“What kind of people are these Persians? After all we have done for them, they still chose to opt for this disastrous revolution.” Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was hardly the first man to be baffled by Iran and its people. But he also ruled the country as its shah, or king, for 37 years, and so his ignorance mattered. Pahlavi’s life is chronicled in detail by Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University. 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.
The shah’s reign, writes Milani, was one of “cultural freedom and political despotism.” During the 1960s and ’70s, Iran was one of the most tolerant societies in the Muslim world in terms of religious freedom, cultural expression, and the state’s non-interference in the private lives of citizens. But political opposition was crushed, and the resulting tensions were unsustainable. “The middle classes he helped create wanted democracy and the hubris of his increasing authoritarianism made them increasingly uneasy,” says Milani. By denying opposition activists the political rights they sought, the shah inadvertently strengthened the hand of Ayatollah Khomeini and his Islamist cohorts, who hijacked the revolution that overthrew him. The Islamic regime that emerged to take the shah’s place was far more repressive and murderous than Pahlavi’s.
Milani, who was imprisoned by the shah, doesn’t gloss over his faults. Vain and needy, the shah craved Western approval, once seeking membership in Britain’s Most Noble Order of the Garter. The only Persian food served at his lavish coronation feast was caviar, to which the shah was allergic.
But Milani’s biography is also sympathetic. The shah’s decadence and cruelty paled in comparison to contemporary dictators such as Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire, or Idi Amin of Uganda. But none were treated with the same contempt and derision. He “loved Iran,” writes Milani, “not wisely but too well.” Forced into exile, Pahlavi spent his final months flitting from place to place in search of asylum: “A dying man, ‘un-kinged,’ and hounded by terrorists, was denied even the dignity of a quiet corner to die.”