The Shah’s Last Ride: The Story of the Exile, Misadventures and Death of the Emperor 
by William Shawcross.
Chatto, 463 pp., £15.95, January 1989, 9780701132545
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The fall of the Shah was an epic. His downfall had about it something of the Medieval morality play, even something of a Greek tragedy. It might have qualified as Shakespearian tragedy if the Shah had been a truly great man who fell from grace through a single flaw. He was not a great man and his sins were many. Hubris was perhaps his greatest crime, although the Iranians saw things somewhat differently. Yet they sensed this mythic element about their revolution even before the King of Kings piloted his personal Boeing out of Mehrebad airport for the last time on 16 January 1979.

One of the most impressive of the revolutionary posters depicted the Shah in his full regalia, crown toppling from his balding head, hurtling towards the everlasting bonfire while the avenging Ayatollah swept above him on wings of gold. If ever a Middle Eastern potentate was so frequently portrayed as the Devil, surely never in Islamic art did a living human so closely resemble the form of the Deity.

My favourite graphic from the immediate post-revolutionary period was sold to me for a few rhials by a schoolboy outside the gates of Tehran University. It was a cardboard face-mask of the Shah, his jowls slack and diseased, his crown only kept in place by two massive black horns. Push out the detachable cardboard eyes, place the mask over your own face and you could peer through the Devil’s own image at the black chadors and serious-faced young men of central Tehran. The effect was curious: whenever a stroller purchased a mask and held it to his face, the young men would cry ‘Death to the Shah’ with a special intensity. It was as if the cardboard actually assumed the substance of the man: the Devil made flesh.

The Iranians saw in the Shah’s pathetic exile the true justice of God, his cancer the ultimate divine vengeance against one who had ‘sinned on earth’. Indeed, the Shah’s odyssey through the hospitals of Central America, New York City and Cairo – told in gruesome detail by William Shawcross – gave grim satisfaction to the mullahs who had already ordered his assassination. Not long after his departure, I had sat at the feet of the outrageous Ayatollah Khalkhali, the hanging judge of Iran, as he listed those of the Shah’s family who had been sentenced to death in absentia. Around him sat a score or so Revolutionary Guards who had been maimed in the Kurdish war, each of them clacking their newly-fitted metal fingers, hands and feet, as the prelate outlined the fate which so surely awaited his enemies. Khalkhali it was who had sentenced a 14-year-old boy to death, who had approved of the stoning to death of women in Kermanshah, who, when in a mental asylum, had strangled cats in his cell. Gorbeh, ‘the cat’, was what he was called. ‘The Shah will be strung up – he will be cut down and smashed,’ announced the Cat. ‘He is an instrument of Satan.’

In fact, the Shah was a poor substitute for the Devil, and scarcely even the equal of Faustus – having sold himself for the promise of worldly military power and seemingly everlasting American support. The chorus of harpies that pursued him half-way around the world were the bickering, greedy surgeons, doctors and nurses who bombarded the dying man with pills, blood platelets and false hope, agents of darkness who only too well represented the technology of the world to which the Shah had long ago sold his soul. His erstwhile friends from that world – King Hussein of Jordan, King Khaled of Saudi Arabia, King Hassan of Morocco, the Swiss, the Austrians, President Carter and Mrs Thatcher – either terminated his residence, turned him away or broke their promise to accept him when they realised the political cost. It is sobering to reflect that his one true friend – the only potentate to honour his word to Carter when the Americans wanted the old man to leave – was President Sadat.

Shawcross writes a grim, shameful account of Mrs Thatcher’s own betrayal of the Shah. ‘I would be ashamed to be British if we could not give the Shah refuge,’ he quotes her as saying in a private conversation with the British television interviewer Alan Hart a week before the election which was to make her prime minister. But no sooner had she entered Number 10 than the Foreign Office persuaded her that the British Embassy in Tehran would be seized by mobs if the King of Kings was allowed to take up residence in Surrey. Their fears were probably correct: the British diplomatic mission was in fact stormed by Islamic ‘students’ at the same time as the US Embassy, but the crowds left the British compound after three days. Yet the manner in which the British Government washed its hands of the Shah has a special cynicism all its own. The Foreign Office enlisted as their emissary Sir Denis Wright, who had been British Ambassador to Iran between 1963 and 1971, and – according to Shawcross – dispatched him off to the Shah’s latest refuge in the Bahamas under the false name of ‘Edward Wilson’; Sir Denis, writes Shawcross, was a director of Shell and did not want the company’s name mixed up in his visit to the Shah:

After a brief exchange of courtesies, ‘Wilson’ explained to the Shah that ‘Her Majesty’s Government has decided that for so long as the Iranian authorities do not exercise effective control over the country, it cannot offer asylum to you or your family.’ He said he hoped the Shah would accept and understand this ... After about an hour, ‘Wilson’ returned to the business in hand. ‘My government wants to be able to say if asked that you accept and understand the decision not to give you asylum.’ The Shah demurred. ‘Wilson’ persisted. He said that the new Foreign Secretary [Lord Carrington, an old supporter of the Shah] needed to be able to say, if asked, that the Shah both understood and accepted the decision. ‘Understand and accept’ were the key words ... Eventually, and with considerable dignity, the Shah agreed to ‘accept’ the British decision – but only on condition that the British acknowledge that he had never formally asked to come to Britain anyway.

