To understand the truth about the  late shah

and what really happened in Iran in 1979,

one must read this article by Alan Peter,

An expert on security and intelligence matters in  Iran.


This article in PDF-file



Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980),

A retrospective on his reign on the occasion of  the

twenty-fifth anniversary of his death.


"They revere you in  fortune

 and trample you  in defeat"



Some 25-years ago  this summer, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi the Shah of Iran was dying in Cairo. Egypt's  President Sadat had offered him his last refuge and helped him escape from a  perilous exile in Panama.


Historically, Egypt has been famous for  providing shelter - even to those they do not approve - like the family of  Yasser Arafart - at the time that Arafat was public enemy #1 in Egypt for  inciting the overthrow of Sadat's regime, his wife and children were guarded by  Sadat's government bodyguards.


In the case of the Shah, Sadat liked him  and the Shah's marriage to former Egyptian King Farouk's daughter made him  "family", too.


In Panama, the fate of the ailing monarch had hung in the  balance for several weeks as shadowy contacts between Panama's strongman,  General Torrijos, and emissaries from the Islamic revolution increasingly  pointed to a swap deal - the extradition of the Shah against the release the 52  American Embassy hostages in Tehran.


While the Shah's hand-over to  Khomeini was seriously contemplated by President Carter, his administration had  been drawn into an eerie gambit in Panama of which the hostage end-game was  unknown .


The Shah's succumbing to cancer on July 27th, 1980 must have  brought a sigh of relief in Washington as indeed in many other capitals burdened  by the past courtship for refuge of the Iranian monarch, many of whom had  previusly benefitted from his largesses.


Two decades and many sorry  events later, some of the intricacies of the Shah's personality and rule still  beg scholarly probe.


The majority of Iran's current population has been  born after the Shah's demise. His image in their mind, as indeed in the minds of  many casual observers abroad, has been shaped through unrelenting distortions of  historical facts by Carter and an obliging liberal Media, intent on justifying  Carter's decision to remove the Shah.


The younger Iranians deserve an  unbiased account of these 37 years in its baffling turns and twists and  contradictions. Including that when he left Iran for the last time, the Shah  also left behind some $3 Billion of the Pahlavi Foundation funds over which he  had total control and relied on some $90 million of his own money, accumulated  over many decades, through investments in Europe, one of which was a jewelry  business in Switzerland.


To be sure, a distilled account of these years  would not completely vindicate the Shah. His handling of the constitution was  self-defeating in ways that escaped his political savvy. Yet, at worst, was  still aimed to benefit the country not himself. He had all the prestige he  needed and required no constitutional short cuts to stroke his ego.


His  authoritarian rule, much of it because he could not find "managers" to help run  the country honestly and efficiently, carried the seeds of instability and a  backward thrust, the prevention of which had served as an alibi to silence  dissent. Yet, the surfeit of slander and libel before and after his downfall was  largely undeserving.


Few leaders in history have been adulated and  demonized in such a frivolous manner. A good illustration of hypes comes from  two prominent Americans. On the New Year's Eve of 1978 -- a few short days  before the triggering event of the Islamic revolution -- President Carter stunned the US western allies by calling  the Shah his most trusted ally and dialogue  partner.


Carter's effusive flattery - describing Iran as  island of stability - was in opposing symmetry to another hyperbole by Senator  Edward Kennedy, who some two years later, at the  height of the American Embassy hostage crisis, castigated the Shah for having  run "one of the most violent  regimes in history of mankind".


Kennedy continues,  even today, in his baseless attacks on anything and everything, including his  own government and citizens.


Both remarks were clearly calculated to  achieve short-term objectives. Carter came to Teheran, desperate to check the  soaring price of the crude oil.


Kennedy's remark was timed to optimize  the chances of his emissary to Tehran, tasked to obtain from Ayatollah Khomeini  a token release of the American hostages.


Kennedy, then seeking to snatch  the Democratic presidential nomination from the incumbent Carter, had chosen the  former US Senator James Abourezk (of Arab extraction) for this unpublicized  mission to Tehran.


Where should the line be drawn? In a mixed bag of  achievements and flaws the Shah's balance sheet resembles other modernizing  states. Many would grade it superior. What  tarnished his image most was his alleged record on human rights and political  freedoms, much of which proved in the aftermath to be highly  exaggerated.


