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.

Was this destruction inevitable? Not according to this former employee of the Polish state media. Once the revolution got under way, the only aim uniting its various components was to get rid of the Shah. The monarch himself vacillated between repression and appeasement. ‘He tried shooting and he tried democratising, he locked people up and he released them, he fired some and promoted others, he threatened and then he commended. All in vain. People simply did not want a Shah any more; they did not want that kind of authority.’ Universal dislike, however, is not in itself enough to bring down an unpopular leader. The Shah’s problem was that he took himself too seriously, too literally. Shocked by the sight of the people demonstrating against him, he fell he must react immediately:

he lacked a certain dose of cynicism. He could have said: ‘They’re demonstrating? So let them demonstrate. Half a year? A year? I can wait it out. In any case, I won’t budge from the palace.’ And the people, disenchanted and embittered, willy-nilly, would have gone home in the end because it’s unreasonable to expect people to spend their whole lives marching in demonstrations. But the Shah didn’t want to wait.

Shah of Shahs is politically more explicit than The Emperor, Kapuściński’s justly-praised account of the last years of Haile Selassie’s reign. There isn’t, as there was in The Emperor, the feeling of being enclosed in a Gothic nightmare, as a Medieval edifice crumbled from within, but the book is every bit as impressive. Its sparkling images and sudden changes of focus give a cinematic immediacy to the events which it recalls by the simple but effective device of a reporter, alone in his hotel room, trying to make sense of photographs and scraps of notes. The underlying suggestion of Eastern Europe is stronger than in The Emperor – not least, perhaps, because Iran is close to Russia, and the Shah’s despotism had a strongly Russian flavour about it – but the writing has the same fable-like quality. Kapuściński’s Iran, like his Ethiopia, is a region of the mind, as well as a real place where people suffer from the cruelties and follies of real men. And so it becomes part of our universe in a way that the accounts of scholars or journalists, secure in their Western liberties, usually fail to convey.

As Britain’s Ambassador to Iran from 1974 to 1979, Sir Anthony Parsons was a privileged witness of the momentous events surrounding the fall of the Shah. Like most other diplomats and a good many experts, Parsons was taken by surprise, and his book is in part an attempt to explain why. With unusual candour he blames himself. Having previously served in Turkey and several Arab countries where the Armed Forces are the principal underpinning of government – a legacy of the Ottoman centuries – he underestimated the extent to which the Iranian monarchy depended on the support of other elements, including feudalistic barons and religious leaders. There had been abundant evidence, from previous occasions in Iranian history, the most notable being the Constitutional revolution of 1906 which foreshadowed the fall of the Qajars, that the Shi’ite clergy were powerful enough to rock the Government and that the Armed Forces, faced with such a challenge, would be liable to waver in their loyalty.

In the confrontation with the Army, the religious dimension was decisive. As Dilip Hiro explains in his balanced and carefully-researched account of the revolution and its first five years, the first major problem that faced the disparate groups which made up the opposition – the industrial workers, the Bazaaris, the students, the clergy and the army of the Mustazzafin, the misérables of the shanty-towns – was how to overcome a force of nearly half a million men which had hitherto been utterly loyal to the Shah. Khomeini’s answer (delivered by cassette-tapes, or word of mouth, from his place of exile near Paris) was simple and radical, inspired by Shi’ite traditions of martyrdom. ‘Let the army kill as many as it wanted, until the soldiers were shaken to their hearts with the massacres they had committed, he said. Then the army would collapse, he predicted. And it did.’

