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 oil boom, when Iran became a major market for Western arms, goods, and industries, the Shah was courted and flattered by the leaders of the world’s powerful nations. Prime ministers and ministers of the Western democracies went to Tehran to promote sales and contracts, to secure oil supplies, even to seek loans and promises of investment in their countries from the Shah. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, French minister of finance, like his British and German counterparts, hurried to the Shah’s winter vacation home at Villa Suvretta at St. Moritz. “He stood there,” one of the Shah’s officials later recalled, “meekly smiling, with his hands clasped across his balls, ingratiating himself.” British cabinet ministers, criticized for staying at St. Moritz’s more expensive hotels, explained to the House of Commons that the Shah had paid their bills.

Henry Kissinger, along with President Nixon, had agreed in 1972 to give the Shah virtually any US weapons he desired; two years later, the secretary of state of the world’s greatest power proposed “an equal partnership” between Iran and the United States for cooperation in economic and security matters. And President Carter in 1977 told the Shah that “there is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal friendship and gratitude.”

Once the Shah fell from power, many of these expressions of official friendship, admiration, and gratitude proved ephemeral. It was not only the United States that was bullied by the revolutionaries into taking its distance from the Shah. The French, Swiss, and Austrians made clear that he would not be welcome in their countries. The British government sent its former ambassador to Tehran, Sir Denis Wright, to the Bahamas, not only to tell the Shah he could not come to England but also to press him to allow the British government, if asked, to say that the Shah “understood and accepted” the decision. In other words, the Shah was not only expected to accept with grace the refusal of asylum but also to let Britain off the hook for failing to extend it.


King Hassan of Morocco dispatched a former US government official turned lobbyist, and then working for Morocco, to ask the Shah to leave the country as soon as possible. The Shah was reduced to asking “my Muslim brother” for ten days; King Hassan offered him a week.

The Shah became the inhabitant of temporary lodgings and rented houses. He found himself in countries like the Bahamas, which “reeked of corruption,” and Panama, which Shawcross describes as “a gangster’s wonderland.” He became the prey of money gougers and profiteers. The Shah’s ten-week stay in the Bahamas cost $1.2 million. In Panama, the food bill for the National Guardsmen detailed to the Shah alone came to $21,000 a month; one of the Panamanian doctors asked $1,800 for a single visit.

The secrecy regarding the Shah’s movements, dictated by both security considerations and the desire of governments to dissociate themselves from him, led, as Shawcross tells it, to bizarre situations. In October 1979 President Carter, against his own judgment but at the advice of some of his aides and under pressure from Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, and other friends of the Shah in America, agreed to admit the Shah to the United States for urgent medical treatment. But the plane landed at the wrong airport, and the only person there to meet the royal party was “an agricultural inspector who wanted to know if they were carrying any plants and intended to dump garbage.” The Shah was hospitalized at New York Hospital, but the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center across the street, a hospital to which the Shah had earlier made a $1 million contribution, balked at taking in the Shah for the daily radiation treatment he needed. “One or two members of the Memorial hierarchy said they did not want the Shah at all.” In the end, the Shah had to be taken late at night through an underground tunnel for his radiation treatment.

While the Shah was in America, the “students of the Imam’s line” took over the US embassy in Tehran and seized more than fifty Americans hostage. The admission of the Shah no doubt provided the excuse for and helped precipitate the seizure of the hostages. However, fanatical rivalries in Tehran and the desire of hard-liners to destroy the relatively moderate pro-Western government of Mehdi Bazargan were probably the determining factors. But President Carter now wanted the Shah out of the US, and Mexico, from where he had come, would not have him back. While searching for another country to which to send the Shah, the administration flew him in the dead of night to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. He and the queen were initially housed in the psychiatric wing of the base military hospital, with “male nurses who looked like gorillas, bars on the windows, and an overwhelming sense of oppression and finality.” For a moment, the queen panicked, thinking they had been arrested and would be deported back to the Ayatollah’s Iran.

Clearly, this was not a period when the Western governments showed much backbone. Shawcross aptly quotes De Gaulle’s aphorism: “Les états sont des monstres froids.” Panama’s President Torrijos compared the Shah to a chupón, an orange with the juice squeezed out: “This is what happens to a man squeezed by the great nations,” he said. “After all the juice is gone, they throw him away.”

As Shawcross shows, the Shah and his family took all this very meekly. The Shah did not suggest that his American, British, and French allies owed him greater consideration. He did not use the few newspaper and television interviews he gave to air what were by now deep grievances. He suffered his humiliations in silence. The shock of the revolution left the family feeling helpless and disoriented. The Shah’s illness, which increasingly preoccupied his family and staff, and the conflicting medical opinions the family were receiving from a variety of doctors, did not make for decisive action.

