Air University Review , July-August 1980
Dr Lewis Ware
IN THE Middle East the game of chess is ended with the declaration of cbeckmate--shah mat--the king is dead! No expression seems more appropriate to the Iranian Revolution than this. The Shah has been dethroned and with him crumbled the edifice of his aspirations, aspirations which were in part erected on the tenuous assumptions of the Nixon Doctrine Some ten years earlier. The game came to an end so abruptly, collapsed so completely, that both participants and observers had little time to register any reaction other than utter dismay and shock. There was much attendant clamor in the lower branches of the Grove of Academe, through which the theoreticians had once so blithely swung; where, at one time confident of elaborating an airtight model for Iran's Sustained stability, they were now loath to explain her precipitous demise- And the cynics and pundits alike, in government or on its margin, simply clucked their tongues in smug confirmation of what they always knew to be true: that the Middle East, inherently ungovernable and chaotic in the extreme, had again retreated beyond the pale of understanding.
The atmosphere of bewilderment and mutual recrimination prevails now as it did then. And yet there has appeared recently a work whose singular merit lies in its attempt, at a time when hindsight may still be premature, to reconstruct dispassionately the master plan of the game that went wrong. To this end Amin Saikal has devoted his timely book, The Rise and the Fall of the Shah.*
*Amin Saikal, The Rise and the Fall of the Shah (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 279 pages, including notes, bibliography, and index, no price indicated.
Its principal theme is unambiguous. The Shah was the great modernizer of Iran. To further his goals he chose an autocratic model of nation-building bequeathed to him by his father, Reza Shah. During his reign a need for independence informed Muhammad Reza Pahlavi's vision of Iranian grandeur from which he never wavered and to which he applied the limitless resources of absolute monarchy. He failed to unite Iran under his person and destroyed in the process any possibility for Iran to act in an unrestrained environment. If modernizers were to be judged by their intents rather than by their products, the Shah might have gotten off lighter than he did despite his not inconsiderable excesses; and it is out of the humaneness implicit in this understanding that the author rejects the parochial point of view. Professor Saikal is critical but not condemnatory. One might say that running throughout his work there is an understated thread of sympathy for the deposed monarch. Clearly, this has contributed to the clarity of his perceptions and the convincing quality of his arguments.
The Shah, as Professor Saikal sees him, was caught on the horns of a geopolitical dilemma. To be so near to the Soviet Union and, therefore, always the object of Russian avidity was certainly bad enough; to have to depend ultimately on the United States for support against a covetous neighbor so as not to lend credence to the fallacy that Iran belonged in the Soviet orbit was perhaps even worse. The Shah believed that the legitimacy of Iran's independence, the bulwark of her physical security, lay in the transformation of his personal power into a political institution; for if Iran were to survive other than as a pawn of the superpowers, he had to base his power on a consensus for the monarchy. This transformation demanded reform on an unprecedented scale, a veritable revolution in the evolutionary mode, and a series of steps that would free the resources of Iran for the construction of a bourgeois, capitalist society in which the gap between the socialization of the elites and the masses would be slowly obliterated. The popular base of rule would be enlarged releasing, as a consequence, the economic capacity of the country and the energies of the community for the service of transcendent national goals. The Shah's White Revolution set this process in motion by sequestering the property of a small but influential landowning class in favor of the dispossessed, whom the government tried to organize along cooperative lines. A Literacy Corps came into existence simultaneously to prepare, in a very limited sociopolitical sense, the newly enfranchised class for its role of loyal citizenry. The land reform was then balanced by the sale of state-owned factories to private shareholders, thereby allowing the landowners the opportunity to reinvest their government reimbursements in capital-producing industries. With these basic reforms came a wholesale augmentation in resources allocated to the allied sectors of housing, health, education, and industrial training. To these ambitious projects was then added the rapidly increasing oil revenues that Iran accrued from her leadership in OPEC.
