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BACK TO CAIRO
I turn to right and left, in all the earth
I see no signs of justice, sense, or worth;
A man does evil deeds, and all his days
Are filled with with luck and universal praise;
Another’s good in all he does—he dies
A wretched, broken man whom all despise.
—THE PERSIAN BOOK OF KINGS
Ingratitude is the prerogative of the people.
On Sunday, February 15, 2015, under a low gray canvas of threatening skies, two motorcades flanked by police escorts pulled up outside the Unknown Soldier Memorial in Cairo, Egypt. Bodyguards armed with automatic weapons quickly formed a protective cordon, and military officers in attendance smartly saluted, but the smiles on the faces of the two women at the center of the scrum showed they were more interested in each other than in the men fussing around them. Farah Pahlavi, Iran’s last queen and empress, and Jehan Sadat, former first lady of Egypt, were old friends and had looked forward to their reunion. They embraced, chatted, and then walked in silence toward the soaring arches of the memorial and beyond to the eternal flame that marked the resting place of Jehan’s husband, the late president Anwar Sadat, slain by Islamist gunmen a few hundred yards away during a 1981 military parade. The sight of the two ladies standing with heads bowed stirred powerful emotions among spectators and brought back memories of another time and another place. Forty years ago, Farah Pahlavi and Jehan Sadat were young women at the forefront of progressive change in the Middle East. Passionate advocates for the rights of women and children, they lobbied for passage of laws to empower women in the workplace and in the family. They supported literacy campaigns; women’s access to education; health care, arts, and culture; and antipoverty initiatives. They traveled widely in their own countries, delivered speeches and addressed public rallies, received visiting dignitaries, and represented their countries abroad. Their activism was encouraged by two husbands who welcomed the presence of strong, intelligent wives as partners and helpmates. The Pahlavi and Sadat marriages broke the mold in conservative Muslim societies, where the consorts of ruling leaders were expected to maintain a dignified silence in public.
The clouds over Cairo were a reminder of the tempests brewing elsewhere in the region. Four years earlier, the Arab Spring revolutions had raised hopes for a new era of democracy and prosperity in a part of the world sorely lacking both. Euphoria soon gave way to despair. From the shores of the southern Mediterranean to the heartland of the old Babylonian Empire political extremists and religious fanatics rushed to fill the void left by the collapse of the old order, and the region’s architecture crumpled beneath the pressure of civil wars, insurgencies, rebellions, assassinations, and terrorist atrocities. Borders dissolved, cities were sacked, and hundreds of thousands were put to the sword in scenes more reminiscent of the thirteenth than the twenty-first century. Women and children were sold as war booty. Barrel bombs and chemical weapons rained down from the sky on once peaceful hamlets and villages. Archaeological ruins that had stood since antiquity were leveled. Journalists and aid workers who rushed to the scene were captured and publicly beheaded. Millions of terrified, traumatized people poured out of Iraq and Syria in search of safe havens and refuge in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Others decided to abandon the region altogether and make the long, dangerous trek to Europe. Terror followed in their wake: several weeks before Farah Pahlavi arrived in Cairo black-clad gunmen pledging allegiance to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda carried out atrocities near her home in Paris, massacring journalists and shoppers in two separate attacks.
The sight of Farah Pahlavi and Jehan Sadat in Cairo presented a poignant reminder that the removal of their husbands from power a generation earlier opened the floodgates to today’s carnage. In the 1970s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the King of Iran, and his friend President Anwar Sadat of Egypt dominated political life in the Middle East. The Shah’s great hope was that he and Sadat, inheritors of two great empires, could work together to form a bulwark of stability and moderation and keep the forces of extremism at bay. When the ground suddenly shifted beneath their feet, the first pillar fell with surprising ease. After a year of mounting unrest the Shah was forced from power in January 1979 and died in Cairo the following year. Eighteen months later the second pillar fell, this time in a matter of seconds. In October 1981 the Egyptian president was slain when Islamist gunmen attacked the presidential reviewing stand at an army parade. The Shah’s eldest son and heir, Reza Pahlavi, had been invited to attend the ceremony as Sadat’s personal guest; his last-minute cancellation probably saved his life.
