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Secrets of the Shah’s Court

The Shah and I: The Confidential Diary of Iran’s Royal Court, 1969-1977

by Asadollah Alam, introduced and edited by Alinaghi Alikhani, translated by Alinaghi Alikhani, by Nicholas Vincent
St. Martin’s, 568 pp., $27.95

In 1975 Asadollah Alam, the minister of the imperial court and an intimate of the Shah of Iran, noted in his diary that Iran was everywhere triumphant. Oil revenues were pouring in. The economy was booming. The Shah was firmly in control. The powerful industrial states, from Germany to Japan, were falling over themselves to court the Shah’s favor. But within two years, everything changed. The economy was in difficulty, there were rumblings on the streets, tremors of revolution. By February 1979, the Shah’s regime lay in ruins, and Khomeini and his followers had taken power in Tehran.

Alam’s diary, covering the period between 1969 and 1977, ably edited by Alinaghi Alikhani and skillfully translated into English, helps us to understand this extraordinary turn of events because it brings us, as no other book since the revolution has done, close to the Shah himself, his mind, and his character. It tells us a great deal about the inner workings of the Shah’s court and parts of his government, and about the Shah’s relations to his family, his ministers, and foreign heads of state.

Alam was well placed to make such observations. He came from a rich and powerful family who owned estates in Birjand, in eastern Iran. His great grandfather had established connections with the British government in the nineteenth century, which the family maintained down to Alam’s own time, and this served Alam well in his political career. He married the daughter of a politically well-connected family and was given important jobs, serving as a provincial governor, cabinet minister, and, in the 1960s, as prime minister. In 1966, he was appointed minister of court, a post he held until shortly before he died in 1977. If the term “ruling class” has any meaning for Pahlavi Iran, Alam was certainly a part of it.

As minister of court, Alam saw the Shah almost every morning and was responsible for the Shah’s daily schedule. He was often the Shah’s intermediary with the British, American, and Soviet ambassadors—the three most important diplomats serving in Tehran. The Shah used him to carry out other major assignments. He was in fact as close to the Shah as any other man in Iran. The two had become friends when they were young and although the relationship could never be one between equals, the Shah greatly trusted Alam, relied on his advice, used him as a confidant, and entrusted to him many family matters. If the Shah wished to reprimand one of his brothers or sisters (a not infrequent occurrence) it was Alam who conveyed the royal displeasure. So intimate was the relationship that the two men shared a secret life of adulterous affairs. One gathers from the diaries that Alam and his minions made the arrangements for the constant stream of young women who were flown in from Europe to spend one or two nights in the royal bed—not of course at the palace but at some safe house also prepared by the court minister. On these occasions, Alam was often in the next room, enjoying female company near his royal master.

Alam was absolutely devoted to the Shah and in his public statements and actions he was an advocate of royal absolutism. Yet in his diaries he casts himself as something of a democrat and a reformer. He became enormously rich partly from huge payments to him for land he sold to the government; yet he fancied he was committed to the cause of the poor. The diaries raise a question regarding the responsibility of Alam and other high officials for the catastrophic revolution that destroyed the regime in 1979.

Khomeini and his lieutenants liked to refer to the Shah as a lackey of the US. In fact, these memoirs reveal the strength of the Shah’s patriotism and his steadfastness in standing up for Iran’s interests. On the central issues between Iran and England and the US, the Shah stood his ground. He insisted, against British resistance, that Iran’s claims to Bahrain be resolved on lines satisfactory to Iran before the British withdrew from the Gulf in 1972, and when Britain did so he made the Persian Gulf independent of British control. He considered Richard Nixon a good friend but this did not stop him from trying to increase Iran’s share of oil revenues. He did so both early in 1973, when he was negotiating for major changes in Iran’s agreement with the oil companies, and at the end of 1973, when he led the OPEC states in imposing huge increases in oil prices.

Nixon personally wrote to the Shah, darkly hinting he would be jeopardizing the special relationship between Iran and the US if he pressed his demands on the oil companies. The Shah rejected Nixon’s appeal. It came from an administration which, like its predecessors, had claimed it had no influence over the oil companies whenever the Shah asked Washington to intercede with them on Iran’s behalf. “Nixon,” the Shah remarked to Alam, “has the audacity to tell me to do nothing in the interest of my country until he dictates where that interest lies…. I say to hell with such special relations.”

The Shah’s steadfastness on these issues appears even more impressive when one recalls that he was inclined to attribute to the British and to the Americans an ability to determine the course of international (and Iranian) events far beyond their real power to do so. As Alam’s diaries show, he was haunted by the suspicion that the UK and the US, Iran’s closest allies, were scheming to overthrow him, and could do so if they wished. He therefore tended to be very cautious in dealing with them.

The Shah could show considerable statesmanship. In 1971, he agreed to surrender Iran’s claim to Bahrain if the inhabitants themselves voted for independence; he thereby sensibly avoided involving Iran in one of those unprofitable territorial claims (like, say, India’s and Pakistan’s over Kashmir) that never get settled and that can poison relations between states for decades, even centuries.