More remarkable than the collapse of the Shah has been the survival of the clerical government presided over by the aging, and increasingly frail, Khomeini. It has overcome secessionist threats from Arabs, Kurds and other minorities; a murderous onslaught by the leftist Mujahiddin; and the massive external attack launched by Iraq in 1980. Although it has sacrificed tens of thousands of young men – many of them virtually children – in its attempts to avenge itself on Iraq by bringing about the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime, there are only a few signs that it is losing its popular base among the poor and socially deprived. The mixture of religious fervour and a nationalism bordering on xenophobia seems to have prevented things from falling apart; the continuing potency of this mixture is in no small part due to the Shan’s own attitudes and policies. Parsons, in his elegant and very readable account of his ambassadorship, details a number of instances where the incumbent of the Peacock Throne seems to have gone out of his way to offend religious and national sensibilities. One of the fringe events at the Shiraz festival of 1977 involved a rape scene performed on the pavement. When Parsons explained to the Shah that such a play would have caused outrage even in England, he merely ‘laughed indulgently’. A more fundamental source of cultural alienation was the degree to which the Pahlavi regime relied, and was seen to rely, on the Americans. The Shah had been reinstated in the famous ‘countercoup’ organised by Kermit Roosevelt against the Mussadeq Government in 1953. As early as 1964 he incurred public odium by extending diplomatic immunity to US citizens engaged on military projects – a gesture reminiscent of the Capitulations granted to Europeans by his Qajar predecessors, and one which explains why the attack on the US Embassy and the holding of hostages after the revolution was generally popular.

In 1972 Nixon and Kissinger, under the Nixon doctrine of devolving strategic responsibility to America’s ‘trusted allies’, presented the Shah with a virtual blank cheque for military development, thereby accepting the Shah’s own inflated view of himself as the region’s policeman, bulwark against Soviet expansionism and defender of enlightened Western values. One result of this was the dismantling of the US’s own intelligence operations in the country. Embassy officials were quietly discouraged from having contacts with the opposition. The British, who ought to have known better, slavishly followed the American lead. Parsons, who is disarmingly self-critical in his attempts to find out ‘How we got it wrong’, says he deliberately refrained from offering the Shah advice on internal affairs, in case it interfered with the lucrative business of obtaining contracts, especially in the military field. ‘If we gave him advice to be more democratic, to ease up on the students, curb SAVAK etc, we would only receive a whole colony of fleas in our ear and reduce our access to and influence with him.’ He is understandably reticent about the seamier side of this tacit connivance with despotism – the scandalous back-handers paid to members of the Shah’s family and entourage in the hunt for contracts.

An unfortunate side-effect of Parsons’s self-denying ordinance was that it left the Embassy almost as isolated as the Shah himself when it came to domestic intelligence. The Embassy went wrong, Parsons admits, in its assumption that the Shah ‘must be better informed about the domestic situation in his own country than we were. We had experienced his shrewdness and mastery of foreign and strategic matters and not unnaturally concluded that, with all the information-gathering facilities at his disposal, he was also master of internal affairs ... It never occurred to me ... that he actually believed the unconvincing theories which he advanced to me, a conspicuous example being that the widespread student discontent was only a minority manifestation stimulated by a handful of foreign-inspired agitators.’ This admission is remarkable for its disingenuousness. Most foreign observers knew what the Shah’s ‘information-gathering activities’ involved: the systematic and wholesale torture of anyone suspected of opposition – in other words, government by terror. Such intimidation is customarily inflicted, as it has been in Northern Ireland, under the guise of intelligence-gathering, though those who have studied the matter usually conclude that torture is not a satisfactory way of obtaining information. Parsons was certainly not ignorant of SAVAK’s methods, since he alludes to them on several occasions. He evidently assumes that the Shah ‘went along’, as a kind of politesse, with the conspiracy theories dished up by the SAVAK chiefs – to avoid alluding to something disagreeable. Nor was his over-sophisticated disbelief in the Shah’s ignorance counterbalanced by reliable information reaching the Embassy from elsewhere. He admits he deliberately gave priority to the Embassy’s commercial work – advising businessmen against making long-term investments, just in case things went wrong. This was a gamble which Parsons is probably right in claiming paid off well. As Hiro points out, by 1978 Iran had become Britain’s second trading partner in the Middle East, with two-way trade running at $1.5 billion for the sake of a mere $170 million invested. In short, the Embassy did not bother to inquire too closely into the regime’s stability, or its methods, because it was too busy helping British businessmen make money.

