Learn about the beta

393. Despatch From the Embassy in Iran to the Department of State 1

No. 806


  • Embdes 736, December 20, 19512


  • The Shah of Iran, 1957—A Revised Study

Enclosed is a memorandum entitled The Shah of Iran, 1957—A Revised Study, prepared by Second Secretary Thomas A. Cassilly before his recent transfer from this post. Mr. Cassilly’s study is based on, and brings up to date, the basic study by then Second Secretary John H. Stutesman written in 1951.

In preparing the enclosed study, Mr. Cassilly utilized information made available by the Ambassador, by other officers of the Embassy, and by officers of other United States Government agencies in Iran, in addition to his own wide experience in Iran and the particular information gained through his own friends and acquaintances in Court circles.

For the Chargé d’Affaires a.i.:
Philip Clock
First Secretary of Embassy


[Here follows a table of contents.]

[Page 911]


The last comprehensive study of the Shah was drawn up by the Embassy in December 1951. The real value of this report can be judged only now, more than five years later, when its comments and conclusions have been borne out to a considerable degree.

Nevertheless, the past five years have also been critical ones in the development of the Shah, especially the period of his temporary exile and triumphant return in August 1953. In many respects this crisis may be considered as the turning point in His Majesty’s career. In any case, these events have had such an important effect on the Shah’s personality that they warrant bringing the 1951 study up to date.

Growing Self-Confidence

During the past five years probably the most significant aspect of the Shah’s development has been his growing self-confidence and assertiveness.

The 1951 study lays special emphasis on His Majesty’s lack of confidence and almost obsessive need for advice. It explained how thoroughly he had been suppressed by his domineering father and that, even when he reached the throne in 1941, it was only to find his office without meaning since the country had been occupied by foreign armies.

When the young King was himself exiled in August 1953, he is reported to have been dazed and despondent. Apparently no one had risen to protest his overthrow; the Army seemed to be as unmoved as when his father was deposed, and all his hopes and illusions seemed to be shattered. Then almost unbelievably, he received reports in Rome of mass popular uprisings in his behalf, and in great excitement he was brought back in triumph to Iran. These demonstrations of loyalty held all over the country convinced him of what he had hoped all along but had hardly dared to believe: that he, Mohamad Reza Pahlavi, was the embodiment and symbol of the Iranian people and their aspirations.

From that time on the Shah seems to have grown in confidence. General Zahedi, who was something of a “strong man”, was removed as Premier shortly after No Ruz, 1955, and in his place the Shah designated a respected, completely loyal courtier and then proceeded to be his own prime minister. Since his appointment almost two years ago, Hosein Ala has proved to be one of the least assertive premiers in recent Iranian history. Although Ala was appointed less than two years after Mosadeq, the extraordinary contrast between their respective administrations points up a similar change in the role of the Sovereign himself.

[Page 912]

Another event which has contributed to the Shah’s increased maturity is his recent trip to the Soviet Union. At the time the foreign press speculated on whether the young monarch would be swayed by Soviet achievements and whether he might not have second thoughts about his alliance with the West. During the trip, however, His Majesty handled himself with dignity and restraint, ably defending Iran’s adherence to the Baghdad Pact even though he was aware that it was anathema to the rulers in the Kremlin. Both his international stature and his own self-confidence increased as a result of this visit.

At the same time the Shah has completed a number of other trips, less critical perhaps but also contributing to his development. Since his return from exile in 1953, His Majesty has successfully toured the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, India and Turkey and is scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia and possibly other nations during the coming year. (In fact, the Shah has taken such a fancy to his new role as international statesman that he has neglected some of the less exciting aspects of internal administration.)

When it was announced in October 1955 that Iran would join the Baghdad Pact, it was no secret in Tehran that the final decision had been made by the Shah himself. Of course, His Majesty must have realized that there was not much choice since he had seen in 1946 that it was impossible for Iran to preserve its independence without outside help. Nevertheless, this decision took real courage, and since his return from exile, the Shah has not hesitated to align his country firmly on the side of the West.

