The exile of Ayatollah Khomeini and the shah’s success, at least for a while, in silencing the forces of opposition generated a sense of royal self-confidence with an almost prophetic mission. The decade of 1963 to 1973 represented, with all its shortcomings, the best of the shah’s years: an age of economic development, success in foreign policy, and relative popularity at home. Despite repression and movements of radical dissent, for a moment the shah seemed to have cast away the shadow of dependency on the West. Yet the sobering message of the June 1963 uprising remained largely unheard by the new ruling elite. And when it was heard, they dismissed it as the last gasp of the “black reactionaries,” as the shah had labeled the clerical opposition.


Between 1965 and 1975 Iran’s population grew by 40 percent, from more than twenty-four million to more than thirty-four million; growth was facilitated by lower infant mortality, longer life expectancy, and greater access to medical care. Rural migrants continued to move to larger cities in search of higher-paying jobs and a better standard of living. In 1971 Tehran’s population exceeded three million, and by 1975 it bordered on four million. In 1972 there were an estimated five hundred thousand cars on the streets of the capital, a number that by 1979 had doubled mostly thanks to the domestic production of an affordable sedan, the Paykan, a brand assembled since 1967 under license from a soon-to-be-defunct British car manufacturer. Not only the capital but also all provincial centers began to experience the unavoidable forays of the proud owners of private cars congesting urban thoroughfares. By the late 1970s cars, vans, buses, and trucks, whether domestic or foreign in manufacture, new or old, private or public, had conquered every corner of the country’s rural and urban roadways, realizing the worst of Al-e Ahmad’s “Westoxication” nightmare. Polluting the air—especially in Tehran, where the Alborz range created a barrier that trapped the smog over the city—vehicles became one of the greatest hazards to life and safety, with escalating road accidents and fatalities. For the haves and the have-nots, cars became not only a status symbol but also a monster demanding that all roads, even sidewalks, and all public spaces to be sacrificed at its altar. The slogan of a TV commercial on the Iranian network, “In the hope that every Iranian can have a Paykan,” summed up the consumer culture that began to take shape in the 1970s and would continue after the 1979 revolution.

The state’s industrialization initiative was not limited to car manufacturing and consumer goods, and often was not as present in the public mind. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s during the third and fourth development plans—implemented by the Planning and Budget Organization—Iran expanded its infrastructure. It constructed new roads and railroads and improved existing ones; built massive dams to cultivate more lands and generate more electricity; installed a countrywide electrical grid and communication networks, water purification plants, and irrigation projects; and built heavy industry, petrochemical, cement, and sugar plants, as well as port facilities and new oil and natural gas pipelines. The private sector also contributed by expanding the capacity of spinning mills and textile plants, consumer and household goods, foodstuffs, packaging and bottling industries, motor vehicles, and even the steel industry. By the mid-1970s Iran had developed a substantial domestic market for cars and related industries, household goods, clothing, food and drinks, furniture, and construction material, and the balance of the public and private sectors promised a viable mixed economy for a developing nation that still was heavily relying on oil revenue for its public investment.

The critics of the intellectual left and later the extreme left, some still carrying the incurable Tudeh bug, belittled much of Iran’s industrialization as a mere “assembly” (montage) of useless products that had been imposed by Western consumer culture and were for the benefit of a “dependent bourgeoisie.” Often looking up to the smoke-belching, inefficient, labor-intensive, centralized Soviet and Eastern European industrialization model, such criticism later was picked up by the Islamic radicals and became part of the rhetoric of the 1979 revolution. Yet it is fair to say that in later years, the state industrialization program became overambitious and out of control, leading to waste, corruption, and nepotism—at times it was devoid of any meaningful relation to the state’s preconceived master plan.

The growth of the industrial sector barely satisfied the domestic markets’ growing demand for goods and services. Imports of all sorts from Europe, the United States, and Japan flooded Iran’s markets, mostly at the expense of the bazaar sector and associated small-scale manufactures and wholesalers. As the larger import-export and industrial businesses gradually moved out of the bazaar district into more fashionable areas, the bazaar’s demographics began to change, especially in Tehran but also in larger provincial centers. In due course the bazaar came to house mostly small merchants, distributors, wholesales, and retailers of small industries catering to the poorer and more traditional sectors of the population. The change in its function was not necessarily detrimental to the bazaar, despite the government’s unfavorable attitude toward the bazaar merchants for harboring antiregime, and particularly pro-Khomeini, sentiments. Undeniably, demographic changes turned these old centers of commerce not merely into bastions of conservatism but also into important components, financially and otherwise, of the fomenting Islamic activism.

The evolving bazaar moreover presented a physical and geographical anomaly in the midst of the modernist image of the Pahlavi economy. The jewelers, goldsmiths, watchmakers, fabric stores, shoe stores, perfumeries, draperies, china shops, and kitchen stores—side by side with wholesale carpet merchants, import-export businessmen, bankers, moneylenders, and haberdasheries, hardware wholesalers, apothecaries, and thousands of small workshops producing a variety of goods in the sprawling neighborhood, often in the oldest part of major cities—were still vibrant enclaves. And given their size, they were engaged in brisk business. Yet the bazaar’s prosperity and what it offered, at least economically, was no longer essential to Iran’s economy.

The changes evident in the Iranian economy were well demonstrated by the rising oil prices and their effects on the government budget. Between 1965 and 1972 Iran’s annual budget grew rapidly from nearly US$1 billion to $8 billion, a sizable increase that resulted from incessant wrangling with the Iranian Oil Participants Limited (IOP), better known as the Consortium of Iranian Oil over production levels and higher prices. The rise of the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the 1960s—with its first secretary-general being Fo’ad Rouhani (1907–2004), an adviser to Mosaddeq and a historian of Iran’s oil nationalization—gave the shah another tool to persuade the consortium. By the mid-1960s Iran had limited the consortium’s operations to a smaller territory in Khuzestan and had signed more favorable agreements than the 1954 concession with French and other oil companies to develop Iran’s offshore oil in the Persian Gulf and inland. This compelled the consortium to increase both the production level and Iran’s share of the income. By 1966 there was an annual increase of 17 percent in Iran’s income from oil, exceeding for the first time $1 billion, and constituting nearly 50 percent of Iran’s annual budget for that year.

By 1969 Iran’s annual production passed one billion barrels, and in the following year its share of income substantially shifted from the burden of the fifty-fifty agreement in 1954 to the new 61 percent of Iran’s share versus the consortium’s 39 percent. At the time, although oil prices worldwide were extremely low—an outcome of giant oil companies’ many decades of deliberate exploitation of oil-producing countries—the Iranian success appeared to be a triumph for the shah and allowed him to come out from the shadows of the oil nationalization campaign of the 1950s. The massive oil price rises in the following years, however, proved to be not entirely a blessing, as it appeared at first glance, for they shook the Iranian economy and helped in due course to unsettle Iran’s sociopolitical balances.

The oil crisis from October 1973 to March 1974 and the multiple price increases that came in its wake was a turning point, perhaps an inevitable one, not only for Western economies and the global inflation that it triggered but also for the economies of the Middle East, and especially oil-exporting countries that relied on oil income to develop their infrastructure and raise standards of living. What was earned from oil income, as it happened, at least in part purchased affluence for these countries’ privileged classes, or alternatively was squandered on vainglorious projects. Iran stood at the very top of the oil-producing countries of the Middle East, bearing the brunt of the overflowing revenues that came into its coffers. This was not merely because it was economically more developed than its neighbors, and therefore more vulnerable, or because it was the most populated of the OPEC members in the Middle East; it was because of the choices made by those in power, headed by the shah and a small group of technocrats at his service; choices that were enthusiastically endorsed by his foreign friends and allies but that eventually helped undermine the very survival of the Pahlavi regime.

Between 1971 and 1977 Iran’s annual budget further grew sixfold from $8 billon to $48 billion, an upsurge substantially due to direct and indirect oil receipts. Shortly before the October 1973 war between Egypt and Israel that led to the Arab Oil Producing Exporting Countries’ oil embargo and triggered a rapid rise in oil prices, a barrel of Persian Gulf light crude traded at the exploitatively low price of $1.95, a price that was the outcome of many negotiations in previous years. Soon after the October war, however, the price jump stunned even the oil producers; by 1975 it had reached nearly $11 per barrel in the European spot market and even higher prices in the United States. By not taking part in the Arab embargo against the United States, Iran stood to benefit not only financially but also politically. In contrast to the unfavorable image of Arab oil producers in Western media, which stereotyped the Arab sheiks as greedy plunderers with undeserving riches, Iran was seen, at least by those who could differentiate Iran from its Arab neighbors, as something of a friend—still greedy and unfair, no doubt, but not hostile and uncompromising.

Yet since 1972, even before the oil crisis, Iran was at the forefront of an OPEC campaign for increased prices. Initially, it was the loss of revenue due to depreciation of the US dollar that unified OPEC members in their demand for higher prices (after the United States decided in 1971 to terminate the Bretton Woods Agreement that ended the convertibility of the American currency to gold). In later years Iran increasingly justified its price hikes by pointing at rising inflation, which hiked the prices of imported goods and domestic manufactures. It also argued that oil, a finite commodity that deserved to be conserved and fairly priced, had long been extracted to the advantage of the too-powerful oil companies to supply Western economies with cheap oil.

In early 1973 the situation had shifted in favor of the oil producers to the extent that the shah, long discontent with Iran’s production levels, announced that his country would not renew its operation agreement with the consortium that was due to expire in 1979. His threat found a new momentum given the long-term guarantees that the consortium required to plan its exploration and production. Concurring with the nationalization of oil industries initiated by other OPEC countries such as Iraq, the shah felt confident enough to nullify the 1954 agreement two years earlier than it was due to expire. For domestic purposes, the move was portrayed as “nationalization”—the third one after 1933 and 1949—and a new laurel for the glory-hungry monarch. In April 1975 he flew back to his capital to be received by the crowds that had been bused in to Aryamehr sport stadium to express their “gratitude” (sepas). Yet the exercise in imperial adulation was not without its repercussions, for the “gratitude” ritual took place in an atmosphere of public sarcasm and at a time when the Marxist and Islamist urban guerilla organizations projected a very different picture of heavy handed Pahlavi rule.

The impact of increased oil income on all aspects of the Iranian economy and society cannot be exaggerated. Already in 1973 Iran was experiencing an official inflation rate of 11 percent, setting a pattern that was precipitated in coming years both because massive funds were injected into a domestic economy with limited capacity and because there was a huge inflationary trend worldwide. Although by 1973 Iranian per capita income had risen to $566, the impressive increase was diminished, if not entirely eroded, by a higher cost of living. By the late 1970s inflation stood at as much as 25 percent annually. At the time, Iran’s growing income from oil, as the shah and his government were eager to point out, appeared highly beneficiary to Iran: more oil income meant a larger allocation of funds to development projects, greater affluence for all sectors of the population, stronger defenses, and a greater international prestige. These were all essential ingredients for the shah’s dream of recapturing what he called the “Great Civilization” (tammadon-e bozorg), a catchphrase meant to recapture the glories of the ancient Iranian past. The arrival at the threshold of this Great Civilization, however, was imminent only to the person of the shah and his sycophants. It was as if the rise in Iran’s oil fortune, and the shah’s active campaign to capture what had been denied to his deposed premier, Mosaddeq, had made him see an inspired vision for reshaping his country. Mission for My Country was indeed the title he had chosen for his memoirs first published in 1961, a mission that over the years took the shape of a prophetic call.


It is untenable to treat the shah’s evolving self-image in isolation, and especially as distinct from the new technocratic elite that came to serve the monarch and populate his government after the mid-1960s. With the appointment in 1965 of Amir ‘Abbas Hovayda (1919–1979) as prime minister—after the assassination of Mansur, in whose government Hovayda had served as minister of finance—the role of the new technocratic class became more obvious. Often younger professionals—Hovayda was forty-five when appointed prime minister—were mostly the fruits of a generational shift that came about in the later years of Pahlavi rule. Educated in modern schools and often holding a graduate degree from Western universities or having some experience in the Europe or in the United States, they had mostly built careers after 1953, some through the bureaucratic ranks and others through family and other connections. In contrast to the landowning notables of the postconstitutional period who endured the Reza Shah era, the new class, though affluent, was not bound to large hereditary estates, particularly after land reforms. Unlike the liberal nationalists of the postwar years who supported Mosaddeq, and more like the military elite of the Reza Shah era, the new class of officials was essentially nonideological, and they seldom possessed any political agency. Though a few were from notable families or families of wealth and influence, the new generation of ministers, diplomats, and high officials relied on their education and expertise, but also on the Pahlavi patronage network, their proximity to circles of power, and obedience to the higher echelons of government.

