I have recently read “The Shah” by Abbas Milani, 2011, and certain significant parallels strike me as very relevant today.
As a senior army officer, Reza Shah Pahlavi ousted the old Qajar dynasty in 1925. He modelled himself on Kemal Ataturk and wanted to drag Iran out of the medieval grip of the Shia mullahs and transform Persia into a modern state called Iran. He banned the old religious dress imposed on women in public and doubled the number of schools and universities. In particular, he wanted to limit the power of the reactionary mullahs. During the Second World War, Britain and Russia combined to force his abdication, because they thought he was soft on Germany. Ironically, he was particularly and effectively protective of his Jewish subjects, who were amongst the Pahlavi’s staunchest supporters.
Reza’s son Mohammad Reza replaced him in 1941, almost accidentally, because there was no alternative. Mohammad Reza had a tendency to vacillate and play one side off against the other. But unlike his father he compromised with the religious leaders and returned much of their power. Concessions on one side were balanced by a highly repressive secret service. In the end he even exasperated his allies who pulled the rug from under him, allowing him to fall in 1979. Everyone was blindsided by Ayatollah Khomeini into allowing him to return from exile, gain power, and turn Iran back to its fanatical Middle Ages.
During the post-war period, America and Britain were very busy jockeying for power in the Middle East (amongst other places, of course). It was not just a matter of controlling the oil supplies, important as that was. After all, the halt of Hitler’s campaign in Eastern Europe was to prevent him gaining control of the Baku oil fields. The Cold War saw Russia in Azerbaijan on Iran’s border and gaining control of the Caspian oil. Iran’s southern Gulf oilfields were very significant in the struggle, which in American eyes was to prevent Russia taking over Iran at all costs.
This was one of the main reasons the CIA intervened in the Kim Roosevelt-led Operation Ajax to get rid of Mossadegh the unpredictable prime minister in 1953. They feared he was soft on Moscow, and he nationalized the oil industry. The Western powers feared the political as well as the financial consequences. This constant meddling in Iranian affairs is why there has always been a strain of paranoia in Iran against the Western powers.
In Iran itself the communist Tudeh party, was well entrenched, and there was a genuine fear that it would take the country over. Indeed I remember in 1978 a conversation with Chimen Abramsky, the brilliant neo-Marxist, mercurial, academic son of the great scholar Yehezkel Abramsky (and Head of the London Beth Din), in which he confidently predicted the Tudeh would displace the Shah and gain control.
A recent book, “America’s Great Game” by Hugh Wilford, documents the interventions of Kim (Kermit) Roosevelt, the archetypal Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist mandarin near the top of the CIA. In addition to his covert political role, he also managed to benefit personally from the Iranian oil industry. And these are the sort of people, of course, who complain about the influence of Jewish money.
Now I come to my main point. Mohammad Reza was so concerned to play sides against each other that, in contrast to his father, he courted the ayatollahs and restored a lot of their power. He mistakenly thought that he could ride the tiger. In the end, it was the tiger that turned rabid and destroyed him and most of what he had hoped to achieve for his country.
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
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