The tragedy of the shah | March 2, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- March 2, 2012

The tragedy of the shah

Biography paints a vivid portrait of the man whose legacy still haunts Iran

by Gennady Sheyner

"The Shah" by Abbas Milani; Palgrave Macmillan, New York; 488 pp.; $30

The last shah of Iran was a man full of flaws and contradictions. Constantly embattled, proud and paranoid, he defied the great Western powers by pursuing a nuclear program and flirting with the Soviet Union while maintaining a deeply crippling image of a puppet pulled by British and American strings.

All these qualities are brought to life in "The Shah," a sweeping and timely biography by Stanford University scholar Abbas Milani. In his highly readable account, Milani traces the shah's rise to the throne, his efforts to modernize Iran, his battles against nationalists and mullahs and his downfall in 1979 in the midst of what Milani calls "the perfect storm." Through a combination of interviews and analysis of previously classified documents, Milani paints a vivid picture of the man whose outsized legacy continues to haunt Iranian life and shape American foreign policy.

"The Shah" is loaded with allusions to Shakespeare. Milani begins every chapter with a quote, mostly from "Richard II," and in the book's conclusion calls the shah "a tragic figure" in the classical sense. The shah, in his account, is "a hare pretending to roar like a lion." He is like Othello, Milani writes, in that he had loved his nation "not wisely but too well."

The analogy is a bit of a stretch. Shakespeare's tragic heroes are typically noble characters marred by a fatal flaw — Hamlet's hesitation, Macbeth's ambition, Othello's jealousy. The shah in Milani's majestic portrayal seems to encapsulate all these flaws and then some. As the forces gather against him in the late 1970s, the shah comes off as proud, stubborn, paranoid, politically tone deaf and, above all, indecisive. In his final years, he is a fugitive without a country, like Lear, a "poor old man, as full of grief as age, wretched in both." But throughout his turbulent 37-year reign, the shah is far too human to be a tragic hero.

The reign looked doomed from the start. He was born Mohammad Reza, the son of soldier Reza Khan, in 1919, a period during which Iran was dominated by warlords and competing designs from foreign powers. Britain controlled the political establishment; communism was on the rise; and British, Russian and German troops occupied parts of the nation.

In February 1921, Khan and an Anglophile journalist, Sayyed Zia, led a coup against the weak and corrupt Qajar royal family. Before long, Khan turned against Zia, sent him into exile, ascended to the prime minister's post and adopted the name "Pahlavi," which refers to a pre-Islamic language. Four years later, he prodded Iran's parliament to officially abolish the recently deposed dynasty and name him the new king, giving him control of the army. His son Mohammad was named crown prince at the ripe age of 6.

Even in childhood, the future shah exhibited the flaws that would later undermine him, including a flashy temper. Sent to Switzerland for his education, the Crown Prince was reportedly expelled from the first school he attended after giving himself "airs such as his schoolmates could not endure," according to a report from the British Consulate. He went on to study at Le Rosey, a school dominated by sons of politicians and businessmen. It was there that he would meet Ernest Perron, an eccentric Catholic who would later play the role of Falstaff to the shah's Prince Hal.

During his two decades in power, Reza Khan feuded with the clerics and pursued an aggressive modernization campaign, transforming Tehran from a sprawling village surrounded by a moat to a city of tree-lined boulevards and streets arranged in a "linear, rational grid." He stripped away the clergy's control of the judiciary and education systems, and banned a traditional form of Shiite Islam mourning.

But it was ultimately foreign powers rather than the mullahs' ire that prompted his ouster. His attempt to stay out of World War II floundered as Germany, the Soviet Union and Britain all lobbied for his support. The Soviet Union and Britain also had their eyes on Iran's oil reserves — a resource that fueled both Iran's economic expansion and foreign meddling in its affairs.

Reza Khan's reign began to implode in August 1941 when British and Soviet forces, concerned about the Nazi threat in Iran, invaded the nation. In weeks, the power structure evaporated and Iran's "much-vaunted, much-feared Iranian military collapsed in panic around the country," Milani writes. Reza Shah abdicated his throne and his recently married son, viewed by the foreign powers as the least bad option for succession, became the shah.

Reza Khan died in exile in South Africa. Those who saw him, Milani writes, "describe a broken man, bereft of any desire to live."

In turn, the conditions of his son's rise to power shaped his reign. The shah, Milani writes, seemed to have "internalized the idea that big powers, particularly Britain, Russia and America, could do anything in Iran, and that in fact nothing would happen in the country without their overt approval or their covert intrigue."

Milani adds, "His own thirty-seven-year reign was haunted, even deformed, by this conviction."

Much like his father, the shah would spend much of his reign battling nationalist, Islamist and Communist opposition at home and resisting the pervasive influence of foreign powers. Though he shared his father's appetite for modernization and desire for industrial might, he eschewed his father's opposition to religion and portrayed himself as a pious Muslim.

Milani writes that his book "fills a gaping hole in understanding and demonstrates that character is destiny, not just for the Shah, but for determining the fate of every policy, both American and Iranian." The first part of this claim is certainly true. His detailed account of the CIA's involvement in deposing the shah's political rival, Mohammad Mossadeq, and his invaluable insights into Iran's nuclear ambitions go a long way toward helping us understand today's Iran. But it's far less clear whether it was the shah's character or the precarious context of 20th-century Iran that determined his fall.

The shah's paranoia was often justified. He survived several assassination attempts (including one in which a bullet entered his cheek, took out his front teeth and exited from his upper lip) and political coups. He had to constantly balance British ambitions for Iranian oil and the effort by Mossadeq, a skilled parliamentarian, to nationalize the oil industry. He was challenged by the communist Tudeh Party from one side and by mullahs from the other. He was warding off KGB spies and holding clandestine meetings with CIA operatives who thought they knew what was best for Iran. And while he spent much of his reign playing political Whac-A-Mole with a long succession of prime ministers, his political rivals were often corrupt or ambitious enough to warrant his wrath.