Amir ‘Abbas Hovayda was a case in point. Born to a family of middle-ranking notables of the late Qajar period, his father became a diplomat under Reza Shah (and abandoned his own father’s, Hovayda’s grandfather’s, devotion to the Baha’i faith). He was brought up a secular Muslim, educated in a French lycée in Beirut and later earned a political science degree from a Belgian university before entering the Iranian diplomatic corps. Fascinated with French literature, and an admirer of André Gide, he frequented intellectual circles in Paris and Tehran and befriended the likes of Sadeq Hedayat, to whom he would send the latest works of European and American literature. An enigmatic personality, Hovayda later joined an Iranian Freemasonry lodge, and presumably through that patronage network, he was appointed a member of the board of directors of the Iran National Oil Company. A cofounder of a circle of young progressives, which later became the nucleus for the Iran Novin (Modern Iran) Party, Hovayda was appointed finance minister to Mansur’s cabinet.

Though first serving in a caretaker role as prime minister, Hovayda’s personality evidently appealed to the shah, who retained him in office for the following thirteen years (1965–1977), a term of office equaled in duration only by that of Hajji Mirza Aqasi (who served as Mohammad Shah Qajar’s premier between 1835 and 1848). Though not as influential as Aqasi when it came to controlling the shah, or as paternal, Hovayda’s interplay with the Pahlavi monarch despite his complexities were mutually beneficial to both sides. The shah viewed Hovayda as unthreatening and subservient, as a humble executive who acted on behalf of the powerful ruler, a role with a long history in Iran’s ministerial past. Hovayda was prepared to play such a part while quietly expanding his network and advancing his agenda. Fearful of a prime ministerial monopoly, the shah favored his understated style and sycophantic passivity while playing the premier against other senior officials, notably his powerful court minister Asadollah ‘Alam. Hovayda, however, fully submitted to the reality of royal power, especially in the areas of security, military, and foreign affairs. He was a soldier in the service of his beloved monarch, as he often asserted.

That Hovayda remained relatively unblemished by deals and wills, nepotism, and the excesses of the last years of the Pahlavi rule was in part because of his personal integrity and lack of appetite for material gains—a characteristic shared by only a few of his subordinates. This largely was because he carried a lesser burden of governance than what was expected constitutionally of the prime minister. It is fair to say that more than anyone, he was responsible for the culture of ministerial passivity that prevailed through his tenure as prime minister. With few exceptions, a generation of officials who came to occupy high offices was perhaps best characterized by subservience to royal will, obsequious timidity, and lack of moral spine—even more so lack of political vision. The culture of statecraft that emerged in these years accepted the shah’s ultimate authority in all affairs at the expense of critical thinking, much less voicing criticism of royal policies and practices. The atmosphere of fear and compliance spread a certain numbness throughout the system and decreased the chances of promoting independent views. A veneer of optimism about the dawning of a glorious vista opening up under the shah’s wise leadership concealed undercurrents of cynicism or opportunism.

The lack of any stance independent of the shah further weakened political agency among statesmen of the late Pahlavi era. The censorship and coercion imposed by Savak, the closure of even the pro-regime political parties such as Iran Novin and Mardom in favor of the all-embracing Rastakhiz (Resurrection) Party in 1975, and the absence of any alternative political forum effectively eliminated all chances of building up a civil society outside the bounds of the state and untouched by royal wishes and whims. Although patronage networks did exist and high officials exerted a great deal of favoritism toward their partners and protégés, there was a palpable dearth of creative thinking and even less room for political action. Despite the creation of the Rastakhiz Party, meant to boost popular participation, the gap between state actors and the general public widened throughout the 1970s. State actors operated in a sanitized bureaucratic cocoon, divorced from the realities of the society they claimed to represent. Ministerial posts became channels for doling out contracts or buying influence, the Majles turned into an assembly of faceless nonentities rubberstamping legislation, and—after many rounds of dismissals—the emasculated military fell even further under the shah’s spell.

The small network of well-connected and compliant technocrats thus came to control and use up, if not squander, the massive oil revenues that began to pour in after 1973. In addition to Hovayda and his cabinet members, who were routinely reshuffled, there were other networks of power and influence that included ‘Alam and his cohorts, the entourage of Empress Farah, who received the title Shahbanu (lady shah) in 1967, and other members of the royal family, among whom Ashraf Pahlavi was the most visible. To varying degrees the shah presided over these networks of influence and favoritism, at times rebuking some for moral and financial excesses and at other times promoting some for their merits or their loyalty. Counterbalancing rival factions proved a formidable task, one that could be achieved by allowing huge quantities of funds to lubricate the channels of power and for smooth operations of the state and its affiliated bodies and institutions.

In pursuit of his earlier intellectual interests, Hovayda also tried with moderate success to arrive at a rapprochement with discontented intellectuals, hoping to lure them into collaboration. This was meant to soften the regime’s image by means of employing the unemployed and underemployed poets, writers, artists, critics, and former activists, making them less contentious toward the regime and more dependent on its largesse. He funded cultural institutions, patronized artistic activities, and listened to moderate voices of reform. He was of the belief, at least in the earlier years of his premiership, that with a powerful leader like the shah at the helm—a necessity in his view, given the painful experience of democracy in earlier years—Iran could be transformed into a prosperous society with material and cultural advancements; his was a positivist view of social progress that paid homage to secular modernism while echoing the shah’s rhetoric. Yet this view did not give any priority to pluralism, popular representation, or respect for individual freedoms. Though Hovayda was sold on the royal rationale of progressive autocracy, he exerted a modifying influence over the system through push and pull, and through persuasion. His self-deprecating demeanor, in contrast to the elite culture of indulgence and arrogance that flourished in the period, was refreshing but not altogether convincing to the regime’s critics or even to intellectuals and activists co-opted by the Pahlavi state.

A more significant player of the period was Empress Farah and her fledgling clique of intellectuals and artists who came to dominate the cultural stage in the late 1960s and 1970s. She had a moderating influence on the otherwise monolithic Pahlavi course and its bland cultural perspective. A French-educated student of architecture in Paris when she married the shah in 1959 at the age of twenty-one, Farah Diba came from an affluent military family with ties to old nobility in Azarbaijan. A woman of intelligence, with diverse cultural interests and a flair for the recovery of lost Iranian heritage, she was a refreshing voice of refinement in the royal court and beyond. As mother of crown prince Reza Pahlavi, who was born in 1960, and later as a woman with a taste independent of her husband, Farah Pahlavi earned a stature beyond what was usually permitted or expected of the women of the court. Having influence over the shah, especially in matters of culture and education, she was also audible, through direct and indirect channels, in the deeply male-dominated political sphere. Having been brought up more as a commoner, she was less alienated from the life of ordinary folks, even though over time she seemed to have been discouraged by the prospects for any major reform of the system. Like Hovayda, and at times in cahoots with him, the empress offered a fresh style, even though she remained essentially complicit in the Pahlavi power rationale.

By the late 1960s the four major branches of power and influence were almost entirely subservient to the shah. The civilian branch consisted of the court circle under the court minister Asadollah ‘Alam, who also loosely supervised the networks around the member of the royal family, facilitated much of the shah’s relations with the diplomatic corps, and enabled the shah’s private life. The machinery of government and its many enclaves were supervised by the prime minister Amir ‘Abbas Hovayda and his ministers and allies. The circle around Empress Farah was smaller in number and limited in its power but exercised some influence over the broadcasting network. The extensive military branch consisting of the personnel of the Iranian armed forces was even more tightly under the shah’s direct control than the civilian branch. He made all the senior military appointments, decided on purchase of military hardware and weapon systems, and monitored the conduct of the ranking officers.

Also under the shah’s surveillance, though officially being departments of the government, were the Savak, the National Iranian Oil Company, the Planning Organization, and the Pahlavi Foundation, a “charity” that held, developed and operated many of the properties appropriated under Reza Shah (including a hotel chain) as well as managing the shah’s many private investments. Likewise, he personally presided over the most sensitive aspects of foreign policy, meetings with the heads of states and appointing ambassadors to major world capitals. All important, and in many respects not-so-important, affairs of the state were to be brought before the shah and received his seal of approval. A category of state affairs that were to “receive the royal honor” (sharaf-e ‘arzi) was the ultimate stage of decision-making in the Pahlavi hierarchy of power.

Beyond the structure of the state and its bureaucracy, which constituted the public sector, those organs of the private and semi-private sectors which were in routine interaction with the government, including major foreign investments, had to report their economic policies and development priorities to the shah for his approval. They included most banks, major industries, and universities. In all, the shah was the supreme source of authority in a power hierarchy that was largely devoid of agency and critical perspective. It was above all a system driven by loyalty and obedience to the shah and fear of him. It is wrong to believe that such a structure under the shah’s thumb was merely for his financial benefit and material pleasure, even though his private life was brimmed with sexual escapades. It is true that like many autocratic leaders of the developing world, he amassed a substantial wealth for himself and owned numerous private investments and development projects. He also allowed many of his aides, members of his family, court cronies, and ministers to accumulate illicit and undeserved wealth. A powerful clique of businessmen, industrialists, financiers and developers also benefited from their close ties to the shah and the Pahlavi elite. There were few major economic projects in the country that could successfully operate without some form of partnership with members of the ruling elite or paying kickbacks in the form of bribes, commissions, and shares in new ventures. By the mid 1970s some scandalous deals acquired a level of notoriety even intolerable by the shah. Yet Iran under Mohammad Reza Shah was not a mere kleptocracy.

Far more crucial incentives for enforcing royal control however were the two interconnected personal traits in the shah’s personality: a sense of political insecurity and a drive for prestige and glory. He invested a major part of his time and energy to personally supervise, and in most instances micro-manage, the affairs of the state rather than delegating power to his subordinates through constitutional channels. As if he had to prove his worth above all to the ever-present ghost of his father and to ghosts of his nemeses that no doubt included Mosaddeq. Prestige, especially on the international stage, equaled in the shah’s mind with Iran’s military might, political and diplomatic presence and projecting unrealistic images of royal confidence and Iran’s power and material progress. Such an arrangement endured for more than a decade, especially on the international stage, though increasingly it was corroded from within and challenged by overt and covert forces of opposition to which the shah, and his lieutenants, remained insensitive if not being in a state of denial. A narrative of ancient glories, and the hurried rush to recapture it, was so blinding that it could not allow any ray of reality to seep through.


If there was limited room for other state players in the conduct of the domestic policy, foreign policy basically was the sole domain of the shah. Relations with superpowers and regional powers were too vital to be left to ministers, advisers, or the diplomats of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the 1960s and 1970s Iran’s foreign policy aimed to secure Iran’s regional interest, especially in the Persian Gulf, while augmenting the shah’s international stature. He remained a staunch ally of the United States and generally a friend of the Western Bloc while improving relations with the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, and the People’s Republic of China. At every turn he had to prove his loyalty to the West, whether through engaging with the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) defense alliance, making massive purchases of arms, facilitating US investments in Iranian oil and other sectors, and, whenever needed, acting on behalf of the United States and its allies in the region. Over the years, however, he displayed greater independence, even the desire to balance superpowers with his improving negotiating skills. He was also capable of furthering his wishes with the United States and other Western allies—at times even dictating to them—a reality very different from his perceived image in his own country as a docile subordinate of the Americans.

In return, successive US administrations from Johnson to Ford, and especially during the Nixon years, maintained close ties with Iran in matters of security, defense, energy, and investment. Despite voices of dissent—for instance, George Ball (1901–1994), US undersecretary of state in the Kennedy administration, who criticized the shah’s autocratic rule in a number of occasions—the US polity and public opinion overwhelmingly viewed Iran as America’s indispensable ally in the Middle East and the shah as a modernizing agent for his people. Friendly relations with Israel also contributed to Americans’ favorable attitude toward the shah, especially after 1973. The shah’s affinity with Israel was primarily grounded in common geopolitical and strategic concerns, but undeniably it helped ingratiate the shah to his American allies.

