World News

A despot’s last-ditch stand

Marci McDonald November 20 1978
World News

A despot’s last-ditch stand

Marci McDonald November 20 1978

A despot’s last-ditch stand

World News

Marci McDonald

The familiar voice crackling out over the Iranian airwaves was unaccustomedly hesitant. The short, ramrodstiff man who had held his country in a vise-like grip of fear for a quarter of a century seemed shrunken and suddenly frail on screen. As his country stood on the brink of a holy civil war—the jugular vein of his oil fields threatened by a strike of 37,000 refinery workers and his effigy burned by rampaging mobs—the Shah of Iran took to the microphone last week with a curious mixture of mea culpa and aggressiveness to announce that he was making one last attempt to preserve his faltering grip by calling in his generals to govern.

The military take-over was hardly a surprise. The army has always been regarded as the Shah’s silent guarantor. What was astonishing was to hear Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Shahs and Light of the Aryans, driven to a public confession that his reign had been one of corruption and terror and promising that “past mistakes will not be repeated.” Within hours a lightning

purge saw 32 top Iranian officials arrested, including both the former head of the secret police and the Shah’s longtime standard-bearer, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, 69, prime minister for 13 years and, until recently, his trusted minister of court. It was a sign that no one was to be spared and 71-year-old General Ali Mohammed Dkademik, former head of Iran Air, was reported to have shot himself rather than face charges, although his family insisted that he had been assassinated.

Even the Shah’s own Pahlavi Foundation, conduit for most royal family profiteering as well as for paying off corrupt ministers who had to be sacrificed, was scheduled for investigation, though just before this was announced the Shah’s twin sister, Ashraf, is reported to have withdrawn several million dollars in cash.

But if the Shah was going through the motions of a cleanup, his reluctance to tolerate political opponents was as evident as ever. After a week of tension the army moved in to break up the oil strike, and Doctor Karim Sanjabi, 74year-old leader of the National Front

opposition, was arrested by police and troops at his home. He had been about to call on the Shah to leave the country so that a referendum could decide if the Pahlevi dynasty should continue to rule or be replaced by a republic.

The Shah could not reach his other chief critic so easily, however, and it was evident that his message of “reform” was directed not only at his howling critics in the streets but at this man, nearly 3,000 miles away in a small bungalow on the edge of an apple orchard outside Paris. But the 78-year-old Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—leader of the country’s Shiite Moslems, who represent 90 per cent of Iran’s 34 million people—reiterated from exile that nothing less than abdication could make him call off the insurrections that continued in the face of the army takeover. As the week wore on, it became increasingly clear that the Shah, who is partially deaf in one ear, may have heard too late.

In Washington, even members of the Carter administration—suddenly redfaced to have found their championing of human rights playing second fiddle to the backing of a despotic regime— were privately admitting doubts about the Shah’s ability to survive. But the Americans could see no choice but to go on backing him. U.S. Energy Secretary James Schlesinger had invoked the spectre of an energy crisis similar to the one that rocked the West in 1973 if Iran’s oil production continued to dribble in at a strangled 1.1 million barrels a day—barely enough to meet domestic needs. And although Saudi Arabia had pledged to increase its own output if a shortage loomed, that raised the tricky question of just who would bail out South Africa and Israel, which are virtually dependent upon Iran for their oil.

Nevertheless, it was not Iranian oil (which the U.S. relies on for only five per cent of its own requirements) that most worried Washington. Ever since the Shah was forced to flee his throne for Rome by a coup led by the fiery former nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh (only to be re-installed by a CIA counter-coup three days

later), he has been the Americans’ insurance policy against Communist encroachment in the Middle East.

The CIA organized and trained the deadly Savak secret police network (see box) by which the Shah eliminated virtually all voices of dissent, and the Americans have trained, directed and equipped the 280,000-man Iranian army, whose generals’ loyalty was assured by allowing them to play with the latest military toys. In the past five years, Iran has purchased over $8 billion in military hardware—a fact that means the U.S. gets back $2 in arms sales for every $1 it spends on Iranian oil. Even General Gholam Reza Azhari, the 61-year-old, newly appointed prime

minister who graduated from Tehran’s officers school in 1935, took military courses in the United States.

Although little is known about Azhari, there is little doubt that he has been handpicked by the Shah—who personally okays every dossier above the rank of commandant—and thus by Washington. Indeed, it is precisely the long arm of the White House that the Shah’s opponents object to, pointing out that if he wasn’t so busy spending over 40 per cent of the national budget on arms, something might be accomplished in a country where—despite the windfall of oil billions—more than 70 per cent of the people are illiterate and the average wage is under $200 a year.

