Who was Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi?

Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi (محمدرضا پهلوی), or Mohammad Reza Shah, or sometimes misspelled as Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was the last king (or Shah) of Iran.

He ruled from September 1941 until he was overthrown during the Iranian Revolution in February 1979. As he is known to be the last Iranian king, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi is more often known as the Shah, or the Shah of Iran in 1979.

He is the second and final monarch coming from the House of Pahlavi, the first being his father – Reza Shah.

– Early Years to Adulthood

Born in Tehran to then Reza Khan (known later as Reza Shah Pahlavi) and his second wife, Tadj ol-Molouk, he is the eldest of all Reza Khan’s sons and later became the first-ever member of the Pahlavi dynasty to become a Shah or king. He is the third oldest of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s eleven children. He was born with a twin sister, Ashraf ol-Molouk Pahlavi.

Mohammad Reza’s family is highly military inclined. Reza Shah Pahlavi was previously assigned as the Brigadier-General of the Persian Cossack Brigade. His paternal grandfather was Abbas Ali, who was commissioned in the 7th Savadukh Regiment and was known to have served in the Anglo-Persian War in 1856.

His paternal grandmother was a Georgian immigrant whose ancestors emigrated to Iran after the country decided to cede all its territories in the Caucasus due to the Russo-Persian wars a few decades before Reza Khan’s birth. Mohammad Reza’s mother was born in Baku in what was then known as the Russian Empire in what is now modern-day Azerbaijan.

You might be wondering at this point where the Pahlavis came from. During this era, most Iranians didn’t have a surname, but after the Persian coup d’état in 1921 that deposed Ahmad Shah Qajar, Reza Shah was informed that a surname was needed for his house or royal family.

his was the start of a law being passed that all Iranians must carry a surname. Reza Shah chose the surname Pahlavi, which is the name of the Middle Persian language and is derived from the Old Persian language.

When Reza Shah Pahlavi was crowned in April 1926, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi received his designation and was proclaimed the Crown Prince of Iran.

According to Mohammed Reza, Reza Shah was one of the most frightening men he had ever known. Reza Shah was a domineering man with a turbulent temper. He was fierce, tough, and very ambitious. He was the first Persian to command the Cossack Brigade and was trained by the Russians.

This demeanor scarred the young Mohammad Reza, which led to a lack of self-confidence and insecurity. His father believed that sons who receive love from their fathers become homosexuals in adulthood. Thus, Mohammad Reza and his brothers were denied paternal love during their childhood.

In fact, Mohammad Reza was always addressed formally by his father as “sir” instead of the usual informal “you” or “my son.” However, his relationship with his father slowly improved during his teenage years. Unfortunately, his childhood already left a permanent mark on Mohammad Reza’s personality and behavior. Mohammad Reza privately disparaged his father, stating that he added very little value and showed a lack of significant achievement as Shah.

Previous publications and photographs show Mohammad Reza to be very agitated and lacking in confidence in contrast to the self-assured and confident aura of his father. Reza Khan was also a proud and outspoken admirer of Adolf Hitler, a man he aspired to emulate in terms of leadership and power.

On the other hand, Mohammad Reza’s mother, Tad jol-Molouk was a superstitious yet assertive woman. She was known to sacrifice lambs for good fortune and believed dreams were messages from another dimension or world. She adorned her children with protective amulets and charms to protect them against the evil eye.

Traditionally, male children were preferred to female children, which is why Mohammed Reza was spoiled not only by his mother but also by his sisters. He was also very close to his twin sister, Ashraf.

As the Crown Prince, he was taken away from his family to receive “manly education” by officers handpicked by his father. With the contrasting characteristics of his parents, with a very tough father and a superstitious and possessive mother, Mohammad Shah developed a contradicting personality as well. He was known to be both gentle and cruel, dependent and assertive, and weak yet powerful.

Mohammad Reza’s first marriage was considered more strategic than romantic. It was recommended by Reza Shah’s friend, the Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, that a marriage between Iranian and Egyptian courts will promote mutual benefits.

This led to the marriage of Mohammad Reza and Princess Fawzia of Egypt on the 15th of March 1939 in Cairo. Reza Shah did not participate in the wedding ceremony. This union produced one child – Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi.

– Rise to Power

The start of Mohammed Reza Shah’s power as the last king of Iran occurred after the Anglo-Soviet invasion during World War II. This invasion led to the abdication of his father and cemented his position as the head of the current monarchy.

During his time, the oil industry, which is now owned by the United Kingdom, was nationalized for a short time by then Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The nationalization ultimately ceased when a coup d’état backed by both the United States and the United Kingdom led to Mosaddegh being deposed. This allowed the re-establishment of the Consortium Agreement of 1954, bringing back foreign oil firm operations in Iran.

Amid World War II, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, ultimately breaking the established Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This development had a significant impact on Iran, which at that time declared neutrality.

Britain intended to ship arms to the Soviet Union by utilizing Iranian railroads. However, Iranian railroad management, especially the German managers, insisted that they will not cooperate. Thus, the Germans hired to operate the railroads had to be terminated immediately. Crown Prince Mohammed Reza, at that time, was already Reza Shah’s closest advisor, and he nonchalantly assured his father that nothing untoward would happen.

It was during this time that the relationship between Reza Shah and Crown Prince Mohammad Shah became more established and tightly knit. They were known to discuss and decide on virtually everything.

