The Flying Dutchman

The Shah's Last Ride: The Fate of an Ally

by William Shawcross
Simon and Schuster, 463 pp., $19.95

Shah of Iran
Shah of Iran; drawing by David Levine

On January 16, 1979, with Iran exploding in riot and revolution, the Shah left his country never to return. He had a standing invitation from the American government to live out his exile in the United States. But he was bitter at the US for failing adequately to support him and even (or so he believed) for helping to engineer his overthrow. He may have wished to remain close at hand, thinking perhaps that by some miracle the revolution would fail and he would be recalled to his throne. He thus chose to accept the invitation of President Sadat to spend some time in Egypt, remained a week, and then went to Morocco as a guest of King Hassan. On February 22, from the Moroccan capital, he sent word to Washington that he would now like to come to America.

But things had changed. Iran’s new rulers were demanding the Shah’s return for trial and promising dire consequences for any country that offered him hospitality. The revolution had excited the imagination of many people in Arab states, and, Sadat aside, Arab leaders were loath to befriend him. For the US, and for the countries of Western Europe and Japan, there were, in Iran, nationals to be protected, lucrative contracts and trade and security interests to be preserved, oil supplies to be secured. President Carter decided that the Shah should not be permitted to come to America. Richard Parker, the US ambassador to Morocco, who had to deliver this message to the Shah, said later he felt ashamed. The US was aware at the time that no other Western country was likely to accept the deposed ruler.

Thus the Shah began a search for a home in exile that, until his death only eighteen months later, was to take him to six countries. From Morocco, where he remained ten weeks, the Shah went to the Bahamas (eleven weeks), then to Mexico (eighteen weeks), to the United States for medical treatment (ten weeks), to Panama (twelve weeks), and finally back to Egypt, where he died in July 1980, ravaged by disease and abandoned by his former friends and allies.

In The Shah’s Last Ride, William Shawcross tells the story of the Shah’s harrowing search for a haven as a lesson on the loyalty between states and also a lesson on the price of hubris. He describes the Shah as a modern-day Flying Dutchman. If one of his themes is that there is precious little loyalty between states, another is that the Shah had no one but himself to blame for his travails. “Central to all the stories of the Dutchman,” he notes, “is that his lack of refuge is a punishment for his own misdeeds or folly. He is adrift not so much because of the callousness of the world as because of his own conduct.”

In the years of the…

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