Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi will go down in the history books like Louis XVI of France. He was on the throne, like the French King nearly 200 years ago, when a landmark revolution racked his land. Louis XVI is remembered less for anything that he did than as the king who was toppled by the French Revolution in 1789, a red-letter date in 18th century European and world history.
Where the Iranian revolution of 1979 will end remains to be seen. But already it is safe to say that this revolution, which swept the Shah from his throne and drove him from his homeland in January 1979, will prove a milestone in the unfolding of human events in this last quarter of the 20th century.
Already it is clear that he was a key figure in mighty upheaval that has significantly affected the strategic balance between the superpowers in the Middle East. In the process, it has raised questions about the credibility of the United States as patron of regimes in the area whose stability and durability are seen as crucial to the free flow of Gulf oil to the Western industrialized world -- above all the royal family of Saudi Arabia.
The upheaval also has raised fundamental questions about both the role of religion in today's world and the feasibility of turning a largely illiterate third-world society into an enduring power of major significance. It has, in the process, alerted those willing to learn that there is in the last resort a chasm of difference between potential on paper and proven capability.
For Americans, the passing of the Shah in Cairo July 27 immediately poses the question: Will it expedite the release of the 52 US hostages, now into their 39 th week of captivity?
In Tehran a presidential spokesman said to Reuter news agency shortly after the Shah's demise: "Since the Shah's death was predictable, it won't change anything. Concerning Iranian- American relations and the hostages, it won't have any considerable effect."
Initially, the Iranian hard-liners -- increasingly in the ascendant -- claimed to be holding the hostages against the return of the Shah to Iran for trial. That now becomes academic. But in recent months, demands for the Shah's return had become less strident and repetitive. Two other motives for continued holding of the American hostages seem to have gained ground: (1) their usefulness as a lever against suspected US involvement in the planning of any coup against those now in power in Tehran; and (2) their availability as pawns of both the religious fundamentalists and the younger generation in the long-drawn-out power struggle in Iran.
On the other hand the Shah's passing coincides with the nomination at last of a prime minister, Mostafa Mir-Salim, under the new revolutionary Constitution. Once the long-awaited new government is in place, even if it is dominated by hard-line fundamentalists, there should finally be a constitutionally established central authority perhaps capable of taking decisions -- on the hostages and other issues -- and making them stick. Absence of such an authority since the seizing of the hostages last November has been one of the main frustrations for the US government in trying to secure their release.
The saga of the Shah had some of the awsomeness of classical Greek tragedy. Few other men in recent decades have had as impressive and ruthless a monopoly of power as he enjoyed at his zenith while preserving for so long the esteem of the outside world. Yet when his crash came, it was ignominious. It was a story of seeming success that plunged relentlessly toward bitter failure.
Where did he fail?
* Above all, in believing that he could turn his land and its people -- still at least 50 percent illiterate -- into the Japan of the Middle East. Indeed, his aim was even to outdo Japan, because he saw Iran as both an economic and a military power.
* In assuming that in these days of instant communication, even a largely illiterate people will be satisfied with educational and economic betterment alone and will not soon demand political outlets for itself.
* In thinking that money alone (and the access it gave him to sophisticated weaponry from a willing US) would enable him to fill the power vacuum left when the British left the Gulf in 1971, in the overall British withdrawal from east of Suez in the early 1970s.
* In failing to understand the deep-rooted commitment of the Persian people to Shia Islam, not just as a sheet-anchor of faith in a troubled and storm-tossed modern world but also as an essential ingredient in the Persian obsession with a unique identity his people have ever been jealous to preserve throughout the centuries.
These were the failures that swept the Shah out and Ayatollah Khomeini in -- an Ayatollah Khomeini who has proven paradoxically more able to hold the rest of the world to ransom, albeit perhaps only temporarily, than the Shah ever was.
The youthful Muhammad Reza Shah was literally put on the throne in 1941 by the British and the Russians. to these nations (then allies), his father, Reza Shah (a commoner in the Army who had established the Pahlavi dynasty after World War I) was too pro-German to tolerate as ruler in sensitive Iran when Hitler's tanks were beginning their thrust toward the Caucasus. The British and Russians marched into Iran as military occupiers. The older Pahlavi was sent off into exile in South Africa, and his son, the firstborn of twins, was installed as a more pliable Shah in his stead.
Once World War II was over, the young Shah's first aim was to free himself of the taint of owing his throne to Britain and Russia, the two powers that for at least two centuries had been perceived by Persians as their foremost traditional foes. But just as he was making headway in this direction, he was challenged and almost defeated by a wave of insurgent nationalism, with the late Muhammad Mossadeq at its head.
Mossadeq's target and whipping boy was the continued presence in Iran of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mossadeq nationalized the company. The British, supported by the US and the rest of the Western world, retaliated with a boycott to block Iran's selling the nationalized oil abroad. For two years, everything seemed to be going Mossadeq's way. When the Shah tried to put a brake on Mossadeq in August 1953, Mossadeq initially carried the day and the Shah fled to Baghdad and Rome.
There in Rome, in 1953, began the Shah's direct involvement with the US in a relationship that 26 year later ended in catastrophe for both parties. In that summer in the Italian capital, the American Central Intelligence Agency -- presumably with the approval of the Eisenhower administration -- was instrumental in returning the Shah to Tehran and producing on the streets of the capital a wave of support for him that toppled Mossadeq and enabled the besitant monarch to resume his climb toward the absolutism that was eventually to destroy him.
After this restoration of 1953, the Shah never really freed himself from his dependence on the US. But the vast of wealth of Iran -- and the Western world's dependence on Gulf oil -- enabled an increasingly shrewd Shah to twist the arm of successive US administrations, even to insult and blackmail them.
Yet there was a side to him that only the most prejudiced could deny: He did have a vision of using his oil wealth to modernize his land and educate his people -- as well as arming it to the teeth. Under him, the face of Iran's great cities changed, with unprecedented building booms. More Iranians than ever before got high-school and university educations, at home and abroad.
His mistake was increasingly to believe himself possessed of the divine right of kingship, which in turn led to savage and brutal repression by his secret police, Savak, of all those who questioned or challenged his policies. The oil-price increases that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war -- orchestrated more by the Shah than by the Arabs, although the Arabs got the blame in the US -- gave Iran more money than ever before dreamed of. The Shah used it to press ahead with his grandiose schemes in an almost frenzied manner.
By the second half of the decade, the polity of Iran proved unable to digest what was being forced on it. Boom turned into bust.Early in 1978 a revolutionary tide swept into the streets.The Shah sought to contain it by force. But it was too late; and on Jan 16, 1979, he was in effect forced into exile, never to return.
Throughout the last decade of his reign, and more particularly during its last 18 months, there were two forces whose complete role has yet to be fully documented. They are those of Iran's Shia Muslim leaders, with Ayatollah Khomeini eventually at their head, and of the US.
To outsiders, the clergy did not take over the revolution until its final phase. Few in the West had ever heard of Ayatollah Khomeini before the fall of 1978. But as far back as 1963, the Shah had seen in the Ayatollah a potentially formidable religious challenge to his secularization of Iran. In that year Ayatollah Khomeini had been arrested and then, a year later, exiled. Thereafter , the religious figure came increasingly to symbolize uncompromising challenge to the Shah.Simultaneously, the Shah's ruthless denial of free political expression through political institutions and outlets channeled even secular political exposition into a religious mold.