Fall of the Peacock Throne
On January 16, 1979, the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his Empress, became political exiles. The world’s oldest monarchy, dating back twenty-five hundred years, ended after a violent revolution that left Iran in social and economic chaos and hurled it toward a more anachronistic form of government, a theocracy. What potent forces precipitated such a revolution? William H. Forbis answers this question in a social history of the Iranian people that focuses on everyday life in Iran and the Shah’s lack of attunement. The author draws on Persian history, geography, culture, and politics to explain the fall of the Shah and the rise of his worst enemy, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The first of three parts, “A Persian Story,” details the rise of the fifty-year-old Pahlavi Dynasty which, in its short lifespan, made Iran a modern, wealthy nation and the central, controlling power in the Middle East. As feudalism melted away, particularly from 1963-1978, Iran became a modern, military-industrial complex wealthy from oil revenue with a strong-willed Shah as undisputed leader. Iran, however, also underwent many changes too fast for cultural assimilation and as a result, a strong counterforce was unleashed, moralistic Islam. Fearing a loss of cultural and national identity in an increasingly materialistic, repressive, and Western society, Iranians listened to their mullahs or priests who advocated the Shah’s overthrow and a return to Islamic or religious law. The Shah who thought he controlled everything lost everything as Iran emerged a modern nation, a fifty-year Pahlavi goal.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who called himself King of Kings and Light of the Aryans, was born a commoner. His father, Reza Khan, was a military upstart who seized the Peacock Throne from Shah Armad, the last Qajar ruler. Forbis points out that the Pahlavis never disguised their background as protection against charges of illegitimate usurpation. They felt that Reza Khan was an extraordinary individual who deserved kingship since he ended political corruption and national disintegration. Also, the Iranian people, so long accustomed to conquerors and disillusioned with the Qajars, accepted the overthrow. The only challenge against legitimacy came from the mullahs because the Pahlavis, in finding the Muslim faith a barrier to modernization, fought the mullahs and reduced their wealth. If the second Pahlavi Shah had been close to his people and had not alienated the state church, there may never have been a coup d’état in 1979.
Society was rotten under the Qajars, travel was hazardous, and Iran was a virtual English Protectorate in which the British controlled the economy and politics. Peasants were repressed, with illiteracy at ninety-eight percent. Forbis credits Reza Shah with vast social improvements: he stopped brigandage with a rigid police force, built roads and a railroad, ended much foreign influence, built coeducational schools, and founded the University of Teheran. Against Koranic bans, he authorized courses in anatomy and further infuriated the mullahs by introducing Western music, dress, cinema, and architecture. The riots of 1978-1979 resulted from a long history of mullah resentment beginning with these early profound reforms, however much they were needed.
Both Pahlavis were stern rulers, suspicious of everyone, and dictatorial to an extreme. They linked themselves with pre-Islamic Persia even in their choice of family name, Pahlavi, which refers to the ancient form of the Persian language. Kingship was their profession in the ancient, autocratic tradition of divine right, a religious claim the mullahs disputed. They believed that only monarchy could achieve a Great Civilization or second Persian Empire. In a sense, they celebrated pagan over Islamic tradition through their identification with a remote past, a course of action which set them in direct opposition to the religious leadership.
A chapter entitled “First Persian Singular”...
(The entire section is 3,153 words.)