Whenever someone in history tells you that something directly “caused” something else, they are either deliberately oversimplifying things or flat-out lying. Because we are all presumably not five years old, we know that every event has a number of causes. When someone tells you that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused World War I, you realize that they’re selling you a narrative that simplifies history, which is often messy and never clear-cut. Or they’ve merely bought into that narrative already.
So when I tell you that the Shah of Iran’s arrogance and stupidity caused the Iranian revolution, you realize that that is not entirely true, of course. There were lots of things that contributed—a rise in fundamentalism, incompetence, poor management by the Shah’s underlings… but it certainly didn’t help that the Shah was an arrogant twat.
The shah had a lot of faith in himself. He believed that his actions were “divinely guided,” which is weird, because that means that Allah is a terrible policy-maker. People tried to assassinate the Shah as early as 1949 [the Shah was fully removed in 1979], but his survival of these assassination attempts furthered his belief in his divine guidance. The Shah surrounded himself with yes-men at the highest levels of government—starting in 1957, the Shah’s prime minister declared himself to be his “household servant,” and a PM named Manoucher Eqbal was known for his almost embarrassing level of Shah fanboyism. The Shah also attempted to link himself with the legendary Persian leader Cyrus the Great, a connection that had no basis in reality and one that was met with skepticism by the Iranian people.
Clearly, the Shah had an inordinate amount of faith in his abilities, but what did his government actually do? The Shah, being a “man of the people,” made some empty gestures to show that Iran was a democracy. He created two different, “opposing” political parties that were both tools of the Shah. The Iranians did not care for this, and mockingly nicknamed the two parties the “Yes” and “Yes Sir” parties. The Shah attempted to hold “free” elections in 1960, until it became clear to everyone he intended to rig them, and he cancelled them in disgrace. His non-political reforms didn’t fare much better. Throughout his tenure, the Shah attempted to force land reform through the Iranian government, but despite the multiple efforts, never succeeded. In short, his government was a mess, and wildly unpopular among the Iranian people. The Shah was not very religious, other than billing himself as a messiah figure, so it’s easy to see how theocrats could swoop in and gain control of the nation.
The Shah, surrounded though he was by sycophants, recognized that trouble was a-brewing, and handled it in his typical hamfisted, half-hearted way. He proposed the “White Revolution,” a social and cultural revolution that would supposedly lead to many new freedoms for the Iranian people. It wasn’t a revolution, and nearly nothing happened, but it did lead to some great, North Korea-level press releases by the Shah about its success. “The White Revolution has led to a great transformation in the economic and social condition of the [Iranian] people,” the Shah wrote in his hilarious, egotistical book, Toward the Great Civilization, a guide for other countries on how to make governments as stable and effective as Iran’s. It was released in 1977. He was toppled in 1979.
Whether you hate or merely dislike the current Iranian government, it’s not hard to see why people were dissatisfied with an egotistical leader who would rather write books about how great he’s doing than lead. Shah Reza Pahlavi’s benign liberalism stood in stark contrast to the harsh, theocratic ideals of Ayatollah, and the people chose the latter. Nice going, Shah.
BlairWalshProject is a history undergrad, stand-up comedian, and quizbowl player. Please keep in mind that he's gotten, at best, Bs in many of these classes [although he did get an A- in Iranian history! High five!] For more information on history, visit your local library. He can be found on Twitter at @IBHirsch.