Ryszard Kapuściński's Shah of Shahs is no ordinary account on the fall of the Shah; but a meditation, of sorts, at a deeply personal, and almost atomic level, on why it all happened. The book captures the pathos of Iran’s revolution by plumbing the psyche of its people, and doing so with a literary flair that makes Shah of Shahs a befitting addition to any library about Iran.
The Shah left people a choice between Savak and the mullahs. And they chose the mullahs.In a nutshell this answers the question why the Shah was overthrown—the country simply hated him. The Shah passed himself as a progressive and a modernizer; who promised to make Iran “the second America” within a generation, but his methods were crude and medieval. He was also despotic, autocratic, and incredibly cruel.
The Shah spent billions to modernize Iran but barely spent a cent on developing the most valuable resource he had—people. The Shah never trusted his people. Too much education is not always a good thing, according to the Shah. That is why he sent the country’s brightest students to Europe and the United States for higher studies because universities are, according to the Shah, almost always a source of opposition. The Shah did not have to worry on that score, the students, sensing danger, wisely decided not to return.
Nevertheless, you cannot build a modern nation by importing machines and building factories alone; you must rescue people mentally and physically mired in the past. But instead of taking the people into his confidence and instilling in them a sense of a brighter future, the Shah’s way was to literally beat modernity into them whether they liked it or not; and he did it with the military—his sole power base—and state security services like Savak, the dreaded secret police. The Shah, the self-proclaimed progressive and modernizer, brooked no opposition or criticism of his rule, which was absolute and unyielding.
The people, in turn, responded by retreating inward, to the core of their being: a combination of Shia Islam and Persian nationalism. And the more they retreated the crueler the Shah became. Man has his limits, after all; and by 1979 Iranians had enough. The whole country, led by the mullahs, convulsed into a revolution, sweeping Ayatollah Khomeini to power, where he quickly established a theocratic state, which still stands today.
It surprised no one that the monarchy crumbled so quickly except for the Shah. No one was more shocked than he; who, of course, thought the people loved him (and he, in turn, loved them, but in a strange and twisted away). He entered exile a bitter and broken man.
Now that the Shah was gone, people hoped for better days. It was a hopeless dream. Little did people realize they were simply exchanging one tyranny for another. The cruelty, the autocracy, the corruption, and the anti-intellectualism, all the hallmarks of the Shah’s regime, continued without missing a step, except now victims became tormentors, and tormentors became victims.