By Abbas Milani
(Palgrave Macmillan, 496 pages, $18 paperback edition)
The Islamic Republic of Iran has elected a “moderate” successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, infamous for his threat-laced apocalyptic rhetoric. All the candidates naturally had been screened by Iran’s ruling clerics, who have iron-fistedly retained power remarkably now for 34 years, since the Ayatollah Khomeini chased the Shah from power in an Islamist revolution.
The world is still grappling with the consequences Iran’s fall into a theocratic police state. There is of course Iran’s nuclear program and professed genocidal ambitions. But more widely, the Iranian Revolution presaged and arguably ignited the global rise of radical Islam. The negative shift of some Arab Spring revolts, especially the Muslim Brotherhood’s displacement of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, was also perhaps foreshadowed by the Shah’s overthrow.
Abbas Milani’s superb recent biography of the Shah tells much of the story. Contrary to Islamist and leftist lore, the Shah was not unilaterally restored to power in 1953 by a CIA coup with British help. Kermit Roosevelt, the CIA’s man in Iran at the time, was happy to accept credit, adding to his legendary name and enabling years of commercial interests with the Shah’s regime. But the erratic Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a secular nationalist trying to depose the constitutional monarch, self destructed by simultaneously scaring the army, business interests and religious clerics back into the young Shah’s arms. Supporting the Shah’s return was a fifty something year old Khomeini, disturbed like others by Mossadegh’s support by Iran’s Soviet supported communist Tudeh Party.
The Shah, who professed to be a believing Muslim and an instrument of God despite his imbibing, womanizing, and affinity for Western culture, thereafter saw clerics as allies. The Tudeh, along with nationalists, were the main threat to his power, he thought, even until his death after his second and final exile, when he imagined that Khomeini was a Soviet tool. Though he was not a particularly cruel or indecent man by historic standards, the hundreds of political opponents executed by his regime across nearly forty years are a fraction of the butcher rate of his Islamist successors. His regime was religiously tolerant, relatively friendly to women’s rights, and during its early years paid lip service to democracy.
There was also growing wealth thanks to oil and industrialization, amid fantastic increases in both education and living standards. The Shah, engorged by petro dollars and well armed by the U.S. (although never as much as he wished), became grandiosely over-confident and politically delusional. Surrounded by yes men, and distracted by cancer, he made notoriously bad decisions throughout his final decade, including creation of one party rule. He had encouraged and subsidized the clergy while inhibiting the creation of secular civil society that might have favored democracy and perhaps a constitutional monarch.
Jimmy Carter’s Administration became the Shah’s chief enabler towards political suicide, pushing him into ostensible human rights reforms from, by then in the late 1970s, a position of weakness. The Shah’s retreats, which included the arrests of faithful allies, emboldened his Islamist enemies while discouraging his supporters and moderate opponents, including moderate clergy who rightly feared Khomeini. One prime minister, explaining the regime’s self-destructively ending subsidies for clergy, which further pushed them towards the Ayatollah, claims the cutoff was ordered by President Carter.
The demise of Carter and the Shah are inextricably linked. The Carter appointed U.S. ambassador to Iran cluelessly believed that rule by Khomeini would be stabilizing. In the end, the Shah was discouraged away from a military crackdown for which some generals pleaded, and encouraged to quit the country. One candidate for prime minister, although a longtime opponent, pleaded for the Shah to remain, knowing the army and security services would melt away in his absence. Often passive, and inclined to retreat when under pressure, while also excessively emotionally dependent on U.S. favor (he was actually giddy after a phone call from Carter), the Shah foolishly ignored the pleas.
Unlike far more hideous despots who have lived lavishly and unmolested in long exiles, such as Idi Amin, Emperor Bokassa, Mengistu Haile Mariam, or Baby Doc Duvalier, the Shah was permitted no rest during his ailing year of remaining life. Former allies like Britain and Germany would not welcome him, and Morocco pushed him out after a brief sojourn. Mexico tolerated him briefly, as did Panama. All succumbed to fear of the new Islamic Republic of Iran, bristling with oil and terror. Even the U.S. surrendered to Iranian pressure, exacerbated by the Iranian invasion and one-year occupation of the U.S. Embassy. Only Egypt’s Anwar Sadat boldly welcomed the Shah, personally greeting him at the airport with military honors. Tearfully and apologetically the Shah told Sadat: “I have done nothing for you.” Besides being classy, Sadat wanted to demonstrate resolve against Islamists both in Iran and Egypt. For his courage, Sadat was assassinated one year after presiding over the Shah’s funeral in 1980.
Carter in 1977 had spent New Year’s Eve with the Shah in Iran, explaining in his toast: “I asked my wife, ‘With whom would you like to spend New Year’s Eve?’ And she said, ‘Above all others, I think, with the Shah and Empress Farah.’ So we arranged the trip accordingly and came to be with you.” Carter added: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” Turning to his host, Carter gushed: “This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you.”
When pressed to allow the dying monarch into the U.S. for medical care in 1979, Carter snapped to his National Security Advisor: “F–k the Shah.” The Iranian hostage crisis temporarily uplifted Carter in public opinion with an upsurge in patriotism, helping Carter stave off Teddy Kennedy in the Democratic presidential primaries. But the ongoing humiliation helped to ensure his ultimate defeat by Ronald Reagan.
Maybe the Shah will be remembered as a sort Czar Nicholas, fecklessly facilitating a murderous revolution that would threaten the whole world for decades. The biographer, Milani, was himself briefly a political prisoner under the Shah, sharing cells with later henchmen of the Islamist regime. He quickly fled back to the U.S. when he could, surely knowing his fate under the new theocratic police state would be far worse. His book is an excellent aid to understanding where Iran was as a preamble to where it is and tragically where other majority Muslim nations under Islamist threat may be.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons