Towards autocracy 1953 - 1963

The CIA-led coup of 1953 ended any chance of Iran following an independent path, guided by nationalist movements with wide popular support. Instead the restored monarchy kept Iran as a vassal-state of the USA, a pawn its its global Cold War strategy. There was an immediate clamp-down on Mossadeq's supporters - he himself escaped execution due to his popularity (and won more support from his courage and eloquence at his trial); many of his followers were not so fortunate. The National Front and the Tudeh were outlawed and saw 1000s of members arrested and imprisoned. The Shah set up two bogus political parties in the Majlis - popularly known as the "Yes" party and the "Yes, sir" party. Many junior army officers were executed for communist sympathies. Repressive measures hit the university. Free expression was "discouraged".

The post 1953 regime

BP logoThe Shah still had the support of the conservative establishment - military leaders, land-owners, and senior clerics. The Shah now carefully vetted candidates for the Majlis, and from 1955 took sole charge of all state matters (having dismissed Zahedi). Oil production quickly resumed, thanks to the Finance Minister Dr Ali Amini (who'd served under Mossadeq). Between 1955 and 1960, his Prime Ministers did only what they were told (Manuchehr Iqbal actually admitted to being "his master's voice"). SAVAK badge In 1954, following the demise of the National Front, a Consortium of 16 western oil companies took over the operation of the AIOC, on the basis of sharing the profits 50-50 with Iran. This was only marginally better than the previous concession, but Iran had little choice after the two-year boycott. The AIOC itself was now just one of the 16, and was rechristened British Petroleum (BP).

In the same year Iran joined the Baghdad pact (with US, UK, Turkey, Pakistan and Iraq) - an important Cold War alliance against the USSR's potential influence in the region. Iran spent most of its extra revenue, as well as much of the generous US aid, on defence, or prestige projects of dubious value. The CIA, assisted by Mossad, the Israeli secret service, used their experience to help develop the intelligence service SAVAK - soon to become the detested enforcers of the shah's repressive domestic policies, with 5,300 full-time agents.

Intellectual life was stifled - writers reflected the country's mood of depression and despair, for which some were imprisoned. The Majlis was dominated by land-owning conservatives, so that land reform went into reverse - instead of being redistributed to the poor in the countryside, it was repossessed by the shah and his family. The small emerging middle-class was distracted by its thirst for westernization - reflected in rampant consumerism and new projects - badly-built high-rise offices and apartment blocks, motorways, hotels, department stores. Though Iran was politically stagnant in the 1950s, elsewhere things were changing fast: the overthrow of the monarchies in Egypt (1956) and Iraq (1958) sent a warning. Inflation, falling wages, strikes, corruption were preparing the way for a second US-backed coup - this time against the shah himself.

The "White Revolution" aka "Shah-People Revolution"

There had been recent communist take-overs in Cuba, China and Vietnam: the US, now (1961) with J F Kennedy as President, realised that a new Cold War strategy was needed to forestall communism's appeal. Suddenly economic and land reform was seen as key to holding back revolution. The new US-backed initiative in Iran was actually called a "revolution"! It shamelessly appropriated all the policies of the outlawed Tudeh: land reform, votes for women, profit-sharing for workers, nationalisation of resources, education for all. To see it through, the shah appointed Dr Ali Amini, veteran of the Qavam and Mossadeq governments, as Prime Minister. He had the impossible task of implementing popular measures, without himself usurping the popularity which the shah intended to monopolise. And he was also determined to cut back military spending.

The Opposition

The Tudeh party had been almost policed out of existence - but the National Front had been resuscitated, and was demanding the restoration of constitutional government, and free elections. There was a growing movement of young Marxists - flourishing especially among students at home and abroad. Also opposing was the Islamist faction - against the shah, against land reform and women's suffrage, and against the US. When an anti-government demonstration by students was brutally put down by SAVAK, Amini had to choose. Was the shah responsible (unthinkable!), or was it General Bakhtiyar, the head of SAVAK? The shah felt he had to sacrifice the general - Amini thought he was now strong enough to insist on his spending cut-backs. But the US backed the shah against him (despite his American connections, as former ambassador to the US, and pro-American sympathies) - and Amini was forced to resign. The shah would take the credit for his "White Revolution".

