The Shah of Iran: A Retrospective

The climate of opinion in the western world today is that the Shah was a tyrant and that which followed can be firmly laid at his door step. This concept needs very much to be reviewed. Few on any level of society have the capacity for accepting responsibilities for behavior. In this instance, we needed to find someone to blame for the strife and chaos of the 21st century. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Persia was a very convenient person to blame. Who was this man and how did he fit into the scheme of things, geopolitically speaking, in the second half of the 20th century?

shah of iran

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – late Shah of Iran

Can the actions of both the British and the Americans be so easily swept under the rug as we study and ultimately write history?

The Shah of Iran was born in 1919 and ruled Iran from 1941 until he was overthrown in 1979. During this time, one could address international issues by “following the money.” It would be more correct to say, “Following the oil money”. In the totality of events in the Middle East, we should not look to religion or to governments or varieties of cultural values, but to international petroleum cartels. The Shah was caught up in this concept.

The Shah’s family were not former goat herders, but represented a 2,500 year dynasty going back to the time of Alexander and Cyrus the Great. He was not so much of a take charge person as a man with a social conscience. The Shah’s White Revolution, a series of economic and social reforms were intended to transform Iran into a global power, succeeded in modernizing the nation, nationalizing many resources and extending the suffrage to women.

As a secular Muslim, he lost the support of the very radical and intolerant clergy. The vested interest of the merchant class, opposed much of what he did for the populous fearing a loss of revenue.

The great fear in Iran was the communist manifested in the Tudah Party. How interesting! The British and the Americans also had a fear of what to them was the greatest threat of all times, communism. What this concept was to the rank and file of the general public was fuzzy and nebulous at best. The British saw the Tsar, the cousin of their king being overthrown. They were led to believe that communism would overturn the totality of their society. The Americans were taught that communism would take away their freedom, their property, their wife and children and their dog. We therefore had every reason to oppose it in any part of the world where we had a vested interest.

To fight communism in Iran, a group of radicals called SAVAK were organized with the blessing and support of the American CIA and British Secret Service. Did the Shah know about the day by day undertakings of this group? This is like asking the Pope if he was aware of the totality of the carnage in Spain under the inquisition and when did he know it. Did the Pope understand fully what the expulsion of the Spanish Jews in 1492 meant and what were the most horrible ramifications? Let’s remember that President Reagan disavowed any knowledge of what was going on in Central America or the then Vice President Bush said that he was not in the loop. Maybe yes, maybe no. Was the Shah fully informed about the murder and persecution of anyone considered to be a communist? Maybe yes, or maybe no.

The problem with any type of man hunt is that it gets out of hand. Guantanamo is an example. Neither Reagan, Bush or the Shah can be excused for the support of any activity occurring on their watch, but in the case of the Shah, it became a “cause celeb” and all of the evil which followed was attributed to him. The general population began to follow the Muslim clerics. For years, the cleric Khomeini, living in Paris began to flood Iran with his ranting’s in the form of cassette tapes opposition the Shah and giving the promise to all the freedom and economic security he would bring to the Iranian people once he was returned. Ultimately, of course, this never happened, quite to the contrary. Several other factors contributed to the strong opposition to the Shah among other groups within Iran. Included were the U.S. and the U.K. who backed a coup d’etat against the Shah’s prime minister in 1953. This was the result of the British and American belief that this man did not follow their collective party line in keeping with the best interest of both of these nations. With no strong support from the Americans and the British, by 1979, the power base of the Shah was now giving way to the clerics who wanted nothing less than a religious revolution. The Shah and his family were forced to leave Iran. Both Britain and America would have been happy if he had been killed ” trying to escape”.

This is an overview and the small tip of the iceberg, but to gain more knowledge pertaining to the Shah and outside interests we must travel back 100 years. We need to ask the “greatest what if” of our time. What would have happened if American and Britain had supported the Shah? Brought SAVAK under control, continued to support his social reforms and silenced Khomeini?

Once it was determined that Iran was rich with natural resources even before the first world war, everything became a target for foreign big business and the strong need for control of the government, the economic prospects of the people, the international philosophy and the monarch. World War II accelerated this need for virtually total control. Getting rid of the royal family was easy, but what was not at all understood was the ultimate power of the clerics and the religious needs of the people. Fanaticism mounted.

During the Truman administration, there was a more logical structure and even sympathy for Iran and the Shah. With the Republican Administration which followed, there began to develop an unrealistic fear of communism, not because of any perceived evils in the system, as far as personal freedoms were perceived, but as a major threat to the expectations of the foreign investments and potential income. The Shah and his social reforms had nothing to do with this, he was just as much opposed to communism as anyone, but the myopia of big business seldom uses logic and common sense. The London-Washington forces wanted him out. They had no idea about what was ahead on the part of the ever increasing religious fever. The CIA had gotten rid of the communist threat, but were powerless against the results of the religious revolution

The plight of the Shah and his family after his overthrow and departure from Iran is not just tragic, but an example of America’s so called compassionate Christian values. The Shah was dying and needed medical treatment. He needed a place to die with dignity. Even during his treatment process in the United States, he was encouraged to go elsewhere to live. Eventually, President Sadat of Egypt invited him to come there to live out his life. President Carter, the great man of God and his boundless Christian compassion tried to bring pressure on Sadat to refuse the Shah America along with everyone else needed to perpetuate the concept that the Shah was the cause of world problems and that he must be hounded to ground. President Sadat accepted him anyway.

To illustrate the lack of knowledge and sophistication on the part of President Carter as it pertained to the Muslim world, there was an incident when Carter was being welcomed by Sadat and his wife at the beginning of the American’s visit. President Carter shook hands with President Sadat and then attempted to kiss the cheek of Mrs. Sadat. President Sadat looked on with horror as he signaled the photographers to refrain from taking a picture of what was about to be a major breach of Muslim custom. This was far more potentially explosive than President Kennedy saying “I am a sweet pastry’ on his visit to Germany. Our State Department seems to have little if any knowledge of the language or customs of foreign nations.. This continues to this day when Mrs. Obama embraced the Queen of England.

Had the Shah been allowed to remain in power and supported, had he agreed to accept foreign economic control of Iran and helped to reeducate the Iranian people regarding what would be to their best interest under his continued social reforms and to look more realistic at what fundamental religion would do to them and strong British and American support would keep Saddam in check, the world would be a vastly different place today. Iraq was not kept at bay; the religious fervor continues to mount as does terror in the name of the fundamentalists.

Will we ever learn that pushing our materialistic needs at any cost will lead to our own destruction? Many doubt it.

Share Your Thoughts

Alfred Jones has a Ph.D in psychology, advance studies in law and education. He is an Egyptian scholar having taught in the UK, USA and China. He is a former consultant to the San Jose California Egyptian Museum. Author of 7 books and over 20 articles for professional journals.

Historic Mysteries