Prisoners of the Ayatollah

From Palace to Prison: Inside the Iranian Revolution

by Ehsan Naraghi, translated by Nilon Mobasser
Ivan R. Dee, 283 pp., $28.95

Death Plus Ten Years

by Roger Cooper
HarperCollins, 330 pp., £7.99 (paper)

Ehsan Naraghi, an Iranian, and Roger Cooper, an Englishman, both served time in Khomeini’s prisons, Naraghi for nearly three years and Cooper for over five. Naraghi is a prominent intellectual and sociologist who has written widely on Iranian and third world social and cultural issues. Cooper lived and worked in Iran for some twenty years as a journalist, English teacher, translator, speech-writer, businessman, and consultant. Their prison memoirs shed considerable light on the nightmarish world of the Islamic Republic’s jails, courts, and judicial system. We learn how Naraghi and Cooper managed to survive in prison and how they tried to use the judicial system to extricate themselves without surrendering their personal dignity or integrity.

Naraghi’s account is also interesting because he was involved in such debates as were permitted under the Pahlavi regime about the transformation taking place in Iran. He directed a study for the UN on third world “brain drain,” and in the 1970s he wrote a book critical of Iran’s “relentless Westernization,” its forced pace of development, and its tendency to adopt Western economic models to the neglect of its own cultural traditions.

In the dying days of the Pahlavi monarchy, Naraghi, probably at the behest of Empress Farah, who seems to have been eager for the Shah to hear a wider, more critical range of views, was invited to the palace to talk to the Shah about the revolutionary crisis and how to resolve it. The Shah seemed desperate to understand why most of the country had risen up against him. The first half of Naraghi’s book describes the eight conversations he had with the Shah over a two-month period; he seems to have enjoyed giving what amounted to lectures to the perplexed Shah on such matters as the relationship of intellectuals to power and the causes of Khomeini’s success.

The Shah acted, Naraghi writes, “as if I had before me a schoolboy to whom one must explain, report card in hand, the reasons for his failure.” He raised the issue of financial corruption in the royal family, and he reminded the Shah that he had antagonized his natural supporters, including the merchants of the bazaar, by monopolizing power and decision-making. He suggested that the Shah should have brought the centrist National Front into Iranian politics, and he spoke of the estrangement from the monarchy of the younger generation. He also said that the Shah had identified himself far too closely with the US, and he urged him to make over his own and all royal family wealth to the people, to surrender his power to constitutional government, to open up the political system. The Shah was shocked, angry, horrified, and baffled by these suggestions but by the end of their talks he seemed to Naraghi resigned to the fall of his regime. They were still meeting when demonstrators were in control of the streets and the monarchy was crumbling. It was too late for the kind of moderate concessions and reform that might have worked…

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