Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

"The Shah" redirects here. For the title, see Shah.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi
Shahanshah of Iran
Bozorg Arteštārān

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1973
Shahanshah of Iran (more...)
Reign 16 September 1941 –
11 February 1979
Coronation 26 October 1967
Predecessor Reza Shah
Successor Monarchy abolished
Ruhollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader
Prime Ministers
Born (1919-10-27)27 October 1919
Tehran, Persia
Died 27 July 1980(1980-07-27) (aged 60)
Cairo, Egypt
Burial Al-Rifa'i Mosque, Cairo, Egypt
Spouse Fawzia of Egypt
(m.1939; div. 1948)
Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari
(m.1951; div. 1958)
Farah Diba
(m.1959; wid.1980)
Issue Shahnaz Pahlavi
Reza Pahlavi
Farahnaz Pahlavi
Ali-Reza Pahlavi
Leila Pahlavi
Full name
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi
Persian: محمد رضا شاه پهلوی
Regnal name
House House of Pahlavi
Father Reza Shah
Mother Tadj ol-Molouk
Religion Shia Islam
Styles of
Mohammad Reza Shah of Iran
Reference style His Imperial Majesty
Spoken style Your Imperial Majesty
Alternative style Sir, Aryamehr

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (Persian: محمدرضا پهلوی, translit. Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi, pronounced [mohæmˈmæd reˈzɒː ˈʃɒːh pæhlæˈviː]; 26 October 1919 – 27 July 1980), known as Mohammad Reza Shah Persian: محمدرضا شاه, translit. Mohammad Rezā Šāh), was the Shah of Iran from 16 September 1941 until his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution on 11 February 1979. He took the title Shāhanshāh ("Emperor" or "King of Kings")[1] on 26 October 1967. He was the second and last monarch of the House of Pahlavi of the Iranian monarchy. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi held several other titles, including that of Āryāmehr (Light of the Aryans) and Bozorg Arteshtārān (Head of the Warriors).[2]

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi 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, until a US and UK-backed coup d'état deposed Mosaddegh and brought back foreign oil firms.[3] 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 to the beginning of the Persian Empire, measured from Cyrus the Great's coronation.[4] 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 modernising the nation by nationalising certain industries and granting women suffrage.

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 modernisation, secularisation, 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 which multiplied rapidly as a result of the revolution.[5]

Several other factors contributed to strong opposition to the Shah among certain groups within Iran, the most significant of which were US and UK support for his regime, clashes with Islamists and increased communist activity. By 1979, political unrest had transformed into a revolution which, on 17 January, 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".

Early life

Born in Tehran to Reza Pahlavi and his second wife, Tadj ol-Molouk, Mohammad Reza was the eldest son of the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, and the third of his eleven children. He was born with a twin sister, Ashraf Pahlavi. However, Shams, Mohammad Reza, Ashraf, Ali Reza, and their older half-sister, Fatemeh, were born as non-royals, as their father did not become Shah until 1925. Nevertheless, Reza Shah was always convinced that his sudden quirk of good fortune had commenced in 1919 with the birth of his son who was dubbed khoshghadam (bird of good omen).[6]

By the time Mohammad Reza turned 11, his father deferred to the recommendation of Abdolhossein Teymourtash, the Minister of Court, to dispatch his son to Institut Le Rosey, a Swiss boarding school, for further studies. He would be the first Iranian prince in line for the throne to be sent abroad to attain a foreign education and remained there for the next four years before returning to obtain his high school diploma in Iran in 1936. After returning to the country, the Crown Prince was registered at the local military academy in Tehran where he remained enrolled until 1938.[7] He was a qualified pilot.[8]

Early reign

Deposition of his father

5 Rials banknote Mohammad Reza Shah 1944 - early in his reign

5 Rials banknote Mohammad Reza Shah 1944 - early in his reign

In the midst of World War II in 1941, Nazi Germany began Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union, breaking the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This had a major impact on Iran, which had declared neutrality in the conflict.[9]

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with American president Franklin D. Roosevelt

Later that year British and Soviet forces occupied Iran in a military invasion, forcing Reza Shah to abdicate.[10] Mohammad Reza replaced him on the throne on 16 September 1941.[11] Subsequent to his succession as king, Iran became a major conduit for British and, later, American aid to the USSR during the war. This massive supply effort became known as the Persian Corridor.[12]

During World War II, Rezā Shāh was forced to abdicate in favor of his son.

Much of the credit for orchestrating a smooth transition of power from the King to the Crown Prince was due to the efforts of Mohammad Ali Foroughi.[13] Suffering from angina, a frail Foroughi was summoned to the Palace and appointed Prime Minister when Reza Shah feared the end of the Pahlavi dynasty once the Allies invaded Iran in 1941.[14] When Reza Shah sought his assistance to ensure that the Allies would not put an end to the Pahlavi dynasty, Foroughi put aside his adverse personal sentiments for having been politically sidelined since 1935. The Crown Prince confided in amazement to the British Minister that Foroughi "hardly expected any son of Reza Shah to be a civilized human being",[14] but Foroughi successfully derailed thoughts by the Allies to undertake a more drastic change in the political infrastructure of Iran.[15]

A general amnesty was issued two days after Mohammad Reza Shah's accession to the throne on 19 September 1941. All political personalities who had suffered disgrace during his father's reign were rehabilitated, and the forced unveiling policy inaugurated by his father in 1935 was overturned. Despite the young king's enlightened decisions, the British Minister in Tehran reported to London that "the young Shah received a fairly spontaneous welcome on his first public experience, possibly rather [due] to relief at the disappearance of his father than to public affection for himself".

