Tuesday, March 16, 2021


Chalk one up to Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a 17th century French diamond trader who left us an account of his travels in Persia. After years of interaction with Persian merchants, ministers and monarchs, he concluded that, “The Persians are naturally great dissemblers and flatterers; and they make it their study to acquire esteem and applause,” while, at the same time, being “mightily addicted to ill language, and foul-mouthed reproaches.”

Being French, Tavernier must have felt a certain kinship. Indeed, it wasn’t long before many Western scholars and historians were arguing that Persia was to the Muslim world what France under Louis XIV was to Christian Europe: the epitome of sophistication, elegance, high culture and, last but not least, cynical arrogance.

Muslim Persia reached its apogee at the beginning of the early 17th century in the last years of the reign of Shah Abbas the Great, who extended and stabilized his realm, proved himself an able soldier and an economic visionary, and took a keen interest in Western knowledge and innovations.

His successors, for the most part, were non-entities, often spending most of their time drunk or drugged in their harems. By the beginning of the 20th century, Persia was a debt-mired, stagnant feudal realm with a rich culture, polished manners and a reputation for both hypocrisy and Shia fanaticism, hardly a winning combination. 

The decadent Khajar dynasty, which had come to power a century earlier, was in its last gasp and at the mercy of European pressure, militarily and economically, just as Persia’s vast petroleum reserves were attracting the notice of Western industrial economies. Where the old dynasty and the traditional aristocratic and landowning elites had failed, a gruff but inspired former cavalry sergeant named Reza Pahlavi succeeded as the self-made founder of a new dynasty and a ruthless reformer in the pattern of Peter the Great of Russia and Kemal Ataturk of Turkey.

Iranian-born (of Christian Assyrian ancestry) scholar Ray Takeyh is no fan of the Pahlavi dynasty but even he concedes, “Reza Shah was no ordinary Middle Eastern despot at ease with his country’s stagnation. He had a vision of changing Iran into a technocratic industrial state … His industrial and educational reforms were to generate a new cadre, one beholden to the monarchy and sharing its vision of radical change.”

Most of Mr. Takeyh’s thoroughly-documented and well-written book centers on Reza Shah’s son and successor, the “Last Shah” of its title. But it was both the personality and the fate of the father that shaped — and to a certain extent, crippled — the son. A shy, intelligent and conscientious boy, Mohammed Reza was raised from childhood to be a “tough” ruler, a trained soldier like his father but with the rigorous modern education that his father had been denied. His tragedy was that, while he possessed many outstanding qualities and was sincerely committed to his task, he lacked one crucial: ruthless self-confidence.

Ironically, the progress and expanded opportunity he brought to his people, while real, was nowhere near as deep-rooted as the narrow self-interest of the old entitled classes or the religious gullibility of Iran’s still ill-educated Shia masses. By introducing a generous and wide-spread program of land reform, the shah alienated the large landowners who had a traditional loyalty to the monarchy but considered the Pahlavis arriviste newcomers to the ancient throne.

And by massively expanding education he added to the ranks of a new intelligentsia that, while caring less about the Iranian masses than the shah did, resented his royal authority and dreamed of a parliamentary government dominated by their own narrow class interests.

Simultaneously, partially through errors of his own and partially through the rise of a new breed of uncultivated, power-hungry fundamentalist clerics like the Ayatollah Khomeini, the shah lost another prop to his regime. In the end, he had nothing left to rely on but the army he and his father had devoted so much effort to creating.

A man of old Shah Reza’s temperament would have had no hesitancy about using that army and might well have prevailed over fickle street mobs and continued as a reforming ruler. His son chose to abandon crown and country rather than shed the blood of his subjects. It could truly be said of Mohammed Reza Shah that, like King Lear, he was “a man more sinned against than sinning.” But for nearly half a century, ordinary Iranians have been paying a high price for his personal humanity at the hands of rulers far more bloody, ruthless and corrupt than the shah ever was.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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By Ray Takeyh

Yale, $32.50, 315 pages

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