To the Editor:
Sohrab Ahmari’s “Game of Peacock Thrones” was very perceptive in its analysis of the Iranian mindset (July/August). Iranians of Shah Reza Pahlavi’s era desired continuity with their own celebrated ancient past, and Iranians today share their dreams of nationalism, separate from the Ayatollahs’ Velayat-e Faqih (rule of the jurisprudent).
The shah continues to be misunderstood, as illustrated by scholar Ronald Wintrobe, who, in his book The Political Economy of Dictatorship, refers to the shah as a “tinpot” ruler and a vampire. According to Wintrobe, the shah was interested only in the accumulation of personal wealth at his citizens’ expense. This is a misreading of the shah’s admittedly extravagant lifestyle. Always contradictory, the shah lived in a style he assumed normal or appropriate for a king, a planet apart from most Iranians, to be sure, yet he desired prosperity for his nation most of all.
The shah sincerely loved his people, but his paranoia and delusions accelerated his downfall. He saw foreign conspiracies behind ever occurrence; he even imagined Western support for the Ayatollah Khomeini. In truth, Khomeini successfully used anti-Western sentiment to galvanize opposition to the shah and his principal ally, the United States. Thus nationalism played a key role in the regime change. As Mr. Ahmari states, “a sense of humiliation and inadequacy” gripped Iranians in 1978, even with their “unprecedented degree of prosperity and social mobility.”
The shah had a weak character and tragically believed his love for his people was reciprocated. The huge discrepancy between the shah’s understanding and political reality, more than any other factor, caused Western governments to overestimate his durability and underestimate the ability of the revolutionary mob to oust him. Stuck in a quagmire of myth and self-delusion, the shah believed himself the ruler of a contented, grateful people. While I doubt the present Ayatollah Khamenei shares this delusion, I agree with Mr. Ahmari’s conclusion that the same nationalism that helped topple the shah will also factor greatly in the Islamic Republic’s ultimate demise.
Clinton L. Ervin
Sohrab Ahmari writes:
I thank Clinton L. Ervin for his letter and kind words. He has a remarkably sharp read on the character of Iran’s last monarch. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi did sincerely love his country. He was also, as Mr. Ervin notes, utterly out of touch with his people, delusional, indecisive, weak. As a son of Iran, I can’t help but rue his downfall and imagine what might have been if the shah had had some of his father’s steeliness. A practical question for today is, Does Reza Pahlavi, the exiled grandson who is fast emerging as the most plausible opposition leader, possess some of that Pahlavi steel? We shall see.