The Shah

The Shah

4.0 4
by Abbas Milani

View All Available Formats & Editions

Though his monarchy was toppled in 1979 and he died in 1980, Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlevi, the last Shah of Iran, remains relevant today. He was a social reformer, a romantic egomaniac, and a deeply conflicted man and leader. Here, internationally respected author Abbas Milani gives us the definitive biography, more than ten years in the making, of the monarch who

See more details below


Though his monarchy was toppled in 1979 and he died in 1980, Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlevi, the last Shah of Iran, remains relevant today. He was a social reformer, a romantic egomaniac, and a deeply conflicted man and leader. Here, internationally respected author Abbas Milani gives us the definitive biography, more than ten years in the making, of the monarch who shaped Iran's modern age and with it the contemporary politics of the Middle East. The Shah's was a life filled with contradiction--he built schools, increased equality for women, and greatly reduced the power of the Shia clergy. He made Iran a global power and nationalized his country's many natural resources. But he was deeply conflicted and insecure in his powerful role. Intolerant of political dissent, he was eventually overthrown by the very people whose loyalty he so desperately sought. This comprehensive and gripping account shows us how Iran went from politically moderate monarchy to totalitarian Islamic republic. Milani reveals the complex and sweeping road that would bring the United States and Iran to where they are today.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Times

The definitive biography... the scholarship is impressive
The Wall Street Journal

A finely wrought, enlightening biography.
The Chicago Tribune

Splendidly detailed... [Milani] succeeds in turning out a thoughtful biography without rancor.
San Franscisco Chronicle

Milani brings to us a whole new set of facts, culled from thousands of recently declassified British, American and Iranian documents and hundreds of interviews, making this book fresh and relevant to the current democracy movement in Iran and to U.S.-Iranian relations.

A deeply researched portrait... The shah's private life, which included three wives, alleged mistresses, and extravagances in palaces and other riches, is effectively depicted. With sympathy born of a compassion for someone in over his head, Milani's meticulous amassing of facts establishes a base for readers to form their own opinions.

Milani interviewed many who were close to Pahlavi, and makes excellent use of archives and memoirs. The result is a comprehensive portrait of a man who modernized Iran--and in doing so ensured his own downfall.
author of Journey of the Jihadist and Obama and th Fawaz Gerges

Abbas Milani brings to life the tragic figure of the late Shah of Iran… A refreshingly balanced biography!
author of Women Without Men Shahrnush Parsipur

A skilled book, a psychological biography with a profound historical background.
Touraj Daryaee

Using previously untapped archival material... narrates a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.
author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare B Stephen Greenblatt

For God's sake let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings." Shakespeare's words from Richard II are an apt invitation to this gripping biography of Mohammed Reza Shah. The Shah of Iran, Abbas Milani shows, was a tragic figure whose inner ghosts and deep personal flaws helped to destroy the hopes that were vested in him. His downfall ushered in a nightmare from which Iran and the rest of world has yet to awaken. Milani's detailed and richly nuanced narrative enables us to understand why the "modernizing monarch" so disastrously failed.
Publishers Weekly
Over the course of almost 40 years, Mohammad Reza Shah was a colossus in Iran, the one constant in a swirl of changing loyalties, political fortunes, and pressures both domestic and international; by the end of his reign, virtually no state decision could be taken, save by him. But as this biography reveals, this accumulation of authority was more a function of the Shah's lifelong distrust of all around him than it was any indication of skill in governing, or of genuine control. Milani (Eminent Persians) paints a richly detailed picture of a complex man plagued by demons and paranoia (much of it well-founded), at once insecure and megalomaniacal. Yet the thicket of biographical detail can leaves the reader longing for more analysis. Milani regularly mentions the Shah's flights of mysticism, for instance, but doesn't place them in any context: was the Shah delusional, or is talk of divine inspiration common in Iranian political discourse? Or both? Milani's book is a good source on the life of one of the 20th century's more enigmatic figures--good enough to pique the reader's frustration that it isn't great. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ruled Iran as its hereditary, divine monarch for almost 40 years before he was driven from the throne by the 1979 popular revolution. Milani (research fellow, Hoover Inst., Stanford Univ.), an Iranian exile jailed by the Shah in the 1970s, has written a clear, detailed biography explaining the personal and family characteristics that shaped the Shah's approach to governing. Acknowledging but not following the constitutional character of the government, the Shah sought to control political power and succeeded through the 1960s–70s. His "White Revolution" spurred economic development and cultural freedom but never eased political repression. Integrating archival and secondary-source research from Iranian, U.S., and British sources, as well as interviews with key figures, Milani illustrates the impact of foreign pressure and explains the Shah's vacillations, e.g., the threat of Soviet interference and British and U.S. manipulation, the Shah's intentions to help Iran vs. his inability to respond to the popular desire for political participation, and his failure to create institutions that would keep Iran on the path to modernization. VERDICT A solid, well-written, and useful study that explains the impact of a traditional monarchy within a modernizing state and how it shaped the Iran that confronts the United States today. For all interested readers.—Elizabeth R. Hayford, Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews

An incisive portrait of a deeply riven man and his country.

A deep knowledge of Iranian history, especially about the key role the United States has played in its internal affairs since World War II, informs this meaty biography by Iranian-American historian Milani (Iranian Studies/Stanford Univ.). Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's desire to render Iran a modern nation in the Western model by authoritarian rule rather than through the democratic process infused many of his decisions during his 37-year reign, and proved ultimately disastrous. A shy boy suddenly thrust into the spotlight by his father, who muscled out the long-reigning Turkish dynasty of the Qajars and proclaimed himself king of Iran in 1925, Mohammad Reza was only seven years old when he became Crown Prince of the Peacock Throne. Once cocooned by his religious mother, now schooled in the discipline of a soldier, he was sent away to boarding school in Switzerland to become a polished European gentleman. He returned to a country in the throes of modernization and enriched by oil revenues. However, his father's inadequacy in handling the Nazis and the Soviets prompted the British to force his abdication in favor of his son in 1941. For Pahlavi, the episode seemed to have "internalized the idea that big powers, particularly Britain, Russia and America, could do anything in Iran," and he weathered the fraught next decade, navigating between the demands of the oil-hungry Western states, the nationalists gaining ascendancy and the Communists, all the while keeping peace with the mullahs. The regime's clash with the reactionary forces led by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1963 set the stage for the revolution to come. Thrice-married, increasingly isolated in the world, criticized for the practices of his state-security intelligence agency (SAVAK) and suffering from cancer, the Shah had turned his country into his "virtual private fiefdom" by the time he was forced into exile in 1979.

A stimulating biography and a thorough examination of the makeup of an entire nation.

Read More

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.31(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Shah

By Abbas Milani

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2012 Abbas Milani
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4039-7193-7



The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth,
And lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change;
Rich men look sad, and ruffians dance and leap ...
These signs forerun the death or fall of kings.

Shakespeare, King Richard II, 2.4.10–12, 15

As the Shah sat on the vast veranda of the Al Janan-e Kabir—"The Great Garden of Eden Palace"—overlooking the city of Marrakesh, he saw not a paradise but a purgatory. The once-powerful King of Kings, the Light of the Aryans, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was alone and did not know where he would go next. Oblivious to the vast sun-drenched sky shimmering on the horizon, he had the dour disposition of a jilted lover, "Of one that loved not wisely but too well." Above his head hung a massive chandelier made of dozens of handcrafted colorful bulbs. In the light breeze, the Shah felt a chill.

For the past two years now, he had been besieged by increasingly ominous news. In the beginning, his response to the surge of protest in Iran had been defiant disbelief. For a quarter of a century, he had been met with what looked like jubilant throngs of grateful subjects. Economic indicators often registered leaps of development, sometimes placing Iran on top of the list of countries marching toward rapid industrialization. A constant chorus of sycophants, both domestic and foreign, sang songs of his singular greatness. In 1975 his Court minister and closest confidante, Assadollah Alam, had assured him that he was as wise as a prophet, as politically astute as General De Gaulle—the Shah's great "ego-ideal." During the same period, Nelson Rockefeller had compared the Shah to Alexander the Great, adding, "We must take His Majesty to the US for a couple of years so that he can teach us how to run a country." This praise gave the Shah a false sense of security, and he developed a haughty disposition toward many Western leaders. On one occasion, Alam told the Shah, "these miserable Americans needed some words of encouragement from Your Majesty, and Your Majesty surely gave them what they needed." The Shah, Alam wrote, was particularly pleased by this comment.

