Although never a major power, Iran has appeared at or near the center of many of the foreign-policy challenges America has faced over the past 75 years. An audacious Soviet effort to swallow or dismember Iran at the conclusion of World War II prompted one of the first major acts of American containment policy. Then, in 1953, the CIA inserted itself into an internecine power struggle to restore or re-cement the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Washington’s action was prompted by the continuing fear of Soviet designs, but since the Iranian crisis also entailed Western oil interests, it became the template for a Soviet caricature of American “imperialism” in the service of global capital, an image that gained wide credence around the world.

Despite whatever debt he owed Washington for the CIA’s 1953 machinations, Mohammad Reza had ambitions of his own that sometimes made him a thorn in America’s side. He helped forge OPEC, whose stranglehold on energy challenged U.S. power and policies in the 1970s. Then, with the shah’s ouster in 1979, Iran became the world’s first “Islamic Republic,” energizing radical Islam, both Shiite and Sunni, much as Lenin’s declaration of the first socialist republic in 1917 infused enormous new strength into all sorts of revolutionary movements. Today, Iran’s relentless drive to join the club of nuclear-weapons states constitutes the most urgent threat facing the new U.S. administration.

In short, Iran was at some moments the vessel of Washington’s hopes and at others the source of its most irksome torments. This tortuous tale is the subject of Ray Takeyh’s The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty. Takeyh’s narrative skill, eye for detail, sense of character, and judicious presentation of controversial events make his account as compulsively readable as a novel.

The 1953 coup that restored the shah’s authority also ousted the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, and to this day it “casts a long shadow over Iran,” writes Takeyh. “The oft repeated slogan that the United States crushed Iran’s nascent democracy and ushered in a rigid dictatorship conceals more than it reveals.” For one thing, as Takeyh shows, Mossadeq, the avatar of Iranian nationalism and the leader of the National Front Party, made his own contributions to undermining democracy, notably by inducing the parliament to award him the power to rule by decree. At strategic moments, he encouraged riots to strengthen his bargaining position, and, says Takeyh, he even seems to have countenanced the assassination of one of his predecessors, Ali Razmara.

Takeyh argues that while “the CIA was complicit” in the 1953 events, “its role has been exaggerated.” It was Iranians, he says “who took the essential steps in overthrowing” Mossadeq.

The conventional wisdom portraying the U.S. as the main actor rests in large part on the confessional account of Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Theodore, who was the principal CIA agent on the scene and later wrote a book about his exploits. This version has been widely taken as an acknowledgment of American perfidy from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. But Takeyh says that Roosevelt romanticized his role, exaggerating its importance. His telling is “debunked by the declassified record,” writes Takeyh, citing former President Dwight Eisenhower’s response to a briefing he received from Roosevelt. It sounded “more like a dime store novel than an historical fact,” said the president. Takeyh maintains that Roosevelt’s contribution consisted mostly of persuading the shah, who still reigned although he didn’t rule, to dismiss his prime minister. Then, Roosevelt passed word of the dismissal to a couple of journalists so that the publicity would rally the shah’s supporters behind it.

The coup did in fact sink Iranian democracy, such as it was, less because of what it did to Mossadeq than what it did to Mohammad Reza. Once he had taken power back into his own hands, he grew far more authoritarian. The episode “gradually transformed the shah from a hesitant monarch into a despot.” Takeyh writes that Reza spurned the oft-received advice that “accumulating power would not serve his interests, because he would be held accountable for all the nation’s problems.” Now, ruling rather than reigning, he emasculated parliament and created a secret police force, the SAVAK. With power concentrated in the monarchy, the country’s political elite atrophied.