Despite his public professions of admiration in later years, Mohammad Reza had serious misgivings about not only the coarse and roughshod political means adopted by his father, but also his unsophisticated approach to the affairs of the state. The young Shah possessed a decidedly more refined temperament, and among the unsavory developments that "would haunt him when he was king" were the political disgrace brought by his father on Teymourtash; the dismissal of Foroughi by the mid-1930s; and Ali Akbar Davar's decision to commit suicide in 1937.[16] An even more significant decision that cast a long shadow was the disastrous and one-sided agreement his father had negotiated with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1933, one which compromised the country's ability to receive more favourable returns from oil extracted from the country.

Oil nationalization and the 1953 coup

The Shah's portrait on the 1000 Iranian rial banknote, issued by the Bank Markazi Iran.

By the early 1950s, the political crisis brewing in Iran commanded the attention of British and American policy leaders. In 1951, Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected Prime Minister and committed to nationalising the Iranian petroleum industry controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) (as Anglo-Persian Oil Company or APOC had become).[17] Under the leadership of Mosaddegh's democratically elected nationalist movement, the Iranian parliament unanimously voted to nationalise the oil industry—thus shutting out the immensely profitable AIOC, which was a pillar of Britain's economy and provided it political clout in the region.[18]

Pahlavi with US President Truman in Washington, c. 18 November 1949

At the start of the confrontation, American political sympathy was forthcoming from the Truman Administration.[19] In particular, Mosaddegh was buoyed by the advice and counsel he was receiving from American Ambassador in Tehran, Henry F. Grady. However, eventually American decision-makers lost their patience, and by the time a Republican Administration came to office fears that communists were poised to overthrow the government became an all-consuming concern (these concerns were later dismissed as "paranoid" in retrospective commentary on the coup from US government officials). Shortly prior to the 1952 presidential election in the United States, the British government invited CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., to London to propose collaboration on a secret plan to force Mosaddegh from office.[20] This would be the first of three "regime change" operations led by Allen Dulles (the other two being the successful CIA-instigated 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état and the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba).

Under the direction of Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., a senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer and grandson of former US President Theodore Roosevelt, the American CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) funded and led a covert operation to depose Mosaddegh with the help of military forces disloyal to the democratically elected government. Referred to as Operation Ajax,[21] the plot hinged on orders signed by Mohammad Reza to dismiss Mosaddegh as prime minister and replace him with General Fazlollah Zahedi – a choice agreed on by the British and Americans.

Cover of The Regained Glory, a biography of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi - 1976

Despite the high-level coordination and planning, the coup initially failed, causing the Shah to flee to Baghdad, and then to Rome. After a brief exile in Italy, he returned to Iran, this time through a successful second attempt at a coup. A deposed Mosaddegh was arrested and tried. The king intervened and commuted the sentence to three years,[22] to be followed by life in internal exile. Zahedi was installed to succeed Mosaddegh.[23]

Before the first attempted coup, the American Embassy in Tehran reported that Mosaddegh's popular support remained robust. The Prime Minister requested direct control of the army from the Majlis. Given the situation, alongside the strong personal support of Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden for covert action, the American government gave the go-ahead to a committee, attended by the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, Kermit Roosevelt, Henderson, and Secretary of Defense Charles Erwin Wilson. Kermit Roosevelt returned to Iran on 13 July 1953, and again on 1 August 1953, in his first meeting with the king. A car picked him up at midnight and drove him to the palace. He lay down on the seat and covered himself with a blanket as guards waved his driver through the gates. The Shah got into the car and Roosevelt explained the mission. The CIA bribed him with $1 million in Iranian currency, which Roosevelt had stored in a large safe – a bulky cache, given the then exchange rate of 1,000 rial to 15 dollars.[24]

The Communists staged massive demonstrations to hijack Mosaddegh's initiatives. The United States actively plotted against him. On 16 August 1953, the right wing of the Army attacked. Armed with an order by the Shah, it appointed General Fazlollah Zahedi as prime minister. A coalition of mobs and retired officers close to the Palace executed this coup d'état. They failed dismally and the Shah fled the country in humiliating haste. Even Ettelaat, the nation's largest daily newspaper, and its pro-Shah publisher, Abbas Masudi, were against him.[25]

During the following two days, the Communists turned against Mosaddegh. Opposition against him grew tremendously. They roamed Tehran, raising red flags and pulling down statues of Reza Shah. This was rejected by conservative clerics like Kashani and National Front leaders like Hossein Makki, who sided with the king. On 18 August 1953, Mosaddegh defended the government against this new attack. Tudeh partisans were clubbed and dispersed.[26]

The Tudeh party had no choice but to accept defeat. In the meantime, according to the CIA plot, Zahedi appealed to the military, and claimed to be the legitimate prime minister and charged Mosaddegh with staging a coup by ignoring the Shah's decree. Zahedi's son Ardeshir acted as the contact between the CIA and his father. On 19 August 1953, pro-Shah partisans – bribed with $100,000 in CIA funds – finally appeared and marched out of south Tehran into the city centre, where others joined in. Gangs with clubs, knives, and rocks controlled the streets, overturning Tudeh trucks and beating up anti-Shah activists. As Roosevelt was congratulating Zahedi in the basement of his hiding place, the new Prime Minister's mobs burst in and carried him upstairs on their shoulders. That evening, Henderson suggested to Ardashir that Mosaddegh be not harmed. Roosevelt gave Zahedi US$900,000 left from Operation Ajax funds.[27]

Pahlavi leads the Islamic prayers known as Namaz

US actions further solidified sentiments that the West was a meddlesome influence in Iranian politics. In the year 2000, reflecting on this notion, US Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright stated:

"In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. The Eisenhower Administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons; but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."[28]

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi returned to power, but never extended the elite status of the court to the technocrats and intellectuals who emerged from Iranian and Western universities. Indeed, his system irritated the new classes, for they were barred from partaking in real power.[29]

Assassination attempts

Picture of Mohammad Reza Shah in hospital after the failed assassination attempt against him in 1949.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the target of at least two unsuccessful assassination attempts. On 4 February 1949, he attended an annual ceremony to commemorate the founding of Tehran University.[30] At the ceremony, Fakhr-Arai fired five shots at him at a range of c. three meters. Only one of the shots hit the king, grazing his cheek. Fakhr-Arai was instantly shot by nearby officers. After an investigation, it was thought that Fakhr-Arai was a member of the Tudeh Party,[31] which was subsequently banned.[7] However, there is evidence that the would-be assassin was not a Tudeh member but a religious fundamentalist member of Fada'iyan-e Islam.[32][33] The Tudeh was nonetheless blamed and persecuted.[34]

The second attempt on the Shah's life occurred on 10 April 1965.[35] A soldier shot his way through the Marble Palace. The assassin was killed before he reached the royal quarters. Two civilian guards died protecting the Shah.[36]

According to Vladimir Kuzichkin – a former KGB officer who defected to the SIS – the Shah was also allegedly targeted by the Soviet Union, who tried to use a TV remote control to detonate a bomb-laden Volkswagen Beetle. The TV remote failed to function.[37] A high-ranking Romanian defector Ion Mihai Pacepa also supported this claim, asserting that he had been the target of various assassination attempts by Soviet agents for many years.

Middle years

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi crowning Empress Farah at their coronation ceremony in 1967

Imperial coronation

On 26 October 1967, twenty-six years into his reign as Shah ("King"), he took the ancient title Shāhanshāh ("Emperor" or "King of Kings") in a lavish coronation ceremony held in Tehran. He said that he chose to wait until this moment to assume the title because in his own opinion he "did not deserve it" up until then; he is also recorded as saying that there was "no honour in being Emperor of a poor country" (which he viewed Iran as being until that time).[38]

Imperial symbols

Imperial Standard of the Shāhanshāh

The Pahlavi imperial family employed rich heraldry to symbolize their reign and ancient Persian heritage. The imperial crown image was included in every official state document and symbol—from the badges of the armed forces to paper money and coinage. The crown image was naturally the centerpiece of the imperial standard of the Shah (Shāhanshāh).

The personal standards—for the Shāhanshāh, for his wife the Shahbānū (Shahbanu) and for the eldest son who was his designated successor (Crown Prince)—had a field of pale blue (the traditional colour of the Iranian Imperial Family) at the centre of which was placed the heraldic motif of the individual. The Imperial Iranian national flag was placed in the top left quadrant of each standard. The appropriate Imperial standard was flown beside the national flag when the individual was present.

Foreign relations

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, US president Kennedy, and US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the White House Cabinet Room on 13 April 1962
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and Empress Farah meeting with general secretary Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow in 1970

Mohammad Reza Shah supported the Yemeni royalists against republican forces in the Yemen Civil War (1962–70) and assisted the sultan of Oman in putting down a rebellion in Dhofar (1971).

Concerning the fate of Bahrain (which Britain had controlled since the 19th century, but which Iran claimed as its own territory) and three small Persian Gulf islands, the Shah negotiated an agreement with the British, which, by means of a public consensus, ultimately led to the independence of Bahrain (against the wishes of Iranian nationalists). In return, Iran took full control of Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa in the Strait of Hormuz, three strategically sensitive islands which were claimed by the United Arab Emirates.

During this period, the Shah maintained cordial relations with the Persian Gulf states and established close diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.

Relations with Iraq, however, were often difficult due to political instability in the latter country. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was distrustful of both the Socialist government of Abd al-Karim Qasim and the Arab nationalist Baath party. In April 1969, he abrogated the 1937 Iranian-Iraqi treaty over control of the Shatt al-Arab, and as such, Iran ceased paying tolls to Iraq when its ships used the Shatt al-Arab, costing Iraq a lucrative source of income.[39] He justified his move by arguing that almost all river borders all over the world ran along the thalweg (deep channel mark), and by claiming that because most of the ships that used the Shatt al-Arab were Iranian, the 1937 treaty was unfair to Iran.[40] Iraq threatened war over the Iranian move, but when on 24 April 1969 an Iranian tanker escorted by Iranian warships sailed down the Shatt al-Arab, Iraq being the militarily weaker state did nothing.[41] The Iranian abrogation of the 1937 treaty marked the beginning of a period of acute Iraqi-Iranian tension that was to last until the Algiers Accords of 1975.[41] He financed Kurdish separatist rebels, and to cover his tracks, armed them with Soviet weapons which Israel had seized from Soviet-backed Arab regimes, and then handed over to Iran at the Shah's behest. The initial operation was a disaster, but the Shah continued attempts to support the rebels and weaken Iraq. Then in 1975, the countries signed the Algiers Accord, which granted Iraq equal navigation rights in the Shatt al-Arab river, while Mohammad Reza Pahlavi agreed to end his support for Iraqi Kurdish rebels.[42] The Shah also maintained close relations with King Hussein of Jordan, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, and King Hassan II of Morocco.[43]

