“If the Shah and I have to die, it will be in Iran”

The “king of kings”, who considered himself the “light of the Aryans”, spent his last days in Iran isolated in the Niavaran Palace, and on Jan. 16, 1979, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced to leave his country for good. Iran would never be the same again. The following is the story of Pahlavi’s final days as king.

The 16th of january 1979, Mohammad Reza Pahlav and the shahbanu left Iran. AFP Archives

“I was misunderstood … and I do not know why,” the last Persian emperor, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, told The Observer newspaper on Nov. 16, 1978. Even though he was on the verge of being repudiated by the vast majority of the nation, the interview made clear that Pahlavi did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation in his country.

At the same time, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been exiled 15 years earlier for threatening the stability of Pahlavi’s regime, was waiting in France eager to return home. He did not have to wait long.

After gathering a large following of mullahs who were ready to bring down Pahlavi’s “atheist” regime, Khomeini broadcast a speech on June 18, 1978, which is thought to have sparked the popular revolt in Iran. Khomeini was the spokesperson for the religious opposition to Pahlavi’s rule, and he knew that the time was right for revolt.

The “king of kings”, who considered himself the “light of the Aryans”, lived his last days in Iran isolated in the Niavaran Palace — the country would never be the same. After years of authoritarianism, unbridled repression, corruption, injustice, and blatant Westernization, the 2500 year old monarchy was on the verge of collapse and would soon be replaced by an Islamic republic.

Throughout Pahlavi’s reign, feudal lords, the mullahs and the Iranian communist party, or Tudeh Party, gave him little respite from their opposition, and the king even escaped several assassination attempts. By 1978, the time was right for his detractors to strike him down. The economy was paralyzed, oil exports had halted and riots were spreading across the country. Thousands died as the Shah’s security apparatus responded with the only tool it knew – excessive force.

“Yankee go home!”

December 1978 was also the month of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar and the month of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom. Large religious protests calling for the downfall of the Shah were expected to take place. The country was under curfew, and from France, the sworn enemy of the Pahlavi dynasty, Khomeini, called on soldiers in the army – the bedrock of the Iran’s authoritarian regime – to desert their units and abandon the Shah.

What were Pahlavi’s chances of staying in power? According to the CIA, they were 50-50. “We won’t flee the country,” Pahlavi’s wife, Farah, told a Western diplomat, who was quoted in the West German newspaper Bild Zeitung.

All of the family’s children were with them in Iran, except for Crown Prince Reza who was studying at a military school in the United States. The rest of the extended imperial family lived abroad. “If we have to die, we will die in Iran,” Farah reportedly said.

In the beginning of November, the Shah wanted to step down, but Farah begged him to stand firm and resist. His throne, which was his entire life, was on the line. Pahlavi decided to fight.

The scene of the “king of kings” faltering and then clinging to the last vestiges of his power was dramatically different than the earlier, more prosperous years. Just 11 years before the onset of the revolution, Pahlavi had crowned his wife queen, or shahbanu, in a ceremony attended by 500 guests that was inspired by Napoleon Bonaparte.

But by Dec. 10, 1978 Iran’s political circles had grown apprehensive about what was unfolding and what major changes might be on their way. Foreigners living in the country were also becoming concerned. Anti-American demonstration were taking place in Isfahan, Iran’s former capital, with increasing frequency, heightening people’s fears. Leaflets also began appearing around the country warning Americans to leave by Dec. 31.

Tehran’s airport was intensely overcrowded, and the queues were huge. Up to that point, the administration of US President Jimmy Carter had approached the growing unrest cautiously to avoid looking like it was giving up on its ally, the Shah, at a critical moment. But the US, growing increasingly skeptical about whether Pahlavi would be able to cling to power, radically changed course and went public with its doubts.

In 1953, the CIA and MI6 had staged a coup d’etat through a covert action called Operation Ajax that restored Pahlavi’s position. The power of the monarchy had been curtailed after Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh capitalized on popular anger at the Shah’s acquiescence to Western interference and control over Iran’s oil resources. In 1978, there would be no Operation Ajax.

“The human tide seemed so strong and so entrenched that one could not help but wonder how long the Iranian leader will last in the face of such powerful backlash. Yet, the shah clung to his throne. ‘Saving time’ meant little in a context where everyone was unanimously against the man,” a Swiss newspaper wrote at the time.

In another world

Is response to the unrest, martial law was proclaimed in Iran. Nearly 500,000 soldiers and officers crisscrossed the country often opening fire on protestors. The counter offensive was led by General Azhari. Having been appointed prime minister just a month earlier, he found himself responsible for defending the future of the Pahlavi regime. The Shah, whose portraits were being trampled daily across the country, was aware of what was unfolding. Led by six ayatollahs, 180,000 mullahs who were sick of years of dictatorship, corruption and Western interference were rising up against his rule.

As Iran began to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, massive crowds of people swept through the country chanting Khomeini’s name. The protests even found support in west Beirut where demonstrations in support of Khomeini also took place.

In Tehran, people knew the protesters weren’t just talking about God. “We are speaking directly to the Shah. We want to tell him that his people have turned against him,” one of the opposition figures said.

In Isfahan, the military was able to regain control. Anyone driving a car in the city had to put a sticker of the shah or his son on their windshields. But Pahlavi knew he was living on borrowed time. He had little power to withstand the growing onslaught on the legitimacy of his rule and the public calls for his execution.

The government claimed that it had the support of a “silent majority” in the country of 36 million people. US President Jimmy Carter said that he fully supported the Shah, but these statements angered people even more. After the Soviet Union expressed its support for the protests against the Shah, the US administration denounced Soviet interference in Iranian affairs. Carter warned that the United States did not “intend to interfere with the internal affairs in Iran and will not allow anyone else [to do so either].”

