Jan. 16, 2023

Iran’s Last Shah Flees the Revolution

Iran’s Last Shah Flees the Revolution

January 16, 1979. Iran’s powerful Shah abandons his throne, and flees his nation, setting the stage for the country’s Islamic Revolution.


Cold Open

It’s the morning of January 16th, 1979 in Tehran, Iran’s capital city.

From the backseat of an armored car, a gray-haired man in a black suit and winter coat gazes blankly out of the window, listening to the solemn rumble of the engine.

For almost forty years, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi has ruled as Iran’s head of state, enjoying a life of extravagant wealth and unbridled power. But on this gloomy, overcast morning, the Shah has been forced into exile. Following increasingly violent demonstrations against his regime, the self-styled “King of Kings” has decided to leave the country until it’s safe to return.

Beside him, the Shah can hear his wife, the Empress, softly weeping. He reaches out and gives her hand a reassuring squeeze. But as he does, the 59-year-old Shah turns his face away. He doesn’t want the Empress to see the tears brimming in his eyes.

A short while later, the royal motorcade arrives at Tehran Airport.

The Shah and the Empress emerge from the car… and walk arm-in-arm across the tarmac. A small throng of government officials and reporters surround the imperial couple as they make their way toward their private jet.

But as the royals approach the aircraft, somebody lunges from the crowd. The Shah recoils instinctively. But it’s not an attacker; it’s a member of the imperial guard who has thrown himself to the ground at Shah’s feet, bowing and reaffirming his devotion. Touched, the Shah tells the man to stand, and thanks him for his loyal service.

Then the Shah and the Empress climb the steps to the plane. Before withdrawing into the cabin, the Shah turns to take one final look at his troubled kingdom. Fighting back more tears, he declares to those assembled in a wavering voice that: “What Iran needs is cooperation between all its inhabitants to set the country back on track.” And with that, the Shah turns and disappears inside the aircraft.

The exile of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi spells the end of two-and-a-half thousand years of imperial rule in Iran. In a matter of weeks, Iran will go from being a liberal pro-Western monarchy to a radical Islamic theocracy, which will have permanent and wide-ranging implications for the future of the Middle East.

But although the Iranian Revolution ends abruptly, its roots stretch back decades, woven from a complex narrative of meddling foreign powers and opposing ideologies that culminate in the exile of Shah Muhammed Reza Pahlavi on January 16th, 1979.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 16th, 1979: Iran’s Last Shah Flees the Revolution.

Act One: King of Kings

It’s October 26th, 1967; eleven years before the Shah will flee Iran.

A lavish coronation ceremony is taking place in Tehran. Beneath gleaming crystal chandeliers, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s king, and head of state, processes solemnly through the opulent grand hall of the imperial palace.

At the age of forty-eight, the Shah is already more than two decades into his reign. Iranian monarchs are traditionally crowned upon their ascension to the throne. But when Mohammed Reza Pahlavi succeeded his father in 1941, Iran was in a state of economic turmoil. The young Shah looked around at the kingdom he’d inherited and decided he didn’t want to be crowned emperor of such a poor and backward country. So, he decided to delay his coronation until Iran could claim to be a prosperous, modern nation.

Now, that day has finally arrived. The Shah steps forward and takes hold of the crown with both hands. He raises it up, then lowers the weighty gold symbol of power onto his head. As he does so, the Shah reflects on how far Iran has come since he first ascended to the throne twenty-six years ago…

Back then, Iran was a country in chaos. A fierce debate was raging over who should have access to Iran’s primary natural resource: oil. At that time, the Iranian oil industry was controlled by a British company. Millions of tons of petroleum flowed out of Iran every year, powering Western industry while Iran remained poor and undeveloped. Many felt that Iran aloneshould profit from Iranian oil, prompting the prime minister at the time, Mohammed Mossadegh, to nationalize the oil industry and forbid the British from drilling in Iran’s petroleum fields.

But the British refused to go quietly. In 1953, a coup d’état was launched by Britain and its ally, the United States. With the support of the Shah, who quickly succumbed to Western pressure, the attempt to forcibly remove prime minister Mossadegh from office was a success, and a deal was struck between the Shah and the Western powers, agreeing to share the profits from Iranian oil between them.

The Shah used these new oil revenues to reinforce his authority. He enlarged the imperial army and created his own secret police force, the SAVAK, to crack down on political opposition. Iran is technically a constitutional monarchy; authority is divided between the Shah and his government. But since 1953, the Shah has been veering steadily toward authoritarianism. He has been helped in this regard by the United States, who sees Iran as a strategically important ally against the Soviet Union. Each year, the US provides Iran with millions of dollars in aid, leading many Iranians to accuse the Shah of being a puppet ruler controlled by the Americans.