Ayatollah Khomeini

Ruhollah Khomeini as a student in 1938In 1963, the shah's reforms (as drafted by Amini) were approved in a near-unanimous referendum, despite demonstrations, and a boycott by the National Front and the Islamists. The opposition didn't object to the reforms, as much as to the way the shah was exploiting them to legitimise his rule. For the first time religious leaders played a part in the protests, alongside the thousands of shopkeepers, office workers, teachers, students and unemployed who took to the streets. Resistance was savagely stamped out - protesters were killed, tortured and imprisoned.

Ruhollah Khomeini had recently become an Ayatollah after the death of the Grand Ayatollah Borujerdi - who, along with Ayatollah Kashani, had led the clerical establishment in unwavering support for the shah. In Qom, Khomeini began preaching against the phony referendum, denouncing the reforms as a ruse to bring Iran even more tightly under the thumb of the USA and of selling out to Israel, whose economy Iran was boosting by supplying oil.

In June 1963 he was arrested after an emotional attack on the shah in a sermon: several days of rioting followed in which at least 125 people were killed when heavily armed troops were sent in with tanks. Martial law was declared, and machine guns opened fire on the crowds. It was the Ashura, the holiest day in the Shi'i calendar, the day of mourning for the death of Hussein at karbala in AD 680, and Khomeini had likened the shah to the Umayyad caliph Yazid. His main supporters were the small bazaar traders, traditionally fiercely religious. The uprising was on a local scale, however, and was no serious threat to the shah. Khomeini was spared the death sentence and released in March 1964. He returned to Qom, where, undaunted, he continued his attacks. He was particularly incensed by what he saw as rampant colonialism, when the shah accepted a loan of $200,000,000 to build up his army:

They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog. If someone runs over a dog belonging to an American he will be prosecuted. Even if the shah himself were to run over an American dog… Iran has sold itself to obtain these dollars.

On the same day as the Majlis ratified the loan, Khomeini's house was surrounded by special forces, who put him on a plane to Turkey. Later he moved to Najaf in Iraq, and in 1978 to Paris, where he continued to be a focus for the opposition. But as yet he was not its leader. And the shah now believed he could easily crush dissent with a bit of ruthless suppression. He was wrong.

The Police State 1963 - 1975.

The paradox: prosperity and repression

Through these years, the shah's rule was increasingly dictatorial - and he increasingly relied on SAVAK to enforce his decrees. At the same time, though, prosperity increased for most Iranians, thanks to the partial trickle-down from oil revenues, and despite poor management of resources by the privileged elite. But there was an undercurrent of frustration and resentment which became increasingly hard to suppress..

Land Reform

Yes, it happened - and maybe two million peasants got viable land of their own, despite attempts by some land-owners to cheat the system. Many more though, received grants of land that were too small to subsist on, meaning that millions were forced to drift to Tehran and other cities looking for work. Labourers were never included in the scheme - and mechanisation ensured than even more of them too migrated to the cities. There were 4.5 million people in Tehran by 1976. These people settled in shanty-towns on the southern edge of the city - often with others from the same village, where a mullah they knew could help a community form and grow.

Economic boom

Between 1963 and 1979:

  • GDP per capita rose from $200 to $2000.
  • New industries flourished to absorb workers from the countryside - coal, textiles, vehicles, though wages stayed low.
  • Women's rights in the home and in employment were recognised.
  • Expansion of schools and universities: numbers in education increased by around 400%.
  • Health: hospital provision grew, and improved health and lower infant mortality fuelled a population boom.


