The fall guy
Biography of ill-fated Prime Minister Hoveyda
June 5, 2000
Excerpt from Chpater One of Abbas Milani's The
Persian Sphinx: Amir-Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution
(2000, Mage Publishers). Hoveyda
All his life, books had been his solace and passion, his sanctuary
from the ordeals of the mundane. When he was free, history was the map
by which he navigated the treacherous waters of what he once called the
"Byzantine" world of Iranian politics. Now imprisoned, a captive
of the Islamic Revolution, the past would become a portent of his future.
By March 28, 1979, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, who had served the shah of Iran
as prime minister for almost thirteen years, had been in jail for some
five months. On November 8, 1978, in an attempt to appease the rapidly
rising tide of revolutionary fervor, the shah had ordered Hoveyda's arrest.
There was no appeasing the tide, however, and fearing for their lives,
the royal family fled Iran on January 16, 1979, with little realistic hope
of ever returning. They took with them much of their personal belongings,
including the royal dog. Their long-trusted prime minister, however, they
chose to leave behind.
On the morning of February 11, 1979, when the revolutionary tide-or
squall-finally swept to power, Hoveyda was left all but unattended in his
royal prison. In the chaos of the early hours his guards-all agents of
the much-despised secret police, known by its Persian acronym of savak-had
fled, fearing for their own safety. Rather than risk an escape attempt
himself, Hoveyda chose to surrender to the new Islamic victors. He thus
gained the ill fortune of being the highest-ranking official and the only
prime minister of the ancien régime to fall into the hands of the
Islamic revolutionaries. Five other former prime ministers-Ali Amini, Jafar
Sharif-Emami, Jamshid Amouzegar, Gholam-Reza Azhari, and Shapour Bakhtiar-succeeded
in fleeing the country on, or around, the eve of the revolution.
Hoveyda spent most of his jail time reading, but on that cold March
day, the only visible cot-side volume was an ornate, gilded copy of Islam's
holy book. He used the Koran not so much for spiritual guidance but as
a source book to prepare his defense for what he had been led to believe
would be his public trial in an Islamic court of law.
Sometimes Hoveyda read romans policiers, as well. Since his youth, he
had been an avid mystery reader. He preferred the French Série Noir,
a specialized imprint in the tradition of American "hard-boiled"
detective fiction by writers like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler.
Recently, Hoveyda had asked his cousin, Fereshteh Ensha, for books about
the French and the Chinese revolutions. The dreaded "revolutionary
terror" he read about in those books, a terror at once self-righteous,
unbending, and vengeful, was no longer a mere abstraction. Since the fateful
day when he had surrendered to the new revolutionary forces, that terror,
this time in an Islamic guise, had been shaping, and haunting, his daily
* * *
In his salad days, Amir Abbas Hoveyda wore an orchid on the lapel of
his dapper tailored suits. Francesco Smalto, an Italian couturier and tailor
to the shah of Iran, was also Hoveyda's tailor for many years. Lest he
appear impertinent to the shah, who in the words of one observer suffered
from "narcissistic grandiosity," Hoveyda remained discreet about
his use of the royal tailor. Less discreet were his colorful ties, chosen
usually to match the color of the orchid he wore.
Now he was mostly bald and wore a dark Nelson cap from which some strands
of white disheveled hair escaped. He sat in a dark, rumpled shirt and matching
pants. Over the shirt, he wore a yellow worn-out sweater. A pair of white,
ankle-high athletic socks covered his feet, exposing his shinbones when
he sat down. His cane stood next to the cot. He had first begun to use
the cane in the summer of 1964, after a car accident left him with a damaged
knee and fractured hip. He continued to carry it long after his rehabilitation.
In the often-cynical world of Iranian politics, many saw the cane as more
form than function, although since the accident, Hoveyda was often worried
about losing his balance according to his physician. His critics said Hoveyda
always had an eye for his place in history and he knew that in modern Iran
all notable prime ministers had some idiosyncratic trademark. An opera
hat, a fur cap, even pajamas and a blanket had served as ministerial trademarks
in the past. Hoveyda's cane, along with a pipe, and an orchid had become
his emblems. But that was all in the past. Now weak, battered, though not
defeated, he needed his cane to maintain his upright, some thought defiant,
By late March, Hoveyda was being held in Qasr Prison, where he had been
an inmate for about two weeks. Before his transfer to Qasr, he had been
incarcerated for a few days in the Madreseh-ye Refah (Welfare School),
which was both Ayatollah Khomeini's place of residence and headquarters
for the incipient revolution. The school had been built as a bastion of
religious training, a refuge from the secular education championed by the
Pahlavi dynasty. Its founders included Shiite clerics like Ali-Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, two of the Islamic Republic's most powerful
politicians today. The Refah School was established in 1968, just three
years after Hoveyda had been first appointed Iran's prime minister.
