In this edition of the Despot of the Week, The Grand Inquisitor examines one of the favourite foreign policy tactics of powerful Western democratic states: conspiring to establish vicious dictatorships in third world nations for fun and profit. The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was on the point of being ousted by Mohammed Moseddeq’s emerging parliamentarian government, before the CIA, in collusion with British Intelligence, acted to incite a military coup, restoring Pahlavi to power. Once he was back in the driving seat, Pahlavi established the sinister SAVAK agency of secret police as his instrument of control, terrorising the Iranian population with brutal methods of repression for the next quarter of a century. The lion’s share of Iran’s rich oil reserves were divided among British and US corporations, while Pahlavi propped up his regime with a steady flow of Western support, effectively becoming a puppet ruler for his imperial masters.
MOHAMMED REZA PAHLAVI
Country of Rule: Iran
From: 26 September 1941 – 11 February 1979
Official Title: His Imperial Majesty King of Kings, Light of the Aryans and Head of the Warriors, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi
Demise: 27 July, 1980. From complications relating to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Aged 60.
Death Toll: Quite possibly in the thousands. Political dissent under Pahlavi’s regime was subject to imprisonment, grotesque levels of torture and execution.
Physical Defects: Surprisingly presentable for a Despot. At 5’11”, Pahlavi did not even suffer from the typical Despotic curse of chronic short-assedness. He did, however, have alarmingly thick eyebrows: a dead giveaway of Despotic tendencies. And as pointed out by Tony Soprano, Pahlavi bears a striking resemblance to Frank Vincent (AKA Phil Leotardo / Billy Batts).
Bio: Right from the beginning, Pahlavi owed his position to the interference of foreign interests. During World War II, the Allied Powers were concerned about possible links between Iran and the Nazi regime. They also needed the Trans-Iranian railway to supply the Soviet war machine with materials. So in 1941, Great Britain and the Soviet Union jointly occupied Iran, forcing Pahlavi’s father, Reza Shah to abdicate the throne. Lacking any viable alternatives, the Allies allowed the 22 year old Pahlavi to ascend to the throne in his father’s place. It appears that Pahlavi was only too happy to cooperate in becoming the willing stooge of the Allies, while his father was exiled to South Africa.
The young Shah inherited a nation left in turmoil and disarray after the Allied invasion. Pahlavi initially pledged to function as a constitutional monarch, deferring much of his power and authority to Iran’s parliament. However, despite such pledges, Pahlavi connived to intercede in the government and thwart the activities of Iran’s various Prime Ministers, whenever they looked like becoming too influential. Lacking any strong impulse to leadership himself, however, the inexperienced Shah was content to manipulate affairs from behind the scenes. He focused chiefly on rebuilding Iran’s spent military forces. Loyal to the Shah, a strong military would allow Pahlavi to consolidate the monarchy’s power at the base of government in Iran.
By the time World War II was over, British control over Iran’s oil reserves had been firmly established, through the auspices of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later to form the basis of British Petroleum – one of the world’s most powerful multi-nationals). Despite possessing some of the richest oil reserves in the world, almost all of Iran’s oil revenue was flowing out of the country and into British coffers. Iran’s backwards, impoverished population was seeing none of the benefit of the oil revenue, creating intense political unrest.
One of the most vocal critics of Britain’s rapacious plundering of Iran’s resources was former author and lawyer turned prominent member of the Iranian Parliament, Mohammed Mosaddeq. Mosaddeq campaigned fiercely to achieve the nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry and received widespread public support. Quite rightly, he wanted to see an end to Britain’s interest in Iran and cede the benefits of Iranian oil to Iranian people. Iran’s Parliament agreed, and in April of 1951, they elected Mosaddeq Prime Minister of Iran. Days later, the Parliament passed a bill to nationalise all oil production in Iran, with Mosaddeq announcing:
“Our long years of negotiations with foreign countries… have yielded no results this far. With the oil revenues we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people. Another important consideration is that by the elimination of the power of the British company, we would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence.”
Pahlavi, apparently overawed by the depth of popular support for Mosaddeq, did not attempt to intervene. However, Britain had been enjoying the easy riches of Iranian oil for decades, and had no intention of surrendering control. The British government, under Winston Churchill, immediately froze Iran’s Pound Stirling assets and complained to the International Court of Justice. When the Court ruled in Iran’s favour, Britain placed a total trade embargo on Iran, enforcing it with a naval blockade. Unable to export or oil or import goods, Iran’s fragile economy began to collapse.
The situation reached a stalemate. Britain was still struggling to recover from the fallout of World War II, and did not have the kind of power and influence it enjoyed in the old Empire days. Iran remained determined to control its own oil resources. Britain reached out to the US for assistance, but initially, the overtures were rejected. American Secretary of State Dean Acheson recognised that Britain was ” determined on a rule or ruin policy in Iran.”
By 1952, Mosaddeq and the Iranian Parliament took further steps to marginalise the Shah. Mosaddeq insisted on the constitutional right of the Prime Minister to name a Minister of War and a Chief of Staff. At the time, Pahlavi retained control over these offices, effectively giving him control of the military. He refused Mosaddeq’s demands. Mosaddeq resigned from his post in protest, calling on the Iranian population for support. Faced with mass public demonstration, Pahlavi reinstated Mosaddeq as Prime Minister and ceded control of the military. In doing so, he had effectively ousted himself from power, and was now little more than a royal figurehead.
Furious over their loss of control over Iranian oil, and perturbed by Mosaddeq’s increasing influence in the Iranian government, Britain again attempted to secure American support. By this time, Dwight D. Eisenhower had occupied the White House, and the US administration had begun to perceive the Iran situation in a different light. Churchill was able to convince Eisenhower that Mosaddeq was a communist and allied with the Soviet Union. Communist paranoia was beginning to reach a fever pitch in the US, and Eisenhower was petrified of Iranian oil falling into Soviet hands. This, despite the fact that Mosaddeq had repeatedly expressed disdain for communism, and that Iran’s own communist party, The Tudeh, had turned against him.
In March of 1953, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles instructed the CIA to initiate plans to overthrow the Iranian government. The CIA, in conjunction with British Intelligence, became determined to remove Mosaddeq from power at any cost. Immediately, funds were made available to instigate a propaganda campaign in Iran. Bribes were handed out to prominent Iranian newspapers in return for critical commentary of Mosaddeq, and pamphlets and disparaging cartoons denouncing his government began to appear in Tehran’s streets. “Operation Ajax”, the US funded campaign to depose Mosaddeq, was underway. The CIA, however, hit upon a problem. They couldn’t get Pahlavi to cooperate.
Comically enough, Pahlavi was actually terrified by the scope of what the CIA was attempting to achieve. He was frightened of Mosaddeq’s popularity and how the Iranian public might react to his deposal. According to sources in the CIA, the Shah was “by nature a creature of indecision, beset by formless doubts and fears.” The CIA subjected the cowardly Pahlavi to a sustained campaign of pressure tactics in order to get him to move against Mosaddeq. In effect, they had to bully him into taking back the government.
By this time, Mosaddeq had been alerted to the plot against him and took drastic action. Fearing the use of US funds to bribe corrupt parliament members into turning against him, he acted to consolidate his power by dissolving the parliament altogether. It was an unnecessarily desperate measure that played right into the hands of the CIA backed propaganda campaign. Suddenly, Mosaddeq looked like a tyrant. The Iranian press now had a club to beat him with.
Pahlavi was browbeaten by Operation Mongoose director, Kermit Roosevelt Jr. (Grandson of former US President Theodore Roosevelt) into signing off on two government citations, one firing Mosaddeq from the post of Prime Minister and the other installing the compliant military general Fazlollah Zahedi in his place. The citations had already been written and prepared by the CIA. Roosevelt was an interesting figure in his own right, in that he was a total loose cannon, operating on his own initiative and without obtaining approval from the bosses back home. Roosevelt himself admitted that if he had reported his team’s activity back to headquarters “London and Washington would have thought they were crazy and told them to stop immediately.”
General Zahedi was able to obtain the backing of various factions in the military, while the CIA fomented civil unrest on the streets. Frightened by the arrest of a few of the dissenters, however, Pahlavi abruptly chickened out and fled to Baghdad. The CIA had to coerce him to return. In fact, Pahlavi would attempt to flee again a few days later, this time to Rome. Here the CIA were attempting to overthrow a government, and the guy who was supposed to be replacing it kept undermining their efforts by running scared into self imposed exile.
Nonetheless, the coup continued apace. While Pahlavi cowered in Rome, Pro-shah protesters were mobilised by the CIA on the streets of Tehran (many of them apparently bribed to participate) and began burning and looting. The protest was joined by the military, who stormed Mosaddeq’s official residence with tanks. The embattled Prime Minister had little option but to surrender amid the chaos and confusion.
With the coup now secured, Pahlavi returned from hiding and was handed the reins of power. General Zahedi was announced as the new Prime Minister. Mosaddeq was subjected to a show trial and convicted of high treason. He died while under house arrest in 1967. Pahlavi was back in power in Iran, with greater authority than ever before, this time supported by the patronage of the Western powers. With Pahlavi’s capitulation, Britain and the US could now proceed to carve Iran’s oil reserves up between themselves.
The Shah immediately decided to strengthen his regime with the implementation of an effective internal security organisation. The US provided Pahlavi with a team of CIA officers to train Iranian operatives in techniques of covert operations, surveillance, intelligence analysis and other rather more sinister tools of power. One of the CIA officers was Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, father of none other than “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf, the general who commanded Coalition forces during the Desert Storm War with Iraq. The CIA training squad was later supplemented by members of Israel’s Mossad secret service.