The Shah's diplomatic foundation was the United States' guarantee that they would protect him, which was what enabled him to stand up to larger enemies. While the arrangement did not preclude other partnerships and treaties, it helped to provide a somewhat stable environment in which Pahlavi could implement his reforms. Another factor guiding Pahlavi in his foreign policy was his wish for financial stability which required strong diplomatic ties. A third factor in his foreign policy was his wish to present Iran as a prosperous and powerful nation; this fuelled his domestic policy of Westernisation and reform. A final component was his promise that communism could be halted at Iran's border if his monarchy was preserved. By 1977, the country's treasury, Pahlavi's autocracy, and his strategic alliances seemed to form a protective layer around Iran.[44]

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi met Algerian president Houari Boumediène and Iraqi vice president Saddam Hussein in Algiers in 1975 to sign the 1975 Algiers Agreement

In July 1964, the Shah, Turkish President Cemal Gürsel and Pakistani President Ayub Khan announced in Istanbul the establishment of the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) organisation to promote joint transportation and economic projects. It also envisioned Afghanistan's joining some time in the future.

The Shah of Iran was the first regional leader to recognise the State of Israel as a de facto state, although when interviewed on 60 Minutes by reporter Mike Wallace, he criticised American Jews for their presumed control over US media and finance.[45]

Although the United States was responsible for putting the Shah in power, he did not always act as a close US ally. In the early 1960s, when a policy planning staff that included William R. Polk encouraged the Shah to spread around Iran's growing revenues more equitably, slow the rush toward militarisation, and open the government to political processes, he became furious and identified Polk as "the principal enemy of his regime." The US-Iran relationship grew more contentious when the US became dependent on him to be a stabilising force in the Middle East. When Nixon's National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger visited Tehran in May 1972, the Shah convinced him to take a larger role in what had, up to then, been a mainly Israeli-Iranian operation to aid Iraqi Kurds in their struggles against Iraq, against the warnings of the CIA and State Department that the Shah would ultimately betray the Kurds. He did this in March 1975 with the signing of the Algiers Accord that settled Iraqi-Iranian border disputes, an action taken without prior consultation of the US, after which he cut off all aid to the Kurds and prevented the US and Israel from using Iranian territory to provide them assistance.[46]

The Shah also manipulated America's dependence of Middle Eastern oil; although Iran did not participate in the 1973 oil embargo, he purposely increased production in its aftermath to capitalise on the higher prices. In December 1973, only two months after oil prices were raised by 70 percent, he urged OPEC nations to push oil prices even higher, which they agreed to and more than doubled the price. Oil prices increased 470 percent over a 12-month period, which also increased Iran's GDP by 50 percent. Upon personal pleas from President Richard Nixon, the Shah ignored any complaints, claimed the US was importing more oil than any time in the past, and proclaimed that "the industrial world will have to realise that the era of their terrific progress and even more terrific income and wealth based on cheap oil is finished."[46]

Modernization and evolution of government

Further information: White Revolution
Lunar astronaut Neil Armstrong meeting the Shah of Iran during visit of Apollo 11 astronauts to Tehran on 28–31 October 1969[47]

With Iran's great oil wealth, the Shah became the pre-eminent leader of the Middle East, and self-styled "Guardian" of the Persian Gulf. In 1961, he defended his style of rule, saying "When Iranians learn to behave like Swedes, I will behave like the King of Sweden."[48]

During the last years of his regime, Shah's government became more autocratic. In the words of a US Embassy dispatch, "The Shah's picture is everywhere. The beginning of all film showings in public theaters presents the Shah in various regal poses accompanied by the strains of the National anthem...The monarch also actively extends his influence to all phases of social affairs...there is hardly any activity or vocation which the Shah or members of his family or his closest friends do not have a direct or at least a symbolic involvement. In the past, he had claimed to take a two-party system seriously and declared, "If I were a dictator rather than a constitutional monarch, then I might be tempted to sponsor a single dominant party such as Hitler organised".[49]

However, by 1975 he had abolished the multi-party system of government in favour of a one-party state under the Rastakhiz (Resurrection) Party. The Shah justified his actions by declaring: "We must straighten out Iranians' ranks. To do so, we divide them into two categories: those who believe in Monarchy, the constitution and the Six Bahman Revolution and those who don't...A person who does not enter the new political party and does not believe in the three cardinal principles will have only two choices. He is either an individual who belongs to an illegal organisation, or is related to the outlawed Tudeh Party, or in other words a traitor. Such an individual belongs to an Iranian prison, or if he desires he can leave the country tomorrow, without even paying exit fees; he can go anywhere he likes, because he is not Iranian, he has no nation, and his activities are illegal and punishable according to the law".[50] In addition, the Shah had decreed that all Iranian citizens and the few remaining political parties become part of Rastakhiz.[51]


Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi at a press conference in Niavaran Palace, 24 January 1971

In his "White Revolution" starting in the 1960s, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made major changes to modernise Iran. He curbed the power of certain ancient elite factions by expropriating large and medium-sized estates for the benefit of more than four million small farmers. He took a number of other major measures, including extending suffrage to women and the participation of workers in factories through shares and other measures. In the 1970s the governmental program of a free of charge nourishment for children at school known as Taghziye Rāyegan (Persian:تغذیه رایگان) was implemented. Under the Shah's reign, the national Iranian income showed an unprecedented rise for an extended period.

