Andrew Scott Cooper is the author of “The Fall of Heaven,” a new book on the last days of imperial Iran. His previous book was “The Oil Kings.”
Q. What led you to write a book about the Pahlavis and the final days of Imperial Iran?
A. The first wave of books written about the revolution appeared in the 1980s and ’90s. They were produced by political scientists, diplomats, former officials, journalists and ideologues. Some were good, others not so good. Most reflected the ideological biases of the Cold War period. Almost all were harshly critical of the Shah’s rule. With a few exceptions, these books portrayed the Shah as an American puppet, as a bloodthirsty dictator, and as a corrupt ruler completely out of touch with his people.
Professionally trained historians (i.e. ones with Ph.D’s) sat back and waited for the dust to settle. That’s what we do – we wait. We don’t usually get involved in historical debates until we are confident that we have documents and people willing to talk on the record.
The Fall of Heaven is the first in what I anticipate will be a steady slew of new books and articles that focus on Iran in the 1970s and 1980s. This is a very exciting time to be writing about modern Iranian history.
Q. Did you uncover new historical evidence in the course of your research? What does your book add to the historical narrative of the Pahlavi dynasty?
A. My narrative addresses what I believe are imbalances in the historical record. The Shah and his governments made mistakes, but we also should acknowledge their very real achievements. They were working within the incredibly difficult conditions of the Cold War, and I don’t think Iranians give them enough credit for that.
Q. Your book has been described as an effort to rehabilitate the Pahlavi dynasty. Is that a fair description?
A. I don’t agree – I did not set out to rehabilitate the Shah or anyone else. During my research, I became aware that many ordinary Iranians were already reassessing the Shah and his legacy. In fact, I experienced this myself during my visit to Iran in 2013.
Some Iranian intellectuals and writers are deeply invested in a historical narrative that over the years has served them well. The problem is that it simply doesn’t satisfy the intellectual curiosity of the next generation. I hope younger scholars are not put off by the attacks and criticism I have been subjected to. They should remember that we are not here to please people or satisfy the status quo. We have to question, question, question.
Q. Why, in your view, did the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution happen? What were the key triggers?
A. Revolutions are very difficult to understand and even harder to predict. The economic pressures brought on by the 1973-74 oil shock collided with the Shah’s decision to open up political life. There was considerable frustration with the Shah’s executive rule and the lack of responsiveness by Prime Minister Hoveyda’s government, which had been in power for too long. To the Shah’s credit, he understood that reforms were needed to defuse pressure building within the system. It’s simply not good enough to accuse him of failing to understand what was happening.
His decision to persevere with reforms in the face of public cynicism, opposition sabotage and foreign mischief was admirable, if ultimately misguided. But I always ask myself: “What other choice did he have?” We have to remember that the Shah knew he was mortally ill with cancer – he was running out of time.
Externally, we should acknowledge the role played by Arab leaders bitterly opposed to the Shah’s support for the Camp David peace process between Israel and Egypt. Terrorists attacks and sabotage operations supported by Qaddafi and Arafat caused widespread public alarm just as the Shah was trying to hand power back to his prime minister. Just look at the Rex Cinema disaster in August 1978, the devastating act of terror carried out by saboteurs loyal to Khomeini.
The American role in the collapse cannot be dismissed outright, though where Iranians see evidence of conspiracy, I see something far more troubling – incompetence.
Q. Do you believe that the Revolution could have been avoided had the Shah chosen a different course of action?
A. One school of thought has it that the Shah should have launched a crackdown in May 1978. He was advised to do this by his senior security chiefs. But short-term solutions can lead to more complicated long-term problems.
Watch what is happening in Egypt now. President Sisi cracked down in 2013 against the Islamists and forced them underground. Younger anti-state protesters who once supported peaceful reforms have gone underground to fight the regime. The Shah anticipated that this would happen in Iran in 1978. He was genuinely torn about what to do, but in the end decided to try and press on with peaceful reforms rather than sanction a crackdown that he feared would cause bloodshed and bring an end to the dynasty.
Q. Many Iranians believe that U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his administration stopped backing the Shah in the final stages of his reign, precipitating his downfall. Would you agree?
A. The American role was tragicomic. It was incredible that Ambassador Sullivan undertook what can only be described as freelance diplomacy to try and pull off what he hoped would be a coup for American interests – easing out the Shah and bringing in Khomeini. My conclusions, based on everything I have seen so far, suggest that Sullivan shared his project with his colleagues in the State Department but not with the White House.