Every summer since then Farah Pahlavi had flown to Cairo to honor her husband’s memory and legacy. Her pilgrimages were curtailed in 2011 when Sadat’s successor, President Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown in a revolution that brought an Islamist government to power. Farah thought it prudent to stay away until political passions cooled. During her years in exile she had earned a reputation as a tenacious critic of fundamentalist Islam and she continued to champion the rights of women and campaign against religious law. Two years passed and protests by Cairo’s middle class led the army under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to stage a coup against the Islamists. Eighteen months later, Sisi signaled the Queen that she was welcome to return to Cairo for a visit that he hoped would be brief and low-key. His conditions suited her wishes. “I didn’t want to come on the anniversary with the crowds and photographers and flowers,” she said. “It is better to be discreet. I want this to be private.”
* * *
IN THE FIVE years she was away Farah Pahlavi experienced unfathomable personal tragedy and a late life triumph. The suicide of her third child, Ali Reza, in 2011 and the tragic echoes of his sister’s death a decade earlier left her in a daze of grief. Both her youngest children had been traumatized during the revolution and suffered from depression and anxiety. Her distress was further compounded when Ben Affleck’s movie Argo resurrected old allegations that her husband had ruled Iran as a blood-soaked tyrant while she, the Queen, had whiled away her time bathing in milk. Farah was warned by friends not to watch Argo but she attended a screening anyway to see what the fuss was about. She left the cinema devastated and wrote the director a letter defending her husband’s record and pointing out Argo’s factual inaccuracies and falsehoods. Affleck ignored her and went on to win an Oscar. During that bleak period it seemed as though every time Farah Pahlavi tried to move on with her life events from the past kept pulling her back. Above all, she longed to be near her husband. “She needs to talk to him,” said a close friend—she needed to go to Cairo. Yet even in the midst of her sadness and frustration, Farah Pahlavi experienced a remarkable revival of her fortunes.
The Queen’s decision to participate in a documentary on the Iranian revolution seemed straightforward enough. From Tehran to Cairo was produced by Manuto, a London-based Persian-language television station whose programming is beamed into Iran via satellite. The station’s mix of current affairs and pop culture is a favorite among young Iranians. What happened next caught everyone by surprise. When word spread that Iran’s last queen was set to talk about the revolution the streets of Tehran emptied out as commuters rushed home to turn on their televisions. Farah’s warmth, humor, and intelligence came as a surprise to younger viewers conditioned to see her as one of the “corrupt of the earth.” In their tens of thousands, after the broadcast, Iranians wrote to the Queen applauding her courage and thanking her for her years in public life. Many correspondents expressed regret that the 1979 revolution had happened at all. They included ordinary citizens but also government officials, clerics, and even officers serving in the armed forces who sent the Queen their best wishes and apologized for her treatment at the hands of the regime. Remarkably, some regime officials even declared themselves ready to support the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and a restoration of the monarchy.
Their e-mails and letters were filled with regret, longing, and bitter self-reproach. “Dear Lady,” wrote one young Iranian, “I did not live during the reign of the Shah nor did I witness the revolution. Each time I look at the photos of you and the Shah, I wonder what our future could have been. My generation was not the cause of the revolution. The people in power are a bunch of Arab worshippers. I was recently beaten up by the Basiji [security forces] who found a photo of the late Shah on my phone. I love you.” “As an Iranian,” wrote one middle-class woman, “I am ashamed of what my compatriots did to you and your family. We did not appreciate you at the time you were in power. We are now paying the price for our ignorance. How can we ever renew those days? I want you to know that an entire nation is sorry and full of remorse. Your memory is the brightest part of our history. Your good name is eternal.” And this, from a young man clinging to a past he never knew: “I take great pride in being born in Iran in 1977 in the last year of the reign of the Shah,” he wrote. “I have a big collection of photographs of you and your family and I look at them for solace. It is my wish to visit the grave of the Shahanshah. I thank you for all your interviews and speeches in defense of the Shah.… Please call me if you can. And please send me some photographs.”
