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.

The Shah’s extreme sensitivity to criticism in the press derived in part, as the Alam diaries make clear, from his conviction that British and American press and television were government-controlled and reflected government policies. The BBC, The Economist, and the Guardian he saw simply as mouth-pieces of British government. When an interview he had given to Newsweek did not appear, he thought the US government had stopped it. After an article favorable to Iran appeared in The Economist, the Shah triumphantly told Alam: “The British government still pulls all the strings; one word from their ambassador and their newspapers are falling over one another to praise us.”

About the American political system he was even more given to fantasy: he told Alam in 1970, “I feel sure that the country is guided by some hidden force; an organization working in secrecy, powerful enough to dispose of the Kennedys and of anyone else who gets in its way; so far I believe it has claimed upwards of thirty victims; people who had somehow come to guess of its existence.”

He reverted to this idea during the Watergate affair, when his great friend Nixon was in deep trouble. Nixon’s problems, he told Alam, were not caused by the Jewish lobby; “the whole thing is a conspiracy put together by the CIA, big business and a handful of influential men whose identities remain a closely guarded secret. It was they who arranged Kennedy’s assassination. Now they have a score to settle with Nixon, though I don’t know why.”

During a thirty-five-year reign, the Shah dealt with eight American presidents. He had excellent relations with several of them—Johnson, Nixon, and Ford—and, until the mid-1970s, he had considerable support in Congress as well. By the 1970s he thought of himself as a world-class statesman and in fact handled Iran’s complex foreign relations with great skill, yet he also believed the world was subject to manipulation by dark, unknown forces. This might help explain the Shah’s swings of mood from euphoria to despondency, from activism to a strange passivity in moments of extreme crisis. When the revolutionary events began to unfold in Iran in 1977 and 1978, the Shah convinced himself that the huge street protests by tens, and then hundreds, of thousands of people were the work of the CIA, British intelligence, the Communists—anyone but his own people acting out their anger and frustration.

The diaries are equally interesting for their insights into Alam’s own political attitudes. Alam had a shrewd sense of the uses of power and money to advance the regime’s interests; and he was not reluctant to use raw force. When the Shah made a casual proposal to give his wealth to the Iranian people Alam was quick to remind him that money means power and leverage. When Alam was prime minister in 1962, it was he—not the Shah—who made the decision to use troops and guns to put down the first widespread riots in Khomeini’s name. At least ninety demonstrators were killed, and perhaps more. Alam remained convinced that even if many more lives had been lost his policy would have been justified.

It therefore comes as something of a surprise to discover that Alam often casts himself as an advocate of more democracy and of opening up the political system. His daily entries suggest that on numerous occasions he urged the Shah to talk with university students, to permit greater public participation in decision-making, and to allow more criticism of the government.

He was convinced that the reports the Shah received from his security agencies consisted more of propaganda than hard intelligence. During the 1950s and 1960s the Shah had set up a new political system based on a “government” party and a “loyal opposition”; and he then imposed a one-party system with “liberal” and “progressive” wings. Alam thought both systems were a sham. “In today’s world,” he noted in a 1970 diary entry, “autocratic rule by one man is neither acceptable nor likely to survive.” He realized that the adulation of the Shah by state radio and television and by the increasingly government-controlled press had become sickening to much of the population.

Alam, in fact, took notes on his own sycophancy. “We all attended Lunch and vied with one another showering compliments on HIM [His Imperial Majesty],” he confides to his diary. And again: “Dinner at the Queen Mother’s. My wife subsequently pointed out to me that I was unduly obsequious towards HIM; I’m impressed by her insight, though deeply disgusted at my own behaviour.” In 1973 he told a Daily Telegraph correspondent that the Iranians had little need to criticize their government because of the excellence of the Shah’s programs; but then noted in his diary: “This was a shameful reply, all too reminiscent of the line that communist regimes adopt; but then what else could I have said?”

Occasionally, Alam writes of the excessive wealth, privileges, and power of the ruling class as compared to much of the rest of society: “I belong to a corrupt and money-grubbing élite. Iran stands little chance under the thumb of such a motley crew,” he noted. During a discussion with the Shah and his ministers on the reasons for public discontent, he remarked that “we, the ruling class, behave as if we were conquerors in a vanquished land. The people not surprisingly resent this attitude.”