The ubiquity of the adulation, along with Iran's impressive economic improvements in the sixties and early seventies, had created in the Shah a strong sense of imperial grandiosity, even political imperviousness. As late as 1964, his country had been in desperate need of a $5 million loan. Eleven years later, the Shah went on what the CIA called his "lending binge," giving away, to a variety of countries, almost $2 billion. Even England, once the imperial overlord of Iran, was now the recipient of royal largesse. With this radical change of fortune in the back of his mind, it is not hard to understand why the Shah found it difficult to fathom the idea that Iranians—those he often called "my people"—were now in revolt. Less than five years after that lending binge, he had, in desperation, become a guest of the Moroccan king, unable to find a country willing to grant him asylum. And so there he sat on the great veranda, beneath the chandelier.

By the mid-seventies, his many "eyes and ears" had been either unwilling to tell him the truth, or unwelcome in his entourage. In the forties, when the Shah had just ascended the throne, he traveled freely amongst the people. He loved driving, and in those early years he would often take one of his many fast and fancy cars and drive around the city.

During some of these drives, the people converged on his car, showering him with words of support and notes of supplication. But after failed assassination attempts against him, first in 1949 and then again in 1965, security around the Court and the Shah changed. The idea of the Shah's driving around Tehran became unthinkable, and in the seventies he could only fly over the city in a helicopter.

In the early years, what the Shah might not see or learn in his drives he was likely to hear from a variety of elder statesmen who had easy and regular access to the throne and were usually not afraid to tell him the truth. These men were often as old as his father and had served with distinction in many key positions. But beginning in the early 1960s, these advisors were increasingly unwelcome at the Court. The Shah surrounded himself with young and docile technocrats—men like Amir Abbas Hoveyda, who was for thirteen years Iran's prime minister and had an unimpeachable trust in the wisdom of the Shah's absolutist power. Only late in 1978, when the country was already engulfed in a serious and systemic crisis, did the Shah call the wise elder statesmen he had shunned back into his inner circle. But it was too little too late.

By then the secret police (known by its acronym of SAVAK) was one of the Shah's main pillars of power. According to a blueprint provided by the United States, SAVAK was meant to undertake functions performed by both the CIA and the FBI in the United States. In the sixties, as a leftist urban guerrilla threat appeared on the scene in Iran, SAVAK developed a notorious international reputation for using torture. At the same time, some in SAVAK had come to consider financial corruption a matter of national security and monitored the activities of not just the political and economic elite, but also members of the royal family. The Shah was often angered by their reports—as much by their content as by the temerity of the security agents to pry into matters he considered beyond their purview.

When the Shah was at the height of his power, a journalist asked about his knowledge of what was happening in the country. He boasted that he received intelligence from at least thirteen different sources. But in retrospect, it is clear that these sources of intelligence were badly compromised. In one case, the Shah threatened to court-martial Parviz Sabeti, the powerful head of internal security in SAVAK, simply because he had dared write a report critical of one of the Shah's close friends.

In 1971, when the Shah seemed most secure on his throne, the CIA noticed his growing estrangement from reality and warned of its consequences. As the Shah's power grew, according to the agency's analysis, so did his isolation. This combination, the CIA suggested, was likely to ensure that he would "fail to comprehend the intensity of, say, a political protest movement." This failure, in turn, would inevitably increase "the chances for miscalculation in dealing with" such a movement. The price for the Shah's miscalculation would turn out to be the end of the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty and an end to the almost 2,500-year-old tradition of monarchy in Iran.

By early 1978 massive demonstrations had begun across the country's urban centers. The Shah's initial defiance turned into disbelief and then disdain for his subjects; finally, it collapsed into paralyzing despair. More than once during the days of revolution, and later in exile, he asked, with unmistakable hints of contempt in his tone, "What kind of people are these Persians? After all We have done for them, they still chose to opt for this disastrous revolution."

Some of the Shah's supporters today praise his demeanor in the heady days of revolutionary upheaval as consistent with his stoic devotion to nonviolence and his respect for human life; he could have easily retained his power, they argue, had he been willing to shed blood and use the full force of his mighty military. The Shah championed this argument himself when, in his last book, Answer to History, he wrote, "A sovereign may not save his throne by shedding his countryman's blood." But this was, at best, only one of the many reasons for his stoic behavior. With the onset of the crisis, the Shah lost his resolve. The man who only months earlier had taunted the West as lazy and dismissed democracy as only befitting the blue-eyed world; the King who had previously stood up to pressures from U.S. presidents—including Richard Nixon, with whom he had a particularly close relationship—to reduce the price of oil was suddenly unable to make any decisions without prior consultation with the British and American ambassadors. Adding to the Shah's distress was the fact that these ambassadors had made it clear that their governments would not support a military crackdown against the opposition.

