The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran

The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran

by Andrew Scott Cooper

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An immersive, gripping account of the rise and fall of Iran's glamorous Pahlavi dynasty, written with the cooperation of the late Shah's widow, Empress Farah, Iranian revolutionaries and US officials from the Carter administration

In this remarkably human portrait of one of the twentieth century's most complicated personalities, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Andrew Scott Cooper traces the Shah's life from childhood through his ascension to the throne in 1941. He draws the turbulence of the post-war era during which the Shah survived assassination attempts and coup plots to build a modern, pro-Western state and launch Iran onto the world stage as one of the world's top five powers. Readers get the story of the Shah's political career alongside the story of his courtship and marriage to Farah Diba, who became a power in her own right, the beloved family they created, and an exclusive look at life inside the palace during the Iranian Revolution. Cooper's investigative account ultimately delivers the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty through the eyes of those who were there: leading Iranian revolutionaries; President Jimmy Carter and White House officials; US Ambassador William Sullivan and his staff in the American embassy in Tehran; American families caught up in the drama; even Empress Farah herself, and the rest of the Iranian Imperial family. Intimate and sweeping at once, The Fall of Heaven recreates in stunning detail the dramatic and final days of one of the world's most legendary ruling families, the unseating of which helped set the stage for the current state of the Middle East.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805098983
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 961,136
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Andrew Scott Cooper is the author of The Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East, and an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University. He is a regular commentator on US-Iran relations and the oil markets, and his research has appeared in many news outlets including The New York Times and The Guardian. He holds a PhD in the history of US-Iran relations and lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

The Fall of Heaven

The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran

By Andrew Scott Cooper

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2016 Andrew Scott Cooper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9898-3



A country's king can never be at peace, The fears and trials he faces never cease.


I want my son to inherit not dreams but the realization of a dream.


His day began at seven o'clock with a soft knock on the bedroom door at Niavaran, the palace compound where he lived and worked in northern Tehran. "Good morning, Your Majesty," said Amir Pourshaja, and by the time he returned from the bathroom the valet had set out a tray with toast, a little butter and honey, five or six pieces of prune, and a glass of orange juice. On occasion, the cook might liven the plate with two or three pieces of grapefruit, but in general he preferred plain, modest fare — he had a sensitive stomach and was allergic to onions, strawberries, and Iran's famous caviar. A military aide brought in official correspondence and the morning papers, both foreign and domestic, to be read while he ate and his wife slept on. He received his first intelligence briefing of the day before he started reading.

The Kingdom of Iran, which Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi had ruled over as Shahanshah or King of Kings for the past thirty-six years, occupied a vast southwest Asian desert plateau larger in size than Great Britain, France, Italy, and West Germany combined. An hour earlier, Amir had telephoned officials in each of Iran's twenty-two provinces to collect their individual weather reports. What they told him was important because it usually determined the mood of the Shah — and thus the mood of his thirty-five million subjects — for the remainder of the day. News of rain brought cheer and satisfaction. No rain meant a furrowed brow and gloom. "His Majesty always worried about the weather," said Amir. "He worried all the time. Because he knew weather affected the crops, and crops affected the people." One morning, Amir told the Shah that it had rained during the night: "He was very happy." So happy indeed that he walked over to the window in search of a tree branch moist with precipitation. When he couldn't find one he turned to Amir with disappointment writ on his face: "It's not wet! You told me it rained!" He knew exactly how many millimeters had fallen in each city in each province. He knew the amount of water in each of the dams. He knew because he had built them all, twenty-one to date, and often during the rainy season or after a big snowfall he liked to fly across the country in his executive jet to check the water levels from the air. One day at the Caspian, where he spent a part of each summer, the Shah peered off into the distance, staring up at the cloudless blue sky as if willing something to happen. One perplexed visitor, seeing his head craned for so long in the same position, worried that His Majesty had developed arthritis. "What is he doing?" he implored the household physician. "Looking for rain," sighed his companion.

