July 27, 1980: The Death of the Exiled Shah of Iran

by Florian Sohnke


The Shah… Few world leaders have demonstrated a brand of loyalty to the United States in a profound manner, which provoked a reprisal that is still felt in Washington D.C. today. From 1953 to 1979, the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, orchestrated economic and social policies that transformed Iran from a primitive fiefdom to an emerging regional power, and into a global repository of energy. Unfortunately for the Shah and his American ally, his stage management penetrated with all-too familiar Western themes, roused traditionalist Muslims,and led to his downfall in 1979.

Shah brah
Shah brah

Assuming full power in 1953, after the removal of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was forced out with the approval of the Shah in conjunction with American chicanery, the Shah embarked on sweeping changes which included various policies designed modernize and secularize every cultural, social, political and economic institution in Iran. The policy, named the White Revolution, engendered long-term animosity with traditional landowners, Muslim traditionalists, clergy and the middle class.

By the early 70s, the landscape in Iran was almost unrecognizable: The skyline of Tehran, once dominated by domed mosques was replaced by skyscrapers and cranes. What represented progress to Western business interests, particularly the petroleum industry, and curious onlookers was interpreted as the pernicious influence of foreigners and a threat to Islam. Most offensive to traditionalists was the internal change the Shah created with the granting of suffrage to women and, externally, the Shah’s recognition of Israel and its support of Israel during the two Middle Eastern wars in 1967 and 1973. A secular Muslim, the Shah was feeling the Islamist Revolution growing and threatening to cut the ground from his feet.

By late 1978, the Shah was an irreversibly damaged leader: Forced to impose martial law to quell civil unrest, the Iranian Army fired on crowds and the bloodshed which ensued bred avengers among both the crowds and Muslin clerics. In response, a tearful Shah appeared on nationwide television and apologized for the massacres. He proceeded to promise further re-forms and dismissed numerous civil servants he declared incapable of managing government duties; some were accused of corruption.

Banished to Iraq 1964 by a Shah edict, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini remained in control of most political opposition. By 1978, in response to frequent anti-Shah demonstrations in the streets, principally among students at higher institutions the Shah had created, Prime Minister Shapour Bakhitar announced amnesty for the Ayatollah to return from exile along with hundreds of dissidents. It was after the Ayatollah’s return that events spiraled out of control: After stoking dissent from Turkey and France, the Ayatollah returned to Tehran on February 1st and directed the final blows to the Pahlavi dynasty.

Fearing reprisal, sensing the Ayatollah’s return and having lost control, the Pahlavis announced a vacation in January 1979 and departed for Egypt. The Shah would never return.

His exile included stops in Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas and Mexico. By late 1979, the Shah required surgery for gallstones and insisted on treatment in the United States. Arriving on October 22, 1979, the Shah underwent a procedure and departed for Egypt in December.

During his stay in the U.S., the Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and seized its employees. Retreating to Isla Contadora in Panama, the Shah’s stay was short lived: The Panamanian government was served with a writ of extradition from Iran and the Shah departed for Egypt in March 1980.

Diagnosed with Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, the Shah died in Cairo on 27 July 1980, aged 61.

Nothing has changed for the better in Iran since his departure and the Americans lost a reliable ally.

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