The Shah, the Cold War, and the Islamists

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 20 March 2019

Abbas Milani’s The Shah gives a portrait of Iran’s last monarch, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, and the impact that his downfall forty years ago continues to have in the Middle East, notably the emboldening of the Islamist movement.


The Shah’s upbringing was shaped by his father, Reza Khan, described by the British as “an ignorant, but astute peasant” shortly after he effectively seized the Peacock Throne in 1921. Muhammad Reza was hardly a carbon copy of the old man. Despite Muhammad Reza being raised in cosmopolitan, secular Europe, one trait Reza Khan could not pass to his son was his stern atheism. The Shah had three mystical experiences around age 7 and all his life remained deeply religious and spiritual. Nearly fifty years later, in 1973, the Shah had a testy, and rather amusing, exchange on this matter with Oriana Fallaci, who equalled his father’s contempt for faith.

Andrew Scott Cooper’s recent book, The Fall of Heaven, was criticised by some as overly sympathetic to the Shah, especially on two of the most contentious issues: the August 1953 events that removed the mutinous Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadeq and human rights. It is, therefore, notable that Milani, once a political prisoner under the Shah, comes to the same conclusions as Cooper on both matters.

Milani narrates the August 1953 episode at some length, including Mossadeq’s increasing authoritarianism and his alliance with the Communists. The key issue is Mossadeq’s decision to dissolve parliament: once had done that, the young Shah had every right to dismiss him—as Kings had done repeatedly over preceding decades in such circumstances—and there is documentary evidence that Mossadeq well-knew this, despite what he claimed later.

Put simply, Milani argues that Mossadeq was in the legal wrong in refusing to step down, and his own actions—not the marginal role played by British and American intelligence services—triggered the Iranian popular and elite reaction that brought him down. That said, the political reality was, as the British Embassy noted just days later, that “[the] impression [is] becoming rather widespread” that Britain and America were behind Mossadeq’s ouster, and this would taint the Shah with many Iranians ever-after.

Milani brusquely deals with the “outlandish[]” claims that the Shah imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people, and the “[n]o less exaggerated … claim that thousands had been killed and tortured to death by SAVAK”, the secret police. Under-4,000 people were imprisoned for political crimes, broadly defined (this includes a significant number of actual terrorists), and the number of people killed—executed and dying in violent street clashes with the security forces—was around 1,500 during the Shah’s long reign.


For ten years after the Mossadeq challenge, the Shah remained in a relatively precarious position, even as he consolidated more and more power in his own hands, Milani explains.

The savage military coup in Iraq in July 1958 by radical nationalist officers murdered King Faisal II and much of his family. The Iraqi putschists were inspired by the “Free Officers’” coup almost exactly six years earlier in Egypt, led by Jamal Abd al-Nasr, which removed the Shah’s brother-in-law, King Farouk.

The collapse of the Hashemite monarchy in Baghdad marked the failure of an American policy to cultivate Nasr and the pan-Arabist radicals. To his credit, President Dwight Eisenhower realised it and reversed course. Just two years after Eisenhower had halted the Suez operation in its tracks, he dispatched troops to secure the remaining pillars of Western influence. The effect of the Iraqi coup on the Shah was similarly profound.

For the Shah, after he moved to fortify his internal security arrangements—the wave of Nasr-inspired revolt in 1958 had an Iranian counterpart in a coup conspiracy led by Valiollah Gharani—it triggered a strategic reassessment. The Shah now judged that the primary external challenge came from radical local governments like Egypt and Iraq, rather than Soviet expansionism, albeit that these two issues were not exactly separate. The Shah began deeper cooperation with Israel, Milani notes, letting MOSSAD build anti-Nasr Arabic broadcasting stations in Khuzestan, and Iranian military positions were rebalanced away from the north-eastern border with the USSR toward the western frontier with Iraq.[1]

In June 1963, in response to the Shah’s “White Revolution”—particularly the land reform that ended the system of indentured servitude and the abolition of the laws that prevented women and non-Muslims standing for office—Ruhollah Khomeini, at the time a relatively junior cleric in Qom, incited religious riots that his followers tried to turn into a broad uprising by seizing government buildings and radio stations. As in 1953, the Shah was unwilling to order action that might lead to bloodshed. Unlike in 1953, the position of Prime Minister was held by the most staunch loyalist of the King, Asadollah Alam, who was afflicted with no such scruples.

Alam convinced the Shah to grant him authority over the military during the crisis—and then deliberately avoided contact with the Shah, lest the monarch try to counsel a gentler course. Alam was quite content to be the regime’s scapegoat. In the course of events, the rebellion was defeated, several-dozen people were killed, and Khomeini was arrested. Though the moderate clergy, led by Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Kazem Shariatmadari, made a show of public protest, they communicated to Alam in private their satisfaction that this troublemaker had been taken off the board.

