaddeq is said to have “destroyed” the party, although it continued.
- White Revolution
- A far-reaching series of reforms in Iran launched in 1963 by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and lasting until 1978. Mohammad Reza Shah’s reform program was built especially to weaken those classes that supported the traditional system. It consisted of several elements, including land reform, sale of some state-owned factories to finance this land reform, enfranchisement of women, nationalization of forests and pastures, formation of a literacy corps, and institution of profit-sharing schemes for workers in industry.
- A title given to the emperors, kings, princes, and lords of Iran (historically known as Persia).
The Shah of Iran
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the Shah of Iran from September 16, 1941, until his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution on February 11, 1979. He came to power during World War II after an Anglo-Soviet invasion forced the abdication of his father, Reza Shah. During Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign, the Iranian oil industry was briefly nationalized under the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh became enormously popular in Iran after he nationalized its petroleum industry and oil reserves. He was deposed in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état, an Anglo-American covert operation that marked the first time the United States had overthrown a foreign government during the Cold War.
Under Mohammad Reza’s reign, Iran marked the anniversary of 2,500 years of continuous monarchy since the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great. Concurrent with this celebration, Mohammad Reza changed the benchmark of the Iranian calendar from the hegira (the migration of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in the year 622) to the beginning of the Persian Empire, measured from Cyrus the Great’s coronation. Mohammad Reza also introduced the White Revolution, a series of economic, social, and political reforms with the proclaimed intention of transforming Iran into a global power and modernizing the nation by nationalizing certain industries and granting women suffrage. The core of this program was land reform. Modernization and economic growth proceeded at an unprecedented rate, fueled by Iran’s vast petroleum reserves, the third-largest in the world.
A secular Muslim, Mohammad Reza gradually lost support from the Shi’a clergy of Iran as well as the working class, particularly due to his strong policy of modernization and secularization, conflict with the traditional class of merchants known as bazaari, relations with Israel, and corruption issues surrounding himself, his family, and the ruling elite. Various additional controversial policies were enacted, including the banning of the communist Tudeh Party and a general suppression of political dissent by Iran’s intelligence agency, SAVAK. According to official statistics, Iran had as many as 2,200 political prisoners in 1978, a number that multiplied rapidly as a result of the revolution.
Other factors contributed to strong opposition to the Shah among certain groups within Iran, most significantly U.S. and UK support for his regime, clashes with Islamists, and increased communist activity. By 1979, political unrest transformed into a revolution which on January 17 forced him to leave Iran. Soon thereafter, the Iranian monarchy was formally abolished, and Iran was declared an Islamic republic led by Ruhollah Khomeini. Facing likely execution should he return to Iran, he died in exile in Egypt, whose President, Anwar Sadat, had granted him asylum. Due to his status as the last de facto Shah of Iran, he is often known as simply “the Shah.”
Explanations for why Mohammad Reza was overthrown include his status as a dictator put in place by a non-Muslim Western power, the United States, whose foreign culture was seen as influencing that of Iran. Additional contributing factors included reports of oppression, brutality, corruption, and extravagance. Basic functional failures of the regime have also been blamed: economic bottlenecks, shortages, and inflation; the regime’s over-ambitious economic program; the failure of its security forces to deal with protest and demonstration; and the overly centralized royal power structure. International policies pursued by the Shah to supplement national income with remarkable increases of oil prices through his leading role in the Organization of the Oil Producing Countries (OPEC) have been stressed as a major cause of a shift of Western interests and priorities. This was reflected in Western politicians and media, especially the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, questioning human rights in Iran, as well as in strengthened economic ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.
Relations with the United States
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi maintained close ties with the United States during most of his reign. He pursued a Westernizing, modernizing economic policy and a strongly pro-Western foreign policy; he also made a number of visits to America, where he was regarded as a friend. The Shah’s diplomatic foundation was the U.S.’ guarantee that they would protect him, which enabled him to stand up to larger enemies. While the arrangement did not preclude other partnerships and treaties, it provided a somewhat stable environment in which Pahlavi could implement his reforms.
Iran’s long border with America’s Cold War rival, the Soviet Union, and its position as the largest, most powerful country in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, made it a “pillar” of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, many Iranian students and other citizens resided in the United States, and the country had a positive and welcoming attitude toward Americans.
In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq was overthrown by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-organized coup, in what political scientist Mark Gasiorowski called “a crucial turning point both in Iran’s modern history and in U.S. Iran relations.” He explains that many Iranians argue that “the 1953 coup and the extensive U.S. support for the shah in subsequent years were largely responsible for the shah’s arbitrary rule,” which led to the “deeply anti-American character” of the 1979 revolution.
Following the coup, the United States helped build up the Shah’s regime. In the first three weeks, the American government gave Iran $68 million in emergency aid, and an additional $1.2 billion over the next decade. In this era that ensued until the fall of the shah in 1979, Iran was one of the United States’ closest allies.
During his reign, the Shah received significant American support, frequently making state visits to the White House and earning praise from numerous American presidents. The Shah’s close ties to Washington and his Westernization policies soon angered some Iranians, especially the hardline Islamic conservatives.
- Iran under the Shah
“Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Reza_Pahlavi. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Iran-United States relations.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran-United_States_relations. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“ShahKennedy.gif.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ShahKennedy.gif. Wikimedia Commons Public domain.