Some of the Shah's supporters conceded that, in his last months of rule, he suffered from inaction, even vacillation, but they attribute it all to the debilitating side effects of the drugs he had been taking for his lymphoma. They conveniently overlook a long history that underscored, long before the beginning of the new wave of protests, the Shah's inability to withstand pressure and his storied indecisiveness in times of crisis. For the Shah, character was destiny, and many of his weaknesses as a leader were his virtues as a human being. In 1978 the cancer that ate away at his body and the side effects of the drugs he took to battle it only reinforced behavior patterns that were in fact rooted more in his personality than in any of his physician's prescriptions.

* * *

Now, overlooking the Moroccan city of Marrakesh, it seemed to the Shah that God had forsaken him. He arrived in Morocco on January 22, 1979, with his entourage. Though King Hassan II greeted him at the airport, the pomp and ceremony that Anwar al-Sadat, the president of Egypt, had organized when the disheartened Shah arrived in Cairo a few days earlier was glaringly absent. As the plane had landed in Egypt, a disheveled Shah was languishing in his chair. The moment he saw the honor guards and realized he was being afforded a welcome worthy of a king, he perked up, dressed up, and with an upright gait walked off the plane. But in Morocco there was no similar welcome. The Shah can't have been but deeply disappointed by the lack of a royal reception. Of all the countries in the world, if there was one where the Shah could have reasonably expected that his past favors would now beget him a warm welcome, it was Morocco. But this would be the first of his many surprises.

All his adult life, the Shah had demonstrated a solid sense of loyalty to the royalty of the world. With the sudden surge of petrodollars in the early seventies, he became the veritable patron saint of deposed kings, widowed queens, and unemployed princes and princesses, past and present. Tehran was in those days a virtual mecca for the likes of the deposed King of Greece, the ever-needy King of Jordan, the daughter of the last Italian King, or members of Holland's royal family. In one notable instance, for example, Jordan's King Hussein left Tehran with the "gift" of twenty-five free F-5 fighter jets. Even the long-deposed King of Albania came to Tehran for his share of Persian hospitality.

Among the kings who had benefited from the Shah's generous financial and military aid, King Hassan II of Morocco occupied a unique place. Iran, in apparent collusion with the United States, had begun helping King Hassan militarily as early as 1967. Iranian army officers trained Moroccan soldiers then fighting separatist militants, and Iran sent hundreds of millions of dollars to Morocco over the next decade. In one case alone, Iran gave Morocco an almost interest-free loan of a $110 million for the construction of a dam. But, as the Shah soon learned, there was no guarantee that those who had benefited from his past patronage and extravagance—a royal largesse, the final costs of which were shouldered by the people of Iran—would, in his hour of need, return the favor. Some, like King Hussein of Jordan, never allowed him to visit their country during his exile. Others, like King Hassan, were willing to help but only so long as the help did not threaten their own power.

As the Shah's stay in Morocco grew longer, King Hassan's hospitality became increasingly cold. According to Richard Parker, the American ambassador to Morocco at the time, "Moroccans believed that the Shah was worth about two billion dollars, and they wanted to take their share of the loot." Ardeshir Zahedi, who was one of the lead negotiators in the attempt to find the royal family a place to stay, rejects this claim, adding emphatically that "King Hassan and the entire royal family acted with absolute nobility with the Shah. Not an extra penny, other than the expenses was taken from the Shah while they were in Morocco." Regardless of what happened in Morocco, wherever else the Shah and his family landed in their exilic ordeal, gouging the royal family became a favorite sport of the local elites, with Egypt being the only exception.

Despite all this, in his first days in Morocco, there was a bit of gaiety in the air. On his arrival, the Shah and the Moroccan King, both airplane aficionados, bragged about the skills of their special pilots, and there was even a "soft landing" contest between the two. The Shah's pilot, a young man named Captain Moezzi, won the contest.

