She was 90 and had lymphoma, said her daughter Mitra Jordan.
Ms. Farman Farmaian had lived in Los Angeles since the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Western-backed shah, in 1979. In a widely read memoir, “Daughter of Persia” (1992), she wrote that she narrowly escaped execution after being denounced for her progressive social work, which included the establishment of family-planning clinics across Iran and a pioneering social work school in the capital.
By the time of her exile, Ms. Farman Farmaian had “single-handedly . . . changed the notion of prostitution” in Iran, said Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, the director of the Roshan Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland. Before her work, he said, the country “tended to look down on prostitutes, blaming single individuals and not knowing . . . how these women might be trapped.”
Ms. Farman Farmaian was a powerful and, in some ways, unexpected heroine of the Iranian underclass. She was one of three dozen children born to a prominent prince in the Qajar dynasty that ruled Iran for more than a century. The dynasty came to an end when Reza Khan (later Reza Shah Pahlavi) staged a coup d’etat in 1921 — the year of Ms. Farman Farmaian’s birth.
The upheaval meant the end of her family’s formal authority but not its influence in Iranian high society. Ms. Farman Farmaian grew up in her father’s harem in Tehran, a milieu with its 1,000 servants, opulent gardens and shimmering pools that recalled the stories of “The Thousand and One Nights.”
Despite the prince’s reputed brutality — legend has it that he once gouged out the eyes of a thousand sparrows to intimidate an enemy — he encouraged a worldly education for his children, including his daughters. Ms. Farman Farmaian attended an American Presbyterian school, where she sweated in her Girl Scout uniform in the Iranian heat.
Because of the coming and going at her father’s compound, she came to know the poor, including the prostitutes frequented by many prominent Iranian men. During a school outing at 18, she had an epiphany.
“All at once I realized what I must have known forever,” she wrote in her memoir. “That I must have more education, that whatever else happened to me, to serve Iran and its people was my destiny.”
Ms. Farman Farmaian persuaded her family to allow her to enroll at the University of Southern California during World War II — an almost unheard of undertaking for a young Iranian woman of her generation. She received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1946 and a master’s degree in social work in 1948.
In 1958, when she returned to Iran, she opened and became the first director of the Tehran School of Social Work. She had to create a Farsi word for “social worker,” she wrote in her memoir, because no such term existed. In addition to training students in the field, the school built community welfare clinics dedicated to literacy, child care and women’s health.
Ms. Farman Farmaian also founded the Family Planning Association of Iran with assistance from the organization that is now Pathfinder International, according to an archive of her papers at Harvard University. Her organizations began their work with prostitutes, Karimi-Hakkak said, but gradually grew to encompass the poor and women across the country.
Much of this work was made possible by her prominence and connection to powerful Iranian leaders, including Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and the Empress Farah, who offered financial support to the welfare clinics built by Ms. Farman Farmaian’s school.
Reviews of her memoir, which was written with Dona Munker, describe the book as “riveting” and “beautifully written.” But they note Ms. Farman Farmaian’s apparent naivete about the social unrest that led to the Islamic revolution, the overthrow of the shah in 1979 and her ultimate return to the United States.
She described feeling betrayed by her country but wrote that “if I had it to do all over again, I would.”
Sattareh Farman Farmaian was born Dec. 23, 1921, in what she described as the “rose perfumed” city of Shiraz. Her first attempt to study abroad, during World War II, ended when her ship was torpedoed by the Japanese en route to the United States. She tried again months later and arrived in Los Angeles on Independence Day 1944.
Before returning to Iran in 1958, she worked for about a decade in Los Angeles as a social worker and, later, for the United Nations in Iraq, where she sought to resettle nomadic tribes.
Her marriage to Arun Chaudhuri, a film student she met at the University of Southern California, ended in divorce. Survivors include her daughter, Mitra Jordan of Bellevue, Wash.; two grandchildren; and many brothers and sisters.