In February 2016 the Islamic Republic celebrated thirty-seven years in power, coincidentally the same length of years as the Shah ruled over Iran. The anniversary provided Iranians with an opportunity to compare and contrast two very different eras and systems of government. Yet if the attitudes expressed by many ordinary people were any indication, the guardians of the Islamic Republic were wary about submitting to the litmus test of public opinion. Many Iranians associated religious rule with failed state policies, corruption, and repression. Even in clerical circles there was a quiet admission that the regime’s unpopularity had translated into broad public apathy and cynicism toward religion. Religious and political leaders worried about the secular mood stirring among a new generation of Iranians who were enamored with Iran’s pre-Islamic Persian heritage. These rebels sported amulets, necklaces, and rings inscribed with images of Cyrus and Darius, the celebrated kings who centuries before the birth of the Prophet Mohammad transformed Persia into the world’s first sole superpower. They made the trek to Pasargade outside Shiraz to stand before Cyrus’s tomb, where the Shah celebrated twenty-five hundred years of Persian monarchy in 1971. They immersed themselves in the art and culture of the Safavid and Qajar Eras. Even the tourist store at Niavaran Palace where the Pahlavis once resided now hawked Cyrus memorabilia.
During my visit to the holy city of Qom in 2013 I listened as a group of religious scholars conceded that universities around the country felt compelled to offer special history courses tailored to remind students why there had been a revolution in the first place. As part of its propaganda offensive to discredit the Pahlavi Dynasty, state-run television produced a soap opera that depicted the Shah as an American stooge while his family and courtiers flounced about in ball gowns and elaborate uniforms. In a country where people assume the opposite of what the government tells them to be true, the show’s popularity suggested that the public appetite for programming on Iran’s former imperial dynasty had only been whetted.
After a long pause the wheel of history was turning again. Nostalgia and reverence for the past were hardly confined to the generation of young Iranians born after the revolution. Their parents and grandparents reminisced about the 1960s and ’70s, when their passports were welcomed in every country and when Iran was known for social reforms, a booming economy, and the glamour of royalty, and not for stonings, religious extremism, terrorism, and nuclear bombs. The ceaseless regret for what might have been suggested many Iranians were not at peace with themselves or the past. Their discontent would not have surprised the late Shah, who once predicted that his fickle people would live to regret their decision in 1979 to replace him with Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the mullahs. Told during the revolution that one of his statues had been pulled down, he offered a brisk rejoinder: “It will be back up soon enough.” He liked to cite one of his favorite quotes, “Ingratitude is the prerogative of the people,” and on another occasion said, “If the Iranian people were fair and compared their situation with other countries and how Iran was fifty years ago, they would see that they were living in peace. They had it so easy that they decided to have a revolution to supposedly further improve their lives. But this was not a revolution of the Iranian people. In fact it was collective suicide on a national scale that took place at the height of prosperity.”
Two days after uttering those words the Shah died in a Cairo hospital.
* * *
WHY DOES HE still matter?
The answer to that question is apparent to any visitor to the Iranian capital. Tourists enter Tehran from the south on a carriageway built by order of the Shah. On the city’s outskirts they pass through the green belt he envisioned would protect Tehran from the twin scourges of desert wind and dust. In the central city visitors pass by the government ministries, hospitals, universities, schools, concert halls, monuments, bridges, sports complexes, hotels, museums, galleries, and gleaming underground metro that were among his many pet projects. It was the Shah who invested in the technology and purchased the reactors that started Iran’s nuclear program. He championed the social welfare state that today provides Iranians with access to state-run health care and education. He raised the scholarship money that allowed hundreds of thousands of Iranian university students, including many luminaries of the Islamic Republic, to study abroad at leading American and European universities. The Shah ordered the fighter jets that made Iran’s air force the most powerful in southwestern Asia. He established the first national parks and state forests and ordered strict water, animal, and environmental conservation measures. Perhaps it is no surprise that Iran today has the look and feel of a haunted house. The man who built modern Iran is nowhere to be seen but his presence is felt everywhere. The revolutionaries who replaced the Shah may not like to hear it, but Iran today is as much his country as it is theirs.
