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March 26, 2024 32 mins

When Mohammad Reza Shah got into a helicopter in 1979, he had no idea that it would be the last time he would ever see his country again. Nor did he know that he would be ending a 2,500 year tradition of monarchy in Iran.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
Welcome to Noble Blood, a production of iHeartRadio and Grimm
and Mild from Aaron Manky listener Discretion advised. January in
Tehran can get pretty chilly, so it's no surprise that
people often forsake the city for warmer locales, and on

(00:21):
January sixteenth, nineteen seventy nine, that's exactly what the sha
claimed to be doing, leaving the capital of Iran for
a quote extended vacation. It wasn't publicly known yet, but
the Shaw had recently been receiving treatment for leukemia, and
this trip to Egypt and then the United States was

(00:44):
ostensibly to receive further treatment and recuperate. But even people
in the know understood that there was more to the
Shah's instinct to leave the country. It wasn't frigid temperatures
or just the desire for medical treatment that drove the
Shah of Iran, Muhammad Riza pat Levie to board a

(01:08):
plane headed for Egypt. The real reason the Shah needed
to get away was because of the monumental protests calling
for his downfall that had reached a boiling point in
his forty years on the throne. The Shah had survived
turmoil before, and despite appearing to flee in the face

(01:29):
of this unrest, he assumed that this time would be
no different. In nineteen fifty three, the Shah had fled
the country after a botched coup to topple the then
prime minister, a coup which he, the Shah, had tacitly supported,
But once the pro shah Us government and the staunchly
loyal Iranian military stepped in, the Shah was able to

(01:53):
return to the country, even more determined to maintain his
hold on power and so oh. As he got on
the plane in January of nineteen seventy nine, he knew
it was possible that he might need to be out
of the country for a year or two, but he
assumed that eventually he would return, only more popular and

(02:15):
more supported than ever. After all, the Iranian monarchy was
over two thousand and five hundred years old. It could
survive another round of protests, but by the start of
nineteen seventy nine the protests were particularly fierce. It had

(02:35):
been a year and two days since the first wave
of unrest in this bout of turmoil unfolded in that year,
since the demonstrations which called for a representative government free
of corruption only grew in size and ferocity. What started
out as a protest championed by outspoken anti Shah activists

(02:59):
turned into a bloody nationwide clash between the general public
and the military loyal to the Shah. By January nineteen
seventy nine, over eleven percent of the country was actively
participating in anti regime protests. Compare that to the estimated

(03:19):
number of roughly seven percent of citizens who were actively
participating during the French Revolution. No wonder the Shah was
feeling the heat. As the Shah and his wife, Queen Farah,
stepped out of their car and walked toward their private plane,
the two royal guards standing on the tarmac fell to

(03:42):
their knees, crying. They attempted to kiss the Shah's feet
in reverence, only for him to urge them back up
to their own feet. Once standing, the guards held the
Koran in the air above the royal couple's heads as
they walked underneath and up the plane stairs. This traditional

(04:03):
Muslim ritual is meant to insure one's safety on a
difficult journey. It's probable that the guards understood that this
trip was not a regular vacation, and that the Shah
would need all the support he could get in order
to remain not just in power, but alive. Once boarded,

(04:25):
the Shah sat down in the cockpit of his plane
and turned on its engines. Perhaps in an attempt to
maintain control in the face of an uncertain future, the
Shah had decided to pilot his own plane for at
least take off and the first hour of the journey.
The Shah turned his plane on and for a moment,

(04:46):
as the rumble of the engines filled the cockpit, he
could forget the sound of his people calling for his downfall.
The Shaw concentrated on the tarmac ahead as he moved
the plane to the runway, cleted and lifted up. As
the plane soared into the sky, the Shah looked down

(05:06):
on Tehran and its surrounding areas. Even though no one
could see him, he attempted to maintain a steely disposition
while tears rolled down his cheeks. Despite all of the stress, sadness, anger, frustration,
and pure exhaustion of the past year, the Shah had

(05:27):
had no idea that this would be the last time
he would ever see his country. But as his plane
flew westward. Not only did the symbolic quote peacock throne
from which the Shah had reigned crumbled in the face
of the Iranian Revolution, but so too did the centuries

(05:48):
old monarchical tradition in Iran. With his departure, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi,
the quote king of Kings, light of the Aryans, center
of the universe, shadow of the Almighty could add a
new name to that impressive list of titles, the last