Iranian newspaper clip from 1968 reads "A quarter of Iran's Nuclear Energy scientists are women", a marked change in women's rights.

Improvement of the educational system was made through new elementary schools and additionally literacy courses were set up in remote villages by the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces, this initiative being called "Sepāh-e Dānesh" (Persian:سپاه دانش) meaning "Army of Knowledge". The Armed Forces were also engaged in infrastructural and other educational projects throughout the country "Sepāh-e Tarvij va Ābādāni" (Persian:سپاه ترویج و آبادانی) as well as in health education and promotion "Sepāh-e Behdāsht" (Persian:سپاه بهداشت). The Shah instituted exams for Islamic theologians to become established clerics. Many Iranian university students were sent to and supported in foreign, especially Western countries and the Indian subcontinent.

In the field of diplomacy, Iran realised and maintained friendly relations with Western and East European countries as well as the state of Israel and China and became, especially through the close friendship with the United States, more and more a hegemonial power in the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East. The suppression of the communist guerrilla movement in the region of Dhofar in Oman with the help of the Iranian army after a formal request by Sultan Qaboos was widely regarded in this context.

As to infrastructural and technological progress, the Shah continued and developed further the policies introduced by his father. As part of his programs, projects in several technologies, such as steel, telecommunications, petrochemical facilities, power plants, dams and the automobile industry may be named. The Aryamehr University of Technology was established as a major new academic institution.[52][53][54]

In terms of cultural activities, international cooperations were encouraged and organised, such as the Shiraz Arts Festival. As part of his various financial support programs in the fields of culture and arts, the Shah, along with King Hussein of Jordan donated an amount to the Chinese Muslim Association for the construction of the Taipei Grand Mosque.[55]

Criticism of reign and causes of his overthrow

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi during Hajj pilgrimage in the 1970s.
The Shah of Iran meets the clergy. Some in the Iranian clergy opposed him while others supported him as "The only Shiite governor".
The Shah meets the clergy. Some in the senior Iranian clergy actively opposed Khomeini's use of religion to gain political power.

At the Federation of American Scientists, John Pike writes:

In 1978 the deepening opposition to the Shah erupted in widespread demonstrations and rioting. Recognising that even this level of violence had failed to crush the rebellion, the Shah abdicated the Peacock Throne and fled Iran on 16 January 1979. Despite decades of pervasive surveillance by SAVAK, working closely with CIA, the extent of public opposition to the Shah, and his sudden departure, came as a considerable surprise to the US intelligence community and national leadership. As late as 28 September 1978 the US Defense Intelligence Agency reported that the Shah "is expected to remain actively in power over the next ten years."[56]

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,[57][58] whose foreign culture was seen as influencing that of Iran. Additional contributing factors included reports of oppression, brutality,[59][60] corruption, and extravagance.[59][61] Basic functional failures of the regime have also been blamed – economic bottlenecks, shortages and inflation; the regime's over-ambitious economic program;[62] the failure of its security forces to deal with protest and demonstration;[63] the overly centralised royal power structure.[64] International policies pursued by the Shah in order to increase national income by remarkable increases of the price of oil through his leading role in the Organization of the Oil Producing Countries (OPEC) have been stressed as a major cause for a shift of Western interests and priorities and for an actual reduction of their support for him reflected in a critical position of Western politicians and media, especially of the administration of US President Jimmy Carter, regarding the question of human rights in Iran, and in strengthened economic ties between the United States of America and Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.[65]

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on Iranian 20 Rials coin.

In October 1971, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi celebrated the twenty-five-hundredth anniversary of the Iranian monarchy. The New York Times reported that $100 million was spent.[66] Next to the ancient ruins of Persepolis, the Shah gave orders to build a tent city covering 160 acres (0.65 km2), studded with three huge royal tents and fifty-nine lesser ones arranged in a star-shaped design. French chefs from Maxim's of Paris prepared breast of peacock for royalty and dignitaries around the world, the buildings were decorated by Maison Jansen (the same firm that helped Jacqueline Kennedy redecorate the White House), the guests ate off Limoges porcelain and drank from Baccarat crystal glasses. This became a major scandal as the contrast between the dazzling elegance of celebration and the misery of the nearby villages was so dramatic that no one could ignore it. Months before the festivities, university students went on strike in protest. Indeed, the cost was so sufficiently impressive that the Shah forbade his associates to discuss the actual figures.[67][68] However he and his supporters argued that the celebrations opened new investments in Iran, improved relationships with the other leaders and nations of the world, and provided greater recognition of Iran.

Other actions that are thought to have contributed to his downfall include antagonising formerly apolitical Iranians — especially merchants of the bazaars — with the creation in 1975 of a single party political monopoly (the Rastakhiz Party), with compulsory membership and dues, and general aggressive interference in the political, economic, and religious concerns of people's lives;[69] and the 1976 change from an Islamic calendar to an Imperial calendar, marking the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus as the first day, instead of the migration of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. This supposed date was designed that the year 2500 would fall on 1941, the year when his own reign started. Overnight, the year changed from 1355 to 2535.[70] During the extravagant festivities to celebrate the 2500th anniversary, the Shah was quoted as saying at Cyrus's tomb: "Rest in peace, Cyrus, for we are awake".[71]

