28 photos show what Iran looked like before the 1979 revolution turned the country into an Islamic republic

By | April 16, 2024

  • From 1941 to 1979, Iran was ruled by King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah.

  • On February 11, 1979, the Islamic Revolution swept the country.

  • The government was replaced by an Islamic republic, which continues to this day.

In the decades before the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran was ruled by the Shah, whose dictatorship suppressed dissent and restricted political freedoms.

But he also urged the country to adopt a Western-oriented secular modernization, allowing for a degree of cultural freedom.

Under the Shah’s rule, Iran’s economy and educational opportunities expanded. Britain and the US considered Iran their most important ally in the Middle East, and the Shah forcibly industrialized large parts of the country.

But the Shah’s increasingly authoritarian measures and his eventual rejection of multiparty rule set the stage for the infamous revolution.

Yet over a period of nearly forty years, the Shah led Iran through a series of dramatic changes.

From 1941 to 1979, Iran was ruled by King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah.

life in Iran before the revolution, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, Queen Fawzia, 1942life in Iran before the revolution, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, Queen Fawzia, 1942

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, his wife, Queen Fawzia, and little Princess Shahnaz in the grounds of their palace near Tehran, Iran, in 1942.AP

Due to Iran’s large oil supply, proximity to India, and shared border with the Soviet Union, Britain and the US fully supported the Iranian government.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

Sepah Square, the central square in Tehran, Iran, April 20, 1946.AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons

But even before the Islamic Revolution, the Shah’s grip on power was shaky.

life in Iran before the revolution, home of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, 1953life in Iran before the revolution, home of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, 1953

This is the White Palace of the Shah of Iran in Saadabad, Tehran, as it looked in August 1953, after the government upheavals. Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi returned to power on August 22, when his supporters deposed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who had forced the Shah to flee a few days earlier.AP

Communists and religious members of society resented the Shah and his pro-Western government.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

Cars and pedestrians travel on Ferdowsi Avenue in Tehran, Iran, April 20, 1946.AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons

In 1953, the Shah had to flee Iran after a Western-backed coup to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh failed. A second coup succeeded in overthrowing Mosaddegh, who wanted to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, much to Britain’s chagrin, and the Shah returned to the country.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

Pedestrians and cars travel through the main intersection of Tehran, Iran, April 20, 1946. Lalezar Avenue runs through the center of the photo to the north, while Istanbul Avenue runs from left to right.AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons

Reza Shah introduced a series of reforms to turn Iran into a modern Westernized nation.

life in Iran before the revolution, 1970s, family photo albumlife in Iran before the revolution, 1970s, family photo album

Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

These reforms included the structuring of Iran around a central Iranian identity, the often brutal suppression of tribes and their laws in exchange for a central government, and the expansion of women’s rights.

life in Iran before the revolution, 1970s, family photo albumlife in Iran before the revolution, 1970s, family photo album

Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

Reza Shah tried to subordinate religious observation to the state.

life in Iran before the revolution, 1970s, family photo albumlife in Iran before the revolution, 1970s, family photo album

Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

Part of the Iranian method of achieving this was to ban veils in public.

life in Iran before the revolution, 1970s, family photo albumlife in Iran before the revolution, 1970s, family photo album

Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

Women were also encouraged to go to school and get an education.

Iran before the revolution, family photo albumIran before the revolution, family photo album

Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

Although Reza Shah’s intention was to turn Iran into a modern Westernized state, his ban on religious clothing alienated and frustrated religious conservatives and traditionalists.

Iran before the revolution, family photo albumIran before the revolution, family photo album

Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

Despite the backlash from religiously observant members of society, the Shah managed to create a seemingly cosmopolitan city life.

Iran before the revolution, family photo albumIran before the revolution, family photo album

Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

Women and men mixed freely and educational opportunities expanded greatly. Western dress and norms also became ingrained in large parts of the Iranian population.

Iran before the revolution, family photo albumIran before the revolution, family photo album

Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons

Leading the accusation of Westernization was the Iranian royal family. Below is Empress Soraya.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

Empress Soraya of Persia (Iran) poses in the studio of Italian fashion designer Emilio Schuberth, left, wearing an evening dress made of white organdy as the designer adjusts some folds of his dress in Rome, Italy, May 13, 1953.AP photo

The Shah and Soraya married on February 12, 1951. Soraya wore a Christian Dior dress embroidered with 6,000 diamond pieces and 20,000 marabou feathers, according to Tatler.

