Kayhan Life: Darioush Bayandor’s book, “The Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the United States,” offers a fresh perspective on the Shah of Iran’s rule and skillfully explains how the historical events that followed continue to shape Iran today. Working with previously untapped archival materials, Bayandor examines the sophisticated and often complex dynamics between domestic and international affairs in Iran.
The book delivers new revelations about the Shah’s rule, opposition forces and the influence of U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s administration inside Iran.
Darioush Bayandor is a Swiss-Iranian academic and a former United Nations official. He worked as a senior diplomat for the Iranian government in New York and Tehran during the 1960s and 1970s.
On “The Shah, the Islamic Revolution and the United States,” “Darioush Bayandor is known for writing books that shake up consensus by pointing up to plain facts. With this excellent book he does it again,” said the British academic Michael Axworthy, who has also written on Iran.
Kayhan Life interviewed Darioush Bayandor to ask him about his latest book.
Q: Why did you write this book and how long did it take you? It’s a very well researched book. Did you have a researcher or co-writer?
A: Writing this book was for me a way of paying back my debt to Iran. I had wanted it to be a tribute — a gift if you will — to the generation born after the revolution.
I have been working on this project intermittently for the last nine years. Its scope was originally wider and covered a full century but urged by my publisher I selected the parts related to the revolution.
I had no help! Switzerland, where I live, is something of a hinterland when it comes to Iran and Iranian studies.
Q: Is this a historical book or a political book? A work of revisionism or a mea-culpa on behalf of the pro-monarchy groups? All of the above? None of the above?
A: This is strictly a history book. I wanted it to be apolitical and non-judgmental and to keep it within the confines of hard evidence and archives. I don’t pretend to be neutral, but I believe I have a vigorous, uncompromising commitment to truth and objectivity. I hope this will be the touchstone on which the book is assessed.
Q: You mention Ali Shariati as the ideologue of the religious front. Other political parties-Tudeh, National Front, even the Mujahedeen Khalq – had their ideological principles and platforms. What was the ideological principle or platform of the monarchy? Does “the White Revolution” qualify as one? And if it can be argued that there was none, could that not have been a major source of irritation by people who saw the monarchy as being solely beholden to foreign powers for its existence?
A: In principle, the ideology of the monarchy was the 1906-7 constitution. But Iran’s version of the Magna Carta was compromised as early as 1911, and later trampled under Reza Shah. Mosaddeq had a utopian vision of the constitution. He believed the prerogatives of the Shah under the constitution were nominal, not real. This dogma created a rift that was never healed.
After the fall of Mosaddeq in 1953 the Shah gradually moved towards authoritarian rule (Nezam’e Shahanshahi) even if a façade of constitutionality was maintained. The new order placed emphasis on the historical legitimacy of the monarchy and assigned a distorted interpretation to royal prerogatives in the constitution; this was at the expense of the Majles and the executive branch which were tamed. Mohammad Reza Shah had come to believe that only under autocratic rule could he best ensure the wellbeing of the Iranian nation. His doctrine could be summed up in a phrase that he is on the record as having pronounced:
“A man who is not dependent on the people’s vote is free to act directly in the national interest.”
Q: How do you reconcile the Shah’s expecting absolute loyalty from those working in his government yet his willingness to sell out the Kurds, having signed up at first to help them?
A: Loyalty was not one of the known personal attributes of Mohammad Reza Shah. When higher interests of the state or his dynasty were deemed to be in jeopardy he would have no scruples about disloyalty as evidenced by the fate of his longest serving prime minister [Amir Abbas] Hoveyda or that of his fiercely loyal security chief General [Nematollah] Nasiri.
That said, the Kurdish saga, like many other facets of the Shah’s rule, does not lend itself to clichés or simplistic answers. I have written an elaborate chapter about this issue in my book. The long and the short of it is that by the winter of 1974-5, the Kurdish Peshmerga under [Mustafa] Barzani were on the verge of collapse, something that forced the Shah to dispatch an Iranian military task force, (two artillery battalions, several mortar platoons, air defense batteries and two rapier tank units) across the border to Iraq .
The two countries were never closer to an all-out war which neither side wanted. The Shah wisely opted for peace. He obtained amnesty for Kurdish fighters and they were massively given asylum in Iran. The spin-off for Iran was the resolution of all problems with Iraq, notably the readjustment of the Shatt-al-Arab water border in favor of Iran.
