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.

Fereydoun Hoveyda latterly served the Shah as Iranian ambassador to the UN: a position which clearly identified him with the regime, however much he liked to cultivate the image of a liberal, francophile intellectual. His book, though, is highly critical of the Shah in almost every respect. He was at first a supporter of the Shah because he believed in his modernising aims and thought that he genuinely was lifting Iran into the 20th century, but became disillusioned. He accuses the Shah of permitting monumental corruption among numbers of the royal family; of being too greatly influenced by his twin sister, Princess Ashraf; of grossly abusing power through the repressive mechanism of Savak; and finally of being an absurd dreamer obsessed with his own ego. No one would now seriously dispute these accusations. The Shah presided over a shabby regime which deliberately allowed human rights to be abused and which tolerated large-scale economic exploitation by a ruthless self-seeking entrepreneurial class. But Fereydoun Hoveyda, who knew perfectly well what was going on at the height of the oil-based boom in the Seventies, never once sought to make a public denunciation. He even undertook, to please the Shah, the task of translating into French the monarch’s last and most far-fetched ramblings, Towards the Great Civilisation, the sequel to the Shah’s Mission for My Country, published in the Sixties when the vision of the ‘Great Civilisation’ was still new. Fereydoun Hoveyda undertook the translation at a time when opposition was beginning to gather and the vision fading fast.

The point is that large numbers of Iranians tolerated, supported and accepted the Shah, even though they did not necessarily like him. This is an uncomfortable truth. But the same could be said of public support for Franco, Hitler or Mussolini. The Shah’s reign lasted, it’s worth remembering, for almost forty years; and it was not repression alone that kept him in power that long. Nor was it US support, although this is the way the revolution prefers to see it. The institution of monarchy enjoyed considerable respect.

It is also worth remembering that in 1974, when Iran was on the crest of a wave after the quadrupling of oil prices, a great many Iranians of all classes were willing to buy the Shah’s propagandist dream. Deep down they may not have believed it to be true, but it appealed to national pride that the world’s leaders were courting Iran. This was the period when critical decisions affecting Iran’s future were taken; yet there was very little opposition except from religious elements supporting Ayatollah Khomeini, who did not have a widespread following. Fereydoun Hoveyda ignores the fact that his brother fully endorsed the fateful decision to double planned spending from 36 to 69 billion dollars.

It was not just Iranians who were seduced by this new Iran and powerful Shah. Western visitors – statesmen, academics, businessmen and journalists – invariably came away impressed from audiences with His Imperial Majesty. Led through lavishly-decorated rooms by ornately-dressed flunkeys, they finally reached a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man with the title of King of Kings. The performance reassured the Shah that he was ‘every inch a king’, and the visitors emerged willing to ignore the fact that he was a dictator desperately searching to legitimise the Pahlavis’ humble origins. Too often a royal audience, whether with Iranians or with foreigners, but more so with Iranians, was a case of the peasant doffing the cap to the landlord. One sees it occasionally in William Forbis’s Fall of the Peacock Throne, where he talks about the Shah’s ‘courteous concern for putting me at my ease’. But the most extreme example was a lavishly-produced book by the photographer Roloff Benny called Iran: Elements of Destiny and published in 1978, with an introduction by Amir Abbas Hoveyda. Its tones of servile deference make it a collector’s item among documents about the revolution.

The publishing business did itself little honour in latching on, like the rest of international business, to the Iranian bandwagon. The Court, the Ministry of Education, the Pahlavi Foundation were more than willing to underwrite ventures that presented Iran in a favourable light. William Forbis’s book does not fall into this category, though it seems to have been written for an audience that wanted to know about Iran under the Pahlavis. The author was not expecting the revolution and seems to have been forced to weave the Shah’s overthrow into both the title and the text at a later date. His book, though not very original, will still be useful for those who believe that the Iranian revolution has brought about a political change but not a social one. In other words, that a new form of government has been introduced, administered by a new political class: but that Iranian social structures, family ties and old habits – such as corruption – have not altered.

When one looks back on the events that led up to the revolution one sees a gradual and seemingly inevitable erosion of the Shah’s authority which was set in motion in mid-1977. This was not evident at the time, and very few people, even among the opposition, were then predicting the Shah’s demise. Until the early summer of 1978, the principal religious figure inside Iran, Ayatollah Shariat-Maderi, was still championing a solution which would merely require of the Shah that he respect the 1906 Constitution. Workers in key sectors, especially the oilfields and the administration, were still waiting to see which way the wind blew; and the Armed Forces were fundamentally intact.