(06:08):
Shah of Iran. I'm Danish Schwartz and this is noble blood. Now,
before we dive into the Shah's life, I think it's
worth clarifying how I'll be referring to him throughout the episode.
Mohammad Resah Shah had many names throughout his life. When

(06:28):
he was born in nineteen nineteen, he was named Mohammad
Resa with no surname. When his father usurped the throne
in nineteen twenty one, his father adopted the surname pot
la Vie, which is also the name of the pre
Islamic language in Iran. Once king himself, the Shah became

(06:49):
known as Mohammad Reza Shah. And so for this story's sake,
I'll be referring to him either as the Shah or
Muhammad Resa Shah. Mohammad Reza Shah was born a commoner,
but by his twenty second birthday he was the Shah
of Iran and second Shah of the Paula Vis dynasty.

(07:10):
He ultimately ruled Iran for almost forty years, a period
during which the nation underwent dramatic cultural changes and grew
in power, going from essentially a colony of England and
Russia to one of the most powerful nations in the
Middle East. Mohammad Reza Shah would contend that he was

(07:32):
to thank for this growth. In striving to build uote
the Great Civilization, the Shah undertook a series of modernizing
reforms that he labeled the White Revolution. These wide ranging
reforms included land reform programs that dismantled the country's semi

(07:52):
feudal system of land management, equal rights for women, nationalization
of forests, and water and literacy corps. Many of these
programs were not successful due to either administrative ineptitude or
poor public perception, but the country did still modernize in
many ways. If you're wondering where Iran would have gotten

(08:16):
the money to make these menu reforms. The answer is,
perhaps unsurprisingly oil. In the nineteen fifties, Iran nationalized oil
and brought millions of dollars into the treasury. Iran appeared
to be on the up and up, which the Sha
attributed to his brilliant leadership and stewardship of his country.

(08:39):
When the two thousand, five hundredth anniversary of the Persian
monarchy ruled around, the Shah used that opportunity to celebrate
Iran himself and all that he felt he had done
for the country with an extravagant week long affair in
nineteen seventy one. The party took place at the ancient

(09:01):
ruins of Persepolis, located in the arid landscape of southern Iran.
Persepolis had been the capital of Cyrus the Great's empire.
If the Shah was looking to celebrate Iran's millennium spanning history,
there was no better place to emphasize just how old
Iran and its monarchy were. The guests for this festive

(09:24):
occasion were notable in and of themselves. The Shah invited
heads of government and state from across the globe, including
then US President Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth of England, Princess
Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco, as well as Soviet
President Nikolai Podgourney. Not all of those people attended, specifically

(09:48):
Richard Nixon and Queen Elizabeth, who passed but sent lesser
figures in their stead, Spiro Agnew, the Vice President of
the United States, and Prince Philip sspectively. In all, sixty
nine countries sent representatives to the festivities for the Shaw.

(10:11):
There was a lot riding on this event. With all
the world's eyes on Persepolis, the Shaw was eager to
demonstrate just how strong and prosperous Iran had become, and
he certainly delivered, sparing no expense and racking up a
bill so big that even today people still debate just
how expensive the whole thing was. Robert Steele, in his

(10:35):
book on this bimillennial celebration, states that while landing on
an exact number is difficult, we can tentatively estimate that
the Shaw spent around sixteen point eight million dollars on
the event, which would be equivalent to just over one
hundred and twenty eight million dollars in today's money. Among

(10:58):
the week's activities were a par raid, a fireworks show,
and the most well known part of the celebration, a
dinner party for all of the guests that was so
elaborate it became infamous. The dinner, which was five hours
and featured six courses, took place under a massive tent.
Each dish was an elaborate, decadent creation, with a menu

(11:22):
featuring roasted peacock, quail, eggs, saddles of lamb, golden caviar,
and dom perignon. Of the six courses, only one ingredient
was actually from Iran caviar during the first course. Everything
else was flown in from Maxims in Paris, and it
wasn't just the food that was imported. Basically everything the

(11:46):
Shah needed for the entire week's festivities was brought in
from Europe, including the weight staff. Even at the time,
the dinner party wasn't particularly well received. The lavish of
the event appeared too many to be in poor taste,
given that so many Iranians were still in poverty. Sure,

(12:07):
the Shah might have previously put time, money, and energy
into developing Iran, but those investments hadn't necessarily resulted in
material improvements in the lives of ordinary Iranian people. And
so it wasn't a great look for him to be
spending money on French champagne and a thirty three kilogram