Q: When it comes to opposition to the Shah, could it also be argued that Khomeini’s own political incompetence and/or dilly-dallying alliances left the scene open for the creation and spread of the so-called militants, the early fathers of which were the MKO and the communists?
A: The emergence of youth militancy in the 1960s, which by the end of that decade bred armed struggle by groups like the Fada’an Khalq (FK) and the MKO, resulted from a different dynamic. Khomeini’s face-off with the Shah in 1962-63 had to some extent stimulated the trend but was not its principal cause.
I have devoted a full chapter to this subject. In effect, a silent cultural revolution in Iran in 1960 had imbued the minds of Iranian middle-class youth with the adulation of Shia Islam as a protest creed. Trends oozing in from outside, i.e the student movements in Europe, US and Latin America and the struggle of the Palestinian people, also inspired and radicalized Iranian youth.
Yet by 1977, when the first signs of political change in Iran became visible. the urban guerrilla movements were all but defeated. They were marginalized and inoperative. The sparks that flared up the following year originated not from MKO or FK but from civil society. That said, the armed struggle during the first half of the 1970s had an undeniable psychological impact and fed the growing revolutionary climate.
Q: Given the close relations between the Shah and the French intelligence, why do you think the regime did not inform the French of Khomeini’s imminent trip to Paris?
A: Khomeini’s arrival in Paris on October 7, 1978 was the result of haphazard circumstances that were unpredictable, and the Shah’s regime was totally in the dark. Paradoxically. when the French government began pondering his unannounced arrival in France, it was the Shah who urged them to allow him to stay there.
Later, in mid-December when [French President Valery] Giscard d’Estaing arranged for Khomeini’s deportation to Algeria, it was again the Shah who blocked the move. All details including the underlying reasons for the Shah’s attitude are explained in the book.
Q: Your book deals very extensively with the U.S. and other Western countries like France, UK, and Germany. But your chapter on the former Soviet Union seems extremely short in comparison. Why?
A: You are right. The principal reason was the marginal role that the USSR played in internal Iranian political processes in the 1970s. Throughout these years, the Kremlin pursued a pragmatic, win-win policy towards Iran, and to a large extent, curbed the Tudeh Party. Moscow, ironically, had no role in the revolutionary climate of the late1970s. This was in contrast to Washington’s intrusive role, especially the indirect and unintended impact of what the opposition assessed as the Carter ambiguity towards the Shah.
The focus in my book on Washington however was mainly due to the manipulative role that a faction in the Carter administration played during the final weeks of the monarchy, which was intended to carve out a privileged position for Washington in the Cold War context. Russians joined the fray very late in the game as I have explained in my subchapter, the Leipzig Connection.
Q: Was Khomeini a political strategist? Or did his consecutive movements and statements sound retroactively as having been premeditated and strategically, or even tactically, well planned?
A: Khomeini was no political strategist but was an unmatched political tactician. In actual fact he was a Shia revivalist leader. Outlandish as it may sound his struggle aimed at re-establishing the divine legitimacy of rule by the Prophet’s progeny which had been brutally truncated some 13 centuries earlier.
This revivalist dogma drove him to reject all attempts by the secular opposition at political compromise. When it suited him, Khomeini did not hesitate to resort to dissimulation tactics in line with the Shia precept of Taqieh. For many observers, including the US embassy in Tehran and the State Department he was a benevolent spiritual leader, who, once victory was attained, would leave the day-to-day running of state affairs to competent if pious lay politicians.
Q: Objectively speaking, and having studied all the political parties and factions, and having tried both monarchy and theocracy, would you trust any of the current or past parties to take over Iran again? What is the solution?
A: The future of Iran belongs to Iranians, especially the younger generation. They are mature, well-schooled and vibrant. More than at any time in the past, Iranians are ready to embrace a secular democracy.
History shows that attempts to bring back bygones hardly ever succeed. Nostalgia about the monarchy does exist not just in the diaspora and inside Iran, but to me, outside attempts at regime change sound hollow.
Khomeini also failed in his revivalist bid even if an Islamic Republic lingers on. In pre-revolutionary times, religiosity was ingrained in the fabric of our society. In a dramatic reversal today, the phenomenon has lost its glare.
Any imposition by outside powers is bound to throw the nation in a prolonged war and cycle of destruction, a nightmarish scenario. Change must come from within through a slow process of gradual fusion among the ruling and the non-ruling elite, of which faint signs are visible. It takes time but, in my humble view, there is no better alternative.
The book can be purchased online through Palgrave Macmillan and costs $79.99.