From Shah to Supreme Leader

What the Iranian Revolution Revealed

The emperor's new clothes: replacing portraits in the Niavaran Palace, Tehran, February 1979. (Alain Dejean/ Corbis)

Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences. By James Buchan. Simon and Schuster, 2013, 432 pp. $27.99.
Revolutionary Iran. By Michael Axworthy. Oxford University Press, 2013, 528 pp. $34.95.

There is something irresistible about the story of Iran’s last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The pampered, foreign-educated son of a dour autocrat, Mohammad Reza ascended to the Peacock Throne in 1941, at age 21. He was weak and malleable, surrounded by sycophants and schemers, beholden to foreign powers that treated him with contempt. Nearly unseated by his popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, in 1953, the shah retained his throne with American and clerical connivance. That crucible hardened him into something both brittle and shrewd. He fancied himself a nationalist beloved by his people, but in truth he scarcely knew them; he grew Iran’s economy and its military, broke up feudal landholdings, and crushed dissent with his notorious intelligence service, known as SAVAK and adept in torture. “The boy,” as he was known in his father’s court, became a man: melancholic, grandiose, lonely, standing athwart titanic forces he could barely recognize let alone contain. No one was ever so blind-sided by the history he had made.

The story of the shah is compelling in the way of fiction: the tragic antihero friendless in his gilded palace, unable, for want of character and common experience, to see the shadow he himself has cast. But if the monarchy is the stuff of literature, the story of Iran’s postrevolutionary Islamic Republic calls for sociology instead. Reading Iranian history as written by Westerners, it is impossible to miss this dramatic reversal of emphasis. Inevitably, accounts of prerevolutionary Iran foreground the shah, his court, and its foreign patrons. But the revolution forced Iranian society, with all its cleavages and complexities, its aspirations and refusals, into the light of historical explanation. For all the Western intimacy with the Pahlavi court, and for all the opacity of the Islamic Republic, Westerners see Iran more clearly now.

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