The central problems of world affairs today spring from the Iranian Revolution much as those of the 20th century sprang from the Russian Revolution. Each took an idea and transformed it into a political force. The Russian experience gave rise to a vast and rich literature—novels, memoirs, histories, social science. The Iranian experience has generated much less. But now, with Abbas Milani’s “The Shah,” we have a finely wrought, enlightening biography of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran from 1941 to 1979 and whose policies inadvertently brought on the Iranian upheaval.
Mr. Milani is an American political scientist who emigrated from Iran as a teenager and later spent a decade teaching in Iran, spanning the last years of the shah’s rule and the first years of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s. The shah’s government imprisoned Mr. Milani for a year, and he would have suffered the same or worse under the new regime had he not returned to the U.S. As befits someone who ran afoul of both sides of Iran’s political divide, his treatment of the events surrounding the revolution and the decades leading up to it is even-handed and fair-minded.