Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

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Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (in Persian: محمدرضا شاه پهلوی) (October 26, 1919July 27, 1980), Styled His Imperial Majesty Shahanshah Aryamehr (Light of the Aryans), was the last reigning Shah of Iran to date, ruling from 1941 until 1979.


Youth, Education, and Family Background

Mohammad Reza was born in Tehran, Iran to Reza Pahlavi, the Shah between 1925 and 1941, and his second wife Tadj ol-Molouk (18961982). Young Mohammad Reza attended Institut Le Rosey, a Swiss boarding school and the Military College in Tehran.

His father, Reza Pahlavi, (18771944), had risen from the army ranks to defense minister(after a coup d'état which made Seyyed Zia'eddin Tabatabaee prime minister), and afterwards to prime minister, before being elected Shah by the National Assembly, (the Majlis), so starting the Pahlavi dynasty.

Prior to Reza Pahlavi's ascension, the Empire of Persia had been feeling the gradual encroachment of two expanding empires: Russia and Great Britain. In the nineteenth century, Russia had annexed the northern part of Persia, which came to be known as Tajikistan. Meanwhile, Britain began to exercise increasing influence over the south of the country through its control of India, a traditional trading partner; and domination of the Persian oil industry. British foreign policy emphasized adroit diplomacy backed by military might to ensure the favorable treatment of British interests in the country. Britain imposed humiliating restrictions on Persian sovereignity. Reza Pahlavi sought to decrease this influence by reaching out to other European powers such as Italy and Germany. Ironically, instead of decreasing British and Russian influence, this policy only provided new impetus for continued interference in Iranian (Persia's name was officially changed to the domestic name Iran in 1935) affairs, and resulted in the Shah's fall during World War II.

Reign of Mohammad Reza Shah

Deposition of his Father

In 1941, Germany broke the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union, which quickly realigned with Britain. Although Iran had declared neutrality, the British and the Soviets occupied Iran and forced the Shah to abdicate in favour of his son. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi replaced his father on the throne on September 16, 1941. It was hoped that the younger man would be more open to influence. Iran became a major conduit for British and later American aid to the USSR. This massive supply effort became known as the "Persian Corridor", and marked the first large-scale US involvement in Iran.

Consolidation of power

In 1953 the nation's constitutionally and democratically elected nationalist prime minister, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh had nationalized the oil industry, much to the anger of the United States and Great Britain. This resulted in an embargo on Iranian oil exports, which only worsened the already fragile economy. To gain control over the Iranien oil industry the CIA funded and lead a coup to overthrow prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, with the help of the military forces loyal to the Shah (see Operation Ajax). The coup initially failed and the Shah had to flee Iran. After a brief exile in Italy the Shah was brought back again through, this time a succesfull, second coup. Mossadegh was arrested, tried and put in house arrest. General Fazlollah Zahedi had been chosen to succeed prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

With Iran's great oil wealth, Mohammad Reza Shah became the pre-eminent leader of the Middle East, and self-styled "Guardian" of the Persian Gulf. He later abolished the multi-party system of government so that he could rule through a one-party regime (under the Rastakhiz (Genesis of the Iranian Nation) party) in autocratic fashion, which he claimed was a response, among other things, to the Soviet Union's support of Communist uprisings, through Iran's leftist Tudeh Party. The Shah also authorized the creation of the secret police force, SAVAK, infamous for its ruthless persecution of dissidents, and is believed to have overseen its operation personally.

He made major changes to curb the power of certain ancient elite factions by expropriating large and middle-sized estates for the benefit of more than four million small farmers. In the White Revolution, he took a number of major modernization measures, including extending suffrage to women, much to the discontent and opposition of the Islamic clerics. He instituted exams for Islamic theologians to become established clerics ("mullahs"), which were widely unpopular and broke centuries-old religious traditions.

His policies led to strong economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s but at the same time, opposition to his autocratic rule increased. His good relations with Israel and the United States were moreover a reason for fundamentalist Islamic groups to attack his policies. On January 16, 1979 he and his wife were forced to flee Iran a second time (after 1953) following a year of extreme turmoil and public protests leading up to the Iranian revolution. Following the Shah's departure into exile, conservative Muslims led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who had returned from exile in France, gained the leadership of the ongoing revolution and transformed the "Empire of Iran" into an Islamic Republic.

