After the 1953 coup, Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign as an autocratic monarch started. Similar to his father’s rule, soon the parliament became a rubberstamp of the royal decrees, and the political rights were in effect suspended. However, it still took the Shah another decade before he could gain the absolute power over his court, the army and the Persian nobility. Meanwhile, he had to contend with his family, who were forcing him into divorces and remarriages; the power-hungry generals of his army, who were planning coups behind his back; and the older and wiser nobility, who were trying to teach and mentor him! Besides, the country was dirt poor and most people were illiterate and living in abject poverty.
The Shah’s oppression of Mosaddeg’s allies was moderate, with only one of them (Dr. Fatimi) executed. However, his secret police (Savak) soon found its real target among the underground Tudeh party and its clandestine military branch. Several hundred were arrested and many tortured and executed. Astonishingly, later on the Savak itself became a threat to the Shah, as its first notorious chief (general Bakhtiar) planned a coup-d’état, apparently in discussion with the American CIA! In the 1950’s, the Shah became so disenchanted with his wrenched monarchy, that he collapsed in a state of deep despair and depression, and even seriously contemplated abdication and ‘retirement’!
Two events saved the Shah’s morale from depression and desperation, a happier marriage and a royal revolution! When the Shah’s only full-brother died in an airplane crash in 1954, he was left with no heir-apparent. His beautiful wife seemed sterile and in 1958, the royal family forced him into his second divorce. This time, instead of wedding a prominent princess or pampered nobility, the 40-year-old Shah turned towards a young middle-class university student, who was both intelligent and energetic. The young bride soon blessed him with two sons and two daughters, as well as some degree of hope and happiness.
The royal (White) revolution of 1961 was instigated by the American-inspired new reformist prime minister, Dr. Ali Amini, who had also served in Mosaddeg’s cabinet. Amini and his agriculture minister designed a revolutionary land-reform program that overnight, disposed of the feudal system in Iran. To that program, they also added clauses for women’s suffrage, compulsory secular education, and provincial councils. The new Democrat US president (Kennedy) believed that such social reforms were the best remedy for modernizing the 3rd world countries, without losing them to the communist block.
Not everyone was happy with the “White” revolution. However, the large landowners were appeased by some moderating measures, and the conservative clergies were calmed regarding the compulsory secular schools and the women vote. Unfortunately, a militant ayatollah (Khomeini), who had a history of aggressive anti-secular views as well as collaboration with the radical Fedaiyan Islam, rose in fierce disagreement against the Shah’s reforms.
Rather than attacking the core and popular items such as the land reform, Khomeini concentrated his attacks against the peripheral issue of provincial councils, where non-Muslims could be elected with no distinction from the Muslims. He condemned that clause as a clear violation of the constitution, which officialised the Shia Islam. He also tied the reformist efforts to the increasing Jewish and Baha’i influence over the Shah’s government. The ensuing religious uprisings of 1963 (15 Khordad) were viciously suppressed by the riot police and the army, resulting in hundreds of causalities. This caused a major disenchantment among the militant religious groups who had helped bring the Shah to power in 1953, but now felt completely betrayed and brutalized.
Following the 1963 crack down, ayatollah Khomeini was arrested and even psychologically abused in prison. Even so, next year, a new conciliatory prime minister (Mansur) arranged for his release and safe return to Qom. Sadly, the much westernized Mansur soon became the target of even more vicious attacks from Khomeini, who declared him an American puppet and initiated some more rioting. This time, the Shah forced Khomeini into exile (first to Turkey and then Iraq), to uproot the leadership of religious discontent. Nevertheless, the Islamic militancy continued and Mansur was murdered by the Fedaiyan Islam terrorists in the spring of 1965.
Prime Minister Mansur’s assassination heralded a new era of terrorist attacks and guerrilla warfare against the Shah’s government. Although the fundamentalist Fedaiyan Islam group was soon decimated, two new and actively armed resistance groups (Peoples Fedaiyan and Peoples Mujahidin) emerged from the tormented ashes of the Tudeh Party and the National Front. Both groups were radicalized by the Savak suppression of any political dissent, and evolved into Cuban-style militant guerrillas. Also, both of them received significant support, training and arms from the Palestinian resistance fighters, who saw the Shah as a staunch Israeli supporter. In response, the Shah packed the leadership of his secret police (Savak) with the most notoriously vicious characters (like general Nasiri), who truly enjoyed the persecution, torture and murder of hundreds of idealistic intellectuals and university students.
In the mid 1960’s, the Shah decided to take an active role in the affairs of government, which gradually turned into an omnipotent supervision and even direction of all the political, military and social affairs of Iran. In his thirty seven years of reign, the Shah steadily turned from a constitutional monarch (1941 to 1953) to a meddling king (53 to 63), a benevolent dictator (63 to 75) and finally a deranged tyrant. However, the forceful reform decade starting in the mid 1960’s was the zenith of his dictatorial reign, which elevated Iran from the lowly ranks of a backward country to a respectable and thriving state.
The Shah was unusually energized by the achievements of his ‘White’ revolution, and the forceful struggle against what he saw as the communist (red) and the religious (black) reactionaries. For more than a decade, he took the helms of the country, all the time believing that he was taking Iran from the dark ages into the modern era of a grand civilization. To that effect, the Shah even assumed the prime ministerial functions, and used a tame figure head (Hoveida) to rubber stamp all his wishes and directions.