Soraya Isfandiari and the Shah of IranSoraya Isfandiari and the Shah of Iran

Soraya Isfandiari and the Shah of Iran are pictured after their wedding.Getty Images

Source: Tatler

Soraya and the Shah divorced in 1958 after failing to produce an heir. Soraya’s departure from the royal family was welcomed by some, who thought her German and Catholic background made her untrustworthy.

Soraya and the Shah pictured in 1958Soraya and the Shah pictured in 1958

Soraya and the Shah pictured in 1958.Getty Images

Source: Tatler

At the invitation of the royal family, Iran became a popular destination for celebrities and heads of state. Here an Italian actor and her husband attend a sports match as guests of the Iranian Princess Ashraf.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

Italian actor Gina Lollobrigida and her husband Milko Skofic (both center) pose for a photographer with Iranian athletes at the ZurKhaneh Stadium (House of Strength) in Iran on May 20, 1963.AP photo

The Iranian royal family responded and toured the world’s capitals extensively. Here the Shah and Soraya met Winston Churchill in London.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill poses with the Shah and Queen Soraya at his official London residence, 10 Downing Street, after having lunch with him.AP photo

In 1959, the Shah married Farah Diba. They welcomed four children, although none of them would have the chance to become an heir because of the revolution.

The Shah of Iran and familyThe Shah of Iran and family

The Shah of Iran with his third wife, Empress Farah Diba, and their son Crown Prince Reza.Getty Images

Towards the end of the Shah’s reign, the royal family sought to unite the country around an increasingly historic nationalism based on the preceding Persian empires.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

A street scene with pedestrians on a sidewalk, June 16, 1970, Tehran, Iran.AP Photo/Roy Essoyan

In 1967, the Shah assumed the ancient Persian title “Shahanshah,” or King of Kings, at a coronation ceremony in Tehran.

Pahlavi coronationPahlavi coronation

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi crowned Empress Farah during their coronation ceremony in 1967.PD-IRAN

Nationwide celebrations were also launched across the country to honor Iran’s Persian roots. Here, gymnasts take part in a celebration on October 16, 1975 in honor of the founding of the Persian Empire.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

General overview of the celebrations in honor of the founding of the Persian Empire, October 16, 1975. Persia is now Iran.AP Photo/Harry Koundakjian

Despite Iranian views on the past, the government continued to value education and child development.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

A street scene showing pedestrians navigating their way through bumper-to-bumper traffic, June 16, 1970, Tehran, Iran.AP Photo/Roy Essoyan

Tehran funded study abroad in Europe for Iranians, and schools and clinics were built across the Iranian countryside to care for poorer children as part of the Shah’s “White Revolution.”

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

A street scene with pedestrians on a sidewalk, June 16, 1970, Tehran, Iran.AP Photo/Roy Essoyan

High oil prices and relative stability in the Middle East contributed to a growing business class in major Iranian cities.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

A street scene showing pedestrians navigating their way through bumper-to-bumper traffic, June 16, 1970, Tehran, Iran.AP Photo/Roy Essoyan

Here, Iranians swim in an octagonal pool at the guesthouse of the Iranian National Oil Company.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

An octagonal swimming pool at the Iranian National Oil Company guesthouse that provides relief when temperatures rise above 100 degrees is seen near Ahwaz, Iran, July 1971. AP Photo/Horst Faas

In 1975, Reza Shah abolished Iran’s multi-party system and concentrated increasing amounts of power in his own hands under the government-sanctioned Rastakhiz (Resurrection) Party.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

A view of Tehran, Iran, July 1971. AP Photo/Horst Faas

On January 16, 1979, Reza Shah fled Iran during the Iranian Revolution. The revolution began as a popular movement, fueled by outrage over government excess, corruption, brutality and the suppression of individual rights, before being taken over by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Iran before the revolutionIran before the revolution

Shown here are visitors at a holiday resort in Iran on the Caspian Sea, July 1971.AP Photo/Horst Faas

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