But there was more. By the early 1970s, the Shah had turned Iran into the strongest power in the Gulf region. He was master of his own country. He had used these advantages to secure Iran considerable influence in Washington and other Western capitals, at least in arranging for arms purchases, for assistance in generating nuclear power, and for improved economic relations. He even took to lecturing the Western democracies on their supposed fecklessness and laziness, and to holding Iran up as an example of the discipline, hard work, and firm government the West needed. Not very long before his regime collapsed, he told a British television interviewer that unless the English disciplined themselves, they would go “back to the caves.”


Yet as is now clear from the Shah’s own memoirs and the memoirs of others who saw much of him during the last year of the monarchy, deep down the Shah still believed that the great powers—in Iran’s case, England and America—ultimately pulled the world’s secret levers or, at least, controlled the levers that decided his own fate and that of his country. He remained convinced that, for reasons he could not fathom, the US or elements within it conspired at his overthrow. Unable to admit to himself that his own people had turned against him, and that he had lost his throne largely as a result of his own policies, he held fast to the view that the Americans were to blame. “They forced me to leave,” he told Sadat.

This view, that external powers manipulate and ultimately determine Iran’s politics, is deeply embedded in the Iranian national psyche and, as Shawcross shows, was widespread in the Shah’s entourage. Mohammed Behbehanian, the administrator of the royal estates and the manager of the Shah’s private finances, believed that the British had deposed the Shah because he had insulted their workers. Within a week of the Shah’s departure from Iran, he advised him to “go to Britain and settle affairs with the British government. We can apologize for insulting British workers and then, with British support, we can go back to Teheran.” Six years later, Behbehanian told Shawcross he still believed this would have been the wisest course of action.

Ironically, and despite the accumulated bitterness, the conditions of exile left the Shah still dependent on America and Americans, and he continued to look to them and particularly the Rockefellers for assistance. Seriously ill, he was initially hesitant about going to the US for treatment “After what they did to me, I would not go there even if they begged me on their knees,” he said. Yet in the end he did go. He often left it to Americans to arrange the places and terms of his exile. He entrusted himself to the care of American doctors. Robert Armao, a protégé of Nelson Rockefeller’s, became the Shah’s principal spokesman in exile, and the intermediary for the Shah’s dealings with the American and other governments. Shawcross calls Armao the “spear-carrier.” At a time when he still hoped to influence events in Iran and needed to escape the label of being an American surrogate, the Shah was clearly unaware of the impression made on his own countrymen by Armao’s role.

Despite its repression and arbitrary rule, the Shah’s regime in the 1960s and early 1970s also had some solid achievements to its credit. Opportunities for education and employment rapidly expanded and an impressive number of new industries and businesses were created. The country had an unprecedented degree of freedom in conducting its own foreign policy. Shawcross has little to say about this record. His main theme is that “[the Shah’s] last ride around the tarnished rim of the Western world was a punishment for hubris.” He concentrates on the mismanagement and rampant corruption of the few years before the revolution, when excessive oil wealth, the Shah’s growing megalomania, and the excesses, including the frequent use of torture, of an increasingly irresponsible bureaucracy and secret police produced the conditions that made revolution possible. Shawcross discusses some of the causes of the immense economic and social dislocation that took place during this period, but he fixes his attention primarily on the Shah himself and on the doings of the royal family, the court, and the highest ranks of the bureaucracy.

He writes of the Shah’s widely rumored womanizing, and of the luxury resort built, with royal patronage, at Kish Island, where guests could enjoy the company of young women supplied by Madame Claude, who ran a high-class call-girl service in Paris. He describes the atmosphere of Tehran in the oil boom years after 1973, when “kickbacks, bribes, agents’ fees, secret understandings between princes and PR men, princesses and CIA agents…[were] the stuff of which business was made,” and the business involvements of members of the Shah’s family:

Everyone was cashing in. The Shah’s own cronies got themselves appointed “agents” for different foreign corporations, insisting that without their services nothing would be achieved, no contracts won. Indeed, some five or six “superagents” together with between twenty-five to thirty subagents literally began to dictate the economic direction of the country.

With one or two exceptions, Western governments acquiesced in the participation of their citizens in such wheeling and dealing. Shawcross does not dwell on this. But he cites, for example, the case of Shapoor Reporter, an Iranian national but also a British “secret agent,” who made a fortune as a middleman selling British arms to the Shah. During a trial for bribery in London in 1976 he was said to have recieved £1 million on one arms deal. Sir Shapoor Reporter was knighted for his services to British industry.