Certainly, Shah’s fondness for Western culture is no secret. He listens to jazz, watches Hollywood movies, and owns a vast collection of European sports cars. He also prefers Western women, earning a reputation as a philandering lothario. Rumors about Shah’s various infidelities have not gone unnoticed by his wife, the Empress. Nor have his excesses escaped the attention of the Iranian public, many of whom are traditional Muslims who disapprove of Shah’s material greed and vanity.

Today, however, any concerns about his public image are far from Shah’s mind. With the Empress by his side, the monarch stands and smiles out at the assembled dignitaries and members of the royal family. Today’s coronation is the culmination of his reign, a statement to the world that the two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old Persian Empire has been restored to its fullest glory.

Following the coronation, Shah’s grip on power only tightens. With the financial support of the US, he continues his campaign of rapid industrialization known as “the White Revolution” - a series of reforms intended to bring Iran into the modern world. The reforms are largely a success. National infrastructure grows, employment rises and wages soar. Women are given the right to vote, and a greater degree of religious pluralism is permitted.

But while these liberal reforms are looked upon favorably in the West, in Iran, Shah’s policies alienate a large and powerful majority in the country: the devout Muslim population. Of Shah’s many critics, one figure emerges as his fiercest opponent, a charismatic religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini denounces the Shah in public speeches, accusing him of cozying up to the West. And when Shah’s government forces Khomeini into exile, Ayatollah continues to publish anti-Shah literature from abroad, stoking the fires of dissent in Iran.

In the face of this gathering opposition, the Shah begins ruling with an ever stronger iron fist. He authorizes his secret police, the SAVAK, to carry out arrests and interrogations at will. But such intimidation only galvanizes Shah’s critics further.

Then, in 1974, the Shah receives a troubling diagnosis. His doctor informs him that he has leukemia. Upon this news, the monarch will travel to his holiday home by the Caspian Sea to convalesce, despite the crisis simmering in his country. But his time away will be far from relaxing. During Shah’s absence, demonstrations against his regime will reach a fever pitch as a series of devastating events draw widespread uproar, setting Iran on course for revolution.

Act Two: Blood in the Streets

It’s the evening of August 19th, 1978, in Abadan in southwest Iran; five months before the Shah will be forced into exile.

A college student takes her seat at the Cinema Rex movie theater. As the lights go down, a ripple of excitement passes through the auditorium. The college student smiles eagerly as she waits for the picture to start. Tonight’s film is a political drama called The Deer. It’s a controversial movie because it does something that in recent years has become a dangerous act of rebellion in Iran: it tells the truth about life under the Shah.

Ever since the 1953 coup d’état that toppled Iran’s elected prime minister, the Shah has been steadily maneuvering himself into a position of unrivaled authority. Wishing to modernize the country, the Shah introduced a program of reforms that radically changed the face of the nation. By dismantling the traditional landowning class in the countryside, Shah’s reforms caused mass migration of unemployed agricultural workers to the cities. This resulted in a rise in homelessness and poverty, as millions of unskilled peasant laborers struggled to find employment in urban areas.

The Shah’s reforms might have strengthened the economy and increased living conditions for those at the top of society. But they have also increased inequality, widening the gap between the rich and the poor - a trend many of tonight’s movie-goers hope to see highlighted on screen.

The projector starts to whirr and a beam of light cuts through the dark auditorium, casting flickering cinematic images across the big screen. Like most of her classmates, the young college student is staunchly left-wing and a fierce critic of the Shah. So as soon as the film starts, she is immediately transfixed.

But only a few minutes into the movie, a piercing scream rings from the back of the theater. The student turns around, immediately recoiling from the intense heat and the powerful smell of gasoline…

Flames have engulfed the main entrance to the auditorium - and an angry red wall of fire now belches black smoke into the room. Pandemonium erupts as the movie-goers leave from their seats and begin desperately searching for an escape route. But the college student is frozen, paralyzed with fear. She stares in horror as people try to barge through the doors into the foyer. But they won’t open because somebody has barred the exit.

As the inferno spreads, consuming everything in its path, it dawns on the college student that this fire was no accident. And to her mind, there is only one possible culprit: the SAVAK, Shah’s thuggish secret police force. Since the film being shown tonight was critical of Shah’s regime, the SAVAK must have plotted this attack to send a message to anyone foolish enough to question the wisdom and authority of the Shah.

