The Shah’s Ride

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Ray Takeyh is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he specializes on Iran, political reform in the Middle East, and Islamist movements and parties. Prior to joining the council, he was a senior advisor on Iran at the U.S. State Department. Takeyh is the author, most recently, of The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty. He also authored three previous books, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the AyatollahsHidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republicand The Origins of the Eisenhower Doctrine: The US, Britain and Nasser’s Egypt, 1953–1957. Diwan interviewed Takeyh in early April to discuss his latest book.

Michael Young: You’ve just written a book focused mainly on the period in power of shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Why write another book on the shah, and what did you feel was new and important that you wanted to get across to readers?

Ray Takeyh: More than four decades after the fall of the shah, it is finally possible to arrive at a more objective assessment of his rule. The passions have cooled and polemics have yielded to reason. And finally, the documentary record is beginning to come out. I should note that the Islamic Republic has been more generous to historians than the National Archives in the United States, as it has released troves of the shah’s records. In contrast, the Carter administration’s papers on the Iranian Revolution are just beginning to trickle out.

MY: Your book seems in part an effort to reevaluate the shah’s legacy. How does such an approach fit in with the mood in Iran today? In other words, is a reconsideration of the shah more widespread in the country, and to what extent has the Islamic Republic itself borrowed from his policies in formulating its own?

RT: There is a measure of nostalgia for the shah and the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran today. Iran is a country that lives its history. It is not unusual for a historical event to be featured on the front pages of newspapers. Books about the shah, and particularly his father, do seem to have an audience. Not all of this discussion is informed or thoughtful, but it is taking place.

The Islamic Republic has learned little from the shah’s experiences. It is repeating many of his mistakes. The regime is incapable of reform, corruption is rampant, and the country is mired in foreign adventures whose costs are more obvious than their benefits.

MY: Your interpretation of the coup against prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1952 is at odds with most popular views of that event as being mainly the work of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the British secret service. You write that “the balance of evidence suggests that it was more an Iranian plot than an American one.” Can you elaborate.

RT: In general, historians of the intelligence community will tell you that it is difficult to say with certainty why a covert operation succeeds. During August 1953, Iran experienced not one but two coups. There is little dispute about the first coup that failed. The CIA was involved with Iranian plotters.

The second coup has been a more controversial topic. Washington gave up on the effort, but the lead CIA person in Iran, Kermit Roosevelt, seemed to have persisted. In 2017, the State Department released approximately 1,000 pages of new documents, mostly intelligence cables. It is my judgment that the Iranians were more in command of the second coup than the Americans. But, this is an argument without end.

The more interesting aspect of the coup is not its mechanics but its impact on Iranian politics. Too many historians and pundits draw a very casual line between the coup and the revolution, as if the intervening quarter of a century did not happen. It is my view that the coup did not fundamentally transform Iran’s political system. The shah’s dictatorship was fully elaborated in the early 1960s, which are the hinge years of Iranian politics.

MY: What was at the heart of U.S.-Iranian disagreements during the period of the shah, especially during the 1960s? And can you explain the context of the effort by General Valiollah Qarani to organize a coup against the monarch, one in which the United States appeared to be involved?

RT: The coup was attempted in 1958. The documentary evidence is sparse, but it does suggest U.S. complicity. After the coup of 1953, the Eisenhower administration was displeased with the shah’s unwillingness to implement political and economic reforms. They wanted him to broaden his government and focus more on economics than on arms buildups. To send a message to the shah, the CIA planted stories in the New York Times suggesting that Washington was frustrated with the monarch and seemingly supported an effort against him. It is hard to see if either General Qarani or the Eisenhower administration wanted to topple the shah, but they hoped to steer him toward a more constitutional form of government with a greater focus on the economy.

MY: It is often forgotten that the shah engaged in a radical reform program during the 1960s known as the White Revolution. What were the successes of that program, and more importantly for the regime’s survival what were its flaws?

RT: The successes were substantial. It was the first time that a monarch took land away from the rich and gave it to the poor. The land reforms may not have gone far enough, but they were still an important effort. Literacy rates went up and child mortality rates went down. The Iranian people had greater access to healthcare and educational facilities.

The shah enlarged the middle class but then politically disfranchised it. His core problem was that his modernization plan was not accompanied by a political opening. In fact, just the opposite took place.

MY: You seem to be arguing in the book that, ultimately, the shah’s downfall was a result of his never properly anchoring his power in Iranian society—indeed that he alienated key sectors of society, including the middle class, the clergy, the young, and the merchants. Can you explain the dynamics that were at play.

RT: The shah had a dictatorial personality, in the sense that he believed that only great men unencumbered by competing institutions and bickering politicians could do great things. He viewed democracy as a Western disorder. The problem was that he was too timid in times of crisis. When things got tough he proved to be a dictator who could not dictate. The shah would have benefited from a system of government in which power was shared more widely among institutions such as parliament and cabinets. He needed buffers but he did not see this until it was too late.

MY: In light of your last answer, what has the Islamic Republic done differently than the shah, given that it too appears to have alienated key segments of society? Why has it managed to tightly maintain its power when the shah lost control?

RT: The Islamic Republic has paradoxically followed a similar pattern to the shah’s rule. It has gradually closed off opportunities for meaningful political participation. As with the shah, it spends money on foreign policy measures that command little internal support. It seems incapable of reforming itself even when such reforms are urgent. It is drowning in corruption and the class divisions are as provocative as they were during the last years of the Pahlavi dynasty.

This is not to suggest that the present system will collapse soon and in the same way as its predecessor. But the Islamic Republic’s governing model doesn’t work. If the regime has only its security organs to rely upon for its perpetuation, then it has little in the way of true strength.

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The Shah’s Ride

by Michael Young time to read: 5 min
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