But a few days after arriving in Morocco, the Shah gathered his entourage for a meeting, with an air of foreboding and resignation hanging in the air. He informed them that he had decided to trim the number of guards and aides that had hitherto served him and the royal family. He was teary-eyed, and others in the room wept silently. The Shah's decision was as much political as financial. On leaving Iran, he had declared that he was going on a vacation and would return to the country when he felt rested. By the second week after his arrival in Morocco, the vacation myth was no longer tenable.

The decision was also yet another sign of the royal family's storied fiscal restraint, or miserliness, according to some. The news from Ja'far Behbahaniyan, the man who had managed nearly all of the Shah's foreign assets for more than two decades, had been less than satisfying. A day after arriving in Egypt, the Shah had summoned his moneyman and asked him for a full accounting of his assets. The meeting had ended in acrimony. What Behbahaniyan claimed the Shah possessed was less than the figure the Shah had expected. The two men met again in Morocco—and the acrimony soon turned into open animosity. Not long after this meeting, Behbahaniyan disappeared into a world his detractors claim is one of incognito living and assumed aliases. He has maintained silence about these matters and has, in the process, become the subject of endless gossip and innuendo. Many of the Shah's friends and family still claim that Behbahaniyan walked away with a substantial portion of the Shah's assets. The truth may never be known. But one definite result was that the Shah told his assembled entourage that since the journey was turning out to be longer than he had anticipated, he could no longer afford to pay all their wages. Those who had family and obligations at home, the Shah said, should feel free to leave or to go back to Iran.

He had come to Egypt in two jets—one filled with four crates carrying the royal belongings, as well as some of the people who were leaving Iran with the Shah. Dozens of courtiers and high-ranking officials of the regime were desperately trying to get on those jets, but only a handful succeeded. It was a measure of the Shah's state of mind that he had relegated the authority to decide who could travel in the royal entourage to one of his valets. The second jet was set aside for the Shah, the Queen, their guards, the chef, a physician, the dogs, and their groomer. In Morocco, around the time of his meeting with his entourage, the Shah ordered that both planes be sent back to Iran. One of his aides suggested that at least one of the planes be kept and sold—for around $20 million—to defray some of the immediate expenses; the Shah demurred.

A few days after his unceremonious arrival in Morocco—local media and even international television crews were barred from the airport—the American ambassador, Richard Parker, paid a courtesy call on the Shah. He wanted to reassure him—after receiving inquiries from the Iranian Embassy—that the royal family would be welcome in the United States, if they decided to settle there. William Sullivan, the American ambassador in Tehran, had also told the Shah before he left the country that he would be welcome to settle in America. While the Shah was in Egypt, President Carter had declared in a press conference, "The Shah is now in Egypt, and will come to our country." As it turned out, Sullivan's promises might well have been part of an effort to "sweeten" the deal to convince the Shah to leave Iran as soon as possible. The Shah should have remembered the fact that his father too was "persuaded" to leave Iran in 1941 with the promise of asylum somewhere in the Americas. As soon as his father, Reza Shah, was out of the country, he was told, rather unceremoniously, that his planned visit to the Americas was no longer possible.

In Mohammad Reza Shah's case, the decision to delay his arrival in America would have far-reaching implications not just for him, but also for the United States and for Iran. The hostage crisis was only the first of the many cataclysmic dominos that ultimately fell as the result of this delay.

In his exile, the Shah still followed events in Iran closely. In his own words, "even in the first months in exile, I was convinced that the Western governments had some plan in mind, some grand conception or overview to stop Communist expansion and xenophobic frenzy in places like Iran."

Many of the Shah's friends and supporters had the same illusion. They reassured themselves that "America must have a plan. They can't let a place like Iran fall into the wrong hands." This assumption accounts for the fact that so many of the Shah's generals and ministers stayed in Iran and did not flee in the face of the rising tide of revolution. The Shah's enemies were no less concerned about this fact. Only weeks before the fall of the Shah, Ayatollah Mottaheri, the closest confidante of Ayatollah Khomeini, said, "America will not allow the revolution to win. Iranian oil is for America like water is for human life. America will not give up Iranian oil. Imam [Khomeini] should behave in a way that America does not see its interests jeopardized in Iran."


Excerpted from The Shah by Abbas Milani. Copyright © 2012 Abbas Milani. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >