What Kind of Government Did Iran Have in the 1970s?

The Shah, depicted here, was overthrown in 1979 by an Islamic Revolution that altered his repressive form of government.
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In 1979, Iran's government shifted from a historical monarchy under the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to a Shiite theocracy under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the Iranian Revolution, the result of popular discontent with the Shah. The Shah had been in power since 1941 but had grown fearless of usurpment, especially owing to his confidence to U.S. and British support. While the new government was substantially different than Iran under the Shah, particularly on religion, it was in many ways just as autocratic.

1 Foreign Support

The Shah who ruled Iran until 1979 came to power in 1941, after a British and Russian military force overthrew his father, Reza Khan, who had refused to give support to their allies during World War II. The new Shah, Mohammad Rezah Pahlavi, was more supportive of western powers such as the U.K. and the U.S., particularly after the 1953 coup. Mohammad Mossadegh, Prime Minister of Iran, had sought to democratize Iran, reduce the powers of the Shah, and nationalize the oil industry, which was then controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. With American and British support, the Shah arrested the democratically elected Mossadegh in a coup and reinstated himself as what was essentially an absolute ruler of Iran.

2 Repression

With this guaranteed foreign support, the Shah became increasingly repressive. The CIA helped establish the SAVAK, Iran's secret police and intelligence services under the Shah, and continued to train agents until 1979. SAVAK was famous for using brutal methods, including torture and assassination, against those who opposed the Shah's regime, and operated from 1957 until 1979. Additionally, in 1975, the Shah abolished the multi-party government, and created a new single party to unify the country under his rule.

3 Extravagance

During the 1970s, the Shah also became increasingly wasteful in his spending habits, flaunting his substantial wealth. In 1971, the Shah celebrated the 2500th anniversary of monarchy in Iran by throwing a lavish party that reportedly cost close to $100,000. Staged near the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient Iranian capital city, the affair involved expensive meals cooked by specialty chefs from France, all on expensive china and with expensive decor, and all a sharp contrast to the rural poverty of nearby villages. Like the repression, this extravagance was also seen as a product of close ties with the west.

4 Revolution

Ultimately, the Shah's dictatorial policies and wasteful spending despite his country's poverty boiled over into a revolution in 1979. The revolution was an Islamic one, as the Shah's secular regime and discouraged excessive piety despite Iran's largely Shiite population, and was led by religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who became Supreme Leader of Iran in 1979. While Khomeini's Iran was different than the Shah's on religious grounds, it was similarly repressive, as it also established a single-party state and banned newspapers that challenged Islam.

Aatif Rashid writes on international politics and culture. His articles have appeared in magazines such as "The Oxonian Globalist" and online at Future Foreign Policy and ThinkPolitic. He holds Bachelor's degrees in English and history from U.C. Berkeley and a Masters degree from the University of Oxford.