Shahdenfreude

Robert Graham

  • The Fall of the Shah by Fereydoun Hoveyda
    Weidenfeld, 166 pp, £6.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 297 77722 X
  • The Fall of the Peacock Throne by William Forbis
    Harper and Row, 305 pp, £6.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 06 337008 5

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the former Shah of Iran, haunts the international stage like a latter-day Lear. In the loneliness of his exile he is bitter about his former allies and still incredulous at the way his throne was ripped from under him, his dream of Iran as a world power shattered by revolution and an Islamic republic brought into being. He boasted about Iran’s 2,500 years of continuous monarchy and proclaimed the Pahlavis one of Iran’s most illustrious dynasties: but he provoked and presided over the institution’s demise.

The Pahlavis have proved Iran’s shortest-lived dynasty: they lasted little more than fifty years and produced only two rulers – Mohammed Reza and his father Reza. Curiously, the two rulers have suffered remarkably similar fates.

Father and son were both born commoners, crowned themselves Shah and ended up in exile, broken men – like that other self-crowned emperor, Napoleon. It seems now to have been forgotten that Reza Shah too was shunted around in exile, prevented from going where he wished to go. Forced off the throne by the Allies to secure access to Iranian oil during the Second World War, Reza Shah asked the British to let him go to Canada. Instead, they led him off to India, but in Bombay switched him to Mauritius. There he found the climate disagreeable and managed to be transferred to Johannesburg, where he died. He was subsequently embalmed in Egypt and then enshrined in the mausoleum outside Tehran which has just been destroyed. Mohammed Reza Shah, too, may find himself embalmed in Egypt: but he will certainly have to wait for enshrinement in his native Iran.

The former monarch’s main preoccupation now is to mull over how it all went wrong, as though the scattered pieces of the jigsaw puzzle could somehow be put together in a different shape that would still include a Pahlavi. He was once a man of boundless pride, and is now left with only one consolation. He was always determined that history would remember him. If one judges by the wealth of books now being produced about him and about Iran, this wish will be granted. But not in the way he intended. He wanted to be regarded as the Shah who restored the ancient glory of Iran (a name to rank alongside Cyrus the Great and Shah Abbas), who established a new equilibrium between oil producers and consumers and who turned Iran into the region’s greatest power with an independent, self-sustaining economy backed by military might. It was a grandiose dream, which he chose to call the ‘Great Civilisation’: but it didn’t work out. His dictatorial system of government created a stability based on repression and wholly unable to accommodate the development demands he imposed. The kind of testimonials that people now seek out are not the schools he built but the sad hulks of German-built nuclear-power plants at Bushire on the Gulf that cost over 4 billion dollars and will never be used.

Similar legacies may well be left by the rulers of the oil-rich states of the Gulf. But what continues to be remarkable about the Iranian revolution is the level of hatred engendered by the Shah and all he stood for. It is a hatred which, rather than cooling with time, has increased and expanded, to include even some of his former supporters. There is virtually no sympathy for the man. When one looks at the case of his longest-serving prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, it is hard not to conclude that the Shah deserved everything he got. Hoveyda served the Shah as Premier from 1965-77, and then as Court Minister until September 1978. Two months later, in a desperate bid to head off the mounting wave of opposition, the Shah chose to have Hoveyda arrested along with other stalwarts of the regime like the former Savak chief, Nematollah Nassiri. It was a calculated act of self-preservation, and when the Shah left Iran in January 1979 Hoveyda was not allowed to leave prison. He was executed by the Khomeini Government as a substitute for the Shah. In The Fall of the Shah Fereydoun Hoveyda, Amir Abbas’s brother, is primarily out to avenge the memory of this cynical act. He does not pretend to be objective and there is too much whitewashing of his brother, too obvious an attempt to exculpate him from involvement in the murky side of the regime, for his account to be taken seriously. Its only real merit is to draw attention to an act which irrevocably alienated those people who might have helped the Shah survive: senior officials in the administration and the Armed Forces and a sizable chunk of the middle class who were appalled at the prospect of mullah power.

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