It has been argued that the White Revolution was "shoddily planned and haphazardly carried out", upsetting the wealthy while not going far enough to provide for the poor or offer greater political freedom.[72] In 1974, Mohammad Reza learned during a visit to Paris that he was suffering from the prostate cancer that was to kill him six years later.[73] Through this was a carefully guarded secret that not even the Americans were aware of (as late as 1977 the CIA submitted a report to President Carter describing the Shah as being in "robust health"), the knowledge of his impeding death together with the impotence caused by the prostate cancer left Mohammad Reza depressed and passive in his last years, a man no longer capable of acting.[74]

Some achievements of the Shah—such as broadened education—had unintended consequences. While school attendance rose (by 1966 the school attendance of urban seven- to fourteen-year-olds was estimated at 75.8%), Iran's labor market could not absorb a high number of educated youth. In 1966, high school graduates had "a higher rate of unemployment than did the illiterate", and educated unemployed often supported the revolution.[75]

Black Friday

Main article: Black Friday (1978)

The Shah-centered command structure of the Iranian military, and the lack of training to confront civil unrest, was marked by disaster and bloodshed. There were several instances where army units had opened fire, the most notorious one being the events of 8 September 1978. On this day, which later became known as "Black Friday", thousands had gathered in Tehran's Jaleh Square for a religious demonstration. With people refusing to recognise martial law, the soldiers opened fire, killing and seriously injuring a large number of people. Black Friday played a crucial role in further radicalising the protest movement. This massacre seriously reduced the chances for reconciliation to the level that Black Friday is referred to as "point of no return" for the revolution.[76][77][78][79][80][81][82]


Main article: Iranian Revolution
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi meeting with members of the US government: Alfred Atherton, William H. Sullivan, Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1977
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Shahbanu Farah shortly before leaving Iran in 1979 during the Iranian revolution.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Shahbanu Farah shortly before leaving Iran in 1979 during the Iranian revolution.

The overthrow of the Shah came as a surprise to almost all observers.[83][84] The first militant anti-Shah demonstrations of a few hundred started in October 1977, after the death of Khomeini's son Mostafa.[85] A year later strikes were paralysing the country, and in early December a "total of 6 to 9 million"—more than 10% of the country—marched against the Shah throughout Iran.[86] On 2 October 1978, the Shah declared and granted an amnesty to dissidents living abroad, including Ayatollah Khomeini.[87]

On 16 January 1979, he made a contract with Farboud and left Iran at the behest of Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar (a longtime opposition leader himself), who sought to calm the situation.[88] Spontaneous attacks by members of the public on statues of the Pahlavis followed, and "within hours, almost every sign of the Pahlavi dynasty" was destroyed.[89] Bakhtiar dissolved SAVAK, freed all political prisoners, and allowed Ayatollah Khomeini to return to Iran after years in exile. He asked Khomeini to create a Vatican-like state in Qom, promised free elections, and called upon the opposition to help preserve the constitution, proposing a "national unity" government including Khomeini's followers. Khomeini rejected Bakhtiar's demands and appointed his own interim government, with Mehdi Bazargan as prime minister, stating that "I will appoint a state. I will act against this government. With the nation's support, I will appoint a state."[90] In February, pro-Khomeini revolutionary guerrilla and rebel soldiers gained the upper hand in street fighting, and the military announced its neutrality. On the evening of 11 February, the dissolution of the monarchy was complete.


The Shah and Henry Boniet in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1979

During his second exile, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi traveled from country to country seeking what he hoped would be temporary residence. First he flew to Aswan, Egypt, where he received a warm and gracious welcome from President Anwar El-Sadat. He later lived in Marrakesh, Morocco as a guest of King Hassan II, as well as in Paradise Island, in the Bahamas, and in Cuernavaca, Mexico, near Mexico City, as a guest of José López Portillo. Richard Nixon, the former president, visited the Shah in summer 1979 in Mexico.[91] The Shah suffered from gallstones that would require prompt surgery. He was offered treatment in Switzerland, but insisted on treatment in the United States.

On 22 October 1979, President Jimmy Carter reluctantly allowed the Shah into the United States to undergo surgical treatment at the New York–Weill Cornell Medical Hospital. While in Cornell Medical Center, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi used the name "David D. Newsom", Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at that time, as his temporary code name, without Newsom's knowledge.

The Shah was taken later by U.S. Air Force jet to Kelly Air Force Base in Texas and from there to Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base.[92] It was anticipated that his stay in the United States would be short; however, surgical complications ensued, which required six weeks of confinement in the hospital before he recovered. His prolonged stay in the United States was extremely unpopular with the revolutionary movement in Iran, which still resented the United States' overthrow of Prime Minister Mosaddegh and the years of support for the Shah's rule. The Iranian government demanded his return to Iran, but he stayed in the hospital.[93]

Tomb of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, located at the Rifa'i Mosque in Cairo
The interior of Shah Rezá Pahlaví's tomb in Cairo Mosque Al Rifa`i

There are claims that this resulted in the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran and the kidnapping of American diplomats, military personnel, and intelligence officers, which soon became known as the Iran hostage crisis.[94] In the Shah's memoir, Answer to History, he claimed that the United States never provided him any kind of health care and asked him to leave the country.[95]

He left the United States on 15 December 1979 and lived for a short time in the Isla Contadora in Panama. This caused riots by Panamanians who objected to the Shah being in their country. The new government in Iran still demanded his and his wife's immediate extradition to Tehran. A short time after Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's arrival in Panama, an Iranian ambassador was dispatched to the Central American nation carrying a 450-page extradition request. That official appeal alarmed both the Shah and his advisors. Whether the Panamanian government would have complied is a matter of speculation among historians.

