Cover Story

The days of judgment

January 15 1979
Cover Story

The days of judgment

January 15 1979

The days of judgment

Cover Story

Close contacts described him as a “Hamlet figure”—and there was more than a hint of tragedy about the Shah’s indecision in the face of the ignominious options left him last week. For he faced them alone. In the crunch, the U.S. advisers who had helped him rule with despotic power for more than a quarter of a century were silent when it came to choosing whether to stay in Iran or leave. Explained one senior White House aide: “Our rationale for not giving specific advice is the high risk of not making the right recommendation.” So they told him: “When you’re king of kings, this is what you are paid to do—make your own decisions.”

But if the Shah’s future movements were still uncertain at the week’s end there was very little doubt that he would never again exercise the full range of the powers—with the CIA, his own ruthless SAVAK secret police and 700,000-strong army in back of him — that goaded his 34 million subjects into a year-long revolt (see page 23).

On the one hand Shapour Bakhtiar, the prime minister he plucked from the opposition ranks to try to restore the situation, was pledged to reduce the Shah’s status to something more like that of a constitutional monarch and dismantle much of the machinery of his previous, autocratic rule. On the other, his angry subjects had proved during the holy month of Moharram, which ended at New Year’s, that they had the power to push the country beyond the brink of chaos, if they so chose, in order to bring their monarch around to their

way of thinking. Strikes in key industries and bloody clashes brought the country to a standstill and sent Canadian and other foreigners hurrying to the exit lounges of the country’s airports (see page 22).

Although the Shah’s arch foe, the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini, rejected Bakhtiar’s proposals that the monarch should remain, though taking a “holiday” abroad, and the opposition National Front denounced its former No. 2 for accepting the Shah’s mandate, Bakhtiar went about the business of cabinet-making in relative peace last week. Striking oil workers agreed to relax their grip on the pumps sufficiently to fuel Iran’s own needs and the few demonstrations were peaceful.

But a general strike, called for Sunday, underlined the precarious nature of the lull and revived concern among Western leaders at their Guadeloupe summit hosted by France’s President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (see page 27).

His Imperial Majesty Mohammed Reza Pahlavi Aryamehr of the Peacock Throne of Persia, Shah of Shahs, successor to Cyrus the Great, has ruled longer (37 years) than any other living monarch and has supported as much pomp, style and ceremony as any man in history. The trappings of power—titles absurd in their flamboyance, threads-of-gold uniforms theatrical in their extravagance—have been of great importance to him, the

more so, perhaps, because the Shah has no more royal blood or princely heritage than King Kong.

He was born a commoner on Oct. 26, 1919, the son of Mohammed Reza, an opportunistic peasant who, although illiterate until adulthood, had risen through quick wit and ruthless guile to be a colonel in the army. In 1921, Reza seized power in a military coup and soon after proclaimed himself Reza Shah, supplanting the decadent Quajar dynasty. He chose the name of an ancient Persian language, Pahlavi, as his dynastic surname and designated his son as heir.

In his 20 years in power, Reza Shah established a modern army and a centralized bureaucracy. He also managed to reduce the influence of Britain and the Soviet Union who had the country in an economic grip bordering on colonial control. His great mistake was to foster close relations with Germany during the 1930s. At the outbreak of the Second World War he declared Iran neutral and the country harbored German technicians and propagandists. As a result, and to ensure supply lines, the Soviet Union and the British invaded Iran in August, 1941, and forced Reza Shah to abdicate in favor of his son. Thus Mo-

hammed, aged 22, came to the throne as a virtual puppet.

At first he was indecisive. The British again took control of his oilfields and political opposition began to build from within. In 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh, a charismatic leader, became head of a coalition government that ousted the British and, in 1953, organized a coup which led to the Shah’s departure from the country. But even then Iran’s oil was a high strategic stake and its geog-

raphy was sensitive. America’s Central Intelligence Agency took over, organized a counter-coup and, within a week of running away, the Shah was back in Tehran and in control.

Under CIA guidance he adopted his tough old father as a role model and began to govern the country with ironfisted control backed by a huge secret police force that has never hesitated to use torture and murder to achieve whatever ends the Shah believed were

right. He has been obsessed with preserving the dynasty, divorcing two empresses who did not produce sons, and is now said to be devoted to the graceful Farah, 40, and their four children, two of whom are sons.

But he never lost his taste for splendor. His delayed coronation ceremony in 1967, 25 years after his succession, saw him place the crown on his own

head as he sat on the Peacock Throne of jewel-encrusted marble following the example of Darius, the self-styled “King of Kings.”

In 1971, he staged the greatest party of modern times to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. A total of 69 leaders went, including one emperor, eight kings, a cardinal, several grand dukes, crown princes and sheiks,

premiers and even one vice-president— Spiro T. Agnew—who ranked well below the salt.

As with the pomp and circumstance of monarchy, so with the Shah’s much vaunted and much publicized “reforms”—the show was more impressive than the substance. Official statistics claim a reduction in the illiteracy rate of 45 per cent (to 50 per cent) during the Shah’s reign and a huge increase in the number of schools and universities. Other sources put the illiteracy figure at more than 70 per cent and say that vast areas of the countryside still have no formal teaching.

The Shah’s much vaunted land reforms mean that a country which once was self-sufficient in food has to import nearly 80 per cent of its needs. All the impressive industrial projects have failed to raise the average wage above $200 a year while prices, particularly of housing and food, have soared.