It was in the wake of the “15 Khordad revolt” that the Shah moved to take the reins in Iran.


The Shah’s career in many ways book-ended the struggle with Communism. The Shah was a mere five years into his reign when his country was the scene of the first major engagement of the Cold War, solidifying the young monarch as one of the most ardent soldiers of that long twilight struggle, even at moments—as in the mid-1970s—when the West’s nerve faltered. At the other end, the Shah would arguably become the most important victim of the Cold War, and the ripples from the collapse of his government helped set in train events that ultimately brought to a close the great contest between the Free Bloc and the Soviet Empire.

To pre-empt the Nazis, the British and Soviets had occupied Iran in 1941, forcing Reza Khan’s abdication and his replacement by Muhammad Reza. The first major of act of post-war Soviet expansionism outside Eastern Europe came when Moscow defied the March 1946 deadline on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iran. It was not by accident that Winston Churchill gave his Fulton speech at that moment, warning that “an iron curtain has descended across the [European] Continent”. The Soviets would eventually leave, after trying to prop up the proxy Kurdish state around Mahabad.

For the Shah, the 1946 crisis had reinforced his belief that the old Russian imperialism, which had taken away the Caucasus from Iran in the infamous Treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828), was more aggressive and dangerous in its Communist form. It wasn’t that the Shah had complete faith in his British and American allies. It’s just that, as a 1956 British Foreign Office memo put it, Shah’s “natural inclination” was to mistrust “everybody, and when in doubt the Russians most of all.”

It was, therefore, a shock when the Shah began outreach to the Soviets. While partly an indicator of the Shah’s growing autonomy from Britain and America, the primary intent was quite clearly to leverage this flirtation to acquire the arms and other materiel the Shah had expected to be forthcoming after he signed-onto the Baghdad Pact (1955), later the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), an alliance gravely weakened when Eisenhower, still believing in the Israel-centric version of regional reality and the possibility of bringing Nasr around, refused to join. The Shah was bruised, too, that the U.S. had not shared everything it knew about the Gharani affair. Talks on a non-aggression treaty with the Soviets began in late 1958. By February 1959, the Shah had orchestrated a collapse in negotiations with the Soviets,[2] and on 5 March 1959 signed a Mutual Defence Agreement with the United States.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was so incensed at being used like this that he ordered the KGB to assassinate the Shah. The defection of Bohdan Stashynsky to West Germany in August 1961—Stashynsky having killed Stepan Bandera in Munich, among other things—largely ended Soviet foreign “wetwork”, until then a staple of Soviet statecraft. But, as Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin reveal from KGB records in The World Was Going Our Way, the Shah was the target of one of the last such operations in February 1962, when a Soviet Illegal tried to murder the Shah with a car bomb (p. 173). Interestingly, Milani notes that the same man who botched the attempt on the Shah was sent to head up the KGB in Iran right before the revolution. In public, the Soviets unleashed a massive campaign of propaganda and subversion against the Shah in 1959. To counter this, the Shah hired Dr. Eberhard Taubert, a master anti-Bolshevik propagandist, who had been working for the German Social Democratic Party. Taubert is probably most famous as one of the screen-writers for The Eternal Jew (1940), a virulently antisemitic film produced by the Nazi regime Taubert worked for at the time.

Communication resumed between the Shah and Khrushchev in 1960 but went nowhere for two years. John Kennedy became President in January 1961, leading to the lowest moment of U.S.-Iran relations under the Shah. Simultaneously, Iranian relations with the Soviets hit rock bottom when the technocratic and staunchly pro-American Ali Amini became Prime Minister. Talks recommenced with the Soviets in January 1962, closely coordinated with the Americans, but were halted to allow the Shah’s trip to the U.S. in April 1962, which was rather a success, albeit differences remained with the Kennedy White House.[3]

The conclusion of the Iran-Soviet negotiations came in September 1962 with the exchange of diplomatic notes. The Shah resolutely refused to budge from the position he had taken seven months before and even got the Soviets to eliminate the language about non-aggression. The final note stated that “the Imperial Iranian Government … desires to assure the Government of the USSR … that no foreign power will be given the right to have bases for missiles of any type on Iranian soil”. The Shah stuck to the letter of this pledge, while hosting two crucial American listening bases. The most meaningful impact of all this was not détente with the Soviets—a policy the Shah found misguided—but America agreeing to cease engagement with the Iranian opposition as the price of the bases. It was among the factors that led to the catastrophic intelligence failure of 1978-9.

Relations between the Shah and the U.S. improved (nearly by definition) after the Kennedy assassination, and Lyndon Johnson becoming President. As the U.S. got deeper into Vietnam during LBJ’s period in office, the Shah began to emerge, before he became the prototype for the Nixon Doctrine, set in place by Richard Nixon and his powerful National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

In 1966, the Shah had joined in the (unsuccessful) regional effort with U.S. allies to help the royalists hold the line against the Communists in Yemen, and in time Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and North Yemen would all receive assistance from the Shah. After the British announced, in January 1968, their decision to withdraw east of Suez by the end of 1971, the Shah’s role expanded to fill the void. The Shah had ceased to receive direct aid from the U.S. in 1964 and with the oil shock in the early 1970s fully outgrew Anglo-American tutelage, asserting his sovereignty within Iran and beyond, an ally of the West, no longer a ward. And the Shah would prove to be a most reliable ally.

The Shah’s Iran was capable of assisting the West in ways even Israel could not. Israel was not at this time the regional superpower it is now and, though the Israelis were able to offer assistance to keep the Jordanian monarchy from falling to Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1970, the socio-political barriers to Israel acting in a protracted way in the Muslim world are obvious. Though there was resentment, particularly from Saudi Arabia, toward Iran for intrusions into the Arab world, this was much less explosive than in the case of Israel.

Beginning in August 1972, the Shah initiated support to the Kurdish insurrection in northern Iraq to destabilise Saddam Husayn’s regime as it drew closer to the Soviet Union. The Shah gained support from Israel and dragged along a reluctant American administration. The “logic” of détente had fully captured the Nixon-Kissinger administration by this stage. In the midst of preparing the sell-out of South Vietnam, the U.S. worried about the Shah’s plans and anything else that might be seen in Moscow as “a move against [the Soviets]”, not that the Kremlin ever worried about being caught waging the Cold War. The Shah had tried to orchestrate a coup in Iraq in 1970 and now went all-in, with covert cross-border operations against the Ba’thists. By March 1975, the pressure on Saddam brought him to the table and the Algiers Accord was signed: Saddam dropped the Shatt al-Arab border issue and the Shah dropped the Kurds. The Shah was criticised, at the time and since, for this betrayal. His defence was to say: “They weren’t fighting—we were. The Kurds weren’t fighting.” The Ba’th regime largely ceased its hostile operations against the Shah after this—indeed, as the revolution got underway in Iran in 1978, Saddam offered to kill Khomeini.

The Shah’s rapprochement with Iraq was also related to one of his most successful foreign policy initiatives: the key role Imperial Iran played in suppressing the Communist revolt in Oman. A tribal rebellion broke out in the Dhofar area of Oman in 1963 and was quickly captured by Communists receiving support from the Soviet Union, directly and through intermediaries: Cuba (as always), Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya for a time, and most crucially South Yemen. Red China and Ba’thi Iraq also supported the Communist rebels. From August 1972, the Shah had supplied the Omani Sultan, Qabus ibn Sa’id, with arms and by the end of the year the first detachments of Iranian forces had arrived in Oman. By December 1975, the Communists had been defeated. The Shah’s forces had not only “spearheaded many of the critical offensives” to get the job done—Iranians accounted for one-quarter of the 400 men who died on behalf of the Omani Sultan—he had been key in cutting off the insurgency’s external support system via deft diplomacy that peeled away Peking and Baghdad.

There was, Milani argues, a downside to the Shah’s focus on the Communist threat: it meant a scorched earth approach was taken toward the radical (secular) Left, while the ulema (clergy) were given more space and Khomeini exploited this. There is something to this, and it can certainly be said that the Shah overstated the Communist problem relative to Islamist menace. But Milani’s emphasis is slightly misplaced. The mistake the Shah made in assessing the threats to his government was to underestimate the Islamists, rather than to overestimate the Communists. The Communists were so weak in Iran in the late 1970s largely because that the Shah took them so seriously and his countermeasures worked.

An important reason why the Islamists were underestimated was Alam, who kept reassuring the Shah that the clergy were an irrelevance after his decisive action in 1963. As Alam put it to a foreign diplomat, the “mullahs united with Communists and nomadic tribes … rose up against the regime. … I destroyed them; I crushed them once and for all.” This narrative was not solely self-delusion: it was very helpful to Alam’s political position to be able to constantly remind the Shah that he had saved his throne.[4] The Shah seems to have believed Alam’s description of the balance of power within Iran down to the end: as Milani relates from tapes he has acquired, in the weeks before his death the Shah was still attributing the revolution that deposed him to “international Communism” and the KGB.

This belief of the Shah’s that he was deposed by the Communists actually obscures one of his great successes, namely effective counter-intelligence.

Milani describes the extent of the measures the Shah took against the Soviet Embassy in Tehran:

SAVAK had purchased a four-story apartment building overlooking the entrance to the embassy. While the first floor was ostensibly a doctor’s office, officers of the Eighth Directorate, in charge of anti-Soviet counterespionage, used the top three floors to monitor the traffic in and out of the embassy. SAVAK agents also manned a kiosk that supposedly sold soft drinks, located right across from the embassy entrance.

