A common narrative concerning the Shah and the Pahlavi legacy unites much of Iran’s intelligentsia with liberal-left opinion in the West. According to this narrative, Mohammad Reza Shah’s father, Reza Shah, was an absolutist dictator who attempted to modernize Iran at the point of the gun and in entirely unacceptable pace. Meanwhile, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is depicted as a corrupt stooge and a “westoxicated” lapdog of American imperialism who, by squashing the authentic democratic urges of his people, ultimately empowered the fundamentalist scourge now raging in his homeland.
As the 30th anniversary of the late Shah’s departure from Iran approached, I had the opportunity to read Gholam Reza Afkhami’s magisterial biography of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, The Life and Times of the Shah, a text that goes a long way towards problematizing if not completely debunking this “consensus” narrative. Afkhami, who served as Deputy Minister of Interior before the Revolution, fully acknowledges that his biography goes against the common scholarly grain when it comes to assessments of the legacy of the Shah’s reign. And yet the University of California Press cannot be reproached for publishing Afkhami’s book, which is not only painstakingly researched and meticulously sourced but also draws on a rich, wide range of oral histories provided by key witnesses – members of the royal family, various courtiers, high level public servants, US and UK ex-officials, as well as leftist and Islamist opponents of the Shah’s regime. The picture of the Shah that emerges from Afkhami’s biography is one of a deeply patriotic man committed to leading his nation to an advanced industrial state in tune with the diverse traditions and historical heritage of his people — what today might be celebrated as an “alternative modernity.” That said, the Pahlavi era was clearly plagued with a number of serious flaws, some of them originating in the monarch’s own character, most the product of the tragic conjuncture the Shah found himself confronting, one which forced him to balance development against the limitations of a mostly illiterate populace, nationalization of oil against dealing with great power antagonisms threatening Iran’s territorial sovereignty, and liberty against security in the age of the “black [fundamentalist] and red [communist] reactions.”
What follows represents what I found to be three key insights gleaned from The Life and Times of the Shah.
1. Reza Shah (Mohammad Reza Shah’s father) made invaluable contributions to the historical progress of Iran towards modern statehood, ones which completely outweigh the criticisms posed by his detractors.
Afkhami’s account of the ascent of Reza Khan Mirpanj to the Peacock Throne serves as a sort of extended prologue to The Life and Times of the Shah. At the time, the vast majority of Iranian were racked with abject poverty and denied the right to a life of dignity by the feudal system maintained by the Qajar Dynasty. The nation was also forced to make one humiliating capitulation to foreign powers after another. These capitulations essentially surrendered Persian sovereignty to the Russian and the British, who exercised de facto control over their respective “zones of influence” in the country. Meanwhile, the cowardly Qajar kings, princes, and potentates worried more about securing their foreign-paid “allowances” than protecting Iran and improving the common lot of their people. Against this backdrop, the rise to power of Reza Khan — who was singularly devoted to re-asserting Iran’s national sovereignty and moving the country forward over against the forces of feudalism and obscurantism – can only be viewed as a fundamentally liberatory development and a watershed moment in Iran’s history. That the steps he took towards modernizing a backward nation involved some swift, “authoritarian” decisionism and that he digruntled some deeply entrenched classes and interests (especially the ulama) are neither unique to Reza Shah nor particularly unsettling – all such attempts do. But the changes introduced by Reza Shah were nevertheless overwhelmingly positive. In fact, ordinary Iranians, and particularly women, continue to this day and despite the Islamic Republic’s incompetent and unjust rule, to benefit from pieces of Reza Shah’s legacy! - Afkhami puts the lie to the caricaturized tale of the British handpicking and grooming the Cossack officer to rule in their interests: that the British came to initially support him because they favored a strong national government in Tehran over a crumbling Qajar edifice does not discredit Reza Shah’s aims and actions. As Afkhami shows, Reza Shah refused to submit to British and Russian interferance in Iran’s affairs despite the limitations placed on him by Iran’s relative weakness vis-a-vis these great powers. Afkhami also undermines another commonly held misconception about Reza Shah, which claims that he was forced to abdicate by the British and Russians because he was an admirer of Hitler or had Hitlerite inclinations. In fact, during WWII, Reza Shah followed the standards of neutrality to the letter, expelling all German experts by the deadlines set by the Allies. That he fell out of favor with the British, Afkhami argues, had more to do with his insistence that the agreed-upon royalties for oil be paid by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) than with his alleged siding with the Axis. “The more the shah stood on his rights,” Afkhami writes, “the more acerbic became the British propaganda against him.” In other words, if anyone in Iran’s history was a true victim of good, old-fashioned imperialism, it was Reza Shah - to whom all Iranians owe a profound debt of gratitude.