Iran enjoyed an edge over Israel or Saudi Arabia, the other two US allies in the region. Even after the 1967 war, that greatly augmented Israel’s place in American public opinion—from the perspective of US policy makers, Israel was more a costly commitment than a sustained regional power. In the same period, US ties with Saudi Arabia were considered vital almost entirely because of the Saudis’ huge oil reserves, in which the United States had heavily invested for a long time. Even by the 1960s, however, the kingdom’s limited demographic and economic potential, and its tribal power structure, made it an odd ally of the United States—the United States could hardly rely on Saudi Arabia’s commercial and military capabilities.

Iran offered a different prospect. Its long border with the Soviet Union made it an indispensable first line of defense against the United States’ Cold War nemesis. Iran was the only other US ally besides Turkey with a common, and longer, border with the Soviet Union (Finland was considered neutral). Iranian oil and gas reserves were among the largest in the world. In the aftermath of the 1973 October War, the shah proved himself a trusted ally unmoved by Arab solidarity. Iran’s political stability, though at the expense of repression at home, with a pro-Western leader at the helm who was capable of speaking the political language of the West, was an important incentive to the Americans and to the British. In contrast to the political flux in most of the Arab world, and gravitation of vital Arab regimes toward the Soviet Union, Iran’s geographical span, growing middle class, and expanding economy constituted the third consideration for the United States. With British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in the early 1970s, Iran earned even greater ascendancy as the guarantor of security in the Gulf, providing free Western access to its oil resources. Policing the Persian Gulf, which was eagerly embraced by the shah, became a bone of contention with the newly emerging United Arab Emirates and its supporters in the Arab world.

Successive US administrations almost invariably lionized the shah, both in public and in private, as a capable and sagacious leader and often paid homage to his international bearing and regional prominence. Even though he was occasionally criticized in the press for his overblown rhetoric and sneered at in private for his military ambitions and his autocratic grip, the prevailing US position was to support his domestic reforms. His buildup of the Iranian armed forces, and his opening up of the country to foreign, and especially American, investment was another motive. The implicit US approval of Savak’s firm hand in dealing with dissidents was further confirmed after urban guerrillas made several assassination attempts in mid-1970s against the American advisory officers who served in the Iranian military.

Despite growing publicity in the American press about violations of human rights, Iranian political prisoners, allegations of torture, military tribunals, and press censorship, American envoys to Iran and high-ranking politicians in Washington were, by and large, willing to turn a blind eye to such unpleasant realities. At most, they treated such issues as an unavoidable evil to be tolerated from a loyal and dependable friend. Even if objections were occasionally raised in private to trusted officials, such as the court minister Asadollah ‘Alam, or to the shah himself, they were often on specific issues that directly concerned the United States rather than any cautionary advice about the nature of the shah’s autocratic rule, the excesses of the secret police, the absence of credible elected bodies, press censorship, and the evident disarray in economic policies. These were seen by US administrations as issues related to the internal affairs of a sovereign nation, and hence outside the diplomatic mandate.

The shah and his small circle of key advisers were undeterred in their quest for regional primacy. Even before 1971, when growing oil revenues opened doors of informal diplomacy and influence peddling, the shah had been able to throw his political weight around in ways that made it difficult for the US administration to downgrade him as a mere despot. In the mid-1960s he had gained enough confidence to engage in complex international diplomacy involving many players, including the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, the People’s Republic of China, and the countries of the Non-Aligned Movement. Neither the United States nor Britain could hold sway over his conduct. During Nikita Khrushchev’s years, and continuing under Leonid Brezhnev, despite several spells of intense propaganda wars between Moscow’s Persian radio broadcast and Radio Iran, the shah managed to mend fences with his northern neighbor and its satellites mostly through trade and manufacturing contracts. Wary of being portrayed as an American puppet and anxious to display his political agency, the shah in 1965 visited the Soviet Union, the first visit by any Iranian monarch, to reciprocate Brezhnev’s visit to Iran three years earlier. He dispatched diplomatic and trade missions, signed numerous deals, often negotiated barter agreements, and established joint development projects with the Soviets and the energy-hungry countries of the Eastern Bloc.

The shah’s crowning achievement in 1965 was an agreement to build a massive steel mill complex in Isfahan. Though Russian know-how was relatively backward and hard to fit to Iran’s predominantly Western technical expertise, the project was a success. That the acquired Soviet technology was outmoded and polluting did not stop the government from hailing the plant as key to Iran’s industrial development, a national aspiration that had remained unfulfilled since a German-assisted initiative to produce steel was abandoned in 1941. In later years other steel plants with more updated designs were built, as well as a tractor manufacturing plant. Warmer relations with Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania and Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia, as well as with Pakistan, India, and China, were also meant to emphasize the shah’s desire to accommodate the Non-Aligned nations through economic incentives and friendly gestures.

In a geopolitical setting still dominated by two contending superpowers, rapprochement with the communist bloc not only helped diminish Soviet pressure, often conducted through the Tudeh network abroad, but also counterbalanced the United States’ primacy and in due course helped Iran in acquiring coveted sophisticated weapons from the United States. The increasing Pahlavi power in the 1970s ironically reduced Iran’s dependency on the United States at a time when Iranian public perceived US influence to be at its maximum. The issue of arms sales to Iran, especially after 1973, when Iran enjoyed greater purchasing power thanks to growing oil revenue, from time to time was a source of tension not so much with the Pentagon or the White House as with US Congress. A number of senators raised questions about the sale to Iran of the latest military equipment, such as F-14 and F-15 fighter jets, on the grounds that it might disturb the balance of power in the region at a time when the shah demonstrated appetite for policing the Persian Gulf.

Iran-US relations, especially resolving their differences, were conducted through informal diplomacy and the shah’s effective lobbying of key policy makers and influential Washington mediators. The Iranian ambassador in Washington between 1973 and 1979, crucial years in US-Iranian relations, was Ardeshir Zahedi. Born in 1928, he was son of General Fazollah Zahedi and a former son-in-law of the shah who had served for five years as Iran’s minister of foreign affairs. A high-flying player skilled in cultivating personal ties, he acquired the reputation as one of the most effective diplomats in the US capital. Most of the embassy’s business carried through private channels, hobnobbing with Washington power elite and with the rich and the famous, including Hollywood stars. He threw extravagant parties in the opulent Iranian embassy, lavished expensive gifts (Iranian caviar was a favorite) on influential deal makers, and offered other favors to lubricate the wheels of power. His confirmed talents made him indispensable to the Iranian regime and to the Washington establishment. High-level diplomacy in Tehran was no less effective, involving frequent meetings between the US and British ambassadors and the court minister ‘Alam and the shah himself. Frequent visits to Iran of Western heads of states, prime ministers, and foreign ministers were above all to sweeten various trade and economic deals while quenching the monarch’s thirst for prestige and recognition.

During the Kissinger years, with his shuttle diplomacy, direct channels of communication with the shah were important for both parties on such breakthrough issues as the Egypt-Israel peace process and the security of the Persian Gulf. Whatever his deeper convictions were, Kissinger’s attitude toward the shah was evidently complimentary, even deferential. His praise of the Pahlavi monarch as a wise, experienced leader with an acute grasp of the complexities of Middle East affairs was based on frequent conversations with him and his ministers, an attitude shared by both presidents he served, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (fig. 11.1). That the shah established all but full diplomatic relations with Israel, collaborating on economic projects and sharing intelligence, added to the Americans’ wish to include Iran as a party to the Egypt-Israel peace process, and later to the flourishing of Iran’s close ties with Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat.

Nixon had known the Iranian monarch since the early 1950s and visited Iran as Eisenhower’s vice president in December 1953. He backed the shah as a stalwart Cold War ally and a friend of the Republican Party. In 1960 the shah had made an illicit contribution to Nixon’s presidential campaign, which raised some controversy, and later during Watergate he had commiserated in private with the embattled president. Throughout the difficult years of the Vietnam War, which coincided with the shah’s growing stature as an international statesman, he continued to reap the benefits of being a reliable US ally, defying radical Arab states, helping open up China, and playing a major part in bringing about a breakthrough in the Egypt-Israel peace process. Even though the US public image suffered badly in the eyes of the Iranians (and most people of the region) during the civil rights movement, and even more so because of the Vietnam War and thereafter the Watergate scandal, the shah’s overall standing was not seriously tarnished by taking sides with the US Republican establishment.

Figure 11.1. Henry Kissinger and Amir ‘Abbas Hovayda enjoying a post-banquet gathering in Tehran in May 1972. Minister of Foreign Affairs Amir Arsalan Khal’atbari is at the far left.

Henry A. Kissinger Papers, May 1972. Manuscripts and Archives, Sterling Memorial Library. Courtesy of Yale University Library.

It was not without reason that on the day of his inauguration on August 9, 1974, President Gerald Ford wrote to the shah “with the full support and participation of Secretary Kissinger,” pledging his full commitment to the shah. He added:

In particular, I want you to know of the extremely high importance I attach to maintaining, expanding and strengthening the very close ties and cooperation between our own two countries. The special relationship between us has been built up through many trials over more than a generation. It has not only stood the test of time but has grown stronger from year to year. I shall do everything in my power to foster the friendship between Iran and the United States.1

All in all, despite the domestic disadvantages of appearing to be a junior partner in the Middle East to the West and despite the Iranian opposition’s sour memories of the US role in reinstating the shah in 1953 and sustaining him for decades in power as an arbitrary ruler, he navigated his difficult course with some success. This task became even more arduous as Iran confronted the potent challenge of the Arab states in the region on strategic and ideological grounds.


Relations with the United States, and Iran’s foreign policy trajectory more broadly under the shah, hinged not only on Cold War geopolitics but also on Iran’s evolving role in the region as the West’s chief ally against the Arab regimes in the contest for supremacy over the Persian Gulf. The shah’s growing confidence and his ambition to be viewed as an international player are well evident in, for example, his conversation in October 1975 with a CIA emissary in Tehran. Responding to the American press’s criticism, he defiantly argued that Iran’s rising oil prices contributed only minimally, as little as 0.4 percent, to inflation in the United States. His prime concern was the leftist rise, especially in Europe and the Arab world, which he claimed he intended to combat with money and troops. He moreover criticized the United States in unambiguous terms for not leading the anti-communist campaign worldwide and in the Arab world. Reviewing a range of issues from Sino-Soviet relations and China’s rise as a world player, Egyptian ambitions in the Arabian Peninsula, and security of the Persian Gulf, the shah readily defended his positions on protecting Iran’s strategic interests and the survival of moderate Arab regimes and US interests in the region. Through diplomacy, financial support, and military action, which included support for the Barzani Kurdish rebellion against Ba‘athist Iraq and military support for the kingdom of Oman in combatting the Dhofar rebellion, the shah’s proactive course was convincing enough for the CIA operative to conclude the following:

In summary, thanks to the Shah himself and oil resources, Iran is well on its way to playing a leading role in the Mid East with a modernized elite, large economic resources and strong forces. Succession is always a question in an authoritarian regime, even a benevolent one, but each year reinforces the social and political momentum in the direction the Shah has set. I believe the U.S. can keep close to and benefit from this process and even influence Iran toward a positive regional and world role rather than a bid for area hegemony or other adventurism.2

Whether it was hegemony or adventurism, Iran’s often strained relations with neighboring Iraq after the 1958 Iraqi revolution and with Nasser’s Egypt throughout the 1960s carried heavy ideological and ethnocentric undertones. Competing Arab and Iranian nationalist ideologies manifested in border disputes with Iraq and regional rivalries with Egypt brought these differences into sharper focus.

Almost inevitably, the question of Palestine and relations with Israel came to play a part in Arab-Iranian discord, and both countries came to view their tacit alliance as a natural defense against a common nemesis. What may be called the Arab-Iranian “cold war” in the 1960s, which continued in various ways into the 1970s, was largely waged by the states rather then by their citizens. Nevertheless, shared ethnic memories and cultural stereotypes rooted in the distant past reemerged on both sides with vehemence, helping to fuel new ideological and strategic tensions. The shah followed in his father’s footsteps to promote a brand of Iranian cultural nationalism that held “Arabs” as the ultimate “Other.” Closely tied to the narrative of glories of ancient Iran and the Pahlavi’s revival of “modern Iran,” portrayal of the “Arabs” as backward Bedouins hostile to “authentic” Iranian culture was firmly incorporated into popular Iranian nationalist narrative and generally accepted by majority of Iranians.