Another indication of the Monarch’s growing maturity was his symbolic break with his old tutor and former personal secretary, Ernest Perron. Probably not even his own brothers had been more closely and continuously associated with the Shah. The precise reasons for the sudden break in 1955 are not certain, but apparently His Majesty decided that Perron had been meddling too much in politics. In a recent conversation with a member of the Embassy, the former Swiss tutor rationalized this break as necessary for the full development of the Shah’s personality. Perron now envisages himself as a sort of father image with whom His Majesty had to break in order to assert his own influence. He feels that since the 28th of Mordad the Shah has made significant strides in developing his own self-confidence and has provided Iran with a more stable government than at any time since 1941.

Whereas formerly the King tended to change ministers on impulse, during the past two years he has seemed determined to provide a continuity which Iran has not known since Reza Shah. Despite continuous pressure, he has—for example—firmly backed such unpopular officials as Plan Director Ebtehaj.

[Page 913]

The Shah’s decision to rule, rather than reign, has aroused an increasing amount of covert criticism, however. Recently even conservatives have confided to members of the Embassy their fear that the King’s present policy will end up by undermining the institution of the monarchy. Liberal sentiment is even more critical of the Shah’s new role.


The previous study on the Shah stressed the lack of confidence which “impels him to seek advice at every turn from older and successful men”. In the intervening five years this excessive reliance on the advice of others has definitely declined.

The apparently very intimate relations between His Majesty and certain Western diplomats, as described in the 1951 report, are no longer in effect. Mr. Valentine Lawford, the former British Chargé who is mentioned as a confidant in this study, has recently written an article on the Shah indicating an exceptionally close personal relationship.3 The contrast between this friendship and the rather correct but distant relations between the King and the present British Ambassador is significant. In fact, the British Embassy reports that the Shah is quick to resent any suggestion of advice from the present U.K. Ambassador.

Naturally the Shah still seeks advice before embarking on a course of action, but his method is different now. His Majesty may receive as many as 10 to 20 callers a day for several weeks; as far as is known, no notes are taken during these interviews, but out of this mass of information, the Shah will eventually come up with what he regards as an inspired solution. When he does make a decision, it is probably impossible for him to recall which particular influence has been predominant, and he probably genuinely feels that these thoughts are his own creation. Rather than accepting advice, the Shah reportedly believes that he is seeking confirmation of his own ideas.

Of all his current advisors, probably General Hedayat has the most influence on military matters although the Shah considers himself a military expert and listens to the General on the administrative side only. On internal politics he is more likely to be persuaded by Minister of Court Eqbal and the Interior Minister, Mr. Alam, although of late the latter’s influence has dropped sharply. While the King is reported to listen to dozens of persons, none of the courtiers is currently believed to have much real influence with His Majesty. And never does the Shah forget that he is an oriental monarch who must always be (and at the same time appears to enjoy) playing off one advisor against another. The recurring competition between General [Page 914] Bakhtiar, head of the new security agency, and General Alavi-Moqadam, chief of the national police, between Hedayat and Ariana, between Alam and Eqbal is never completely resolved because the Shah wants them all to be loyal only to himself. The Shah also has his private intelligence service, and even relatively minor officials report directly to him as well as their immediate superiors. Evidently these informants also report on one another.

As far as economic matters are concerned, His Majesty continues to show confidence in the Director of the Plan Organization. The Shah has remarked in private that he supports Mr. Ebtehaj because he is the only Iranian he knows with a progressive, Western outlook and the only man with the strength to say no. In the meantime, as the Plan Director demonstrates his uncompromising energy, he has become possibly the most controversial figure in Iran.

Like many sovereigns, the Shah of Iran is surrounded by a host of sycophants who tell him what they think he wants to hear. It is doubtful, for example, whether he is really conscious of the growing dissatisfaction throughout the country. He is also reported to believe that the Plan Organization is a substantial success. It seems almost impossible for the Shah to break out of this insulating wall and find out for himself what is really going on in Iran.

Despite his growing confidence, the Shah is still not so securely in control that he can afford to dispense with all advice. Now that he is assured of his own position, however, he seems less prepared to consult foreign advisors than in 1951. Perhaps this is the only way for him to learn because eventually he will have to stand on his own. The Shah is still maturing and still has a chance to do so. Possibly he is the one man in Iran who can afford to learn by trial and error.


Although the Shah is increasingly making his own decisions, the process is still a slow and rather reluctant one.

The tendency to vacillate, noted in 1951, is still present, and His Majesty remains enough of an oriental monarch so that, rather than make an unpleasant decision face to face, he will appear to agree and later have some one on his staff telephone that the decision has been changed. In the same way he will not take a firm stand against anyone who is himself firm but will work in an underhand manner to negate his influence. Like most of his compatriots, the Shah still seems more devious than direct in his actions as well as his reasoning. Except on a very few issues which are personal, he is reluctant to face up to a strong “yes” or “no”. People who have had occasion to work with His Majesty tend to agree that if he were suddenly faced with the need for a rapid, clear-cut decision (such as what to do in the event of invasion), the Shah would probably fail to rise to the occasion.

[Page 915]

In addition to being indecisive, the Shah still does not seem to have developed all the firmness necessary for a man in his position. Despite his recent signs of asserting himself, he remains a sensitive person and an insecure one who is likely to cave in under pressure. The Shah talks of worthy objectives for his people but does not, in fact, have the organizational ability for the determination to push through the economic and social reforms that are so essential to Iran.

As pointed out in the previous study, the Shah responds to flattery and likes to have his own way. At the same time he has moments when he is despondent and moody. The King has known the depths of despair (when he landed in Rome in 1953 and not one Iranian came out to greet him) and moments of intoxicating triumph (when he returned to Iran after the 28th of Mordad). He is probably torn between an optimistic and pessimistic outlook on his own future and that of Iran.

Although the Shah goes through the motions of religious piety (including an annual pilgrimage to the Shrine in Heshed), he is not believed to have any deep or conventional religious feelings. Instead there is a pronounced mystical streak in his makeup that used to be appealed to by Ernest Perron. Also, the King seems to have a firm, almost messianic belief that he has been destined by God to lead his people to a greater future.

Conception of Own Position

Despite his tendency to vacillate, the Shah now seems convinced of his own position as the undisputed ruler of Iran and feels that the country is moving forward under his inspired leadership. Always behind this conviction lies the image and example of his late father.

By showing his intention to rule, rather than reign, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi has probably not stopped to consider whether this will be a temporary or permanent arrangement. Now that he has made the decision to rule, however, it would probably be very difficult for him to shift back to a more passive role. So far he has given no indication that he would be content to be merely a constitutional monarch.

One aspect of the Shah’s character that has definitely not changed since 1951 is his overriding fear of any “strong man” in Iran besides himself. Former Premier Zahedi had built up his position to such an extent that, even though he is now out of office and is also the prospective father-in-law of the Shah’s only child, the General has been sent off to Switzerland in virtual exile. Furthermore, it has been suggested that one reason why the Shah has so much confidence in the Director of the Plan Organization (and has no fear of him as a potential rival) is that he realizes that Mr. Ebtehaj has practically no standing outside his support from the King. In any case, His Majesty continually [Page 916]interferes in the details of running the government and undermines any Minister who seems to be showing too much initiative.

Unfortunately, this fear of a rival forces the Shah to rely on such [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] men as Hosein Ala. Nothing could be more revealing and at the same time more discouraging than the following quotation from the 1951 study: “Unfortunately, he (the Shah) holds the concept that a monarchy is as strong as a Government is weak. His good intentions founder on this belief. We therefore find a Shah who, out of patriotism, prevents progress in his nation. And this policy and fear must be contended with by those who want to help Iran.”

The Shah’s way of dealing with the budget deficit points up some of his serious shortcomings: i.e., his failure to appoint and then support a strong Finance Minister and his failure to push through real economic reforms. Instead, he appears to be content with someone like Qolam Hosein Foruhar, who is [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] unwilling to enforce tax collections, and then appeals to the United States for urgent budgetary support.

Inevitably the King’s attitude towards the Constitution and constitutional government is passive. Although he may refer to it with respect, in practice he uses the Constitution as a convenient instrument for attaining his ends or as a crutch if he prefers inaction.

