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July 13, 2011

Is Started with the Shah

Hoover fellow Abbas Milani on the rebellions in the Muslim world—and the monarch who set them off. An interview with Charlie Rose.


Charlie Rose, host of the PBS program Charlie Rose, explores the Iranian revolution with Hoover research fellow Abbas Milani, author of the new book The Shah (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Highlights of that interview:

Charlie Rose: Abbas Milani’s new book, The Shah, is a biography of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled Iran between 1941 and 1979. His rule was a period of modernization but also oppression. It fueled the Iranian revolution of 1979. After so many years, tell me the significance of this man, the shah.

Abbas Milani: I think with every passing day or year we are recognizing that his fall was really the beginning of almost everything that has shaped the Middle East in the past thirty years, from the Afghanistan war, to the Iran-Iraq war, to everything. The rise of radical Islam. So he has become, and his fall has become, the pivotal event, I think, of the latter part of the twentieth century, and understanding his fall enables us to understand what is going on in the Middle East today. And understanding his fall makes us understand what is going on inside Iran today. Without that, I don’t think we can.

A 1953 photo shows Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the ruler of Iran
Image credit: © Agence France-Presse
A 1953 photo shows Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the ruler of Iran, and his second wife, Princess Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiary. The shah, an ally of the United States for decades, was toppled in 1979 in a revolution that brought Shiite religious leaders to power.

Rose: What does it explain about what’s going on in Iran today?

Milani: Essentially I think the coalition of forces that came together to overthrow the shah in 1979 are now very much the core of the Green Revolution with one exception: some of the conservative clerics like [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei are on the other side and some of the hoodlums and street toughs and some segments of the poor that are getting paid by the regime have joined that minority. They are the government, and the bulk of the society is essentially trying to get what they thought they were promised in 1979, which was a democracy, and has not been yet delivered.

Rose: So their revolution was hijacked.

Milani: I think that’s a perfect way of putting it. The revolution in Iran was precisely a democratic revolution.

Rose: And therefore the question that often is raised is: can the revolution that is sweeping across the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya (and having impact in other places) be hijacked?

“His fall was really the beginning of almost everything that has shaped the Middle East in the past thirty years, from the Afghanistan war, to the Iran-Iraq war, to everything.”

Milani: If you look at the Iranian experience, you have to be worried that it could be. Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris—a month before coming to power—said everything that was right to make him look like a democratic leader. He had another agenda but he was hiding it. So today if the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example, says all the right things, as they do on their website, I become a little bit anxious. I have experienced the Iranian case, where Khomeini said all the right things, and then when he came to power he changed and literally told the people that he had lied.

Rose: If in fact there is a similarity or a fear of a similar kind of event taking place, in what ways are they not similar?

Milani: With the Egyptian case, the very important difference is that Hosni Mubarak had allowed the independence of the army to be maintained. There was an independent army that could act. The shah had turned the army essentially into his private fiefdom. It was called the royal army and he had made sure that not a single charismatic officer who could potentially be a threat to him remained in the army. He basically threw them out, retired them. . . . And this is now December 1978—the shah is about to leave Iran—but the shah refuses to turn over the control of the military.

Rose: And if he had?

Milani: I think if he had, then we might have seen a scenario more like Egypt than the scenario we saw in Iran.

Rose: One of the things said, and you are a historian on the case, is that the first thing that Khomeini and the people supporting him did was to assassinate most of the top leadership of the shah’s military.

Milani: Well, absolutely. He did two things. He didn’t make the mistakes that the United States made in Iraq. He didn’t dismantle the military completely; he just dismantled the leadership and brought in a new cadre of officers. And then he gradually built a parallel military called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC. And with every passing year the IRGC has been strengthened to the detriment of the military. So we now have two militaries, one very insignificant.

Rose: So tell me your picture of Iran today. Khamenei is the supreme leader?

Milani: Khamenei is the supreme leader. His base of power is essentially the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards.

Rose: And they’re more loyal to him than they are to Ahmadinejad or anyone else.

“I don’t think the same thing that happened in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia is unlikely to happen in Iran. . . . I think it definitely will happen.”

Milani: They are more loyal to themselves, I think, right now, because they are the power center, and they’re becoming an economic juggernaut. They own about half of the country now. Literally. About half the economy.