The fire at the Cinema Rex claims the lives of over 400 people, in what is the deadliest terrorist attack in history until 9/11. Though the true perpetrators of the attack are still unknown to this day, many Iranians blame the SAVAK. To the opponents of the Shah, this atrocity is further evidence that they are living under a reign of terror.

Following the Cinema Rex fire, anti-Shah demonstrations erupt across Iran. On September 8th, 1978, thousands of protesters flock to a square in Tehran, chanting “Death to the Shah!” The protesters come from a broad cross-section of society. There are the left-wing activists - students and members of the intelligentsia. There are religious demonstrators - traditional Muslims who believe that Shah has become too steeped in Western decadence. And finally, there are the members of the working-class poor - the masses who form the traditional base of support for the monarchy, but who have been plunged into poverty by Shah’s socio-economic reforms. Together, they form the many thousands of protestors in the square calling for the end of tyranny, and the end of the Shah.

But unbeknownst to the protestors, the Shah is not currently in Iran. Ever since his leukemia diagnosis four years ago, the ailing monarch has been spending more time at his vacation retreat on the Caspian Sea. While protests against his regime cripple the country, the Shah has grown increasingly insular. He spends long hours staring out of the window, expressionless and silent.

But, when informed about the most recent protest in Tehran, the Shah gives a fateful order. He authorizes the military to open fire on the demonstrators. Shortly after issuing this command, bullets tear through the crowds in the square. And by the time the shooting stops, more than sixty protesters have been killed.

The violent crackdown will be remembered as “Black Friday,” and it will mark the point of no return for the Shah. Soon after this incident in Tehran, a general strike will shut down Iran’s oil industry, cutting off the lifeblood of the monarch’s regime. In a last-ditch effort at appeasement, the Shah will speak on live television, stating that he has “heard the voice of the revolution” and promises reforms. But his words will not be enough. Soon, the Shah will decide that the only course of action is to entrust the leadership of Iran to the prime minister and flee the country himself, leaving the path clear for revolution.

Act Three: The Ayatollah Returns

It’s February 1st, 1979; two weeks after the Shah fled Iran.

A chartered Air France passenger plane begins its initial descent over Tehran. On board, a 78-year-old man with a long white beard gazes through the window at the city below. After fifteen years in exile, Ayatollah Khomeini is finally coming home.

The senior religious leader was expelled from the country in 1964 after publicly criticizing the Shah. But even from exile in Paris, the Ayatollah continued to coordinate the revolution, writing fiery screeds and promoting dissent. When mass demonstrations resulted in the Shah fleeing the country, the path became clear for the Ayatollah to return. Now, he intends to finish what the people started; to brush aside the vestiges of monarchy, and turn Iran into a true Islamic republic.

The plane touches down with a squeal of rubber on tarmac. Shortly after, descending a flight of stairs, the elderly cleric is met with deafening cheers from his supporters, who have flocked to the airport to welcome their leader. But the Ayatollah neither waves nor smiles. He remains stony-faced as his security detail ushers him through the crowds toward a waiting car.

In the weeks following Ayatollah's return, armed battles continue to rage in the streets of Iran. The Ayatollah’s supporters clash with the forces of the government left in charge by the Shah. Soon, though, the revolutionaries triumph. They take control of key government buildings, army barracks, and police stations. The prime minister himself flees, and the military withdraws. On April 1st, following a national referendum, Ayatollah Khomeini declares Iran an Islamic Republic - of which he is the Supreme Leader.

In the months following the Iranian Revolution, the Ayatollah will exclude all other revolutionary factions from positions of power in his new regime - neither the leftists, members of the intelligentsia nor labor leaders will find a place in government. He will launch the so-called "Cultural Revolution,” purging Iran’s universities and schools of Western or non-Islamic ideas. Laws protecting women’s rights will be abolished, homosexuality will be made punishable by death, and strict Islamist codes will be enforced across the country. The new Islamic Republic becomes more and more authoritarian, and the reign of the Ayatollah will gradually assume many of the characteristics of the monarchy it replaced.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 will continue to cast a long shadow across Middle Eastern geopolitics for years to come. The rise of political Islamism spearheaded by Ayatollah Khomeini will become a central factor in future tensions between East and West. And today, the strict dress codes imposed by the Ayatollah are still in place. In 2022, these laws attracted a fresh wave of international scrutiny, when a young woman was arrested for “improperly” wearing her head covering in public, and later died while in police custody. This crime triggered a new wave of protests across the country, in a mass outpouring of anger at an oppressive regime, the likes of which has rarely been seen since the demonstrations that forced the Shah to flee Iran decades prior on January 16th, 1979.


Next onHistory Daily. January 17th, 1920. Prohibition officially goes into effect in the United States, after the passage of the Volstead Act.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.