By Abbas Milani
Palgrave MacMillan, $30, 441 pages
Abbas Milani has taken on a hard task: to explain how and why the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919-1980) in Iran came to an inglorious and messy end. Mr. Milani has done well, considering the complex causal chain that had its roots in time before the shah’s life and whose puzzling consequences still are ongoing.
The shah’s rule was a personal and national tragedy in which one can see various points at which disaster might have been avoided. It is the story of a potentially transformational ruler, his hopes for his country and his bitter disappointment, the latter partly from his personal flaws but mainly from the collision of modernization with deeply rooted cultural and religious fundamentalism.
The collapse of a regime can rarely be explained in a wholly objective way. What actions might have been taken - and were not - is hard to capture, and personalities play an important role. In the present case personalities, and objective events are fully explored. The reader is nearly buried in detail, yet all of it is helpful to understanding.
In a brilliant touch, through chapter headnotes, the author suggests an interesting parallel with the British sovereign Richard II, a youthful and intelligent monarch who set his country on a promising path but lost his crown through a personal example of gaudy luxury, self-indulgence and an ill-considered military adventure out of the country.
Like Richard, the shah was the son of a strong ruler, a compelling role model for a son who lacked his father’s brute power and command instinct. Like Richard, the shah was hesitant when the occasion called for action, arrogant and impulsive when the occasion called for reflection, and was surrounded by sycophants whose advice served their own agenda.
As we all know, the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah coincided with the rise of Iran as an oil-rich kingdom long dominated by Britain. But Britain’s control of the oil resources ended after World War II. This was the work of the shah’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, a nationalistic leader who sought to cut the bonds to Britain without letting populism get out of hand.
Fearful that Mossadeq was in league with the communist Tudeh Party, the British, the American CIA and Iranian opponents of Mossadeq managed a coup in 1953, which removed Mossadeq and restored the shah to full personal rule. A Russian effort to subvert Azerbaijan was headed off by U.S. help in the United Nations, and the shah seemed, for a time, to be on track to carry out a long-term modernization program without major distractions.
This prospect was clouded, however, by the political opposition of ambitious expatriates and a cleverly concealed subversion by conservative clergy, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who built a formidable following among the clerics and liberal opponents of imperial rule. A dramatic drop in oil prices cut the ground from beneath the modernization programs, and a huge arms procurement - pre-empting roughly twice the normal percentage of gross national product (GNP) that major powers spent - cut heavily into social assistance.
The war with Iraq cost the shah dearly in the national standard of living and in the temper of the people and the opposition. The 1961 school strike was not well-handled. The 1971 extravaganza in Persepolis celebrating 2,500 years of the Persian empire was badly managed; the runaway cost was criticized sharply, and most heads of government and state declined the invitation. Khomeini (from Paris) called it “the devil’s festival” and urged a boycott of the event.
It is not clear whether the shah might have prevented the return of Khomeini and held out against the resident clergy without a civil war. By the late 1970s, GNP growth had fallen to 2.8 percent, inflation was substantial, and crisis was in the air. The shah was ill, of no mind to assume direct military rule and confused by conflicting advice. Western opinion was pretty much agreed that Iran was falling apart. The shah’s semivoluntary exile and humiliating search for a country of residence (finally Egypt) makes for depressing reading.
Abbas Milani’s “The Shah” is likely to be the definitive biography of his subject, judging from the plethora of sources, notes, interviews and correspondence. The reader may find the detail formidably dense, but the scholarship is impressive.
David C. Acheson is a retired foreign-policy analyst in Washington.
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