The Mitrokhin Archive makes clear that the Shah virtually paralysed the Legals’ network, denying visas to suspected KGB operatives, and at one time the “surveillance … was so tight that the residency appealed to the Centre to retaliate against the Iranian embassy in Moscow” (p. 180). The Soviets’ “most important” spy, Andrew and Mitrokhin write (pp. 177-9), was General Ahmad Mogharebi (codenamed MAN), who was arrested in September 1977. Other Soviet agents included: a relative of long-serving Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda (ZHAMAN); an Afghan diplomat, Homayoon Akram (RAM); and another Iranian, TEYMOUR, who, according to Milani, “essentially milked the Soviets and passed them insignificant bits of information”. For a decade before the revolution, the hands-on editor of Keyhan, the most popular newspaper in Iran that reliably reflected the Court’s view of matters, was Rahman Hatefi, a secret operative of the Tudeh Party, which was, like all other Communist Parties around the world, a wholly owned subsidiary of the KGB. Milani notes that Hatefi’s pro-Soviet views were reflected in the paper, albeit subtly.

The Shah was not alone in missing the fact that he had effectively neutralised the Communist threat, only to fall to the theocrats. Neither the CIA nor KGB saw it coming, nor did many of those who thought they were leading the opposition and cynically using Khomeini for mass-mobilisation purposes. Within four years, the Leftists and swathes of the religious opposition had been purged from the Islamic Republic.


Misreading the opposition landscape was hardly the Shah’s only mistake in the lead-up to the revolution. As Milani notes, “In the last two years of his rule, at each critical moment, the Shah arguably made the worst possible choice”. The very incident that triggered the first protests, an inflammatory newspaper article, was commissioned by the Shah, attacking Khomeini in terms that forced even the moderate clergy to come out against the government. That said, many of the significant flashpoints related to the liberal legislation and libertine habits of the Court—those things most Westerners would think were “good”.

At the height of the Shah’s power, in the decade between 1965 and 1975, “Iran was one of the most liberal societies in the Muslim world in terms of cultural and religious tolerance, and in the state’s aversion to interfere in the private lives of its citizens—so long as they did not politically oppose the Shah”, Milani writes. The Shah massively industrialised Iran, creating vast wealth, which was spread widely among the population, who were protected by remarkably fair and effective labour laws. During the Second World War, Iranian passports were granted to thousands of Jews in Europe, saving them from the Holocaust, and the Shah saved Jews in Iran from the vengeance that fell on them elsewhere in the region after Israel’s foundation in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967. Jews and Baha’is became notable players in Iran’s economic life under the Shah. Women were granted legal equality, in politics and private life, from voting rights to access to divorce. All of these things—development, religious tolerance, and women’s rights—created tensions between the monarchy and the clergy, and the speed with which the Shah did it, partly a product of design and partly a result of his attempt to outrun the terminal diagnosis he had received in 1974, exacerbated the problem.

“The Shah had a surprisingly blithe attitude toward the sexual life of those around him”, Milani notes, whether it was extra-marital affairs or homosexuality. This easy-going atmosphere was a particular point of criticism from the religious opposition, but it meant that some of the Shah’s associates, such as Ernest Perron, were vulnerable when a large enough slice of the Court turned against them. There was also what Alam described as the Shah’s “only recreation”, namely call girls, often flown in from Europe. These “outings”, as the Shah referred to them, did not always involve sex: sometimes it was just conversation, drinks, and/or a dance. “If I don’t have this recreation a couple of times a week,” the Shah once told Alam, “there is no way I could bear the burden of my office.” On one notorious occasion, in the summer of 1973, one of the Shah’s paramours, a 19-year-old known only as Gilda, created a scandal by saying the Shah wished to take her as a second wife. The reality was bad enough, but by the time the story filtered down to the street it had been inflated and inflected with all kinds of conspiracy. It was deeply shocking for a conservative society, especially to the large number of newly-urbanised Tehranis coming in from the countryside, to be confronted with such stories about their King.

Most significantly, despite the fact that the Shah regarded the moderate clergy around Shariatmadari as a counterweight both to the Communists and the Khomeini faction, he never consolidated an accord with them. Personally religious though he was, the Shah maintained an adamant distrust and even contempt for the clergy as a power bloc. Pressed by one of his aides in late 1972, the Shah gave reluctant consent to begin talks with the ulema, after making clear he thought dealing with the clerics “was like going to bed with a madman”. At this moment the Shah was and felt secure, and he was just about to be bolstered by the oil boom, which weakened the incentives for a compact with the clergy. Overconfidence crept in. It might be said that it was worth a showdown with the clerics to advance legislation on female emancipation. Less obvious was the point in provoking the clerics by changing the calendar in 1976 from the Islamic one to one dated from the birth of Cyrus the Great, so that 1355 suddenly became 2535.[5] By the time the Shah really needed a deal with the mainstream clergy in the year before his fall, the political situation was impossible: Khomeini had been able to co-opt or intimidate those the Shah needed.

