40 years ago Iran's shah fled the country

Forty years ago, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Empress Farah left Iran for the last time.
Forty years ago, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Empress Farah left Iran for the last time.

On January 16, 1979, Iran's powerful Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi abandoned his Peacock Throne and left his nation, never to return home, setting the stage for the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution a month later.

His departure 40 years ago and the ensuing chaos blindsided the United States, which for decades relied on Iran and its absolute ruler as Washington's closest Mideast ally.

Washington sold billions of dollars in weaponry to the shah, whom America empowered in a CIA-backed 1953 coup, and stationed sensitive spying stations in northern Iran to monitor the Soviet Union.

The shah's departure, initially described as a "vacation," came as he was fatally stricken with cancer. His arrival in America after months abroad would spark the US Embassy takeover and hostage crisis, stoking the animosity that persists between Tehran and Washington to this day.

Jubilant Iranians poured into Tehran's streets, singing and dancing, cheering each other in celebration of victory in the bloody year-long popular struggle against the man who has ruled their nation since 1941.

"The shah is gone forever!" they chanted.

Motorists honked horns and flashed headlights. People waved portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini, the bearded Muslim leader who marshalled a broad political and religious movement that forced the shah from the country.

"The Shah has left!" were the headlines of Iran's two evening papers, Kayhan and Ettelaat, the day he boarded the plane.

News was quick to spread across Tehran, bringing hundreds of thousands on to the streets. And for the first time in months, the tanks and armoured vehicles had disappeared from view.

But not all Iranians rejoiced. Diplomatic sources said pro-shah soldiers fired at demonstrators in northern Tehran and there had been some injuries. The reported violence pointed up the divisiveness that remains in Iran and may foreshadow continued bloodshed.

The 59-year-old monarch took the controls himself and piloted his "Shah's Falcon" Boeing 727 jetliner into the bright skies over Tehran and on to Aswan, Egypt, where he was welcomed by President Anwar Sadat.

At Tehran's airport, two royal guard officers fell tearfully to their knees to try and kiss the shah's feet as he neared the plane ramp, an eyewitness reported. He told them to stand, and the officers then lifted a copy of the Koran over their heads as a canopy under which the royal couple mounted the ramp, the shah in a dark suit and winter coat, the Empress Farah in fur hat and collar.

The monarch - "Shah of Shahs," "Centre of the Universe, Shadow of the Almighty" - left behind shattered dreams of glory for his Pahlavi dynasty and a volatile political situation.

Australian Associated Press