Driving to work one morning, he observed “a scene from a top-heavy society”—of working-class early risers, girls wearing veils, men in ill-fitting clothes haggling over the price of hot beets with a peddler—and he reflects on the contrast between those on the street and people, like himself, “seated in my sleek Chrysler Imperial.” The Shah, he writes sardonically, believes Iran will surpass much of the developed world in prosperity and power within a decade. “Change can never come quickly enough for him. Yet no manner of wishful thinking can alter life in these streets.”

Though the early diaries coincide with the years of Iran’s great economic and international success, one finds a deep current of pessimism in them. This reflects a peculiarly Iranian historical memory, a conviction that things can go awry, especially in Iran’s dealings with the foreign powers. The pessimism arises from Alam’s perception that power can be fleeting, and from a gnawing anxiety that, for governments, small problems—power shortages, deteriorating conditions in the cities, high prices—can accumulate and lead to disaster. “I’m all too familiar with the Iranian character,” he writes. “The merest whisper of defeat could bring down the regime.” The overthrow of Haile Selassie in 1974 leads Alam to reflect that the Ethiopian emperor “saw himself as a mighty ruler but how the truth has caught up with him…. Inevitably one is inclined to draw parallels…. They are not reassuring.”

Conflicting emotions run through the diary: supreme confidence in the Shah’s abilities to manage affairs and a premonition that catastrophe lies just around the corner; a sense both of economic well-being and of economic malaise and simultaneous feelings that the Shah’s system is working supremely well and that something might go wrong. Such thoughts were not uncommon, one suspects, in the Shah’s inner circle.

If Alam liked to see himself, in the privacy of his diary, as an advocate of democratic change and social justice, and as willing to talk frankly to his monarch on these issues, he also records what a difficult task he faced. When Alam suggested the Shah make a greater effort to stay in touch with public opinion, the Shah remarked: “But I already know what the people think.” When Alam urged him to make use of a group of senior advisers, as American presidents do, the Shah replied: “Did anyone ever ‘advise’ me to achieve the many great things I have done for this country?” Alam told the Shah that even if he was not prepared to permit free parliamentary elections, there could be no harm in permitting free elections for local councils: “What are you talking about?” the Shah replied. “Of course it would be harmful: they’d begin moaning about inflation or some such rot.”

Yet Alam’s intercessions with the Shah are always mild, and he rarely follows them up. As Alam himself notes, Empress Farah is far bolder than he is in telling the Shah the truth. “In this respect I run her a very poor second,” he remarks. The Queen did not particularly like Alam but, in Alam’s view, she serves as “a valuable safeguard against the abuse of power.” She tells the Shah that no one dares speak the truth to him. She points out that his courtiers shamefully fawn on him. “Flatterers everywhere,” she once told the Shah. “I refuse to follow their example.”

Moreover, Alam was hardly the only one who, in these years, was making mild suggestions to the Shah. Even the timid and (by the 1970s) largely cowed press said that it was desirable for people to have more freedom to express their grievances. The former governor of the Central Bank, Mehdi Sami’i, speaking for a small group of high-ranking officials in 1972, made serious proposals to the Shah for an independent judiciary, the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, and limitations on military spending—proposals which clearly implied that royal authority could be reduced. Alam never went this far.

In fact his suggestions to the Shah were anodyne because he never made them an issue of principle or put his own position at risk by pressing them. He clearly never contemplated resigning or taking any other action that would put him out of favor. Like many others in the inner circle, he made mildly critical suggestions to the Shah—it cost him little to do so—and, eliciting no positive response, dropped them. No doubt the Shah had himself to blame for making it difficult for his advisers to be honest with him, but Alam failed to act decisively on questions he claimed were of great moment to the country.

Alam appears to have thought of minor changes rather than fundamental ones. It never seems to have occurred to him that liberalization might raise questions about the concentration of power in the Shah’s hands, or about corruption, rigged elections, and torture and other violations of human rights, or that it might lead to a situation where people like himself would no longer remain at the pinnacle of power.

Urbane, worldly, invariably courteous, Alam is nevertheless mean-spirited toward his political rivals such as the former foreign minister, Ardeshir Zahedi, and he is pleased whenever they are embarrassed or in difficulty. Such divisions and rivalries, by no means confined to Alam, cost the regime dearly when serious unrest began. Alam particularly disliked Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the prime minister for thirteen years who was a rival to Alam for the Shah’s ear and favor. Yet unlike Alam, Hoveyda at least did not enrich himself in government service.”