Such a policy, of course, can be justified on narrow chauvinist grounds – British jobs before Persian limbs, or even lives. It is the duty of diplomats to represent their countries’ interests, not to try to administer the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, this is not quite the line that Parsons chooses to take. While admitting that his primary concern was to persuade British businessmen to make as much money as they could for the least possible investment, he also defends his Embassy’s record in the matter of political intelligence-gathering: ‘we did identify the principal elements of opposition to the Shah, namely the religious classes, the bazaar and the younger generation of the intelligentsia ... Where we went wrong was that we did not anticipate that the various rivulets of opposition, each of which had a different reason for resenting the Shah’s rule, would combine into a mighty stream of protest which would eventually sweep the Shah away.’ The failure, according to Parsons, occurred in the analysis of the intelligence, and for this he blames himself ‘unreservedly’. Even now, he seriously underestimates the ideological factors that contributed to the merging of opposition forces. The name of Ali Shariati, the Islamic intellectual who forged a bridge between secular and Islamic radical outlooks, does not appear in his book – an omission comparable to writing an account of the Russian Revolution without mentioning Karl Marx, or of the French without Rousseau. Shariati died in London in 1977 (reputedly at the hand of SAVAK agents, though the British coroner recorded a verdict of natural causes), but pamphlets and cassettes of his famous lectures delivered at the Husseiniya Ershad seminary in Tehran were circulating throughout the revolutionary period. It is astonishing that the Embassy appears to have had no Farsi expert sufficiently aware of the intellectual currents to provide Parsons with accurate briefings.

William Sullivan, US Ambassador to Iran during the crucial two years of the revolution, seems to have been better-informed in this respect, even if his understanding was superficial. ‘Shariati,’ he says, ‘attempted to reconcile socialism with Islam, and thereby introduced the basic tenets of Marxist thought into a vernacular that would be acceptable to the urban poor.’ This is about as accurate as referring to George Orwell as a Marxist. It is true, however, that Shariati sought out the common ground between Marxist activism and Islamic radicalism, and this certainly helped forge the links between leftists and Khomeinists without which the revolution could not have succeeded. Sullivan, who had previously served as Ambassador in Laos and the Philippines, resigned from the foreign service after a row with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser, who wanted to launch a 1953-style counter-coup to save the Shah. Sullivan had urged making overtures to Khomeini at an earlier stage, having rightly decided that the Shah was unsavable. For a man who was closely involved in some of the United States’s outstanding policy failures – in South-East Asia, Iran and probably the Philippines – his tone is remarkably complacent: a mixture of bland self-righteousness and anecdotal bonhomie. Although he was right to resist Brzezinski’s attempt to rescue the Shah, based as it was on a misreading of the dangers posed by the Soviet Union in the ‘Arc of Crisis’, the alternative he proposed, a moderate government supported by Khomeini which would still be friendly to the US, never had any chance because of the extent to which the opposition to the Shah was united by anti-American feeling.

Has the ‘loss’ of Iran really proved such a setback for the US? Although the Americans lost prestige and a good deal of sophisticated weaponry, as well as their listening-post on the Soviet border, there has been no Soviet thrust to the Gulf. The Iran-Iraq war has not led to the super-power confrontation which some predicted; and the West’s ‘jugular’, the Strait of Hormuz, remains obstinately open. Though the war is taking its toll of Western shipping, there still seem to be plenty of tanker-owners and captains prepared to face the hazards of sailing in these waters. The Marxists in South Yemen have come to terms with Oman; and though the Russians remain in Afghanistan, their presence has been made more, not less, difficult by a regime in Iran which gives unconditional support to the Mujahiddin. In general, the spectre of Soviet expansionism in the Middle East has been a fantasy encouraged by local regimes (including, at various times, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Turkey and Libya) which have solicited US military aid to consolidate their grip over their own territories or those of their neighbours.

Why do local powers find the US such a soft touch? After a career spent largely in the cause of anti-Communism, Sullivan almost gives the game away: ‘From Truman through Nixon, our international actions were justified by statements that catered to the traditional jingoism of the American imperium. In order to command the support of Congress and the votes of the great American public Presidents had to stress American national security and American hegemony more than the facts would warrant. Even while their actions were deliberately reducing our international imperium, some leaders felt compelled, for reasons of domestic policy, to rationalise them in Cold War terms.’ The trouble with using this Cold War rhetoric, as Sullivan found to his cost, is that it often places genuine cold warriors and their advisers in the White House.

