Life Under The Shah Of Iran Before 1979, In 47 Revealing Photos

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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Life Under The Shah Of Iran Before 1979, In 47 Revealing Photos
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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:

If you enjoyed this gallery of life in Iran before 1979, be sure to see our other posts on life inside North Korea and 1960s Afghanistan before the Taliban.

Savannah Cox
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.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Cox, Savannah. "Life Under The Shah Of Iran Before 1979, In 47 Revealing Photos.", December 15, 2014, Accessed May 18, 2024.