Because of his early education in Switzerland, the Shah continues to be influenced by the abstract ideals of democracy, but at the same time he is not dissuaded from playing a direct role in internal politics. As described in the earlier study, His Majesty declared in 1949 that he favored truly democratic elections. When these were actually held in Tehran and Kashan, a National Front minority was elected to the Majlis, and the way was open for Dr. Mosadeq. The Shah has learned his lesson. During the 1956 elections there was a minimum of even lip service to the ideals of democracy. The Shah played such a dominant role in these elections that it may be assumed that every member of the 19th Majlis was approved by the Throne. And outwardly at least, the Shah did not seem to suffer any qualms.

The 1951 study emphasized that the Shah “sincerely seeks economic reform and social progress”. In the intervening years this reforming zeal has turned out to be less profound than had originally been hoped. His Majesty likes to think of himself as a reformer and is capable of saying on impulse, as he did to a group of students during the summer of 1955, that 200 families are blocking the progress of Iran. Yet when the results of the King’s “reforms” are examined, it turns out that he has done little more than distribute (for payment) a portion of the Crown lands which were seized by his father in the first place.

[Page 917]

It has sometimes been asked whether the Shah believes that he or Mosadeq is more popular with the masses in this country. It seems clear that, on his return to Iran in 1953, His Majesty interpreted the uprising of the 28th of Mordad as a sweeping mandate in his favor and a repudiation of Dr. Mosadeq and all he stood for. Since the Shah is convinced that Mosadeq is finished, he is no longer believed to fear competition from this quarter. The Iranian masses are probably as fickle as those in any country, and the Shah is now probably more of a symbol of his country’s aspirations than before the 28th of Mordad; nevertheless, it is doubtful whether Mohamad Reza Pahlavi has ever managed to evoke the same fervent response among the masses as his recent Prime Minister.

Royal Family

[10 paragraphs (2 pages of source text) not declassified]

The serious question of succession to the throne is one which weighs constantly on His Majesty. As long as there is a possibility of his having his own son, the Shah will probably refrain from designating a crown prince. In the meantime, there are several possible contenders, none of whom has a clear-cut, legal claim to the throne. With the betrothal of Princess Shahnaz to Ardashir Zahedi, it is now considered likely that any son of theirs would be the most promising claimant to the throne. Nevertheless, there are reliable reports that Ali Reza’s son, Prince Ali Patrick (age 9), has returned to Iran and is being brought up as the ward of the Shah. There are legal complications to this claim, however, as well as to the claims of the Shah’s five half-brothers, all of whom had a mother from the deposed House of Qajar. Moreover, the Shah has always been reluctant to name an heir because of his fear of arousing the ambitions of any other member of the family. Meanwhile, in the absence of a definite heir, there would undoubtedly be confusion and unrest if the Shah should die or be removed at this time.


In the same way as his late father, the present Shah has a passionate interest in the Army. He probably realizes that Iranians instinctively respect force and despise what they consider to be weakness. Of all the institutions in this country, he is most immediately concerned with the Army (and to a lesser extent the Air Force and Navy) and is reported to pass on the promotions and assignments of even junior officers.

At the same time the Shah must be constantly reminded that, despite all the favors his father heaped on the Army, they deserted him almost without protest in the final hour of need. Underneath, the [Page 918]Shah must have half-expected the same thing to happen when he himself was exiled in 1953. Nevertheless the Army turned out to be more loyal than had been thought, and there seems to be little doubt that most officers—when faced with the choice—favored their king over Dr. Mosadeq. This backing from the Army turned out to be stronger than was reflected in the 1951 report.

Both the Shah and his officers realize that he relies on the Army to keep him in power. His Majesty is well aware of the corruption and nepotism in the armed forces, but he is not prepared to take the necessary steps to correct them. It is reliably estimated that as much as one-third of the officers of the Army, Navy and Air Force are absent without leave every day, and this situation has been brought to the attention of the Shah. But His Majesty is so anxious to do nothing that would offend the officer cliques and possibly turn the Army against him that he is willing to ignore even some of the most flagrant abuses of power.