I do think Iranians give Americans far too much credit when they say the US brought down the Shah. It allows them to blame others for their misfortune. Wealthy Iranians began leaving their country in 1977 if not earlier – had they stayed behind and supported the Shah when he needed them, would the revolution have happened at all?
Q. How would you describe Mohammad Reza Pahlavi – the man, and the sovereign?
A. The one word you will not find in this book when I talk about the Shah is “complicated.” I get annoyed when scholars describe a world leader as “complicated” or “complex,” because it suggests the average person can’t understand them, and if you can’t understand them you can’t possible identify with them.
I developed a real sense of empathy for the Shah. As my research progressed, it became clear to me that he was not the person we read about in the newspapers. His failures were already well known, but look at all he achieved in his lifetime, and also what he set out to do in the face of overwhelming odds. Look at the universities and schools he built, and his efforts to improve literacy, healthcare, the environment, arts and culture – his legacy is all around. He was the man who built modern Iran, no doubt about it.
In foreign policy, from 1953 to 1979 the Shah avoided foreign entanglements. He kept his country at peace – he understood that the success of his reforms depended on that – and he balanced off foreign powers during the Cold War: another momentous achievement that other leaders in the region failed to do.
Ultimately, I think he got caught in the rip tide of the Cold War just as the Islamic revival was getting under way. It’s not clear to me that there was a way out of that trap – look at what happened to his father during World War Two.
Q. Your book was written with the cooperation of Farah Pahlavi, the former empress. How did she contribute?
A. The Empress took a huge risk when she agreed to my request to sit for interviews. She had no idea how the book would turn out, or what I would find, and at no point did she try to influence me one way or the other.
Iranians should also understand how difficult it was for her to talk about events that ended in such personal tragedy. Over a period of four years, she showed great interest in my progress and she encouraged her friends to talk to me. She understands that younger Iranians want to learn more about the past and she is doing what she can to help them.
Q. What was Farah Pahlavi’s contribution to Iranian society?
A. I think you have to go back into the eighteenth century to find another example of a sovereign consort involved in so many works that touched so many lives. Her interests were remarkably eclectic. She fought to help Iran’s lepers, artists and writers, burn victims, orphans and single mothers . . . What all these groups had in common was that they were society’s underdogs and she felt protective toward them. She gave voice to the voiceless. She told me that she regards her most important personal achievement was her work to improve the lives of Iran’s lepers. She still thinks about them and hopes they are doing well.
Q. How important is the Shah’s legacy in present-day Iran?
A. When the Shah left Iran, most people assumed his legacy was one of failure. Today, historians are taking a second look. My conclusion is that the initial assessments of failure were made in the heat of the moment. Only now when we pull back can we see that many of the projects he started are either continuing today – albeit under another guise and name – or were carried through to fruition. Enough time has passed for us to compare and contrast his legacy with that of the Islamic Republic.
For example, his emphasis on literacy and education paid off handsomely. Also his interest in science, medicine and the environment. I found it fascinating that he championed national parks, water conservation and development of alternative sources of energy at a time when most people weren’t interested or aware of these issues.
Perhaps most important, Iranians need to learn the lessons from his ill-fated effort to democratize Iranian public life in the late 70s. The Islamic Republic will soon face its own internal crisis of leadership. What do Iranians want to come next? Are they ready for the possibility of change?
Q. How have Iranian readers reacted to your book so far? What has been their feedback?
A. As expected, the response from those who support the Islamic Republic or still hate the monarchy has been negative. But the reaction from ordinary Iranians has been heartening. Many Iranians see me as a neutral observer who is doing his best to write about very difficult and painful subjects. They understand that as an outsider, as someone who does not have family back in Iran, I can write more freely than many of their own intellectuals who fear reprisals and are censoring their work. I did not grow up in Iran, I was born toward the end of the Cold War, I worked as a human rights researcher, and I have a solid track record of investigative research. These qualities stand me in good stead.
The book is selling well enough so that my publisher just ordered an increase in the print run. The book is already available inside Iran, though not legally. I hope my books will encourage young Iranians to become interested in their history. Many younger Iranians tell me their parents and grandparents don’t like to talk about the past. They seek me out because I am not afraid to do so.
I can honestly say that I have fallen in love with Iran and with the Iranian people whom I admire so much. I’ll always be an outsider but I hope that in my small way I can contribute to the awareness and understanding of Iranian history and culture.