Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919-1980)
Jul 27, 2005
Darius Ryan, Switzerland
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980), A retrospective on his reign on the occasion of the twenty fifth anniversary of his death.
They revere you in fortune
And trample you in defeat
25 years ago this summer, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi the Shah of Iran was dying in Cairo. Egypt's President Sadat had offered him his last refuge and helped him escape from a perilous exile in Panama. There, the fate of the ailing monarch had hung in the balance for several weeks as shadowy contacts between Panama's strongman, General Torrijos, and emissaries from the Islamic revolution increasingly pointed to a swap deal: the extradition of the shah against the release the 52 American Embassy hostages in Tehran. While the shah's hand-over to Khomeini was at no time contemplated by President Carter, his administration had been drawn into an eerie gambit in Panama of which the endplay was unknown . The Shah's succumbing to cancer on 27July, 1980 must have brought a sigh of relief in Washington as indeed in many other Capitals burdened by the past courtship of the Iranian monarch.
Two decades and many sorry events after, some of the intricacies of the shah's personality and rule still beg scholarly probe. The majority of Iran's population has been born after the shah's demise. His image in their mind, as indeed in the minds of many casual observers abroad, has been shaped through unrelenting distortions of historical facts. The younger Iranians deserve an unbiased account of these 37 years in its baffling turns and twists and contradictions.
To be sure, a distilled account of these years would not vindicate the Shah. His trampling of the constitution was self-defeating in ways that escaped his political savvy. His authoritarian rule carried the seeds of instability and a backward thrust, the prevention of which had served as an alibi to silence dissent.
Yet, the surfeit of slander after his downfall, just as the panegyric excesses of the earlier years, was largely undeserving. Few leaders in history have been adulated and demonized in such a frivolous manner. A good illustration of hypes comes from two prominent Americans:
On the new-year eve of 1978 -- a few short days before the triggering event of the Islamic revolution -- President Carter stunned the US western allies by calling the Shah his most trusted ally and dialogue partner . Carter's effusive flattery - describing Iran as island of stability - was in opposing symmetry to another hyperbole by Senator Edward Kennedy, who some two years later, in the height of the American Embassy hostage crisis, castigated the Shah for having run "one of the most violent regimes in history of mankind" .
Both remarks were clearly calculated to achieve short- term objectives. Carter had come to Teheran desperate to check the soaring price of the crude oil. Kennedy's remark was timed to optimize the chances of his emissary to Tehran, tasked to obtain from Ayatollah Khomeini a token release of the American hostages. Kennedy, then seeking to snatch the Democratic presidential nomination from the incumbent Carter, had chosen the former US Senator James Abourezk (of Arab extraction) for this unpublicized mission to Tehran .
Where should the line be drawn? In a mixed bag of achievements and flaws the Shah's balance sheet resembles other modernizing states. Many would grade it superior. What tarnished his image most was his record on human rights and political freedoms. A silence of a cemetery had indeed characterized the political arena in Iran during most of the shah's rule. The ubiquitous security agency SAVAK, created in 1957 with the help of the US and Israel, was the instrument of the repression. By the seventies, the suppression had spawned violence as groups, sprung from the edges of the ideological spectrum, resorted to urban guerrilla tactics and acts of terrorism. A vicious circle had set in. The SAVAK blended ruthlessness with incompetence. It was effective in dismantling the clandestine structure of Iran's communist party (Tudeh) but failed to gauge the creeping popular discontent, still less the coming of the fundamentalist bane. When the crunch finally came in 1978, this colossus fell on its clay feet unable to save its master.
But the extent of repression was never close to claims recklessly advanced in some quarters, including by such reputable institutions as Amnesty International . No mass graves trailed the Shah when he finally quit the country on January 1979. No "death caravans" hunted his memory; Teheran produced no equivalent of Buenes Aires's "plaza de Mayo" where "grandmas" gather every Sunday to reclaim news of their missing children. To be sure the military Kangaroo courts were quick to mete out death sentences. But the practice of royal pardon was abundantly resorted to. The sentences were systematically commuted or annulled. Some viewed this practice as a gimmick to earn political capital; be it as it may, few now dispute the fact that the Shah was averse to cruelty. The overall number of executions by the military tribunals, including those occasioned by drug related offenses, were estimate at around 350 cases. Figured among them were some prisoners of conscience including some twenty five ring- leaders of the military wing of the Communist party of Iran. Their crime was to have been mesmerized by the Stalinist Russia. The rest of the six hundred communist officers arrested in nineteen fifties - as indeed the bulk of other political prisoners - were rehabilitated, many were co-opted into the Shah's administration. All in all some 3500 persons were killed in street unrests or by order of military courts during the Shah's reign, between1953 to 1979 . The Geneva based International Committee of Red Cross which visited all Iranian prisons in 1977 put the number of political prisoners at 3200 while some seventy prisoners were declared unaccounted for.
No democrat could condone these figures, moderate though they are in relative terms. This having been said, there is another facet of human rights in the Pahlavi era which has largely been disregarded:
This author grew up in a middle class neighborhood in Tehran of the nineteen fifties. The small alley where his house was located had taken its name after a Jewish doctor who had been the first to construct a house in that vicinage. The alley housed an Assyrian Christian family, several Baha'i families, a Zoroastrian family and of course many Moslem households. No hint of bigotry disturbed the serenity of this cultural mosaic. It would be hypocritical to claim that religious minorities were by law on the same footing as Moslems but intolerance was being discouraged and the system moved progressively towards full equality of rights among citizens.
