The transparent sphinx

Afshin Matin-Asgari review of Abbas Milani's biography of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, The Persian Sphinx (Mage Publishers, 2000). Matin-Asgari is associate professor of history at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of Iranian Student Opposition to the Shah (Mazda Pablishers, 2001). This review was first published in Critique, No. 19, Fall 2001. Following is an excerpt. See full text with notes.

Political biography has become a popular genre in post-revolutionary Iran. Government figures, leaders of political parties, academics, and professional writers have produced a large body of autobiographies, memoirs, biographies, and semi-biographical fiction. When a triumphant Islamic Republic called for a radical break with the past, it also caused a deep sense of anxiety and curiosity about all that was suppressed, rejected, and denied. Despite, or perhaps because of this official sanitization of history, there seems to be an endless appetite for books about the Pahlavi era (1926-79).

Thanks to the bleak realities of post-revolutionary Iran, not only the old regime, but also even the Qajar monarchy (1796-1925) has acquired a warm nostalgic glow in popular imagination. For example, in the late 1990s, a best-selling novel called Bamdad-e khomar [Morning of intoxication] caused a minor cultural stir by going against supposedly populist literary conventions to depict wealth and aristocratic privilege as positive values. Beyond popular culture, a certain historical revisionism seems to be at work in serious historical/biographical studies like Abbas Amant’s Pivot of the Universe: Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy: 1831-1896 (Mage, 1997), which takes issue with pervasive but stereotypical representations of monarchy as the epitome of decadence and stagnation.

Writing political biographies and autobiographies related to the Pahlavi era and the Islamic Republic, however, remains more politically sensitive and intellectually daunting. Immediately after his overthrow, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi wrote Answer to History (1980). A naïvely self-serving account of his accomplishments and fall, this book was of little historical import but set the trend for a “literature of denial,” produced by the old regime’s partisans who, like the shah, denied its major flaws and/or their own contribution to its failures. Nevertheless, flickers of self-criticism began to show in works such as Parviz C. Radji, In the Service of the Peacock Throne: The Diaries of the Shah’s Last Ambassador to London (1983); and more so in posthumous releases like Asadollah Alam, The Shah and I (1991).

Abbas Milani’s The Persian Sphinx is a biography of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the shah’s longest-serving prime minister and Iran’s second most powerful man during the monarchy’s last two decades. The book is an ambitious and sophisticated undertaking, easily the most outstanding example in the genre of twentieth-century Iranian political biographies. Moreover, its controversial topic, engaging style, and readable prose make it appealing and accessible to an audience beyond academia. Any such work is by definition controversial and provocative, but Milani’s book requires special critical attention because of its potential impact, particularly on the non-specialist public at large. While it has much merit, The Persian Sphinx is ultimately a disappointing work because Milani has injected strong doses of political bias into his historical reconstruction.

The careful reader will find almost all of the author’s assumptions, preoccupations, and conclusions summarized in the book’s preface. The first major point is the admission that writing about Hoveyda’s life has been a continuation, “by proxy,” of Milani’s previous autobiographical project. Those who have read his Tales of Two Cities: A Persian Memoir will remember the peculiarities of that work.

Beyond childhood sketches, the book had a surprisingly short chapter on Milani’s intellectual formation during his student years in Berkeley, California, from the mid-1960s to 1975. There, he joined an anti-shah Stalinist group, whose Weltanschauung was derived from close readings of Mao Tse-Tung’s works and the Peking Review. Obviously, Milani generalizes this experience to characterize all Iranian oppositionists as closed-minded fanatics. But this is a case of “universalizing guilt” in order to avoid individual responsibility. Milani could have chosen the less dogmatic wings of the student movement or left the opposition for an independent intellectual path. Yet, he stayed with the Maoist group and was drawn into political entanglements that are mentioned but not clarified in Tales of Two Cities.

The most poignant parts of Milani’s autobiography are the two chapters where he describes his torments as a political prisoner of the monarchy. After returning to Iran in 1975, Milani became a university professor and, still connected to the Maoist group, joined a “think tank” of supposedly reformist intellectuals formed around the queen. This was the very time we find him publishing material praising the regime. Is this to imply that his pro-regime writings, including speeches for the queen, were done when he was in fact an undercover Maoist? There is no explanation and no clear chronology of events.

Milani eventually was arrested because of his leftist contacts, although he maintains that he had given up revolutionary ideas “long before” landing in prison. He also mentions reaching a quick agreement with the authorities that allowed him to be freed in one year, but adds that media reports distorted his court testimony into praise for the shah. Again this may be an oblique reference to his writings that were used to attack the opposition in publications by the political police (SAVAK).

Although Tales of Two Cities does not give us clear explanations of these thorny issues, it may suggest why Milani views Iranian politics as a dichotomous clash between fanatical opposition forces and a flawed but modernizing monarchy, a struggle in which real intellectuals had no choice but to join the latter. The continuity of this theme in The Persian Sphinx makes the latter an autobiographical work “by proxy.”

In the preface to The Persian Sphinx, Milani claims that writing this book convinced him that nearly all his perceptions about Hoveyda had been wrong, thus suggesting the reader might expect a similar experience. He then gives us a synopsis of what he learned about Hoveyda: “He was a true intellectual, a man of cosmopolitan flair, a liberal at heart who served an illiberal master.” Expressed in no uncertain terms, these words capture the essence of what the author wants to convey about Hoveyda. He promises to reverse common perceptions by offering a sympathetic portrait of a man usually seen quite unfavorably.

The question of the moral responsibility of Hoveyda, and others who served the shah’s regime in important capacities, is the core concern of The Persian Sphinx. Milani’s narrative deals with it indirectly, but his position is stated at the outset. He seeks to show that Hoveyda was a liberal intellectual who, along with a host of other like-minded technocrats, fought against “poverty, repression” and “tradition.”

The book is not clear as to why such efforts failed. Nor does Milani hold Hoveyda, and his cohorts in the ruling elite, seriously accountable for the system’s flaws and failures. He seems to indicate that the obstacles were too great and the shah was too “illiberal.” Thus we have the making of a classical tragedy: a despotic king ruling a backward society, facing meddling foreigners and fanatical opponents, and served by intellectuals like Hoveyda, whose moral integrity consequently is questioned and somehow must be redeemed >>> Full text with notes (Word document)

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