Debunking revisionism about Iran's last Shah

Unpacking the Shah’s modernization, his despotism, and US-Iran relations

Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The latest book by Ray Takeyh on Iran, The Last Shah, provides an extraordinary account of one of the last century’s most complex Middle East monarchs, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-1980).
Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US State Department official, delivers a deeply nuanced and eloquent history of the shah—with all of Pahlavi’s remarkable modernization and international relations accomplishments and his repression as a full-blown despot.
In his chapter “The Shah’s Emerging Autocracy,” Takeyh describes a conversation of the “melancholy dictator,” who tells a friend, “You know there is no more lonely and unhappy life for a man than when he decides to rule instead of reign.”
As Takeyh makes clear, the shah, at this stage in the 1950s, was animated by a desire to rule at the expense of messy democratic processes.
He places the desire of Iranians for freedom at the center of this profound work: “The theme of Iranian history is a populace seeking to emancipate itself from tyranny—first monarchical, now Islamist,” Takeyh notes.
In his account of the struggles against the shah’s autocratic system and the totalitarianism of the current Islamic Republic, Takeyh concludes that “many Iranians aspired to live in a nation where elections and institutions mattered.”
The interplay between the United States and Persia from 1941, when Pahlavi succeeded his father on the throne, until 1979 and the collapse of 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran, plays a central role in Takeyh’s history of the shah.
Two great Allied powers of World War II, the USSR and the UK, believed Pahlavi’s father, Reza Shah, shared pro-Nazi sentiments and forced him to abdicate in 1941. “The shah’s industrialization effort relied heavily on German goods and technicians,” Takeyh writes, but he adds that the “vulgar and toxic anti-Semitism at the heart of National Socialism found only a limited audience in Iran. It was Iran’s distrust of Russia and Britain that explains its disastrous flirtation with the Third Reich.”
One radical Islamist in particular was receptive to the Hitler movement’s ideology during the Second World War, namely, the man who would put an end to the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The young Khomeini frequently tuned in to the Berlin-based radio program of the pro-Hitler Palestinian leader Haj Amin al Husseini, who agitated for Muslims in the Middle East to “kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history and religion.”
Takeyh notes the state-sponsored eliminatory anti-Semitism that was ushered in after Khomeini seized power in 1979: “A sixty-seven-year-old businessman named Habib Elghanian was executed after being charged with ‘treason through his connections with Israel and Zionism.’” In contrast, Pahlavi had announced “de facto recognition of the Jewish state” back in 1959, according to Takeyh,
When the 21-year-old Mohammad assumed the throne in 1941, Iran was occupied by the Soviet Union and Britain. A huge test for the shah and his government concerned the restoration of Iran’s territorial integrity in 1945, after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
In his chapter “A Crisis in Azerbaijan,” Takeyh writes about the successful effort of Iran’s crafty Prime Minister Ahmad Qavam in dislodging the Soviets from Persian territory.
The experience of ejecting the Soviets would shape the shah’s self-belief by inspiring his self-confidence, says Takeyh.
This nascent phase of the shah’s reign would also see a recurring theme: The dismissal of prudent counsel not to dominate Iranian power politics because it would come back to haunt him, as the exiled Qavam warned in what Takeyh terms a “prescient” public letter to the monarch.
With the advent of the Cold War, “The [West’s] strategy of containment [of Russian communism] now had a venue, Iran,” writes Takeyh. 
He neatly debunks the fevered anti-American pitch associated with the so-called “anti-Imperialist” international Left about the US role in Iran. “The United States twice upheld Iran’s independence at the risk of estranging its allies. America would make its share of mistakes in Persia, but its championing of Iran’s self-determination should never be forgotten,” Takeyh argues.
The era of Iran’s efforts to wrest control of its petroleum industry from Britain and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was pivotal in Iran’s history. Takeyh provides a terrifically granular account of the players involved and the collapse of negotiations that would lead to Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq’s controversial government (1951-1953).
While Mossadeq and allies introduced the concept of the “oil less economy,” the shah realized that the populist slogan was not grounded in reality.
Takeyh’s two chapters on the economics of Iran’s oil industry and the coup d’état against Mossadeq are stuffed full of material that helps to clarify the ongoing, heated dispute about who was responsible for the prime minister’s ouster.
His chapter “The Coup” should be sine qua non reading prior to discussions about the role of the US in the eviction of Mossadeq from the halls of power. “An anti-Mossadeq coalition had formed between the clergy and the military,” writes Takeyh, adding that the Western intelligence agencies “did not foster the pro-monarchy attitudes nor incite the army officers and mullahs to join in opposition to the prime minister.”