The shah now had more say in production levels, and received more of the profits. In 1973, the price of oil doubled twice - thanks to the Yom Kippur war and the formation of OPEC (of which the shah was a leader). This meant he had even more to spend on weapons - he had more Chieftain tanks than the British Army. By 1974 the shah had achieved Mossadeq's ambition of Iranian control - which now gave him unprecedented wealth, and diplomatic influence.

Foreign relations

Since 1956, the British had been reducing their commitments east of Suez. The shah was minded to cooperate with the US - the central power who would show favour to regional powers like Iran to secure American and local interests. The main fear was that Russia would replace Britain as the key regional player - the shah was more than happy to play along with the US, especially in view of revolutionary activity in the Gulf, an agitation in Oman, an independence movement in Bahrain, a quarrel with Iraq over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and Pakistan's weakness since the loss of Bangladesh in 1971: using his financial clout, he could solve these problems, and ensure the safety of his vital oil exports. But he didn't want either to antagonise Russia, or encourage Soviet backed change (a particular worry in Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan) - at the back of his mind was undoubtedly the idea of a new Iranian empire: "the Great Civilization". He promised aid to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan. He proposed a "Common Market" of eastern nations, from Australia to the Gulf - it never happened, of course. He sent money and troops to help Oman, Pakistan, Somalia and Ethiopia deal with "communist" subversion - all part of the quest for regional hegemony.


  • Inflation and shortages
  • Too much money chasing too few goods = inflation. The shah blamed the market traders for profiteering: he sent SAVAK to sort them out. 8,000 were imprisoned. A class already hit by competition from imports and supermarkets now had even more reason to dislike the government. Attempted deflation meant fewer jobs - the poor suffered most, but the middle classes also felt its impact.

  • Americanisation
  • Iran was in love with American products - cars, Coca-cola - but hated the Americans; the 50,000 who now lived there (by 1979), and their colonial attitudes towards them. Americans lived in their own communities, with their own shops, schools and even hospitals. 'Incidents' between Iranian citizens and Americans became frequent.

  • Clash of lifestyles
  • The country people now living in south Tehran had little in common with the westernised middle classes of the north. They resented the presence of unveiled women in the latest fashions, and the adverts for a consumerist society they could never be part of (even if they wanted to).

  • New political movements
  • The shah wanted to maintain the fiction of political parties competing with each other. He chose a personable young man to front the New Iran Party - but he was assassinated within months, by an Islamic movement inspired by Khomeini. The shah chose to replace him as Prime Minister with Amir Abbas Hoveyda who proved to be a wily survivor, keeping his job from 1965 until 1977: he finally came to grief in the 1979 revolution. An irritation to the regime rather than a threat was the emergence of two Marxist inspired urban guerilla movements, the more important being the MKO (Mojahedin-e Khalq Organisation: Holy Warriors of the People) which combined socialist and Islamic principles. They were ruthlessly hunted down by the regime.

    "Neither East nor West" - the Shah in control

    The Hoveyda years were ostensibly peaceful and prosperous for Iran. The shah's international respectability seemed secure. Though a staunch ally of the west, he had good relations with the USSR and China. In 1971, to American approval, he took over the role of policeman of the Persian Gulf from the British. As a "regional power" the shah was invited by President Nixon (who came to Tehran to meet him) to purchase any weapons he fancied (except nuclear) - a magic moment for a man obsessed "with everything that flies and fires". Nixon, and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger shamelessly ingratiated themselves with the Shah: the more oil he sold them, the more weapons he could afford to buy, from them. And in 1973, the Shah, (see above) had the cash to indulge his obsession with weapons.