As a founding member of the United Nations in 1947, Iran had voted against the partition of Palestine and in favor of a federal system whereby both the rights of the Arab Palestinians and Jewish settlers were to be guaranteed. A year later Iran also voted against the creation of the Jewish state. Yet by 1950, during a volatile period of national politics, Iran offered Israel de facto recognition, largely as a result of the new Jewish state’s efforts to win over non-Arab friends in the region. This was at a time when the newly born Israel still projected the image of a victimized small nation that was building a modern society in a hostile environment.

The Jewish Iranian community—one of the oldest in the world, with roots going back to biblical times—supported the initiative, having gradually adopted Zionism since the mid-twentieth century as a defining ideology and in hopes for a better future. A population exceeding one hundred thousand scattered throughout urban Iran. The Iranian Jews were economically impoverished and had long been exposed to bouts of persecution in the Safavid and Qajar eras. Instances of extortion by government agents and clerical authorities, the looting of Jewish neighborhoods, the abduction of young women, allegations of blood libel and other illicit acts, harassment and humiliation in public spaces, and forced conversion to Islam were not rare. Added to these were modern expressions of anti-Semitism in the interwar period, mostly sponsored by Nazi propaganda, that were rolled over into the postwar era. Yet the Pahlavi state and most secularized middle-class Iranians entertained a more favorable attitude toward the Jewish community than their counterparts in the neighboring Iraq or in other Arab countries in the region.

In the postconstitutional era and throughout the Pahlavi period, the economic condition of the Iranian Jews noticeably improved. Many earned higher economic status through education, business, and professional life, though glaring examples of abject poverty also persisted, especially in the depopulated Jewish quarters in larger cities. A distinct accent—sometimes a remnant of Middle Persian dialects of Iran, strict adherence to rabbinic teachings, and a sense of cultural isolation imposed on the non-Muslims by the majority population—impeded assimilation. Zionism, an ideology foreign to most non-European Jews, was increasingly embraced by Iranian Jews as an alternative to social isolation or to national assimilation. In the early decades of the twentieth century, conversion, especially to the Baha’i faith, offered an accessible channel to religious and social modernity and in turn facilitated cultural assimilation. From the late nineteenth century a large number of Jews of Kashan, Shiraz, and elsewhere converted to the new faith—a non-traumatic break from the strictures of the old religion and from the segregated life of the ghetto. The Baha’i universalist perspective appealed to the Jews as fulfillment of their messianic prophecies.

Yet in contrast to conversion to the Baha’i faith, which meant even more discrimination and persecution in the Muslim environment, even in the Pahlavi era, Zionism promised empowerment by essentially transplanting the Jews, landing them in a Jewish homeland elsewhere, and giving them a new Jewish identity. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, hosts of underprivileged Iranian Jews immigrated to Israel and settled there, though many hopes for a brighter life were dashed in the face of harsher realities of life in the new Jewish state. The Ashkenazi elite in Israel looked upon the “Oriental Jews” as second-class citizens, and the notion of kibbutzim was alien to urban Iranian Jews. Some returned, but the majority stayed and eventually assimilated.

Yet in so far as the Iranian-Israeli relations were concerned, the Iranian Jewish community whether at home or in Israel played a negligible role. Several factors contributed to the growth of Iranian-Israeli diplomatic and economic relations. Most crucial was Iran’s search for security in the face of its Arab adversaries. Iran’s membership in the British- and American-sponsored 1955 Baghdad Pact along with Hashemite Iraq, Pakistan, and Turkey was a search for regional alliance not only against the presumed communist threat but also against the tide of Arab nationalism, and especially Nasser’s pan-Arab ambitions. Egypt’s gravitation toward the Soviet Union and Nasser’s anti-Iran propaganda alarmed the shah and his government. During the 1956 Suez Crisis, although Iran officially condemned British, French, and Israeli aggression, it supported the canal’s control by an international regime, a proposition doomed from the outset. The crisis, moreover, caused dormant pro-Palestinian sentiments to flare up among the Iranian public. In the aftermath of the 1953 coup in Iran, many dissidents in Iran, including Islamists, admired the Young Officers in Egypt and especially Nasser’s anti-imperialist stance. For the shah, who once was married to Princess Fawzia, the sister of King Farouk (r. 1936–1952), the fall of monarchy in Egypt was treated with alarm.

Two years after the Suez Crisis, in 1958, the creation of the United Arab Republic through the union of Egypt and Syria—which later proved a dismal failure—at the time was seen by many outside the Arab world as a prelude to the greater dream of pan-Arabism, and so a potential threat for non-Arab leaders like the shah. The success of the Iraqi Revolution in the same year, with palpable pro-Nasserite sentiments, and the brutal execution of the Hashemite King Faisal II (r. 1939–1958), a personal friend of the shah, brought the message closer to home. The Algerian Revolution, in contrast, which gained momentum during 1958 against French colonial rule, also received positive coverage in the Iranian media and aroused sympathies among the Iranian population. The still-inchoate Islamic radical circles in Iran viewed the Algerian Islamists as an admirable model.

By the mid-1960s Israel’s cultivation of friendly relations with Iran sharpened Nasser’s attack on the Pahlavi regime. Through trade and development projects, as well as the sharing of regional intelligence and defense ties, Iran became a partner with Israel. The regular supply of Iranian oil to Israel starting in the late 1950s and expanding after 1967, and the joint investment in a pipeline through the port of Eilat on the Mediterranean, further consolidated bonds. The agro-industrial Qazvin Plain Development Project started in 1962 by an Israeli private firm was the largest undertaken by Israelis outside their own country. It covered two hundred villages around Qazvin, ninety-five miles northwest of Tehran, and aimed to introduce large-scale drip irrigation methods and conduct other agricultural experimentations.

As Egypt further gravitated toward the Soviets—especially after the Eisenhower administration’s failure to collaborate on the Aswan High Dam project—Egypt’s sensitivity toward Pahlavi Iran as an ally of the US and Israel substantially increased. The Cairo-based Sawt al-‘Arab (Voice of the Arabs) radio, the mouthpiece of Nasser’s regime, was quick to launch a sustained propaganda war against Iran once the shah admitted his country’s ties with Israel in 1960, even though Israel’s diplomatic mission to Iran remained semiclandestine and was never officially recognized. This led to a decade-long break in diplomatic relations between Iran and Egypt. In turn, the shah had no compunction over accusing Nasser of being an agent of Soviet imperialism and a flighty Pharaoh conspiring against his country, harboring Iranian terrorists, and stretching his long arm of Arab radicalism to the Persian Gulf.

Growing oil exports in the early 1960s from the Persian Gulf increased Iran’s anxiety over the Egyptian and other radical Arab influences in the region. Britain’s gradual disengagement as overlord of the former Trucial States—a confederacy of shaykhdoms on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf (now the United Arab Emirates and Qatar)—added to Iran’s security concern. Once Kuwait, a British protectorate since 1899, gained independence in 1961, Nasser began to capitalize on his pan-Arab popularity to bring the newly liberated state under his wing. He viewed Kuwait a source of cheap oil for his energy needs and as a foothold for enhancing his anti-Iranian stance. Pan-Arabism, even after the collapse of the union with Syria, still carried enough ideological weight to make the shah deeply anxious about Nasser’s ambitions, and this anxiety would become a lifetime fixation. Nasser’s propaganda machine was hard at work renaming the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf, a bogus nomenclature popularized in the face of undeniable historical evidence to the contrary. This was clearly in defiance of Iran’s geopolitical interests. The British and American ambivalence toward Nasser, especially in the early 1960s, further agitated the shah. Nearly all Iranian oil exports were passing through the Strait of Hormuz; thus, the very financial security of the Pahlavi regime depended on keeping Nasser away from the Persian Gulf.

Dispute over the Persian Gulf’s nomenclature also carried emotional undertones that went beyond the shah’s detestation of Nasser and came to affect most Iranians. Since ancient times the term Khalij-e Fars (Persian Gulf) had applied to the body of water adjacent to the ancient province of Fars. Sinus Persicus in Greek geographical sources, and later Bahr al-Fars in Arabic texts, carried no ideological weight; they simply identified an association with the Persians who lived and navigated the gulf for more than two millennia. The shift to Arabian Gulf, however, first appeared in the mid 1940s among overzealous British popular commentators. The British were keeping the oil shaykhdoms acquiescent while also tapping to their massive oil fields. Hatred of Mosaddeq and the Iranian oil nationalization may also have played a part in the curious use of a term with no historical precedence.

At the other end of the political spectrum in the 1930s and 1940s, the activities of the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt offered an influential model for Islamic militants in Iran, first for Fada’iyan-e Islam and later for the young clerics in Khomeini’s circle. Sayyid ‘Ali Khamenei, the future Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, was a great admirer of Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), the radical theoretician of the Muslim Brothers, and had translated some of Qutb’s works into Persian. Yet even in the years after the execution of Sayyid Qutb in 1966, despite his long incarceration by the Egyptian regime, the Iranian Islamist opposition praised Nasser’s populism, his defiance of Western powers, and his anti-Pahlavi stance. Nasser’s campaign, despite its periodic intensity, nevertheless proved to have some positive impact on the shah’s policies. There was an extra urgency, for instance, to the Pahlavi regime’s land distribution and other reform measures throughout the 1960s, to compete with revolutionary land reform in Egypt and Iraq.

Figure 11.2. The shah during the 1968 ‘umra pilgrimage to Mecca performing the rite of sa’y (effort).

Mohammad Baqer Najafi, Shahanshahi va Dindari (Tehran: NRTV, 1355/1976), n.p.

Facing domestic and regional challenges, both secular and Islamic, it was not unreasonable for the shah to display greater signs of religiosity. In 1968 he made a well-publicized pilgrimage to Mecca, where he performed all the Hajj rituals with great humility (fig. 11.2). A year later he attended a conference of the Islamic heads of states in Rabat, where he played a crucial part in founding the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (fig. 11.3).


Greater ideological and territorial challenges were found closer to home in neighboring Iraq. These started with the 1958 Iraqi Revolution and continued for most of the volatile decade with military coups and political instability following the fall of the Hashemite dynasty. After the 1967 coup that brought to power the Ba‘ath Party (party of resurrection), the two countries engaged in border disputes almost continuously, especially over the shared waterway Shatt al-Arab (or Arvand Rud as the Iranians began to call it, remembering its historical Persian name). Intermittent frontier skirmishes along the Zagros mountain range stretching from Khuzestan to Kurdistan, propaganda wars over radio waves and in the press, and retaliatory actions further troubled Iraq’s relations with Iran. The Shi‘i population in southern Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds in the north badly suffered at the hands of the Ba‘athist regime, which primarily drew support from the Sunni Arab population. For the most part, before the 1990s the West turned a blind eye to Ba‘athist atrocities, primarily because of the vast Iraqi oil exports, which rivaled Iranian production, but also the lucrative military and economic contracts that Western firms had begun to secure in Iraq.

Figure 11.3. The 1969 meeting in Rabat of the heads of the Islamic states endorsing the charter of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation. The shah stands next to the host, King Hasan II of Morocco, surrounded by other leaders, including King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, King Hussein of Jordan, and General Boumédiène of Algeria.

Mohammad Baqer Najafi, Shahanshahi va Dindari (Tehran: NRTV, 1355/1976), n.p.

By 1971 with the rapid rise to power of Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) and his menacing grip over Iraqi state and society, confrontations with Iran took a turn for worse. The death in 1970 of Nasser, defeated and demoralized, offered President Saddam Hussein an opportunity to emerge as the new strongman of the Arab world. He championed the Palestinian cause, challenged conservative Arab regimes, and offered a bold match to the shah of Iran, at least for those on the international stage who were loath to see the shah as the unrivaled master of the Persian Gulf. Relying on Iraq’s oil revenues, which multiplied after the 1973 oil crisis, and his pan-Arab politics, Saddam seemed to have been successful at tilting the balance in the historic rivalry between Cairo and Baghdad in favor of the latter, especially after President Anwar al-Sadat’s 1975 expulsion of Soviet military advisers and his overtures of peace to Israel. The threat of Saddam’s Iraq in turn persuaded the shah to move closer to the United States and purchase more arms for his sizable arsenal, whereas Iraq acquired almost client status with the Soviet Union, becoming its most important Arab ally after signing a treaty of friendship and cooperation in 1975.

