By Payman Yazdani

Marvin Zonis comments on fall of the Shah

February 4, 2018

TEHRAN - Commenting on the reasons of Shah’s failure, author of the “Majestic Failure” Prof. Zonis says his grandiosity, his Persepolis celebration, his apparent disdain for the Iranian people, the absurd pretensions of monarchy, the inequality, the corruption of the court, the abuse of human rights all contributed to his failure. 

The Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979 overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was supported by the United States. The revolution was replacement of 2,500 years of continuous monarchy with an Islamic Republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution, supported by various Islamist movements and Iranian people. 

On the occasion of the 39th anniversary of the victory of the Islamic republic of Iran we reached out to Marvin Zonis, Professor of international political economy and leadership in the University of Chicago. His studies also focus on Middle Eastern politics and history. “Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah” is a book authored by him on the failure of Mohammad Reza Shah.

Following is the full text of the interview with him:

Q: In a psychological analysis in “Majestic Failure” about Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, you have talked about the reasons that led to the Islamic revolution of Iran. You have told that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi suffered from psychological problem so that he became dependent on others easily, generally whom he was dependent and who were those people? And why those people couldn’t help him?

A: I suggested that the late Shah was, in fact, a rather weak figure who was bolstered by others into greater strength and security which allowed him to function as the monarch. The most important of those individuals were his twin sister, Princess Ashraf, Assadollah Alam, the U.S. and its ambassadors who served over the years, and the shah’s belief that he had been chosen by God to be the shah. By the time of the revolution, all those sources of psychological support had disappeared, in one way or the other. Princess Ashraf was so unpopular in Iran that the Americans had long since urged the shah to sever his ties to her, which the shah did by sending her to the United Nations. When she did return to Iran during the revolution, the shah had lost faith in her. Assadolah Alam, his boyhood friend and very tough ex-Prime Minister died on cancer in December 1978.

U.S. ambassadors had always been a source of support and advice for the shah. But the “last” U.S. ambassador, William Sullivan, knew little of Iran and the Middle East. He mistakenly though the Shah was a tough guy — like Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines where Sullivan had been the ambassador. The result was that he urged the shah to make his own decisions without advice and support from the Americans. That President Carter announced that he supported human rights everywhere and would cut arms sales to Iran helped convince the shah that he had lost any support from the U.S. Finally, the shah’s illness was a blow to the belief that he had been selected by the Lord.

Q: If the people whom he trusted sided him during the revolution, could the revolution have another fate?

A: It is possible that had they been able to boost his depleted confidence in his own role, he might have acted more effectively and brought the revolution under control.

Q: Isn’t your psychological analysis of the Shah’s characteristics and its role in Iranian revolution somehow “reduction-ism”? That the revolution was the result of internal tyranny and independent foreign policy? 

A: I did not mean it to be reductionist in that Majestic Failure is really about the shah rather than about the millions of Iranians who came to hate him and his rule. There are so many ways to analyze complex revolutions — political, economic, and others as well as psychological. But certainly the shah’s grandiosity, his Persepolis celebration, his apparent disdain for the Iranian people, the absurd pretensions of monarchy, the inequality, the corruption of the court, the abuse of human rights and on and on all contributed to the hatred which the Iranian people developed.

Q: Had you ever seen Shah? If so, what was the most interesting thing in his characteristics that attracted your attention?

 A: I had the opportunity to interview him privately on four occasions. I suppose his most startling quality to me then — as a young man — was his graciousness.

Q: Shah was very afraid of the Soviet Union so that he had even asked Iranian envoys to many different countries to have an already prepared letter that in case of the Soviet Union attack on Iran they immediately let the Americans know. Why he was somehow under the US protectorate in his foreign policy? And why the US didn’t support him during the revolution in Iran? 

A: I do not know anything about a letter to inform the Americans of a Soviet attack. The U.S. had listening stations on the border with the USSR and did not need to know by letter of a Soviet attack. In the early years of the shah’s reign, he depended on the support of the U.S. to stay in power and the events of 1953 further solidified the connection between the shah and the U.S. As the shah became more grandiose, his need for the U.S. diminished somewhat. But President Carter’s emphasis on human rights everywhere and limits on foreign arms sales as well as Ambassador Sullivan’s misunderstanding of the shah all convinced that shah that he had lost the support of the United States and weakened his resolve and ability to be an effective leader.

Leave a Comment

8 + 0 =