278. Contemplation (VI)
The Shah of Iran is a man for whom I always feel sympathy, but he is not an example to follow; he exemplifies the principle “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations”. The grandfather starts out in a modest position; he is a hard worker, and the father comes to reap the fruits and sustain the benefits—then the grandson squanders it all. A family goes from lower class to the top and then crashes back down to manual labour. We do not usually think about the Shah in this way, because it seems to us that, being the king of kings, he must have come from an ancient aristocratic line. This was not so, his grandfather was a major—it was the Shah’s father, Reza Shah, who took the family’s fortunes up to the imperial level.
Reza Shah was a trained to serve in Persia’s elite Cossack regiment; he was trained by the Russians. A short and stocky man, barrel-chested, he worked his way up to become Persia’s ruler—he changed the name to Iran, “land of the Aryans”. As a self-made man, Reza Shah admired Hitler and Kemal Atatürk; and, as with Atatürk, he sought to modernise Muslim Iran. He outlawed the chador and stamped out traditional men’s clothing in the most vicious way; he had traditional hats nailed to the heads of men who persisted in the old fashions. Western medicine, factories, railways, automobiles, and education were the order of the day—just as Atatürk reformed Turkey’s very language, prising it free from the Arabic script in exchange for submission to the Latin alphabet. Reza Shah was a tough and pragmatic leader; he was a Machiavellian, and it took the Soviets and the British to unseat him; he was like a man who builds up a family business who finds himself ejected by predatory corporations—however, the Allies allowed his son to take power.
In line with the old dictum, the family line had become decadent with Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; unlike his father, the boy was slender, tall, and weak. Raised under the influence of his mother and grandmother, both superstitious and familiar with curses, Reza Pahlavi saw his father as an unsophisticated brute—perhaps due to his own rarefied education at a Swiss boarding school; a route also trod by another modern prince, Kim Jong-un.
The Shah, alas, was far too nice—and so he was destined to be remembered as evil. As Machiavelli observed, it is futile to be nice and kind; for a while people may love you, but, one day, you will have to set a limit and then they will hate you, for you will have disappointed them. It is better to remain hard—not cruel, just firm and distant—than to be lovely; people will respect and fear you, but they will never feel betrayal when you show them the limit.
Reza Pahlavi never understood; he continued his father’s reforms, and so libertarians online share pictures of bikini-clad Iranian women under the Shah’s rule to show how civilised it all was back then. As the reforms rolled on, the Communists and Islamists teamed up to fight the Shah. He would clamp down, kill and torture students, but he would never push to the bitter end; he was too nice to be really ruthless—he would relent. This merely caused the people to despise him; the Shah was neither feared nor loved, a very precarious position.
His feminine prevarication lasted right up to the Islamic Revolution. There were many moments, right up to the last minute, when the Shah could have stopped the revolution through decisive military action; his officers were ready, there would have been blood—yet there is always blood, his old Cossack father might have said. Instead, in a very feminine way, the Shah dithered and worried about how it all might look abroad and in the New York Times; and so he flew into exile, the family business lost and the dynasty returned to shirtsleeves.