How the Shah Inadvertently Made Iranians Resent America


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

The 1953 coup proved that Iran’s religious leaders would be a decisive factor in the country’s affairs. Even with Mohammad Reza Shah’s triumph, it was impossible to ignore the political might of the Shia clergy. After regaining power, the Shah moved against his perceived enemies. Over the next few years, the fallen prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq’s allies were purged from positions of influence.

A view of a Boulevard in Tehran, Iran, in the mid 1970
The White Revolution was part of Mohammad Reza Shah’s plan to modernize Iran. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s Westernization of Iran

Clerical figures filled the power vacuum that was left in Iran. Mohammad Reza Shah owed his position, in great part, to Ayatollah Kashani’s support. (Kashani was the speaker of the Majles, the lower house of the Iranian parliament, and one of the most senior ulema in the country.)

Still, the other decisive factor in these fateful events was the United States. The machinations of the CIA in the 1953 coup embittered many Iranians toward continued Western involvement in their country. And this didn’t work in the shah’s favor. He had benefited from foreign interference. He seemed, to many, to be America’s shah. 

According to none other than Henry Kissinger, the shah was “for the US the rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally”. And his policies fed his people’s suspicions. Publicly asserting that Iran had to move out of the “Middle Ages”, the shah Westernized and modernized the country. 

With wealth generated by the oil industry, Iran invested in telecommunications, mass media, and services. It implemented land reforms and promoted industrialization, urbanization, and education. This was dubbed the White Revolution.

Mohammad Reza Shah in a Meeting with Iranian Shia clergy
Mohammad Reza Shah’s wanted to make moves against his political rivals, such as the Shia clergy. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Khomeini’s Rise to Prominence in Iran

Through these reforms, the shah and his allies got richer—the masses didn’t. The inequity contributed to dissent, especially in the younger generation. In 1962, protests erupted at Tehran University. Marching students chanted “Long Live Mossadeq” and “Down with the Shah” as the police moved in. Hundreds were injured.

The cultural counterpoint to Westernization rested on traditional Islamic principles, and beginning in 1962, Ayatollah Khomeini rose to prominence after the death of Ayatollah Kashani. The 60-year-old Khomeini identified the shah and his White Revolution as a threat to Shia tradition. And he gained a following among Iranians hostile to the regime.

In 1963, tensions flared. Khomeini called for a boycott of a series of national celebrations the shah planned. The secret police, the SAVAK, responded by moving against the religious hierarchy. The venerated theological school at Qom was stormed, and dozens of Islamic clerics were arrested.

Khomeini criticized the crackdown, and the Shah ordered the cleric’s arrest, prompting massive protests. Opposition figures might normally have been condemned to death. But the shah’s government concluded that Khomeini’s popularity made his execution or long-term imprisonment untenable.

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What to Do With a Problematic Cleric?

The shah’s government released the increasingly problematic cleric in August, alleging that he and other clerical opponents agreed to refrain from any other political actions. Khomeini denied he had ever made such a promise and continued to challenge the monarchy’s policies. 

After another arrest and several more months in prison, the Ayatollah was again released in May 1964. But months later, Khomeini showed that his imprisonment hadn’t cowered him. When the shah’s government announced later in the year that American military advisors in the country would have immunity from Iranian law, Khomeini publicly decried the policy as an insult to Iranians and a demonstration of the shah’s fealty to the United States.

Ayatollah Khomeini stated that together, the shah and the Americans “have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog”. He argued that the Iranian government had reduced Iran to the level of a colony in order to get American loans. This was the last straw for the shah. In November 1964, the government exiled Khomeini, hoping that his influence would wane once he was out of the country. The cleric remained abroad for the next 15 years.

Antagonism Towards America

The shah now instituted strict censorship and used SAVAK to silence his critics while growing ever-more oblivious to the popular resentment against him. In 1967, he showed how out of touch he was with the decadent display of 17,532 roses dropped over Tehran by Iranian military airplanes. Why? To commemorate each day of the shah’s life to that point.

Mohammad Reza Shah and Jimmy Carter toasting
Jimmy Carter’s trip to Tehran didn’t exactly help out Mohammad Reza Shah. (Image: US Federal Government/Public domain)

As the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised oil prices, wealth flowed into Iran. But oil prices began to fall in relative terms in 1976. With both oil production and revenue declining, the Iranian economy took a hit. As unemployment and inflation rose in Iran, so did the growing bitterness of the people.

The exiled Ayatollah Khomeini smuggled messages into Iran, condemning the government as an affront to Shiite traditions and Iran’s cultural heritage. Recording his thoughts on cassette tapes, Khomeini railed against the shah’s godless tyranny and his willingness to act as the tool of Western colonialism. Clerics inside Iran echoed Khomeini, and sermons given in many mosques grew increasingly subversive.

In late 1977, American president, Jimmy Carter, traveled to Tehran—which he called “an island of stability”— in order to strengthen US-Iranian relations. But his visit played into suspicions that the shah was a puppet of the West. Many Iranians began to refer to Khomeini as their imam—meaning their divinely inspired leader.

Common Questions about How Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Inadvertently Made Iranians Resent America

Q: What was known as the White Revolution in Iran?

After Mohammad Reza Pahlavi returned to Iran as a monarch, he thought that Iran had to become more modern. He used the boom in the oil industry to his advantage. Iran invested the money it gained in telecommunications, mass media, and services. The White Revolution was a mix of this and land reforms, promoting industrialization, urbanization, and education.

Q: Why was the reason for the first arrest of Ayatollah Khomeini, and why wasn’t he executed?

To protest the White Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini called for a boycott of a series of national celebrations. Because of this, the secret police cracked down on a theological school in Qom, which Khomeini criticized. This led to his arrest. But because of his popularity, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s government deemed his long-term arrest or execution not possible for now.

Q: What was the effect of Jimmy Carter’s visit to Iran?

Jimmy Carter’s visit to Iran aimed to improve US-Iranian relations. Since Iranians were already suspicious of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi being the West’s puppet, this visit only strengthened prior suspicions.

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