The Shah’s mixed legacy

A new biography explores why Mohammed Reza became such a polarizing figure in the West.

MOHAMMED REZA and his wife, Queen Farah521 (photo credit: Wikimedia)
MOHAMMED REZA and his wife, Queen Farah521
(photo credit: Wikimedia)
The Shah remains one of the enigmatic figures of the 20th century. For authors like Abbas Milani, director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution, the obstacles to writing a new biography and the necessity of doing so are clearly apparent: “A new look at the Shah’s life, free from the excesses of his overzealous defenders and detractors, is now not only possible but more than ever necessary.” It was never entirely clear why the Shah became a polarizing figure in the West. With all the savage dictators that the second half of the 20th century threw up, why did he alone affect people this way in the 1970s? His legacy is enduring: The hostage crises that came after his fall helped bring Ronald Reagan into the White House. Massive protests related to a state visit of his in Germany even helped engender the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhoff gang.
A Western pathology of extreme obsession and hatred toward the Shah developed at universities and in social circles, mirroring the modern obsession with Israel by certain groups.
The Shah starts, appropriately, with his flight into exile. The Middle East’s club of dictators at the time was a sort of old boys’ network, and the monarch had been an important linchpin in it.
According to Milani, “the Shah had demonstrated a solid sense of loyalty to the royalty of the world... [a] veritable patron saint of deposed kings, widowed queens and unemployed princes.” He first came to Sadat’s Egypt and then moved on to Morocco, where, for a year, his circumstances devolved. It was clear he was not going back to Iran.
In the end, his royal friends deserted him; King Hussein of Jordan “never allowed him to visit during his exile,” and “gouging the [exiled] royal family became a favorite sport of the local elites.” The Shah died betrayed – by his people, by world leaders, and most poignantly by the liberal-minded Westerners who hated him and, unknowingly, helped shepherd in Islamic radicalism in Tehran.
It should not have ended as it did. He came to power with full knowledge of his precarious position and privy to the fate of those who go into exile. Mohammed Reza was born in 1919.
His father, Reza Khan, eventually maneuvered himself into the position of king in 1925. “It had been hundreds of years since a Persian family ruled Iran,” notes Milani. But Iran was an incredibly weak state, with communists in the North and British-supported Arab tribes in the South threatening to tear it apart, on top of internal divisions between constitutionally inclined democrats and reactionary clergy. Reza Khan was a secularist who banned men from wearing traditional turbans and ordered women to remove their veils. Yet he was brought down by the chaos of World War II; suspected of Nazi sympathies, the British forced him to abdicate in September 1941.
Mohammed Reza, the Shah, thus came to power knowing that his throne was fragile. “He was a reluctant young king on a shaky throne in the turbulent years of the Second World War amid a hotbed of fierce competition between the war’s competing forces,” writes the author.
For almost 40 years, the Shah would maneuver to cement his reign and make Iran a regional power, independent of the European powers that held such sway when he started his rule.
For 12 years, the Shah’s rule in Iran went relatively untested. Then, in 1953, he faced an increasingly powerful nationalist prime minister in the form of Mohamed Mossadeq. Mossadeq claimed to be a constitutionally elected official who was merely opposing the role of former colonizers, primarily the British, in Iran. Yet the Shah saw that in the end, he would also be swept out of the country by the new populism. He dismissed Mossadeq, and after a short crisis in August of that year, he was able to solidify his rule, on track to gather many of the organs of Iranian governance in his hands.
“For the last quarter century of the Shah’s rule, his life was to a considerable degree plagued by the question of what happened in Tehran on August 19, 1953. Was it a coup or counter-coup? A proud day of national resurrection or a day of foreign infamy?”

Milani does not entirely resolve this question, but seems to come down somewhere in the middle.
In the years afterward, the Shah transformed his country into an economic and political powerhouse. In 1965 he broached a new idea with US presidential candidate Richard Nixon: “The defense of the Persian Gulf must be left to Iran, thus sparing the US the need to spread its forces across every corner of the world... when Nixon became president, the Shah’s dream became a reality – Iran was picked in the grand scheme of the Nixon Doctrine to be the dominant force, the policeman of the Persian Gulf.”
This choice was later responsible for America’s need to rely on Saudi Arabia after 1980, and has resulted, in a roundabout, unforeseen way, in Iran’s penetration of the entire region.
Milani’s conclusion is that the Shah is primarily a “tragic” figure. His “desire for rapid modernization, combined with his increased authoritarianism, helped create the tragedy of his reign – a period of increasingly, albeit unequal, prosperity, ending with the rule of a de-modernizing clerical regime.”
The same could be said for so many countries that choose a greater radical evil over a softer authoritarian evil; Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, just to name a few.
The Shah
is an expertly written account by a man intimately familiar with Iran’s culture and political history, who brings to bear a new understanding of the sources and a fair rendition of the Shah’s life.