Why Iranians Prefer the Shah Over the Ayatollah

Shah Over the Ayatollah
Shah Over the Ayatollah

Iran’s contemporary history is marked by the dramatic shift from a monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to an Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

This transformation began with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and has been a subject of intense debate and reflection among Iranians.

In recent years, a growing number of Iranians have expressed a preference for the Shah over the Ayatollah. This article explores the reasons behind this sentiment, examining the socio-economic, political, and cultural factors that contribute to this perspective.

Why Iranians Prefer the Shah Over the Ayatollah


Economic Prosperity Under the Shah

One of the most significant reasons many Iranians look back favourably on Shah’s era is the economic prosperity that characterized his reign. During the 1960s and 1970s, Iran experienced rapid economic growth and modernization. The Shah implemented economic and social reforms known as the White Revolution, which aimed to modernize Iran’s infrastructure, expand education, and promote industrialization.

Under the Shah, Iran significantly improved living standards, healthcare, and education. The country’s oil wealth was used to build modern cities, highways, and industrial complexes. Many Iranians today remember this period as one of economic stability and growth, contrasting sharply with the economic challenges and sanctions plaguing the Islamic Republic.


Personal Freedoms and Social Liberalization

Factors contributing to the preference for the Shah are the relative personal freedoms and social liberalization that existed during his reign. The Shah’s government promoted Westernization and secularization, encouraging cultural activities, music, cinema, and fashion that aligned more closely with Western norms. Women, in particular, enjoyed greater freedoms, access to education and the workforce and the right to dress as they chose.

In contrast, the Islamic Republic has imposed strict social and cultural controls, mandating conservative dress codes, limiting freedom of expression, and enforcing moral codes through the morality police. For many Iranians, the loss of these personal freedoms is a significant reason for their nostalgic view of the Shah’s era.


Political Repression and Human Rights

While the Shah’s regime was far from perfect and was criticized for its political repression and human rights abuses, many Iranians believe that the Islamic Republic has been equally, if not more, repressive. The Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, was notorious for its surveillance and torture of political dissidents. However, the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia have also been involved in widespread human rights abuses, including the suppression of protests, arbitrary arrests, and executions.

The harsh crackdown on dissent and the lack of political freedoms under the Ayatollah’s regime have led many Iranians to view the Shah’s rule as relatively more tolerant and less repressive in comparison.


National Pride and International Standing

During the Shah’s reign, Iran was considered a regional power with significant influence in international affairs. The country maintained strong diplomatic relationships with Western countries and was seen as a modernizing force in the Middle East. The Shah’s ambitious vision for Iran’s future fostered a sense of national pride among Iranians.

In contrast, the Islamic Republic’s aggressive foreign policy and strained relations with the West have led to international isolation and numerous economic sanctions. The prolonged conflict with the United States and other Western powers has diminished Iran’s international standing and contributed to economic hardships. For many Iranians, the sense of national pride and global influence that existed under the Shah is sorely missed.


Generational Perspectives

It is important to note that the preference for the Shah is often divided along generational lines. Older Iranians who lived through the Shah’s reign and the Islamic Revolution tend to have a more nuanced view, recognizing the flaws and merits of both regimes. In contrast, younger generations who have only experienced life under the Islamic Republic often view the Shah’s era through the lens of stories and historical accounts, sometimes idealizing the past as a time of greater prosperity and freedom.


Many Iranians prefer the Shah over the Ayatollah, a complex phenomenon rooted in economic, social, political, and cultural factors. While the Shah’s regime was not without its flaws, the economic prosperity, personal freedoms, and national pride associated with his reign starkly contrast to the challenges faced under the Islamic Republic. As Iran grapples with these issues, the debate over its past and future remains a vital part of its national discourse.