The Shah matters as much for his failures as for his successes. Though today he is remembered in the West as a brutal dictator forced from power by a brave people, this one-dimensional narrative is an airbrush of the historical record. The Shah spent the last two and a half years of his reign dismantling personal rule in an attempt to democratize Iranian political life. He ceded power back to the politicians, loosened restrictions on political activity, relaxed censorship, and pulled back the security forces. By the time the Shah left for exile in January 1979 he had reduced his own role to a constitutional figurehead, and made no attempt to save his throne through force. Unlike President Bashar al-Asad of Syria, the Shah surrendered power rather than unleash the army and start a civil war. At a time when a new generation of authoritarian rulers in the Middle East and elsewhere will soon face internal and external pressure to democratize, the Shah’s fall raises troubling questions. Did he move too slowly or not fast enough? Would a crackdown have prevented the revolution? If the Shah had not democratized when he did, if he had waited another year, would Iran today be a multiparty democracy with Western-style rule of law?
Today Americans, if they remember the Shah at all, are likely to associate him with massive human rights violations and state-sanctioned repression. In the 1970s the Iranian leader was accused of overseeing a police state responsible for as many as a hundred thousand deaths. According to international human rights groups, an equal number of Iranians were imprisoned and tortured. The Shah became a hate figure for many people. When President Jimmy Carter grudgingly allowed the deposed monarch to enter the United States in 1979 for cancer surgery, his own ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, complained that it was like “protecting Adolf Eichmann.” By comparison, Young described Khomeini as “a saint.” In addition to the accusations of genocide, the Shah was accused of massive corruption and stashing away at least $25 billion in secret Swiss bank accounts (even higher estimates ran to $59 billion or the equivalent of almost three years’ worth of Iranian oil revenues). The Shah rebuffed the charges of mass murder and theft but never denied resorting to authoritarian rule in the latter stages of his reign. “No, I wouldn’t deny it,” he said. “But look, to carry through reforms, one can’t help but be authoritarian. Especially when the reforms take place in a country like Iran, where only 25 percent of the inhabitants know how to read and write.”
The controversy and confusion that surrounded the Shah’s human rights record overshadowed his many real accomplishments in the fields of women’s rights, literacy, health care, education, and modernization. Help in sifting through the accusations and allegations came from a most unexpected quarter, however, when the Islamic Republic announced plans to identify and memorialize each victim of Pahlavi “oppression.” But lead researcher Emad al-Din Baghi, a former seminary student, was shocked to discover that he could not match the victims’ names to the official numbers: instead of 100,000 deaths Baghi could confirm only 3,164. Even that number was inflated because it included all 2,781 fatalities from the 1978–1979 revolution. The actual death toll was lowered to 383, of whom 197 were guerrilla fighters and terrorists killed in skirmishes with the security forces. That meant 183 political prisoners and dissidents were executed, committed suicide in detention, or died under torture. The number of political prisoners was also sharply reduced, from 100,000 to about 3,200. Baghi’s revised numbers were troublesome for another reason: they matched the estimates already provided by the Shah to the International Committee of the Red Cross before the revolution. “The problem here was not only the realization that the Pahlavi state might have been telling the truth but the fact that the Islamic Republic had justified many of its excesses on the popular sacrifices already made,” observed historian Ali Ansari. During Khomeini’s decade in power, from 1979 to 1989, an estimated 12,000 monarchists, liberals, leftists, homosexuals, and women were executed and thousands more tortured. The single worst atrocity occurred in one week in July 1988, when the Islamic Republic slaughtered an estimated 3,000 young men and women accused of engaging in leftist political activity. Baghi’s report exposed Khomeini’s hypocrisy and threatened to undermine the very moral basis of the revolution. Similarly, the corruption charges against the Pahlavis collapsed when the Shah’s fortune was revealed to be well under $100 million at the time of his departure, hardly insignificant but modest by the standards of other royal families and remarkably low by the estimates that appeared in the Western press.
