1973 | Tehran

A Dictator’s Folly

The decline and fall of the last Shah.

Tehran on December 23: the shah, surrounded by a bank of microphones, is giving a speech in a hall crowded with journalists. On this occasion Mohammad Reza, usually marked by a careful, studied reticence, cannot hide his emotion, his excitement, even—as the reporters note—his feverishness. In fact, the moment is important and fraught with consequences for the whole world: the shah is announcing a new price for oil. The price has quadrupled in less than two months, and Iran, which used to earn five billion dollars a year from its petroleum exports, will now be bringing in twenty billion. What’s more, control of this great pile of money will belong to the shah alone. In his autocratic kingdom he can use it however he likes. He can throw it into the sea, spend it on ice cream, or lock it up in a golden safe. No wonder he looks so excited—how would any of us behave if we suddenly found twenty billion dollars in our pockets and knew, additionally, there would be twenty billion more each and every year, and eventually even greater sums? No wonder the shah acted as he did, which was to lose his head. Instead of assembling his family, loyal generals, and trusted advisers to think over together the most reasonable way of using such a fortune, the ruler—who claims to have suddenly been blessed with a shining vision—announces to one and all that within a generation he will make Iran (which is a backward, disorganized, half-illiterate, barefoot country) into the fifth-greatest power on earth. At the same time the monarch awakens high hopes among his people with the attractive slogan “Prosperity for All.” Initially, with everyone aware that the shah is in the really big money, these hopes do not seem completely vain.

A few days after the press conference, the monarch grants an interview to Der Spiegel and says, “In ten years we will have the same living standard that you Germans, French, and English have now.”

“Do you think, sir,” the correspondent asks incredulously, “you will be really able to accomplish this within ten years?”

“Yes, of course.”

But, says the astonished journalist, the West needed many generations to achieve its present standard of living. Will you be able to skip all that?

Of course.

I think of this interview now, when Mohammad Reza is no longer in the country and, surrounded by half-naked shivering children, I am wading through mud and dung among the squalid clay huts of a little village outside Shiraz. In front of one of the huts a woman is forming cow patties into circular cakes that, once dried, will serve (in this country of oil and gas!) as the only fuel for her home. Well, walking through this sad medieval village and remembering that interview of a few years back, the most banal of reflections comes into my head: not even the greatest nonsense is beyond the reach of human invention.

For the time being, however, the autocrat locks himself in his palace and begins issuing the hundreds of decisions that convulse his homeland and lead to his overthrow five years later. He orders investment doubled, begins the great importing of technology, and creates the third-most-advanced army in the world. He commands that the most up-to-date equipment be ordered, installed, and put in use. Modern machines produce modern merchandise, and Iran is going to swamp the world with its superior output. He decides to build atomic-power plants, electronics factories, steel mills, and great industrial complexes. Then, since there is a delicious winter in Europe, he leaves to ski in St. Moritz. But his charming, elegant residence in St. Moritz suddenly stops being a quiet hideaway and retreat, because word of the new El Dorado has spread around the world by this time and excited the power centers, where everyone immediately has begun calculating the amounts of money to be plucked in Iran. The premiers and ministers of otherwise respectable and affluent governments from serious, respected countries have begun to line up outside the shah’s Swiss domicile. The ruler sat in an armchair, warming his hands at the fireplace and listening to a deluge of propositions, offers, and declarations. Now the whole world was at his feet. Before him were bowed heads, inclined necks, and outstretched hands. “Now look,” he’d tell the premiers and ministers, “you don’t know how to govern, and that’s why you don’t have any money.” He lectured London and Rome, advised Paris, scolded Madrid. The world heard him out meekly and swallowed even the bitterest admonitions because it couldn’t take its eyes off the gold pyramid piling up in the Iranian desert. Ambassadors in Tehran went crazy under the barrage of telegrams that their ministers turned on them, all dealing with money: How much can the shah give us? When and on what conditions? You say he won’t? Then insist, Your Excellency! We offer guaranteed service and will ensure favorable publicity! Instead of elegance and seriousness, pushing and shoving without end, feverish glances and sweaty hands filled the waiting rooms of even the most petty Iranian ministers. People crowding each other, pulling at each other’s sleeves, shouting, Get in line, wait your turn! These are the presidents of multinational corporations, directors of great conglomerates, representatives of famous companies, and finally the delegates of more or less respectable governments. One after another they are proposing, offering, pushing this or that factory for airplanes, cars, televisions, watches. And besides these notable and—under normal circumstances—distinguished lords of world capital and industry, the country is being flooded with smaller-fry, penny-ante speculators and crooks, specialists in gold, gems, discotheques, strip joints, opium, bars, razor cuts, and surfing. These operators are scrambling to get into Iran, and they are unimpressed when, in some European airport, hooded students try to hand them pamphlets saying that people are dying of torture in their homeland, that no one knows whether the victims carried off by the Savak are dead or alive. Who cares, when the pickings are good and when, furthermore, everything is happening under the shah’s exulted slogan about building a great civilization? In the meantime, Mohammad Reza has returned from his winter vacation, well-rested and satisfied. Everyone is praising him at last; the whole world is writing about him as an exemplar, puffing up his splendid qualities, constantly pointing out that everywhere, wherever you turn, there are so many foul-ups and cheats, whereas, in his land—not a one.

