On January 16, 1979, the last Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his Empress, became political exiles. The world’s oldest monarchy, dating back twenty-five hundred years, ended after a violent revolution that left Iran in social and economic chaos and hurled it toward a more anachronistic form of government, a theocracy. What potent forces precipitated such a revolution? William H. Forbis answers this question in a social history of the Iranian people that focuses on everyday life in Iran and the Shah’s lack of attunement. The author draws on Persian history, geography, culture, and politics to explain the fall of the Shah and the rise of his worst enemy, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The first of three parts, “A Persian Story,” details the rise of the fifty-year-old Pahlavi Dynasty which, in its short lifespan, made Iran a modern, wealthy nation and the central, controlling power in the Middle East. As feudalism melted away, particularly from 1963-1978, Iran became a modern, military-industrial complex wealthy from oil revenue with a strong-willed Shah as undisputed leader. Iran, however, also underwent many changes too fast for cultural assimilation and as a result, a strong counterforce was unleashed, moralistic Islam. Fearing a loss of cultural and national identity in an increasingly materialistic, repressive, and Western society, Iranians listened to their mullahs or priests who advocated the Shah’s overthrow and a return to Islamic or religious law. The Shah who thought he controlled everything lost everything as Iran emerged a modern nation, a fifty-year Pahlavi goal.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi who called himself King of Kings and Light of the Aryans, was born a commoner. His father, Reza Khan, was a military upstart who seized the Peacock Throne from Shah Armad, the last Qajar ruler. Forbis points out that the Pahlavis never disguised their background as protection against charges of illegitimate usurpation. They felt that Reza Khan was an extraordinary individual who deserved kingship since he ended political corruption and national disintegration. Also, the Iranian people, so long accustomed to conquerors and disillusioned with the Qajars, accepted the overthrow. The only challenge against legitimacy came from the mullahs because the Pahlavis, in finding the Muslim faith a barrier to modernization, fought the mullahs and reduced their wealth. If the second Pahlavi Shah had been close to his people and had not alienated the state church, there may never have been a coup d’état in 1979.
Society was rotten under the Qajars, travel was hazardous, and Iran was a virtual English Protectorate in which the British controlled the economy and politics. Peasants were repressed, with illiteracy at ninety-eight percent. Forbis credits Reza Shah with vast social improvements: he stopped brigandage with a rigid police force, built roads and a railroad, ended much foreign influence, built coeducational schools, and founded the University of Teheran. Against Koranic bans, he authorized courses in anatomy and further infuriated the mullahs by introducing Western music, dress, cinema, and architecture. The riots of 1978-1979 resulted from a long history of mullah resentment beginning with these early profound reforms, however much they were needed.
Both Pahlavis were stern rulers, suspicious of everyone, and dictatorial to an extreme. They linked themselves with pre-Islamic Persia even in their choice of family name, Pahlavi, which refers to the ancient form of the Persian language. Kingship was their profession in the ancient, autocratic tradition of divine right, a religious claim the mullahs disputed. They believed that only monarchy could achieve a Great Civilization or second Persian Empire. In a sense, they celebrated pagan over Islamic tradition through their identification with a remote past, a course of action which set them in direct opposition to the religious leadership.
A chapter entitled “First Persian Singular” shows the extent of the Shah’s alienation from the ordinary citizenry. Believing himself the exemplary Persian, the essence of the Persian character, he acted with arrogance and disregarded opinions of key advisers. Despite the humane influence of his third wife, Farah Diba, he ruthlessly crushed dissents and manipulated advisers and administrators so that they opposed one another and thus lacked a strong voice in government. He encouraged sycophants, accumulated vast personal wealth, failed to delegate authority on even minor matters, muzzled the press, and tolerated too much political corruption among his brothers and sisters. His icons and statues were everywhere as were his dreaded secret police, SAVAK. His liberal reforms of 1978, for example, freedom of the press, were too few and too late. For too long, he had subjugated a fiercely individualistic people who could only voice their opposition in mosques because holy places were relatively inviolable. By claiming that he spoke for Iranians, but without their consent, he played into the hands of the mullah opposition and helped them achieve their ultimate goal, his overthrow.
Attempting psychohistorical analysis, Forbis argues that leaders like the Shah who try to overprove themselves through a father-lecturer command are insecure victims of father domination. They have difficulty recognizing limits to executive authority and put too much faith in their own opinions. Alienation of supporters logically follows.
Although the Shah believed that Iranians as a nation supported him, Forbis points out that the citizenry was only truly united twice during the Shah’s reign; during the 1978-1979 riots in hatred against him and during former Prime Minister Mossadegh’s tenure in office, 1951-1953. Mossadegh, a popular politician, was ousted in 1953 by a combined CIA-Iranian conspiracy prompted by his Communist connections. Because of bribes and clever politics, Iranians demonstrated in favor of the Shah and against Mossadegh’s constitutional government. This coup gave the Shah a false sense of security and led him to proclaim himself stronger than Parliament. Forbis theorizes that had there not been a CIA-backed insurrection, United States influence in Iran would have been minimized. While the strength of the Tudeh or Iranian Communist Party may have grown, it is presumptuous to assume that Iran would have turned Communist. Mossadegh inspired a nationalism and a sense of cooperation among Iranians who were sick of foreign domination, particularly of their oil industry. The Shah exploited Mossadegh’s Communist connections which temporarily undermined the Prime Minister’s popular support and eroded national unity. The Shah’s survival in the 1950’s then became dependent on United States support which, in turn, increased his pro-Western policy. Despite appearances, therefore, the Shah’s regime was never very stable. It was dependent on outside support as well as his internal control, especially through SAVAK.
To foreigners, Iran appeared a stable, tightly governed country, an assessment shared by the Shah. They were largely unaware of the critical writings circulated in secret which showed a citizenry fed up with imperial repression. Enjoying a false sense of security, the Shah then made his worst, most arrogant mistake. On January 7, 1978, in an article published by ETELANT, a Teheran Daily, he attacked the policies and character of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He also boasted: “Nobody can overthrow me. I have the support of 700,000 troops, all the workers and most of the people.” Immediate protests took place in the mosques which incurred police repression followed by more protests. Khomeini was forced to leave his exile in Iraq...
(The entire section is 3153 words.)