* * *

Before the cameras and the crowds, His Imperial Majesty Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, King of Kings, Emperor of Iran, Light of the Aryans, Shadow of God, and Custodian of the Shia Faith, exuded the storybook glamour of the bejeweled Peacock Throne and the majesty of twenty-five centuries of Persian monarchy. By December 1977 he had reigned as King-Emperor for so many years that most Iranians could remember no other ruler and most citizens of other nations knew no other Iranian. In the realm of international politics he had outlived or outlasted contemporaries, allies, and adversaries, including Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Kennedy, Nixon, Mao, Franco, and de Gaulle. Three brilliant marriages to three equally remarkable women had sired five children and made Iran's Imperial Family a staple of the picture magazines and gossip columns. The Shah's bemedaled uniforms, aquiline features, and silver hair had graced television news programs and the front pages of newspapers for so long that one visitor to Niavaran, upon meeting him, experienced "a feeling of déjà vu, as you do with some landscapes — as I did when I saw Machu Picchu or the Great Wall for the first time."

The life story of the Shah of Iran was worthy of the Persian Book of Kings, the literary epic by Ferdowsi that traced the rise and fall of Iran's royal dynasties through the centuries. After succeeding to the Peacock Throne in 1941, when he was barely out of his teens, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi survived mortal threats that would have broken lesser men: the wartime invasion and occupation of his country, Communist subversion, a plane crash, assassination attempts, coup plots, dynastic intrigue, religious revolts, constitutional crises, and even a brief spell in exile. In an era when other kings and queens were forced from their thrones or reduced to a life spent cutting ribbons and shaking hands, the Shah bucked the tide of royalty in the twentieth century when he decided to rule as well as reign. Not content to merely gather power, in 1963 he embarked on his White Revolution, an ambitious program of social and economic reforms to transform Iran from a semifeudal baron state into a modern industrial powerhouse. Peasant farmers were freed from bondage to landowners. Forests and waterways were nationalized. Women were granted their civil, legal, and political rights. By the time the Shah staged his belated coronation four years later, Iran's rate of economic growth outstripped those of the United States, Great Britain, and France. Critics who had once dismissed Iran's King as a callow playboy now applauded his achievements and acumen. "We are delighted to salute the Shah of Iran on the day of his Coronation," declared Britain's Daily Mail. "During his 26-year reign he has never once involved his country in war. He has shown the way to beat hunger, want, squalor and disease by methods from which other countries could learn."

The Shah didn't stop there. In the early seventies he exploited Cold War tensions to achieve regional hegemony over the Persian Gulf, then pulled off the coup of the century by engineering the December 1973 "oil shock." The overnight doubling of the price of oil achieved the single greatest transfer of wealth between sovereign states in recorded history. Flush with his new billions, the leader of the world's second largest oil exporter lavished resources on industry, education, health, welfare, the arts, and the armed forces. At the heart of his program of reform was an ironclad commitment to education. Between 1967 and 1977 the number of universities increased in number from 7 to 22, the number of institutions of advanced learning rose from 47 to 200, and the number of students in higher education soared from 36,742 to 100,000. Iran's literacy programs were among the most innovative and effective anywhere in the world, so that by 1977 the number of Iranians able to read and write had climbed from just 17 percent to more than 50 percent. The Shah embarked on a military buildup, placed orders for nuclear power stations, and announced that the days when foreign powers could get their way in Iran and the region were over. "Nobody can dictate to us," he boasted. "Nobody can wave a finger at us because we will wave back." In 1974 Time magazine anointed him "Emperor of Oil" when it declared that the Shah "had brought his country to a threshold of grandeur that is at least analogous to what Cyrus the Great achieved for ancient Persia." American, European, and Japanese corporations rushed to set up headquarters in Iran and enter into joint business ventures. "Boom?" asked an American investment banker. "We haven't seen anything yet. They are now dependent on Western technology, but what happens when they produce and export steel and copper, when they reduce their agricultural problems? They'll eat everybody else in the Middle East alive."

