Iran: The White Revolution
No Country in the World Has a Worse Record on Human Rights
—Amnesty International on Iran, 1974
In the summer of 1978, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was the Shah of Iran. The iron curtain was still drawn, and Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. Animal House opened in U.S. movie theaters. Bonnie Tyler’s It’s a Heartache and Abba’s Take a Chance on Me were at the top of the pop charts.
Poor Men Want to be Rich
When I arrived in Tehran, the palpable excitement of the upwardly mobile city hit me like a blast of hot dry air. Iranians enthusiastically embraced consumerism as the oil revenue-fueled economy flourished.
The Shah’s father had already eliminated the requirement that women wear the chador, a sheet-like cloak worn over the head and clutched under the chin. Only around one of every six women wore it anymore, either out of modesty, religious belief, family pressure, or an ulterior motive. My brother-in-law pointed out a chador-clad local prostitute. He claimed prostitutes wore the chador as camouflage.
Most women wore European and American clothes. Women matched jeans with high heels, expensive silk shirts, ropes of gold, and diamond earrings. Some wore expensive Italian or Parisian outfits. They skillfully enhanced their beautiful features with black eyeliner and red lipstick and sported elegantly coiffed hair.
Everyone with a bike wanted a motorbike, everyone with a motorbike wanted an Iranian-made Paykan automobile, and everyone with a Paykan wanted a sleek foreign sports car. Wealthy Iranians sent their children to study at prestigious schools in the United States, France, Switzerland, England, and Germany. Ambitious men brought home foreign wives.
The Shah had declared a bloodless White Revolution in 1963 with twelve social and economic reforms, including land reform, women’s rights, and battling illiteracy among the lower classes. By the mid-1970’s, his drawing board held grandiose plans: dozens of new military schemes, the reconstruction of Tehran with a gigantic plaza in his honor, the world’s most opulent subway, and national industrialization. The Shah needed every penny of oil revenues, and he was determined to protect his assets.
Iran’s military complex boomed. The U.S. military trained Iranian troops. A naval station at Bandar Abbas protected the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The Shah’s military protected Kharg Island, once famous for pearls, and then the site of one of the world’s largest offshore oil terminals. (Iraq bombed it during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.) The Shah had given generous military aid to Oman to fight the Dhofar rebels and was the go-to source for military support in the region.
The Shah expanded industries and built utility plants. For the first time, electric lights illuminated small villages, and the new middle class installed telephones. Waves of foreign businessmen flooded into the country and rented homes.
Iran’s economy was growing fast, and Tehran, its largest city, was the heart of the blossoming country. Iranians called it the Paris of the Middle East, a playground for the prosperous.
Rich Men Want to Be Kings
The Shah seemed to be a champion of women’s rights. He had three wives, but not at the same time. He was a serial monogamist.
In 1939, he married Fawzia Fuad, the stunning blue-eyed daughter of King Fuad I of Egypt. Within ten years she divorced him and returned to Egypt with their daughter.
In 1951, he married Soraya Esfandiary, a mercurial green-eyed half-German, half-Iranian beauty. The Shah, still a puppet of the United States, partied and skied with his new wife in Cannes, Paris, London, Gstaad, Zermatt, and St. Moritz. Soraya was unable to have children, so he divorced her in 1958. The Shah was pushing forty, and his 33-year-old so-called dynasty needed a male heir.
In 1959 he married 21-year-old Farah Diba. Ten months later she had a son, followed by three more children, including another son. (The youngest daughter committed suicide in London in 2001, and the youngest son committed suicide in Boston in 2011.)
The Shah did advance women’s rights, up to a point. He introduced women’s suffrage. Women served in the Iranian army, received six months training, and taught villagers to read and write as part of his plan to reduce Iran’s 75% illiteracy rate. Yet polygamy was still allowed providing two conditions were met: the first wife had to agree, and the court had to approve.
The façade sparkled with promise, but when you looked inside you saw a wreck. The Shah was a misogynist. In an interview with journalist Oriana Falacci, he denigrated women’s abilities and asserted, “Women count only if they’re beautiful and graceful and know how to stay feminine.” In the same interview he blurted, “You’re schemers, you’re evil. Every one of you.”
Kings Want to Be Gods
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi claimed he ruled by divine right, and his authority came from the will of Allah. He called himself an Emperor, a King of Kings. It was an extraordinary claim from a man who sometimes didn’t have enough to eat as a child and whose father was a commoner.
He claimed he had visions from God and that the long-dead first Imam Ali saved him from a nasty fall when he was a child. In a 1974 cover story, Time quoted
William Simon, then U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, characterizing the Shah as “an irresponsible and reckless…nut.”
Simon’s animosity had nothing to do with the Shah’s self-proclaimed visions. In 1973 the Arab oil embargo quadrupled oil prices. After the Saudis took all the risk, and only after it was clear the West wouldn’t launch a military intervention, the Shah appointed himself spokesman for the new Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel.
The Shah couldn’t conceive of an end to his brand new hereditary monarchy. He often said that the people respected him as if he were their father. Educated Iranians laughed in disbelief.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s own father, Reza Khan, a member of the Persian Cossack Brigade, deposed Ahmad Shah Qajar, head of the 140-year-old Qajar dynasty, in 1925. Reza Khan was a poor but ambitious army officer. Through craftiness and ruthlessness, the crude thuggish man stole a crown.
During a meeting with a Greek dignitary, a Mr. Kyriakos, pronounced “kir ya kos,” Reza Khan made a joke true to his peasant upbringing. Kir and kos are names for male and female genitalia in Farsi. Ya means or. Reza Khan taunted his diplomatic guest by asking him to make up his mind. What was he? Kir or kos?
His son, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was educated in Europe and dressed either in expensive bespoke suits or military dress festooned with unearned medals. He spoke French and German better than he spoke Farsi. Upper-class Iranians considered him an interloper. He was an insecure common bully who never saw a day of combat, a man who made others do his dirty work.
The Shah’s thugs kept dissenters in line. My uncle-in-law had once owned a major news publication in Iran. He published a political cartoon depicting the Shah’s second wife, Soraya, riding him like a donkey. The Shah had him imprisoned and destroyed his printing operation. When he was released from prison, he abandoned publishing and lived a comfortable, but idle compromise of a life.
With the help of Israel’s Mossad and General Schwartzkopf’s father, the Shah formed SAVAK, a brutal secret service agency that specialized in censorship, surveillance, torture, and execution. Iranians studying at foreign universities were cautious and often suspected their fellow Iranian students were spies for SAVAK, because of the Shah’s massive investment in surveillance.
The large class divide, grand ambitions of the insecure Shah, discontent among religious leaders, brutality of the dictatorship, and, crucially, an old grudge against the United States, were about to spark a revolution.