Born a commoner but raised to rule, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi died a king without a throne.

At the height of his power he was the shah of Iran, claiming the legacy of more than 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy. He commanded a nation of 35 million people and the respect of leaders from Washington to Moscow. Iran's oil billions gave him vast economic power and helped make his armed forces one of the most powerful in the Middle East.

In the end, he was a man without a country. Forced to flee the gathering storm of revolution in Iran in January 1979, the shah, his wife, Farah, members of his family and a dwindling retinue of aides and bodyguards moved from one country to another in search of a secure asylum.

They went first to Egypt, then to Morocco, the Bahamas and Mexico. On Oct. 22, 1979, he came to the United States for a gall bladder operation and treatment of cancer. Thirteen days later, militant Iranian Moslems invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took Americans there hostage to demand the shah's extradition, the return of his wealth and a U.S. confession of "crimes" in Iran.

At the end of the shah's medical treatment in New York, Mexico refused to allow him to return. He went to Panama and then again to Egypt. He died of complications from his cancer treatment yesterday at the Maadi Military Hospital in Cairo. He was 60.

The downfall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi resulted from a number of factors. Among them were the way he used his country's fabulous oil wealth, the economic strains and corruption it fostered, the brutalities of his secret police and the repression of political dissent, the imperious personal style he projected.

Yet the shah undeniably tried to promote the economic progress of his country and implement social reforms. He used the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973 -- increases that he was instrumental in bringing about -- to launch a head-long industrialization drive designed to put Iran on a par with the world's most advanced countries in his lifetime.

During the shah's reign, Iran made great strides in reducing illiteracy, improving health care, introducing modern technology to the country and generally raising the population's standard of living. His critics have charged that these improvements were not enough and that more could have been accomplished if Iran's oil money had not been misused.

In an interview with The Washington Post in Cairo in May, the exiled shah stoutly defended the accomplishments under his rule.

"Eventually we went faster than some people could digest," he said. He cited "democratization" and a "dramatic increase" in average per capita income from $60 a year at the beginning of his reign to $2,540 a year when he left. He denied that his rule had been corrupt.

"We were thinking of the great civilization," he said. "We were thinking life could be enriched by art and by spirit, by the blossoming of thought and spirit. And now it is all destroyed..."

The trim, athletic shah also had earned a reputation as a survivor.He had narrowly escaped death in several assassination attempts and plots, walked away from two airplane crashes, and held on to power despite wars, revolutions and coups in neighboring states and serious upheavals in his own country.

In 1953, the shah was forced into a brief exile by domestic opponents, and a decade later his regime was rocked by an upheaval against his consolidation of power with a land reform package.

How he came to be so hated by his subjects has mystified many outsiders who perceived him as a progressive, if authoritarian, ruler. While there is no simple answer, basically it can be said that he was regarded by his countrymen as a leader imposed on them by foreigners, a fatal flaw in a country with such a strong undercurrent of xenophobia.

The shah contributed to this image because he was so unlike most Iranians and seemed at times even to disdain them. He became a stranger in his own land. He lost touch with his own people.

In the last two decades especially, the shah surrounded himself with sycophants who told him mostly what he wanted to hear and reinforced a belief that he only had to give an order and his will would be done.

The shah's illusions about the power he wielded were reflected in his often naive economic policies, which fueled the unrest that eventually toppled him.

He seemed to believe that he could buck convention, that he could do the impossible by using Iran's huge influx of oil wealth to impose industrialization from the top. He tried to stick multibillion-dollar petrochemical complexes, nuclear power plants and other advanced industrial units into the arid landscape like pins into a map.

The oil-based industrialization drive made the economy boom, but it also brought tens of thousands of foreigners into the country and exacerbated the strains inherent in a traditional society struggling to retain its identity and values in the midst of modernization.

The shah's economic and social policies also contributed to the growth of a middle class that increasingly chafed under his repressive political system.