Ba‘athist hostility toward Iran was rooted in historical tensions that frequently flared up along the countries’ common border. It was based on the assumption that since ancient times Iran had always entertained territorial ambitions over Iraq. The Sasanian Empire, named after a dynasty that originated in the Iranian plateau, had expanded its domains to Mesopotamia, where its capital, Ctesiphon, was located on the banks of the Tigris River. As breadbasket for an expansionist empire, Sasanian Mesopotamia was an ethno-cultural and religious melting pot whose indelible mark survived for centuries, even beyond the Islamic high caliphate. As the birthplace of Shi‘ism, and home to the holiest Shi‘i shrines and centers for Shi‘i learning, it had additional appeal to Shi‘i Iran. It was not mere coincidence that twice under the Safavids Baghdad was conquered by Shi‘i Iran and afterward in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Iran made deep sorties into the Iraqi territory.

The border dispute between powers on two sides of the Zagros dated back centuries, perhaps one of the oldest in the history of the world. Iran’s western border was the oldest natural boundary—perhaps the only one—in the whole of the Middle East, dividing the Mesopotamian lowlands from the Iranian plateau. In the highlands of Kurdistan, the population on both sides of the border maintained close cultural, tribal, and linguistic ties and preserved a degree of autonomy. With the rise of Turkish, Arab, and Iranian nationalisms, the Kurds also developed their own nationalist identity and since World War I intermittently dreamed of a united Kurdistan. Ethnic and linguistic differences with the Kurds of Turkey, moreover, made unification more elusive, if not untenable. Yet the Kurds on the Iranian side were somewhat more integrated, in part because of their ethno-linguistic affinity with Iran.

There were strong ethno-cultural underpinnings to the frontier tensions with Arabic Sunni Iraq, however. The young country of Iraq, charged with a sense of Arab pride and laying claim to the legacy of the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad, as well as the ancient Babylonian civilization and the Assyrian Empire, had developed a brand of national identity under the Ba‘athist regime that was existentially antagonistic to the realities of its own diverse population. It was at odds with its own Arab neighbors as well, let alone non-Arab Iran. The nation-building project of the British Mandate in the post–World War I era succeeded only nominally in integrating the ethnically and geographically diverse populations into a nation of shared values and shared destiny. Even less than Turkish and Iranian nationalism, Ba‘athist Arabism hardly ever tried in earnest to integrate, or tolerate, other identities within its borders.

The autonomy-seeking movement of Iraqi Kurdistan was a source of deep anxiety to the Baghdad government and frequently the victim of its atrocities. It also was a source of hostility vis-à-vis Iran. Under the leadership of Mulla Mustafa Barzani (1903–1979), a veteran of the earlier short-lived Mahabad Republic of 1945–1946, the Iraqi Kurds from the late 1950s intermittently fought against Baghdad and negotiated with it in a bitter struggle for autonomy. With the hardening of the Ba‘athist positions under Saddam Hussein, in 1974 a major Kurdish revolt brought the Iraqi government head-to-head with the Iranians who had supplied arms and provisions to the Kurds over the years and later sheltered as many as two hundred thousand refugees and Peshmerga guerrilla fighters in border camps and in the Iranian interior.

The Iranian support for the Kurdish revolt was primarily political—over the years Pahlavi Iran had adamantly resisted similar autonomy-seeking aspirations, even cultural ones, among its own Kurds. The shah’s action was part of a broader pattern of retaliation against the Iraqi regime that, at least since 1968, had dampened relations between the two countries. Saddam’s hostile move against its Shi‘i population—especially against a community of Iranian descent who had long resided in the Shi‘i holy cities of Iraq as early as the thirteenth century. Between 1968 and 1974 the Iraqi government drove out more than sixty thousand people of Iranian descent and dumped them on the Iranian side of the border. The arrival of these returnees injured Iranian sentiments and brought the conflict with Iraq to a boil.

Iran had maintained a religious, political, and cultural presence in the Iraqi south for at least five centuries. At least since the thirteenth-century Ilkhanid period, Iran had laid a moral claim over the Shi‘i shrines of Karbala and Najaf and drew on the loyalties of the Iraqi Shi‘is in the south. Nearly all the Shi‘i shrines and other religious sites had been built, restored, and funded by Persian rulers and dignitaries, and there were extensive pious endowments devoted to the upkeep of these shrines. The steady stream of Iranian pilgrims was a major contributor to the Iraqi economy of the south, and most religious seminaries were populated by Iranian teachers and students, with a vast network of custodians and other beneficiaries of the mojtaheds’ distribution of alms and other religious funds. Many of the cemeteries of Najaf and Karbala, and whatever space was left in and around the Shi‘i shrines in these cities, were filled with bodies of pious Iranians who were brought to southern Iraq as late as the twentieth century. Vast sums of alms and other religious dues were also donated by the Iranian faithful to the coffers of the Shi‘i marja‘s in Najaf. Saddam’s regime despised the Iranian Shi‘i connection and found it against its project of Arab homogenization. Typical of any dictatorial regime with a constructed identity, Saddam determined to wipe out the Persian malady.

The arrival of the Kurdish refugees and the Shi‘i returnees coincided with heightened border clashes, which had taken place on and off along the common border since 1968. These were in part because of demarcation disputes that stemmed from numerous border commissions since the middle of the nineteenth century. Iran was dissatisfied with the 1937 Sa‘dabad nonaggression treaty involving Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan concluded under the aegis of the British. The treaty assigned to landlocked Iraq full control over the Shatt al-Arab waterway, so as to offer a reliable outlet for its oil exports and access to the open seas via the port of Basra. Insisting on its historic rights, however, in 1969 Iran declared the treaty null and void on the grounds that it was a British colonial legacy that deprived Iran’s free shipping along the waterway to the Persian Gulf. Access to the port of Khorramshahr, Iran’s most important commercial entrepôt, and further south to Abadan, the site of Iran’s most extensive refinery, was at stake. What Iran demanded was a shared control of the waterway and full shipping rights along its maiden baseline. From the Iraqi perspective, this was a breach of its sovereignty; from the Iranian perspective, it was a restoration of its territorial rights under international law.

The Ba‘athist narrative embraced by the Iraqis viewed the Iranian claim as a repeat of the old Persian hegemony and an ominous sign of the shah’s growing ambitions. Iraq’s repeated sorties against Iranian border guards were disruptive, though not wholly effective. By 1974 the Ba‘athist regime, clearly on the defensive, was anxious to reach some face-saving settlement with Iran. Mindful of internal dissent among the Kurds in the north and the Shi‘is in the south, as well as in his own Ba‘athist ranks, Saddam became uncharacteristically conciliatory toward his neighbors. Following a meeting between the shah and Saddam arranged by the Algerian president in March 1975, during the annual meeting of OPEC leaders in Algiers, the two sides signed a preliminary agreement addressing three crucial issues in dispute. The Algiers Accord, as it came to be known, served as the basis for bilateral treaties later that year, calling for the delineation of common boundaries based on the 1913 Constantinople Protocol; delimitation of the water boundaries of Shatt al-Arab/Arvand Rud, based on the thalweg line; and joint monitoring of the boundaries to guarantee the security of both sides.

The remarkable concessions ceded by Saddam were a clear victory for the shah in his long and acrimonious dealings with Iraq and a new zenith in his Persian Gulf policy. Yet the concessions came at a dear cost to the Kurdish rebels, who, having heavily relied on Iranian support against Baghdad, viewed the agreement as a betrayal of their cause. Mustafa Barzani, who had taken refuge in Iran and as a guest of the Iranian government was housed, along with his top commanders, outside Tehran, remained there until his death in 1979. Ironically, in 1946 he was driven out of Mahabad by the Iranian government and treated ever after as a persona non grata. Most refugees returned to Iraqi Kurdistan having been assured by Baghdad of amnesty and guaranteed safe passage. Unaware of the tragic fate that awaited them, and the hundreds of thousands of their fellow Kurdish citizens in the towns and villages of Kurdistan, they succumbed to the abrupt end to the Iraq-Iran conflict—at least for the time being.

The successful settlement of the conflict with Iraq, though ephemeral, boosted Iran’s involvement in the Persian Gulf beyond anything it had experienced at least since the heyday of Shah ‘Abbas I in the early seventeenth century. Already the occupation in November 1971 of three small and largely uninhabited but strategically important islands in the middle of the Persian Gulf—and in the wake of British withdrawal—raised angry protests from the newly established United Arab Emirates and other neighbors. The Arab world viewed the annexation as a breach of UAE sovereignty, and Iran considered the occupation merely the reassertion of its inalienable territorial rights. Coming in the wake of Bahrain’s independence, which was declared after Iran, under British pressure, gave up its historical claims to the island—Iranian annexation of the three islands seemed almost inevitable.

As early as Sasanian times, Iran claimed sovereignty over Bahrain and its environs, which continued intermittently through the Islamic medieval period. In the early Safavid era, Isma‘il’s ambition to recapture the island from a local Arab shaykhdom was frustrated by the arrival of the Portuguese, who in 1521 established their strategic base at the head of the Persian Gulf. It was another seventy years before Shah ‘Abbas I could expel the Portuguese, in 1602, and establish Shi‘i rule on the island as part of its supremacy over the Persian Gulf shores, in competition with Ottoman control of Basra at the head of the gulf. Persian suzerainty, often through local dynasties, lasted for two centuries. Only British naval supremacy over the Persian Gulf from the beginning of the nineteenth century, along with its long-standing colonial policy that often backed regional enclaves vis-à-vis the Iranian center, allowed the shaykhs of Al-e Khalifa, a minor clan from Kuwait, to thrive in Bahrain under the British colonial gaze. Repeated protests by the emasculated Qajar state throughout the nineteenth century were dismissed. As an important naval base and hub of local trade, Bahrain, like nearby Qatar and Kuwait, was a British protectorate conforming to the so-called Trucial States. It was important not only for its bustling trade conducted by a cosmopolitan trade community but also for combating piracy at the head of the Persian Gulf and along its southern coasts, as well as deterring the Omani and Wahhabi threats. Oil exploration from the 1930s only offered further incentives for continued British colonial protection.

Already in 1970 the United Nations had held a plebiscite that established the Bahraini desire for independence. The eventual settling of the Bahrain question obliged Iran to renounce its claim of sovereignty over the island. A fair amount of nationalist uproar at home for what was viewed as bowing to British pressure persuaded the shah to remain adamant about the Iranian claim to the three islands in the middle of the Persian Gulf, despite vehement objections by UAE members and other Arab states. Iran’s geopolitical ambitions beyond the Persian Gulf and into the Arabian Sea (and Gulf of Oman) and Indian Ocean, further agitated radical Arab regimes from Libya to South Yemen.

Beginning in 1973, Iranian military involvement on behalf of the Sultanate of Oman in a war waged against the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf, a communist South Yemen–backed guerilla movement in the Dhofar region, on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, revealed the shah’s anxiety over communist penetration of the region. Inheriting a conflict from British times, a small battalion of Iranian special forces backed by the Iranian air force fought a costly war with the Omani troops. The rebellion was crushed by 1975.

Border disputes with Iraq, the war of words with Nasser, annexation of the three islands, and the Dhofar intervention did not seriously dent the shah’s overall success in his regional policy throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Aiming for friendship with moderate Arab regimes, he befriended King Hussein of Jordan (r. 1952–1999), who often was a recipient of the shah’s largesse and moral support against the king’s many enemies. Anwar al-Sadat (1918–1981), whom the shah fully backed and advised throughout the Egyptian-Israeli peace process, was another important friend. Both the Lebanese Shi‘i and the Maronite leaders were his tactical allies, including Musa Sadr (1928–1978?), the Iranian-born leader of the Shi‘i Amal Movement in Lebanon. On Iran’s eastern borders, Pakistan, under Zulfiqar ‘Ali Bhutto (1928–1979), relied heavily on Iran’s economic aid, moral support, and diplomatic backing, as did Mohammad Daoud Khan (1909–1978), the first president of Afghanistan, after he deposed Mohammad Zahir Shah (r. 1933–1973) in a bloodless coup in 1973. Daoud benefited from Iranian aid to counter the growing Soviet influence in his country, as did the deposed Mohammad Zahir in exile. Daoud also appealed to Iran to settle border disputes with Pakistan, a reflection of the shah’s rising regional stance.