Was there a turning-point which made revolution inevitable? Those closely involved, either as participants or as observers, have offered at least five moments in 1978: the religious riots in Qom in reaction to a vehement, Government-inspired newspaper attack on Khomeini in January; the Tabriz riots in March; the mysterious burning of the Rex Cinema at Abadan in August in which almost 400 people lost their lives; the arrival of Khomeini in Paris in October; the failure of the military government in November to coerce oil-workers and civil servants back to their jobs, so leaving the country paralysed. While each one of these events contributed to the revolutionary momentum, the decisive force seems to have come from the Shah himself. He made so many errrors, invariably doing too little too late. He underestimated the extent to which he had alienated the religious leadership. He misjudged Shiism’s ability to provide a natural framework for protest (especially by the practice of mourning). He was unnecessarily afraid of middle-class opposition figures such as Shahpour Bakhtiar and Mehdi Bazargan, whom he saw as stalking-horses for the Communists and Moscow. He put too much faith in the ability of the Armed Forces to control protest. Finally, he intolerably abused the basic support Iranians were willing to give their ruler – however despotic – and showed no understanding of his subjects’ grievances. He was locked away in his palace, shielded from reality by servile followers. The last person who could talk straight to him and whom he respected was Assadollah Alam, the former Court Minister. But by 1977 Alam was too ill to be of practical help.

The Shah’s regime was only as strong as the Iranians were willing to let it be. As long as there were no large groups prepared to protest and risk then lives, the regime appeared strong. In the early Seventies, a determined but small urban guerrilla movement had been effectively smashed by Savak. It was not until mass protests began that the weakness of the regime was exposed as has been pointed out, the Iranian revolution demonstrated the strength of ‘dying power’ over conventional fire power. The first people to die in the demonstrations were religious students, and there is no doubt that the Shütic tradition of revolutionary struggle against corrupt rulers gave both a context and a framework for opposition. It would, however, be wrong to see the revolution as wholly inspired, and dominated, by religious elements. The unifying factor was a gut anti-Shah feeling that gathered its own momentum as the monarch’s strength was sapped. People who were afraid to strike at the Shah when he was standing were keen to put the boot in when he began to fall. In the final months there was some fancy footwork as individuals threw in their lot with the opposition. Opportunism played no small part in all this. The most interesting switch here was that of General Hussein Fardust, who headed the Imperial Inspectorate. Fardust had been one of the few officials to retain the Shah’s trust and ran what amounted to a super-investigative body, monitoring both the activity of the ministries and Savak. He is now acting as a security adviser to the Khomeini regime, which maintains that there is no harm in such persons working for them provided they are ‘untainted’.

The new regime was born in difficult circumstances. The only real institutions in Iran were the monarchy and the Armed Forces. The latter have lost their officer corps and have been badly undermined by desertions and lack of discipline. Khomeini had counted on being able to take over the Armed Forces more or less intact: but now there is only a severely weakened military machine and police force to enforce authority. Institutions which have grown up, like the Revolutionary Council, the Cabinet and now Parliament, continue to reflect the old Iranian habit of personalising decision-making, or in the case of the Revolutionary Council, keeping institutions informal. There are strong personal rivalries and antagonisms which relate either to ideological differences or to differences between those who were with Khomeini in exile and those who were in opposition all the time inside Iran. But to suppose that the main conflicts are between those supporting a fundamentalist Islamic state and those with a more liberal approach is to ignore the personal and pragmatic nature of Iranian politics.

In the same way, it is safer to take a pragmatic view, as most Iranians do, of the Islamic direction of the present regime. The purity of Islam is the obverse of the Shah’s corrupt regime. The hectic capitalist solution of the Shah, which required a wholesale importing of foreign technology and personnel, have been rejected and in their stead are President Bani-Sadr’s theories which preach a Franz Fanon message in Islamic clothing. But while a number of actions have been carried out in the name of Islam – the nationalisation of banks, the takeover of the Pahlavi Foundation and state control of large businesses – these have had practical motivations: only the state can handle them.