In writing of the many “drones, sycophants, and timeservers” in the royal household, or of members of the court who were believed to be “corrupt, immoral and largely uninterested in Iran and the Iranian people,” Shawcross does not often name names. He prefers to quote from CIA and other secret reports that have since become public. However, readers knowledgeable about prerevolution Iran will have no trouble identifying the people he appears to have in mind when he writes, for example:

One of the key ministers—who later safely fled abroad with much of his wealth—devoted much time and great effort toward making sure that the various princes and princesses were getting everything they said they had to have. One of the Pahlavis openly stole and exported for his personal gain part of Iran’s national art treasures, in particular gold artifacts unearthed at the prehistoric archaeological site at Marlik.

Much of this will be familiar to those who have followed the literature of the Iranian revolution. But Shawcross tells the story exceptionally well; he has interviewed many of the principal characters and many of the minor ones as well, and he has an eye for the telling anecdote. The portraits of the main actors—Iranians, Americans, Panamanians, world-famous physicians and surgeons—around which he constructs the book are sharply drawn. Moreover, his long and meticulous account of the Shah’s last illness and the extraordinary game of medical politics played out over the dying monarch by doctors of many nationalities is brilliant—and chilling:

In a sense the disease, his reaction to it, the way in which it was treated, and its eventual impact on his own country, the United States, and his other allies, create a metaphor for his own rule. It is a story of obsessive secrecy degenerating into macabre farce.

As early as 1974, two French doctors flown in secret to Tehran had diagnosed the Shah to be suffering from a mild form of lymphocytic leukemia. Once the diagnosis had been made, treatment was carried out by the younger member of the team, Dr. Georges Flandrin. Between 1974 and the revolution in 1979, Flandrin made thirty-eight trips to Iran to examine and treat the Shah. He also visited the Shah in Egypt, in the Bahamas, and in Mexico.

When the Shah’s condition worsened during his stay in Mexico, a member of the Rockefeller entourage recommended Dr. Benjamin Kean, an American parasitologist and pathologist. Kean, whom Shawcross describes as “a pocket steamroller…[with a reputed] tendency to flatten those who disagree with him,” arrived in Panama and simply took over. He virtually excluded Flandrin from the case. It was partly at his urging that the Shah was taken to America for tests and a gall bladder operation—the trip that helped to set off the hostage crisis. He brought into the case another American, Morton Coleman, an oncologist, but later asked him to withdraw because he did not think the aggressive chemotherapy treatment proposed by Coleman appropriate. In Panama, he and the Panamanian doctors quarreled over control of the Shah’s case and over whether an operation on the Shah for the removal of an enlarged spleen should be carried out at a Panamanian hospital or at the American hospital at the Canal Zone military base. At one point, as the American and Panamanian doctors argued, the Shah simply walked out of the room.

To bolster his case against the Panamanian physicians, Shawcross writes, Kean decided he needed a medical superstar and called in Dr. Michael DeBakey, a world-famous and highly distinguished heart surgeon but not an oncologist. ‘There was nothing wrong with the Shah’s heart,” Shawcross remarks. “It was DeBakey’s name and fame that Kean coveted.” To the Panamanians’ consternation, DeBakey arrived in Panama with his own large team, prepared to take charge of the operation. The Panamanians pointed out that DeBakey was not licensed to practice in Panama. It was partly these disagreements and partly the fear that the Panamanians would actually extradite him to Iran that led the Shah hastily to quit Panama for Egypt in March 1979. DeBakey finally operated on the Shah’s spleen in Egypt, where he had reassembled his team.

After the gall bladder operation, however, it turned out that not all the gallstones had been removed. Following the removal of his spleen, the Shah developed a grave infection requiring further surgery. Some of his doctors blamed the infection on a failure to leave a drain to permit the wound to be washed, a contention Dr. DeBakey later strenuously disputed. The operation to drain the abdomen was performed by a team of French doctors, who had been called back into the case. The Americans, the French, and the Egyptian doctors once again fought and argued as the Shah lay dying.

Shawcross’s account of the Shah’s illness and its treatment allows him to make several important points. Shawcross is able generally to discredit the contention that the Shah’s indecisiveness and inaction during the revolutionary year of 1978 can be attributed to the treatment he was receiving for his cancer, his belief that he was dying, and his desire to avoid a harsh repression of the revolutionary movement that would make it difficult for his son to succeed to the throne. The Shah, Shawcross shows, in fact did not know he had cancer until much later, and the medicines he was taking did not produce strong side effects.

