The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah – 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam, Excerpt from Chapter 1
For the Americans of course, it all began with the shah of Iran, the “best friend” the United States had on the Persian Gulf in those days.
He was referred to as “HIM” in minutes of the embassy’s staff meetings – short for “His Imperial Majesty,” which was in turn short for “His Imperial Majesty, Aryamehr Shahanshah, King of Kings, Light of the Aryans, Shadow of the Almighty, and Vice Regent of God.” In addition, the Iranian newspapers he allowed to publish described HIM as “beloved of the nation” and “the focus of the universe,” characterizations he both read and believed. His actual given name was Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and in the fall of 1978 he was about to celebrate his fifty-ninth birthday. He had been shahanshah for the last thirty-seven years and now, for the first time in a long time, sitting in his palace looking out over the disorder of Tehran, he had doubts about just how much longer his reign would last.
Heretofore, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had always at least looked the shah’s part – seeming, according to one western journalist, “exactly like the person he was: rich beyond counting, handsome, alert, virile … self-possessed …a monarch among mortals …. That he considered himself superior to other men [was] unstated but obvious.” Despite being half a foot shorter than his six-feet-four-inch father, Reza – founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, who was said to have inspired physical terror with just a glance or a twitch of his shoulders – Mohammad Shah made up for it by projecting a surety about his role that was almost mystical. He thought of himself as the soul of his people, the incarnation of a 2,500-year-old monarchy stretching all the way back to Cyrus the Great and the very first of the world’s empires. And in western eyes, at least, he so embodied this ancient kingship that he was rarely even referred to by the names Mohammad or Pahlavi, but simply as “the shah of Iran.”
HIM was perhaps the only leader from his part of the world who could have passed for a European had he wanted. His thick silver hair was brushed back in waves, he was trim and fit from a lifetime of tennis, horseback riding, and skiing – invariably tan, with a face that was all nose and black eyebrows framing gray eyes, the cheeks set off by deep creases, his forehead twice as long as his chin. Handsome was often used to describe him, in no small part for his ability to exude an elegance and noblesse oblige mastered at the best of Swiss preparatory schools. Fluent in English and French, he was the first shah in modern memory to speak a language other than Turkic or Farsi. His aura was always unruffled – a regal equanimity secretly assisted by his continuous consumption of small doses of the sedative Valium. By the time his reign reached its last turning point in the fall of 1978, of course, the shah’s face was internationally familiar. He appeared on the celebrity pages of the day, often seated with other royalty, usually escorting Farah, the shahbanou, his queen and third wife, on state visits or to the slopes at Saint Moritz in the height of the season. Just as often, his image flashed on the evening news: wearing one of his $6,000 suits, leading the oil producing nations’ escalation of energy prices at Geneva, or, wearing sunglasses and a military uniform slathered with gold braid, overseeing maneuvers of his fledgling navy on the Straits of Hormuz. His comings and goings were tracked in the western gossip columns. His picture had been taken with Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia and General de Gaulle of France and every American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was even mentioned in the chorus of a song by the Rolling Stones.
Inside Iran, of course, his kingship was everywhere. When streets were widened into modern boulevards, they were regularly renamed Pahlavi and decorated with obelisks honoring the shah or his father or both. His picture was posted on street corners and in shop windows. His birthday was a state occasion. His SAVAK security police arrested and tortured people who said unfavorable things about him. He had his father, Reza, officially renamed “Reza the Great” and interred his remains in a massive tomb surrounded by lawn and policed with a permanent honor guard. His Imperial Majesty’s half-million-man army was trained to shout “]avid shah,” long live the shah, and did so regularly in his presence. Thousands of citizens were mustered to line his way when he made public appearances.
Despite a somewhat phobic response to crowds, HIM appeared at these events in full regalia and played his role to the hilt. Offstage, he was quite often, according to one acquaintance, “shy, sulky, and eminently fragile.” The American ambassador since 1977, William Sullivan, witnessed the shah assuming his role: “With a sigh the shah straightened his tunic,” Sullivan remembered, “stood up, and … from the gracious, easy, smiling host with whom I had been talking, he transformed himself suddenly into a steely, ramrod-straight autocrat. This involved not only adjusting his uniform and donning dark glasses but also throwing out his chest, raising his chin, and fixing his lips in a grim line. When he had achieved this change to his own satisfaction, he thrust open the door … and stalked out across the few remaining steps to the reviewing stand.”