On the other hand, he also knew how to use power. In 1971, he induced the British to look the other way when he took control of other islands in the Persian Gulf—the two Tunbs and Abu Musa—which Iran claimed and considered strategically important. In the early 1970s, he used Iran’s military weight and its support for Iraq’s Kurds (support which had the backing of the US and Israel) to induce Iraq’s Baath regime to settle a dispute over the waterway dividing the two countries, on terms much to Iran’s advantage. Saddam Hussein, then Iraq’s vice-president negotiated and signed the agreement on Iraq’s behalf—a humiliation he did not soon forget. Yet Saddam Hussein did not attempt to invade Iran while the Shah was on the throne; he did so only after his successors, who were far less adept in foreign policy, had taken power.

The Shah used much of Iran’s oil wealth for the industrial and social welfare programs that, in 1975, gave Alam something to boast about. While the Shah no doubt financially benefitted from his position, the memoirs make it clear it was Alam, always eager to please, who on several occasions suggested that the state pay for the Shah’s personal expenses, and buy land in his name, only to have the Shah refuse. It was not the Shah, but Alam and others who wanted huge amounts of government money to spend on royal visits abroad and royal celebrations.

But Alam also comments often, not without irony, on the foibles of his king and master. The Shah, it appears, was remarkably self-centered, unable to share the limelight with anyone, including his wife, Empress Farah. He was displeased when China, with which Iran had recently established diplomatic relations, invited the Queen, and not him, to pay an official state visit. His sudden decision to visit the province of Azerbaijan, Alam notes, sprang from a desire “to cap HMQ’s [Her Majesty the Queen’s] recent success in Kermanshah.” The Shah was also displeased when Alam asked permission to leave part of his inheritance to a family foundation in Birjand, the Alam ancestral home. He “cannot abide being upstaged by anyone,” Alam wrote in his diary.

The Shah rarely seemed to have a good word to say about anyone, including ministers who had served him and the country faithfully over many long years; he gave his underlings, including Alam, “cutting reminders of who is boss.” To the Shah, the Iranian intellectuals who favored social reform were “a lot of paranoid nobodies,” while the intellectuals who had become prominent in the government had “betrayed [their] own friends and colleagues.” His generals, he remarked, going down a list, were mostly “gutless.”

When Alam suggested the Shah should take with him a group of high-level experts on an official trip to Algeria, the Shah demurred: “But what would all these donkeys find to do?” Among the “donkeys” was the competent, impeccably honest finance minister to whom the Shah had given the country’s highest decoration for his able negotiation of the OPEC accords. Alam once suggested that the Shah should not talk of official matters to his court minister and prime minister at his seaside resort on the Caspian coast, since Soviet fishing boats stationed offshore could be eavesdropping. The Shah replied: “Neither of you ever has anything important to say to me.” The Shah didn’t seem to much like members of his own family. “That twin sister of mine,” he once told Alam, referring to Princess Ashraf, “has been a lifelong thorn in my flesh. She is vain and she is greedy.”

The Shah harbored deep resentments against world and Iranian leaders who, he believed, had humiliated or outshone him or had threatened his position. For example, he never forgave John Kennedy for putting pressure on him to appoint the reform-minded Ali Amini as prime minister (Amini believed the Shah should reign and not rule) or for insisting on reforms which, though ultimately beneficial to the regime, at first made the Shah fear for the security of his throne. These resentments emerge in remarks to Alam at the conclusion of highly successful oil negotiations at the end of 1971:

Look how things have sorted themselves out. The oil problem solved, rain for our crops, and Iran’s leadership of the Middle East acknowledged throughout the world…. I have learned by experience that a tragic end awaits anyone who dares cross swords with me; Nasser is no more, John and Robert Kennedy died at the hands of assassins, their brother Edward has been disgraced, Khrushchev was toppled, the list is endless. And the same thing goes for my enemies at home; just think of Mossadeq, or even Qavam.*

The diaries reveal the degree to which the Shah was obsessed with conspiratorial theories. He had somehow concluded that during the Second World War Secretary of State James Byrnes wished to divide Iran up into three zones consisting of Turks and Kurds, Arabs, and Persians, but that Molotov had opposed the idea. A chance remark by the American ambassador that the Shah’s death could lead to a breakdown of order in Iran set him wondering if the Americans were plotting to disrupt the country. He was convinced that the British were behind a 1949 attempt against his life; nothing Alam said could shake his belief that the British were propping up both the militantly anti-Western Baath party in Iraq and its leaders, Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein.

  1. *

    Ahmad Qavam was prime minister from March 1946 to December 1946 and Mohammad Mossadeq was prime minister in 1951–1953. The Shah resented the fact that Qavam was credited with securing the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Iranian Azerbaijan after World War II and Mossadeq with the successful nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian oil company in 1951. Both men were strong prime ministers who sought to reduce royal power in favor of the cabinet and the parliament. The Shah, as this quotation suggests and as is evident from frequent diary entries, also believed himself to be favored with divine protection at the critical moments of his life.

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