Although a huge wealthy upper class has been created under the Shah’s patronage, the country’s enormous oil revenues (they have been as high as $20 billion a year) have been squandered on Western arms (the U.S., Britain and France have been the big suppliers) and prestige industrial and other projects. The country now has a deficit of just over $5.5 billion.

Last June, just seven months ago, the Shah granted an interview to the magazine U.S. News & World Report. Asked if he felt seriously threatened by the six-month-old wave of demonstrations, the King of Kings pushed back his heavy horn-rimmed glasses and, like a

latter-day Ozymandias, replied: “Nobody can overthrow me. I have the support of 700,000 troops, all the workers and most of the people. I have the power.”

It was a classic misjudgment. The fact was that such arrogance, coupled with ruthless repression of his critics, from strict Moslems who disliked his relaxation of the old religious rules, through urban moderates who hoped for some form of constitutional government, to the irate and impoverished millions, had created the conditions for the formation of a broadly based opposition and a rising tide of protest over the past year. So, far from being safe on his throne, the Shah now seems on the point of losing it—or at least being stripped of his draconian powers while his country is in chaos.

The man who now has the task of getting Iran back into something like working order is a thin, moustachioed doctor of international law. Shapour Bakhtiar, now 63, was educated in Beirut at a French school and received his doctorate from the University of Paris in 1940. In fact, he spent so much time in French schools—he also served in the French army for 18 months during the Second World War—that he had difficulty with his native Persian upon returning home in 1946.

Shortly after returning to Iran, Bakhtiar became involved in the Iran Party, a group that soon became part of the National Front, then headed by Mohammed Mossadegh. During Mossadegh’s brief reign in 1953, Bakhtiar became one of the youngest high officials in the government—deputy minister of labor. But the CIA-backed counter-coup the same year sent Bakhtiar back to his law practice.

Despite his staunch opposition to the Shah—Bakhtiar has been associated with the National Front for more than 25 years and was jailed six times by SAVAK—he has been able to survive comfortably in Iran as a lawyer. He has a walled villa with a swimming pool in north Tehran. There are servants dressed in white and four cars parked on the lawn and the new prime minister is known as a stylish dresser who favors speaking French rather than English.

His acceptance of the Shah’s request to try to form a government was seen as political opportunism by some, a courageous act by others. He certainly had to brace the initial displeasure of the National Front.

But by the end of last week, almost incident-free by current Iranian standards, it seemed that the opposition

forces might be prepared at least to give him the chance to see what he could do.

His program includes much that it would approve. Martial law would be replaced by civilian rule; the military budget would be cut and so would Iran’s policing role in the Persian Gulf; SAVAK’s role would be reduced to that of an intelligence agency; and top office holders would be replaced by men “not identified with the corrupt government of the past.”

As for its foreign relations, Iran would continue to sell oil to nations that needed it—with the possible exceptions

of Israel (because of its dispute with other Moslem states) and South Africa. It would welcome the return of “useful” foreigners when the troubles were over and it would oppose interference from any quarter.

This last clearly was an attempt to allay Western fears that Soviet influence might grow as that of the United States declined and the point was underlined by Khomeini himself at a press conference in Paris. Offering the United States a clean start, he emphasized that he opposed the Soviet Union “and its satellite countries” and “China

and its friends” which have been “hostile to our movement from the start.” Khomeini also went to great lengths to stress that he hoped a West Europeanstyle democracy will be created in Iran and that religious excesses like those in Saudi Arabia, where few careers are open to women and feudal punishments are imposed for many crimes, would be avoided.

That such disclaimers were necessary was evident from the results of a public opinion poll published last week in the United States, showing that 64 per cent of Americans still felt the Shah was the best ruler for Iran. That statistic—the reflection of years of presentation of the Shah by successive administrations and most of the media as an enlightened reformer, opposed only by religious and political extremists—was responsible for some of the caution with which the U.S. was approaching the prospect of dumping its protégé.

Beyond the fear of upsetting public opinion at home should it drop him, however, were lingering anxieties that the fall of the Shah would destabilize the military and political balance in the Persian Gulf area. Said The New York Times: “The consensus among military analysts in the United States and NATO countries is that the Russians, while avoiding overt intervention in Iran, are determined to win indirect control of the country.” And the Pentagon was said to have noted with concern that the Soviet Union was beaming inflammatory radio propaganda into Iran, had stepped up espionage and was strengthening military positions in Southern Yemen and the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean.

In the face of such scary scenarios, it was a small wonder that President Carter, his spies and his statesmen appeared to be scrambling to retain some semblance of power and influence in Iran, not knowing quite what to do as the Shah continued to sink like some stately Titanic. In the last-minute dash for the lifeboats the state department and the Central Intelligence Agency were contradicting each other with reports and advice, while at poolside in Guadeloupe, Carter, in hourly touch with events, seemed to be waiting to see just what support Bakhtiar could muster. If it looked as though the religious and lay leaders would compromise, the U.S. was likely to persuade the Shah to take whatever action Bakhtiar thought best. If, however, it looked as though the new prime minister would fail, the U.S. probably would do nothing, simply waiting for events to unfold. There was little doubt, with the bloody demonstrations of Moharram, let alone the past year still fresh in the mind, what sort of events those would be. David North, from correspondents’ reports