Milani argues that concessions at the right time—from a point of strength; in 1975, say—would have averted the crisis. There are some problems with this argument. While all can agree that the Shah made his concessions, beginning a program of liberalisation in late 1977, at the worst possible moment, right as the oil price collapsed, it will also be noted that these concessions were made from strength, months before any hint of revolution was on the horizon. The outcome was that the radicals sensed weakness and opportunity, and everybody else agreed with U.S. Ambassador Richard Helms: “I can recall no example of a ruler willingly loosening the reins of power”. Nobody believed the Shah was for real, and when the disorders began many believed that it was SAVAK behind them, meant to discredit liberalisation and provide a pretext for a crackdown.[6] Only too late they realised the truth.

Milani also makes a historical argument to buttress his argument, pointing out that every monarch back to the mid-19th century met a “tragic end”, except Mozafaredin Shah Qajar, who ratified the 1906 Constitution that severely limited his powers. This is technically true and rather misleading. First, Milani’s chosen timeline is wholly arbitrary; extending it back even one monarch would undermine his case. Second, Mozafaredin was forced to accede to the Constitution right before he died—it was not because he signed the Constitution that he was permitted to keep his throne—and had he lived much longer he might well have been ousted, as his successor was. (Decades of turmoil followed Mozafaredin and the nearest Iran ever got to the promise of the Constitution was under Muhammad Reza.) Third, Muhammad Reza was one of the longest serving Shahs in Iran’s 2,500-year history of monarchy, suggesting that his method of governance was not completely without merit. And fourth, to restate, Muhammad Reza did begin to very seriously cede power—before the earliest stirrings of revolution—and within a year had been reduced to a virtually ceremonial position. Yet, as Milani himself notes, liberalisation only emboldened the radicals.

This is not to say Milani is necessarily wrong that earlier moves toward a constitutional monarchy would have saved Muhammad Reza; it is to say only that his counterfactual argument does not take account of countervailing lines of reasoning very well. Milani views the institution of monarchy as antiquated, and therefore only durable if it is reduced to a symbolic role. This view is widespread, but it is theological, rather than empirical or historical. The American experience is the great exception: in almost every other case—Iran, Russia, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Cambodia, Uganda, Afghanistan, Ethiopia—the transition from monarchy to republic has been marked by a horrific decline in human freedom. In the Middle East, among the Arab states in particular, it is also notable that the monarchies have proven more durable and stable than the various republican regimes and are at the present time dominant.

The role of Britain and especially America in weakening the Shah is complicated. President Jimmy Carter came into office in January 1977 on a platform of getting tough with friendly autocrats who had to that point been shielded, he said, by an “inordinate fear of Communism”. For various reasons, the Shah was among those Carter had top-of-mind. Carter’s rhetoric boosted the confidence of the Iranian opposition across the spectrum, but Carter did not devote the kind of attention to Iran commensurate with such a drastic intervention in her affairs—not even to register his own wins. After the reports of torture in Iranian prisons, the Shah invited in the Red Cross and stamped out the practice by mid-1977. Carter barely noticed, then spent the crucial parts of 1978 on Israel-Egypt issues, leaving Iran policy to a squabbling bureaucracy and the grossly incompetent Ambassador William Sullivan, who ended up helping to usher Khomeini into power.

The Shah was convinced that the rebellion was the work of outsiders, generally the Soviets but sometimes his allies. This was based on fragments of truth. The notion that Sullivan was deliberately conspiring against him was an easy mistake to make, and the reality that Sullivan was being worked by pro-Khomeini operatives like Mehdi Bazargan was hardly more reassuring. The Shah was also correct to believe—as Milani quotes then-British Foreign Secretary David Owen confirming—that had the U.S. and U.K. known of his cancer they would have tried to compel his abdication. But the Shah was also afflicted by conspiracy theories, for example believing—as did most Iranians—that Voice of America and the BBC in particular, which took (as its staff later admitted) a blatantly anti-monarchy stance during the crisis, spoke for their governments. At times, the Shah would try to work out what concession he needed to make to the Americans and/or British to get them to call off the storm.