A previously unknown historical anecdote cited by a US scholar in a recent book best illustrates the point. It concerns the protection of the Iranian Jews living in the occupied Europe during the II World War. According to the author the Iranian Government of the time managed to procure them safe conduct from the authorities of the Third Reich on the false pretence that these citizens, having lived in Iran for over two millenniums, have been assimilated in the Persians (Arian) race .
The status of women is another case in point. Under the Pahlavis the Iranian women were brought to the society's mainstream. The mushrooming institutions of higher learning opened their doors to women. Teachers, doctors, lawyers and administrators were trained and fielded in different walks of life. The right to vote (even if only nominal), to seek divorce and be protected from an abusive husband was - to the dismay of the clerics - written into the law. Today, the Iranian women remain one of the vanguards of resistance to scourges of the fundamentalist rule.
Much of the bravura exhibited by the Shah's administration in the seventies, was in the sphere of economy. The exuberance of the double-digit growth was indeed intoxicating. In 1974 - in the wake of a quantum jump in the oil price-- the Shah dismissed the counsel of prudence by experts and decreed an even faster growth. In his complex psyche, many imperatives drove him to go full blast. One factor was to firm up the throne for the Crown Prince Reza but he was equally concerned with his legacy and place in history. Should he not disproof those detractors who claimed he did not measure up to the towering figure of his father?
But the economic bullishness did not pay off. The country's weak infrastructure buckled under the weight of imports and the rise in the price of oil resulted in lower consumer demand in world markets. As the economy wobbled and Carter's human rights agenda forced the Shah to make liberalization gestures, the tide began to change.
All these were unexpected perks for the disgruntled clerics. The magnetizing effect of the boom had already drawn rural masses to major cities glutting the congregations in mosques. Now the clerics reaped the harvest of discontent, brandishing radical Shiite doctrine both as a challenge and a remedy. The Shah "politics of liberalization" had also created its own sliding spiral. To reverse these trends, the Shah should have but failed to rally the secular Mossadeghist of the National Front to his side. With the hindsight, it is also fair to say that the rigidity of some of the National Front leaders was an error of historical scale.
To what extent the Shah's judgment had been impaired by the secret diagnosis of lymphatic cancer in1974? Such a link is hard to establish all the more so that the Shah had not been told of the exact nature of his ill until the later years. Be it as it may his most serious errors occurred during the ensuing period . It was at thus rime that the Shah decided on one party rule; replaced the Islamic calendar with an ostentatious imperial calendar. The shah had also begun his fanciful flights on "Great Civilization." The new royal megrim had the Iranians believe that within a generation or so Iran will rank among the world's industrial elite.
Had a race against the clock already began for the Shah?
A wild-west climate of profiteering marked these palmy years. Abusive business practices, notably by the Shah's close family and friends, became a hallmark of the laissez-faire policies practiced at overkill scale. The Shah himself could hardly be given a clean bill of health as he brooked corruption in his entourage; yet he was far from the rapacious persona, with a fabulous wealth, which the revolutionary puffery sought to depict.
During the Embassy hostage crisis, the revolutionary authorities kept no stone unturned to find documentary evidence of financial wrong doings by the Shah. This search was aimed, inter- alia, to substantiate claims in the extradition brief submitted to Panama. In March 1980, foreign correspondents scrambled for scoops in the jammed conference hall of the Tehran's Central Bank, where President Bani Sadr was to make the Islamic Republic's legal case against the Shah. Scathing revelations were expected. Yet nothing worth the print could be wired back to editors. The revolutionary authorities had not been able to pin the Shah to any financial irregularity. This was not however the case in respect of some of the Shah's close family members.
When the crunch finally came in 1978, the Shah was unprepared and not up to the challenge. He was quick to shed the awe-inspiring mask of the mighty king and meekly looked for advice. The Anglo American Ambassadors were solicited most; yet their counsel was tentative and vague reflecting indecision and discord with their own chancelleries. Others consulted were an array of retired politicians, social scientists, military leaders and some prominent clerics. Their advice was too contrasting to allow the Shah to overcome his characteristic indecision. In managing the crisis the Shah committed blunders, practicing appeasement from a position of weakness. By the last quarter of 1978, in the face of an astounding quiescence by the Shah, the largely apolitical mass of the urban population swung to insurrectionists rendering the trend irreversible.
But to his credit the Shah skirted a bloodbath. Evidence abounds that on this score he had remained steadfast throughout the crisis period. He repeatedly rejected the get -tough advice proffered not only by some of his generals but coming also from some unlikely quarters in the West .
By the year-end the Shah was ready to unclench the power. Images of his tearful farewell at Mehrabad airport on January 14, 1979 remain hunting memories of a dream turned into a nightmare. In a grisly act, the Shah left behind in detention his loyal and highly refined Prime Minister of 13 years, Amir Abbas Hoveyda. The ex-Premier was summarily executed by the revolution's hanging judge shortly thereafter.
With the Shah's departure, Iran sank into the darkness. A reign of terror, of which he had presciently warned the nation, had set in. The first public act of Khomeini, when he took over the reins of power in February 1979, was to abolish women's right to sit in as a judge in a court of law. That presaged the calamities that were to follow.
Perhaps no ruler in history like the Shah has benefited from a postmortem redemption, due not to any reappraisal of his balance sheet but the misdeeds of those who succeeded him in power. A case study would support a theory - of a sheer academic interest -- that the value accorded to any given regime should be measured in light of its inevitable successor.
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