by Abbas Milani
Reviewed by Susanne Pari
San Francisco Chronicle
Nearly every chapter in The Shah, Abbas Milani's skillful biography of Iran's last king, begins with a phrase from Shakespeare's King Richard II, about a tragic figure who believes he is ordained by God to lead his people. He likens himself to the sun and to the lion, is usually festooned in finery and jewels, and is surrounded by sycophants rather than sages. Not an evil king but an insecure one -- weak, indecisive and out of touch. Ultimately, by dint of his hubris, he is overthrown and dies.
The divine right of kings is, of course, not a solely European notion. In ancient Iran, Zoroastrian priests ruled in conjunction with divinely anointed shahs. But as Milani points out, the "idea of a modernizing monarch is almost an oxymoron." And yet this idea of melding the autocratic grandiosity of bygone kings and the progressive pragmatism of modern leaders was blithely fathomable to both Pahlavi shahs. Ultimately, it led to their downfall, first the father's, then the son's. What remained was a modernized populace with a hollow political infrastructure that could only be filled by a dictator of a more sinister stripe.
Milani is co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Democracy is his Thing, and he is acutely aware of how it should work and not shy about revealing how well (or how poorly) all players behave in their allegiance to its ideals. His narrative, too, is democratic -- measured and multifaceted.
The Shah is not a scathing biography. Nor is it a paean to his reign. It is a fair and insightful account of a psychologically complex man who was ill-suited for a hard job, yet unable to give up or give in. This is not the kind of biased biography that has often polarized the Iranian American diaspora since the 1979 revolution.
Milani brings to us a whole new set of facts, culled from thousands of recently declassified British, American and Iranian documents and hundreds of interviews, making this book fresh and relevant to the current democracy movement in Iran and to U.S.-Iranian relations.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi inherited the Peacock Throne from his father, Reza Shah, a Persian Cossack soldier who seized power in 1925 with the help of the British and began an iron-fisted, almost tyrannical, campaign to yank Iran into the modern age.
Reza Shah had no illusions about his divine right to rule. Fancying himself an Iranian Ataturk, he secularized the country and began to industrialize. And he ordered his son, a timid boy of 7, to the palace, separating him from his mother and his common life.
Mohammad Reza was crowned prince, promoted from child to colonel, and surrounded by tutors and hand-picked friends who called him Your Royal Highness. Pahlavi's one respite from the anxieties of his station occurred during his school years in Switzerland, where he was forced, in the milieu of classmates who were unimpressed by his princeliness, to thrive as "an equal among equals."
But he returned to his father's side, dutifully married the Egyptian princess chosen for him, attended officers school and promptly faced the morass of a monarchy threatened by "Britain and Russia -- the two poles of colonial power in Iran."
In 1941, he witnessed the Anglo-Soviet invasion of his country and the shocking collapse of his father's government. Reza Shah's abdication and exile, forced by the British, was a trauma that would color the shah's behavior from then on. He ascended the throne just shy of his 22nd birthday, and for the next 37 years, until his overthrow in 1979, he waged an unceasing struggle to retain and enhance his power, and to vanquish all dissent while modernizing his country at an impressive pace. In a phrase, to redeem his father's policies.
The one area where Pahlavi diverged from these policies was in regards to the clergy. Perhaps because of the influence of his devout and domineering mother, he reinstated many of the privileges his father had wrenched from the clergy. In large part, he believed that the clerics were the best "antidote to communism," a theory that we all now understand to be dangerously flawed.
Milani's portrayal of Pahlavi as distrustful and paranoid is nothing new, but the evidence for substantiating it is. Milani cites a plethora of diplomatic reports, making us privy to conspiracies by foreign governments and opposition parties to gain power over Iranian oil, industry, funds and politics. While many criticize Pahlavi for his chronic distrust of nearly everyone, there is a basis in reality for it. After all, he survived two assassination attempts, a coup, countless betrayals and several uprisings. That he responded to such threats by cracking down on his opponents rather than offering up even a modicum of compromise is where he failed.
Iran and America share a common history of successfully resisting colonialism. It's not surprising that Pahlavi was helped greatly by American presidents, beginning with Roosevelt and Truman, who mitigated British and Soviet control in Iran. Eisenhower and Kennedy urged Pahlavi to reign as a constitutional monarch, but evidence shows that he never believed that his people could handle democracy; they required a dictator.
It was Nixon, Milani explains, who allowed the shah to expand his military and solidify his authoritarian power in every corner of Iran. His country was thriving as a result of land reforms, literacy and educational programs, technological and industrial advancements, and social freedoms. And his queen, the shah's third and final wife, Farah Diba, with her obsession with art and interior design, brought a "cosmopolitan sensibility" to the country. Furthermore, no one could ignore the pretentious "desert bash" Pahlavi threw in honor of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire (to which very few Persians were invited). Such a nation couldn't be ripe for a revolution!
But it was. It always had been. During his reign, the shah replaced prime ministers more than 30 times and imprisoned thousands of political opponents. While sections of The Shah may test the non-Iranian reader's interest -- with an intricate accounting of political schemes, for example -- Milani makes up for such chronicles by deftly peppering his narrative with details of Pahlavi's private life: his star-crossed marriages and alleged philandering, his passion for speed and his family's inclination for material excess -- and thus its use of the nation's money to fund its private projects.
In fact, such corruption is a subject that Milani examines throughout the book, and with new documents available to trace the Pahlavi fortune, estimated by some outside sources at more than $1 billion, the reader is presented with an intriguing list of hidden assets and dubious deals that give rise to further questions.
An insecure ruler is filled with hubris when times are good, but deflated by indecision when crises arise. The shah was no exception. When, in 1977, oil prices took a dive and Pahlavi faced the increasing wrath of his disenfranchised subjects, he weakened and vacillated, at once refusing to relinquish control and seeking guidance from America. But the Carter administration was inconsistent in its Iran policy.
Like a parent unable to accept that he's raised a child capable of self-determination, Pahlavi crushed any hope of retaining the respect of that child. His people wanted to participate in the government; prosperity and social freedoms were not enough. Pahlavi had a democratic revolution on his hands, but he had alienated and dispersed the opposition (except the clergy) to such an extent that it also became unwilling to compromise and it turned toward the devil in sheep's clothing -- the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spewing disingenuous democratic rhetoric that even the Carter administration bought.
Why should we care about an Iranian king deposed by a revolution 30 years ago? By the end of The Shah, it is crystal clear. That revolution is still alive, and still threatened by a dictator who believes in his divine right to rule. He merely wears a turban instead of a coronet. It behooves us, as Americans, to remember and recognize the international impact of the shah's reign. The issues then are the issues now: oil, Islamic extremism, nuclear ambition, human rights and the necessity for an organized democracy movement. As Milani rightly contends, "Like all histories, this one is as much about the future as it is about the past."
Susanne Pari is the author of The Fortune Catcher. E-mail her at email@example.com.
This review was originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle.