- - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE FALL OF HEAVEN: THE PAHLAVIS AND THE FINAL DAYS OF IMPERIAL IRAN

By Andrew Scott Cooper

Henry Holt, $36, 587 pages

Agrand irony of the Islamic world is that most of the places pointed to as shining examples of high Muslim civilization were formed by centuries of pre-Islamic culture. Moorish Spain had been a center of ancient Roman civilization long before invading Arabs seized it at sword’s point. Tunisia was the site of Rome’s greatest rival, Carthage. Lebanon and its environs were once home to the ancient Phoenicians. Iraq’s pre-Islamic history goes back as far as ancient Babylon, Egypt’s to the age of Pharaohs.

Present-day Iran is successor state to the ancient Persian Empire, arguably the world’s first superpower and a center of high culture, political sophistication, advanced commerce and a remarkable system of underground irrigation. Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the late — and probably last — Shah of Iran, dreamed of restoring some of that ancient greatness to a country that had grown weak, backward and impoverished under centuries of decadent rulers who crushed their own subjects while being bullied and despoiled by stronger neighbors.

As its title suggests, Andrew Scott Cooper’s “Fall of Heaven” deals in greatest detail with the events leading up to the shah’s downfall and exile in 1979. But it is also the story of his reign and that of his father, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, woven into the greater fabric of modern Iranian history. Mr. Cooper’s work is thoroughly researched and documented; it is also highly readable and does justice to the tragic grandeur of his subject.

But maybe I’m a bit biased. While only peripherally, my own family has crossed paths with Pahlavi-era Iran on at least three occasions over the last hundred years. A close friend of my paternal grandmother’s, Margaret Windom, traveled to Iran with her liberated, globe-trotting mother during the last years of the old Qajar monarchy immediately after World War I. She remembered the imposing figure of a sergeant in the elite regiment of Persian Cossacks who frequently visited a friend (her mother’s cook) at their villa in Tehran. The sergeant later rose to command his regiment, then seized power as prime minister, displaced the last Qajar shah and ultimately placed the crown on his own head. His son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, is the hero/victim of “The Fall of Heaven.” Then, circa 1960, as a prep school boy with a crush on a beautiful young co-ed at Georgetown University, I encountered a rather oily, Casanova-manque by the name of Sadegh Ghotzbadegh; he was also pursuing her, though neither of us caught her. Mr. Ghotzbadegh, a perennial graduate student, fancied himself a left-wing revolutionary as well as a ladies’ man. I used to refer to him as “Goat’s Body.” He would later latch onto Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and become his foreign minister before falling into disfavor and receiving a probably well-earned death sentence.

Finally, I still have an unopened magnum of Dom Perignon, complete with the shah’s imperial emblem, that was given to me by Ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi, his able, longtime emissary in Washington, for my emceeing an Iranian Night at the National Press Club in the mid-‘70s. (I told Mr. Zahedi at the time that I preferred the legendary wines of Shiraz, to which, ever the Europhile, he replied, “The wines of Shiraz give me a headache.”)

For almost four decades, while simultaneously contending with ruthless internal enemies, a hostile Russia, and bullying proconsular “friends” like Britain and the United States, the shah desperately strove to bring education, prosperity, emancipation of women, and modern medical care to his people. While his security forces intimidated, jailed and sometimes executed political opponents — especially active terrorists in the Communist underground — his reign saw serious land reform, the creation of a vastly expanded and better educated middle class, equal rights for women and more press and academic freedom by far than in the much bloodier and more repressive rule of the mullahs following his departure. That departure did not take place because the shah was a ruthless tyrant. More Hamlet than Macbeth, he refused to use military force, of which he still had plenty, against his own people, be they ever so misguided.

Most of what is right about Iran today can be traced to surviving strands of its ancient culture and the great strides toward modernization under the shah; most of what is wrong is the direct result of Khomeini and his mixed following of fanatics, opportunists and xenophobes. It will probably have turned to vinegar by then, but I hope one day to uncork that magnum of the shah’s Dom Perignon to toast the return of a civilized, post-revolutionary Iran embodying his nobler aspirations, minus their silly, tinsel trappings.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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