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Book review: 'The Shah' by Abbas Milani

A comprehensive new biography of the ousted Iranian leader finds him 'a tragic figure.'

February 20, 2011|By Stanley Meisler | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • The Shah of Iran in March 1954.
The Shah of Iran in March 1954. (Aziz Rashki / Associated…)

The Shah

Abbas Milani

Palgrave Macmillan: 488 pp., $30

It was uncanny to read the closing chapters of this splendidly detailed biography of the last shah of Iran while tumultuous and jubilant crowds in Egypt drove Hosni Mubarak from power.The parallels were so close they seemed to come out of some fanciful fiction.

Like Mubarak, the shah—in power for 37 years—was blinded by a megalomania and a thirst for power that isolated him from the needs and demands of his people. Like Mubarak, the shah, spurning the advice of others, refused to initiate reforms until it was too late to satisfy his critics. Like Mubarak, the shah, who fled Iran in 1979, had maintained a facade of strength and stability that lulled the United States into believing that the iron-clad strength of its Middle Eastern ally was in no danger of cracking.

But the biographer Abbas Milani, the head of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, is not trying to depict the life and downfall of the shah as a model for political upheavals in the Middle East.

Written and published before the recent round of street uprisings against Arab dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, Milani's book is an attempt at a thorough and dispassionate account of the machinations of the enigmatic shah. Although the biographer mentions that he was once a political prisoner of the shah (he does not say for how long), he succeeds in turning out a thoughtful and colorful biography without rancor.

All in all, he portrays the shah as a limited man who paralyzed himself with indecision in crises. Milani concludes that "the shah was, in the classical sense of the word, a tragic figure — a hare pretending to roar like a lion."

Although the shah celebrated 2,500 years of rule by monarchs in Iran with an ostentatious and foolish tented party in the desert in 1971, he was not a child of royalty when he was born in Tehran as Mohammad Reza on Oct. 26, 1919. His father was a powerful officer of the army's Cossack Brigade who would later seize power in a coup and declare himself as the new king or shah known as Reza Shah.

During World War II, Britain and the Soviet Union occupied Iran, and the British, suspicious of Reza Shah's pro-German sympathies, forced him to abdicate, allowing 21-year-old Mohammad to succeed his father as the shah of Iran. With the Soviet Union on his borders, the new shah, fearful of communism, aligned himself early with the United States in the Cold War.

In 1953, the shah almost lost his throne in a battle with his fiery prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, after the latter infuriated Britain and the United States by nationalizing the oil industry. In fact, the shah and his family fled to Baghdad during the crisis. While he was gone, British and American agents conspired with the Iranian military to oust Mosaddeq, and the shah returned to reclaim his place.

The dramatic flight and return, in Milani's view, permanently damaged the standing of the shah. "The Shah never shook off the tainted reputation of being a puppet — a ruler forcefully restored to the throne by foreign powers," Milani writes.

The overthrow of the shah in 1979 did not bring democracy to Iran. Instead, Iran was transformed into an authoritarian state with the trappings of democracy but the dominant power in the hands of its Islamic religious leader. Milani has provocative thoughts about how this came about.

Most important, he says that the shah, while suppressing all leftist and reform movements, was so obsessed with the threat of communism that he built up the strength of the Islamic clergy as a bulwark against the menace. Although he sent the most radical anti-government Islamic leaders like the Ayatollah Khomeini into exile, he assumed the others were his partners in the conflict with communism. He did so without ever bothering to listen to their complaints and demands. When the street protests erupted, the Islamic clergy led the most organized opposition in Iran.

Milani relates, with some astonishment, how Khomeini, living as a political refugee near Paris, was able to take on the mantle of a democrat during the crisis. His writings had been banned for so long that many Iranians no longer understood his extreme views on creating an Islamic state. The ayatollah and his followers persuaded American diplomats in both Tehran and Paris that he possessed only a democratic agenda. According to Milani, U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan in Tehran concluded that Khomeini was the only Iranian figure who could lead Iran to a democracy while maintaining its alignment with the United States in the Cold War.

"The paradox of the fall of the Shah," Milani writes, "lies in the strange reality that nearly all advocates of modernity formed an alliance against the Shah and chose as their leader the biggest foe of modernity."

This reality can make a reader of Milani's bookfeel a little queasy about the future of Egypt. But Egypt, of course, is a very different country from Iran. Parallels in history have their limitations.

Meisler, a former foreign and diplomatic correspondent of The Times, is the author, most recently, of "When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years."

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