The world is still dealing with the consequences of the 1979 Iranian revolution in which the pro-American, pro-Western Shah of Iran was replaced by an Islamic regime that subsequently attempted to spread its influence throughout the Middle East and beyond, and acquire a nuclear arsenal. The causes of that revolution have been debated for many years and far too often analysts have provided superficial or simplified explanations ranging from the Shah’s repressive rule to America’s flawed diplomacy. In The Last Shah, Iran expert Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations presents a more balanced, nuanced treatment of the history of US-Iranian relations from World War II to the fall of the Shah that explores the many and varied factors that led to revolution.
Takeyh notes that Iran was the scene of the first confrontation of the Cold War—the country was occupied by Soviet and Anglo-American military forces during the Second World War. Tehran was the site of one of the wartime summit meetings of the “Big Three” (Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill) where war strategy and postwar aims were debated and in some cases decided. The Allied invasion of Iran during the war led to domestic turmoil that forced Reza Shah (the last Shah’s father) to flee the country. Reza Shah had initially flirted with the Nazis who wanted access to Iran’s oil—the British, Americans, and Russians also craved Iranian oil. Takeyh writes that the “collapse of Reza Shah’s rule eerily foreshadowed the end of his son’s reign thirty-eight years later.”
Reza Shah’s modernization drive had failed to create a constituency loyal to his regime. The army he had created quietly disintegrated. The traditional classes that he disdained rose up in defiance.
The last Shah would make similar mistakes but under far different circumstances.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was only 21 when he succeeded his father as Shah. Takeyh describes the young Shah as “unsure of himself” but also “personally courageous” with a “vision for his country and monarchy”. The Shah believed that God had chosen him to rule, not just reign, over Iran. This belief, according to Takeyh, would lead the Shah to choose advisers and ministers based on loyalty instead of merit. And this was one of the factors that doomed his regime when it was later confronted by political opposition that could only be defeated by skillful and decisive leadership.
The most important political forces within postwar Iran were the monarchy, the armed forces, the National Front (an umbrella organization of a rising middle class), the Tudeh Party (communists funded by the USSR), and Islamic clerics. And the dominant postwar political issues were ending foreign (especially Soviet) occupation of the country and nationalization of Iran’s oil. Under Anglo-American pressure, the Soviets left Iran and the Shah reclaimed control of the northern province of Azerbaijan. The nationalization of oil involved heated negotiations with the British and Americans, but Takeyh writes that it also “exposed fissures within [Iran’s] political establishment”. And it led to the first crisis of the young Shah’s regime.
Takeyh’s analysis of the events in Iran in the early 1950s, culminating in the 1953 coup that toppled the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, is an example of his careful examination of evidence, insightful assessments, and prudent conclusions. “The men who conspired against [Mossadeq],” writes Takeyh, “were all nationalists trying to save their country and preserve its institutions”. Mossadeq alienated virtually all of the political forces within Iran, including the army, the clerics, and the monarchy. His extreme nationalization policies led to economic decline, and he reacted to political opposition by assuming autocratic powers that further alienated him from Iranian society. The Shah went into to exile. Mossadeq also flirted with the Soviets, which raised alarms in Washington and London. The CIA and British intelligence, to be sure, played a role in toppling Mossadeq and restoring the Shah to power, but Takeyh concludes that the coup was “more an Iranian plot” than an Anglo-American one.
“Jimmy Carter did not lose Iran; Khomeini won it.”
The Shah was determined never to lose power again. He took over complete control of the army and oil policy. He also, with the help of the US and Israel, created a secret police force known by its acronym SAVAK. And he reached out to the US for weapons so that he could build armed forces that could enable Iran to dominate the Persian Gulf. Later in the 1960s, the Shah flirted with the idea of becoming a nuclear weapons power. He also became a reliable US ally in the Cold War as America replaced Britain as the West’s leading power in the Middle East-Persian Gulf region.
In the 1970s, Iran on the surface appeared to be an island of stability in an otherwise turbulent Middle East. This led to Iran becoming a “pillar” in the Nixon administration’s efforts to recruit regional powers to protect US interests in several parts of the world–a policy that became known as the “Nixon Doctrine”. The Nixon administration opened the Pentagon’s spigots to Iran’s growing military. The Shah also managed to maintain good relations with Israel and several moderate Arab states. And within Iran, oil revenues produced a growing and better educated (often at US and British schools) middle class.
But appearances of internal stability were deceiving. Takeyh notes that the Shah pursued cultural modernization and Westernization within Iran, while simultaneously rejecting political modernization. This had the effect of alienating Iran’s growing middle class and the more conservative Islamic clerics who were led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini had been the most vociferous opponent of the Shah, calling for his ouster from his exile abroad.
Human rights activists and Iranian students highlighted the repressive conduct of the SAVAK. Public protests against the Shah’s rule—some of them violent—increased. But the Shah was unwilling to crack down more forcibly on internal dissent. Behind the scenes, Khomeini and his followers and the Shah’s more secular political opponents were plotting to take power. The Islamists, however, were the Shah’s stronger and more ruthless opponents. The Shah’s health was deteriorating (he suffered from cancer) and he lacked political and military subordinates who would act decisively to attempt to save the regime. As opposition grew, the Shah left Iran on 16 January 1979.
The last Shah’s fall produced a twin calamity for Iranians and the US.
Takeyh faults successive US administrations for ignoring intelligence warnings of the fragility of the Shah’s rule. He notes that the Carter administration was divided on how to respond; on the one hand proclaiming support for the Shah, while on the other hand proclaiming a commitment to universal human rights. Takeyh does not believe that Carter could have done anything to save the Shah or arrange for a pro-US regime to replace the Pahlavi dynasty. There was brief talk within the administration of sending US troops to prop up the regime, but nothing came of it. Takeyh concludes: “Jimmy Carter did not lose Iran; Khomeini won it.” It, however, remains an open question whether different US policy might have led to a different outcome, at least at the margins.
Carter then dithered about whether to allow the Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment, finally relenting under public pressure from Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and others. Eleven days after the Shah was admitted to a New York hospital for surgery, Iranians stormed the US embassy in Tehran, took American hostages, and held them for 444 days. Takeyh writes that while many scholars assume that Khomeini did not know about plans for seizing the embassy, there is compelling evidence that he ordered or at least approved the embassy seizure.
The last Shah’s fall produced a twin calamity for Iranians and the US: a theocratic state that was more internally repressive than the Shah’s regime, and that posed a threat to Western interests abroad. Takeyh believes, however, that Iran’s current Islamic regime is as unpopular as the Shah’s once was, and that the Iranian masses still yearn for freedom.