As the saying goes, “History is what happens to other people.” This narrow interpretation of history as a dispassionate account unfairly dismisses most books written by Iranian historians on the subject of the ’79 revolution. Dr. Hooshang Nahavandi, author of Khomeini in France, is an Iranian writing about contemporary Iran, so his book accusing foreign powers of bringing Khomeini to power carries a tone of anger, sorrow and regret. When a writer says “J’accuse” it is no longer proper to ask whether he is an objective historian, but whether as aggrieved party and prosecutor he has brought sufficient evidence and argued eloquently enough to convince the jury. My verdict: guilty!
Early on Nahavandi, who was a Tehran University chancellor and Farah Pahlavi’s chief secretary before 1979, demolishes the legend of Khomeini as an activist from the cradle. Reza Shah did not execute Khomeini’s father for political activity; the man was ambushed and murdered by some townsfolk because he was an extortionist. The reader’s inner defense attorney may leap up to shout “objection your honor, hearsay.” However there is no doubt that the father died at the turn of the century, a good 20 years before Reza Shah came to power. At least part the legend is demonstrably a lie. In fact the earliest indication of serious political verve from Khomeini appears in his fifties where as a devotee of Ayatollah Kashani he had a small part in the machinations against Mossadegh.
Khomeini in France is not a trial of Khomeini, however. It is a trial of France, United States, Soviet Union and other foreign nations for conspiring to create an image of Khoemini as a visionary political philosopher worthy of leadership in the modern world. Having laid out the charge, the prosecution moves on to establish means, motive and opportunity. Motive: the big powers wanted to replace the Shah because his ambitions for Iran alarmed them. Control of oil and strategic concerns were certainly an issue for the West. As for the East, an independent third power in the region would upset the Cold War status quo, making life unpredictable. Means: impressionable or complicit media like Le Monde and The New York Times accompanied by gullible intellectuals like Foucault, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. What the big powers lacked was opportunity. And this came to them as God’s gift in the person of Ruhollah Khomeini. All they had to do was rescue him from obscurity in Iraq and put him somewhere where journalists and intellectuals had the tools and skill to chisel a heroic statue out of a coarse chunk of rock. Hence, Khomeini in France.
The evidence for this story has been amassing since the drama began a year before the revolution. Khomeini in France updates the evidence with new declassified material and fresh analysis of older documents. In his numerous footnotes Dr. Nahavandi references the latest biographies and articles, exclusive chats with major players of the period, and US embassy documents captured during the hostage crisis. However the soul of the book is in the author’s close eyewitness accounts of the crumbling monarchy. As a minister and chief of the queen’s secretariat during the final days, he boils with frustration at the missed opportunities, the incompetence and the waffling which characterized the Shah’s last stand against Khomeini. It is here that the book reads like a gripping novel and Nahavandi’s skill as a storyteller becomes evident.
We seethe with the narrator as the resolute and action oriented General Oveisi is passed over as head of the interim government for the pliant General Azhari who trembles at confrontation. We grieve with him as a daring plan to round up opposition leaders is rejected by the Shah at the last minute. Did the Shah feel jealous of or threatened by heroes who could save the nation? Is that why only incompetents were given authority to act? Nahavandi quotes the Shah as saying the British didn’t want Oveisi because decisive action could make matters worse. This is ozr e bad tar az gonah. Why was the Shah listening to the British over his own best people? Was it not obvious from BBC’s broadcasting of Khomeini’s speeches and the seditious tape recordings smuggled in diplomatic pouches that the big powers were grooming Khomeini as the Shah’s replacement?
At a more intimate level, Nahavandi brings up personal frictions between the Shah and French President Valery Giscard. Oops I beg your pardon, Valery Giscard d’Estaing! It seems the Shah believed Giscard’s title of nobility, d’Estaing, was purchased and not to be acknowledged. Giscard in turn had reportedly belittled the Shah’s noble pedigree as being only one generation deep. One result of all this silliness was that Giscard’s daughter’s fiancée sat at the end of a state dinner table instead of at the head with the important people. Could something so trivial have contributed to Giscard’s negative view of the Shah during the Guadalupe conference where major powers discussed Iran’s fate? It seems far-fetched until you ask any out-of-favor corporate manager who has been denied a well-deserved promotion. Maybe that petty pissing contest with the head of a powerful state was bad diplomacy.
As I read this heart breaking insider account of the collapse of the Shah’s apparatus — translated seamlessly from French into Farsi by the pseudonymous Dadmehr — I kept being reminded of the old saying about kharbozeh and larz. In both state and personal matters the Shah’s grandiosity and bluster alienated and worried the big powers; thus he ate the melon. Now he had to endure the shivers. There were several smart, loyal and courageous people around to help him through it, allowing the Shah to once and for all free himself from obedience to foreigners. But tragically the king was not up to the challenge he had taken on. Though the monarch had serious illness as an excuse, the rest of his men (and his queen) are still answerable to History for failing to follow through with his program of emancipation. Perhaps the Shah’s generals were too loyal, too servile. As a last resort, maybe they should have taken matters into their own hands, as the Shah’s father had done. I doubt Nahavandi would go that far explicitly, but his talent as a writer does trigger such fantasies, and other “what if” thoughts which his readers will no doubt entertain.
The criminals getting their comeuppance is no “what if,” though. Natural justice was served with a vengeance. From France, the big powers shipped their Frankenstein monster to Tehran in a 747, but as Nahavandi bitterly admits early on, the puppet unexpectedly turned puppeteer, becoming a nightmare for his creators as well. Nahavandi does not carry this line of thought far, however. Several times we read about the early Khomeini jumping at opportunities for advancement, proving himself an ambitious and shrewd puppeteer to begin with. Assembling the monster seems to have been a mutually creative process with contributions from Iranian political ingenuity as well. But Nahavandi’s resentment urges his pen to present his subject as a nobody, his portrayal only briefly betrays awareness that Khomeini was no ordinary nobody.
Social position, academic rank and family pedigree are the preoccupations of men; History couldn’t care less. Khomeini in France omits this lesson and leaves it for the reader to discover and lament. Yet, along with many other writers so close to the tragedy of ’79, Nahavandi is to be given latitude as he repositions himself from the dull vantage point of a neutral historian to a passion filled courtroom where this able prosecutor argues a strong case.