George McGhee, an Oxford-educated Texan oil man who became Dean Acheson’s Assistant Secretary of State for Near-East, South-Asian and African affairs and later President Kennedy’s Ambassador at Large, is almost as candid when he remarks that America’s ‘excessive preoccupation’ with the Communist threat in the early Fifties provided a useful way of ‘enlisting American interest in Africa’. Yet in summing up the thrust of US diplomacy in his region from 1945 to 1951, he makes the typically simplistic assumption that the neutralism to which most of the states emerging from colonial rule aspired would lead them to Communism: ‘We wanted to convince the new states of the dangers of Soviet Communism and help them develop internal security forces adequate to protect themselves from Communist subversion. We tried to persuade them that neutralism would weaken their defences against Communism, and to encourage them to accept a generally pro-Western and democratic point of view.’

The internal security apparatuses, trained in ‘interrogation’ and counter-revolution, complemented the more conventional forces which the US supplied to its anti-Communist allies. As in Latin America, though perhaps to a lesser degree, ‘counter-subversion’ became the means by which undemocratic regimes maintained themselves in power. It was perhaps inevitable that when one of these regimes was overtaken by nationalist revolution the new elite would find in these same techniques convenient ways of suppressing dissent. But it cannot be entirely accidental that, of all the countries where McGhee tried to promote his anti-Communist crusade, the one which most determinedly resisted American blandishments, and which insisted on retaining a good relationship with the Soviet Union in order to protect its neutrality, was India – the only effectively functioning democracy in McGhee’s ‘Middle World’.

The Americans, of course, are not the first to have used the Russian bogey to obtain support for an imperialist foreign policy. In the 19th century the Tsarist threat to India played a similar role, lending respectability to British ambitions in Persia. The Persians themselves had good reasons to fear the Tsars, who had absorbed part of Azerbaijan and most of Caucasia by 1830, and by 1870 had swallowed up much of Turkistan. The Qajar Shahs looked increasingly to the British to protect them.

A growing number of Persians – princes, students, diplomats, ministers and eventually two of the shahs themselves – made visits to Britain, and wrote accounts of their journeys, some of which found English translators. One of the first to make the journey was Mirza Abu Taleb, son of an Azerbaijani exile in India, who spent thirty months in England between 1800 and 1803. After a visit to the House of Commons, which reminded him of ‘two flocks of Indian paroquets, sitting on opposite mango trees, scolding at each other’, he returned convinced that ‘many of the customs, inventions, sciences and ordinances of Europe, the good effects of which are apparent in these countries, might with great advantage be imitated by Mohammedans.’ The Persian élite took this advice so much to heart that by the time of Reza Shah’s coronation in 1926 a totally English performance was insisted on down to the last detail. Vita Sackville-West found that ‘there was no point, however humble, on which [the Persians] would not consult their English friends.’ (Harold Nicolson was then Counsellor at the British Legation.) ‘They would arrive with little patterns of brocade and velvet; they would ask us to come down and approve the colour of the Throne Room ... They must have red cloth for the palace servants like the red liveries worn by the servants of the English legation. They must have a copy of the proceedings at Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of His Majesty King George V; one of the Ministers who prided himself on his English came to ask me privately what a Rouge-dragon Poursuivant was, evidently under the impression it was some kind of animal.’

The somewhat one-sided love-affair between the Persian élite and the British is the main theme of Denis Wright’s entertaining and informative book. The more sophisticated Persians, as so often happens, adopted the forms rather than the substance of their models, which usually meant that the ordinary people got the worst of both worlds. The first Pahlavi was a despot who ordered his subjects to wear homburg hats and exhibit their wives, unveiled, in public. For all their apparent conservatism, the mullahs were much more discerning when, in 1906 and in 1977, they demanded Anglo-Saxon constitutions without the Anglo-Saxon monarchical trimmings.