Milani—who opens each chapter with quotes from Shakespeare’s Richard III—presents the Shah as weak and vacillating during the revolution, a product of his nature and the fact he was dying. There is a point here, and Milani is on much stronger ground when pointing to the structural fact that is the weakness of all autocracies: with so much power concentrated in a single pair of hands, any hesitation from the individual reverberates through the whole system. This is less true by the key period over the summer of 1978, however, when the Shah has given much of his power to the Prime Minister. The Shah’s most efficacious actions were to prevent the government abandoning liberalisation, and to block the various plans his Generals came up with for Tiananmen-style restoration of order.

As the realisation that no crackdown was coming set in, the royalists and the middle class began fleeing, and the radicals rallied for the final push, including calling on external terrorist forces like the PLO and Colonel Qaddafi to help them. The Rex Cinema fire set by the Islamists in August 1978 killed hundreds of people and the Shah was blamed by many. The Jaleh Square incident the next month drained the Shah’s will to resist: blood had been shed and his people had broken with him. The King decided to call it quits, and the mayhem that overtook Tehran in November and December confirmed him in his decision. An Interim Government was left behind when the Shah departed the country in January 1979; within a month it had fallen to the armed coup the Islamists had planned all along.


The frenzy of killing that took hold within Iran in the spring of 1979, as Khomeini’s followers liquidated the pillars of the old order and anyone else suspected of harbouring doubts about their project, has left scars that cannot heal, not least because the killing never really stopped. Beyond Iran, the effects have been profound.

By raising the prospect of Islamic revolution spilling into Soviet Central Asia, the fall of the Shah was among the constellation of factors that led to the Soviet conquest of Afghanistan in December 1979, a world historical event for East and West. Nor was this the end of the global fallout. The nascent jihadist movement was inspired by the advent of the Iranian theocracy, for example, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the future leader of Al-Qaeda. To blunt the agitation of the missionary state in Iran, the Saudi government vastly expanded its dissemination of Wahhabism from the 1980s onward, altering the character of Sunnism in areas well beyond the Middle East. The slaughter of half-a-million people in Syria and the displacement of ten million more in the last eight years, a political and humanitarian wound the region will probably never recover from and a catastrophe that has destabilised Western political systems, likewise has origins that be traced back to the Islamic Republic.

One of the saddest parts of the book is when Milani describes how disgracefully the Shah was treated by the West after he was deposed. In dire need of surgery, the Shah went from Egypt to Morocco to the Bahamas to Mexico, where he had to waiting as he was being denied access to America. When Carter was pressed on this at a lunch in July 1979, he responded (p. 241): “Fuck the Shah!” It might be said he had already succeeded at that.[7] The Shah was eventually admitted to the U.S. in November 1979, after a long campaign of pressure, and soon forced out again to Panama, where, as Milani documents, he was taunted by the dictator Omar Torrijos as “a chupon, an orange bereft of juice and the flesh. ‘This is what happens to a man squeezed by the great nations,’ he said. ‘After all the juice is gone, they throw him away’.”

Whatever the failings of the Shah’s rule, he was not Erich Honecker, an enthusiastic killer who had taken a leading role alongside the Soviet Union in a campaign to extinguish freedom all over the globe. The Shah had worked for the betterment of his country as he saw it and had stood with the West to resist the Communist tide. After this partnership of forty years, with the terrorist regime that had displaced the Shah having already murdered his nephew in Paris and publicly offered a bounty for the fallen monarch himself, the West continued to equivocate and to try to make-nice with the fanatics.[8] Left to the West, the Shah would have been “denied even the dignity of a quiet corner to die”, as Milani writes. In March 1980, the Shah finally settled in Egypt, where the ruler Anwar al-Sadat met him with a full military guard, provoking a rare display of public emotion from the Shah. The Shah died in Cairo in July 1980—just over a year before Sadat himself was struck down by Islamists.

Milani holds to the familiar argument that the revolution was at heart democratic and was hijacked by the Islamists. This notion is mostly wish-thinking. There was undoubtedly a democratic thread in the movement against the Shah—even the Islamic Republic has to put on a show of elections. There were also oppositionists who thought they could use the mullahs and the bazaari networks for their own ends, though these figures were generally Marxists not democrats. The fact remains: the view of the crowds in 1978 and 1979 was that Westernisation was the problem and the country should move in the opposite direction of native, Islamic “authenticity”, guided by the clergy. While an Islamist polity was surely a vague concept to many, Khomeini’s leadership of the revolution was accepted by all. As Milani himself documents, when the Shah was trying at the last to cut a deal with the opposition, he was blocked time and again because they all had to square the terms with the Imam, and he would settle for nothing less than the total overthrow of the Shah’s state. This makes it less surprising that, as Milani sets out,[9] the various opposition forces that ostensibly wanted some form of modernity lined up with the most anti-modernist force in the country to depose the Shah.