While the Western press has tended to glorify the Shah’s determination to lead his people to a place in the sun as

the fifth-ranking world power by 1985, there has been a marked reluctance to chart his autocratic methods or vainglorious mismanagement of the oil boom. Yet in the heady influx of annual oil revenues, which rose to nearly $20 billion, he embarked on an industrial overspending spree that has created not only social dislocation but a current budget deficit of just over $5.5 billion.

In the rush to import Western ways willy-nilly, a huge, wealthy upper class was created with a stranglehold on consumer monopolies won through favors to the Shah—or the fact that they were related to him. Corruption among his intimates had become so rampant that last July he told a New York Times reporter that he had forbidden the 60 members of his extended family to do further business deals from which they would excessively profit (this news was never published in Iran). Most blatant of the new elite is Iran’s Pepsi Cola king—once a poor Iranian businessman in Rome who lent the Shah his car and

money during his 1953 exile—who has built himself a $15-billion mansion, a replica of the Petit Trianon at Versailles.

While the upper classes wined and dined, inflation rose to an officially recorded 50 per cent. Peasants who had fled the land for $3,000-a-month factory salaries or work on the dizzily blossoming construction sites, suddenly found that a three-bedroom house would cost them $2,000 a month on top of steep food prices and shortages—the result of the Shah’s much-vaunted but mishandled land reforms.

Under these, the state bought up huge tracts from the traditional feudal landlords and redistributed them to peasants with the right to work them—but by no means to all the peasantry. On paper this sounded noble, but it effec-

tively destroyed the fabric of a society that had guaranteed the peasants certain rights (credit and food income) but failed to replace them.

The government’s attempt to form giant farm co-operatives to improve efficiency resulted merely in bureaucratic bungling that lowered productivity by nearly 50 per cent. It finally resorted to turning over large tracts of land to multinational agribusinesses, which cultivate luxury crops such as asparagus and artichokes for export to Europe, while, in a cruel twist of irony, nearly 80 per cent of Iran’s own food needs are now imported.

In school, Iranians have barely concealed bitter derision as they have been forced to study the land reforms as the cornerstone of the Shah’s White Revolution—so called because the history books term it bloodless. They omit de-

tails of the June, 1963, uprising against land redistribution led by Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullahs, when angry crowds set the bazaar in Tehran on fire and its streets were washed red.

In the night that followed, Khomeini was kidnapped from his house in the holy city of Qom by government commandos and put on a plane to Turkey, which promptly deported him to Iraq. Then, last month, apparently under growing pressure from Iran, Iraq deported him to France, where ironically he has proven even more accessible to followers and journalists.

The Ayatollah insists that he has no desire to lead the Islamic republic he hopes to see founded. He waves off the suggestion that he wants to turn the clock back and rejects any existing Islamic governments such as Saudi Ara-

bía or Libya as his models. “We don’t want to go back to the cutting off of hands,” one of his followers said, though alcohol would be banned, movies censored and abortion forbidden. Over other issues, the role of women, the future status of the banned Communist Tudeh Party and what form his government would take, he is vague. But there can be no doubt of the extent of his popular support. “The streets are obeying the religious movements,” according to Sanjabi, 74, a former minister of culture in Mossadegh’s cabinet who is secretary-general of the National Front (which encompasses a spectrum of political dissent from the socialist left to conservatives). Two weeks ago, Sanjabi flew to Paris to meet the Ayatollah— and a direct result of that consultation seems to have been a hardening of his own position.

Sanjabi’s aides downplay the role of Marxists in the current uprising-contrary to the Shah’s repeated accusations—and argue that if any-

thing, it is the Shah’s repressive regime that is driving Iran into the arms of Russia, which wants its gas. Like the Ayatollah, they would continue oil trading with the West and honor commercial commitments. Unlike the Ayatollah, however, the National Front stops short of calling for an Islamic republic—simply demanding an end to “tyranny,” with universal suffrage.

But in arresting Sanjabi, the Shah seems to have taken one more step away from a peaceful solution. It may have been inevitable. These days, as the Shah finds himself a virtual prisoner behind the forbidding walls of the winter palace high in the Elburz Mountains above the devastation of Tehran, the few who have had glimpses of him report a tragic figure, puzzled and beleaguered, who occasionally slips into reveries in which he already seems to see himself as having abdicated. “What do they want anyway?” he keeps asking visitors—a question whose answer he is clearly not prepared to hear. As the Shah himself is only too well aware, a week after celebrating his 59th birthday, every ruler of Iran in the last 200 years has met his death either at the hands of an assassin or in exile.