The king and I

The last Shah of Iran was bundled out of power in 1979 by one of the shaping events of modern history. Yet an engaging new biography by a monarchist insider is blind to its deepest causes and consequences
February 28, 2009

Towards the end of Gholam Reza Afkhami's new biography of Iran's last Shah, he describes the deposed monarch—in exile after the Iranian revolution of 1979—undergoing chemotherapy in the Bahamas. Mohammad Reza Shah, we learn, became increasingly depressed; he took little interest in his surroundings and was often "drowned" in his own thoughts, "trying to reason out why things had gone so unexpectedly wrong."

Afkhami, who served as Iran's deputy minister of the interior under the Shah, writes well and makes use of interviews with many significant actors in the history of the Shah's reign—much of which is quite new. One example is the testimony of Shaban Jafari "Bimokh" (literally, "the brainless"): a bazaar gang leader who had been thought previously to have been a significant figure in the street demonstrations that brought down Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953, but who seems on his own testimony to have been in jail at the crucial juncture. Afkhami covers all of the important events and personalities, and adds many personal touches. But his account also has some flaws, and tends to favour description and narrative over analysis. And like the Shah in exile, the reader ends up with no clear or satisfying explanation for why the monarchy fell.

For some Iranians, the revolution presented quite unexpected and unparalleled opportunities; for others, it brought death, exile, impoverishment, loss of dignity or imprisonment. As a result, 30 years on, Iranian opinions remain strongly polarised. Afkhami himself follows a critical but straightforwardly monarchist line. This probably means he was able to gather more material from personalities close to the former Shah (including former Queen Farah) than would otherwise have been possible—and some degree of sympathy with one's subject is almost indispensable for the author of a good biography. But if the biography is not simply a hagiography—the Shah's "outings" with prostitutes flown out to him from Paris by Madame Claude get their mention—the monarchist position does limit the author's perspective. Afkhami tries to defend the lavish celebrations for the 2,500th anniversary of the Iranian monarchy in 1971 as a success, where for most they instead demonstrate the Shah's failure to connect with his own people. Afkhami gives a fair account of the activities of Savak, the Shah's secret police, but then lamely concludes that the Shah did not really know about their worst abuses and had not sanctioned them. Similarly, we read that the Shah urged his troops to be "gentle" in their application of martial law as the demonstrations of 1978 grew in intensity and violence; this meant that the number of people killed was lower than often claimed—possibly less than 1,000.

There may be justice in some of these revisions, but the overall result is that the central question of the Shah's fall is left in the air. As Afkhami describes him, the Shah was a good, humane, judicious ruler. His reforms were rational and quite successful. So what went wrong? All that remains by way of explanation is the vague plotting of "Islamists" and a kind of mass psychosis or death-wish (Afkhami's earlier book on the Iranian revolution carried the sub-title "Thanatos on a national scale").

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The problem of understanding the events of the Shah's reign is best thought of as a tale of two rival narratives. According to the first of these, Iran's story before 1979 was one of westernisation: of national development and material progress based on a western model, albeit adorned with the magnificent paraphernalia of an ancient oriental monarchy. From this perspective, which was the Shah's, the enemies to be subdued were primarily the communists (against whom Savak were largely successful by the late 1970s). It wasn't just the Shah who believed this. His thinking reflected the west's expectations, before 1979, of the whole middle east. The region—it was felt—was backward, had made a poor start, but was on the move and was going to become ever more like the west. Traditional and Islamic opposition was regarded as irrelevant; it was expected to fade away in the face of material prosperity.

This narrative crashed in 1979, and it has not been possible to think about development in the middle east in those simple terms since. After 1979, it became clear that the actual direction of Iranian history could only be understood in terms of a second and very different narrative. According to this, Iranians had regarded their own monarchy as suspect since the 19th century, not least for its real or perceived complicity in national humiliations inflicted by western powers. The Pahlavi monarchy of the Shah and his father was regarded by many as a creation of Britain and the US. And the alternative to monarchy was not communism but the Shia clergy (supported firmly by their urban brothers in the bazaars), whose authority in society and countrywide organisations structure had given them a crucial role in more than a century of actions against the monarchy: the Tobacco Rebellion of 1892, the constitutional revolution of 1906-1911, the Mossadeq episode of 1953 (at least in part) and the unrest of 1963.

In these earlier actions, the clergy had often disagreed among themselves and had failed to give united leadership. But in 1979 Khomeini supplied the theoretical principle of clerical leadership (velayat-e faqih) that had previously been lacking. His stand against the Shah gathered support at a time when the economy was faltering and many—even among the middle classes who had benefited from the Shah's development programme—were becoming disillusioned. Khomenei's clear leadership focused opposition to the Shah, and by keeping his ultimate intentions vague he also avoided dividing his supporters.

There have been many failures, disappointments and disillusionments in the 30 years since the revolution. In the field of human rights, abuses continue and those who try to defend political prisoners (notably the Nobel peace prize winner Shirin Ebadi) have come under intense pressure under President Ahmadinejad. The continuing weakness of the economy has left large numbers of Iranians suffering in poverty, and has exacerbated a brain drain out of the country. But there is one major plus that many Iranians feel—even some exiles who bitterly oppose the Islamic regime. Since the revolution, Iran has finally achieved real independence as a nation.

To appreciate the importance of this, one has to have some sense of the past: of the humiliations heaped on Iran in the 19th century by Britain and Russia, and in the 20th by Britain and the US. An important part of the revolution was the feeling that the country needed once and for all to rid itself of foreign influence and manipulation. In the Iran/Iraq war (the importance of which in the contemporary Iranian psyche can hardly be overstated), imposed on Iranians by the Iraqi invasion of September 1980, that determination was tested almost to destruction. But Iran emerged undefeated, and with her borders upheld. There was, and is, a pride in that—irrespective of support for the regime—a sense that the country will not be bullied, intimidated or manipulated by foreigners any more. This is an important element for Iranians in the ongoing dispute over Iran's nuclear programme. Few credible Iranian critics of the current regime support military action against it—the last Shah's son and heir Reza Pahlavi, for example, has been outspoken in urging a negotiated solution. Not even the new US president can expect to resolve current problems with Iran without recognising Iranians' hard-won sense of national self-reliance.

The Life and Times of the Shah by Gholam Reza Afkhami(University of California Press, £24.95)