Since circumstances had not allowed a coronation when he took the throne in 1941, the shah staged one in 1967. The ceremony featured the legendary Peacock Throne, encrusted with gold and jewels. The shah wore a pearl-embroidered silk cape, a gold girdle with an emerald the size of a chicken egg for a buckle, and the “all-conquering” sword of the dynasty, its sheath covered with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. He carried a solid-gold scepter, and his crown, originally designed for his father’s coronation in 1926, included 3,380 diamonds, 368 pearls, 5 emeralds, and 2 sapphires.
The shah kept a bust of his late father in the anteroom of his office at his palace on the slopes of the Alborz Mountains in north Tehran. The palace was actually several buildings spread about in a leafy park, where the temperature was often five or ten degrees cooler than the baking south side of Tehran on the slopes below. Most of the palace had been built 160 years earlier, then renovated by Reza. The shah’s work was largely done in the three-story
Sahebgharanieh Palace, and his living quarters were in the newer Niavaran Palace. By the standards of European monarchs – with whom he compared himself- the palace was visibly small-time, the size of the gatehouse at a place like Versailles. The shah had commissioned drawings for a new palace of dimensions suitable to a monarch such as himself, to be located even farther up the slope, but in the fall of 1978 it remained in the planning stage.
His current office in the Sahebgharanieh was a large salon with pink velvet walls and tall windows overlooking the leafy park in both directions. The plaster on the walls and ceilings was embedded with tiny fragments of mirror so the room sparkled. It was also decorated with gold plate at every turn: gold phones, gold cigarette boxes studded with jewels, gilt chandeliers, gold ashtrays, thread made of gold in the “Versailles-kitsch” furniture, gold-plated fixtures in his private lavatory. The office had the modern accoutrements of political power as well, with charts displayed, radios deployed, and an illuminated map board for quick reference. His desk was the final seat of authority for a nation of some 34 million, the second-largest petroleum exporter in the world. And, for the last decade, his personal power there had been closer to absolute than that of any other head of state on the planet. The shah truly ruled.
His Imperial Majesty had always lived like a man on the come: endless energy, everything going his way, engaged in what seemed to be an American men’s magazine fantasy. Seeking to escape the cold winters in Tehran yet stay at home, he used state funds to develop Kish Island from what had been a sand spit in the Persian Gulf into a resort complex that included a palace, an airstrip, and all the infrastructure to allow the shah to rule while on vacation. Since the shah loved to ride but Kish Island was too warm to keep horses for much more than several weeks at a time, his horses were flown in and out by military transport. Besides water skiing, the shah’s family liked to go out in the helicopter, piloted by HIM, hover over the water, and jump out one by one – a kind of portable diving board. Then the shah would give up the controls to his copilot and join them in the drink.
When the shah flew to Saint Moritz in his executive jet, he often piloted the plane himself. Sometimes a second jet came along to haul the baggage. In either case, his dogs – as many as six of them, in various sizes – flew with the shah. In Iran, he entertained himself by flying single-engine planes at treetop level in the Alborz and around the ten-thousand-foot-tall dome of Mount Damavand looming over Tehran. In addition to his Iranian palaces, he kept a home in England and another in Switzerland, where he often skied in restricted areas and along the lips of precipices. Whenever he visited anywhere, it was always behind a shield of dark-suited SAVAK state security police. He often had a gaggle of courtiers from his homeland in tow as well.
Upon arrival in Saint Moritz each year, the shah’s caravan from the airport customarily split – the shahbanou, the dogs, and most of the rest of the crowd driving on to the royal villa while he proceeded into town to the Suvretta House hotel. There, with SAVAK occupying the lobby and the hallway outside a luxury suite, he was presented with a blond, wide-mouthed European woman for sex play. During the sixties, most of these playmates were either Lufthansa stewardesses or very expensive prostitutes, scouted and procured by members of his court with titles like “Adjutant to His Imperial Majesty” or “the Shah’s Special Butler.” Those looking to rise in the court often did so by finding HIM women. Back in Iran, a small palace was reportedly reserved for these trysts. The prostitutes he used were contracted through the legendary Madame Claude’s whorehouse in Paris and flown in for several-week shifts. A member of the court acted as advance man and patiently taught the women how to curtsy in order to appropriately greet the shah when he arrived. Aside from sex, HIM reportedly liked to spend his time with these women talking about himself.