After that event, the Shah again sought the support of Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat, who renewed his offer of permanent asylum in Egypt to the ailing monarch. He returned to Egypt in March 1980, where he received urgent medical treatment, including a splenectomy performed by Michael DeBakey.[96]


Mohammad Reza Pahlavi died from complications of Waldenström's macroglobulinemia (a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma) on 27 July 1980, aged 60. Egyptian President Sadat gave the Shah a state funeral.[97] In addition to members of the Pahlavi family, Anwar Sadat, Richard Nixon and Constantine II of Greece attended the funeral ceremony in Cairo.[98]

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is buried in the Al Rifa'i Mosque in Cairo, a mosque of great symbolic importance. The last royal rulers of two monarchies are buried there, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran and King Farouk of Egypt, his former brother-in-law. The tombs lie to the left of the entrance. Years earlier, his father and predecessor, Reza Shah had also initially been buried at the Al Rifa'i Mosque.


The Shah's substitute in a film created in Iran, The Enigma of Shah

In 1969, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi sent one of 73 Apollo 11 Goodwill Messages to NASA for the historic first lunar landing.[99] The message still rests on the lunar surface today. He stated in part, "we pray the Almighty God to guide mankind towards ever increasing success in the establishment of culture, knowledge and human civilisation". The Apollo 11 crew visited Mohammad Reza Shah during a world tour.

Shortly after his overthrow, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi wrote an autobiographical memoir Réponse à l'histoire (Answer to History). It was translated from the original French into English, Persian (Pasokh be Tarikh), and other languages. However, by the time of its publication, the Shah had already died. The book is his personal account of his reign and accomplishments, as well as his perspective on issues related to the Iranian Revolution and Western foreign policy toward Iran. He places some of the blame for the wrongdoings of SAVAK, and the failures of various democratic and social reforms (particularly through the White Revolution), upon Amir Abbas Hoveyda and his administration.

Recently, the Shah's reputation has experienced something of a revival in Iran, with some people looking back on his era as a time when Iran was more prosperous[100][101] and the government less oppressive.[102] Journalist Afshin Molavi reported that some members of the uneducated poor—traditionally core supporters of the revolution that overthrew the Shah—were making remarks such as, "God bless the Shah's soul, the economy was better then", and found that "books about the former Shah (even censored ones) sell briskly", while "books of the Rightly Guided Path sit idle".[103] On 28 October 2016, among thousands of people in Iran celebrating Cyrus Day, "a few marchers" chanted slogans in support of him.[104]


Mohammad Reza Pahlavi published several books in the course of his kingship and two later works after his downfall. Among others, these include:

Women's rights

Main article: White Revolution

Under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's father, the government supported advancements by women against child marriage, polygamy, exclusion from public society, and education segregation. However, independent feminist political groups were shut down and forcibly integrated into one state-created institution, which maintained many paternalistic views. Despite substantial opposition from Shiite religious jurists, the Iranian feminist movement, led by activists such as Fatemah Sayyeh, achieved further advancement under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. His regime's changes focused on the civil sphere, and private-oriented family law remained restrictive, although the 1967 and 1975 Family Protection Laws attempted to reform this trend.[105] Specifically, women gained the right to become ministers such as Farrokhroo Parsa and judges such as Shirin Ebadi, as well as any other profession regardless of their gender.

Marriages and children

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and three of his children: Farahnaz, Reza and Alireza

Pahlavi married three times:

Fawzia of Egypt

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk suggested to Reza Shah during the latter's visit to Turkey that a marriage between the Iranian and Egyptian courts would be beneficial for the two countries and their dynasties.[106] In line with this suggestion, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Princess Fawzia married. Dilawar Princess Fawzia of Egypt (5 November 1921 – 2 July 2013), a daughter of King Fuad I of Egypt and Nazli Sabri, was a sister of King Farouk I of Egypt. They married on 15 March 1939 in the Abdeen Palace in Cairo.[106] Reza Shah did not participate in the ceremony.[106] They were divorced in 1945 (Egyptian divorce) and in 1948 (Iranian divorce). Together they had one child, a daughter, HIH Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi (born 27 October 1940).

Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari

His second wife was Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari (22 June 1932 – 26 October 2001), a half-German half-Iranian woman and the only daughter of Khalil Esfandiary, Iranian Ambassador to West Germany, and his wife, the former Eva Karl. They married on 12 February 1951,[106] when Soraya was 18 according to the official announcement; however, it was rumoured that she was actually 16, the Shah being 32.[107] As a child she was tutored and brought up by Frau Mantel, and hence lacked proper knowledge of Iran, as she herself admits in her personal memoirs, stating, "I was a dunce—I knew next to nothing of the geography, the legends of my country, nothing of its history, nothing of Muslim religion."[108] The Shah and Soraya's controversial marriage ended in 1958 when it became apparent that, even through help from medical doctors, she could not bear children. Soraya later told the New York Times that the Shah had no choice but to divorce her, and that he was heavy-hearted about the decision.[109]

However, even after the marriage, it is reported that the Shah still had great love for Soraya, and it is reported that they met several times after their divorce and that she lived her post-divorce life comfortably as a wealthy lady, even though she never remarried;[110] being paid a monthly salary of about $7,000 from Iran.[111] Following her death in 2001 at the age of 69 in Paris, an auction of the possessions included a three-million-dollar Paris estate, a 22.37 carat diamond ring and a 1958 Rolls-Royce.[112]

Pahlavi subsequently indicated his interest in marrying Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, a daughter of the deposed Italian king, Umberto II. Pope John XXIII reportedly vetoed the suggestion. In an editorial about the rumors surrounding the marriage of a "Muslim sovereign and a Catholic princess", the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, considered the match "a grave danger",[113] especially considering that under the 1917 Code of Canon Law a Roman Catholic who married a divorced person would be automatically, and could be formally, excommunicated.

Farah Diba

Shah with wife Farah meets Indira Gandhi in India in 1970

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's third and final wife was Farah Diba (born 14 October 1938), the only child of Sohrab Diba, a captain in the Imperial Iranian Army (son of an Iranian ambassador to the Romanov Court in Moscow, Russia), and his wife, the former Farideh Ghotbi. They were married in 1959, and Queen Farah was crowned Shahbanu, or Empress, a title created specially for her in 1967. Previous royal consorts had been known as "Malakeh" (Arabic: Malika), or Queen. The couple remained together for twenty one years, until the Shah's death. Farah Diba bore him four children:


Mohammad Reza Pahlavi inherited the wealth built by his father Reza Shah who preceded him as king of Iran and became known as the richest person in Iran during his reign, with his wealth estimated to be higher than 600 million rials[114] and including vast amounts of land and numerous large estates especially in the province of Mazandaran[115] obtained usually at a fraction of its real price.[116] Reza Shah, facing criticism for his wealth, decided to pass on all of his land and wealth to his eldest son Mohammad Reza in exchange for a sugar cube, known in Iran as habbe kardan.[117] However shortly after obtaining the wealth Mohammad Reza was ordered by his father and then king to transfer a million tooman or 500,000 dollars to each of his siblings.[118] By 1958 it was estimated that the companies possessed by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had a value of $157 million (in 1958 USD) with an estimated additional 100 million saved outside Iran.[119] The rumours and constant talk of his, and his family's corruption greatly damaged his reputation and led to the creation of the Pahlavi Foundation in the same year and the return to the people of some 2,000 villages inherited by his father, often at very low and discount prices.[120] It can be argued, however, that this was too little too late, as the royal family's wealth and corruption can be seen as one of the factors behind the Iranian revolution in 1979. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's wealth was even considerable during his time in exile. While staying in the Bahamas he offered to purchase the island that he was staying on for $425 million (in 1979 USD), however his offer was rejected by the Bahamas claiming that the island was worth far more.[121] On 17 October 1979, again in exile and perhaps knowing the gravity of his illness, he split up his wealth between his family members, giving 20% to Farah, 20% to his eldest son Reza, 15% to Farahnaz, 15% to Leila, 20% to his younger son, in addition to giving 8% to Shahnaz and 2% to his granddaughter Mahnaz Zahedi.

On 14 January 1979, an article titled "Little pain expected in exile for Shah" by The Spokesman Review newspaper found that the Pahlavi dynasty had amassed one of the largest private fortunes in the world; estimated then at well over $1 billion.[122] A list submitted to the ministry of justice in protest of the royal family's penetration of every corner of the nation's economy detailed that the then Pahlavi dynasty dominated the economy of Iran. The list showed that the Pahlavi dynasty had interests in, amongst other things, 17 banks and insurance companies, including a 90 percent ownership in the nation's third-largest insurance company, 25 metal enterprises, 8 mining companies, 10 building materials companies, including 25 percent of the largest cement company, 45 construction companies, 43 food companies, and 26 enterprises in trade or commerce, including a share of ownership in almost every major hotel in Iran. According to another source, the Pahlavis owned 70 percent of the then hotel capacity in the country. Much of the Pahlavi dynasty fortune was required to be transferred to the "Pahlavi Foundation", a charitable organisation and the families' trust. The organisation refuses to give any value of its assets or an annual income but a published book in Iran by Robert Graham, a British journalist, calculates that on the basis of its known holdings, the then foundation assets totalled over $2.8 billion.

The Pahlavi foundation was said to have owned in Iran four leading hotels: the Hilton, the Vanak, the Evin and the Darband. The foundation gained international attention for purchasing the DePinna building on Fifth Avenue, New York, valued in 1975 at $14.5 million. Such investment in a foreign market by the Pahlavi foundation gained media attention because in order to do such foreign investment the foundation had to register as an American charitable foundation with the declared aim of using the rental to pay for Iranian students studying in America. The advantage of such charitable status was that the US authorities could not investigate the books of the Pahlavi Foundation in Iran.[123]

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was also known for his interest in cars and had a personal collection of 140 classic and sports cars including a Mercedes-Benz 500K Autobahn cruiser, one of only six ever made.[124]


Imperial Family after the Coronation. From left Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Empress Farah Pahlavi and Princess Shams Pahlavi. In the middle Princess Farahnaz Pahlavi and Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi.
Universal Newsreel about the Shah's 40th birthday, 1959

National dynastic honours

Foreign honours


See also


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Further reading

External links

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Mohammad Reza Pahlavi
Born: 26 October 1919 Died: 27 July 1980
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Rezā Shāh
Shahanshah of Iran
16 September 1941 – 11 February 1979
Titles in pretence
Preceded by
Rezā Shāh
Shahanshah of Iran
Light of the Aryans

11 February 1979 – 27 July 1980
Reason for succession failure:
Iranian Revolution
Succeeded by
Reza Pahlavi
Military offices
Preceded by
Mohammad Mossadegh
Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian Armed Forces
Title next held by
Abolhassan Banisadr
Preceded by
Reza Shah
Succeeded by
Mohammad Mossadegh
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