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Who was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah, Iran’s Last Pahlavi Dictator?

iran shah revolution 1979

Iran’s revolution has entered its fifth month. While Iranians have clearly demanded a true democracy by chanting, “Down with the oppressor, be it Shah or the mullahs,” some speak of the return of the deposed Pahlavi dictatorship in Iran. Although this is a historical impossibility, it is worth knowing who was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Pahlavi dictator, and how his policies resulted in a series of uprisings and eventually the 1979 revolution. How he helped mullahs hijack the Iranian people’s revolution?

Born in 1919 in Tehran, Mohammad Reza was the second king or Shah of Pahlavi’s dictatorship. The early years of Shah’s reign were the hotbed of democratic politics in Iran. His response was clear: absolute oppression and tying his regime’s destiny to foreign powers.

To fortify his regime, Shah began lavishing his attention on the army, which he saw as his personal fiefdom. He gradually began to curtail the powers of parliament and clamped down on the press. He soon began clashing with dissidents, namely with Mohammad Mossadegh, an ardent Iranian nationalist, and member of the Majlis who spearheaded legislation in the Majlis calling for the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, ending almost 50 years of British monopoly over Iran’s oil revenues.

The Shah of Iran and SAVAK (1976) | 60 Minutes Archive

In March 1951, Mosaddegh succeeded in passing his bill in parliament to nationalize the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), later known as British Petroleum (BP).

William D’Arcy, a British businessman, had purchased the right to exploit Iran’s oilfields in 1901, paying the country’s ruling family £20,000 together with a promise of a 16% share of annual profits.  Iranians did not benefit from this agreement at all, and for them, Dr. Mosaddegh resembled hope.

Seeing Mosaddegh’s popularity grow, the Shah was forced to appoint him as Prime Minister in April 1951. During his short tenure in office (April 1951-August 1953), he rejected Shah’s illegitimate interference in the government’s affairs.

Shah’s American and British masters helped him by launching “Operation Ajax,” restoring shah to power in a coup. Dr. Mosaddegh was arrested, charged with treason, and sentenced to three years imprisonment. After his release, he was kept under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Once more in charge, Mohammad Reza Shah replaced the nationalized oil company with an international oil consortium that now shared Iran’s oil riches with American companies.

With US support, he launched two major programs to become the U.S. boot on the ground in the region.

The first, ‘The White Revolution,’ which Shah made much fanfare of, was apparently meant to serve poor Iranian farmers. Yet, this reform from above was aimed at preserving traditional power patterns and safeguarding Shah’s rule from a restive society.

The land reforms were, in fact, for the benefit of the ruling elite, and the Pahlavi family itself became the most prominent of the new commercial farmers. Many farmers couldn’t acquire any land, so they were forced to immigrate to cities’ margins and live in shanty towns. They also became cheap labor in the newly established factories. Besides, the so-called industrial farming reduced Iran’s agricultural exports, and by the early 1970s, Iran was importing many agricultural goods.

Shah’s initiative, in response to American demands for more political openness in Iran, involved the creation of his Rastakhiz (Resurgence) Party, which was entirely controlled by the regime and became Iran’s only political party, turning the country into a one-party state.

In return, in 1958, the Americans helped Shah to form the dreaded SAVAK secret police with the help of the CIA, and the Shah began a ruthless crackdown on opposition movements, all the while raising the specter of radical Islamists such as Ruhollah Khomeini, who later hijacked the 1979 revolution.

By the early 1970s, there were growing signs that Shah’s twin passions of modernization and political oppression were beginning to backfire. The Arab-Israeli conflict in 1973 caused a sudden increase in oil prices, generating a huge oil revenue for Iran and other oil-wealthy countries. This windfall of cash didn’t help Iran’s economy, which lacked proper infrastructure. In fact, it caused the Dutch disease. Shah squandered billions on his army and so-called construction plans. Increasing investments in different markets by foreign powers, coupled with the regime’s huge import of goods, crippled Iran’s economy and increased inflation and prices of consumer goods. This further increased society’s restiveness.

All the while, Shah continued oppressing freedoms. His ban on all political groups, apart from the Rastakhiz Party, created disenchantment amongst Iran’s then 25 million population. In today’s Iran, the Iranian regime’s imposing of Sharia laws has infuriated the population. Similarly, Shah’s obsession with Western values was slowly driving people back to reclaiming their religion, and his brutal crackdown on dissenting voices fueled demands for his overthrow.

Therefore, the Iranian people once decided to pay the heaviest price for their freedom. From 1977 to 1979, the revolution began to form, and in 1979, Iranians finally achieved their freedom. This freedom was short-lived, as Khomeini hijacked the revolution. This power usurp is the direct result of Shah’s oppression. He had arrested, tortured, and executed real leaders of Iran’s revolution. The few remaining were imprisoned until the very last days of the revolution, allowing Khomeini to feel the gap and impose himself as a benevolent grand Ayatollah that wanted peace. Shah paved the way for Khomeini to rise to power. In other words, Khomeini was Shah’s real heir.

Iran's people reject the Shah and mullahs' regimes | Iran protests

Yet, the Iranian people’s revolution didn’t wane into history’s darkest corners. Because the Iranian opposition, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), started a relentless struggle with the regime. The MEK has paid this price by sacrificing over 100,000 members and supporters. The Iranian Resistance has exposed the regime’s nuclear weapons program, its terrorist activities, and human rights abuses, therefore mobilizing the international community. Nowadays, the MEK’s Resistance network acts like the uprisings trailblazers while spreading a culture of defiance to the regime in Iran’s society.  The Iranian opposition has preserved the values of Iran’s glorious 1979 revolution, and now Iranians from all walks of life are determined to realize a new revolution.