Life Under The Shah Of Iran Before 1979, In 47 Revealing Photos
By Savannah Cox | Edited By John Kuroski
Published December 15, 2014
Updated November 9, 2023
These fascinating photos of life under the Shah of Iran before 1979 reveal just how similar the country was to the Western nations that are now its enemies.
Perhaps Persepolis author Marjane Satrapi says it best:
“The world is not divided between East and West. You are American, I am Iranian, we don’t know each other, but we talk and we understand each other perfectly.
The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same.”
And yet–at least upon first glance–modern-day Iran couldn’t seem any more dissimilar to the United States. But as these images of Iran before 1979 suggest, there once was a time when the streets of Tehran mirrored those of, say, L.A., and national leaders would engage in discourse that consisted of more than sighs, sanctions, and spats. So just what exactly changed?
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A couple dances in Tehran.
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Farah Pahlavi poses in a ball gown. While initially more of a ceremonial role, the Queen began to assert herself in governmental affairs, using her position and influence to promote women's rights and cultural development in Iran.
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No one knows how much wealth Reza Shah Pahlavi took with him when he fled Iran in 1979. Estimates range from $50-$100 million, with the Iranian government giving figures as high as $56 billion.
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JFK and Pahlavi engage in meetings. Some scholars believe that Pahlavi used "American fears of Communism to gain increased financial aid, military support and influence in the United Nations", which inevitably meant that instead of looking for a fresh approach to US-Iran relations, JFK's administration continued on with an unsustainable regime which many Iranians did not support.
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The Shah and JFK in 1962.
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While in power, the Shah lived a life of opulence which distanced him from the common Iranian. He was described as "arrogant, cold, distant" and lacking any "common touch". In fact, in the days before he fled Iran, he was reported to be furious not at the fact that he was about to be run out of town, but that Tehran newspapers referred to him as "the Shah", not by his full title, "His Imperial Majesty the Shahanshah Aryamehr" or "King of Kings, Light of the Aryans".
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Farah Pahlavi meets with Indira Gandhi in 1970.
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President Jimmy Carter meets the Shah for dinner in 1978. The Carter administration had made its goal to scale back the sale of arms to Iran and urge the Shah to adhere more directly to human rights standards. The Shah, of course, didn't receive either proposal very well.
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The picture of a "modern" Iranian family as imagined by a secular monarch.
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For a long period of time, education in Iran was associated with religious institutions. It was only in 1851 that Iran established its first government school, which was the only higher education institution in the country for years. Later, during the Pahlavi era (1925-1979), they expanded, regulated and secularized education, which largely helped create the secular middle class. Following the Shah's exit, public schools were desecularized, and books and teachers thought to "slander Islam" were purged from the system.
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In the early 20th century, Iranian leaders banned the hijab which, while giving the illusion of "liberation" to women, still was a form of male control over a woman's decision making. As the 20th century progressed and became one whose culture was defined mainly by the West, Iranian fashion began to echo those very trends.
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The Iranian cabinet also decreed in 1928 that all male Persians dress in Western style, which meant the prohibition of traditional headgear. Those who didn't were liable to be fined or detained.
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Reza Shah was the first leader in the region to abolish the veil, which he did in 1936. Not even Turkey's Anatol Ataturk--a fierce secularist--had done so.
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Women's fashion was incredibly political: after he was sure that he had quelled a rebellion meant to revive Islamic nationalism, the Shah appeared with his wives and children--all unveiled--at a graduation at the government normal school.
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Not everyone was particularly happy about the Shah's proclamation. Many Persian women thought that abandoning the veil was a sin, and many Persian men did not like the idea of their wives engaging in "unchaste" behavior at the decree of a man other than themselves.
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However, this modernity-through-clothing obscured structural inequalities: illiteracy among Iranian women remained nearly universal.
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Those women who did go to school were usually only able to recite prayers, demonstrating their subservience to another male-dominated institution.
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Iranian's patriarchal society was not prepared for such a change, and reacted accordingly. Women were beaten, and police often extorted the public in the name of enforcing the new law.
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Clothing was not only political; it also served a symbol for power and wealth. As Iran became closer with the West and oil ushered in a period of prosperity, men and women spent more money on Western fashions in an attempt to identify with the world's most powerful and wealthy nations.
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Following the Revolution, those who showed signs of estekbār, or "ostentation" were considered blasphemous, and were subject to harassment by revolutionary fighters.
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In the 70s, the veil became political again, especially among female university students. Many adopted it again as a sign of their opposition to the Shah's secular tyranny.
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The problem, though, was that most of these veils were meant to be symbolic. After the revolution, the Ayatollah mandated that Iranian women--whose veil-use represented deviation from the dictates of the Shah--sport "Islamic" dress in public.
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This meant that women, like those featured above, must be covered in draping fabric from head to toe in a way that would obscure all of their sexuality. Their only "distinguishing" features would be their hands and face.
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Under the Shah, the middle class comprised the majority population. Today, most are lower income.