2. There is far more than meets the eye when it comes to Mossadegh and the infamous coup that deposed him.
When Reza Shah abdicated the Peacock Throne, Iran was once again in turmoil and under foreign occupation. The British considered re-instating the Qajar Dynasty in the form of Crown Prince Hamid Mirza Qajar, but ultimately decided against him in favor of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi since they could not find a single instance in the history of Persian monarchy of a previously deposed dynasty returning to power and, more importantly, since Hamid Mirza could not even speak Persian. The young Shah retained his father’s insistence on Iran’s sovereign right to freedom from foreign interferance in her affairs. He was convinced that Iran’s best path towards independence was economic development. To successfully traverse this path, Iran needed to maximize its oil profits. Early in his reign, the Shah made a number of concerted efforts towards nationalization of oil, which he considered a “noble substance,” a gift from God to benefit the Iranian nation. The Shah however, was also a believer in gradualism: he knew that Iran lacked the capacity or expertise needed to successfully refine, market, and distribute its own oil. Therefore, he sought to renegotiate Iran’s contract with the AIOC to obtain better terms for his country until such time when Iran would be able to fully enter the complex international oil market on its own. The Shah thus initially supported Dr. Mossadeq’s aggressive stance vis-a-vis the AIOC. Mossadeq however, did not believe in the Shah’s gradualism. Moreover, Mossadeq, who in many ways still lived in the 1920s, lacked the Shah’s in-depth understanding of the dynamics of the modern oil industry and the sensitive geopolitics underpinning it. Thus when he took radical steps to nationalize oil, Mossadeq put Iran’s basic economic wellbeing at great risk. In response, the AIOC in conjunction with the other supermajors simply pushed Iran out of the oil market while London mounted a largely successful economic blockade against Tehran. These developments played out much as the Shah had predicted — and yet throughout these painful days, the Shah continued to support his premier in word and deed. As Afkhami explains, it was not until Mossadeq accorded himself unconstitutional emergency powers (suspending the Majlis, etc.) and began to speak openly against the crown that the Shah turned against him. The events that followed have gained mythical status among opponents of the Shah. But as Afkhami shows, the coup against Mossadeq was largely homemade and enjoyed solid support among broad segments of Iranian society. Crucially, the primary push behind the coup was provided by the Imperial armed forces who, since the time of Reza Shah, had developed a special relationship with the crown, one marked by profound loyalty to and affinity for the person of the Shah who represented the sovereignty, power, and will of the Iranian nation. Afkhami does not deny the fact that the CIA and SIS played a role in the coup; however, he demonstrates that the extent of American and British involvement in the affair was greatly exaggerated in the accounts disclosed by American officials themselves (especially Kermit Roosevelt). These dubious first person accounts in turn serve as the sole sources of information in the narratives offered by liberal historians like Stephen Kinzer. Further distorting perceptions of the coup, Afkhami argues, was many Iranians’ false conviction that the American and British possessed almost “occult powers.” (This debilitating sense of national inferiority in relation to the all-powerful, conspiratorial West – what I would call the “Uncle Napoleon Complex” – continues to prevent Iranians from objectively assessing their place in the world and taking ownership of their collective destinies.) The success of the coup saw Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi reach the zenith of his prestige, popularity, and confidence as a monarch, allowing him to pursue head-on his magnificent dream of developing Iran into an advanced industrial state.
3. The Shah’s vision of Iran as a “Great Civilization” amounted to an alternative modernity poised between the grandeur of the ancient Persian empire and the promise of Western innovations in science and politics - its loss represents a great national tragedy.
Much of The Life and Times of the Shah is devoted to exploring the Shah’s numerous development dreams and projects. The Shah viewed his life mission as developing Iran into an advanced industrial state — what he called a “Great Civilization,” one which looked back with pride on its ancient heritage and looked forward to a dignified, independent future. Oil was the gift from God that was meant to help Iran reach this status. Since he knew that Iran’s share of this “noble substance” would some day run out, the Shah emphatically insisted on diversifying Iran’s economy and fostering a private sector which would eventually come to replace oil as the basis of Iran’s economic life. When it came to development, Afkhami suggests, the Shah may have been too ambitious and too aggressive. (His land reform efforts, for example, were somewhat misguided and failed to do much for the average Iranian farmer.) Yet the immense challenges involved in transitioning Iran from a disease-stricken, illiterate, semi-feudal country to a modern state perhaps called for the Shah’s aggressiveness. And the Shah’s achievements in many arenas were remarkable: rapid GDP growth, vastly increased literacy rates, the launching of a range of manufacturing operations (including steel production), and the development of natural gas piplines stretching from the Gulf to the Soviet Union are a few examples. The Shah also linked the emancipation of women to his development efforts. Consequently, gender relations in Iran were radically transformed during his reign, allowing women to emerge from second-class status to assume productive roles in Iran’s political and socio-economic development. Yet development was a double-edged sword for the Shah, for it angered the powerful ulama to whom modernity was anathema. Ironically, since it far out-paced political reform, economic development also radicalized a petulant, confused generation of newly-educated Iranians who would soon embrace a charismatic cleric from Khomein in order to put an end to the Shah’s beautiful dreams.
UPDATE: This book review was just published by Iranian.com!