Detractors state "a silence of a  cemetery" to characterize the political arena in Iran during most of the Shah's  rule. The ubiquitous security agency SAVAK, created in 1957 with the help of the  US through General Teymour Bakhtiar, later a sworn enemy of the Shah, was the  instrument of the repression of mostly Communist attacks on the monarchy  triggered by the Soviets.


By the seventies, the suppression had spawned  violence as groups, sprung from the very edges of the ideological  spectrum, resorted to urban guerrilla tactics and acts of terrorism. A vicious  circle set in. General Bakhtiar,  domiciled in Iraq, was instrumental in sending waves of terrorists into Iran. Terrorists willing to shoot to kill.


For the first time traffic  police, who usually had empty holsters or unloaded guns at their waist were  issued side arms and bullets. The terrorists robbed banks to fund their  operations and for the first time in Iranian history, the robbers shot innocent  clerks to make a point.


Then SAVAK blended ruthlessness with  incompetence.


It had been effective in dismantling the clandestine  structure of Iran's Communist party (Tudeh) but failed to guage the creeping  popular discontent, fanned by Marxist groups like the Mojahedin and Fedayeen,  still less the coming of the fundamentalist Islamic bane that surprised the  Soviets and snatched away their Marxist revolution to place it in clerical  hands.


When the crunch finally came in 1978, this colossus fell on its  clay feet unable to save its master. A dozen Soviet urban guerilla psychologists, operating from  inside the Soviet Embassy in Tehran and calling the shots for anti-Shah  operations overwhelmed Iranian intelligence and police autorities, who had no  training in how to handle or oppose these attaacks.


For  instance, they had their Marxist minions knock on people's doors begging for  Mercurochrome (a red antiseptic liquid common in Iran) and cotton wool. Ostensibly needed to treat wounded innocents shot by the Shah's forces in such  huge numbers that pharmacies no longer had enough of stocks to provide them to  these volunteers.


The red Mercurochrome was in fact used to stain the  streets and clandestine flyers would then claim the Shah's men had shot  innocents nd removed their bodies.


As proof they used another gambit.  They collected old shoes - men's, women's, children's of both sexes and threw  one shoe of each pair by the hundreds on top of the stains. The flyers would  then invite people to witness the amount of deaths by those single shoes that  had fallen off the bodies as the Shah's forces allegedly hurriedly removed the  victims and left the shoes behind.


The extent of repression was never  close to claims recklessly advanced in some quarters, including by such  reputable institutions as Amnesty International,  which finally concluded in late 1978 that there were less than 2,400 political  prisoners in the Shah's jails.


Only this number despite the wide  spread Soviet efforts to install their minions and find passage to warm waters  providing thousands of candidates. Despite the Bakhtiar terrorists sent in their  hundreds, despite the Marxist and Fedayeen in their thousands openly attacking  the regime. And the Hezbollah-to-be, pro-Khomeini adherents who disregrded laws  and inviting arrest ona daily



No mass graves trailed the Shah  when he finally quit the country in January, 1979. No "death caravans" haunted  his memory. Tehran produced no equivalent of Buenos Aires's "Plaza de Mayo"  where "grandmas" gather every Sunday to reclaim news of their missing children.  To be sure the military courts were quick to mete out death sentences. But the  practice of royal pardon was

abundantly resorted to. The sentences were  systematically commuted or annulled.


Some viewed this practice as a  gimmick to earn political capital but be it as it may, few now dispute the fact  that the Shah was averse to  cruelty or execution. He even stayed Khomeini's execution  in 1964 at the behest of General Pakrvan, head of SAVAK. In hindsight the  gravest, catastrophic mistake possible, which not only later cost Pakravan his  life but also Iran's progress into a modern nation instead of a deep well of  suffering and pain it is today. 


The overall number of  executions by the military tribunals, including  those occasioned by drug related offenses, after drug smuggling and distribution  became a capital offense, were estimated at around  350 cases in a 25-year period. The USA has more than this and Iran  currently has close to 200 a year, including teen-agers of both genders, which  contravenes all laws and even

Iran's own.