(12:29):
birthday cake for his wife, Not to mention, because they
had imported almost everything for the event, they were sending
all of that money abroad instead of investing it domestically.
Iranians who were struggling saw the message plainly, the Shah
would spend lavishly on himself and on dignitaries that he

(12:49):
wanted to impress, but not on them. Given that criticism,
it's not surprising that nowadays a common narrative about the
cell and the dinner specifically is that it was the
catalyst for the Iranian Revolution or the protest movement which
would ultimately oust the Shah. A twenty sixteen article in

(13:12):
the British tabloid The Daily Mail went so far as
to say, quote the great iron knee is that the
Shaw's feast was supposed to reinforce the throne it ultimately toppled.
That narrative is an oversimplification of the forces behind the
Iranian revolution, and bad as the optics were. To put it. Frankly,

(13:34):
one dinner party did not cause the Shah to fall
Even though Iranian did not perceive the event positively, it
wasn't the sole foundation on which the later revolution developed.
That being said, the event is an incredibly useful tool
in understanding many of the factors which did lead to

(13:55):
the Iranian Revolution and the Shaw's ultimate dethroning, namely his
opulent spending practices, his desire to court the West, and
his growing detachment from reality. You might recall that I
mentioned in passing in the introduction that Muhammad Razash Shah

(14:18):
ruled from a peacock throne. The peacock throne wasn't a
literal object, but a common metaphor to describe just how
ostentatious the Shah was. He and his three wives had
a habit of buying expensive cars, boats, planes, art, jewelry,
and artifacts. The extremely lavish nature of the two thousand,

(14:40):
five hundredth anniversary celebration was completely on brand for the
lifestyle that the Shah and his household led. But an
important thing to bear in mind is that the money
that the Shah was spending on luxury goods and palace
renovations wasn't entirely his own. The line between the Shah's

(15:01):
money and the country's treasury gradually blurred to the point
where it was hard to deny that the Shaw was
using the country's oil money to fund his lavish lifestyle.
And even when he did spend the country's money on
things for Iran, he did so according to his whims.
For example, he was obsessed with the military, and so

(15:24):
he ended up spending a higher percentage of the country's
GDP on the military than any other country in the
world aside from the US. None of that was looked
upon kindly by the Iranian public, many of whom were
still living in poverty. The Shah also idolized the West,
almost to a fault. Recall that just about everything at

(15:47):
the two thousand, five hundredth anniversary celebration dinner was imported
from France. That exemplifies just how much value the shop
placed on Western, specifically European tastes. He essentially used the
West as the benchmark against which he measured himself and
the country. He strove to make Iran equivalent in quality

(16:11):
of life to European countries, and quite literally fashioned himself
like a European monarch, wearing Western military regalia in all
of his formal portraits in a country with a long
Muslim tradition and a history of being abused and overlooked
by the West, and a country with a deep sense

(16:32):
of national pride. His outlook was not widely appreciated, But
perhaps the quality that most Iranians took issue with was
that despite the progressive measures that the Sha championed during
the White Revolution, the Shah was an authoritarian ruler. During
his reign, he consistently stripped the Iranian people of the

(16:55):
right to exercise their political freedoms. For example, people can
not express anything but positive feelings about the Shah. In
nineteen fifty seven, in order to enforce that rule and
generally maintain control over the population, the Shah created a
secret police force called Savakh. For two decades, Savak agents

(17:17):
instilled fear in society, as they had the authority to arrest,
in prison, and torture anyone who supposedly posed a threat
to the monarchy or the Shah's agenda. Eventually, the Sha
went so far as to abolish political parties in favor
of his new party, the National Resurgence Party, and he

(17:39):
directed that all Iranians, lest they wanted to be labeled traders,
must join There's no doubt about it. The Shah was
an autocrat. In nineteen seventy four, the Shah was diagnosed
with leukemia. Like many authoritarians, the Shah saw his power

(18:00):
dependent on not looking weak or replaceable, and so the
Shah kept his diagnosis highly classified. Very few high ranking
officials in the government, let alone the general public, knew
of the Shah's diagnosis. By nineteen seventy eight, the Shah
started to become affected by the brutal nature of his

(18:21):
cancer and his treatments. While he had always been an
indecisive man, because of the illness and treatments, his mood
and opinions would violently swing from one extreme to the
other within a day. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem,
but because of the Shah's need to maintain complete control,

(18:42):
the Iranian government hinged on his word and his word alone.
So not only was the government at the mercy of
the Shah's ever changing mood, but the country was now
being entirely led by a violent, weakened king who was
increasingly detached from reality. While there were many periods of
unrest during the Shah's rule, the beginning of what became

