Accessibility links

New Biography Of Shah Of Iran Feels Oddly Contemporary

  • Christian Caryl

The Shah by Abbas Milani

The Shah by Abbas Milani

Imagine the following scenario: A Middle Eastern autocrat rules his country for decades with an iron fist. He wins the esteem of the West nonetheless for his success at providing his country with the fruits of progress in an otherwise dysfunctional region. He’s staunchly secular, with a credible record on the promotion of literacy and women’s rights.

Okay, so he’s not much of a democrat. But there’s something to be said for stability, isn’t there? Until one day, after decades of rule, he’s toppled by a revolution that rises up from the streets and sweeps him away – leaving all the experts flummoxed.

So much for Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian strongman recently forced to flee his country by a grassroots uprising that seems to have caught just about everyone except the demonstrators by surprise. Yet pretty much the same thing has happened before – 32 years ago in Iran, when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi lost his grip on the Peacock Throne and abandoned his country to the tender graces of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Strangely Resonant

If, like me, you’ve just read “The Shah,” Abbas Milani’s new biography of the hapless Iranian monarch, the flood of revolutionary images pouring out of Tunisia and Egypt -- and Jordan and Yemen as well -- will seem strangely resonant. In some ways we saw it all before in 1979, when the collapse of the shah’s regime utterly transformed the Middle East in ways that we have yet, perhaps, to fully comprehend.

Milani’s own biography provides him with an intriguing perspective. An Iranian-American scholar once sentenced to prison under the monarchy, he spent his time in jail with several future luminaries of the Islamic republic. After the revolution he ran into political trouble again, this time with the mullahs, and finally chose emigration in 1986. Perhaps as a result of that checkered past, he views both sides with skepticism, which he buttresses, in this book, with a generous helping of fresh research.

Milani’s impartiality is vital precisely because the shah remains such a polarizing figure among Iranians both inside and outside the country. Many of the shah’s defenders continue to lionize him as a tragic hero who was determined to push Iran into the modern world and ended up paying the price for his efforts. His detractors portray him as a demonic mastermind, a dictator hell-bent on exterminating the country’s very sense of self. The two sides have more in common than they are willing to admit. As one Iranian blogger was recently compelled to note: “The truth is that we haven’t yet determined our feelings about the family of the shah and his legacy.”

Milani explains why the monarch continues to haunt his countrymen. The big theme of the story is modernization. The shah’s father, Reza Pahlavi, was an army officer who heaved himself onto the throne through sheer ruthlessness. He was an admirer of Kemal Ataturk’s reforms in neighboring Turkey, and like his role model he aimed to wrench his reluctant countrymen into the 20th century by pushing Islam out of the business of state.

Main Danger From The Left

His son – who became king when his father was ousted by occupying British and Soviet forces during World War II – accepted the thrust of that argument but modified it in some crucial ways. The new shah firmly believed that the main danger to his rule came from the left – the populist National Front of Mohammad Mossadeq and the powerful Tudeh Party, the vehicle of Iran’s well-organized communists. The CIA-orchestrated coup that toppled Mossadeq in 1953 got one of those obstacles out of the way. But how to cope with the revolutionary left?

The shah’s answer was based on two strategies. First, create a highly efficient secret police, known as SAVAK, which could conduct a political war against the communist penetration of society. (The Israelis and the Americans were happy to help.) Second, poach from the far-left playbook by conducting a broad program of social reforms. (Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were happy to nudge the shah down this track as well, though Milani believes that he had perfectly good reasons of his own for pushing ahead with his plans.)

'Essence Of Reaction?'

In 1963, the shah launched his White Revolution, an ambitious package of land reform, literacy campaigns, and female suffrage. He seems to have taken it all quite seriously. When an article in “The New York Times” compared him with France’s Louis XIV, the shah reacted indignantly: “He was the essence of reaction, and I am a revolutionary leader.”

To some extent he was right. The number of schools and universities in Iran shot up. Industry expanded dramatically. Women moved into professions they had never dreamed about entering before. Foreign experts flocked into the country, and the outward manifestations of Westernization – from casinos to KFC – became impossible to overlook.

And, of course, one of the modernization program’s most far-reaching effects was the way it curtailed the traditional religious establishment’s control over schools, courts, and lucrative charitable foundations. Some clerics protested; the most vocal of them was a firebrand by the name of Khomeini. The shah rewarded him with arrest and exile.

But most of the mullahs went along – perhaps because the shah was willing to grant them other favors in return, as long as they refrained from politics. Unlike his father, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi believed the clerics could prove useful allies in his long-term project to defend his regime against the radical left, whom he continued to view as his primary domestic enemy well into the 1970s.

Military Was The Pillar

The main pillar of his regime, though, was the military. As petrodollars began to flood into the Iranian economy, the shah spent dizzying amounts on the latest weapons. The Nixon administration, which had chosen him as its Cold War proxy in the Persian Gulf, was happy to indulge him.

Yet his ambitious program of social transformation had consequences the shah failed to foresee. Booming cities lured millions of peasants into shantytowns where, more often than not, mosques were the only sources of continuity. Those schools and universities churned out plenty of technocrats – but also legions of would-be revolutionaries.

The surge in oil revenues undermined traditional interests, like the powerful class of bazaar merchants, and ultimately caused the economy to overheat, bringing yet more dislocation and shock. Nor did the all-too-visible corruption of the elite help to endear the monarchy to ordinary Iranians.

The shah might have been able to pull it off had he boasted the personality and the nationalist bona fides of Ataturk, who used his track record as the leader of Turkey’s War of Independence from the Western colonial powers to legitimize his own program of radical reforms. Alas, the shah was made of thinner stuff. When times were good, he was happy to take all the credit for Iran’s apparent progress. When crises came, he tended to duck, blaming grandiose conspiracies for anything that was going wrong.

Right up until his departure in January 1979, Milani notes, the shah was accusing the United States and Great Britain of instigating the turmoil on Iran’s streets; he never accepted the reality that his own people were rejecting his rule. Part of the problem was that the revolution struck not long after he had been diagnosed with cancer. The illness only compounded his usual indecisiveness. The consequences, in a political system where everything revolved around one man, were predictably catastrophic.

Those non-Iranians who still remember the shah might think of him primarily as a living symbol of petrodollar excess who hoarded rare cars and flew his own planes. That was true enough. But, as Milani shows, the reality is far more tragic. The man who set out to transform Iran succeeded – and ended up becoming his own worst enemy in the process. His country is still struggling to come to terms with the aftereffects.

Christian Caryl is RFE/RL's chief editor in Washington and a contributing editor to "Foreign Policy"

Show comments