On the 16th of September 1941, a special session of parliament attended by then Prime Minister Forughi and Foreign Minister Ali Soheili was called to declare the resignation of Reza Shah and the succession of Crown Prince Mohammad Reza. The following day, Mohammad Reza took the oath of office, which was highly welcomed by the parliamentarians and the people. Initially, the British preferred to put a Qajar in position.

However, Mohammad Shah had a significant advantage over the Qajar claimant to the throne, Prince Hamid Mirza, who does not speak Persian. This led to Mohammad Reza’s certainty for the position based on the support of the people and other circumstantial advantages.

During his rule, Mohammad Reza Shah encountered several political conflicts, such as the Soviet-sponsored separatist government in the then Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan from 1945 to 1946. Being an avid and qualified pilot, Mohammad Reza Shah channeled funds towards the Imperial Iranian Air Force over other branches of the Iranian armed forces.

His passion for flying and aviation was very evident, as his favorite uniform was that of the Marshall of the Imperial Iranian Air Force, and any insult or attack against him was considered an action to “clip his wings.” This was also why Mohammed Reza was believed to have an Icarus Complex, being a person drawn by ascension, ambition, and flight.

Mohammad Reza Shah was known to objectify women, and he considered them as sexual objects. He frequented nightclubs in France, Italy, and the United Kingdom. This was one of the reasons why his first marriage was not a happy one, along with having a possessive mother who considered his wife a rival for her son’s love.

Mohammad Reza Shah’s second wife was the half-German, half-Iranian Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary, who was the only daughter of the Iranian Ambassador to West Germany, Khalil Esfandiary-Bakhtiary. They married two years after the divorce of Mohammad Reza Shah from Princess Fawzia in 1948.

Soraya was eighteen years old at that time, although other documents state that she might have been as young as sixteen years old, whereas Mohammad Reza Shah was thirty-two. They divorced seven years later, with the Shah remarrying Farah Diba. It was only with Farah that Mohammad Reza Shah produced two sons, as he only had daughters with Fawzia and no offspring with Soraya.

Mohammad Reza Shah experienced at least two failed assassination attempts. One of them was on the 4th of February 1949, when Fakhr-Arai fired several shots within the range of about fifteen feet. Only one of the shots hit the Shah, grazing his cheek. Mohammad Reza started to sport a mustache to cover the scar left by the assassination attempt.

In the early 1950s, there was a brewing political crisis in Iran, which led to the appointment of Mohammad Mosaddegh as prime minister. His primary commitment was to nationalize the Iranian petroleum industry, which was controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). The company eventually became the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC).

Mohammad Reza Shah launched what he referred to as the White Revolution, or the Shah and People Revolution. This started in 1963 and lasted until 1979. This was his intervention to modernize Iran by accelerating various projects in infrastructure and technology, which benefited more than four million farmers. There was also a governmental program to ensure the nourishment of children at school called Taghziye Rayegan, which means free nourishment in Persian.

There was an unprecedented increase in national Iranian income and significant improvement in the educational system because of the construction and establishment of many new elementary schools. He also managed to maintain friendly relations with the Western and Eastern European countries, as well as China and even Israel.

– The Decline of Support, Health, and the Spark of Revolution

The decline of support started among the Shi’a clergy of Iran and the working class due to accusations of the widespread corruption of the Shah and the royal family. This, together with the suppression of political dissent involving torture and imprisonment, and other factors snowballed against the favor of the Shah.

Mohammad Reza Shah was initially diagnosed with cancer in 1974, which impeded him from personal appearances and international affairs. As a royal entity who loved to be the center of attraction, this sparked all sorts of ideas and rumors about his real condition.

Unlike other dynasties or overturned monarchies, the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah was a big surprise amongst those following the development of the monarchy and the country. In October 1977, the first recorded anti-Shah demonstrations commenced. One of the most prominent incidents related to the monarchy’s overthrow was the Jaleh Square massacre where at least one hundred protestors were shot dead by the royal military.

In 1978, his condition worsened, and his French doctors revealed to their government that Mohammad Reza Shah was dying of cancer. The US officials at that time had no idea that he was, in fact, suffering an illness. This led to the formation of a centralized system to serve as the decision-maker across all issues.

– Exile and End of Life

Mohammad Reza Shah left Iran for exile on January 17, 1979. He believed it would be better for him to leave, as the documented number of people killed by the Shah and his military during the revolution numbered 2,000 from Western figures, but reports from the Islamic Republic of Iran stated the figures can reach up to 60,000 people killed.

During his exile, Mohammad Reza Shah lived in numerous countries with varying durations, including Egypt, Morocco, the Bahamas, and Mexico. His condition deteriorated further, and he was advised to get advanced treatment in the United States.

President Carter initially declined to admit him to the United States, but various factors pressured Carter to give in, especially when Henry Kissinger threatened him that he will not endorse the SALT II treaty that Carter just signed with the Soviet Union. However, despite the acceptance, the final treatment and operations were performed in Cairo, Egypt.

Mohammad Reza Shah underwent splenectomy, which was performed by an American heart surgeon, Michael DeBakey. Despite being a premier cardiac surgeon, his experience in performing this surgery was limited, leading to damage to Mohammad Reza Shah’s pancreas. This caused an infection and the subsequent death of the Shah several days later.

After the Iranian monarchy was abolished, Iran was declared an Islamic republic.


Mohammad Reza Shah’s life was a bittersweet series of milestones and events that may be typical for a royal entity. His formative years, rise to power, glimmering milestones, and decline to his last breath formed a full circle of captivating life chapters.

There was never a dull moment, and while his life ended up not the way he wished it to be, it was indeed a panoramic life for someone considered to be the last of his dynasty.


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