(19:06):
the Iranian revolution came in early nineteen seventy eight when
the people of Iran took to the straits to protest
a newspaper article published in the unofficial state newspaper. The
article hurled a slew of insults at a dissident Ayatola
named Rujala Romeni, which was a thinly veiled attempt by

(19:29):
the Shah to undermine Chromeni's popularity. Protesters were accustomed to
the Shah's controlling regime, but they could not stand idly
by as he attacked one of their most outspoken advocates
for their freedom. During the protests over this news article,
the SHA's security forces fired on protesters. In Shia Islam,

(19:54):
the majority religion in Iran, memorial services are held forty
days after someone dies, and so forty days after this
first protest, Iranian took to the streets again to mourn
their lost loved ones and further the protest against the regime.
Again directed to do so by the Shah, his security

(20:15):
forces fired on and killed protesters, which led to another
round of protests forty days later. This forty day cycle
kept the protest movement alive and in fact grew it
while only making the Shah and his brutality more apparent.
The Shah could not comprehend how his people could be

(20:37):
so ungrateful for all of the good he had accomplished,
how prosperous their country was becoming. In reality, despite any
of the public works the Shah had achieved, he had
also purged his government and court of anyone who might
have been able to offer a true representation of the
will of the general public. There was no one who

(20:59):
would tell the Shah that, in fact, much of the
Iranian population was deeply upset with his lavish spending, with
his government's corruption, with the government's ineptitude, and the lack
of political freedoms they had. The Shah just thought these
protesters were Islamic Marxists supported by foreign agents looking to

(21:21):
rile up the country, and so he urged his forces
to crack down, continuing the cycle of deadly protests of
brutality toward the people the Shah claimed to love. After
a helicopter ride over one of the massive protests in Tehran,
when the Shah was able to see the hordes of

(21:41):
people who had come out against him, the shaw seemed
to come to his senses. He started to offer concessions
like releasing political prisoners who had been arrested by Savak,
but it was too late. His brutality had offered kindling
to the most extreme factions of his dissidents. Revolution was
snowballing and had picked up too much energy and manpower

(22:04):
to stop. Protests continued with a renewed fervor to topple
the Shah. The Shah's foreign allies, particularly those in the US,
saw the writing on the wall, and began to urge
him to leave the country. As nineteen seventy eight turned
to nineteen seventy nine, the Shah saw fewer and fewer

(22:26):
viable paths ahead. Despite this, and even as he ordered
his staff to begin packing up his belongings, the Shah
could not have fathomed that this unrest would be capable
of dismantling two thousand, five hundred years of monarchy. Muhammad

(22:50):
Rezashah left Iran on January sixteenth, nineteen seventy nine, and
never returned. As news of his departure broke, the streets
of Iran became the scene of a massive party. Hordes
of people flooded to the streets to celebrate, cheering the
Shah is gone. Forever. People drove around aimlessly blasting music,

(23:11):
honking their horns. Others handed out candy to passers by.
A few days later, Ayatola Ruhala Homeni returned to Iran
after fourteen years in exile, and he began consolidating power
in the vacuum that the Shah had left. His return
marks the beginning of the government that he created, the

(23:33):
Islamic Republic of Iran, which still controls Iran today with
its own deep, deep problems with corruption and violent oppression.
But this is not the story of Ayatola Komani. This
is the story of the Shah. After leaving Iran, the
Shah was shunted from country to country as fewer and

(23:56):
fewer people were willing to be responsible for an unpopular,
ousted monarch. He first arrived in Egypt, where he received
a royal welcome, complete with honor guards and the welcoming
arms of longtime friend Anwar al Sadat. After a short
time in Egypt, which was the home of his first wife,

(24:18):
he was sent to Morocco, expecting a similarly royal reception.
In Morocco, the Shah was immediately disappointed by a lackluster
greeting from King Hassan the Second. From Morocco, the Sha
traveled to the Bahamas and then Mexico. He had gone
from being treated like a precious crown jewel to being

(24:40):
tossed around like a hand grenade ready to blow. He
certainly did not appreciate the change. He believed himself to
still be royal and expected appropriate treatment. Unfortunately, however, like
any ousted monarch, the Shah didn't have the luxury to
reject what he was given. During this time, the Shaw's

(25:02):
health deteriorated quickly. Very few people knew of the Shah's
true diagnosis, so upon his arrival to Mexico, doctors actually
started treating him for malaria without proper cancer treatment. The
Shah lost thirty pounds. People close to the monarch described
his appearance as emaciated and jaundiced. Soon it was obvious

(25:26):
he needed surgery, and he would only get adequate medical
treatment in the United States, But the Shah had soured
on his previous ally, and for good reason. The United
States had originally declared that they would accept the exiled king,
and the Shah was slated to fly to the United
States after leaving around for Egypt, but US President Jimmy

(25:49):
Carter reneged on the deal after Ayatolhomeni threatened to storm
the US embassy should the Shah enter the United States
due to the shah worsening cancer condition. However, Carter was
convinced to accept the Sha into the United States in
October nineteen seventy nine, nine months after the Shaw's exile began,

(26:13):
and so the Sha and his entourage flew from Mexico
to New York and were secreted away to a hospital
room at New York Hospital. The humanitarian act by the
United States would prove disastrous, as Iranian students would soon
storm the US embassy in Tehran and hold embassy officials

(26:34):
hostage in response to the Shah being accepted into America.
Because the Shaw's arrival had resulted in an active hostage situation,
the shaws stay in the United States was uncomfortable beyond
the medical After only one month in the United States,
he made it known that he would like to return

(26:56):
back to Mexico. However, his former host no La no
longer wished to extend their hospitality to him, and the
Shah was instead forced to go to Panama, where he
resided for a short time before going back to Egypt.
When he landed in Egypt, the Shah was said to
have teared up at the site of anwar al Sadat

(27:18):
and military guards waiting to welcome him. Since he had
fled his home country almost two years prior, Egypt had
been the only place that welcomed him with the dignity
that he felt he deserved. Once in Egypt, it became
clear that the Shah's end was near. An operation revealed

(27:39):
that his cancer had spread throughout his body. It was
only a matter of time. On July twenty seventh, nineteen eighty,
Muhammad Reza Potleve passed away, leaving his dreams of returning
to Iran one day and continuing the multi millennium tradition
of the monarchy unfulfilled. That's the story of the last

(28:06):
Shah of Iran. But keep listening after a brief sponsor
break to hear a little bit more about that wild
last party that he threw. One of the most popular
anecdotes used to illustrate the unnecessary opulence of the anniversary

(28:27):
party the Shah through is that the Shah bought fifty
thousand exotic birds for the celebration, only to leave them
to die once the dignitaries returned home. There's actually no
evidence to indicate that this relatively famous act of animal
cruelty actually happened. But there are so many other true,

(28:48):
fascinating historical tidbits related to that two thousand, five hundredth
anniversary celebration at Persepolis. Being that the construction of Persepolis
predated air travel, it's not surprising for you to hear
that there was no airport at Persepolis for dignitaries to
fly into for the event. As such, guests made their

(29:09):
way to the event in a myriad of ways. US
of Vice President Spiro Agnew, for instant flew in from
the Shiraz airport in a helicopter. That fact irked some
Persian Gulf sheikhs, however, because they had to travel the
thirty miles in air conditioned Mercedes limousines, an incredibly tough ride.

(29:30):
I'm sure. The parade during the celebrations featured droves of
men representing different eras of Persian civilization, from Cyrus the
Great to the Sasanians to Parthians, Safavids all the way
to Cossack brigades of the early twentieth century. This last
group paid tribute to Muhammad Rezashah's father, who himself was

(29:54):
a Cossack before his successful rise to power. There was
also a true two hundred men strong representing the Acamenians,
and these men were given a strict directive in the
months leading up to the parade no shaving. In order
to accurately represent the styling of Achaemenian soldiers, these men

(30:15):
would have to grow long beards. The Shah and the
planning committee were so committed to authenticity that they turned
down a Japanese firm's offer to outfit all of the
soldiers with fake beards, real beards only. My final anecdote
relates to notable absences from the celebration. Even though the

(30:38):
infamous five hour dinner was almost entirely French, French President
Georges Pompadou declined to go. In quite a backhanded statement,
President Pompadou said, if I do go, they would probably
make me head waiter. Noble Blood is a production of

(31:08):
iHeartRadio and Grim and Mild from Aaron Mankey. Noble Blood
is created and hosted by me Dana Shwarts, with additional
writing and researching by Hannah Johnston, Hannah Zuick, Mira Hayward,
Courtney Sender, and Lori Goodman. The show is edited and
produced by Noemi Griffin and rima Il Kahali, with supervising

(31:32):
producer Josh Thain and executive producers Aaron Manke, Alex Williams,
and Matt Frederick. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, visit the
iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your
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