James Buchan

A certain tragic allure

Towards Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), the last or most recent Shah of Iran, there are two principal attitudes.

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The Shah

Abbas Milani

Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 496, £

Towards Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), the last or most recent Shah of Iran, there are two principal attitudes.

Towards Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), the last or most recent Shah of Iran, there are two principal attitudes. To the Islamic Republic and many in Europe and the US, Mohammed Reza was a tyrant, womaniser and poltroon, who was put on the throne by Britain and Russia in 1941 and maintained there by the US, till a popular uprising sent him scurrying abroad in 1979 where he died, unlamented, in Egypt 18 months later.

The second attitude, which is gaining ground even in Iran, is that Mohammed Reza was a man of intelligence and industry. From exceptionally unpromising beginnings in 1941, his country overrun by British empire and Soviet troops, he outwitted his rivals and the great powers, survived at least two assassination attempts and three air crashes, and raised Iran to a prosperity and influence that his revolutionary successors have not begun to match. His departure from the scene inaugurated 30 years of warfare in the Middle East. As for his crimes, more political prisoners were killed by the Islamic Republic in the single year 1981 than in all Mohammed Reza’s lifetime. As Montesquieu noted, republics are always more vindictive than monarchies.

Abbas Milani, a professor at Stanford in California, belongs to neither school, or rather to both. A student radical of the 1970s, he was locked up by the Shah for a year in the Komiteh and Evin prison, where his blockmates included the revolutionary jurist, Ayatollah Montazeri. In 2009, Milani was denounced by name by the Islamic Republic as one of the architects of ‘the project of velvet revolution’ which is what the regime calls the tumult over the disputed presidential election of that June. For Milani, Mohammed Reza was neither hero nor coward, but a Shakespearian compendium of visions and weaknesses, and not without a certain tragic allure: ‘one that lov’d not wisely but too well.’

A hard-working writer and translator from Persian, Milani is author of The Persian Sphinx (2000), a biography of the Shah’s long-standing prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, who was abandoned by his master and done to death by the revolutionaries. There is nothing in the new book to match in imaginative sympathy Milani’s account of Hoveyda’s last hours, but it is still an enthralling biography and full of new information.

For example, Milani has taken the trouble to dig out Mohammed Reza’s contributions to the school magazine of Le Rosey in Switzerland, which he attended as Crown Prince between 1931 and 1937. He has worked through the diplomatic correspondence, both in Washington and at Kew. In handling court memoirs published in Tehran since the revolution, Milani is expert at extracting from the certainly false the possibly true. Examples are the reminiscences of Hosein Fardoust, the Shah’s closest childhood friend, and Pari Ghaffari, his mistress in the late 1940s. Milani’s portrait of the Pahlavi court as both drab and sleazy is well attested elsewhere.

He has also conducted many interviews with the émigrés, and here the information is not always of the very best. For example, he quotes one old general quoting another old general to the effect that it was Mohammed Reza, as Crown Prince, who gave the order to disband the army in September 1941. That broke his father’s heart and caused him to abdicate.

That the army would take orders from a boy of 21 is unlikely, and anyway this story appears in no other Iranian source nor the diplomatic correspondence. More likely is that with the Soviets approaching Tehran, the generals lost their nerve as comprehensively as they did in 1979. Better is Milani’s account of the crisis of 1953, where a demoralised Mohammed Reza fled the country and was restored by the army. The notion that the restoration was all the work of CIA agents is probably now ineradicable, but Milani does his best. For all his frantic air of modernity, Mohammed Reza was old-fashioned. As incapable of trust as his father, he worked himself to death trying to administer Iran as if it were still a 19th-century kingdom, with its torpid peasantry and two millions sterling in revenue, not a surging petro-power with a large and educated middle class. Like all his generation in exile, Milani regrets that if only the Shah had delegated some power, the revolution of 1979 might not have happened as it happened, and they might be at home.