It was his fierce power struggle with his prime minister, Mossadeq, that caused the most damage to the shah's reputation. The beleaguered shah was in Baghdad on Aug. 19, 1953, when crowds of pro-shah protesters gathered around Tehran's ministries and the national radio began to air royalist speeches. Mossadeq tried to disperse the crowd, but was told that soldiers were no longer obeying orders to oppose demonstrators. Mossadeq was politically doomed. He went into exile.

The shah's victory proved to be a Pyrrhic one. As Milani illustrates, the United States and Britain both took part in the effort to overthrow Mossadeq. The CIA was determined to depose Mossadeq and apparently provided material support for the operation. Though the extent of this involvement remains a fuzzy subject, it was substantial enough for U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to issue an apology in 2000 and acknowledge that the United States "played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular Prime Minister."

Milani writes that in retrospect, there "seems little doubt that while the Shah won the battle on August 19, he might well have lost the war.

"Much anecdotal evidence indicates that, in the collective memory of the nation, after that August the Shah never shook off the tainted reputation of being a puppet — a ruler forcefully restored to the throne by foreign powers."

His personal conduct further eroded his image. He remarried several times, amassed a personal fortune, oversaw the rise of Iran's feared spy agency and, in 1971, staged an over-the-top celebration of 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran. The event took place in a tent city and included a six-course dinner flown in from Paris. His extravagance did little to assuage the anger of the nation's increasingly vociferous mullahs and its newly minted middle class.

Even the shah's success in expanding Iran's economy came with unintended and devastating consequences. Paul Begala's famous bumper-sticker dictum "It's the economy, stupid" might work in United States, but things were far more complex in 1970s Tehran, where the bazaars were teeming with Ayatollah's men.

Milani cites Qassem Lajevardi, a senator and industry titan, who described on the Senate floor the contradiction inherent in the shah's authoritarian drive toward modernization. Lejavardi observed that "the more (the shah) won his battles with oil companies and increased Iran's revenue, the more these petrodollars helped create and train a larger and larger technocratic middle class, the more he promised the people standards of living higher than those of Japan or Germany, the more these impressive accomplishments convinced him of his global importance — the more he inadvertently prepared the conditions of his own downfall."

"The middle classes he helped create wanted democracy, and the hubris of his increasing authoritarianism made them increasingly uneasy," Milani writes.

This passage is one of many in the book that seem eerily relevant today, as one Middle Eastern regime is besieged by democratic movements and as Israel debates whether to attack Iran to delay its nuclear ambitions. These ambitions, Milani shows, are far from new. In 1974, the shah told the French newspaper Le Monde that one day, "sooner than is believed," the nation would be "in possession of a nuclear bomb."

The shah comes off in Milani's account as a man who is always struggling, and usually failing, to meet the world's lofty expectations.

As protests mounted and foreign powers began to doubt the shah, he became more authoritarian but less decisive. He flirted with the idea of creating a legitimate opposition party, then changed his mind, disbanded all parties and created a one-party system based around the new Resurgence Party. By this point, he was too proud to relinquish his power but too weak to command the increasingly educated and middle-class nation. Even his followers mocked the new party.

In 1978, the shah decided to install a military government but then undermined this effort by appointing timid jurists to the military cabinet. He famously insisted that his rule should not be criticized but then told the opposition in one of his final speeches that he had "heard the voice of your revolution" before acknowledging his mistakes and pledging to rule according to the constitution.

As Iran's mullahs, nationalists and bourgeois leaders rose against him, the shah seemed unable to decide whether to crush or appease the opposition. Ayatollah Khomeini, who had been issuing virulent proclamations against the shah throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, stepped into the void and became the "de facto leader of the amorphous democratic movement." Masses demonstrated against the shah and, with Western support flagging, the suddenly weak leader was forced to flee Iran.

In January 1979, he was a lonely chessboard king, jumping from square to square — New York, Mexico, Panama, Egypt — and getting checked at every turn. Like father, like son.

"The Shah" is both an eye-opening look at a fascinating historical figure and a cautionary tale for American policymakers. In his epilogue, Milani cites the book's four "critical lessons" for the United States. America could have done a better job studying the shah's intense negotiations with the West over Iran's nuclear program, he writes, and it could have used these negotiations to knock down allegations from Iran's clerics that the United States and the shah were completely in alignment.

The book also intends to show the nature of the coalition that ultimately succeeded in deposing the shah and to show that "the interests of the of the United States and Iran are both better served when the United States supports the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people."

The story of the shah, however, illustrates that the fourth lesson can be a double-edged sword. Democracy, while easy to support in theory, can become a Pandora's box when the nature of future leaders is so murky. So it was in 1978 and 1979, when leaders in America and elsewhere deluded themselves into seeing Khomeini as a potential liberal and tacitly approved his rise to power.

The book also shows how easily history can repeat itself. In October 1979, as the shah was getting treated for cancer in New York Hospital, a group of Islamist students representing all major universities in Tehran gathered in a small house to plot a takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Among those at the first meeting, Milani notes, is a "young man from a third-tier technical university called Elm-o Sanat (Science and Technology)." His name was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and these days, he is as keen on obtaining a nuclear weapon and suppressing dissidents as the shah he so despised. The connection isn't lost on Milani.

"Events since Iran's June 2009 contested election have shown that the same coalition (that deposed the shah) is the backbone of the movement now challenging clerical despotism in Iran," he writes. "Future American policy must take into consideration the continued power and relevance of this democratic coalition in determining Iran's future."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at