Baghi’s research was suppressed inside Iran but opened up new vistas of study for scholars elsewhere. As a former researcher at Human Rights Watch, the U.S. organization that monitors human rights around the world, I was curious to learn how the higher numbers became common currency in the first place. I interviewed Iranian revolutionaries and foreign correspondents whose reporting had helped cement the popular image of the Shah as a blood-soaked tyrant. I visited the Center for Documentation on the Revolution in Tehran, the state organization that compiles information on human rights during the Pahlavi era, and was assured by current and former staff that Baghi’s reduced numbers were indeed credible. If anything, my own research suggested that Baghi’s estimates might still be too high. For example, during the revolution the Shah was blamed for a cinema fire that killed 430 people in the southern city of Abadan; we now know that this heinous crime was carried out by a pro-Khomeini terror cell. Dozens of government officials and soldiers had been killed during the revolution, but their deaths were also attributed to the Shah and not to Khomeini. The lower numbers do not excuse or diminish the suffering of political prisoners jailed or tortured in Iran in the 1970s. They do, however, show the extent to which the historical record was manipulated by Khomeini and his partisans to criminalize the Shah and justify their own excesses and abuses.
In the seventies, a decade known for savage ideological struggles, the revised death toll in Iran’s 1971–1976 “dirty war” bears consideration. In his lifetime the Shah was often compared to Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet, blamed for the deaths of 2,279 people and 30,000 torture victims, and also to the Argentine military junta, held culpable for 30,000 deaths and disappearances. Within the context of Cold War battlefronts in the Middle East and southwestern Asia, the Pahlavi state was not particularly repressive, especially when we consider that Saddam Hussein, in neighboring Iraq, was credited with the deaths of 200,000 political dissidents, while in Syria, President Hafez al-Assad crushed an Islamic uprising with 20,000 casualties. That Iran never experienced violence on such a scale suggests the Shah was a benevolent autocrat who actually enjoyed a greater degree of popular support among the Iranian people than was previously assumed. The television cameras that focused on large, angry crowds in Tehran in late 1978 told only part of the story, and foreign estimates of millions of anti-Shah protesters calling for the Shah’s overthrow turned out to be vastly inflated. Most scholars now agree that most farmers and workers stayed out of the demonstrations and many in fact supported the Shah to the end. So too did moderate religious leaders and many of their followers who defied Khomeini and engaged in frantic last-ditch efforts to find a compromise that would allow the Shah to stay in Iran and remain on the throne. Though Iran’s cities were in turmoil, large swaths of Iran never experienced the revolution, and for residents living in many rural districts life continued as before. What, then, are we to make of the Shah and the Iranian revolution?
Historians often talk about the “uses and abuses” of history, and researching the Iranian revolution can be compared to entering a dark tunnel without a flashlight. The tunnel is filled with caverns, dead ends, and missed turns and lit only by the occasional flare of rumor, conspiracy theory, and outright lie. The Islamic Republic may be deeply invested in one version of events, but Iranian exiles remain bitterly divided among themselves about the Shah, his legacy, and the origins of the revolution. Many Iranians, even those who left Iran months before the worst unrest, still blame the Shah for abandoning the country to religious extremists. Others point the finger at Americans for betraying an ally. According to their “Green Belt” conspiracy the Shah was pushed out of power by the United States as part of a secret national security strategy to install a network of anti-Communist Islamist regimes on the southern borders of the old Soviet Union. No documents have ever surfaced to prove the conspiracy’s existence. Nonetheless, I felt duty-bound to raise the topic of betrayal during my interview with Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as Carter’s White House national security adviser. Our subsequent exchange could have been scripted by a late-night comedy writer. “Green what?” asked Brzezinski. He listened in silence as I explained his alleged “role” in Iran’s “grassy knoll” version of history. “First I’ve heard of it,” he chuckled and asked me to repeat the explanation a second time. “I have been accused of many things in my time but this one might be the best of the lot,” he said. He seemed more flattered than offended to be at the center of an epic conspiracy theory.
Politicians and government officials with little or no training in history like to cite past events to justify their decisions and policies. This was certainly true during the Iranian revolution. U.S. officials harked back to two episodes in 1953 and 1963 when the Shah had approved the use of force to crush protests. When he failed to call out the troops a third time, in 1978, their calculations left them bereft of policy options. Iranian generals and officials used the same events as reference points, but for an entirely different reason. They knew that on both occasions the Shah had actually opposed the use of force, relenting only when stronger personalities pressed his hand. Khomeini’s totalitarian political views and violent hatred for Americans were matters of public record, yet U.S. ambassador William Sullivan compared him to Gandhi, the pacifist leader of India’s independence struggle against the British Raj. Iranians also turned to the past to help explain the catastrophe that befell their country. The Shah’s behavior was informed by other dates, most notably 1907, when Russia and Great Britain carved up Iran between them, and also 1941, when the Allies invaded Iran and ousted his father. His family members and aides feared the regicides of earlier revolutions. “I always had in mind the Romanovs,” said Queen Farah, who was outraged when a senior courtier compared her to Queen Marie Antoinette and her husband to Czar Nicholas II.