Alam, in fact, appears to have regarded self-enrichment as a kind of natural reward for high government servants. Nor did he see anything wrong in getting richer through royal favor. In 1975, when rumors circulated regarding the vast fortune allegedly amassed by General Mohammad Khatami, the air force commander who was also the Shah’s brother-in-law, Alam noted in his diary: “For all I know these rumours may be true. But as I see it, an able servant deserves every penny he earns.” Alam, at least in this abridged English version of the diaries, says little of his own business dealings but occasionally hints at how rich he had become. He remarks that he spent $40,000 on a two-day celebration to mark the Queen’s birthday at his country estate in Birjand, with chefs flown in from Maxim’s in Paris: In 1976 he noted in his diary, “Thanks to HIM I am now a very rich man: last year alone I sold over $5 million worth of land to the government.”

Alam regarded the Shah’s affairs with imported European women, which he helped to arrange, as a justifiable form of relaxation for a ruler burdened by momentous responsibility. But the Shah’s affairs were humiliating to the Queen, and Alam knew only too well the reason why Empress Farah remained cool toward him. Moreover, reports of the Shah’s affairs further damaged the crown when public discontent mounted over other, chiefly economic and political, matters. Even Alam realized that courtiers only too eager to help satisfy the Shah’s appetites gained undue and unhealthy influence over the monarch.

The limitations of Alam’s reformist, democratic impulses are evident in the entries for the post-1975 period, when the Shah’s overambitious plans and autocratic inclinations began to produce widespread discontent and to lead to the breakdown of the administrative and political system. In entry after entry, Alam criticizes the members of the cabinet, government officials, and above all his rival, Prime Minister Hoveyda—in short everyone except the Shah, who after all made the major decisions on the budget, tolerated the corruption of the courtiers closest to him, and suppressed political dissent. Nor does Alam ever consider that, as a high official of the state for over twenty-five years, he might be partly responsible for this turn of events.

“These people,” he notes in his diary, “are outright traitors; they have betrayed the Shah and they have betrayed the country.” The government’s failures, he decides, are the result of deliberate sabotage, the work of disloyal high officials controlled by the CIA and similar organizations. He advises the Shah to throw his ministers in jail. He urges him not to allow his unparalleled achievements to be undone by “the miserable performance of a bunch of traitors.” In effect, he suggests the Shah should save the monarchy by throwing his lieutenants to the wolves.

Alam died when signs of disorder were already widespread but before revolutionaries were actually knocking at the gates. But his accusations of “incompetence,” “treason,” and “betrayal,” and his pernicious idea that the Shah should deflect public anger by directing it at his ministers, survived him. In November 1978, just three months before the fall of the monarchy, the Shah followed the advice Alam had given him. He put many of his ministers—men who had in large part served him honorably and with dedication—in jail where they awaited trial. A number of these men, including Hoveyda, were executed when the revolutionaries seized power and the Shah was already out of the country. The Shah’s strategy, as might have been easily predicted, did not work. It was the Shah that the protesters continued to regard as responsible for their real or imagined grievances and whose head they demanded. And by turning against his own men the Shah caused the rapidly crumbling cohesion of the ruling elite to deteriorate even further.

As Alam’s diary recalls more and more signs of impending disaster during the mid-1970s, the trouble plaguing the Pahlavis seem to be mirrored in the illnesses that struck both Alam and the Shah. In 1974, the Shah was diagnosed as suffering from Waldenstrom’s disease, or lymphatic cancer. Alam himself had contracted a form of leukemia, and, by 1976, he was suffering from herpes and other illnesses. There is a poignant moment in the diaries when these two companions, confident in the uses of political power, wealth, and women, confront each other in all their human frailty. The Shah complains to Alam that he is suffering from skin rashes (probably a reaction to medicine), stomach pains, and headaches. But Alam’s own condition is worse. “To calm his anxiety I told him that he’d soon put his own problems into perspective if he could see me without my clothes on. I’m literally a mass of sores and boils.” A few months later, Alam, referring to conditions in Tehran, noted that “chaos is rife.” The bodily disorders seem to reflect the large disorder afflicting Iran.

Alam died in April 1978, before the Pahlavi state fell apart, although he no doubt saw what was coming. Could a man in Alam’s position have done more to prevent the final catastrophe? If we are to take the sentiments he expresses in the diary seriously, he certainly had a responsibility to act more courageously, to take some risk. But this would have meant challenging a system of political and financial interests of which he was very much a part. He would have had to try to change the course of history by standing up to the Shah. Alam was hardly the man to do that.

This Issue

April 8, 1993