This Day in World History
January 16, 1979
Iran’s Reza Shah Pahlavi Flees the Country
In the mid-1970s, few rulers seemed more secure than Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the shah of Iran. He had oil wealth, a powerful military, and the friendship of the United States and other western nations. Yet on January 16, 1979, he and his family were forced to flee. What toppled this powerful ruler?
Despite many advantages, the shah had problems too. The growing middle class resented limits on their access to political power. Dissidents feared and hated the SAVAK, the shah’s brutal secret police. Meanwhile, powerful Muslim fundamentalists were angered by the shah’s abandonment of traditional Islamic law and embrace of western culture and ideas.
A religious-inspired rebellion led to the shah’s downfall. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious leader forced into exile by the shah back in 1964, grew increasingly vigorous in his criticisms of the shah in the 1970s. By 1978, mass protests against the shah were common in Iran. He declared martial law in several cities, but the situation worsened when oil workers went on strike and riots erupted across the country.
Growing desperate, the shah appointed new governments in November of 1978 and again in January of 1979, but he could not regain control of the nation. On January 13, the Ayatollah proclaimed a new revolutionary government, dismissing the shah’s latest government as illegal. The shah’s prime minister suggested that the ruler’s departure was the only chance to regain control.
That glum conclusion prompted the shah’s exit. He and his wife flew to Egypt, and their three children left for the United States. Official word said that the shah was taking a vacation, but he remained in exile until his death the following year. Khomeini, on the other hand, returned to Iran on February 1, declared an Islamic republic, and became the de facto head of the government for the next 10 years.