* * *
THIRTY-SEVEN YEARS AFTER his exile and on the seventy-fifth anniversary of his accession, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi has been reduced to a bloodless enigma. Puzzled by his decision to leave and not stay on and fight Khomeini, biographers over the years have resorted to dream interpretation and psychosexual analysis to describe his behavior. Others attributed his behavior to personal insecurities stemming from his relationship with a domineering father and the women in his life. “Everyone is a psychologist, you know?” Farah Pahlavi warily observes.
I wondered how the Shah, so often derided as “weak,” held on to the Peacock Throne for thirty-seven years, making his the fifth-longest reign in the twenty-five-hundred-year history of the Persian monarchy. If the Shah really was as “stupid” as his detractors said, how did he successfully outmaneuver ruthless and wily American presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon? If the Shah was a “coward,” how to explain his remarkably cool behavior when he survived a plane crash and assassination attempts? If the Shah was “indecisive,” how did he engineer the 1973 “oil shock,” the greatest transfer of sovereign wealth in recorded history? Somehow the Shah achieved these feats while steering Iran through the treacherous currents of World War II and the Cold War and implementing one of the twentieth century’s great experiments in liberal social and economic reform. The Cold War was a brutal, bloody business during which leaders of frontline states like Iran were regularly overthrown and assassinated. Trapped between that cauldron and the rise of Islam, the Pahlavi Dynasty was swept away in a deluge that few kings or presidents, perhaps not even a de Gaulle, could have held back.
What was true for the Shah was also true for his wife. Throughout history the royal consorts of reigning kings and emperors have usually been portrayed as appendages or spectators, as meddling shrews or naive dilettantes. Farah Pahlavi defied these stereotypes. Early in my research I came across an American diplomatic dispatch from January 1979 that referenced the Queen’s role in a final attempt to save the throne. This book provides new details about Farah Pahlavi’s life and the remarkable role she played during the critical last days of Imperial Iran. In these pages the Queen finally emerges from her husband’s shadow as a truly consequential figure in her own right, not only as one of the great women of Iranian history but also as the most accomplished female sovereign of the twentieth century. It is hardly any wonder that the Islamic Republic regards her as an existential threat or that so many Iranians still address her as madar, which translates literally as “mother.”
I set out to write a book that would describe the interior life of the Iranian Imperial Family and the Pahlavi Court, while re-creating the fin de siècle atmosphere in Iran in 1978, the momentous year of revolution. Our understanding of Pahlavi-era Iran and the 1978–1979 revolution is moving into a new era of research and discovery. Although many of the principal figures have left the scene, many others were willing to share their experiences. They included Queen Farah; former Iranian president Abolhassan Banisadr; retired White House officials, including former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; and dozens of former senior Iranian government officials and members of the late Shah’s entourage, many of whom agreed to speak out for the first time. Memories change over time and most of my interviewees forgot dates and details of conversations or conflated one event with another. Fortunately, I could fact-check and cross-check their accounts with other interviewees as well as original primary-source documents, including diaries, letters, memoranda, and newspaper clippings. Hundreds of pages of newly declassified documents from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library provided a unique insight into back-channel communications between the U.S. embassy and the National Security Council at the height of the revolution. As my research progressed it became clear that I was dealing with two different revolutionary narratives, one American and the other Iranian. As understood by the Americans, Iran’s revolution began on September 8, 1978, when army troops opened fire on protesters gathered in Jaleh Square in Tehran. But many Iranian interviewees assured me that the Pahlavi regime was almost certainly finished by the end of August 1978 and that the Shah accepted defeat four days before Jaleh Square.