Rose: So therefore it is argued that sanctions can have an impact because sanctions can deny them their source of revenue.

Milani: I think that’s absolutely true. Sanctions are beginning to have an impact. Or better yet, sanctions were beginning to have an impact and then something happened on the way to the forum. That is, Gadhafi went berserk and crazy. The price of oil went up. And the [Iranian] regime that was very much hurting now has much more revenue to try to weather the storm that is the result of the sanctions.

Rose: Is it unlikely that a revolution could take place in Iran?

Milani: If by revolution you mean . . .

Rose: I mean the same thing that is happening in Libya.

Milani: I don’t think the same thing that happened in Egypt and Libya and Tunisia is unlikely to happen in Iran. I think it is unlikely that it won’t happen. I definitely think it will happen.

Rose: And soon?

Milani: That I am not sure about, because the regime has shown the capacity to exercise absolute brutality, and it has still the financial capacity to keep this machinery of oppression going. And when you have this machinery going, you can stay in power. The shah lost the revolution because he lost the will to stay in power. He became absolutely weak and vacillating in the last few months. He couldn’t make decisions. He was weak by nature. Now he had cancer and he wasn’t getting the right kind of advice from the Carter administration. He was getting different advice. All of this worked to make the revolution happen.

Rose: I want to come back and talk about the shah, but let me just stay with Iran today. What would be an igniting factor to bring the people back into the streets, as they were after the election?

Milani: Nobody knows. Who would have thought that the burning of . . .

Rose: . . . an immolation in Tunisia would start it.

Milani: Or in Egypt, that a website, a Facebook site, would start it. In Iran it really began two years ago. It was the stolen election and suddenly you had three million people in the streets. And the regime has gone out of its way in the last year and a half to make it extremely costly to continue to come into the streets. But the people have continued to come on. When the regime arrested Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, people defied the regime’s threats and came into the streets.

Rose: Mohammad-Javad Larijani was on this program, and I said to him: will you guarantee me that I can come to Iran and interview Mousavi and Karroubi? He said yes. Do you think that would ever happen?

Milani: I think Mousavi and Karroubi right now are in prison. The regime doesn’t dare say they are in prison, but keeps saying they are under house arrest with their contacts to the outside world cut.

Rose: And their families say they are no longer at home and they don’t know where they are.

Protesters carry an effigy of Iran’s shah, who died in exile in 1980
Image credit: © Agence France-Presse/Atta Kenare
“He was modernizing, authoritarian, weak, vacillating.” Protesters carry an effigy of Iran’s shah, who died in exile in 1980, during a demonstration in Tehran in 2008. The shah and his American support still figure prominently in the worldview of the Islamic Republic and its leaders.

Milani: Precisely. And we can’t get in touch with them. We can’t call. We go to their homes, we ring the bell, nobody answers. Not even Orwell could have thought this through. The spokesperson for the judiciary says Mr. Mousavi is at his home. He didn’t answer the door because he doesn’t want to answer the door. To have the audacity to say this, to look into the camera and say this. I think Jon Stewart caught it quite beautifully the other night. He said that the Iranian regime has militarized irony. They have weaponized irony. They say things that are remarkably, overtly, clearly a lie, but they say them with certainty.

Rose: What about Mr. Ahmadinejad?

Milani: He is trying to play a very interesting game, I think. He is trying to begin to create for himself an independent base of power. And if you look at what he has been saying and what his son’s father-in-law—Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a very controversial figure—has been saying, they’re saying a lot of things that the Iranian middle class want to say. That is, that religion shouldn’t interfere in people’s private lives. Talking about the greatness of Iran. Talking about that there would have been no Islam if there wasn’t an Iran. This is virtually what he said. So he’s moving gingerly, I think, into creating this independent base.

Rose: It’s hard to use American definitions, but becoming more moderate? Or more nationalistic?

Milani: Giving his rhetoric more of a nationalistic color to make it more appealing to the force that I think has the future of Iran, which is the moderate democratic middle classes and the working classes that are their potential allies.

“[Jon Stewart] said that the Iranian regime has militarized irony. They have weaponized irony.”

Rose: And how do you think the powers that be—the supreme leader and Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard—are looking at the revolution that’s spreading? Take Libya.

Milani: They are absolutely frightened by it.

