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Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last king of Iran

AFP  |  Paris 

Iran's last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who fled his country 40 years ago under pressure from massive street protests, was the "of Kings" who came to be damned by his own people.

His exile with his third wife on January 16, 1979 ended not only his 37-year reign but also 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran, replaced by an Islamic system that remains in charge today.

would die from just 18 months later at the age of 60, broken and stateless, having been refused asylum by his former ally, the

Tyrannical, arrogant, extravagant but also modernising, the playboy started out as a darling of the US which groomed him to act as sentry in the against the

The "great leadership of the shah" had made "an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world," US declared just a year before the 1979 Islamic revolution.

enjoyed all the trappings of his royal status, believing his escape from two assassination attempts was proof of his divine calling.

But gradually his Western-style leanings and reforms, as well as his increasingly autocratic behaviour and lavish lifestyle, contributed to his alienation among Iranians and angered the conservative clerics who would help drive the revolution that sent him fleeing.

was just 21 when he ascended to the throne on September 16, 1941 to replace his father, Reza Khan, who had been forced to abdicate following an invasion by Britain and the which were unhappy at his neutrality in their stand against during World War II.

Born on October 26, 1919 and educated in Switzerland, Pahlavi was at first seen as only a pale copy of his military strongman father.

It was only 12 years later, following a CIA-backed coup against his popular Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalised the oil industry, that Pahlavi began to amass real power.

Determined to drag rapidly into the modern age, he launched wide-ranging education and healthcare programmes, while hosting leaders from around the world in his Napoleonic uniform.

He helped drive up global in the early 1970s, and poured the resulting billions into nuclear power projects and new As a pilot himself, much of the money went into the airforce.

By then, the was married to the glamorous Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiary, having divorced his Egyptian first wife -- sister of King of -- after she had given birth to a daughter but no sons.

They too divorced in 1958 when Soraya failed to produce an heir. Farah Diba, whom he married in 1959, bore him two sons and two daughters.

Many trace the beginning of the shah's downfall to 1963 when he implemented the "White Revolution", a large-scale reform programme centred on agriculture that alienated the traditional land-owning elite and their clerical allies, who also fiercely opposed the decision to grant women the vote.

The following year he exiled Shiite religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini, who railed against the shah's perceived kowtowing to the West.

Khomeini's star grew in exile and he would eventually become the figurehead of the Islamic revolution that ended Pahlavi's reign.

Major economic powers queued up in to take advantage of the while closing their eyes to the authoritarian drift, as the shah outlawed opposition parties and relied ever-more heavily on his feared secret police, the SAVAK.

Angry over US criticism of his human rights record, Pahlavi grew closer to the and China, while also launching an economic partnership with and in particular

At home the billionaire shah's extravagance and the wealth lavished on those in the royal circle drew increasing criticism.

He took on the traditional title of "King of Kings" in a lavish coronation ceremony in 1967, having already adopted the specially chosen moniker of "Light of the Aryans" two years earlier.

The unprecedented luxury of his party to mark the mythical 2,500th in 1971 was also vilified by his left-wing and clerical opponents. The shah's power began to crumble in January 1978 after a daily newspaper was forced to publish an article critical of Khomeini.

It sparked demonstrations by theology students that were violently crushed, the memorials to victims leading to a cycle of protests that grew through the year.

Unable to comprehend why his people were ungrateful for his modernising efforts, the shah grew increasingly paranoid and reclusive.

A final bid to arrest the uprising, by apologising for his mistakes and lifting many repressive measures, came too late and only fuelled the protests.

After months of rolling unrest, the shah was prodded into exile by the United States, choosing to fly out to Egypt, never to return.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, January 14 2019. 09:20 IST