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Why Did Iran's King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Move To Mexico?

Ara is a journalism graduate from California State University, Northridge, who is always looking to explore his writing opportunities.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Introduction to Iran's Last Monarch

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (October 26, 1919-July 29, 1980) was the last king of Iran’s Pahlavi Dynasty who was overthrown during Iran’s Islamic Revolution which actually started back in early 1978. Although Western sources tell us that he was overthrown because of the hard-line religious leaders in Iran that were coming to power at that time, it was under the direction of US President Jimmy Carter that the Shah was overthrown. So how did Mohammad Reza Pahlavi end up in Mexico? It was a combination that had to do with choosing personal health over politics for this once powerful Western ally.

A Cathedral in Cuernavaca, Mexico

Henry Kissinger was an influence in the Shah's decision to move to Mexico

According to various sources, it was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that had gone over to Mexico to give speeches and that he was “paving the way for the shah,” (Simons 1979). The Shah would arrive in Mexico City on June 11, 1979 with his wife Queen Farah Diba. It was the Shah that rented two houses in the city of Cuernavaca, just an hour south of the capital. His location was not revealed. That was understandable because his life was in danger at that time. The Shah had been in Mexico on an official state visit back in May 1975. Mexico’s then President Jose Luis Portillo who a few months before the Shah’s arrival had wanted to welcome him and grant him a six month visa. The Shah however would have to keep on moving and changing countries due to political pressure. He would eventually end up in Cairo, Egypt where he would die of pancreatic cancer. With the Shah’s death, the world lost not only a great leader but someone that was a champion for Western values. He deserves a tribute because of his Westernization policies even though many did not appreciate what he was trying to do for Iran. Those of you that think he was an autocrat, what came after the Shah has proven to be a much more corrupt and repressive regime. The Shah of Iran gave that country respect and credibility abroad. However, the above event is only a simple explanation as to why the Shah ended up in Cuernavaca. The larger reasons as to why this man ended up in Mexico are numerous to mention and deserve study and consideration. We could say that Kissinger was one of the reasons why the Shah ended up in Mexico. However, this article is primarily about why Mohammad Reza Pahlavi even ended up living in Mexico.

A photo of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back in 1973

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi took the throne in Iran after his own father Mohammad Reza Shah abdicated in 1941. Pahlavi briefly left Iran in 1951, and returned in 1953 where he would stay until 1979.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi took the throne in Iran after his own father Mohammad Reza Shah abdicated in 1941. Pahlavi briefly left Iran in 1951, and returned in 1953 where he would stay until 1979.

The Shah went from powerful monarch to a sick, isolated man that had no home

The Shah had been in charge in Iran for almost 40 years prior to the Islamic Revolution that caused his overthrow. However, to say that it was only the revolution that caused him to lose power would be a misstatement. The revolution was the symptom of his overthrow. The religious establishment in Iran was allowed to increase in power and influence over the years beginning in 1963 with the introduction of the White Revolution. It is simple enough to say that the Shah was no longer a useful ally of the West due to his increasing power as the strongman of the Middle East at the time. Upon leaving Iran on January 16, 1979, the ailing Shah would go to Morocco, then the Bahamas, and then he would end up in Mexico. The Shah himself stated that Mexico was the first country that he had thought of going to live as an exiled leader. The Shah would end up in Cuernavaca for the sole purpose of medical treatment. The Shah’s health had grown worse and he began to suffer from fever, chills, and pain. Doctors who were examining him guessed at first that he might have had malaria or hepatitis. Upon further examination, doctors began to guess that it may have been the lymphatic cancer that he had been suffering from in Iran since the early 1970’s. However, his doctors were unable to reach a solid conclusion as to what his primary health problem was and they recommended that he seek treatment in the United States.

By this time in 1979, the Shah was an isolated man. He was no longer feared and only treated with ridicule, mockery, and scorn. He did however have one special friend visit him while he was in Mexico. That person was former President Richard Nixon. While in Mexico, the Shah had this to say about Nixon: “A sure and solid ally is worth more than a number of partners who may weaken at the decisive moment,” (Pahlavi 1980). He made this statement when he was writing his own life story. At a hospital in New York City on October 23, 1979, Dr. Benjamin Kean, the physician that had treated the Shah in Mexico and recommended the move to the United States, thoroughly examined the 59 year-old exiled leader and put him through many tests. Unfortunately, there was not a conclusive answer to the Shah’s health problems in Cuernavaca so the objective had not been accomplished. On October 24, the Shah underwent surgery. After the surgery, he admitted in a report that he was suffering from lymphoma, something that he had not revealed while in Iran. The Shah admitted: “In the best interests of my country, I had previously withheld this information,” (Pahlavi 1980). Had the Shah remained in Mexico, it is possible that he could have been successfully treated. But with his departure, we will not know for sure.

A Photo of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979

Conclusion about the Shah's health problems and coverage by the New York Times after his death

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the man who had ruled Iran beginning in the 1940’s was seeking refuge in some other country during a time of much violence and upheaval in his native Iran. In May 1981, several months after his passing, the New York Times covered the story of his failing health, referring to it as “a decision to gamble with his health for political ends,” (Lawrence K. Altman 1981). I would not say that it was a gamble. The Shah was trying to save his life and he was a very sick man at this point. Anyone who had even the slightest understanding and sympathy for him would have realized that his health was the most important thing, not where he was going to live or what the political situation was going to end up being like in Iran or in the world at large. During the final five years of his rule (even if we count 1979), the Shah had been prescribed an anticancer drug by two French doctors. These doctors would regularly visit him in Tehran and give him medical care. However, the Shah was not allowed to go to France after his overthrow because the French government let him know that he was persona non grata in France. Here was a man who was very sick and fighting for his life yet France barred him entry but they had allowed Ayatollah Khomeini, a barbaric, murdering tyrant who was so uneducated entry into France. This is one of those big double standards. Politics aside, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had gone to live in Mexico in exile for the purpose of nursing himself back to health. Unfortunately, the Shah was not able to recover from his many health problems and passed away at the age of 60.


Lawrence K. Altman, M.D. 1981. "The Shah's Health: A Political Gamble." The New York Times Magazine, May 17.

Pahlavi, Mohammad Reza. 1980. Answer to History. Briarcliff Manor: Stein and Day Publishers.

Simons, Marlise. 1979. The Washington Post. June 11. Accessed June 14, 2017.

© 2017 Ara Vahanian

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