By 1957, SAVAK – Iran’s National Intelligence and Security Organisation – consisting of the CIA and Mossad trained operatives – was implemented under Pahlavi’s regime. SAVAK effectively became a law unto itself, granted the legal authority to arrest and detain political dissidents indefinitely and at will, on grounds of suspicion alone. SAVAK was the chief agency empowered to enforce Pahlavi’s grip on power. They became perhaps the most feared and loathed organisation in Iran’s history. The population was terrorised for the best part of a quarter century under SAVAK’s ruthless persecution of political opposition. At its peak, SAVAK was thought to employ some 60,000 agents authorised to stamp out suspected political dissent wherever it could be found. The organisation was given the power to censor the media, screen applicants for public jobs and carry out surveillance operations against Iranian citizens. SAVAK repeatedly resorted to brutal methods of torture. Particularly favourite techniques involved the insertion of shock prods into the rectums of victims, the extracting of nails with pliers, the application of acid drops into nostrils and the use of electrocution devices, among a variety of other equally grisly measures. Executions were frequently carried out. The actual number of state sanctioned murders that took place under SAVAK’s auspices is very much debated, but it seems quite probable that the death toll is in the thousands.
Pahlavi’s regime became increasingly autocratic as the years went on, culminating in the especially tumultuous years of the 1970s. In 1967, Pahlavi crowned himself Shahanshah (Emperor or “King of Kings”) causing widespread discontent through all strata of Iranian society. Pahlavi began to see himself as the heir to the Kings of Ancient Iran, tracing his lineage back thousands of years. In 1971 he held an extravagant celebration of “2,500 years of Persian monarchy” – spending $100 million on a lavish festival for various international dignitaries. The opulence of the affair was in stark contrast to the impoverished condition of much of the Iranian population, fomenting political resolve against the Shah. In 1976, Pahlavi replaced the traditional Islamic Calendar with an Imperial Calendar, one that began with the foundation of the Persian Empire. The year changed from 1355 to 2535 overnight. The act was widely considered “anti-Islamic” and fomented much political dissent in Iran’s clerical class.
With a combination of Western backing, ruthless suppression of unrest and his cut of the oil deals with the US and UK, Pahlavi had turned Iran into a strong regional power in the Middle East. However, the Shah’s attempts to implement social reform were mainly bungled failures. Pahlavi had been determined to modernise Iran “overnight” whatever the cost, leading to widespread corruption, rampant inflation and the alienisation of much of the nation’s general population. Pahlavi resorted to ever increasing levels of authoritarianism and brutal repression in order to maintain his precarious grip on power.
By the end of the seventies, resistance to Pahlavi’s regime had formulated along two fronts. Iran’s religious leaders, concerned about their loss of traditional authority in an increasingly secular nation, began sowing the seeds of revolution. They were joined by Iran’s younger student generation, who were aghast at the lack of democratic representation and concern for the population’s interests under the Shah’s regime. During 1978 – 79 there was an almost continuous series of uprisings, spreading throughout the entire country. Unable to sustain his government in the face of the monarchy’s imminent collapse, Pahlavi had little choice but to abdicate the throne. Ayatollah Khomeini, who had previously been arrested and exiled for criticism of Pahlavi’s regime, returned to Iran, and was installed as the first Supreme Leader of Iran’s new Islamic Republic.
Pahlavi attempted to find refuge in a series of countries but fell critically ill with cancer. His arrival in the US for medical treatment prompted the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by militant Islamic students, leading to a 444 day hostage crisis and the initiation of US / Iran tensions that have lasted until the present day. Pahlavi died of cancer related complications while the hostage situation was still underway.
Despot Rating: Pahlavi is an unusual figure. In some respects, he cuts a portrait of ridicule as a timid and reluctant leader who rolled over and allowed a popular democrat to push him out of government, then fled in terror when the CIA tried to push through a military coup to return him to power. Could you imagine the likes of Saddam Hussein chickening out the crucial junture of a military coup? On the other hand, once he was installed back on the throne, Pahlavi grew into his role with aplomb and instituted one of the most brutal regimes Iran has seen over the last few centuries.
In many respects, however, the real villains behind this particularly nefarious piece of history were the governments of the US and Britain. They stopped at nothing to keep Iranian oil in their own hands, not only ousting a popular social reformer like Mosaddeq, but instituting a vicious dictatorship compliant to their own interests, including the provision of the training and resources necessary for Pahlavi to brutally repress his population and remain in power.
If Mosaddeq’s reformist government had not been overthrown, the course of world history would surely have taken a dramatically different course. Iran might well have been a modernised, secular state by now, perhaps even acting has an integrated medium between the West and the Middle East, seeking a path to reconciliation and peace.
But instead of the heroic social reformer Mosaddeq, Iran got the cowardly, brutal and inept dictator Pahlavi, leading directly to the Islamic revolution and the present state of apparently irreconcilable hostility between the US and Iran – still one of the world’s most potentially dangerous flashpoint situations.
3.5 Hitler Moustaches / 5 for Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.