Skilled manpower was stretched to the limit, ports and land transportation became congested, inflation soared to new heights, and the capital became choked with cars and smog. Moreover, the spread of Western culture alarmed conservative Iranians who feared that their Islamic faith was being corrupted by imported films, clothes and customs.

Despite the strains, these problems seemed manageable as long as most Iranians either benefitted materially from the boom, or had reason to expect that they would.

But when the economy started to go sour in 1977 as the shah was belatedly launching a limited political "liberalization," cracks began to appear in the dam of the imperial regime and the discontent that started seeping through soon became a flood that washed the monarchy away.

All along, the shah's arch foe, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had been hammering at the shah's weaknesses, portraying him as a puppet of the West and America and insisting that the family dynasty founded by the shah's father was illegitimate.

During most of Khomeini's 15 years in exile, these charges had not had much visible impact. But when reaction against the ills of Western-style industrialization and demands for political change began to grown, Iranians caught up with Khomeini's unrelenting opposition to the shah and rallied around the aged Moslem clergyman as their leader.

With strikes paralyzing the government and the last buttress of his rule -- the army -- beginning to crumble around him, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Iran for a vacation-turned-exile on Jan. 16, 1979. Until then he was the world's most durable ruling monarch, with nearly 38 years on Iran's Peacock Throne.

Tehran broke into wild scenes of celebration as the news of his departure spread. Khomeini returned from exile Feb. 1, and an uprising in the capital 10 days later toppled the last vestiges of the shah's 53-year-old dynasty.

Since the shah went into his peripatetic exile, both his supporters and his foes have tried to rewrite the history of his rule. The former portray him as an enlightened modernizer and reformer, the latter as a villainous dictator "worse then Hitler."

There is no doubt that the shah was an autocrat, who, in his later years, would not tolerate opposition and presided over a police state that employed systematic torture and executions.

There also is no doubt that the opponents who replaced him in power have vastly exaggerated his misdeeds.

And there is no doubt that the shah and 63 close relatives who constituted the royal family amassed an enormous fortune during his long reign. These holdings have been estimated at more than $20 billion, but much of the royal property remained in Iran and could not be liquidated after the revolution. Although the shah undoubtedly was a wealthy exile, the exact size of his personal fortune remained a mystery.

The shah himself came from humble beginnings. He and a twin sister, Ashraf, were born on Oct. 26, 1919, to Reza Khan, an illiterate mule driver who rose through the ranks of Iran's Russian-organized Cossack Brigade and who learned to read and write in adulthood. Reza Khan, who later took the surname Pahlavi, the name of the ancient Persian language, seized power in 1921 from the decadent Qajar Dynasty. In 1925, he declared himself the new shah.

Mohammad Reza' mother was Tajol-Molouk, a strong-willed woman of Caucasian origin and the second of Reza's three wives. A sickly child who was dominated by his overbearing father, Mohammad Reza had a sheltered childhood that he later described as "isolated."

He attended a military academy for youngsters in Tehran. He also had a French governess and spent four years at a boarding school in Switzerland. He finished his education at the Ehran Military Acdemy and was commissioned a second lieutenant.

His schooling abroad was designed to prepare him for the throne. Shah Reza once wrote to the young crown prince: "In the future you will protect and safeguard my throne, my good name, my country and my family through the acquisition of scientific knowledge and experience."

In 1941, alarmed by what they perceived as Shah Reza's pro-German sympathies, the British and the Russians occupied Iran -- through which supplies flowed to the Soviet Union -- and forced him to abdicate. Taking with him a box of Iranian soil, Shah Reza went into exile in South Africa, where he died in 1944.

With his father's departure, Mohammad Reza was installed on the throne by the allies as their virtual puppet. While British and Russian functionaries ran Iran for the duration of World Ar II, the young shah seemed uninterested in assuming the leadership of his country, for a time his politically wise sister, Ashraf, was the power behind the throne.

