Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences by James Buchan - review by Malise Ruthven

Malise Ruthven

Fall of the Peacock Throne

Days of God: The Revolution in Iran and Its Consequences


John Murray 482pp £25

On 26 December 1969 an urbane and sophisticated gentleman, Asadollah Alam – former prime minister and now minister of court to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, King of Kings – was riding to work in his limousine. As his chauffeur coaxed and hooted the Chrysler Imperial through the streets of Tehran, they were brought to a halt. Two lorries had collided and the road was completely blocked. Unused to being stopped in the street, Alam was thoroughly shaken. ‘The side road, from which one of the lorries had come,’ he would write in his diary,

was of the sort His Imperial Majesty never sees, without a trace of asphalt, dusty and strewn with litter … Mongrels and dirty infants rooted about in the rubbish at the roadside … The Shah exerts himself night and day, convinced that in ten years we can overtake the advanced countries. Yet, even if we work miracles, to turn such a society into a country more developed than Europe is wishful thinking. 

Within a decade, on 16 January 1979, Mohammad Reza, a sad and lonely figure wracked by sickness, boarded the plane that would take him, his third wife, Farah Diba, a few servants and some personal effects (including a box of Iranian soil) into exile forever. Two weeks later a bearded theologian in his seventies, wearing the black turban of a Sayyid (a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad), disembarked from an Air France jumbo jet to the ecstatic welcome of a crowd estimated at two million people. This momentous event was the United States’ most devastating foreign policy debacle since its defeat in the Vietnam war. As James Buchan states in this meticulous and gripping account,

the Iranian revolution of 1979 was one of those events in which history changes direction. The destruction of the Iranian monarchy not only upset the political order in the Middle East and inaugurated thirty years of warfare, it also introduced a new way of looking at human affairs. Beside it, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the tying up of historical loose ends.

A journalist and novelist, Buchan has a sure touch with narrative. Days of God is skilfully constructed, deftly weaving a path through the thickets of complex events while displaying the wider historical backdrop against which this political earthquake was staged. The scene is set with chapters on the all-important backstory: the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–11, opposed by a section of the Shi’ite clergy; the discovery of oil in 1908, ruthlessly exploited by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, forerunner of BP; the bizarre, even amateurish way that Mohammad Reza’s father, Reza Shah, a semi-literate brigadier from a regiment of Russian-trained Cossacks who came to supreme power after the collapse of the Qajar dynasty, groomed his son for succession.

Reza was something of a thug, not above physically assaulting servants who annoyed him. ‘Every country has a certain type of regime. Ours is a one-person regime’, he explained to one of his prime ministers. In the son he adored, however, the roughneck brigadier saw everything that he himself lacked: ‘perfect manners honed in the best schools of Switzerland, beautiful French and fluent English, a mastery of difficult and complex subjects’. Mohammad Reza was no fool, even if he inherited from his father a slightly nerdish fascination with technical details. After he acceded to the Peacock Throne, helped first by the Soviets and British in 1941 – who objected to his father’s pro-Axis neutrality when Iran was needed as a conduit for American arms after Hitler’s invasion of Russia – and ten years later by the CIA-engineered coup that overthrew the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh, he would astonish our man in Tehran by asking, ‘What is the sprocket horsepower of the Chieftain tank, Ambassador?’ As the US military attaché noted, Mohammad Reza took decisions that in other armies might be safely left to a lieutenant colonel. It seems probable that it was this flaw in his mentality – his lack of strategic sense, combined with his collapsing health – that finally did him down.

There is a tragic quality about Mohammad Reza, for he had the opportunity to achieve at least some of the goals that Alam thought unrealistic. After the October 1973 oil hike in the wake of the fourth Arab–Israeli war, Iran’s annual oil revenues quadrupled, from $5 billion to $19 billion. Instead of investing, as Norway and Kuwait had done, in a sovereign wealth fund that would yield benefits gradually as industrial infrastructure emerged, the Shah went hell-for-leather for instant development and (encouraged by greedy arms manufacturers, abetted by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger) for rampant military expansion. With the economy growing by a quarter each year, public expenditure soared with projects such as nuclear reactors, a high-speed rail network, and the purchase of Concorde supersonic airliners and ultra high-tech military equipment such as the latest F-14 Tomcat aircraft and Phoenix missiles. The hardware enabled the Shah to swank around in the Gulf and in Oman (whose sultan he supported in a campaign against left-wing tribal guerrillas from Soviet-backed South Yemen).

