Iran Before and After the Shah: Clearing a Misunderstanding

Iran Before and After the Shah: Clearing a Misunderstanding March 8, 2014

Scott, a frequent commenter on this blog, asked me a question:

I took a class on Middle Eastern history in college, but my details are fuzzy–consequentially, my questions might come out a little obscure.

To my understanding, Iranian culture and tolerance was a little different before approximately 1976. I don’t remember the leader(s) name(s), but I think the last name was Shah. My understanding is that the environment in Iran, though still heavily Islamic, was far more westernized in nature, that education was more liberal, and that Iran was a safer place for people of differing world views.

1) Is my general understanding anywhere close to accurate?

2) If so, was Iran a “better” place, socially, for people like yourself (and others like me).

3) If so, what went wrong?

This is an important question because most westerners and many Iranians think that things were all better when Shah was the ruler of Iran, and forget one essential improvement.

What Scott writes here is the general view, but I disagree with it.

In many ways are situation is worse than the time of the Shah. The regime is much less tolerant, as the Shah didn’t try to control people’s private lives, and the laws were much better too, as they didn’t include so much sexism and medieval punishments. The economy was better, and Iran wasn’t the bad guy to most of the world, and Iranians could travel around the world without suspicion. In many ways the Shah tolerated his opposition better, although he allowed torture and censorship, they were used less relentlessly than now. So, no one can doubt that the regime which was in power was much better than this one.

However, I think it’s a very narrow view of society to think everything is the regime and the laws. The Shah’s modernization was focused on making Iran “look” modern, and yes, there was an artificial middle class which went to beaches with bikini and lived very similar to westerners, but I say “artificial” because they were really created by the Shah’s economy and they were not representative of the majority of people, who became poorer and poorer and also felt indignant about the Shah’s disregard for the clergy. So, they represented a false picture of Iranian society. They pretended that Iranians are a modern nation, while they weren’t.

The Islamic Revolution brought people into the political arena, and they haven’t been able to banish people from the scene since. Unlike the Shah’s regime, the Islamic Republic allows some breathing space in the elections, letting people to at least elect a reformist within the same system. The Shah’s regime was the same before 1950s where he and the CIA removed the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, from the office and then it became absolute autocracy. It was then the divide between the regime and the people got wider and wider and resulted in a revolution.

Ultimately, the Shah’s regime can look good only in comparison to Islamic Republic. He wasn’t good in any way.

But, as I’ve said, people’s presence in the political life has caused a change somewhere much more important, in the society itself. We have a long way to go, but our society is much less sexist than it was – now a majority of our university students are women, while at that time many women had problem going out of their homes. In 1979 no one was democratic, the debate was between Islamists, Stalinists, Stalinist Islamists, and the supporters of monarchy. There were few democrats, like the acting Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, but they were out-powered and in minority. But right now democracy and freedom of speech are becoming things that people actually want.

Our regime has regressed. Our society has progressed and rapidly.

That is why I ultimately think the Iranian society is in a better shape now that it was before. There are many dangers ahead of us that can undone everything – war, civil war, etc. But ultimately, I think Shah’s progress was a fake one, while people’s progress is real.

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