Figured among them were a few  prisoners of conscience including some twenty-five ring-leaders of the military  wing of the Communist party of Iran. Their crime, leading to execution, was to  have been mesmerized by Stalinist Russia. The rest of the six hundred communist  officers arrested in nineteen fifties - as indeed the bulk of other political  prisoners - were rehabilitated, many

were co-opted into the Shah's  administration.


One of his favorite gambits was to invite dissident  leaders into senior government positions and then ask them to do the job better  than the person they replaced.


Then chortle when they eventually admitted  they were unable to because the system and co-workers were too cumbersome and their staff often sabotaged work or were incompetent and they now understood why  their predecessors failed to succeed.


Having experienced the challenges  first hand, they usually ended up becoming strong supporters of the Monarch in  his efforts to change and modernize the nation.


All in all some 3500  persons were reportedly killed in street unrests or by order of military courts  during the Shah's reign, between 1953 to 1979 though little substantiaion exists  for such a number.


In one famous incident of Jaleh  Square, where claims of 5,000 deaths were made, secret martial law figures later showed only eight  had died from bouncing bullets fired into the  air to control the crowd and another 30 had been wounded the same way. The  square was also not big enough to hold 5,000 people making such a claim even  less possible. Over a thousand "unmatching" shoes were found in the square the  morning after!


The Geneva based International Committee of Red Cross  which visited all Iranian prisons in 1977 in an anti-Shah mission inspired by  Carter and his allies, put the number of political prisoners at 3200 while some  seventy prisoners were declared unaccounted for.


American liberal democrats, as was the intention, could  pretend to be horrified by these figures, moderate though they are in relative  terms and could use them to justify the removal of the  Shah.


This having been said, there is another facet of  human rights in the Pahlavi era which has largely been disregarded in the rush  to condemn.


In an average middle class neighborhood in Tehran of the  nineteen fifties, for example, a small alley had taken its name after a Jewish  doctor, who had been the first to construct a house in that vicinity.


The  alley housed an Assyrian Christian family, several Baha'i families, a  Zoroastrian family and of course many Moslem households. No hint of bigotry  disturbed the serenity of this cultural mosaic. Tolerance or  lack of it was a personal matter not a government imposition and for the most  part if you lived your life to the fullest but avoided anti-government activity,  nobody

bothered you.


It would be hypocritical to claim  that religious minorities were by law on the same footing as Moslems but  intolerance was being discouraged and the system moved progressively towards  full equality of rights among citizens.


There were differences: minority  members could not rise above the rank of Brigadier-General in the military. On  the other hand, each ethnic minority had representation in the Majliss  (Parliament) and Senate proportionate to their numbers in the overfall  population.


A previously unknown historical anecdote cited by a US  scholar in a recent book best illustrates the point. It concerns the protection  of the Iranian Jews living in the occupied Europe during World War  II.


Reich on the false  pretence that these citizens, having lived in Iran for over two millennium, had  been assimilated in the Persian (Aryan) race. According to the author, the  Iranian Government of the time, managed to procure them safe conduct from the  authorities of the Third


The status of women is another  case in point. Under the Pahlavis Iranian women were brought to the society's  mainstream. The mushrooming institutions of higher learning opened their doors  to women. Teachers, doctors, lawyers and administrators were trained and fielded  in different walks of life, to the very highest levels such as Minister of  Education, Member of Parliament and so



The right to vote, to seek  divorce and be protected from an abusive husband was - to the dismay of the  clerics - written into the law - weakening their supersititious and religious  hold on the general populace. And creating resentment among them toward the  Monarchy.


Today, the Iranian women  remain one of the vanguards of resistance to scourges of the fundamentalist  Mullah rule.


The Bazaar merchants also  resented their monopolistic control of imports and exports and general business  being extracted from their little bazaar booths, which represented billions of  dollars never put back into circulation for the improvement of the  economy.


The Shah moved much of this into modern, multinational  organizations in uptown Tehran, so the miffed merchants funded the clerics and  encouraged them to foment trouble and use religion to attack the  monarchy.


