By Jose Rodriguez
When Reza Khan took power in 1926, and crowned himself Shah of Persia, he began a process of Westernization and modernization. Mostly, however, these were efforts designed to strengthen his own power. Fearing the influence of the religious establishment, the Shah discouraged religious identification, and took steps to reduce the participation of the ulama in society. The Shah imposed a forbidding women from wearing a chador or a hijab and mandated that people wear Westernized clothing. Another step he took, which angered the religious clerics, was the allowance of men and women to socialize in public places and Universities. This allowed women to pursue careers as doctors, lawyers, judges, or any other professional employment they desired. The Shah was trying to bring his nation into the twentieth century, which included an insistence that foreign countries refer to Persia as Iran.
As is often the case in Iranian history, his rule was interrupted by foreign interference. In 1933, he granted Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later known as Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) a renewed oil contract, extending their agreement to 1993 and provided the Iranian government 21% of the profits. To the dismay of Iranians, it also meant that Iranians would have to house foreign technicians, engineers, consultants, and advisers. While Iranians would be employed, they were not compensated as well as the foreign experts nor were they provided decent housing. Less than a decade later, as World War 2 raged on, the British and Soviets invaded Iran because they feared an imminent German invasion. Reza Shah was furious with the decision and demanded they leave. A few days later, the Shah abdicated his throne in protest. In order to keep his dynasty alive, however, he crowned Muhammad Reza, his son, the new Shah of Iran. Reza Khan fled to South Africa, where he died three years later in exile.
The young Muhammad Reza Shah, the spoiled son of a Cossack army officer, took control of the Iranian monarchy in 1941. He, like his father, wanted to transform Iran into a great nation. Unfortunately, he was hamstrung by external and internal forces. Internally, his nation was divided. Taking advantage of the occupation of foreign powers and the young Shah’s inexperience, several opposition groups formed among the religious establishment, the Army officer corps, and Marxist groups. The ulama, long ignored by the monarchy and denied any influence in Iranian society, began to grow in support and started demanding a greater role in government. They also started a campaign to urge women to re-don the veil, to end the mixing of the sexes, to end the education of girls in public schools, and to generally reverse all the changes made under Reza Shah‘s rule. Another prominent opposition group was the Army officer’s corps, who saw an opportunity to challenge the Shah‘s rule. A group of Marxists also vied for power. The Tudeh party sought land reform and greater political rights for women. The young Shah was off to a precarious start.
Adding to his vulnerability was the struggle for influence between the British, Soviets, and the Americans. The British, veterans at the colonial business, mostly supported the existing institutions, so long as they did their bidding. The Soviets were a major supporter of the Tudeh party. To oppose the Soviets and their surrogate, the United States supported the Army officer corps. This political crisis lead to the obvious question: who was in charge?
In 1943, a charismatic and well liked man named Muhammad Mossaddegh was elected to the Majlis, the Iranian legislature. Educated in Paris, a strong supporter of democracy, he was placed under house arrest in the 1930’s for criticizing Reza Shah. In 1949, Mossadegh created the National Front, a group devoted to the interests of the peasants and the middle class, secularism, opposition to the growing power of the monarchy at the expense of democracy, as well as opposition to foreign powers in Iran. The National Front was a collection of parties that supported the rise of Mossadegh.
Mossadegh’s primary issue, which gained him tremendous support, was his opposition to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. AIOC was heavily invested in by the British, though they also employed many Iranians. But the profits from Iranian resources went into British pockets, which was a serious source of grievance. This issue gained popular support, including support from many of the ulama. Due to the efforts of Mossadegh, in 1951 the majlis nationalized Iran’s oil, which infuriated the British and Americans, who benefited from Iran’s oil. Mossadegh was soon named Prime Minister; unfortunately, the British and Americans imposed sanctions and began a global boycott of Iranian oil. Iran’s economy plummeted. Despite the setback, Mossadegh held strong and broke off diplomatic ties with Britain.
In 1952, in an attempt to enforce the Constitution of 1906, Mossadegh took power over the military, introduced land reform, and limited the Shah’s power. However, his changes were frightening the conservatives and those who supported the monarchy, which included the officer corps and many in the ulama. Also, as the economy deteriorated due to the punishment inflicted by Britain and the U.S., the National Front deteriorated as different factions began to compete for power. The Tudeh Party, for instance, began to take advantage of rising unemployment and unhappiness, and they found that their influence was on the rise. It was the army officer corps, however, who took steps to destroy Mossadegh.
The British and U.S. government welcomed the interest of the army officer corps in developing a plan to remove Mossadegh from power. In August 1953, the United States dispatched Kermit Roosevelt (the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt) to inform the Shah of plans for a coup d‘etat. The CIA would be heavily involved, he promised, with millions of dollars at their disposal. The CIA, under direction from Roosevelt, paid money to newspapers to run libelous headlines denouncing the Prime Minister, calling him a homosexual and a “Jew”. They also organized mass protests in Tehran to oppose Mossadegh’s rule. Within four days, Mossadegh was arrested by the Royal Army, and was immediately replaced by a new Prime Minster, who was loyal to the monarchy. The Shah was restored to power. The relieved Shah praised Roosevelt, saying, “I owe my throne to God, my people, my army, and to you.” Thus, as American control over Iran began, so too did the disdain for the U.S. in the Iranian heart.