But the circumstances of his accession were a humiliation that the new shah never forgot. He determined to build up his armed forces and turn Iran into a force to be reckoned with.

Not that foreign influence was a new aspect in the history of Iran. The country formerly called Persia, had been invaded countless times through the centuries.In 1880, Baron Reuter, the founder of the British news agency, was granted a concession to develop virtually all of its resources. With the discovery of oil early in this century, the British influence became pervasive. As they had in the face of earlier incursions, however, Iranians managed to retain their own identity and institutions.

Mohammad Reza's first major test as shah came immediately after the war when the Soviet Union refused to withdraw its occupation troops and helped set up secessionist republics in Kurdistan and among the Azerbijanis in northwestern Iran. The Soviets were trying to take advantage of nationalistic sentiments that have occasionally cropped up among Iran's ethnic minorities, which also include Arabs, Baluchis and Turkomans.

The young monarch appealed to the United States for help, and Moscow was pressured into pulling out its forces in May 1946.

Before the end of the year, the secessionist republics collapsed. The Soviet attempt to undermine the shah and dismember his country fostered a distrust of Moscow that stayed with him during the rest of his reign.

In 1949, the shah survived the first of several assassination attempts and plots. A gunman disguised as a photographer fired five shots at the shah from point-blank range at Tehran Universtity. Three of the bullets went through the shah's hat, nicking the top of his head. The fourth pierced his cheek and upper lip. The fifth hit him in the shoulder. The enraged gunman pulled the trigger a last time, but the pistol jammed. He was immediately seized, shot twice and beaten to death.

The shah's miraculous escape had an important effect on him. Thereafter he showed signs of a mystical belief that his rule was divinely ordained.

The next challenge came from a domestic rival who was determined to oust him by means of politics.

Mohammad Mossadegh, who became prime minister at the age of 70 in 1951, pressed for the nationalization of British oil interests. This was two decades before that idea became the central policy of the world's oil exporting countries.The move brought a Western boycott of Iranian oil and a severe domestic crisis.

Mossadegh also gradually chipped away at the shah's power until, on Aug. 16, 1953, the shah moved to replace him. Mossadegh successfully resisted the attempt, which he described as a plto to overthrow him.

The shah was vacationing in the Caspian Sea with his second wife, Soraya, when he learned that Mossadegh was seeking his arrest. An avid pilot, the young ruler flew himself and his wife into exile in neighboring Iraq. From there they went on to Rome.

In Tehran, however, a CIA agent named Kermit (Kim) Roosevelt and a coterie of proshah officers plotted the overthrow of Mossadegh and the restoration of the monarch. The Eisenhower administration was convinced that, otherwise, Mossadegh would be replaced by a pro-Moscow government, a development it was determined to prevent.

The plot worked, for the Cia was not operating in a vacuum. With the figure of the time, Ayatollah Abol Ghassem Kashani, and other Moslem clergymen, street demonstrations were organized to call for the shah's return. Mossadegh was arrested, and the shah flew home to what he decribed in his autobiography as a "heartwarming and tumultuous welcome."

On his arrival in Tehran, he said, "Up to now I was a hereditary king. Now I am an elected king. By your actions, you have elected me."

But his brief exile was another harsh lesson for the shah. From 1954 on, he steadily sought to consolidate power and to avoid a repetition of the Mossadegh episode.

In 1956 the shah formed a secret police and intelligence agency, SAVAK, with the help from the CIA and Israeli intelligence. The aim was to combat the pro-Moscow Tudeh (Communist) Party, which had been declared illegal.

SAVAK soon became an instrument of generalized political repression and systematically employed arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture against opponents of the shah in Iran and pursued and monitored them abroad.

When, in 1963, the shah felt strong enough to proceed with a program of reforms he called the "White Revolution" (meaning noncommunist), new opposition flared against him, led this time by an implacable clergyman: Khomeini.