Exile and Death

The exiled monarch had become unpopular in much of the world, especially in the liberal West, ironically his original backers and those who had most to lose from his downfall. He travelled from country to country in his second exile seeking what he hoped would be a temporary residence. First he went to Egypt, and got an invitation and warm welcoming from president Anwar el-Sadat. He later lived in Morocco, the Bahamas, and Mexico. But his non-Hodgkins lymphoma began to grow worse, and required immediate and sophisticated treatment. Reluctantly, President Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah to make a brief stopover in the United States to undergo medical treatment. The compromise was extremely unpopular with the revolutionary movement, which were against the United States' years of support of the Shah's totalitarian rule, and demanded his return to Iran to face a trial. This resulted in the capture of a number of American diplomats, military personnel and intelligence officer in what became known as the Iran hostage crisis. Once the Shah's course of treatment had finished, the American government, eager to avoid further controversy, pressed the former monarch to leave the country. He left the United States and lived for a short time in Panama. Finally he went back to Egypt where he died in Cairo on July 27, 1980. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is buried in the ar-Rifai Mosque in Cairo, a mosque of great symbolic value. The last royal rulers of two great ancient empires are buried here, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran and King Farouk of Egypt. Baksheesh is required to view the royals tombs, which lie off to the left of the entrance.

Shortly after his overthrow, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi wrote an autobiographical memoir entitled Answer to History (ISBN 0812827554), which was translated from the original French (Réponse à l'histoire) into both English and Persian (Pasukh bih Tarikh) as well as other languages, and was later published posthumously in 1980. 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. Most notably, the Shah places 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.

Wives and children

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was married three times. His first wife was Princess Fawzia of Egypt (born November 5, 1921), a celebrated beauty of her day, daughter of King Fuad I of Egypt and his second spouse, Nazli Sabri, and a sister of King Farouk I of Egypt. They married in 1939 and divorced in 1948 after her failure to produce an heir to the throne (although later she did in fact have a son with her second husband). Fawzia was extremely unhappy at the Iranian court and longed to return to Egypt, which she did shortly before the forced abdication of her brother and the abolition of the Egyptian monarchy. They had one daughter, Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi (born October 27, 1940).

His second wife was Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari (June 22, 1932-October 26, 2001), daughter of Khalil Esfandiary Bakhtiari, Ambassador of Iran to the Federal Republic of Germany, and his German wife, Eva Karl. They married in 1951 and divorced in 1958 when it became apparent that she could not bear children. Given the title Princess Soraya of Iran after the divorce, she briefly debuted as a film actress, appearing in the 1965 movie "Three Faces of a Woman," and became mistress of its Italian director Franco Indovina, 1932-1972.

The Shah's third wife was Farah Diba (born October 14, 1938), daughter of Sohrab Diba, Captain in the Imperial Iranian Army, and his wife, Faredeh Ghotbi. They were married in 1959, and Farah became Shahbanu, or Empress, a title created especially for her. Previous royal consorts had been known as "Malekeh" (Arabic: Malika), or Queen. Farah Diba bore him four children:

  1. Reza Pahlavi II, the Crown Prince (born October 31, 1960)
  2. Farahnaz Pahlavi (born March 12, 1963)
  3. Ali Reza Pahlavi (born April 28, 1966)
  4. Leila Pahlavi (March 27, 1970June 10, 2001)

Preceded by:
Reza Pahlavi
Persian Shahs
1941 – 1979
Succeeded by:
Islamic republic declared
Pahlavi dynasty
1941 – 1979
Succeeded by:
Reza Pahlavi II (pretender)

Further reading

Stephen Kinzer, All The Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, John Wiley & Sons, 2003, ISBN 0471265179

Farah Pahlavi, An Enduring Love : My Life with the Shah - A Memoir, Miramax Books, 2004, ISBN 140135209X.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Response to History, Stein & Day Pub, 1980, ISBN 0812827554.

William Shawcross, The Shah's last ride: The death of an ally, Touchstone, 1989, ISBN 067168745X.

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