Much of the bravura exhibited by the Shah's administration in  the seventies, was in the sphere of economy. The exuberance of the double-digit  growth was indeed intoxicating. In 1974 - in the wake of a quantum jump in the  oil price -- the Shah dismissed the counsel of prudence by experts and decreed  an even faster growth. In his complex psyche, many imperatives drove him to go  full



One factor was to firm up the throne for Crown Prince Reza  but he was equally concerned with his legacy and place in history - should he  not disprove those detractors who claimed he did not measure up to the towering  figure of his father. Reza Shah the Great, to use his full title, was a stern  disciplinarian with a strong will to unify the country and willing to use force  tobring

Iran's tribal chieftains under Central Government control. A hard act  to follow for his diplomat son.


But the  economic bullishness did not pay off in the face of the sabotage by the  bazaar. The country's weak infrastructure  buckled under the weight of imports and the rise in the price of oil resulted in  lower consumer demand in world markets.


As the economy wobbled and  Carter's human rights agenda aimed like a javelin at the Shah, forced him to  make liberalizing gestures, and the tide began to change.


Iranians respect power  and strength. The moment  he showed a "co-operative" attitude, they turned on him. Egged on by both the  funds from the bazaar and the hostile clerics, whose influence had been  diminished to almost nothing among a much more modern populace with open ties  available to Western life styles and mind sets.


All these were unexpected  perks for the disgruntled clerics. The magnetizing effect of the boom had  already drawn rural masses to major cities glutting the congregations in  mosques. Now the clerics reaped the harvest of fanned discontent, brandishing  radical Shiite doctrine both as a challenge and a remedy.


The Shah's  "politics of liberalization" had also created its own sliding spiral. To reverse  these trends, the Shah should have - but failed - to rally secular political  forces to his side.


With the hindsight, it is  also fair to say that the rigidity of some of the secular National Front  leaders, who could have showed support and not eventually been destroyed  themselves by the clerics, was an error of historical scale on their  part.


Marxist and libertarian  influences also made them into a philosphical, snobbish elite, which could not  see the pitfalls of their mindsets relative to increasingly literate but  basically uneducated and inexperienced Iranian populace.


To what extent  the Shah's judgment had been impaired by the secret diagnosis of lymphatic  cancer in 1974 has not been established. Such a link is hard to quantify, all  the more so that the Shah had apparently not been told of the exact nature of  his illness, until the later years.


Be it as it may, his most serious  errors occurred during the ensuing period. It was at this time that the Shah  decided on one party rule to prevent the bickering that had ensued in the two  party system of Iran Novin and Mardom and to allow very capable men in the  minority Mardom party to accept important positions to carry the nation forward.  Instead he decreed that the Rastakhiz party would have two "wings" to cover the  differing views of the elected parliamenterians.


He replaced the Islamic  calendar with an ostentatious imperial calendar in a historical acknowledgement  - not of his reign - but that of some 5,000 years of Monarchy in Iran.  Anti-Monarchy groups, using any excuse, immediately attacked this as personal  grandure.


The Shah had also begun his somewhat fanciful flights on the  "Great Civilization." The new royal mindset had the Iranians believe that within  a generation or so Iran would rank among the world's industrial elite. Had he  beengiven more time, his investments in key industries in the West, like Krupp  steel and internal develoment of essential items like cement plants, nuclear  power, etc., could well have made his vision come true. With all the various  pieces inside his almost photographic memory he was looking beyond the  horizon.


Had a race against the clock already began for the Shah? A  wild-west climate of profiteering marked these balmy years. Abusive business  practices, including by the Shah's close family and friends, became a hallmark  of the laissez-faire policies practiced at overkill scale. Partly because  policing or regulating everything in a rapid growth arena with too few people to  help him, became too much to handle.


Remember, a country resembles a  major corporation and needs competent managers, directors,  vice-presidents, senior vice-presidents and staff to run profitably and  efficiently. Iran's growth far outstripped the availability of persons who could  accept responsiblity with any degree of competence - or sadly - with honesty and  not line their own pockets.



The Shah himself could hardly be  given a clean bill of health as he brooked corruption in his entourage, yet he  was far from the rapacious persona, with a fabulous wealth, which the  revolutionary puffery sought to depict. In fact he was a pragmatist. When  complaints reached hin that his Minister of Interior had misappropriated some  $40 million and should be sacked and thrown in jail, the Shah refused.