Since the Shah had indeed never made the request official, the deal was accepted – and Mrs Thatcher thus never broke what had apparently been her solemn promise to accept the Shah. No wonder Sadat appears in this book to be a man of both honour and strength.

The Pahlavis found that their faith in the West disintegrated at almost the same rate as the Shah’s own metabolism. As the French, American, Bahamian and Egyptian doctors squabbled around his bedside, the King of Kings discovered that only a few old acquaintances – principally Kissinger and Nixon – objected to his exclusion from the United States and fought for his admission in order to have cancer treatment in New York. There is considerable doubt as to whether he could not have had the same treatment in his Bahamian retreat and Kissinger thus bore considerable responsibility for the subsequent seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran, the holding of the American hostages – and the defeat of Carter at the 1980 Election.

President Torrijos of Panama – who wanted to seduce Queen Farah but was swiftly given the brush-off by the Shahbanou – set the Pahlavis up on Contadora, and Shawcross gives us a memorably sad vignette of the haggard, lonely queen working the international telephone as she sought comfort day and night from distant friends, her calls moving according to the globe’s rotation. ‘Daytime calls would be to the States. At about ten in the evening she would switch to the Middle East where dawn would be breaking, and talk especially to Mrs Sadat, who proved the truest of all her powerful friends, and sometimes to King Hussein. As the sun moved west she called friends in Europe around their breakfast times.’ All these calls, of course, were monitored by Torrijos’s security operatives in the Panamanian National Guard, run at the time by that friend of America, Colonel Noriega.

The Shah’s friends may have proved generally faithless, but he had shown himself to be more than equally perfidious. Having attempted to appease the anger of the Qom mullahs by imprisoning his urbane Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the Shah flew out of Tehran without bothering to order Hoveyda’s release, leaving the old man to face Khalkhali’s courts. When offered the chance, Hoveyda refused to run away and was sentenced to death as a ‘doer of mischief on earth’. Immediately after the sentence, Khalkhali disconnected the telephones in the prison and locked the doors. Hoveyda was dragged into the prison yard, tied to a ladder and shot. ‘The first bullets hit him in the neck but did not kill him. He was ordered by his executioner, a mullah, to hold up his head. The next bullet hit him in the head and he died.’ Paris Match was to carry a photograph of his corpse with a grinning gunman looking at it. Alongside, the magazine carried a picture of the Royal Family swimming on Paradise Island. Put not your trust in Shahs.

Nor in doctors. In writing his book, Shaw-cross clearly became something of an expert on pancreatic inflammation, the ingestion of granulocytes and the garbage-disposal qualities of the spleen; given the political significance of the Shah’s cancer, one can hardly blame him. The doctors’ contradictory diagnoses are one of the more disgusting moral issues to be debated in this book. Better to be poor and sick than rich and a victim of the medical profession.

Despite all his fawning on the world’s leaders, the Shah got little return. At a New Year’s Eve dinner in Tehran, President Carter pronounced Iran ‘an island of stability’ thanks to the Shah. Some of the US diplomats present, who knew that the Shah’s power partly rested on a security police that heated up its prisoners on giant toast racks, were aghast when the American leader who cared so much for human rights continued: ‘There is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal friendship and gratitude.’ Afterwards, the Shah danced with Mrs Carter and Carter with the Queen. The Shah’s diminutive sister Ashraf took the floor with the tiny King Hussein of Jordan. The two of them, each only about five feet high, ‘shuffled around like two little mechanical dolls, staring distractedly over each other’s tiny shoulders’.

The Pahlavis’ greatest act of self-aggrandisement – the massive binge for world leaders at the great ruins of Persepolis – counted for nothing when the end came. Indeed, the very detritus of the banquet was effortlessly turned by the new regime into a symbol of emptiness. When the Shah was undergoing surgery in New York, I travelled down to Persepolis and found that his special tent was still standing beside the ancient ruins. I even lowered myself into his solid gold bath and turned on the solid gold taps. There was no water in them.

One can but agree with that old rogue Torrijos, who said of the dying Shah: ‘This is what happens to a man squeezed by the great nations. After all the juice is gone, they throw him away.’ In the event, he was lowered into a modest tomb in the el-Rifai mosque in Cairo. In 1986, in the heat of the summer, I went with an Iranian friend to look at his tomb. It was midday and there was only one guardian in the mosque, an old, silver-haired man who, for a pittance, promised to take us into the last resting-place of the Shah, the man who thought that he was the most powerful descendant of the dynasty. There was a single marble slab and, resting upon it, a handwritten poem declaring eternal loyalty to the Shah from a member of the Javidan guards, the ‘Immortals’. And there was a spray of withered roses on the stone. The old guardian wandered up to us and muttered Baksheesh. He settled for 50 piastres. In the end, it cost the equivalent of just 25 pence to sit at the feet of the King of Kings.

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Vol. 11 No. 6 · 16 March 1989

The name of Tehran Airport is always transliterated as ‘Mehrabad’, not ‘Mehrebad’, as in Robert Fisk’s ‘Doers of Mischief on Earth’ (LRB, 19 January). Secondly, there is no letter ‘h’ in either the Farsi or the English name of the Persian monetary unit, the rial. Finally, as any number of wry Iranian jokes testify, irrespective of how many cats Khalkhali may or may not have strangled, Montazeri is Gorbeh, the cat.

Malcolm Evans
St George’s Private College, Bolton

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