By the mid-1970s the shah had been able to carve out a strategic niche in the midst of a superpower divide on which the stability of the Persian Gulf and neighboring countries depended. Contrary to the conventional narrative articulated by his domestic and Western critics, and despite his many blind spots, the shah came to be seen by the two superpowers and by European powers as an experienced statesman and a crucial ally who built up a popular base at home, carried out domestic reforms, averted conservative opposition, thwarted his radical Arab neighbors, and worked toward stability and peace in the region.

From the shah’s perspective, his compliance with US foreign policy objectives not only was inevitable, given his country’s perilous geopolitics, but also was beneficial to Iran’s stability and prosperity. Though always anxious to prove his loyalty to the West, he was skillful in appeasing his Soviet neighbor, too, often to his advantage. It could be argued that the shah’s latter years were the most stable in Iran’s foreign policy, considering Iran’s fateful geopolitics since the turn of the nineteenth century. In retrospect the shah’s stabilizing effect may be gauged by the aftershocks that the region witnessed after the collapse of the Pahlavi order and the revolution of 1979: Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, destabilization of Pakistani politics, the rise of Saddam Hussein and the Ba‘athists as a regional menace, the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a petroleum empire, and subsequent Wahhabi-Salafi militancy.


By the mid-1970s repression at home and shortfalls in economic spheres cast a long shadow over the Pahlavi state, beyond even the reality—an image further blemished by perceptions of compliance with Western interests. The United States, in particular, came to be seen by the Iranian public—even beyond a cluster of liberal and leftist trends and clerical dissidents—as a selfish superpower that exploited Iran’s natural resources, kept the shah in power, and perpetuated repression. The bourgeoning anti-Americanism of the 1940s and 1950s was later internalized by a wide spectrum of Iranian dissenters. The image of the United States as a hegemonic superpower was further blemished during the Vietnam War, which received extensive coverage in the Iranian press. That the massive US armed forces were relentlessly carpet-bombing and dropping napalm and Agent Orange on the Vietcong struck average Iranians—as average people elsewhere around the world—as brutal and unfair. Sympathy for the suffering Vietnamese often meant hatred for the Yankee aggressor.

Before President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy in 1977 raised implicit concerns over the Iranian situation, US administrations had barely made any visible public criticism of the shah’s conduct. Nor did any major voice within the US intelligence community, to the extent that is known, or other circles close to Washington, seriously assess the consequences of his arbitrary rule. His stronghold over Iranian society was taken for granted by American statesmen, with a mix of condescension and forced respectability. It was not unlike nineteenth-century colonial administrators’ honoring of local chiefs’ tyrannical hold over their tribe. When there was criticism, it often concerned Iran’s economic performance and drawbacks to its development, often with an eye toward US vested interests or anxieties over the fate of private American investments.

Such negative perceptions slowly submerged the memory of the contributions made over the years by the US government and its citizens. Iranians of the 1970s could barely recall, if at all, America’s contribution to Iran’s modern education, agriculture, urban improvement, and heath. Ever since the nineteenth century, through the establishment of missionary schools for boys and girls, Americans had helped train a generation of the Iranian elite. Even after these schools were appropriated in the Reza Shah era, along with other missionary or community-run schools, they continued to produce generations of educated Iranians in such institutions as Alborz High School, originally a Presbyterian liberal arts college that expanded under the dedicated leadership of Samuel Jordan in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Nurbakhsh School for Girls (later Reza Shah Kabir), the earliest in Iran. As early as 1835 the first American Presbyterian physicians arrived in Orumiyeh, and later in the nineteenth century, American hospitals in Tabriz, Tehran, and elsewhere introduced new advances in the treatment of endemic maladies. The first female physician practicing in Iran in the late nineteenth century was an American missionary.

The US Point Four Program, initiated in 1949 to aid countries like Iran, also proved crucial for development projects in the early 1950s. These included new rural schools, improved agricultural and animal husbandry methods, irrigation techniques and seed improvement, rural health clinics, and urban amenities such as a water treatment master plan for Tehran and water delivery systems. In collaboration with the Iranian Water Authority, which had been active since 1942, the Point Four Program helped install Tehran’s water treatment plant and complete the urban clean water distribution network, a major improvement in health and sanitation for the Iranian capital. American technical and financial support further had contributed to the construction of the Karaj Dam (later Amir Kabir), the first modern dam project undertaken in Iran. Completed in 1961 northwest of the capital, it proved a crucial water source for water-deficient Tehran.

In the area of culture, perhaps no American initiative was as influential as Franklin Publication House, a conduit for the translation and publication of important works of American literature, academic texts, and inexpensive paperback publications that in due course became a model for other Iranian publishers. In the post-1953 era, Franklin Publishing House (financed by the nonprofit Franklin Publications of New York) aimed to nurture a liberal cultural climate. It attracted Iranian talent, often intellectuals disillusioned with the left or unemployed because of past Tudeh and other political affinities on the left. Franklin gave them a chance to translate, edit, and produce in an environment relatively free of state intrusion scores of new titles, often in collaboration with Iranian publishers or through Franklin’s own subsidiary. Among other American authors Herman Melville, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck were introduced to a Persian readership. Franklin also collaborated with the Iranian government to produce school textbooks and a series of supplementary textbooks for universities that used new pedagogical methods in a format superior to the authority-oriented, tedious texts that had been produced by the Ministry of Education since the early decades of the century.

Also influential for cultivating a favorable picture of the United States as supporter of art and culture was the Iran-America Society and its cultural centers. First established in the 1950s in the United States as a quasi-governmental institution—and up to the eve of the 1979 revolution—the society’s cultural centers in Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Mashhad offered courses in English language, maintained lending libraries, and published books and journals. They also served as forums for cultural activities: art exhibitions, film series, avant-garde plays, storytelling, musical concerts, and poetry readings by dissident poets. For many Iranian intellectuals and university students tired of cheap entertainment and monotony of government-controlled media, the centers were refreshing venues relatively free of state surveillance. With a larger budget and better facilities, including an impressive cultural center in Tehran, the Iran America Society successfully competed with other foreign cultural institutions active in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s. Besides the American cultural centers, the British Council, the French Institutes, the Soviet-Iranian Friendship Society, the German Goethe Institute, and the Iranian-Italian Cultural Society also served as forums for intellectual dissent, such as the left-leaning Iranian poets and writers.

Ever since the creation of the US Peace Corps in 1961, Iran ranked among the first countries to be enlisted for an educational mission. Between 1962 and 1976, some 1,748 male and female American volunteers served in towns and villages of Iran at all levels ranging from village schools to universities teaching English and sciences. Many Iranians who came into contact with Peace Corps volunteers, attended their classes, or took part in other instructional activities, were impressed by the US humanitarian mission and its commitment to improving the lot of many underprivileged communities in Iran and elsewhere. For volunteers, too, working with ordinary young Iranians in smaller towns and villages was a valuable experience, which many cherished and developed great attachment to it. It is likely that Iran’s Literacy Corps, first established in 1963 as an important part of the shah’s White Revolution, was inspired by the positive experience with the American Peace Corps volunteers.

Yet aside from the favorable ambiance created by the US cultural and educational commitments, the closer US association with Iranian security and military exposed ordinary Iranians to another aspect of American presence. By the mid-1970s there were tens of thousands of Americans working in Iran, including in substantial number in the service of the government as military advisers, contractors, technicians, and skilled labor. Some were former military personnel of the post-Vietnam era who, in pursuit of handsomely paid jobs, moved to Iran. They were attracted to the country’s bourgeoning military industry, such as the US-franchised Bell Helicopter plant in Isfahan operational by 1975. Others were employees of big corporations involved in large-scale construction, oil, communication, and technology projects. As far as the Pahlavi state was concerned, the American and European pool of expertise was a natural resource with which Iran could address the shortages in the skilled and technical labor during the boom years of the Iranian economy.

A majority of these military personnel and civilians serving in Iran were employed at far higher salaries than their Iranian counterparts who had mastered comparable skills and had similar experience. In turn, they enjoyed a standard of living higher than their Iranians counterparts. The economic disparity became a source of disgruntlement, soon to be compounded by notions of Americans’ cultural insensitivities. Instances of Americans’ condescending attitude toward Iranians in the workplace and in the street were amplified beyond proportion. Examples of rowdy, heavy-drinking, unrestrained young American men in particular publicized the imprudent Yankee stereotype in such traditional settings as in the city of Isfahan.

Even less complimentary for average Iranians was the mere perception of the American military and security personnel as training, supplying, and monitoring the Iranian security forces and supervising the Savak. In a society devoid of free and diverse media, rumors and anecdotes, mostly unsubstantiated, went a long way toward confirming negative perceptions of the United States. They brought out xenophobic feelings embedded in Iran’s recent history while most Iranians were welcoming Americans (and other foreign nationals) with warmth and hospitality. The image of the innocent American abroad nevertheless was seriously compromised. Predictably, Iranians began to perceive two faces of America, almost independent of each other: a benevolent America and a superpower America. The first was the one to which Iranians dispatched their children in increasing numbers for higher education, purchased US manufactured goods such as cars and home appliances, watched Hollywood movies and other cultural productions, and admired technological and scientific advances such as the US space program. The ugly America, in contrast, conspired and staged coups against legitimate governments abroad, fought hegemonic wars, and supported unpopular leaders in power through financial aid and military support. The two faces persisted even after the rhetoric of the Great Satan became part and parcel of the Islamic Revolution.


As the shah’s international standing grew, he was exposed to greater criticism for his human rights record and repression at home. With Iran’s greater wealth and power, especially after 1973, came a greater exercise of arbitrary rule and royal self-indulgence. Complacency and a disconnection from the realities of Iranian society slowly eroded the foundations of the Pahlavi order. The shah’s all-embracing royal power began to be hollowed, first and foremost, because of his aversion to meaningful modes of pluralism and public participation. The memories of the pre-1953 years seem to have convinced him, as he declared even in public, that in Iran democracy could generate only discord and chaos. His resolve, his vision, and his people’s loyalty and compliance, he insisted, were viable assets for Iran’s progress toward “Great Civilization.” Such a vision, if it was to be believed, served as a potent excuse for applying all means of political control, without respect for contesting views that challenged his positivist vision and the arbitrary means of materialize it.

By the middle of the 1960s, a few years after the June 1963 uprising, the Pahlavi regime had managed to dismantle nearly all semblance of independent political organization. The second National Front was quickly demolished and its leaders detained before being allowed to return to their nonpolitical careers. The Islamist Nahzat-e Azadi (Freedom Movement) had no better luck. An offshoot of the second National Front founded in 1961, it was led by Mahdi Bazargan (1907–1995), a professor of thermodynamics at Tehran University. Though it remained active for a number of years and recruited from among Islamically “committed” professionals, especially engineers, it was barred from any public engagement.

The remnant of the Niru-ye Sevvom (the third force), a small coalition of independent socialists all but disappeared. In March 1966 Khalil Maleki (1903–1969), a professor of chemistry and a theoretician of the independent left who presided over the party, was put on trial in a military tribunal and convicted to serve three years’ imprisonment on preposterous charges. The regime also silenced virtually all independent voices of dissent, including the intellectual left, most of the activist clergy, and university students. Accommodating Maleki and his trait of socialist thought probably was the best chance the regime would have had to stop the frustrated younger generation drifting toward the radical left.

By the early 1970s, the shah’s intolerance extended even to those loyal to him who dared to uphold even moderately diverse views to his lofty dreams. Since the 1965 ouster of Teymur Bakhtiar, the powerful military governor of Tehran in the post-1953 era and the first director of the Savak, until 1963, who entertained his own political ambitions, the shah seldom allowed any official with independent standing, military or civilian, to emerge on the national stage. Holding views contrary to the official narrative of the White Revolution or benign criticism of the state’s economic policies and development plans was subject to censorship. More than the shah’s actual distaste for genuine criticism was fear of the consequences, which helped nurture a climate of mediocrity and distrust. Shows of subservience were routinely staged to convince the public of the shah’s unquestionable power (fig. 11.4). Yet beneath the tedium of monolithic technocracy and sycophantic praise was a reservoir of cynicism that could slip through only in private conversations and political jokes in intimate circles.