The Shah was not interested in losing his power again, so he took steps to retain that power. He quickly put the former Prime Minister on trial and put him in jail; he moved to restore diplomatic ties with Britain; and he reopened Iran’s oil to foreign companies, provided Iran received 50% of all profits. The U.S. rewarded the Shah’s good behavior by granting him diplomatic and economic support, some $500 million dollars between 1953-1963. The Soviet-supported Tudeh Party was disbanded, as was the National Front. The Shah also created a Gestapo-esque security force known as the National Intelligence and Security Organization, otherwise known as the SAVAK. The SAVAK was advised by the U.S. and Israel, who had a keen interest in keeping Iran under its thumb. The SAVAK repressed Iranians, shut out political debate, and ensured that gatherings did not contain political opposition sentiment towards the monarchy. On college campuses across Iran, the SAVAK spied on students and prevented any serious debate about the political state of the country, breaking up protests before they started. Similar efforts were underway throughout the streets of Iran. Any activity seen as being even remotely hostile to the monarchy was suppressed violently, with the participants put on trial for sabotage and jailed for years. This was the reality in Iran until 1979.
There were, however, periods of unrest. One of the more notable periods occurred between 1960-1963. A fiery Ayatollah by the name of Ruhollah Khomeini began to rally his followers in opposition to the Shah, who he condemned for his efforts at secularization. The SAVAK arrested Khomeini in June 1963, detained him for a short period of time, but forced him into exile after a number of angry protests. The Shah was compelled to exile the Ayatollah in 1964, who fled to Turkey, Iraq, and then Paris. The Shah was frightened by the ability of the Ayatollah to rally the public through religious invocations and appeals to the public’s disdain for foreign interference in Iran’s government. The Shah had to change in order to stay in power.
Beginning in 1963, the Shah introduced what he called the “White Revolution” (“white” because it was a bloodless revolution). Though the Shah wanted to Westernize the his nation, he was not willing to democratize his government. The revolution had 12 points, which included a land reform proposal, literacy program, and an effort to improve Iran’s roads and railways. The White Revolution succeeded in raising Iran’s literacy rate to 80%, which was carried out by the armed forces who were required to spend 15 months teaching people in rural areas how to read. It also provided 92% of sharecroppers their own land, though most failed to subsist on their crops, let alone make a profit. Most people during this time fled the country side to urban areas. The roads and railways in Iran also improved, which improved communication and manufacturing. This allowed Iran to become a major industrial player, though the Iranian people were still forced to accept low wages, keeping them impoverished.
The profit from oil revenues greatly improved the people’s access to public schools, universities, and hospitals. This had a positive impact on the public.
As part of the revolution, the Shah encouraged women to participate in public life. Women were allowed into public schools and universities. They were also allowed to become professionals: lawyers, judges, teachers, and doctors. In terms off equality before the law, they still had a long way to go, but there was some progress. Women, for example, were allowed to prevent their husbands from taking a second wife. But they were also allowed to be in mixed company, and they were encouraged to wear Westernized clothing. The hijab (veil)and chador were banned, a move that upset the religious conservatives who sought to keep women subjugated. Thought society in general was still patriarchal, there were reforms that benefited women and advanced their rights.
Despite the gains and improvements, the Iranians still were not thrilled with the Shah. He was still regarded as a puppet for foreign interests, and they did not appreciate their dominance in Iranian markets. The Bazaars bore the brunt of their dominance, which affected the ability of the merchant class to grow. The bottom line for many was that the Shah was still maneuvering to retain his power, regardless of the people’s wishes.
In 1971, the Shah declared that the White Revolution was a success. To celebrate, he threw a lavish party in Persepolis to commemorate their 2,500 year Persian history. Price tagged at $300 million dollars, the impressive and extravagant ceremony drew condemnation from many, including the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini denounced the ceremony’s blatant waste of money, and invoked the suffering of the millions of poor Iranian peasants. “The crimes of the Kings of Iran have blackened the pages of history… what happened to all the gilded promises, those pretentious claims… that the people are prosperous and content?” the Ayatollah raged from Najaf.
From 1971 until 1979, the Shah was coming under tremendous pressure from the ulama and Marxist groups, who cultivated a growing sense of dissatisfaction among Iran’s poor. In a move designed to increase his control over Iran’s anemic democracy, the Shah limited the number of political parties to one: the National Resurgence Party. He also increased the SAVAK’s activities, including more brutal oppression, more arrests, and wide-spread censorship. Despite his efforts, his control was slipping through his fingers and revolution was well under way.
In January 1978, Iranians watched as U.S. President Jimmy Carter, champagne in hand, toasted the Shah and hailed Iran as an “island of stability.” Unfortunately, that was not the case. Soon afterward, the religious establishment began a series of protests, which provoked the government into wide-spread crackdowns. Mosques became a place for anti-government expression. The Ayatollah, however, was directing much of the dialogue and protests from exile. By the summer of 1978, the Muslim clerics had turned the public against the Shah, and in favor of the Ayatollah.
The loose coalition of secularists, clerics, and Marxists was finding itself directing the imminent fall of the Shah. Huge numbers of people met in Tehran to protest the Shah’s rule and to advocate for his overthrow. These protests led to more violent and deadly clashes with government forces, resulting in a tremendous number of protesters killed. This event, known as Black Friday, led to strikes that brought the Iranian economy to a stand-still and for growing calls for Khomeini to take the reins of power. The protesters ignored the Shah’s demand that people not march in Tehran, despite the deaths of 700 protesters. All of this culminated on December 12, 1979, with a march that drew 2 million people. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Shah knew he had to flee. On January 16, 1979, the Iranians took to the streets to celebrate the Shah’s departure. He left, with a box of Iranian soil, in exile. He died of brain cancer a year later.
On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Iran for the first time in 16 years. He immediately took control of the state, declaring that they need to cut off the hands of Iran’s enemies. Little did the supporters of the revolution realize that they had overthrown a tyrant in favor of a more vicious, conservative, intolerant, and religious tyrant. The relative freedoms they had secured during the Shah’s rule were now gone, and a new Islamic Republic was in charge.