After many years of using their relationship with their Persian ally to their benefit, the Americans appeared as if they were about to abandon the Shah. But they refused to let the Soviet bloc take advantage of the new situation.

Meanwhile, rumors were circulating that the Shah had fled the country and a new national unity government was being formed. The Shahbanu, Farah, told the Daily Express that the Shah had voluntarily let many of his advisors and “servants” go. She added that “they did not want to be put in a dangerous situation” yet stressed that the shah “was trusted by the people despite the trouble that his country was going through.”

The Shah and his wife lived in another world. “It is easy to see how the Shah, like Louis XIV, believed that he was the personification of the state. But because of his isolated position, he failed to perceive the gap between his interpretation of the ‘Persian spirit’ and reality,” the New York Times wrote.

The memory of the October 1971 celebration in Persepolis commemorating 2500 years since the foundation of the Persian Empire was still fresh in people’s minds. While the vast majority of Iranians were struggling with food insecurity, one-eighth of the world’s production of caviar was consumed during the royal festivities. Back then, the Shah responded to his critics by saying: “What do you expect from me? To serve the heads of states bread and radishes?”

“By leaving the country, sir.”

“I feel exhausted. I want to leave, but the military generals are not allowing me,” the Shah confessed to the leader of the main opposition party, Karim Sanjabi, during a meeting in the royal palace on Dec. 14. “How can the current crisis be overcome?” the Shah asked.

“By leaving the country, sir.” Sanjabi responded, according to a Tokyo-based newspaper citing “trustworthy sources” in Tehran.

In the background, the Americans were trying to push for a way out of the crisis and saw former Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Gholam Hossein Sadighi as someone who could be appointed prime minister and who might be able to save the country. But Sadighi had conditions that the Shah did not agree to. Pahlavi appointed Chapur Bakhtiar prime minister instead. The revolt did not calm down. According to estimates, 4,000 people had already been killed since the beginning of 1978.

Meanwhile, in an exclusive club in Tehran, a group of Franco-Iranians gathered to celebrate Christmas. Jet-setters, nobles, friends of the Shah and some moderate opponents were inside the upper-class bunker as the sound of gunshots pattered nearby. Days earlier, talk that the Shah might temporarily leave the country started to circulate in Washington. His absence would make the process of forming a civilian government easier and could possibly restore calm to the country. But a temporary departure would not be an abdication of the throne.

Britain and the Soviet Union had forced the Shah’s father, Reza Shah, to abdicate the throne to his son 37 years before because they believed that Reza Shah, among other things, had close ties to Nazi Germany.

Just a year earlier, at the end of 1977, Jimmy Carter was in Tehran for New Years celebrations. “Thanks to the outstanding leadership of the Shah,” he said, “Iran became the center of stability in one of the most troubled regions in the world.”

In a setting straight of out One Thousand and One Nights, Carter and the Shabuna were dancing in the Niavaran Palace waiting for the clock to strike midnight. The Shah, recalling an ancient Iranian tradition that says the first visitor of the year is an omen for the future, stated: “It is only natural for Carter to be in Tehran at this time, for this is the best omen for 1978.”

Laughter and dancing continued until dawn.

Khomeini: The new Robespierre?

Without waiting for the formation of his government, the newly appointed prime minister, Chapur Bakhtiar, announced a series of measures, including dissolving the political branch of Savak (Iran’s political and security police) and lifting press censorship. He also prohibited the selling of oil to Israel. It was a complete repudiation of the principles that Pahlavi had been ruling the country by for 25 years.

The ousting of the Shah was now all but inevitable. He had been diagnosed with cancer a few years earlier and realized that staying close to the tumult might have a critical impact on his health. His options for exile were multiple. Pahlavi owned a villa in Saint Moritz and a vast estate in Surrey near London. On Jan. 14, he took the decision to leave Iran. In his place, there was an imperial council and a government led by Bakhtiar.

But even though the Shah had left, the oligarchy of families and figures who had taken advantage of their close relationship with the imperial family to gain privileges and wealth was still in place. “If they do not leave the country within a few days, at best they will be imprisoned and at worst executed,” a former member of the privileged class said.

On Jan. 16, 1979 at 13:20 local time, a Boeing 707 named “Chahin” took off from Iran to Egypt. The pilot of the plane was the Shah himself. Behind him, in Iran, his relatives and members of his court were in tears. Other people were overjoyed. Before the Shah boarded the plane, some of the soldiers and officers of the imperial guard fell to their knees and begged him not to go.

The Shahbanu could not hold back her tears despite her reputation for being more reserved than her husband. Like his father, Pahlavi took a handful of Iranian soil with him before he left. The plane disappeared into the grey skies above Tehran. Below, people were celebrating a new chapter in history that was just beginning: life after the Shah.

“The liberation of Paris? I lived through this moment, and I can tell you it was nothing compared to this,” a diplomat said.

The shah took refuge in Aswan with his friend Anwar al-Sadat, not knowing whether he’d ever return to his country.


Editor’s note: 40 years since the Iranian revolution under L’Orient-Le Jour’s magnifying glass

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The country went from being an imperial state to a theocracy and then to an Islamic Republic. Given how transformative the revolution has been in Iran, the Middle East at large and Lebanon in particular, it is undoubtedly one of the most significant events that took place in the region during the 20th century. L’Orient Le Jour will cover this anniversary by publishing a series of stories.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 16th of January)

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“I was misunderstood … and I do not know why,” the last Persian emperor, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, told The Observer newspaper on Nov. 16, 1978. Even though he was on the verge of being repudiated by the vast majority of the nation, the interview made clear that Pahlavi did not seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation in his country. At the same time, Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been...