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The Shah made some major reforms--however nominally--regarding families. Minimum marriage age was increased, and men were only allowed to take a second wife after receiving the permission of the court and his first wife. Many changes were difficult to enforce, and failed to result in much structural transformation.
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The Shah made gains in literacy, however there was still a very large discrepancy between literacy rates in rural and urban areas.
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Women's formal education remained limited, which meant that they were still dependent on men for financial stability.
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Women were given some form of political representation in the Shah's Iran, Kanoon-e Banavan.
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However, it was primarily charity-based and not nearly as political as the Women's League that preceded it.
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Soccer, like fashion, was a Western import. In 1947, Reza Shah established Iran's national soccer federation as a tool to advance modernity and showcase Iranian physical and cultural excellence to an increasingly televised world.
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The Iranian team went on to win the Asian Cup three times in a row. Iran's 1968 victory against Israel (following the 1967 Six-Day War) transformed soccer into a national phenomenon and point of pride.
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After the Revolution, many of the modern cultural norms that the Shah had established were done away with. Soccer, however, was not one of those.
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The Iranian economy grew very quickly from 1950 to the mid 70s. For a time, Iran's growth was second only to Japan's.
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One of the facets of modernizing Iran included improving its healthcare system.
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The 1960s represented a critical juncture for Iran: ceding, shaping and adopting cultural and legal norms in an increasingly globalized world.
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In the 1960s, industry developed, along with non-oil entrepreneurship.
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That, coupled with increased access to education, resulted in the birth of the middle class.
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However, since these reforms were forced through by a power-lusting figure like the Shah, Iranian modernity also produced a wave of anti-government, anti-secular revolutionaries.
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A couple enjoys tea in Tehran.
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Many don't associate Iran with snow or leisure, but Tehran is filled to the brim with fantastic ski spots.
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Jimmy Carter meets with the Shah. The Shah would later flee Iran for "health reasons". Curiously enough, this happened as Revolutionaries like Ruhollah (later Ayatollah) Khomeini were leading strikes and demonstrations to oust the monarch. After the Shah's flight from Iran in January, Revolutionaries overwhelmed his loyal troops and ushered in the age of Khomeini. That April, Iran became an Islamic Republic. The rest, as they say, is history.
Life Under The Shah Of Iran Before 1979, In 47 Revealing Photos
How The Shah Of Iran Took Power
When trying to understand why the world looks the way it does today, it's often helpful to start with the Cold War.
The case of Iran is no exception. Beginning in the 20th century, Iran had been ruled by the Shah monarchy, which funded its decadent lifestyle through oil--mainly through concessions to Great Britain, which relied heavily upon the oil during both World Wars--while allowing the majority of Iranians to live a life defined by poverty. Over time, Iranians grew tired of working to see wealth literally extracted from beneath their feet, and a man named Mohammad Mossadegh rose to power.
Mossadegh was elected as Prime Minister in 1951 and, like so many in the Middle East who were voted into power at the time, engaged in a sweeping number of "pro-poor" democratic reforms, which included the nationalization of Iranian oil.
Great Britain, which depended on cheap and easy access to these oil reserves and was fearful of what the Soviet Union might do if they got their hands on them, would not have any of it, and made it so that the Iranian economy would plummet and Mossadegh would inevitably be overthrown. That did happen, but not for nearly as long as Great Britain would have liked. Mossadegh did resign, but reassumed the position of Prime Minister after days of protest.
At the time, the United States had supported Mossadegh's election, as then the phrase of the day (at least on paper) was a nation's "right to self-determination". And yet, the United States' relationship with its Western ally--or more generally, fear of the ubiquitous communist threat--proved to be stronger.
In 1953, the CIA led a coup against Mossadegh--Operation AJAX--and eventually overthrew the leader, as well as the promise of Iranian democracy. The Shah Of Iran re-assumed its control, the West had its predictable oil supply and cozy relations with Iran, and as these images suggest, life for most seemed to be pretty comfortable--however superficially.
Iran Before 1979 — And After
What the photos above don't show, though, is the resentment that many Iranians felt toward the United States and its hypocrisy when it comes to self-determination and democracy. This anti-Western resentment would incubate in fundamentalist fringes over the next several years and culminate in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which would overthrow the Shah of Iran's monarchy. Except this time, their proposed replacement was not a man of democratic reform like Mossadegh.
It was Ruhollah Mostafavi Moosavi Khomeini, whose hatred of the West would dictate his every political move, even at the expense of the Iranian people. Once in power, Khomeini expelled virtually every hint of Western modernity for an Iranian "authenticity" as defined by an absolute zealot, and the West has since been left with a monolithic, fundamentalist regime more difficult to negotiate with than Mossadegh ever was.
In spite of the Ayatollah, the illusion of political choice, and the still-cold relations between Iran and the West today, the above photos of Iran before 1979 show that another Iran is possible.
For more on life under the Shah of Iran, check out this video from 1973:
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.