    The world's biggest party: making Iran great again

    In 1971, the shah decided to cash in on his popularity as a charismatic modernising king, equally acceptable to Europeans, Americans, Russians and Chinese by holding a gigantic party, at the ancient sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae. It was to mark 30 years of his reign, and 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy - establishing the continuity with Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty, who conquered Babylon in 539 BC. Bewildering for most of his subjects, in whose lives the Achaemenids did not register prominently, but flattery for the international community, who liked to think they knew their classics! The splendour of this extravagant folie de grandeur is commemorated on a website:, and in an interview with Abdolreza Ansari, one of the key organisers, recorded in 2002 by Cyrus Kadivar of The Iranian: "We are awake - 2,500 year celebrations revisited."

    The 1971 Banquet at Persepolis

    Preparations for the celebrations involved demolishing villages, moving undesirable parts of the population - and even clearing out snakes from a 30 kilometre radius. With no appearance of irony, the chosen symbol for the event was the Cyrus Cylinder, which the shah had declared regardless of historical accuracy as the "first declaration of human rights". A replica was presented to the United Nations in New York, and it was featured prominently on stamps, coins and souvenir items. Meanwhile human rights in his Iran were more honoured in the breach - in 1975 Amnesty International proclaimed the shah's government to be one of the world's worst violators of human rights. Khomeini denounced the event as "these frivolous and absurd celebrations" - and called out His Imperial Majesty's appropriation of the Achaemenid "king of kings" title: "Islam is fundamentally opposed to the whole concept of monarchy."

    Autocracy Perfected 1975 - 1979


    In 1975 all pretence of western-style democracy was abandoned. A new political party - on the model of Stalinist one-party states - was inaugurated, which was to replace all existing parties. Know as Rastakhiz ("Resurrection") its only purpose was to applaud whatever decisions the shah might make:

    The shah's only fault is that he is too good for his people - his ideas are too great for us to realise them.quoted by Abrahamian, Iran between two revolutions, 1982

    The Rastakhiz party recognised the shah as spiritual as well as political head of a new Iranian era. He abandoned the Islamic calendar, he told Iran to look forward to being one of the world's five foremost powers. He controlled prices in the bazaars and markets. He began exercising control over the ulama - arresting and imprisoning any who challenged his regime.

    Having survived assassination attempts, he began to imagine that like Cyrus and Darius he was protected by the divine farr: to make sure, though, he avoided meeting his subjects as much as possible, and his public appearances were usually behind bullet-proof glass. Intellectuals were meanwhile tasked with devising a specifically Iranian philosophy of monarchy - "neither Eastern nor Western".

    The Slide towards Revolution 1976 - 1977

    The fall-out from the economic boom and stampede towards the cities had by now led to unemployment, shortages - housing, social services, electricity; and disillusionment, frustration and anger. The scheme of regional dominance proved over-ambitious and short-sighted. He was completely reliant on US resources. His neighbours did not appreciate his initiatives - seeing them for what they were: designed solely to enhance the shah's prestige and influence. President Nixon's unconditional support was replaced by President Carter's caution, in the aftermath of Viet Nam. With the shah less confident in US backing, the suppressed opposition began to assert itself again. The shah belatedly tried to show America he was willing to relax his oppressive regime - a bit. Some political prisoners were released, a meeting with Amnesty International took place, the National Front dared to raise the idea of return to constitutional rule, the Writers' Association pressed for an end to censorship: in 1977 the great sycophant Hoveyda was replaced as Prime Minister by a slightly more "liberal" figure. Had constitutional government and the demands of the National Front leaders, and the Writers' Association been accepted, it might not have been too late to head off the revolution. But as things stood, meltdown was approaching.

    the 1979 revolution

    The end

    By 1978 the shah's dreams collapsed finally: he was seen now as an American stooge, rather than as the regional champion against communism. A people's uprising couldn't (or rather wouldn't) be suppressed by his army. Abandoned by the US, his belated and half-hearted moves to meet demands roundly rejected, he left Tehran on 16 January 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini returned after 14 years to a hero's welcome. The fabled 2,500 years of Persian monarchy was over - the Islamic Republic was created.