The Expulsion of the Austrians from the Porta Galleria, August 8, 1848, by Antonio Muzzi, c. 1849.

The Expulsion of the Austrians from the Porta Galleria, August 8, 1848, by Antonio Muzzi, c. 1849. 

Unfortunately, the monarch’s satisfaction is not to last long. Development is a treacherous river, as everyone who plunges into its currents knows. On the surface the water flows smoothly and quickly, but if the captain makes one careless or thoughtless move he finds out how many whirlpools and wide shoals the river contains. As the ship comes upon more and more of these hazards, the captain’s brow gets more and more furrowed. He keeps singing and whistling to keep his spirits up. The ship looks as if it is still traveling forward, yet it is stuck in one place. The prow has settled on a sandbar. All this, however, happens later. In the meantime, the shah is making purchases costing billions, and ships full of merchandise are steaming toward Iran from all the continents. But when they reach the Gulf, it turns out that the small obsolete ports are unable to handle such a mass of cargo (the shah hadn’t realized this). Several hundred ships line up at sea and stay there for up to six months, for which delay Iran pays the shipping companies a billion dollars annually. Somehow the ships are gradually unloaded, but then it turns out that there are no warehouses (the shah hadn’t realized). In the open air, in the desert, in nightmarish tropical heat, lie millions of tons of all sorts of cargo. Half of it, consisting of perishable foodstuffs and chemicals, ends up being thrown away. The remaining cargo now has to be transported into the depths of the country, and at this moment it turns out that there is no transport (the shah hadn’t realized). Or rather, there are a few trucks and trailers, but only a crumb in comparison to the need. Two thousand tractor-trailers are thus ordered from Europe, but then it turns out there are no drivers (the shah hadn’t realized). After much consultation, an airliner flies off to bring South Korean truckers from Seoul. Now the tractor-trailers start rolling and begin to transport the cargo, but once the truck drivers pick up a few words of Farsi, they discover they’re making only half as much as native truckers. Outraged, they abandon their rigs and return to Korea. The trucks, unused to this day, still sit, covered with sand, along the Bander Abbas–Tehran highway. With time and the help of foreign freight companies, however, the factories and machines purchased abroad finally reach their appointed destinations. Then comes the time to assemble them. But it turns out that Iran has no engineers or technicians (the shah hadn’t realized). From a logical point of view, anyone who sets out to create a great civilization ought to begin with people, with training cadres of experts in order to form a native intelligentsia. But it was precisely that kind of thinking that was unacceptable. Open new universities and polytechnics, every one a hornets’ nest, every student a rebel, a good-for-nothing, a freethinker? Is it any wonder the shah didn’t want to braid the whip that would flay his own skin? The monarch had a better way—he kept the majority of his students far from home. From this point of view the country was unique. More than 100,000 young Iranians were studying in Europe and America. This policy cost much more than it would have taken to create national universities. But it guaranteed the regime a degree of calm and security. The majority of these young people never returned. Today more Iranian doctors practice in San Francisco or Hamburg than in Tabriz or Mashhad. They did not return even for the generous salaries the shah offered. They feared Savak and didn’t want to go back to kissing anyone’s shoes. An Iranian at home could not read the books of the country’s best writers (because they came out only abroad), could not see the films of its outstanding directors (because they were not allowed to be shown in Iran), could not listen to the voices of its intellectuals (because they were condemned to silence). A dictatorship that destroys the intelligentsia and culture leaves behind itself an empty, sour field on which the tree of thought won’t grow quickly. It is not always the best people who emerge from hiding, from the corners and cracks of that farmed-out field, but often those who have proven themselves strongest, not always those who will create new values but rather those whose thick skin and internal resilience have ensured their survival. In such circumstances history begins to turn in a tragic, vicious circle from which it can sometimes take a whole epoch to break free.

© 1982 by Ryszard Kapuściński. English translation copyright © 1985 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Used with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.


Ryszard Kapuściński

From Shah of Shahs. Mohammad Reza became the shah of Iran at the age of twenty-two in 1941. He fled the country in 1953 following the rise to power of the nationalist prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq and the Tudeh Party; within days, in a U.S.-backed regime change, the shah was restored. Amid growing unrest in the 1970s, the shah fled the country again in January 1979, and the new Islamic Republic was declared in April. Polish-born journalist Kapuściński published The Emperor in 1978 and The Shadow of the Sun in 2001.