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[1] One can see the Shah’s view of the threats he was facing shifting to a moral local paradigm in the Fallaci interview, where the Shah surprised her by bluntly stating that Iraq—“ruled by a group of crazy, bloodthirsty savages”, i.e. the Ba’thists—was Iran’s “worst neighbour”.

That said, the Shah never lost sight of the Soviets, and for good reason, since the radical Arab republics were all backed by the Soviet Union. This two-track threat helped push the Shah into an ever-closer relationship with Israel, in turn heightening the fury directed at the Imperial Government from actors like the PLO and Col. Qaddafi. A classic case is the June 1971 attack on the Liberian-flagged Iranian tanker taking oil from Iran to Israel. The idea was to embarrass the Shah by highlighting his links to the “Zionist entity”. The attacker, Wadi Haddad, was the leader of one of the PLO factions, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which was hosted in Qaddafi’s Libya most of the time, where it provided training to Iranian Islamists and Marxists. Haddad was also an agent of the KGB.

The height of the Israeli-Iranian collaboration was probably Project FLOWER, one of six “oil-for-arms” contracts signed in April 1977 in Tehran between the Shah and Israeli Defence Minister Shimon Peres. The Shah had been alarmed (pp. 74-6) by the continued arms build-up of Ba’thi Iraq, particularly its acquisition of SCUD missiles supplied by the Soviets; the Shah believed that Iraq would attack Iran, fully supported by the Communist Bloc and the Arab states, and that with Carter in office this would be treated as a local matter, leaving the Shah alone. Israel had received (p. 91) limited missiles from the U.S. in 1973; the Shah never received any ballistic missiles, and Carter turned down his request for Pershing. To work around the U.S. prohibition so that Israel could acquire longer range missiles—up to 300 miles—and the Shah could acquire the necessary equipment to deal with his Soviet-backed western neighbour, a deal was struck where Iran supplied oil and funds and in Israel a surface-to-surface missile would be produced that was stripped of American parts and replaced with those indigenously-produced, in order that the Israelis could then transfer the missile to Iran without (technically) trespassing on the laws that prevent Israel transferring certain American technologies, in this case the guidance system. The project stuttered a little when Menachem Begin came into office in June 1977 but, once he convinced the Shah that Likud was serious about peace with the Arabs, FLOWER recommenced, beginning with an Iranian down payment of $260 million in oil. Shortly after, Iranian officials watched a test-firing of an early prototype of the missile in the Israeli desert. One aspect that attracted a lot of attention once this came to light was that the missile would have been nuclear-capable. Israel has had nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. The Shah had no ambitions for nuclear weapons at this time, but Iran had begun a nuclear program in 1973 and the Israelis knew this; the fact Jerusalem was willing to equip the Shah with weapons that could easily have been used in a nuclear-weapons program is intriguing. In the event, the FLOWER Project was aborted by the Islamist revolution.

[2] Milani briefly notes that the Shah “found an easy way to bring the negotiations to a dead end by demanding that articles in the 1921 and the 1927 agreements, often used by the Soviets as a pretext to threaten Iran, should be abrogated” (p. 229). Roham Alvandi expanded on this. The 1921 Treaty of Friendship was supposed to normalise Tehran-Moscow relations after the Bolshevik coup, ostensibly setting the two states on a more equal footing—as opposed to the forced concessions inflicted on Iran by the Tsarist government (the hated Turkmenchay Treaty was abrogated, for example)—and the 1927 treaties regulated the burgeoning Iran-Soviet trading relationship.

Alvandi explains that it was the 1921 Treaty that caused the most trouble, specifically Article 5, which prohibited either state hosting “any organization or groups of persons … whose object is to engage in acts of hostility against Persia or Russia, or against the Allies of Russia” and “prevent[ed] … the presence within their territories … of all armies or forces of a third party”, and Article 6, which gave Russia “the right to advance her troops into the Persian interior for the purpose of carrying out the military operations necessary for its defence”. This was softened, theoretically: Russia had to give Iran a chance to prove itself unable or unwilling to eliminate a threat on its territory before Moscow could act, and Russia vowed to “withdraw her troops from Persian territory as soon as the danger has been removed” should it intervene. The Bolsheviks had also assured Reza Shah that this provision was intended only against the White Guards, whose desperate bid for counter-revolution was at this time being crushed as the Allies abandoned even their half-hearted support. (The Soviets would wage a relentless war against the Whites in exile, destroying them as a strategic threat by the 1930s and having their final members handed over by the British at the end of the Second World War.)

The diplomatic niceties that conditioned when the Red Army could intrude into Iran were, of course, ignored by the lawless revolutionary government of the Soviet Union, which, as Alvandi documents, invoked these Articles as pseudo-legal cover for the 1941 occupation of Iran and ever-afterwards threatened to invoke them because of Iran was a member of the Baghdad Pact and had American military advisers stationed on her territory. The chance to eliminate these Articles was, therefore, genuinely rather appealing to the Shah—and guaranteed to be rejected by the Soviet regime.

