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The Iranian Revolution

King Pahlavi (the Shah) | The Pahlavi Monarchy Falls | Political Divisions, Cleric Power and Totalitarianism

King Pahlavi (the Shah)

In Iran between 1953 and 1963 the gap between the rich and poor widened. There was talk of the oligarchy of "one thousand families." One of the great landowners was the Shah (king), Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Another was the Shia clerical establishment, which had acquired land through religious endowments. There were tensions between the monarchy and the conservative Shia establishment. The power and influence of Shia scholars had diminished under Pahlavi dynastic rule, and the monarchy was allied with secularists in conflict with Muslims opposed to the use of tobacco, alcohol, movies, gambling and foreign dress.

Muhammad Reza Pahlavi had been king since 1941 at the age of 21. In 1954 he had emerged as an absolute monarch with the overthrow of the Mossedegh regime – an upheaval with United States involvement. Many Iranians were annoyed by his ties with the United States, including his agreement with a western oil consortium. There were those annoyed by the presence of many Americans in their country, and some Iranians saw the United States as having taken the place of the British. Some of the discontented formed an underground group called the Fedaiyan-e Islam. They tried to assassinate the Shah's prime minister. The Shah responded by repressing the Fedaiyan-e Islam and executing a few of its members.

Among the discontented were those who remembered that the Shah's father back in 1936 had barred clerics from acting as judges in state courts. And some clerics, including the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were offended in the early 1960s when the Shah gave himself the authority to initiate legislation. The Shah, meanwhile, enjoyed the support of Iran's upper and middle classes, and he had the support of clerics who saw him as an alternative to the political Left.

After the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossedegh and the enhancement of his power in 1954, the Shah launched an effort to modernize Iran economically and socially. He sought to balance his increase in power with reforms that would win more favor from common Iranians. Landlords and some clerics were outspokenly opposed to these reforms. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (religious edict) against the reforms. The government-owned radio station responded to Khomeini with a ridicule. The Shah announced that his reforms would take Iran into the jet age while the mullahs wanted to remain "in the age of the donkeys." Numerous clerics went over to the side of Khomeini.

A New Upheaval

Fearing opposition, the Shah cracked down on dissent. On March 22, 1963, in the holy city of Qom, theological students who were agitating against a scheduled opening of liquor stores were attacked by the Shah's paratroopers and by his security agents – SAVAK. The disturbance spread to students in the city of Tabriz. There and in Qom, according to some, government forced killed hundreds.

When speaking to honor the dead, Ayatollah Khomeini called the Shah's rule tyrannical. The government retaliated against Khomeini. For many Iranians Khomeini became an anti-Shah hero. His arrest on June 5 caused anti-government demonstrations and rioting in various cities. The Shah declared martial law. Tanks and troops were sent against the rioters. Iran's airforce strafed a column of marchers. In two days the rioting was crushed. Many had been arrested, including twenty-eight ayatollahs. A Western academic in Iran estimated that many thousands had died. An Iranian, A. R. Azimi, put the number at 10,000, while the government estimated the number of dead at 86.

The Shah's government sent Khomeini into exile, Khomeini settling in a Shiite community in southern Iraq. The amount of violence used against cleric dissent had broadened opposition to the Shah but had driven it to quiet hope, with a good portion of that hope focused on Khomeini. From Iraq Khomeini continued his attacks on the Shah, sending into Iran pamphlets and tape recordings. Khomeini stated that Islam was opposed to monarchy. He described the title "King of Kings" used by the Shah as the most hated of titles in the sight of God. Monarchy, he said, was shameful, disgraceful and reactionary.

Economic Gains and Problems

From 1963 and into the seventies, the Shah struggled to modernize Iran. Foreign policy strategists in the US saw him as a stabilizing force in the Middle East, and they appreciated his acceptance of Israel's existence. With help from the United States, Iran laid plans for a proliferation of atomic power plants, and the new economic development included the introduction of new fertilizers and pesticides. Between 1963 and 1967 Iran's economy rose dramatically. Oil production boomed, producing an abundance of cash for Iran. Steel mills rose from 1,902 in 1963 to 7,989 in 1977. There were also new oil refineries, aluminum smelters, machine tool factories and new tractors, trucks and automobiles. Public education improved dramatically, as did public health services. The number of doctors increased three-fold and the number of hospital beds doubled.

But the stigma of the bloody upheaval of 1963 remained, and the monarchy was not about to relax its attempt to control hostile clerics. In 1966, book censorship was established, with police agents raiding mosque libraries. In 1967 socially conservative clerics had another reason to be annoyed. The Shah's new laws gave women the right to apply for divorce without the husband's permission; a man had to secure his wife's consent before taking a second wife; and legal matters involving families were transferred from religious to secular courts.

Despite the booming economy, many Iranians were still struggling economically. Agricultural output had been rising at a rate of 2.5 percent per year, but Iran's population had been increasing at 3 percent per year, and with the booming economy had come an inflation rate of from 30 to 50 percent a year. The government was managing the economy poorly. The Shah tried to control inflation by controlling prices, which upset merchants. Many were upset with rents having risen 300 percent in five years, which took as much as half of a middleclass family's earnings. The prosperity was benefitting those few labeled as nouveau riche. Corruption had emerged among government officials eager to acquire some of the wealth, while the income of common Iranians failed to keep up with rising prices.

The Shah attempted to bribe fence-sitting clerics onto his side, and he sought to deflect criticism by establishing a new parliamentary body between himself and the masses. The Shah was looking forward to the day when his son, Crown Prince Reza, would succeed him, and he hoped that a return to constitutionalism would make the transfer of power orderly and peaceful. But holding on to power would be a big challenge.


Copyright © 1998-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.