This is a marvelous, wide-ranging and intelligently written story of the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. It looks to me to be an excellent piece of scholarship.
I lived just down the street from the Shah for two years, from 1970 to 1972, and I served as an advisor to his Supreme Military Staff, and advised in the creation of his National Defence University, but I don't presume to be an expert on the Shah.
During the years that I lived and worked in Iran, and in all that I have read and heard since then, the Shah was a good leader for Iran, trying to bring a backward country into the modern world, and to carve out a greater part for Iran in the world. When I was there, and since the Shah was restored to his throne less than 20 years before, the Soviet Union loomed large on the landscape. Everything we did in and with Iran reflected our need to keep Iran on our side in the great balancing act between the USSR and the West.
During World War II Britain, the United States and the USSR all stationed forces in Iran in order to ship millions of tons of military supplies and food north to Russia. At war's end, the British and Americans began to leave, but the Soviets occupied northern provinces, and appeared very determined to annex those parts of the country.
The Shah, with British and American help, was able to expel the Soviet troops from those northern provinces.
When I was there the Shah had just about reached the high point of his rule. The British, in a long-before announced move, had taken their navy out of the waters "east ofAden", or the Red Sea, and with American encouragement the Shah's Imperial Navy was taking over a larger role in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and gradually, theIndian Ocean.
In 1973, the Yom Kippur War took place, and the coalition of oil-producing countries put a giant clamp on world oil supplies. For Iran and the Shah, the money came flooding in. Up to that time, he had been able to manage the greed of his relatives and close associates, keeping graft and corruption bubbling below the surface.
Milani's book certainly does not paint the Shah as a modern day hero, or the Savior of Iran, but he was clearly a very positive influence on Iran, and his leadership was bringing Iran into the modern world, with education for more Iranians, improvements in standard of living, and a greatly improved standing in the world community. He was a secular ruler, and he and the Shahbanou set an example for modernizing the role of women in the country.
It seems to be a very fair picture of a man born to a Persian Cossack officer of very humble beginnings. That officer seems to have fallen into the role of Shah of Iran, by the events of the time, carried along by crafty and often unprincipled westerners--mostly British, but later, the operatives of the United States took over the care, feeding and steering of the Shah.
In 1965 the Shah, in Milani's view, had reached about the pinnacle of his reign. By then he was skilled, principled, and moving rapidly to modernize his country. If only he could have done more of all that good, but he had a lot of things working against him.
When I arrived in Iran in September, 1970, I was one of a few U.S. Naval officers, on a staff of mostly Army officers and men, and a growing number of Air Force officers and men. The American presence in Iran had begun during World War II, just before President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin had their historic Teheran Conference there.
In 1970 the United States was busy helping the Shah to build up his armed forces as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and its allies in the region--Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and India. At the same time, Britain had scheduled a complete withdrawal of its naval forces from the Indian Ocean, and was turning that responsibility over to the United States Navy, and to Iran.
This book tells about life in the cocoon around the Shah, as he became increasingly protected by a small circle of sycophants, and even foreign diplomats, CIA and MI6 operatives. Those in that circle became people who told him what he wanted to hear, and at the same time urged him to buy more. And buy he did. With all the oil money that was coming to the country, he bought destroyers from the UK, trucks and artillery from the USSR, and state-of-the-art jet fighters, Boeing airliners, and much more from the U.S.
During my time there, my wife taught bright young Iranians English, and I learned Persian from other bright young Iranians, and in our exposure to the unofficial Persian world, we heard bits and pieces of the discontent that was simmering in the country.
However, no one was putting this picture together for the Shah, nor was he listening. No one would dare darken his day telling him how the world would soon know that SAVAK, his security agency, was more and more shifting to the dark side of doing dirty tricks. No one was giving him a good report about how Islamic groups were building up resentment to the Shah. His efforts to westernize the country naturally irritated those groups, but he had no apparent plan for handling this growing resentment.
In 1971 the Shah put on a magnificent party out in the desert at the ancient city ofPersepolis. It was a grand party. He spent millions to put up elegant tents for his visitors, with marble bathrooms and rich Persian carpets, and running water--right out there in the desert! And they came--kings and princes and princesses--from all over the world. I remember seeing Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, and Emperor Haile Selassie ofEthiopia, and King Hussein of Jordan. The U.S. sent Spiro Agnew, the VP, I think. That whole event did not go down well with the growing circle of Iranians critical of the Shah.
As time went on, the Shah became more disconnected to any voices that would tell him "bad news". American diplomats and intelligence operatives reported growing discontent, but back home in the USA, presidents and Secretaries of State dared not rock the Shah's boat, so did not bother the Shah with their findings.
By 1975, the Shah was pulling in more money than even he and his circle could spend, and no one seemed to be worrying about how all this would play out. And then there were the girls. Lots of girls.
This was the beginning of the end, as his appetite for debauchery overcame his desire to lead. He was also facing early signs of cancer, and intelligent Iranians were beginning to see the end. Some of those bright Iranians were Mullahs and other religious leaders.
How does the 1979 Islamic Revolution relate to the string of revolutions and uprisings taking place today?
The central point is: a leader who isolates himself from his people is ruling in the dark. Even a dictator must be aware of his people, and this is where the Shah failed. One can see similar failings in Mubarak, Qaddafi, al Assad, el Abadine Ben Ali and Saleh.
The Islamic Republic of Iran appears to be much worse for Iran than the Shah ever was. There are a lot of smart, well-educated Persians, both in Iran and abroad, and I feel confident that before long, they will figure out a way to unseat the Mullahs and thugs who are running Iran slowly into the sand.