On January 16, 1979, the last Shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi fled the country, after being faced with country-wide protests and demonstrations. The Shah’s departure to Egypt threw the doors open to the Iranian Revolution, more popularly known as the Islamic Revolution, and for much political unrest.
In 1941, when Iran was taken over by British and Soviet authorities and the troops swarmed through the Shi’a nation, the first Pahlavi shah was forced to abdicate and his son Mohammad Reza took over the reins of administration. To start with, the new shah remained a strictly constitutional head leaving the administration to the elected government. The Shah, however, was dissatisfied with his role. He started to take on more power and soon antagonized many. A Communist plot against the Shah was uncovered in 1949. Through the following decade, an avid Iranian nationalist Mohammad Mosaddeq started to gain more popularity than the Shah.
The earliest difference between the Shah and Mosaddeq appeared over the nationalization of British oil interests in Iran. Though Mosaddeq convinced the parliament, the Shah, a close ally of the US was opposed to such an action. Mosaddeq, despite his growing rift with the monarch was elected as the country’s premier in 1951. When the Shah tried to oust Mosaddeq in 1953, the premier’s support seemed an unassailable force. The Shah had to leave the country but a few days later he returned in a coup d’etat by British and American intelligence forces. The Shah now had supreme authority, and remained a strong ally of the US through the Cold War.
Even as late as the mid-1970s, Iran would not have dreamt of a revolution, despite severe discontent. Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was well-educated, modern, and had powerful western allies including the United States. The oil-rich nation, however, could not break out of religious orthodoxy and perceived the shah’s brutal secret police, the SAVAK, with much fear and resentment. The Shah’s popularity hit rock-bottom with the religious conformists and the Shi’a majority of the country by 1978. The middle class was growing in power and population and did not take kindly to being kept away from political power.
In 1964, the Shah of Iran had exiled an Islamic religious leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Over time, the Ayatollah’s influence grew and his criticism of the Shah’s new-fangled ideas grew in strength and frequency. He aired his criticism through radio messages from outside the country. The Shah introduced his brand of “westernism” in the country – allowing women to work and vote, opening up the country to unprecedented land reforms, literacy drives for adults, and infrastructural development – angering Muslim fundamentalists. Religion now replaced repression as the center of many violent protests and demonstrations through the 1970s.
In 1971, the Shah also upheld his Persian legacy with an extravagant celebration. The occasion was the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy which pre-dated the Islamic regime in the country. In a further step that infuriated the Islamists, the Shah replaced the Islamic calendar with the Persian calendar in 1976. The situation started to spiral out of control in 1978 with Iranian oil workers going on strikes leading to a major economic disruption.
With the students and intellectuals of the country alienated, demonstrations against the Shah became common in most major Iranian cities through 1978. In September that year, the Shah’s forces fired on an angry mob and killed hundreds of protesters, injuring thousands more. This led to a nation-wide protest. The Ayatollah called for an overthrow and a mutiny broke out in December. The Shah’s regime collapsed and he was forced to flee. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and Empress Farah, his wife, flew out of Tehran to Aswan in Egypt. Three of the five royal children were flown to the United States. Official reports said that the Shah had left for medical treatment. And indeed, after visiting a few countries, in October, 1979, the royal couple reached the US where the Shah underwent treatment for cancer. By then, nearly 14 days after the Shah’s flight, the Ayatollah returned to Iran and took over the country’s administration. On December 2, 1979, the Ayatollah became Iran’s absolute ruler for life.
The days following the Shah’s arrival in the US were marked by a major diplomatic crisis. Islamic militants went on a protest in Tehran. They wanted the Shah to be returned to Iran for a trial. When the US refused to comply, on November 4, the militants stormed the US Embassy in the Iranian capital and took 66 staff members hostage, of which 52 were held hostage for 444 days. The Shah died on July 27, 1980, at Cairo in Egypt. An agreement for the release of the hostages was negotiated about 6 months after the Shah’s death.
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