After the royal land and social reforms, Iran quickly progressed in all aspects of material and social achievements, but politically remained a brutally repressive police-state. Starting in the mid 1960’s, the Shah took full control of the helms of country, with a feeble premier -- Amir Abbas Hoveida -- rubber stamping all his wishes. Hoveida was raised in Lebanon and had spent most of his adult life in Europe, hence, could never grasp the subtleties of dealing with the colourful Persian and Muslim characters. His father had been a Baha’i, and Hoveida was rumoured a homosexual.
Although at a personal level, Hoveida was kind and humane, all that baggage plus his obvious inefficacy made him quite unsuitable to the role of the head of Iranian government. Most Persian nobility were reeling in pain, just to watch his 13 years of uninterrupted premiership; whereas the grandees like Alam, Amini, Zahedi and Qavam had been dismissed within 1 or 2 years. Perhaps, they had forgotten that from time immemorial; the Shah's had favoured the services of spineless eunuchs, who implemented any and all of their “grand ideas”; and could be thrown to the mob, when things did not work!
On the positive side, during the 1964 to 1977 period, the urban and industrial growth transformed Tehran and the other major cities from the dark ages, when people did not have clean drinking water, sanitation or electricity; to modern metropolitans with all the basic amenities, schools, hospitals, factories and universities.
In contrast, the rural situation did not improve significantly, as most of the newly freed Raieyat (serfs) did not have the required financial means to make efficient use of their small land plots. Moreover, the improved medical conditions in the rural areas created a population boom among the village families, who were used to having 5 or 6 children, with only 2 or 3 surviving. Better health care lowered the child and mother mortalities, but being religious, the rural couples remained averse to any birth control. That combination doubled the backward countryside population within the Hoveida years.
Like many other third world countries, the totally uneven urban/rural development created a massive migration of destitute villagers, who could not find meaningful employment in their backward environment, and sought a better chance in the sprawling city construction sites. Most, who could not afford the city rents, had to live in the ever growing slums and shanty towns. The local population growth plus that human deluge quadrupled most city populations within the 1953-1978 period.
During the great oil boom of the 1970’s, the irrational exuberance of the Iranian upper classes and the unquenchable greed of the royalty played havoc with the domestic economy. Hoveida’s half-baked plans for hasty modernization and the Shah’s expensive upgrades for the army, created a number of economical and social dislocations. That deluge of projects, which were unnaturally fuelled by the soaring oil prices, played havoc with the fledging Iranian economy and infrastructure; creating cyclic booms and busts, deficiencies and speculations, inflation and hoarding.
The Shah’s military background made him eager to build his army as strong and well equipped as possible, in order to prevail over all internal and external advisories. However, progressively, his pride aged into egomania and his anxiety escalated to paranoia. Soon, he wanted to establish a truly Persian empire worthy of the Cyrus and the Darius; forcefully enlist all the populace in his grandiose schemes; and even torment the aloof western countries that apparently were not paying him enough respect!
Despite the desperate appeals of his American allies, the Shah’s aggressive stands in the OPEC effectively lead the oil surge following the 1973 Arab embargo, into a full-fledged price explosion. That propelled the Iranian crude oil income from $800 million in 1970 to $18 billion (22 times higher) in 1975, but soon created a worldwide recession and a price bust!
Sadly, instead of creating a thoughtful long-term plan for all that windfall fortune, the Shah simply channelled a third of it into massive military purchases and the rest into poorly planned grandiose projects, which could not be accommodated within the frail existing infrastructure. Consequently, the soaring and unaccounted for demands on electricity, housing and transportation exploded into chronic blackouts, rent and real-estate explosions and serious port and delivery bottlenecks; all leading to frequent shortages of everything!
Intoxicated by the oil windfall and daydreaming that he was the greatest king since Cyrus; the Shah embarked on a range of idiotic measures, which were almost designed to enrage the populace. His grandiose ‘imperial’ make over of Iran, started with a $200 million dollar imperial gala to celebrate 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran. He then changed the Islamic calendar to a peculiar imperial one, which was never used before anywhere in the world! Finally in 1975, during a surprise televised speech, the Shah ordered all the Iranians to either join a new imperial party (Rastakheez) or get their passports and leave ‘his’ country! At the same time, the secret police (Savak) kept its torturous chokehold on the Iranian intellectuals, which led to the arrest, torture and early demise of many scholars, authors and students.
On the cultural side, the Shah and Hoveida had set aside all pretences regarding any respect towards the religious and ethical sensitivities of the 95% Muslim population. The state-run television, the government-censured cinemas and the Pahlavi-sponsored Shiraz ‘art festival’ would routinely broadcast such explicit sexual content, which was insulting and demeaning to the general populace. In reaction, the bulk of religious masses turned to their traditional congregations and mosques for spiritual support and guidance. This was particularly true in case of the migrant rural families who could not adjust to the fast, uncaring and align pace of life in the sprawling but characterless Tehran.
The secular intellectuals were not any happier either, as their leaders were routinely jailed and tortured, and the slightest sign of descent would ignite a brutal police and Savak suppression. A sad consequence was that the new and modernized universities turned into effective breeding grounds for the underground guerrilla movements, as well as frequent demonstrations and strikes. Even most oversees students became mired in anti-Shah organizations instead of education. In the mid 1970’s, to most secular, liberal or religious intellectuals; Iran felt like a prosperous country, but under the militaristic occupation of a cruel and alien regime, headed by a brute king and a silly premier, who were either stealing most of the oil fortune or squandering it! They were unaware that those ‘fun’ years were coming to an abrupt end.
Reference: The Persian Sphinx, by A. Milani.
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