Khomeini opposed what he regareded as the shah's dictatorial rule and his growing disregard for the 1906 constitution, which provided for an independent parliament including a body of five clergymen with power to veto laws they found "un-Islamic."

Khomeini also railed from his pulpit in the holy city of Qom against a pact with the Untied States by which Iran waived jurisdiction for prosecution of any offenses committed by U.S. service men and their dependents. Khomeini also opposed a $200 million U.S. loan to Iran to buy military equipment and denounced the shah's friendly relations with Israel.

Although Khomeini denied opposing the shah's package of reforms -- including distribution of vast tracts of land to peasants and enfranchisement for women -- there is little doubt that Moslem clerical opposition to the shah was motivated in part by these considerations and by the prospect that the program would further strip them of power and influence in the countryside.

The crisis reached a climax in June 1963 when the shah's security forces arrested Khomeini in Qom, sparking antigovernment demonstrations in Tehran. The shah's troops brutally crushed the protests, firing on crowds and causing heavy casualties.

The shah sent Khomeini into exile, and the opposition seemed to have been broken. The monarch continued to strengthen his hand, but in doing so he became increasingly haughty and insulated from the population.

In 1967, the shah staged a lavish coronation ceremony in which, like his father, he formally crowned himself. To his title of "shahanshah" (king of kings), he added that of "aryamehr" (light of the Aryans). His Imperial Majesty, as he was officially called, also crowned his consort Empress Farah.

The shah previously had spruned such a coronation, in part because he lacked a son ahd heir to carry on his dynasty. His first marriage in 1939 to Princess Fawzia, a 17-year-old sister of Egypt's King Farouk, ended in divorce in 1948 ater one daughter, Shahnaz.

The shah's second marriage was in 1951 to Soraya Esfandiari, 19, the daughter of a West German woman and an Iranian tribal chieftain.

But Soraya, reputedly the great love of the shah's life, was unable to produce a child, and he divorced her in 1958. An imperial court statement at the time said the shah had "ignored his personal feelings for the sake of the nation's high-level interests."

Soon afterward, the shah met Farah Diba, a tall Iranian student of architecture in Paris. He married her on Dec. 21, 1959. She was 21; he was 40. On Oct. 31, 1960, she gave birth to the shah's long-awaited male heir, who was named Crown Prince Reza. Their other children are a daughter, Farahnaz, born in 1963, a son, Ali Reza, born in 1966, and a daughter, Leila, born in 1970.

By 1967, the shah seemed secure on his throne. He had survived the attempt in April 1965, when one of his Imperial Guards opened fire as the shah arrived at his office in a Tehran's Marmar Palace. The guard was killed by another guard, and 14 alleged conspirators were arrested for the plot, which was blamed on communists.

With the internal opposition to him now apparently dormant, the shah turned his attention to firmly establishing his dynasty. In 1971 he exceeded the display at his coronation with an extravagant celebration commemorating 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy dating back to Cyrus the Great.

"Rest in peace, Cyrus," he declared at the celebration, "for we are awake."

The extravagance provoked anti-shah rallies and demonstrations by Iranian students in dozens of countries abroad.

Despite the pomp and circumstances the shah used to try to glorify his reign, it was not until 1973 that he finally got the opportunity to pursue his dream of a "great civilization" and restore to Iran the greater glories of dynasties gone by.

Against the advice of some of the more cautious technocrats advising him, he immediately doubled the targets and expenditures in the country's five-year plan and embarked on a massive arms buildup that drained scarce human resources from the civilian sector.

The result was a growth rate exceeding 40 percent and a period of prosperity and enhanced international stature. This was accompanied by inflation, bottlenecks, rampant corruption and severe economic strain -- all of which were to take a toll.

Increasingly arrogant and self-assured, the shah could not be dissuaded from his expensive and eventually self-defeating course. He once told an interviewer, "I listen to what the technocrats have to say, then I do just the opposite."