With the Savak under the shah’s direct control, and headed since 1965 by his loyal henchman General Ne‘matollah Nasiri, a man of little education or political wit, what was meant to be the government’s security and intelligence apparatus for the most part became a vast, network of control and coercion, arrests and torture, spying on all critics of the regime or presumed suspects, excessive surveillance, and secret files. Far more than its actual capabilities, not to mention its official mission, Savak operated on perceptions of terror, of the ability to infiltrate dissident circles, and of horrifying interrogation methods and torture cells.

Figure 11.4. Clergy paying homage to the shah during the 1971 feast of Mab‘ath.

Mohammad Baqer Najafi, Shahanshahi va Dindari (Tehran: NRTV, 1355/1976), n.p.

Presenting a public face, Parviz Sabeti, known as the “security official” (maqam amniyati), Savak aimed to win over the Iranian public with a demonstration of its agility and intelligence skills. At stake was a proud demonstration of success in a covert war against the remnant of the Tudeh and followers of the recently emerged young Marxists and Islamist organizations, or indeed any other dissident. The television broadcasts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mocked by the public as the “Savak Show,” only added to the rampant cynicism and fear of the organization’s long arm of intrusion and terror. Contrary to Nasiri’s image of a rough and ready general insensitive to realities of the Iranian society, Sabeti, the deputy director for intelligence, wished to portray himself as a reforming professional. Even if this were the case, a dubious proposition, Savak’s image hardly ever softened.

By the mid-1970s Savak had a staff of five thousand and a budget of $100 million, and it was regarded as among the most efficient organizations in the country. Its staff consisted of aged army officers, civilians with a blind sense of obedience, and a large number of field officers, intelligence specialists, and interrogators (in most cases a euphemism for torturers). The organization also maintained an extensive network of informants, moles, and minders in all ministries, government organizations, universities, radio and television organizations, presses and publications, large to midsize factories and businesses, labor and guild organizations, among the clergy, in intellectual gatherings, in the bazaar, and in all other public and private institutions and workplaces of any significance. Savak informers had infiltrated guerrilla organizations and clandestine political events, mosques and religious gatherings, Iranian delegations abroad, dissident student organizations in Europe and the United States, and foreign embassies in Iran and Iranian embassies abroad.

With ties to and regular arrangements for exchanges of intelligence with the CIA and other American intelligence agencies, the British MI5, and the Israeli Mossad, Savak appeared well equipped, well informed, and fully in charge. Having been barred by the shah from foreign intelligence gathering, it primarily focused on domestic security rather than international espionage. Instilling awe even among the top echelons of the Pahlavi state, it vetted government appointments, even relatively minor posts, and kept extensive files, going back to the prewar era, not only on dissidents and those critical of the state, including former Tudeh supporters, liberal nationalists, clergy, religious activists, and intellectuals, but also on all those who had repented and returned to the Pahlavi fold. The organization used its information and interrogative resources, as well as its reputation for efficiency and brutality, to leverage its control over the society and the state.

Savak nevertheless suffered from disastrous flaws. Following directives of its master, it was suspicious of any initiative independent of the shah, and it was an agency devoted to silencing not only Marxist guerrillas and other activists on the left, but anyone who publically criticized government policies and the regime’s corruption and failures, or the conduct of the shah and royal family. It did so more through an impression of omnipresence than interrogation and detention. Moreover, even those who were considered the brains behind Savak suffered from myopia and misperceptions. Savak was as paranoid as the shah and his top statesmen, subscribing to conspiratorial theories involving imagined foreign hands, superpowers, and former superpowers in Iran’s domestic troubles, ranging from guerrilla movements to provisions shortages and economic gridlock.

Even among ministers and top civil servants Savak suspected foreign moles and sympathizers, oddly enough more British and American than Soviet. The Savak shared this paranoid perspective with the shah and most members of the Pahlavi elite. Bureaucratic and inflexible, Savak proved utterly incapable of detecting the root causes of radical challenges and growing popular discontent. It also proved inept in forecasting the 1979 revolution, and when it arrived, its ability to handle it was miserably paralyzed. For its entire history Savak was more in the business of coercion and abuse than inquiry and analysis. In many respects it lived and died by the failings of its royal master.

The dismantling of even moderate voices of dissent was followed by a reckless attempt to manufacture an all-embracing political party. By the mid-1970s the semblance of a two-party scheme was no longer viable even by the shah. In 1964 the Iran Novin Party headed by a younger generation of mostly upper-class technocrats under Hasan-‘Ali Mansur, and after his assassination under Amir ‘Abbas Hovayda, tried to steer a moderately independent course but was quickly persuaded to comply with royal wishes. Despite maintaining a parliamentary caucus and occasionally engaging in heated discord with the Mardom Party, both parties seldom were seen as anything but incredulous outfits designed to lend the image of constitutionality to the royal autocracy.

Added to the failure of the two-party model, the country’s mounting problems of inefficiency, nepotism, and corruption persuaded the shah to opt for a one-party political model, and with a hasty arbitrariness reminiscent of Naser al-Din Shah and his frequent government restructuring. There was no public debate and few devised plans. Motivated by the Soviet and Chinese models perhaps, or the Ba‘ath Party in neighboring Iraq, the royal decision in March 1975 to launch the Rastakhiz Party was a turning point in the shah’s desire to engage his people at a deeper level. Inherently autocratic, the party was hailed by the regime’s propaganda machine as the magic solution to political bickering, going beyond the politics of the elite, and a way to mobilize ordinary Iranians over common goals of the “Revolution of the Shah and the People.” As a monopoly over the political process, Rastakhiz aimed, ominously, to include all Iranians among its membership.

To the extent that any program was articulated for the new party, it was to encourage popular participation in the affairs of their community and their workplace. Political engagement, however, was carefully avoided and everyone—leaders and the rank and file—understood from the outset that serious political discourse was not in the agenda. Party participation aimed to generate new dynamics to combat deficiencies and economic shortfalls and to open new channels for social and economic development. Anyone who refused to join the party, declared the shah in a remarkably blunt statement, evidently was not a patriot and might as well resign his or her citizenship and leave the country for permanent exile. The mandatory party membership was a prelude to harsher measures to come: overhaul of the social order, education, labor relations, bureaucracy, and economy.

Yet compromises quickly unmade the Rastakhiz Party’s lofty goals. In a fashion befitting any autocratic regime incapable of reforming itself, the two wings of the party, the “Progressive” and “Constructive Liberal,” were led by two of the most faithful technocrats of the regime. They were powerful ministers in Hovayda’s government and long had enjoyed regime favors and all the privileges of the Pahlavi elite. Despite their predictable professional credentials, as it turned out they were devoid of any vision or program, much less a mission. It soon became clear that so far as the hierarchy of power was concerned, it was business as usual. The shah and his advisers, if the best of intentions were to be attributed to them, were naive to believe that most Iranians—teachers, workers, villagers, bazaar merchants, students, low- and middle-ranking civil servants, and homemakers (not to mention intellectuals and skeptics)—would genuinely believe in such lackluster gimmickry. The lofty slogans routinely spewed from state-controlled media and the vast financial resources at the party’s disposal resulted in superficial extensive grassroots mobilization in the villages, factories, neighborhoods, schools, and government offices and for a moment created some stir.

The Rastakhiz solution to glaring lack of democratic process, however, soon began to unravel. Even the most ardent supporters of the regime quickly turned into skeptics. By 1977, only two years after it was first launched, the party’s performance appeared dismal even to the shah, who tried to reshuffle the top leadership so as avoid a political fiasco. The new party leaders, also picked from the small reserves of Pahlavi male elite, were no more imaginative or effective in the task of building a reliable popular base while Iranian society was fast rushing toward full-scale revolution. A year later the last-ditch effort to reinvent Rastakhiz also failed, even as the shah tried under public pressure to liberalize the party. Under the weight of popular protests, the Rastakhiz Party was the first of the Pahlavi enterprises to crumble. Unrelenting in adulation for the shah and lacking a political spine, it never offered a forum for critically examining the many urgent defects of the regime, let alone providing a genuine vehicle for public participation.


Coinciding with the years of Rastakhiz Party, and as part of its populist plan of action, the government started a campaign to “stabilize prices,” an initiative to harness raging inflation. It intended to remedy the problem primarily by fixing consumer prices at the retail level, a measure resembling the Persian proverbial punishment of the neighborhood backers for the rising wheat prices. The campaign resulted in a wave of business closures, massive penalties, state takeover of private industries, and detention of industrialists and wholesalers for alleged hoarding and price hiking. The high inflation, by some accounts nearly 25 percent annually by the late 1970s, was triggered mainly by the undue injection of oil income into the Iranian economy. With all the new revenue entering the economy, the government, too, was persuaded to go on a shopping spree of unprecedented scale: new development projects, massive imports, military hardware, high-level services, and a whole range of investments in cities. Rapid growth of the construction industry and a subsequent shortage of skilled and unskilled labor force would soon follow. Symptoms such as these were to be expected in most, if not all, developing economies. Less common, however, and probably avoidable, were the remedies adopted by the Pahlavi state.

Undermining domestic markets, the newly earned revenue favored importers but worked against other sectors of the economy, especially manufacturers and their suppliers. Rising prices, moreover, concerned the regime because they exposed weaknesses in planning and policy making, where the public had little say in the direction of the market or in economic decision making. To remedy the situation, however artificially, the state effectively retaliated against the industrial and retail sectors, the backbone of its consumer economy. Some manufacturers were forced to lower quality to stay within price ranges, while others lowered volume, causing shortages of vital consumer goods and agricultural products, hence creating new incentives for foreign imports and hoarding.

With the growth of the population and the rise in the standard of living, demand for food and consumer goods noticeably went up. As early as the mid-1960s, because of urban migration, an unintended consequence of the land reform, Iran’s agricultural output could not keep up with growing demand. Beginning in the early 1970s, Iran, having long relied on its own domestic production, became a net food importer, bringing in products ranging from meat from New Zealand and Australia to grains, sugar, and dairy products from Europe, Russia, Canada, and the United States. Since the beginning of the Pahlavi era, moreover, the Iranian population had improved in every generation physically, hygienically and medically, from the frail, malnourished, and diseased population at the turn of the twentieth century—visible in many photographs of the period—to a relatively healthy, sanitary, and better-nourished people in the last quarter of the century. The need for greater quantities and greater varieties of food, home appliances, electronics, and cars thus was bound to become a burden for a government anxious to keep its population economically content.

Particularly striking were shortages in utilities—especially electricity—and agricultural produce, an embarrassment to the state’s projected image of power and prosperity. The hollow promises smacked of a shortage of essentials, from onions, potatoes, and rice to propane gas. These were compounded by arbitrary restrictions on urban zoning and a construction moratorium. Traffic congestion in Tehran and other provincial centers, compounded by air pollution, only added to discontent among a public not yet fully accustomed to economic bottlenecks.

The state’s anticorruption campaigns, periodically making the headlines, had limited effect. Embezzlement, nepotism, and illicit deals were not rare. The state had neither the serious desire to stop nor the means of stopping the corrupt practices in which many of its own ministers, high officials, and members of the royal family had a stake. In October 1975 a series of corruption trials put behind bars a few generals and high-ranking officials for taking illicit commissions for the purchase of arms abroad, commissions that seemingly had been approved, at least in the eyes of ordinary people, by the shah and the government. In February 1976 another scandal concerning the $28 million purchase of F-14 fighter jets from the US corporation Grumman also resulted in dismissals and imprisonments. A purchase of $40 million of sugar on the open market, also in 1976, resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of officials. In their trials the defendants argued that in such deals they were aided by high officials whose names and positions they could not reveal. Yet in the booming economy of the 1970s the temptations to make a quick fortune were too great and the restraints too relaxed to allow any widespread anticorruption campaign to take root.


In the absence of viable alternatives to secular dissent, and with Pahlavi absolutism firmly in place, the rise of guerrilla movements in Iran in the late 1960s appeared to many younger dissidents an alluring alternative. With party politics long dismantled, except for the sham Rastakhiz Party, the liberal nationalist veterans and moderate socialists were silenced or voluntarily went into exile. With them went the once-appealing call to restore the constitutional monarchy. In the absence of the Tudeh Party, which had once been a grassroots political organization, the hard-line alternatives were narrowed down to two: Islamic militants, who advanced a double message of anti-Pahlavi and antisecular opposition, and guerrilla armed struggle to overthrow the Pahlavi regime. While the former essentially appealed to the mosque-going lower-middle classes in the bazaar and poorer neighborhoods, the latter recruited from the younger middle classes, mostly university students. Marxist insurgency appealed to children of families with Tudeh or other leftist tendencies. Islamist ideology, such as that of the Mojahedin-e Khalq, however, attracted the children of pious families. Their numbers were small but their impact tangible.