The school's location, next to two of Tehran's most symbolically significant
buildings, was full of historic ironies. On one side stood the Majlis building,
on the other the Sepahsalar Mosque. The Majlis was the country's House
of Parliament and had come to symbolize the Constitutional Revolution of
1905-06 and its incumbent secular turn in Iranian politics. Hoveyda's tenure
as a prime minister had begun in 1965 when Hassan Ali Mansur, his close
friend and Iran's premier at the time, was shot by Islamic terrorists as
he was about to enter the same parliament building. The gun used in Mansur's
murder had been provided by Rafsanjani.
Next to the parliament was the Sepahsalar Mosque, a grand religious
monument, which had served a role akin to Westminster Abbey in London.
For more than half a century, the mosque had been the scene of every important,
and official, religious rite or ritual held in the capital. The mosque
had been built as an endowment by Hoveyda's maternal great-uncle, from
whom it also took its name. As one of the many beneficiaries of the endowment,
Hoveyda's mother received a monthly check from the mosque of 100 tomans.
With the collapse of the Pahlavi regime, the Majlis, which had for many
years been a mere rubber stamp to royal decrees and only a hollow shell
of its constitutional mandate, now stood empty, almost derelict. The political
center of gravity had switched to the school that for two decades had remained-literally
and metaphorically-hidden in the shadow of its grand neighbors, quietly
offering its strictly religious curriculum to a small and select body of
students. During the first hours of the revolution, prominent figures of
the old regime were rounded up and brought to the Refah School, tributes
from a jubilant crowd to their new masters.? The arrival of the prisoners
at the school created a strange cohabitation of the jailer and the jailed,
a forced communion between the victor and the vanquished.
Ayatollah Khomeini lived in a room overlooking the schoolyard. Prisoners
were kept in another wing, across from the ayatollah's temporary residence.
In those feverish first weeks of the revolution, the small schoolyard was
regularly filled with people who filed in, dutifully chanted their enthusiastic
devotion to the new regime and their hatred of the old, and then filed
out. It is not hard to imagine the terrible impact those angry, exuberant,
and menacing voices must have had on the men and women held captive in
the building. In the frightening turmoil of the revolution's first hours,
and shortly after his arrival at the Refah School, Hoveyda received his
first visit from two high-ranking members of the new regime: Khomeini's
son, Ahmad, and Abol Hasan Bani Sadr, a French-educated sociologist and
one of Ayatollah Khomeini's closest advisors. Moments earlier the two men
had been summoned by the ayatollah. "I've heard that some of those
arrested have been badly beaten by mobs," he had said. He then had
enjoined Ahmad and Bani Sadr to act as his emissaries and visit the prisoners.
"Reassure them," the ayatollah had said, "that Islam does
not condone such cruelties; tell them that henceforth they shall be treated
fairly and that they will be tried according to the rules of Islamic law."
The two ambassadors of hope stopped first at a large classroom that
had become a jail for many of the Imperial Army's top generals. Some of
the prisoners remained bravely defiant at such "reassurance,"
while others broke down and wept. There was also a civilian in the room,
Salar Jaf, who had gained infamy in the Kurdish regions of Iran as an alleged
operative of savak. It was said that Jaf had obtained his seat in parliament
as a reward. He waxed philosophical about his fate, saying in a sardonic
tone, "For a while it was our turn to pillage; now the tables have
After conveying the ayatollah's words of assurance to the prisoners,
Bani Sadr and Ahmad Khomeini crossed the hallway to the room where Hoveyda
was held in solitary confinement. He was the revolution's trophy prisoner,
and his private room was a token of this portentous status. There was a
bed in one corner, a small, gray metal desk in the other. A threadbare
Persian carpet, some twelve feet long, covered much of the floor. On the
desk was a tiny tricolored flag of Iran; the lion and the sun-a reminder
of the country's pre-Islamic glories and, since the mid-nineteenth century,
a symbol of the institution of monarchy-had been cut out of the center
of the flag. Hoveyda photos here
Raised in Iran, Abbas Milani was sent to be educated in California
in the 1960s. He became politically active and in 1974 received a PhD.
in Political Science. He returned to Tehran and taught at the National
University but was imprisoned by the Pahlavi regime in 1977. After the
revolution he became a professor at Tehran University, but in 1986 he emigrated
to the United States. He is currently Chair of the Department of History
and Political Science at the College of Notre Dame in California. His works
include, Tales of Two Cities: A Persian Memoir, and a translation of Manuchehr
Irani's King of the Benighted.