[3] In America, the Shah spoke to Congress, gave a well-received account of himself to the press, and visited the White House. The crux of the dispute was that the Shah wanted additional support for Iran’s security sector to fend off external threats. Kennedy insisted that the U.S. would defend Iran from outside menace and the real problems were internal, requiring political reform. One specific point of contention was the Iranian Army: Kennedy wanted to reduce its size and the Shah thought this was madness. The Shah was also displeased because he did not believe the U.S. treated his country fairly. “America treats Turkey as a wife”, the Shah said, “and Iran as a concubine”. Nonetheless, the Shah was somewhat reassured, since Kennedy had recognised the “special factors” in Iran that meant the government could not “do everything in an absolutely legal way”, that “the Shah is the keystone”, and that if he falls, “Iran and then the whole Middle East would crumble”.

[4] The Shah’s view that the clerics were a spent force also meant that intellectuals like Jalal Al-e-Ahmad and Ali Shariati were overlooked, though they were crucial in preparing the ground for the religious revolution. SAVAK was accused of killing Shariati, who died in Southampton in June 1977. Shariati was associated with the Liberation Movement of Iran (LMI), the theocratic splinter from the old National Front, which was led by the Khomeini supporter Mehdi Bazargan. There is no evidence of SAVAK’s involvement in Shariati’s death, nor was SAVAK involved in the death of Mostafa Khomeini in Najaf in October 1977 or the car-wreck in Qom that killed Imam Ahmad Kafi in July 1978. But in the hot-house atmosphere of that period it was taken for granted that SAVAK was behind the deaths and, after all, a revolution needs its martyrs.

[5] The calendar change did not last long: it was revoked in the summer of 1978, after Jafar Sharif-Emami came in as Prime Minister, when the government was in full retreat before the unfolding revolution.

[6] Though there is little evidence that the disorders in late 1978 were direct SAVAK provocations, it was remarked upon at the time—within the Imperial Government and beyond—that SAVAK appeared to do less-than-everything it could to quell them. SAVAK was oddly incapable of infiltrating these very large and unwieldy coalitions that brought together the protests, and always seemed to arrive after the rioters had destroyed everything. One explanation for this is that its two top officials were working for Khomeini. It is established fact that Hossein Fardust, the deputy at SAVAK and the Shah’s childhood friend, was a traitor; he had defected to the Islamists at some point before the end and helped the clerical tyranny set up SAVAMA, which then became the Intelligence Ministry (VEVAK, now VAJA). And there is suggestive evidence that the SAVAK chief, Nasser Moghadam, cut some kind of deal with the Islamists over the summer of 1978—a fatal error, as it turned out.

[7] It came to something that Henry Kissinger was the figure with a shred of compassion and decency in this situation, famously saying in April 1979 that the United States had a duty to the Shah and it was wrong to treat him as a “flying Dutchman looking for a port of call”. Carter was trying to get SALT II through Congress at the time and needed Republican votes; the public approval of a GOP elder statesman like Kissinger was crucial to that end, and Kissinger implicitly used this leverage to compel Carter to let the Shah get the medical treatment he needed.

[8] Milani notes that the new revolutionary government in Iran had declared that “whoever assassinated the deposed Shah and members of his immediate family would be carrying out the order of the Islamic Revolutionary Council.” Shortly thereafter, one regime official said that a contract had been taken out with “Carlos the Jackal” (Ilich Ramírez Sánchez) to kill the Shah. And, of course, as Milani writes, this was only the beginning: “the regime put out contracts on the lives of its opponents or those whose art or writings it found distasteful”, notably Salman Rushdie, killing hundreds of people around the world in the years after this.

[9] Milani sets out the situation thus: “During this period, there were four competing paradigms of modernization (and modernity). Secular nationalists wanted democracy, rule of law, an empowered civil society, and a market economy; religious advocates of modernization wanted a modicum of democracy, within a reformed Shiism that would provide the society’s moral fiber along with a market economy. Supporters of these two paradigms vacillated between advocating for a non-aligned Iran or for one allied with America but independent. The third paradigm was promoted by radical Marxists, who wanted modernization forced on society by the absolute power of a state controlled by their ‘vanguard party,’ a planned economy, and a Russian tilt in Iran’s foreign policy. The Shah offered his own eclectic paradigm of modernization. A separate paradigm, critical of modernization and modernity and rejecting the desirability of both, came most notably in the ideas of Ayatollah Khomeini. … [N]early all advocates of modernity formed an alliance against the Shah and chose as their leader the biggest foe of modernity” (pp. 435-436).


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3 thoughts on “The Shah, the Cold War, and the Islamists

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