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The Shah of Iran Review: Mohammed Raza Pahlavi

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi
Editorial Credit: Prachaya Roekdeethaweesab

Born, on 26 October 1919, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was to become the last Shah of Iran (Emperor of Iran). As such, he is often known as Mohammad Reza or simply the Shah from the beginning of his reign on 16 September 1941 until his overthrow by the Iranian Revolution on 11 February 1979. Due to his status as the last Shah, many continued to refer to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran until even after his death on 27 July 1980. He is survived by his widow, Farah Pahlavi, and his children.

The Shah of Iran: Early Years

Educated in France in a Swiss boarding school, Institut Le Rosey, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi befriended Ernest Perron, who was to become the confidant and advisor of the Shah of Iran, holding a considerable power behind the scenes. The Shah of Iran came to power in 1941, after his father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, abdicated during an Anglo-Soviet invasion at the beginning of World War II. The then timid young man lacking self-confidence transformed into an assertive and authoritarian Shah of Iran during his reign to modernize Iran and create a country that, he hoped, would become one of the global powers.

He called it his dream of a ‘Great Civilization’ to modernize Iran’s economy, military forces, and society and nationalize some of its industries. Second and last monarch of the House of Pahlavi, founded by his father Reza Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi asserted himself through grandiose titles: Aryamehr, Light of the Aryans and Bozorg Arteshtaran, Commander-in-Chief, to name but a few. The Shah of Iran also held the title of Shahanshah, King of Kings, which he took at his coronation on 26 October 1967. 

In Andrew Scott Cooper’s, The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran, Cooper traces the Shah’s life from childhood through his ascension to the throne in 1941. The Fall of Heaven recreates in stunning detail the dramatic and final days of one of the world’s most legendary ruling families, the unseating of which helped set the stage for the current state of the Middle East.

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While the Shah of Iran only ruled for 38 years, he extended Iran’s spending on the industry, education, health, and armed forces, which led the country to experience economic growth rates superior to those of the United States, France, and England. The national income rose by over 420 times over. It’s presumed that by the end of his reign, Iran’s armed services had become the world’s fifth strongest military. Influenced by Farah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran also focused on areas of interest to his third wife, including cultural development and women’s rights. 

The Reign of The Shah of Iran

During the Shah of Iran’s reign, the efforts made to modernize Iran’s economies led Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh to nationalize British owned oil industry in Iran. However, Mosaddegh’s behavior facilitated the UK and US-backed coup d’état, which forced the Shah of Iran to flee the country in 1953. On the advice of his twin sister, Princess Ashraf, the Shah of Iran agreed to return to Iran and depose and sentence Mosaddegh to life in internal exile.

The Shah of Iran brought back foreign oil firms as he ratified the Consortium Agreement of 1954. Nevertheless, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was still inspired to modernize Iran, which led to the introduction in 1963 of the White Revolution, a series of reforms to weaken the classes that supported the traditional system. The Shah of Iran saw the bloodless revolution as a way of legitimizing the Pahlavi dynasty and creating a new base of support for the working class. The White Revolution lasted until 1979 when the Shah of Iran was forced into exile. Though it contributed significantly towards the technological and economic advancement of Iran, it also drove the downfall of the Shah of Iran and the Persian monarchy. 

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The Devil’s Festival

In 1971, Iran celebrated the 2,500th year of Foundation of the Imperial State of Iran. To mark the event, the Shah of Iran changed the benchmark of the Iranian calendar to the beginning of the First Persian Empire with Cyrus II of Persia. Along with his wife, Farah Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah wanted to use the celebrations as a way to showcase the advances made by the country under his reign to his people and also to the international contemporary leaders and rulers. However, the excess of the celebrations also contributed to antagonizing the faithful population and the Shi’a clergy. Ayatollah Khomeini, who would succeed the Shah of Iran and end the monarchy, criticized the display, calling it the “Devil’s Festival”. 

The White Revolution

The White Revolution, combined with the excess of the 2,500th anniversary of the continuous Persian monarchy, made the Shah of Iran a lot of enemies during his reign. The Shah relied actively on Iran’s intelligence agency SAVAK to suppress political dissent, which, combined with the banishment of the Tudeh Party, transformed Iran into a country of political oppression. He lost support from the Shi’a clergy and the working class as a result of his social and economic reforms, as many Iranians didn’t feel it was time to improve women’s rights. The Shah of Iran’s efforts to build friendly relations with Israel met the disapproval of Islamists, leftists, and traditional classes.

The population also disapproved of the Shah of Iran’s modernizing policies, which antagonized bazaaris, the merchants of Iran. Cultural and social development activities, influenced by Shahbanu of Iran, Farah Pahlavi, to promote education and women’s rights, failed to receive the public’s approval they deserve. The employment market in Iran was not equipped to care for the new, educated youth, leading to soaring unemployment figures. The youth was only one of the victims of the White Revolution’s damage, whose poor planning and haphazardly implementation contributed to the fall of the Shah of Iran. 


The Shah of Iran’s modernizing policies brought him moderate support from foreign powers, including US and UK support. However, to the non-Muslim world, his regime was often described as an authoritarian dictatorship where civil rights and political freedom were ignored. The negative perception, combined with an attitude of oppression, brutality, demonstration, and centralized royal power structure, strongly influenced the Islamic revolution to overthrow the monarchy in January 1979. The Shah of Iran’s refusal to let his troops fire on protesters forced him, his wife Shahbanu Farah Pahlavi, and his children to flee the country on 17 January 1979. The Iranian monarchy was abolished soon after to leave room for the Islamic republic led by Ayatollah Khomeini. 

The Shah of Iran died in Egypt in 1980, where President Anwar Sadat granted him and his family asylum. Farah Pahlavi and her children remained in Egypt for a few years after the death of the Shah of Iran before they were made welcome in the US.