Shawcross is scrupulous in giving all sides of the many disputes among the physicians attending to the Shah. He has little difficulty showing that secrecy, demanded by the Shah himself, complicated the course of treatment, and that the rich and powerful do not always get the best medical care because “doctors are often more frightened of taking necessary risks if their patient is someone of consequence.” He also shows that the byzantine complications of the Shah’s treatment often derived from the presence of too many famous doctors with giant-sized egos, that the American doctors often tended to think too little of the physicians and medical capacities of such countries as Mexico, Panama, and Egypt, and that a famous patient such as the Shah requiring advanced medical care may frequently find himself the bewildered and helpless captive of a vast medical industry. It is not a pretty picture. Seven separate teams of doctors looked after the Shah in exile. Shawcross’s remark that “they did not all perform brilliantly,” from this account, is a calculated understatement.

Shawcross is also very good on the character and motives of Panama’s Omar Torrijos. Like Graham Greene, who wrote a book on Torrijos and also opened doors for Shawcross in Panama, the author of The Shah’s Last Ride seems to have been captivated by the larger-than-life character of the Panamanian dictator. In December 1979, Torrijos not only permitted the Khomeini government to begin proceedings for the extradition of the Shah to Iran; in his own inscrutable, even mischievous, way, he appears to have helped the extradition proceedings along. The senior Panamanian jurist he appointed to represent Iran in the case, Shawcross reports, had become a dedicated supporter of the Iranian revolution and, persuaded that the Shah was evil, bent all his efforts to securing the Shah’s extradition. Shawcross believes Torrijos wished to help get the American hostages released and get Jimmy Carter reelected president. Ronald Reagan, after all, had campaigned against the Canal treaties. Shawcross writes:

He wanted to become an international hero, the man who ended the hostage crisis and thus saved the United States and his friend Jimmy Carter from humiliation. He dreamed of standing on the podium of the United Nations, or before a joint session of Congress, to be applauded as the man who had resolved the world’s most dangerous deadlock. For Torrijos, dealing with extradition was a wonderful game.

But the game became deadly serious. Torrijos may have initially believed that the extradition would be simply a fiction to allow the American hostages to be transferred from the hands of the hard-line “students of the Imam’s line” to the regular government authorities as a prelude to their release. “I might have to arrest you and photograph you behind bars,” Torrijos breezily told the Shah. “But it will only be propaganda, just to deceive the Iranian government.” However, the extradition proceedings moved ahead, even if tortuously, causing immense concern to the Shah and his family and even raising some, though faint, alarm in Washington about the Shah’s future. The Americans had made it clear to the Panamanian chief that under no conditions could the Shah be extradited; and Torrijos himself insisted he never had any plans actually to hand the Shah over to the Iranians. But not everyone believed him. According to Shawcross, Torrijos’s adviser, Chuchu Martinez, believed that “if Torrijos had been certain that by putting the Shah on a plane to Teheran, he could have freed the hostages and guaranteed Carter his reelection, he would have done it.” Little wonder, then, that the Shah virtually fled Panama one day before the Khomeini government, in its own disorganized way, was finally to file the extradition papers.

The Shah lost his throne because of his own policies and misrule. But his terrible fate in exile derived not only from hubris or the manner in which, in the last years, he mismanaged his country’s affairs. Other recently deposed dictators were not forced, like the Shah and Shawcross’s proverbial Dutchman, to roam the globe in search of a haven. After a few feeble protests in France, Duvalier of Haiti, admittedly a minor figure from a minor country, has been allowed to live out his exile undisturbed. In a more comparable case, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines has found relatively calm refuge in the United States. The Shah’s fate derived also from other factors. Although several Middle Eastern heads of state who are still in power have been more ruthless, fairly or unfairly, as Shawcross points out, the Shah had become a symbol of American imperialism and dictatorial rule. While the Philippines’ strategic importance was perceived as a concern of the United States alone, Iran’s economic and strategic importance touched a large number of countries that were anxious to have workable relations with Iran’s new masters. A decisive factor was the relentless pursuit of the Shah by the revolutionaries in Tehran. The Aquino government in the Philippines was happy to have Marcos remain in Hawaii, under the watchful eye of the American government. But Khomeini and his people set out deliberately to show the rest of the world that they were powerful and implacable, and thus to deny the Shah a trouble-free exile. In this, as Shawcross’s book shows, they amply succeeded.

This Issue

November 10, 1988