Eventually, the Shah's revolution was to convince the United States of Iran's long-term investment value, the main dividend of which was U.S. acquiescence to the Shah's demand for military carte blanche. This agreement permitted Iran to exercise a hitherto unrealized flexibility and stability in foreign relations. It encouraged the Shah to deal unilaterally with the U.S.S.R, gave him the right to insist on a regional status quo under Iranian hegemony, and, in the rapid shift to multipolar global relations after 1969, paved the way for the destruction of the absolute hold over Iranian petroleum exercised by the Western oil consortia.
And yet the substructure on which the Shah's ambitions and successes were founded was tragically flawed. To call his ultimate failure the result of the politics of "system management" or the politics of "manoeuvre" is to miss the point. The Shah's debacle came about because there had never been, nor could there ever be under the circumstances, a general agreement on the meaning of progress. As a consequence, the Shah Was denied the very security and legitimacy his regime needed to exist.
To the United States, which had by the early seventies assumed the role of guarantor of Gulf security, progress signified military stability on Iran's northern frontier, an expanding electorate, a circumspect tolerance for an alternative to the Shah's rule within the non ideologically oriented opposition, and access to full and unfettered commercial relations with its rich client. To the Shah, progress meant consolidation of the Power of his regime. He personally devoted himself to socioeconomic reform without establishing any concomitant political changes in the monolithic structure of the country's governmental apparatus. Institutionalized in his person, power was never invested in other legislative or executive organisms which remained politically truncated and operatively marginal to the state. The Shah exercised his privilege through his trusted minions whom he removed at will. Moreover, as part of his discretionary powers, he broadly defined the nature of the subversion against him and crushed it by means of SA V AK, his organ of state terror. Thus, instead of enlarging his mandate through gradual access of the people to political liberties, he repressed his opposition, narrowed his base of legitimacy, and created a force dedicated not to more viable alternatives for Iranian development but to the destruction of monarchical prerogative.
It was inevitable that reaction should Occur in the form of an Islamic revolution led by a discontented class of mullahs whose lands, once held as pious foundations on which the power of the religious establishment Was grounded, had been partially expropriated by the state. The Shah was not able to coopt these malcontents into the system or appropriate their claim to Islamic legitimacy. In the last days of the regime the people rallied behind the mullahs when the accumulated inconsistencies and contradictions of national socioeconomic and political dislocation had already become too heavy to bear. The United States, which had previously accepted in the broader context the authoritarian model of development, opposed it now on specific issues and linked continuing aid to ever-increasing demands for the liberalization of the regime. The series of repressions and the relaxation of Control that followed weakened the Shah's already dubious ability to rule effectively while at the same time encouraged the opposition to coalesce around Islamic leaders.
THOSE who have studied the history of the modern Middle East were perhaps the only observers not to be surprised at the checkmate in Iran. History provides many poignant examples of the failure of regional states to create a national ecumene through modernization. Of particular interest to us are the example of Ottoman Turkey during the period of the Tanzimat reforms and Egypt in the period prior to the British occupation. Here ambitious rulers, anxious to cure the ills of a decaying traditional society, sought to emulate the power of the West through military reforms. In the process they borrowed selectively from the corpus of Western technological and political ideas in an attempt to discover the right mix of prescriptions suitable to their circumstances, creating simultaneously the opportunity for the Western powers to integrate their clients into the European geopolitical system. This accelerated the development of new classes of political actors who competed for the right to determine the nation's orientation in a way that was sometimes inimical to its best interests. Under these conditions change could no longer be controlled and anarchy ensued. Professor Saikal would agree, I am sure, that the study of these patterns cannot tell us what to do in similar situations. Nevertheless, as his admirable book points out, history can at least show us what not to do, furnish us with perspective on problems, and discipline our minds to the arduous task of finding solutions. In a world fast committing historicide, it is encouraging that a historian should call us to our senses by being the first, not the last, to address our confusion.
Air University Library
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
Lewis B. Ware(Ph.D., Princeton) is associate professor of Middle East studies and a member of the Documentary Research Division, Air University Library. He has taught and done research at the University of Tunis and in Cairo as a Fellow of the American Research Center. Before coming to Air University, he was on the staff of New York University and served as a consultant to the International Research and Exchange Commission. Dr. Ware is a previous contributor to the Review.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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