Why, in spite of its apparent strength, was the monarchy so rapidly overthrown in Iran in 1979

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Last updated: April 13, 2019

The key to this question lies in the words “apparent strength”. In 1953, with the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh (PM of Iran), Muhammad Reza was given a new lease of life. Determined to retain his power this time around, Reza embarked on a series of reforms officially proclaimed the “White Revolution”.

The reforms would go on to produce substantial economic and social advances in Iran, however, the Shah’s stubbornness to impose the legitimacy of his absolute monarchial rule proved to be costly in his efforts to strengthen Iran.In fact, in reality the Shah’s monarchy was up against so much internal opposition in subsequent years that he had to resort to establishing a secret police known as the SAVAK and other such extreme measures to quell the discontent among his people, who despised the corruption that existed within the government. Despite his efforts, his torture methods, copious wealth and support from foreign powers (especially the US) were still not enough to prevent Muhammad Reza’s overthrow in 1979, in a revolution led by an Islamic leader named Ayatollah Khoimeini.In 1963, the Shah came up with a series of reforms that he believed would help modernize Iran “along Western lines”1.

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His goals were welcomed among the Iranian public and the Western world alike, the two most important being land reform and the establishment of a literacy corps. The latter was more successful and in fact, between 1963 and 1977 enrollment in elementary schools more than doubled and university enrollment increased seven-fold2.When the land reform program ended in 1971 it had helped about 2 million people become landowners. Other positive developments that resulted from the White Revolution included improved health care leading to a lower infant mortality rate and better internal and external communications.

Women were even given greater equality in the legal issues of marriage; their permission was required prior to a man marrying another woman.Oil revenue increases ($13 billion from 1976-1974 to $20 billion in 1975-1976) 3 due to the OPEC embargo in response to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was a major boost to the country whose industrial output swelled dramatically. In 1971 the world was witness to the wealth amassing in Iran when the Shah is believed to have spent $100 million for the commemoration of 2500 years of the Iranian monarchy. To the outsider, especially those in the West, the developments and milestones described above made it seem that the Shah was indeed in power of a stable and strong monarchy popular among the public.However, in the following paragraph when the mentioned issues are studied in more detail, it becomes increasingly ostensible to see that the White Revolution was merely a “justification for the shah’s rule”4 and events in the 1970’s were indication of an inevitable revolution to overthrow him. Even though the Shah could proudly proclaim in 1971 that “there is no longer any farmer in the country who does not own his own land,” he failed to acknowledge how inadequately small the majority of those pieces of land were which ended up forcing the ‘beneficiaries’ to migrate to urban areas.Furthermore, one would think that the increased oil funding would be a panacea to most of the Shah’s problems concerning Iran, however he thought otherwise. In 1976, 96% of families did not have electricity or piped water and Tehran lacked a sewer system5.

Perhaps the most significant reason for the weakness of the monarchy was the corruption that existed at almost every level. This led to the irresponsible spending of oil profits and consequently, a slowing down of the economy.In fact, encouraged by the US and British, the Shah was known to have spent more than $10 billion on arms and military equipment alone6 . This led to the employment of more than 60,000 foreign technicians in Iran, deepening the distrust among the public for foreign influence and the Shah’s reliance on it. This also provided an opportunity for Islamic fundamentalists to attack the Shah’s anti-Islamic reforms. Various opposition groups emerged as a result beginning in the late 1960’s including the Freedom Movement and Marxist organizations that launched a campaign of terror against the Shah.One among these was a group known as the “militant wing” of the Ulama in which Ayatollah Khomeini was an active member.

He was a charismatic and outspoken leader who condemned the corruption within the regime and its connection with USA, leading to his exile in 1963 by Muhammad Reza to Iraq and later France. The shah’s actions set up a dress rehearsal for the Revolution to come in the June uprisings of 1963 that revealed the power that the ulama still held over the people in protesting modernistic reforms that promoted foreign influence.This is convincing evidence of the vulnerability of the Shah’s monarchy, which I am convinced the Shah himself was aware of. This is why he tried his best to ascertain the legitimacy of his rule by glorifying Iran’s pre-Islamic past stressing that the Pahlavi dynasty was the rightful heir.

Moreover, after his adverse experiences in exile he took a hardline policy in the politics of Iran in in fear of losing his position. He destroyed the National Front and Tudeh parties who had been instrumental in his decline of power prior to the 1953 coup.In 1975 he went one step further to scrap the two-party system and establishing a single organization known as the National Resurgence Party. However, his most powerful weapon was the SAVAK, an internal security organization established with the help of US and Israeli military advisers. They were infamously known for their torture of political prisoners and were also responsible for Khomeini’s arrest.

In fact, according to Amnesty International in 1976 there were an estimated 25,000 – 60,000 political prisoners in Iran7.The shah also faced external pressure from the US president Jimmy Carter, who was a keen advocate of Human Rights and was responding to the world’s outcry against the situation in Iran. The SAVAK soon became a symbol of the political repression in Iran and instead of stifling internal opposition, it united the people to look for a new leader in Khomeini who would lead the 1979 Revolution. In conclusion, a comparison of the situation in Iran and Turkey at the time can be made to endorse my reasoning behind the illusion of strength that the monarchy portrayed.Having to deal with similar tribulations from social and political changes in Turkey, President Ini?? ni?? tackled the issue by permitting greater political freedom and expression. This led to the creation of a multi-party system that had its own share of problems, however the existence of a running secular democracy in Turkey today is proof of its successful modernization, in contrast to Iran at present being controlled by fundamentalist Islamic policies.

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