Another major difficulty for the new republic derives from the fact that numerous pressures held down under the Shah have been released by the revolution. The most important element here are the demands for regional autonomy from the Kurds, the Baluchis, the Turkomans and the Arab minority in Khuzestan, where the oilfields are situated. The Kurdish question, in particular, is exacerbated by a residual conflict between their Sunni beliefs and the proselytising Shiism of the central government in Tehran. Ayatollah Khomeini himself has consistently viewed these demands for autonomy as the greatest internal threat to the republic, and certainly the Kurds have proved the least co-operative group. A bad omen for the future is the often unnecessarily arrogant behaviour of the Khomeini-backed revolutionary guards in Kurdistan and Baluchistan.

A further difficulty, which would have existed whoever assumed power in the wake of the Shah’s overthrow, is that Iran’s economy is in shambles. In the 15 months since the revolution, the Shah’s economic policy has been completely rewritten: growth targets have been cut, most major projects scrapped, the military budget slashed, and oil production reduced to allow better conservation. The combined effect of this, coupled with the large-scale exodus of the managerial class and factory occupation by workers, is a very low – in effect, a subsistence – level of economic activity. Were it not for the cushion provided by oil revenues, the 20 per cent unemployment would have weighed very heavily on the Government. As it is, this situation cannot persist indefinitely.

The last big problem is of the new regime’s own creation. Expectations of participation in the political process were aroused by the revolution. Most political formations other than those on the Right have, however, been excluded. The powerful guerrilla-based organisation heavily rooted in the student population – the Fedayeen and the Mohjahideen – has been kept under careful scrutiny, and latterly bullied. The old Democratic Front politicians, who in Western parliamentary terms would be a mix of socialists and nationalists, have been largely driven underground. The Tudeh (Communist) Party hangs on, having made a tactical decision to support Khomeini. Although the vast mass of people have shown no interest in any of these political groupings and continue to support what Khomeini endorses, the exclusion of these other views has sown the seeds of future conflict.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s power base is the support he derives from the rural peasantry and the sub-proletariat in the large cities, especially Tehran. These people remain basically conservative in outlook and are, through their traditional attachment to Shiism, his natural constituents – comprising, roughly speaking, some 65 per cent of the population. It is difficult for Khomeini to carry out policies which might offend this group – the same applies to President Bani-Sadr. Hence the difficulty of reaching a solution to the hostage crisis in Tehran. Further to secure his own position, Khomeini has decided to attack and isolate any groups that might support counter-revolution – former Shah supporters and anyone connected with the United States. At the same time, he has appropriated, as James Bill has recently pointed out, ideas and symbols of the Marxist Left. He has, for instance championed the oppressed and working class of Iran and has been vigorously anti-imperalist. This, in turn, has helped win him support, despite his inherent conservatism, on the Left. In this respect, Khomeini’s policies and popularity bear some similarity to those of Nasser in Egypt and the Arab world in the late Fifties and Sixties. His calls to Moslem revolution throughout the region may be couched in Islamic terms, but many of the people who are stirred by them are those who once espoused Nasserism. The Ayatollah is, however, an old man who cannot hold the reigns of power much longer. His disappearance will create a vacuum of similar proportions to that left by the Shah’s overthrow. But there will be an added complication: the hopes awakened by the revolution will by then have been that much more disappointed. Furthermore, by calling it an Islamic revolution, the present leadership could unwittingly have opened the door to the Left, which it hates. If an ‘Islamic’ model of society fails, the next alternative – until now always considered a remote possibility – is a socialist one. Meanwhile, the Left has been quietly organising itself to control such vital groups as the oilfield workers.

Charting Iran’s troubled future is very hazardous, especially as so much may depend on the fate of the US hostages in Tehran. The Western view of the Shah’s regime was conditioned by an ingrained reverence for monarchy, by sympathy for his modernising aims, and by the fact that he knew how to use the same language as the West. Iran, as a result of the revolution, is using a language which is fundamentally alien: so alien, indeed, as to revive the ancient spirit of the Crusades. There is a basic lack of sympathy for both the aims and the methods used. The revolution has made Iran an unorthodox country which does not necessarily feel bound to conform to any expectations. The fact that they could understand the Shah led most people in the West to expect him to stay on the throne: the Islamic republic may hold together much longer than the West would wish it to do.