Rose: Because it shows what happens even if you try to resist with force. The power of the people in the streets.

Milani: Absolutely. The head of the IRGC intelligence division, a very frightful cleric, recently gave a fascinating interview in which he said he thinks there is going to be much more trouble and that the Americans are planning to make another attempt at the revolution in the coming few months. So they clearly anticipate trouble on the horizon. And I think they think that’s when there will be blowback from Tunisia and Egypt and everywhere else. Like Gadhafi in Libya, the Iranian regime has shown that there is no limit to what they will do to stay in power. If you add all the people who have been killed in Iran over the past thirty years in the opposition, it is greater than the number that Gadhafi has killed.

Rose: Take me back to the shah. What kind of ruler was he?

Milani: He was modernizing, authoritarian, weak, vacillating. That’s the complication of his character. In the Mossadegh era, he is exactly the weak and vacillating character we see in 1978. But when he feels in power, as he does in 1974, he has no problem making decisions. He could sit behind a table and order the country to become a one-party system. And, to the dread of the United States, he increased the price of oil. He began a nuclear program that the United States was not in favor of. But then, two or three years later, he wouldn’t drink a glass of water without asking the American ambassador whether it was a good idea. It’s really remarkable, the two sides of his character.

Rose: If in fact he had resisted Khomeini with force, he would have been successful? Or not?

“Like Gadhafi in Libya, the Iranian regime has shown that there is no limit to what they will do to stay in power.”

Milani: I think if he had made one-third of the concessions he made in 1978 back in 1975, he would have absolutely survived. And Khamenei has taken the exact wrong lesson from the shah’s fall. Khamenei’s conclusion is that the shah fell—he’s said this several times—because he made concessions. But the truth is the shah fell, just like Khamenei will fall, because he didn’t make concessions when he was in a position to make concessions. That’s why I begin every chapter in the book with a quote from Richard II. The shah is just like Richard II. He is very much almost hectoring when he is in power. And then when the first sign of trouble comes, he basically says, come on, take the throne. Nobody was after the throne. People just wanted their lands back in Richard. In the case of the shah, initially, people just wanted a little more democracy. But he wasn’t willing to give them that. Instead of opening the system in 1975, he created a one-party system.

Rose: And then it ends up with a man who didn’t have a country. Nobody wanted him.

Milani: And that is truly one of the most incredible things. A man who was an ally of the United States for thirty-seven years, an ally of the West, for a year he was, as Kissinger called him, a Flying Dutchman. He couldn’t get a visa to this country until a lot of people intervened.

Rose: At the time of the Iranian election and the consequences of the election results, when Iranians in large number were in the streets, should the president of the United States have identified with them, and if he had, would it have made a difference?

Milani: I definitely think he should have. He did identify but belatedly and very gingerly. I think if he had done it, it would not necessarily have changed the result, but it would have very much emboldened the opposition. And I think it would have given them strength . . .

“Khamenei has taken the exact wrong lesson from the shah’s fall . . . that the shah fell because he made concessions. But the truth is the shah fell, just like Khamenei will fall, because he didn’t make concessions.”

Rose: Because they would have known that they were being heard.

Milani: Absolutely. And because in the Middle East—and I think you probably know this, Egypt I think is no exception—people believe that the West, the United States particularly and Britain, have far more power than the United States and Britain might in fact have. They believe in conspiracy theory. So they parse out every word that Carter said during the shah’s crisis, and every word Obama says with the kind of a care that Kremlinologists used to do during the Kremlin days.

Rose: Reading the tea leaves.

Milani: They would absolutely read the tea leaves. And they’re doing it right now and they say the United States is now on our side.


Abbas Milani is a research fellow and codirector of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. In addition, Milani is the Hamid and Christina Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. His expertise is US/Iran relations and Iranian cultural, political, and security issues.

Before coming to Hoover, Milani was a professor of history and political science and chair of the department at Notre Dame de Namur University and a research fellow at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, in addition to being an assistant professor in the faculty of law and political science at Tehran University and a member of the board of directors of Tehran University's Center for International Studies from 1979 to 1987. Milani was a research fellow at the Iranian Center for Social Research from 1977 to 1978 and an assistant professor at the National University of Iran from 1975 to 1977.



Reprinted by permission. © 2011 Charlie Rose LLC. All rights reserved.