But there was no way that an under-educated, predominantly rural society could absorb the stresses occasioned by this mad rush to catch up with, or even overtake, the industrialised West. The lack of trained military personnel necessitated an influx of some 25,000 American military advisers – most of them single males – whose sometimes raucous behaviour, allied with the introduction of special courts, evoked memories of the quasi-colonial days when the Qajars virtually sold their country to foreign concessionaires such as the Belgian Baron de Reuter. The traditional bazaar wholesaling system was overwhelmed by the volume of imported goods, while land prices, especially in Tehran, rose to ten times what they were in the 1960s, showering landowners (including courtiers) with capital gains, but raising rents and triggering demands for higher pay. Political opposition was contained initially by Savak, the omnipresent security agency trained by Israel and the US, which became notorious for its brutality. But repression alone was inadequate to deal with the structural and cultural contradictions facing a country torn between a relatively small, secular, Western-educated elite, and a majority steeped in the devotional practices of Shi’a Islam, with its rich sense of tragedy and end-time eschatology. As Buchan neatly puts it, for many Iranians ‘at the outer limit of perception, in dreams or the daytime visions of certain men and women, the Lord of the Age walks the earth, incognito, and will return to usher in justice and bring the world to its end’.

A change of direction might have been possible, at least in theory. But there was another figure in the looming tragedy whose moral rigour, style and appearance made the perfect foil for the Shah with his court of westernised flunkeys and sycophants. Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shah’s nemesis, had come to prominence in the early 1960s as the foremost opponent of an ambitious series of measures, including a programme of land distribution that threatened clerical holdings and revenues, the nationalisation of forests and votes for women. After denouncing the Shah’s proclaimed White Revolution in a widely publicised sermon, Khomeini was expelled to Turkey, eventually settling at the important Shi’ite centre of Najaf in Iraq, where he delivered the lectures that became part of the blueprint for the constitution of the Islamic republic, with its uneasy combination of the ‘Stewardship of the Jurist’ and parliamentary sovereignty. As Mohammad Reza’s regime began to crumble, Khomeini’s acolytes persuaded the cleric to move to Paris, where he had command of the world’s media. This he worked – as Buchan puts it – ‘as if to the manner born’.

The story is well handled, including Khomeini’s ten-year sojourn as Iran’s supreme leader, the devastating war with Iraq, the American hostage crisis and the Shah’s sad exile and death. In the light of the current carnage in Syria, caused in part by the present Iranian government’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s killing machine, with its roots in the Shi’ite tradition, there is a poignancy to the concluding statement that Mohammad Reza made in his own regretful memoir:

A sovereign may not save his throne by shedding his countrymen’s blood. A dictator can, for he acts in the name of an ideology and believes it must triumph no matter what the cost. A dictator has nothing to bestow for power resides in him alone. A sovereign is given a crown and must bequeath it to the next generation.

Mohammad Reza failed in the latter project, but he drew back from saving his throne by slaughtering his people.

He emerges from this book as a fairly decent man – misguided, certainly, and out of his depth in a world of growing complexity. His desire for the development of his country may have been sound, but he lacked a sophisticated understanding of the ways and means by which improvements in social conditions are achieved. Generally – despite his book’s subtitle – Buchan avoids dwelling on the broader philosophical and religious questions arising from the fall of the Shah and the rise of Khomeinism. He underemphasises, for example, the all-important element of Shi’ite eschatology. While Khomeini was too theologically savvy to proclaim himself formally as the Hidden Imam or Lord of the Age of Shi’ite expectation, there is little doubt that many Iranians thought him to be such. Millennial expectation is a powerful mobilising force, and can be channelled towards positive as well as evil ends. Although there are nuggets of analytical insight in his book, James Buchan is for the most part content to relate the facts, which he does in an engaging and readable way.

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