If the Iranians were indeed correct, if the struggle for Iran really was over before the revolution proper began, I had to make an intensive study of events as they unfolded in the months leading to unrest. To do that I painstakingly constructed a 242-page color-coordinated time line that spanned the crucial twenty-month period from January 1, 1977, through August 31, 1978, that decided the Shah’s fate. The time line expanded to include everything from weather reports and traffic conditions to movie and theater listings—anything to help me re-create daily life on the eve of revolution. The time line meant that I could follow the Shah, Queen Farah, President Carter, Ambassador Sullivan, and other personalities on a daily and even hourly basis during a critical two-year stretch. The time line yielded unexpected patterns, trends, and turning points forgotten, neglected, or otherwise overlooked by other scholars.
This book is not intended as the final word on the Shah or the 1979 revolution—far from it. As our knowledge of events from the period expands, so too will our understanding of them change. This book will, I hope, shake up a historical narrative that for too long has felt too settled. No doubt it will upset some and delight others. “Blunt histories do not always meet with warm approval,” writes historian Margaret MacMillan. “Historians, of course, do not own the past. We all do. But because historians spend their time studying history, they are in a better position than most amateurs to make reasoned judgments. Historians, after all, are trained to ask questions, make connections, and collect and examine evidence. Ideally, they possess a considerable body of knowledge and an understanding of the context of particular times or events. Yet when they produce work that challenges deeply held beliefs and myths about the past, they are often accused of being elitist, nihilistic, or simply out of touch with that imaginary place ‘the real world.’ In the case of recent history, they are also told … that they cannot have an opinion if they were not there.”
This book was researched and written by someone who was not there. Moreover, during the dozens of interviews I conducted for this book I was struck by how many of my Iranian interviewees confided that they felt more comfortable talking to a New Zealand–born historian than an ethnic Iranian scholar, whom they feared would cast judgment on them or misinterpret or even manipulate their words. For my purposes, at least, having an outsider’s perspective was a decisive factor in helping me to recover memories, re-create events, and revisit some of the lingering mysteries of the Iranian revolution, perhaps the most important yet misunderstood historical epic of our time.
* * *
SHE FLEW INTO Cairo on a Saturday evening.
From the airport, Farah Pahlavi was driven by motorcade to the government guesthouse where she would stay for the next three days. At dinner she joined in the conversation and banter with the same small group of friends and loyalists who have been at her side since she came out in 1979. The table fell silent when she recalled that on her flight from Paris she had sat next to a young man who had been eager to talk about Iran, the Middle East, and politics.
“When did you reveal yourself?” someone asked.
“When he mentioned the Shah,” she said, trying to stifle her laughter.
“How did you do that?”
“I said, ‘I was his wife.’”
“What was the look on his face?”
Farah mimicked the poor man’s look of bug-eyed, openmouthed shock, and the table roared with laughter. She was in good spirits and happy to be back among friends.
The next morning, after paying her respects at President Sadat’s bier, Queen Farah drove to the Al-Rifa’i Mosque, which stands on a hill overlooking Cairo. If the view overlooking the city is breathtaking, the mosque itself is one of the jewels of Islamic architecture, with soaring cathedral-like proportions. The Shah’s chamber is intimate and elegant. Farah, a trained architect, oversaw the design, and with a team of helpers she managed to purchase a block of Iranian marble, which first had to be shipped through Italy and then conveyed to Egypt without alerting the Iranian authorities. Her husband’s strong-willed sisters Ashraf and Shams had insisted that their brother should be buried and entombed with full pomp in the style of Napoleon, and they all but accused their sister-in-law of skimping on the Shah’s burial. She knew her husband preferred simplicity and took the dispute to his five children to ask them what they thought. “It’s beautiful and perfect,” they assured her, and the chamber was consecrated. Al-Rifa’i is known as the King’s Mosque and for a reason: the room adjacent to where the Shah lies holds the tombs of the last two kings of Egypt, Farouk and Faud.
The public ceremonies ended and Jehan Sadat and the Egyptians quietly withdrew from the chamber. The doors closed behind Farah Pahlavi and she stood in silence. After a moment passed she knelt and kissed her husband’s catafalque, then stood with her eyes closed in quiet communion. She was talking to the Shah.
Copyright © 2016 by Andrew Scott Cooper