The Shah not only believes that he is a superior soldier, but American military authorities report that he does actually have a good grasp of strategy. In the event of invasion, he is likely to insist on assuming personal command of the armed forces. Considering his lack of forcefulness, however, it is doubtful whether the King would prove to be much of a military asset in a crisis unless he were backed by a firm [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] officer.

Foreign Influence

The Shah does not seem to fear the major foreign powers as much as he did when the 1951 study was made. He appears to be trying to convince himself and the nation that the days of overt foreign influence in Iran are over, but at the same time he must be aware that his country cannot survive without some form of foreign assistance.

As indicated above, the Shah continues to meet with Western diplomats, although not on the same intimate basis as before. He sees mainly the American and British Ambassadors and only occasionally the French. (Reportedly His Majesty almost never receives any of the Ministers who are assigned to Tehran.) He also has regular contact with the Commanding General of the American Military Assistance Advisory Group. Now that the United States has assumed a predominant role in this country, undoubtedly the advice of Americans has more influence here than that of other foreigners, but the Shah still stubbornly likes to feel that he makes his own decisions.

As far as the British are concerned, His Majesty is reported to have a great deal of respect for the professional competency of the U.K. intelligence system. Although he may not be convinced (like many Iranians) that the British are practically omniscient, he has remarked on occasion that their secret service is the most effective in the world. [Page 919]As the previous report pointed out, he is painfully aware of the part that the “hidden hand” of the British played in setting up and then destroying his father. This fear and respect will probably continue long after it is justified. There continue to be reports that the Shah has millions of pounds in Great Britain which have remained blocked ever since the overthrow of his father. The UK government is said to be holding these funds to reinforce their influence over the King. Although the British Embassy has vigorously denied such rumors, there are many well-informed persons who continue to believe them.

The Shah seems to have few illusions about Soviet goals in Iran although he was reportedly impressed by the economic advances he observed in the Soviet Union. Because of Iran’s proximity to the USSR, he realizes that he must maintain cordial relations with the neighbor to the north. His Majesty’s fear of Communism is undoubtedly sincere, if only because he realizes he would have everything to lose if the Tudeh assumed power.


The Shah’s development over the past five years presents an interesting combination of growing self-confidence and a continuing lack of firmness, as noted in the previous report. Which tendency will assume the upper hand during the next five years depends largely on events in the outside world and how they affect Iran. For the present he continues to play the dangerous role of dictator without the necessary strength to back it up.

Despite his weakness and obvious drawbacks, the Shah and the institution of the monarchy represent at the present time an element of stability in an unsettled country. Since His Majesty is staunchly anti-Communist and is favorable to the U.S., it would seem to be indicated that the United States Government should continue to support and attempt to influence the Shah of Iran.

If, however, it turns out that by attempting to rule directly he has bitten off more than he can chew and that he is arousing serious resentment against himself, then it might be advisable to use American influence to convince the Shah that he should step back and assume a more passive, ceremonial role. End of Enclosure


American Embassy personnel

[less than 1 line of source text not declassified]

Commanding General, ARMISH-MAAG

Members of Diplomatic Corps

[Page 920]

Embassy Despatches:4

  • No. 344, November 12, 1955 (Confidential)
  • No. 237, October 12, 1955 (Official Use Only)
  • No. 805, March 24, 1956 (Secret)
  • No. 422, November 21, 1956 (Confidential)
  • No. 535, January 3, 1957 (Confidential)
  • No. 660, February 4, 1957 (Confidential)
  • No. 677, February 6, 1957 (Confidential)

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 788.11/3–1157. Secret. Also sent to KhorramShahr, Isfahan, Tabriz, and Meshed. Passed to London, Moscow, Ankara, Baghdad, Kabul, Karachi, Jidda, New Delhi, Madrid, Rome, Bern, Dhahran, and Kuwait.
  2. Not printed. (Ibid., 788.11/12–2051)
  3. See Attachment No. 1 (to Department only). [Footnote in the source text; the attachment was not with the source text.]
  4. None of the despatches listed is printed. (All in Department of State, Central File 788.11)