The Fall of the Shah

Malise Ruthven

  • Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński, translated by William Brand
    Quartet, 152 pp, £9.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7043 2473 3
  • The Pride and the Fall: Iran 1974-1979 by Anthony Parsons
    Cape, 160 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 224 02196 6
  • Iran under the Ayatollahs by Dilip Hiro
    Routledge, 416 pp, £20.00, January 1985, ISBN 0 7100 9924 X
  • Obbligato: Notes on a Foreign Service Career by William Sullivan
    Norton, 279 pp, £13.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 393 01809 1
  • Envoy to the Middle World: Adventures in Diplomacy by George McGhee
    Harper and Row, 458 pp, £15.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 06 039025 5
  • The Persians amongst the English by Denis Wright
    Tauris, 273 pp, £17.95, February 1985, ISBN 1 85043 002 0

The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 is the most massive popular upheaval to have occurred in a developing country since the Second World War. Within a period of a few months the Middle East’s most powerful military autocrat and the West’s most trusted ally in the region had been overthrown by an unarmed but disciplined crowd of citizens acting under the instructions of their religious leaders. As with other major revolutions, including the French and Russian, to which this political earthquake can justly be compared, the new group which inherited power was virtually unknown outside the country. Who, before 1978, had heard of the Ayatollah Khomeini – or even knew what an ayatollah was? But more remarkable than the personalities of the leaders was the fact that this revolution – the first since the 17th century – was religious in inspiration and used the language of religion to articulate its aspirations. The goals of liberation and brotherhood, which are common to all revolutions, were subsumed under the rubric – strange and anachronistic to Western ears – of the Government of God.

How did this seeming reversal of history come about? As an East European, a foreign correspondent attached to the official Polish news agency who has covered Third World revolts in Bolivia, Mozambique, Sudan and Benin, and the employee of a state formally committed to the doctrine that revolutions are the inevitable concomitants of Progress, Ryszard Kapuściński is unusually qualified to provide us with an answer. He understands – as few Western writers can – how a regime can be based largely if not exclusively on terror; and that since the instruments of terror are primarily psychological, resistance begins when people cease to be afraid. As Kapuściński sees it, the government of the Shah was a despotism built on the twin pillars of terror and petroleum. His description of SAVAK, the Shah’s security police, has a distinctly East European colouring. As the eyes and ears of the regime, SAVAK is as ubiquitous as its Communist counterparts, forcing ordinary citizens to restrict their vocabulary: ‘Experience had taught them to avoid uttering such terms as oppressiveness, darkness, burden, abyss, collapse, quagmire, putrefaction, cage, bars, chain, gag, truncheon, boot, claptrap, screw, pocket, paw, madness, and expressions like lie down, lie flat, spreadeagle, fall on your face, wither away, gotten flabby, go blind, go deaf, wallow in it, something’s out of kilter, something’s wrong, all screwed up, something’s got to give – because all of them, these nouns, verbs, adjectives and pronouns, could hide allusions to the Shah’s regime, and thus formed a connotative minefield where you could get blown to bits with one slip of the tongue.’

If terror was the negative force sustaining the regime, oil and its by-products, bribery, corruption and extremes of wealth and poverty, were its positive charge. Oil is ‘a filthy, foul-smelling liquid that squirts obligingly up into the air and falls back to earth as a rustling shower of money’ which the Shah’s lackeys, starting with his own family, fall over each other to grab. Since the oil belongs to the state, and the Shah is the sole source of official preferment, most of this money ends up in his hands or those of his family, because anyone seeking a contract or wishing to start a business has to resort to bribery. The Shah’s vast wealth enables him to ‘breathe life into a new class, previously unknown to historians and sociologists: the petro-bourgeoisie’. The lower members of this class think nothing of chartering a jet to take them to Munich for lunch; the upper echelons, who would find the journey tedious, hire an Air France jet to bring them lunch, complete with cooks and waiters from Maxim’s. The petro-bourgeoisie builds itself lavish villas, costing a million pounds or more, in the suburbs. A few streets away, in the shanty-towns, whole families of rural immigrants huddle in crowded hovels without water or electricity. This highly volatile mixture produces the explosion that destroys the petro-bourgeoisie, along with its creator and protector.

Why a religious revolution? Here the unstated parallel with Poland is clearly in the author’s mind:

A nation trampled by despotism, degraded, forced into the role of an object, seeks shelter, seeks a place where it can dig itself in, wall itself off, be itself. This is indispensable if it is to preserve its individuality, its identity, even its ordinariness. But a whole nation cannot emigrate, so it undertakes a migration in time rather than in space. In the face of encircling afflictions and threats of reality, it goes back to a past that seems a lost paradise. It regains its security in customs so old and therefore so sacred that authority fears to combat them ... The old acquires a new sense, a new and provocative meaning.

Shi’ism has been Iran’s official religion since the early 16th century; and, as Kapuściński notes, its history of martyrdom and the sense of tragedy inflicted on the dispossessed Imams of the Prophet’s house and their followers provides it with an oppositional outlook which legitimises protest. Here, however, the parallel with Polish Catholicism ends, for a mosque is not, like a church, a ‘closed space, a place of prayer, meditation and silence’. Its largest component is ‘an open courtyard where people can pray, walk, discuss, even hold meetings’. The Shi’ite mosque is, for historical reasons, under relatively independent clerical control. Moreover, it lies at the centre of the ‘colourful, crowded, noisy, mystical-commercial-gustatory nexus’ known as the bazaar. It is here that the opposition which will overwhelm and destroy the regime takes root.

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