By 1977 the shah was under some pressure to liberalize his regime in response to President Carter's human rights policy. It was not so much that the Carter administration forced him to loosen up, but rather that he realized the human rights issue was in vogue and that he would need to bow to it in order to keep the U.S. Congress in a mood to continue approving arms sales.

From the time that the CIA had worked to restore him to the throne, the United States and the shah had had a special relationship. In fact, the shah personally knew every U.S. president from Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he hosted along with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at the historic Tehran Conference during World War II, to Jimmy Carter.

On a tour of the Middle East in December 1977 and January 1978, Carter perpetuated his predecessor's policies toward the Iranian monarch by toasting him with effusive praise that later rebounded against the Carter administration with a vengeance.

Nine days after Carter's New Year's Eve toast, in which he praised the shah's Iran as an "island of stability," police opened fire on antigovernment demonstrators in the Iranian holy city of Qom, incurring the wrath of Shiite Moslem leadership in the country. In February 1978, protesters mourning the Qom shooting rioted in the northwestern city of Tabriz, and the shah's security forces again opened fire.

A cycle of protest and violence was under way that eventually would topple the monarchy. For the shah, however, preservering with his "liberalization" policy became both a point of honor and a dynastic necessity. Moreover, he felt capable of managing the opposition.

In June 1978, the shah still felt strong enough to declare: "Nobody can overthrow me. I have the support of 700,000 troops, all of the workers and most of the people. I have the power."

Nevertheless, the opposition snowballed until, by late summer 1978, it had reached the point of no return. The opposition could do no wrong, and the shah could do no right. When unknown arsonists set a theater fire in the southern city of Abadan that killed at least 377 persons on Aug. 20, 1978, Iranians blamed it on the shah's government.

A week later the shah appointed Jaafar Sharif-Emami to replace Jamshid Amouzegar as prime minister in a reformist move that was interpreted as a sign of weakness and guilt for the fire.

The shah tried to appease the opposition with such measures as amnesties of political prisoners and a purge of his secret police, SAVAK. He clearly did not want to plunge Iran into a huge bloodbath that would have done little more than buy him time.

He clung to the hope that at a later date power could be transferred peacefully to his son and the monarchy preserved. Perhaps mindful of his own difficult experience when acceding to the throne at age 21, he did not want his son to inherit a country that was like a pot ready to boil over.

Still, the shah had his pride. During a massive demonstration in early September 1978 calling for Khomeini's return from exile, some of the marchers chanted "Death to the shah!" It was a personal insult that the shah could not tolerate. He promptly banned further demonstrations, and on Sept. 8 martial law was declared in a dozen cities including Tehran. Demonstrators who tried to march that morning were gunned down by the Imperial Guards at Jaleh Square in east Tehran.

A little less than two months later, the Sharif-Emami government resigned after rioters burned or ransacked hundreds of buildings in Tehran. The shah appointed a military government led by Gen. Gholam Reza Azhari as prime minister, but continued trying to placate the opposition by sacrificing several high government officials. Former prime minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, former SAVAK chief Nematollah Nassiri and other officials were arrested. They were later executed when Khomeini came to power.

Neither appeasement nor the combination of a military government and martial law could stem the rising tide of demonstrations, riots and strikes, and the shah cast about for an "opposition" government he could live with. In late December, Shahpour Bakhtiar, leader of the opposition National Front political group, agreed to become prime minister under a new "constitutional monarchy" in which the shah would reign but not rule. On Jan. 3, 1979, the military government was dissolved, and Bakhtiar began forming a Cabinet.

However, it already was too late. A majority of Iranians, spurred by Khomeini, would settle for nothing less than the ouster of the shah and the abolition of the monarchy. With the situation deteriorating by the day the shah set Jan. 16, 1979, for his departure from Iran. He never returned. t

Even in exile, the shah refused to abdicate.