Takeyh’s investigation concludes the “balance of evidence suggests it was more an Iranian plot than an American one” to bring a new premier into office in 1953.
The rulers of the Islamic Republic, writes Takeyh, would later aim to sanitize the part the clerics played in the coup. Mass demonstrations would also take on a more pronounced role during this stage of the shah’s tenure.
Pro-shah protests surprised the opponents of Mossadeq. “Crowds always played a role in twentieth-century Persian politics. The leading parties and personalities always used them to assert their power,” writes Takeyh.
One can see how such displays of strength played out in the twentieth-first century. Fast forward to the Green Movement mass protests against 2009’s fraudulent re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and to the non-party and non-personality outbreaks of demonstrations during the period 2017-2019.
The coup of 1953 turned the shah “from a hesitant monarch into a despot who would gradually eviscerate the establishment that had served him so well,” notes Takeyh.
The Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter administrations sought to convince the shah to reform his economy and not prioritize the accumulation of weapons.
Takeyh’s superb use of historical records, newspaper reports and memoirs provide invaluable insight into Iran-US relations during the nearly 40-year reign of the last shah.
One of the more interesting American national security officials involved in analyzing Iran was Robert William “Blowtorch Bob” Komer. Takeyh describes a 1962 memo from Komer to President John F. Kennedy as “trenchant.”
Komer, who was born into a Jewish family in Chicago in 1922, served in WWII, joined the CIA in 1947 and then the staff of the National Security Council, wrote there was a need to decide “whether we will continue along this road or whether we will at long last make a determined effort to force the Shah to face up to the fact that his real problems are internal, and not external, and that if he doesn’t do more about them, his days are indeed numbered.”
For the reader interested in Iran-Israel relations, Tayekh’s book contains many golden nuggets, including when Pahlavi refused to join the 1973 Arab embargo in response to the Yom Kippur War and “bragged about selling oil to Israel.”
The shah reached the zenith of his international stature in the mid 1970s. He “was the most consequential ruler in the Middle East,” notes Takeyh, adding that he maintained good relations with both Egypt and Israel, which had yet to sign their peace treaty.
Pahlavi also implemented significant land reform as part of his White Revolution that aimed to empower the peasantry. Takeyh succinctly captures the stagnation in Iran even during the reformism wave, noting, “The paradox of Iran was it was a dynamic country that few wanted to live in.”
With eyes focused on the revived Iran nuclear talks in Vienna in April, it is worth noting another myth that Takeyh debunks in his book, namely, that the US helped to build the shah’s nuclear program while seeking to stop the Islamic Republic’s atomic apparatus.
In fact, according to Takeyh, President Gerald R. Ford rejected Pahlavi’s request for nuclear technology. France, and Germany, whose Siemens firm built Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant, defied the US efforts to stymie the Islamists’ growing nuclear system.
The shah’s last hurrah was the effort to retain his monarchy in the face of the efforts of the committed Islamic revolutionary Khomeini and his movement, filled as they were with nebulous promises and programs that attracted the support of disparate groups.
Takeyh’s chapter “The Revolution” is a riveting account of one of the most important (and most destructive for regional Middle East security) events in post-WWII history. “By the mid-1970s, alarm bells were ringing in the CIA” about the rising dissent among Iranian civil servants. There were reams of solid US intelligence about the volatility in Iran and the storm before the deceptive calm.
The intelligence was largely ignored by successive US administrations. Could Khomeinism have been stopped? Takeyh makes a compelling case that the Nixon administration could have saved Pahlavi but that by the time of Jimmy Carter in 1977, the shah could not be rescued from the forces of revolutionary change. In 1979, Pahlavi and his family fled Iran.
Khomeini’s system introduced a spectacular level of violence against his country’s citizens. He later regretted not killing more Iranians after he seized power. Takeyh writes that “One of the ironies of Iran is that the theocracy has abused far more clerics than the shah ever did.”
While Pahlavi advanced the rights of women in Iran, Khomeini would reverse the progress, imposing gender apartheid. And the Islamic Republic has been classified by both Democratic and Republican administrations as the leading international state-sponsor of terrorism.
The long march of Iranians to emancipate themselves from highly repressive systems and rulers continues. The current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who declared, “Do whatever it takes to end it”  to his security forces to stop the 2019 protests against regime corruption, has implemented levels of violence not seen since the purges shortly after the revolution and the mass murder of political prisoners in 1988.
According to a Reuters investigation, Khamenei’s 2019 crackdown resulted in roughly 1,500 deaths. In the effort to understand the dialectics of modern Iranian history, Takeyh’s book is, without question, a go to source on the country’s complex and rich history.
One can only hope that his book is translated into Persian and other languages to expand the knowledge base of those interested in Persia and the modern Middle East.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.