Iran had once produced great political leaders, says Takeyh. For example, he sees the 1946 repulsion of Moscow’s designs on Iran as having been achieved in large measure by Iranian statesmanship, much as he sees the events of 1953 as having been driven more by Iranians than Americans. Though the firm response of the Truman administration was essential, so too, he argues, was the grit with which Iranian statesmen faced down Stalin and his henchmen. After 1953, however, the shah refused to be served by the likes of the Iranian officials of 1946. Instead, he “was most comfortable with sycophants and filled his army and bureaucracy with men who could never make a decision or take initiative.”

The problem in this seems obvious, but it actually was worse than that. Although he did not want anyone else making decisions, the shah also did not like to make them himself. While Takeyh deems 1953 to have been driven less by Americans than Iranians, the shah himself was not a prime mover. “Of Mossadeq’s many adversaries, the shah seemed to be the least consequential,” writes Takeyh. During the extended power struggle, the monarch “passed the time with card games and detective novels.” Later, as he monopolized authority, his character did not much change. He became “a dictator with a dangerously passive streak.”

This was to prove fatal to his rule. Toward the end, as the waters of uprising swirled around him, the shah was hampered by a worsening cancer that would soon take his life. “The question that has bedeviled historians is what impact cancer had on the shah’s management of national affairs during [that] turbulent time,” observes Takeyh, who finds it to have been of minimal importance. “[Mohammad Reza] always faded from the scene during a crisis… . His propensity to vacillate cannot be attributed to his illness.”

His indecisiveness made him vulnerable, but what sealed the shah’s doom was finding himself pitted against an adversary who was the diametric opposite in this respect, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The cleric who led the revolution was, says Takeyh, “the only figure in this imbroglio who was free of doubt and uncompromising in his approach.” When other leaders of the uprising secured agreement from the shah’s officers for a settlement entailing a full transition to democracy, the ayatollah would not hear of any such compromise. Instead, he demanded complete surrender by the existing government even after the shah had taken himself off into exile.

Khomeini repeatedly promised these officials and generals that if they surrendered authority, they would be spared. He meant not a word of it. Against Mohammad Reza’s Hamlet, Khomeini played Caligula. No sooner was he in power than the ayatollah created special tribunals that dispensed summary justice—if you can call it that. Writes Takeyh: “The revolutionary courts were Khomeini’s creation: he used them to destroy the old order by executing as many of its officials as he could get his hands on.”

Months later the ayatollah expressed regret—not for the killing but for its dearth:

One of the mistakes we made was that we didn’t act in a revolutionary fashion. We were patient with these corrupt factions. The revolutionary government, the revolutionary army, the revolutionary guards, none of them acted like revolutionaries. We would not have these problems today if in the very beginning we had shattered the former corrupt regime and closed down all these corrupt newspapers and magazines and punished their publishers and banned the corrupt political parties and given their leaders what they deserved and set up gallows in the main squares and cut down all the corrupt people. In the presence of God Almighty and the dear nation of Iran, I apologize for our mistakes.

While condemning the cruelty, Takeyh also gives Khomeini his due, calling him “one of the most successful revolutionaries of the 20th century,” adding, “Through the institutions he created and the elite followers he molded, the Imam ensured that his ideology would endure long after his passing. No other 20th-century revolutionary leader can make this claim.”

This is just one example of arresting observations with which Takeyh’s narrative is sprinkled. Here are a few others. While crediting the sincerity of Washington’s Cold War fears in the 1953 crisis, Takeyh concludes that they were inflated. “During Iran’s most consequential summer, the Soviet Union and its proxy seemed too bewildered to play a meaningful role in the final outcome [but] none of this was apparent to Washington.” As for 1979, his judgments of the actions of President Jimmy Carter and Ambassador William Sullivan are notably gentler than perhaps they should be, although he is surely not a partisan of either those men. “Nixon’s was the last U.S. government that could have saved the shah’s throne,” he says. “By the time Jimmy Carter came to power the situation was no longer salvageable.”

On these and other subjects, Takeyh is well aware that his take will not be the last word. But he has made a superb contribution to our understanding of a land that has tormented us and promises to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

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