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Doomed to despotism

Khomeini’s Ghost, by Con Coughlin
The Life and Death of the Shah, by Gholam Reza Afkhami

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

7 April 2009

12:00 AM

Khomeini’s Ghost Con Coughlin

Macmillan, pp.367, 25

The Life and Death of the Shah Gholam Reza Afkhami

Con Coughlin Gholam Reza Afkhami University of California Press, pp.713, 24.95

Khomeini’s Ghost, by Con Coughlin
The Life and Death of the Shah, by Gholam Reza Afkhami

The fall of the Shah of Iran at the beginning of 1979 took the world by surprise. A self-confident autocrat, supported by a large, American trained and equipped army and a ubiquitous and powerful security service, he was driven from power in less than six months by a motley alliance of middle-class liberals, clerical fanatics and student demonstrators, without a blow being struck in his defence. The impression of sudden cataclysm was accentuated by the character of the Shah’s successor: a bearded Islamic ideologue, who flew in from Paris after 15 years in exile. All the signs are that the diplomatic and intelligence services of the West were as unprepared as every one else.


Con Coughlin’s excellent book on Ayatollah Khomeini shows why they should not have been. Iran is a complex country, whose superficial westernisation during the 1950s and 1960s diverted attention from its unhappy history. Once the centre of a great empire extending from the Eastern Mediterranean to Afghanistan, Iran had been kicked about since the beginning of the 19th century by two ambitious foreign powers: Russia, Iran’s powerful neighbour to the north, and Britain, with its important strategic interests in India. The Shahs sold them influence for loans. They surrendered control over their customs service to foreign financiers and officials. They were bullied and bribed into granting huge commercial concessions. The Reuter concession of 1876, which briefly put almost all the country’s natural resources into the hands of a grasping commercial adventurer, shocked even that ambitious imperialist Lord Curzon. It was followed by the tobacco monopoly granted to Imperial Tobacco in 1891, and the oil concession which enabled the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to extract much of the country’s natural riches between 1908 and 1952.

The Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907 formalised this set-up by dividing the country into two spheres of influence, a Russian one in the north, and a British one in the south. And when influence failed, there was always force. Russia invaded in 1826 and 1911, Britain in 1915, and both powers together in 1941. As late as 1952 Britain organised, with the help of the CIA, the coup which removed the nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq, and at one point planned a 70,000-man invasion to protect its oil interests. The United States, which succeeded to Britain’s pre-eminent position in the Middle East after the second world war, was more discreet, but proved just as determined to protect its global economic and strategic interests. Over the years, the West’s representatives in Iran learned to treat their hosts with the disdain that came naturally after so much effortless exploitation. ‘This base people’, the British ambassador Sir Reader Bullard called them in a despatch of 1941.

The suppressed anger of generations of Iranians found its main outlet in the opposition of the senior Muslim clergy. These men felt humiliated and threatened by the dominant role of infidel outsiders, with a way of life profoundly alien to an insular and highly traditional society, but at the same time irresistibly attractive to its richest and most educated members. Some of them, including Khomeini, responded by drawing on ancient Islamic doctrines which rejected the secular state and looked to religious teachers as the ultimate source of law and political authority. The reigns of the two Pahlavi Shahs represented a challenge to everything they stood for. Reza Shah I, a military man who seized power in 1925, embarked on a programme of secularisation, accelerated economic development and aggressive westernisation, which was continued, after the British deposed him, by his Swiss-educated son Mohammed Reza.

But neither of them was ever able to suppress the older attitudes which persisted beneath the skin of Iranian politics. The legislation of 1964, conferring legal immunity on US forces stationed in Iran, touched a sensitive nerve, bringing mobs back onto the streets and assassins into the Shah’s household. To the outside world, the Shah embodied the swaggering new nationalism of the oil-rich Middle East. Inside the country, he was undermined by an older, more conservative nationalism which retained its hold on the mass of the population and proved to be the real source of the Ayatollahs’ power. Khomeini stood in an ancient and powerful tradition.

Of the mass of Iranians who celebrated the fall of the Shah in 1979, very few would have voted for Khomeini’s brand of totalitarian theocracy. Most probably looked forward to some form of liberal democratic state. Yet it is exceptionally difficult for the liberal model to survive in a society obsessed by the enemy without, whether it is a monarchy or an Islamic republic. The stand-off with the United States and the long war with Iraq served only to consolidate the new regime in power. As for Khomeini himself, the Iranians got what was on the tin. He had never pretended to be a democrat and was certainly not a liberal. The tragedy of Iran’s modern history was that it was doomed to exchange one kind of nationalist autocracy for another.

If Coughlin’s book opens one’s eyes to the sources of Khomeini’s power and his place in Iranian history, Gholam Reza Afkhami leaves one wondering why the Shah ever fell. The author is a former minister under the Shah and a senior researcher at the Washington institute founded by the Shah’s sister in his memory. His biography of Iran’s last King is a courtly book. We are presented with a wise, far-seeing patriot and democrat, brought down by the bigotry of his opponents and the personal scruples which stopped him ordering the army to fire on his own people. The Shah’s manipulation of the Iranian parliament, his appalling human rights record, the internal divisions in the army and administration during his last months in power, are all excused or played down. So too is the political ineptness with which the Shah united against himself a coalition of enemies with nothing in common, many of whom might have been valuable allies of a more skilful ruler.


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