He  explained that the man had been Minister of Interior for some ten years or so,  knew his job well and if he were fired, would spend a few years in prison and  then be free to go to Europe and enjoy his plunder.


Instead, the Shah  stated, he will be at his desk every morning at six a.m., know that I know  everything - and if from nothing else but guilt will do his job for the country  better than before.


Which would be preferable to releasing him to go play  in Europe with his stolen money, which could probably no longer be found to  retrieve it.


During the Embassy  hostage crisis, the revolutionary authorities kept no stone unturned to find  documentary evidence of financial wrong doings by the Shah. This search was  aimed, inter-alia, to substantiate claims in the extradition brief submitted to  Panama.


In March 1980, foreign correspondents  scrambled for scoops in the jammed conference hall of the Tehran's Central Bank,  where President Bani Sadr was to make the Islamic Republic's legal case against  the Shah. Scathing revelations were expected. Yet nothing worth the print could  be wired back to editors.


The  revolutionary authorities had not been able to pin the Shah to any financial  irregularity. This was not, however, the case in  respect of some of the Shah's close family  members.


Interesting to note,  however, is that within six months of taking power, the Mullahs had rapaciously  transfered funds to private overseas accounts they created for themselves, which  exceeded by about ten times the total amount of what the 1,000 elite families of  Iran had placed overseas during the last 25-years of the Shah's  reign.


Most of the money  transfered out of Iran just prior to the revolution was done by trades people.  Plumbers, carpenters, construction contractors, builders, electricians etc., who  got their money out and quickly left while the Shah was still there.


When  the crunch finally came in 1978, the Shah was unprepared and not up to the  challenge. He was quick to shed the awe-inspiring mask of the mighty king and  meekly looked for advice.


The Anglo & American Ambassadors were  solicited most, yet their counsel was tentative and vague, reflecting indecision  and discord with their own chancelleries. Others consulted, were an array of  retired politicians, social scientists, military leaders and some prominent  clerics.


Their advice was too contrasting to allow the Shah to overcome  his indecision. In managing the crisis the Shah committed blunders, practicing appeasement from a position of weakness. By the last quarter of 1978, in the  face of an astounding quiescence by the Shah, the largely apolitical mass of the  urban population, 60% under the age of 25-years and still wet behind the ears politially, swung to insurrectionists' inflammation of them, rendering the trend  irreversible.


But to his credit the Shah  skirted a bloodbath. Evidence abounds that on this score  he had remained steadfast throughout the crisis period. He repeatedly rejected  the get-tough advice proffered not only by some of his generals but coming also  from some unlikely quarters in the West.


By the year-end the Shah was  ready to unclench his hold on power.


Images of his tearful  farewell at Mehrabad airport on January 14, 1979 remain haunting memories of a  dream turned into a nightmare.


In a grisly act of  disappointment, the Shah left behind in detention his loyal and highly refined  Prime Minister of 13-years, Amir Abbas Hoveyda. The ex-Premier was summarily  executed by the revolution's hanging judge, Mullah Khalkhali, shortly  thereafter.


With the Shah's  departure, Iran sank into the darkness of the Middle  Ages. A reign of terror, of which he had  presciently warned the nation, set in. The first public act of Khomeini, when he  took over the reins of power in February 1979, was to abolish women's right to  sit in as a judge in a court of law.


He initially dissolved the Ministry  of Justice, stating that anyone against him was against Allah and should be  killed where they stood - with no need for a trial or other justice  system.


That presaged the  calamities and blood-letting that were to follow.


Perhaps no ruler in  history like the Shah has benefited from a postmortem redemption, due not to any  re-appraisal of his balance sheet but the misdeeds and brutal excesses of those  who succeeded him in power. Far above and beyond anything of which he could have  been accused even by his most biased opponents.


A case study would  support a theory that the value accorded to any given regime should be measured  in light of its inevitable successor and the ability of the latter to improve  conditions and ills of which they accused the  predecessors.


As they ask in  American politics, are you better off now? Iranians would certainly say  "no".


About Me

Name:Alan Peters


For many years involved in  intelligence and security matters in Iran and had significant access inside Iran at high levels during the rule of the Shah, until early 1979. Currently serve as  an SME (subject matter expert) Iran