Predictably, guerrilla struggle in Iran came about in the 1960s when Marxist-inspired movements abounded around the world. The radical left everywhere fell captive to the aura of such revolutionaries as Fidel Castro and his comrades-in-arms in the 1959 Cuban Revolution. As elsewhere, in Iran, too, the bearded image of the handsome and charismatic Che Guevara (before being commercialized on posters and T-shirts) greatly appealed to the left. In the Vietnam War years, the Vietcong’s unyielding resistance against the Americans also struck chords of sympathy among the Iranians. These replaced the steely image of the mustachioed Comrade Stalin who had long fascinated Tudeh members and sympathizers. The equally steely image of Mao Zedong survived in the Iranian revolutionary pantheon even after the crimes of the Cultural Revolution became better known. Moreover, the left was moved by the intensity of the Palestinian struggle and its revolutionary voice during the heydays of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. It was seen by many as the closest, and the most pertinent, cause in the face of Pahlavi rapprochement with Israel. The rise of the new European left, manifest in the 1968 Paris uprising, was another source of inspiration. The Algerian independence movement also served as shining example. The Iranian guerrilla organizations viewed themselves as one such vanguard in a grand struggle against Western hegemony and its agents, and the shah in their eyes was a prime candidate.

As with most movements of the time, the Iranian guerrillas were disillusioned with the Soviet Union and its modified Stalinist ideology under Brezhnev and his colleagues. The crushing of the Prague Spring and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 came as a shock to the left and its intellectual affiliates. In addition to Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara, all praised for their armed struggles, and Patrice Lumumba, for being a martyr of African struggle, there were Iranian heroes. They ranged from the sixth-century Persian prophet Mazdak, the founder of probably the earliest communist-style movements in world history, to Mirza Kuchak Khan. The likes of Taqi Arani and Khosrow Ruzbeh were held in awe. Mosaddeq, however, held an ambivalent place in their ideological landscape, as did socialist intellectuals such as Khalil Maleki. As a liberal nationalist coming from an aristocratic background, Mosaddeq was admired for his anti-imperialist stance but was also seen as a transitory figure whose struggle was bound to lead to the revolution of the masses. Over the years the movement itself generated its own martyrs and upheld them as role models for the new recruits. That there were too many of them fallen in clashes with security forces added to the movements’ appeal.

The ideology of the Iranian left brought together classic Marxism-Leninism, often from a Maoist perspective, with nationalist traits inspired by Latin American movements. To a lesser extent, the experience of the Iranian left since the Constitutional Revolution informed the new radical trends. Though the left distrusted the Tudeh as subservient to the Soviet Union and deluded by Stalinist ideology in its strict application of class struggle, it was not free of Stalinist legacy. Nor did it budge from the Tudeh ideal of dismantling the Pahlavi “bourgeoisie comprador”—seen as an agent of Western capitalism—and creating a dictatorship of the proletariat. Armed struggle spearheaded by the urban guerrillas, it was believed, was soon to be backed by the “masses”: the working classes, the urban poor, and the rural population. The greatest threat, it was agreed, was US hegemony and the US support for police states, which, the militants contended, could not have survived without active American backing.

Almost exclusively made up of young men and woman in their twenties and early thirties, the clandestine Guerrilla Organization of the Fada’iyan-e Khalq (Sazman-e Cheriki-e Fada’iyan-e Khalq; literally, “the organization of the devotees who sacrifice themselves for the people”) was founded in 1966 through a merger of several smaller radical Marxist groups. One of its influential affiliates, Bizhan Jazani (1937–1975), a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Tehran University and a theoretician of the movement, came from a family of Tudeh activists. While Bizhan was a young boy, his father, a junior army officer, had joined the Azarbaijan Democrats and in 1946 defected to the Soviet Union. Bizhan himself was a dissident in Tudeh circles and an affiliate of the second National Front. Though repeatedly detained and imprisoned by the Savak, he managed to disseminate his revolutionary message in and out of prison even after 1969, when he and a number of his cohorts received long prison terms from military tribunals on common charges of membership in an illegal Marxist organization and conspiracy to overthrow the Pahlavi regime. His tragic end, along with eight other cohorts, added to his aura as a martyr for the cause of the left. They were cold-bloodedly executed in secret in the vicinity of the Evin prison in April 1975, apparently in reprisal for the upsurge of guerrilla warfare and a wave of assassination of Savak agents. Executions were masked as outcome of an escape attempt.

Jazani’s pamphleteering was not devoid of a historical perspective. It was primarily informed by class analysis, deeply critical of US hegemony and Pahlavi dictatorship. Yet in comparison with his comrades, he suffered less the Fada’iyan’s typical naïveté and their almost messianic call to spearhead an impending socialist revolution. He was critical of the Tudeh past, its subservice to the Soviets, and its rebuff of Mosaddeq. Having returned after a lapse to Tehran University, he wrote a dissertation supervised by Gholam-Hosain Sadiqi on the forces and objectives of the Constitutional Revolution. Familiarity with the Iranian constitutional struggle and the complexity of Iranian historical experience set him apart from the hotheads who came to dominate the organization. Over the years, however, Jazani’s intellectual journey did not lead him to a liberal socialist perspective, but rather to a Maoist “rural” revolutionary model in Iran in place of the Bolshevik model.

Most of the Fada’iyan envisioned themselves as forerunners of a revolutionary process that would eventually awaken the “peoples” (khalq-ha) of Iran and erect a utopian society of liberated workers and peasants (fig. 11.5). The movement nevertheless was rife with internal rivalries and ideological splits, which was as effective as Savak in rendering the movement dysfunctional. Their advocacy of autonomy for Iran’s ethnicities—mostly in the realm of imagination—was theoretically luring but politically dangerous, giving an ominous green light to Kurdish, Azarbaijani, Turkmen, Arab, and other dormant cessation tendencies. There was a sincere desire to recognize Iran’s ethnic patchwork of diverse cultural identities, and the left invariably paid homage to such diversity. Yet it was oblivious, or ideologically blind, to the hazards that threatened Iran’s integrity in the 1920s and then again in the 1940s. Despite its blind spots, the Fada’iyan movement can be credited with sensing the rise of social discontent in Iran of the 1960s, even though its prescribed class struggle proved misplaced, at least according to its definition of class.

The Fada’iyan-e Khalq shared its indoctrination with the Mojahedin-e Khalq (People’s Crusaders) guerrilla organization that emerged in the same time period. Founded in 1965, it was a movement with firmer grass roots bridging Marxism and political Islam. Rooted in Islamic trends of the postwar era, and in due course the revolutionary romanticism of ‘Ali Shari‘ati and solidarity with the “third world,” then in vogue, the Mojahedin movement was a rough Islamic equivalent of Latin American liberation theology, but with an appetite for armed warfare. Gleaning selectively from the Qur’anic verses, mostly prescribing violence and warning of vengeance, and investing in politicized Shi‘i paradigms of sacrifice and martyrdom, the Mojahedin sought in Islam more than devotional acts or a sense of community. They criticized, for the same reason, the passive compliance of most members of the clerical class and their conservative readings of Islamic values. Masses were to be liberated through the exemplar of Shi‘i Imam ‘Ali and his son Imam Hosain to create a classless society, not by the forces of historical materialism but by means of egalitarian Islam and collective sacrifice on the model of Karbala.

Figure 11.5. “Without true participation of women no revolutionary movement would ever triumph.” Makeshift poster of the Fada’iyan Khalq, c. 1980.

Ken Lawrence collection, 1940–2010, HCLA 6312. Courtesy of Special Collections Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.

The Mojahedin’s culture of armed struggle resembled that of the Marxist Fada’iyan but wrapped in a garb of Islamic symbolism. It was no surprise, then, that some of the Mojahedin, while in the shah’s prison, could dispose of their diluted Islamic Marxism in favor of a Marxist offshoot that rivaled both Fada’iyan and the Mojahedin. Almost religiously puritanical, later it was renamed Paykar (warfare) on the eve of the 1979 revolution, appealing to younger recruits, who joined its ranks in droves. Even more than other Marxist movements, Paykar members were the target of street clashes as well as arrest and execution by the Islamic Republic’s newly organized Revolutionary Guards.

In more than one way the guerrilla movements in the late 1960s and 1970s left their mark on Iran’s radical politics. In the decade and a half before the 1979 revolution, most immediate was their unsettling effect on the public space, tarnishing the otherwise ultraconfident Pahlavi image at the height of its seemingly imperturbable power. Street clashes with Savak and the security forces, which resulted in the death of legendary guerrilla leaders like Hamid Ashraf (1946–1976), attacks on gendarmerie outposts, reports in the press with pictures of men and women killed or captured, television appearances whereby the “security authority” boasted about Savak’s successes in eliminating the “saboteurs” (kharab-karan), and even television broadcasts of the military courts sentencing young guerrilla detainees to long-term imprisonment or execution—all had a disquieting impact on the Iranian public. The unintended consequence of the state’s publicity, along with refuting the damning reports of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations that highlighted oppression and torture in Iran, marred, if not entirely discredited, the state’s image of success and grandeur that it was keen to display internationally.

The most striking at outset of the guerrilla armed struggle was the Siahkal episode. In February 1971 twelve members of Fada’iyan who intended to ignite an uprising in Siahkal, a scenic rural town deep in the forests of Gilan province 220 miles north of Tehran, attacked a gendarmerie outpost to release one of their comrades. After a fatal exchange of fire, several were killed and ten captured and subsequently tried and executed in March of that year. The botched incident proved the naïveté of the Fada’iyan and its wishful reliance on the support of villagers, which never materialized. The state’s attempt to amplify Siahkal beyond what it was, even after eliminating the armed guerrillas, also revealed the depth of the regime’s anxiety. The incident acquired an iconic place in the narrative of the left, and a few allusions in songs and films celebrated the incident as a heroic challenge to the power of the state.

Intensified clashes with the security forces after 1971, coinciding with the celebration of 2,500 years of the Iranian monarchy, though never remotely reaching the level of urban warfare, resulted in several assassinations of military prosecutors, police chiefs, Savak agents, and state officials, and at least four instances of assassinations of American military advisers to the Iranian armed forces between 1972 and 1976. It was the Mojahedin who mostly carried out these attacks.

At the height of the guerrilla movement came the arrest and trial of the Fada’iyan activist and poet Khosrow Golesorkhi (1944–1974), who was sentenced in a public trial in the military court in January 1974 and executed along with his cohorts. Charged with subversion to overthrow the Pahlavi regime, he was seen as a martyr of the left for his valiant defense (fig. 11.6). Even for those who did not sympathize with his ideology, Golesorkhi’s execution epitomized all that was wrong with the Pahlavi regime. Even though the revolutionary left, whether Marxist or Marxist Islamic, was more a symptom than an agent of instantaneous change, their struggle anticipated the mass appeal of the Islamic Revolution that arrived in their wake shortly afterward.

Figure 11.6. Khosrow Golesorkhi (first row, fourth from right) and his comrades and their court-appointed lawyers during the 1974 military tribunal that condemned him and another member of the group to death.

Contemporary Iranian photograph, Arshiv-e Asnad-e Opozision-e Iran (http://www.iran-archive.com/start/323).

By 1978 the era of urban guerrilla struggle was almost at its end. Yet a number of men and women who lost their lives in bloody street clashes or in safe houses, or who died in front of firing squads, were harbingers of still more ominous times awaiting these guerrilla organizations. According to one estimate in the eight years between 1970 and 1978, Fada’iyan-e Khalq lost the total of 198 of their fighters of whom 169 were men and 29 women. The 15 percent rate for woman participation was remarkable since very rarely did women take active part in earlier resistance movements in Iran. By contrast, the number of Mojahedin casualties between 1971 and 1976 was no more than fifteen of which only one was a woman. The significant discrepancy may well be attributed to the strength of the Marxist ideology as opposed to Islamic-Marxism. Only during and after the Islamic Revolution, and coinciding with the ascendency of radical Islamic rhetoric, greater appeal for Islamic Marxism shifted the balance in favor of the Mojahedin-e Khalq. In the first decade after the revolution, both organizations suffered horrendous losses far higher than in prerevolutionary years.

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