The numbers behind Iran's rise were impressive and few doubted that the Iranian people, reported the Chicago Tribune, were "living better than most of their country's neighbors." Since 1941 national income had multiplied 423-fold and since 1963 the country's gross national product had risen 14-fold. Yet Iranian society had paid a price for prosperity. Political institutions and the judiciary were subordinate to the wishes of the Shah, his ministers, and the security forces. "The Shah's power is virtually total," reported one observer. "Only one political party is permitted, and debate is carefully contained." Newspapers, radio, and television were "embarrassingly obsequious" in their coverage of the regime and subject to censorship. The state security police was "one of the most pervasive such organizations in the world" and accused by its critics of imprisoning, torturing, and killing thousands of dissidents. Tens of thousands more Iranians preferred to live outside the country than endure repression at home. The Shah's economic reforms were also scrutinized. Much of Iran's new wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small ruling elite: 10 percent of the population controlled 40 percent of the wealth. Most of Iran's sixty-one thousand villages still lacked "piped water, sanitation, doctors, electricity." One physician claimed that families living in rural Karaj subsisted on four and five grams of protein a week. "People hunt for undigested oats in the droppings of horses," he said. Iranian intellectuals sneered at the Shah's efforts to modernize a poor, semiliterate country. "It's all skin deep" was the common refrain among university students who dismissed the White Revolution as a giant fraud. "It's all fake pretension." The Shah received no credit for his achievements, though even his opponents acknowledged that conditions weren't nearly as bad as they could be: "Given the mentality of the Iranian people, it would be ten times worse here under any other regime."

Despite these controversies, in the last few weeks of 1977 Imperial Iran cut its way through the international scene with the stately grandeur of a Cunard liner on its maiden voyage. While Americans and Europeans grappled with high unemployment, inflation, political scandals, and labor unrest, most Iranians were preoccupied with more mundane affairs. The Shah celebrated his fifty-eighth birthday and was cheered by news of a welcome boost to oil production. He hosted state visits from the presidents of Egypt and Somalia and attended the Aryamehr Cup tennis finals at the Imperial Country Club. He was pleased to hear that America's prestigious Georgetown University now ranked Iran as the world's fifth-strongest nation. His government completed trade deals with France and West Germany to build nuclear power plants, New Zealand to supply lamb, the Soviet Union to increase steel production, and the United States to supply five million telephones. In December 1977 the volume of trades on the Tehran Stock Exchange surpassed 5.9 billion rials for the first time and officials reported a record 380,000 tourists to Iran in the past year. Iran's reputation as a haven to do business was burnished by the presence of more than 100,000 foreign residents inspired by the Shah's vision of transforming his country into the Japan of West Asia, and lured by the prospect of comfortable lives with servants, swimming pools, and tennis courts. The 52,000 Americans living in Iran in 1977 made up the largest concentration of U.S. nationals living abroad. Other expatriate communities in Iran included 8,000 Britons, 8,000 French, 16,000 West Germans, 20,000 Italians, and tens of thousands more Filipinos and Koreans employed as guest workers. "Look at them," crowed an Iranian businessman. "The flies have come to gather at the honeypot."

Foreigners living in Iran considered the country a sure and safe bet for the future. The kingdom was defended by a crack professional fighting force whose 413,000 men and women began each day reciting their pledge to defend "God, Shah, and Fatherland." The Shah's pride and joy were the three branches of the Imperial Armed Forces. The quarter-million-strong army was divided into armored and infantry divisions. Four separate brigades, including special forces and airborne units, "can maintain internal security and halt an invasion by any neighboring state except the Soviet Union." Pride of place in the army went to the Immortals, the twenty-thousand-strong Imperial Guard equipped to fight as infantry and assist regular ground forces at home or overseas. Iran's air force was "capable of defeating any regional air force except that of Israel, and possibly Turkey." The air force dominated the skies over southwestern Asia and boasted the ability to fly hundreds of extra miles outside Iranian airspace. Iran's navy ruled the waves in the Persian Gulf, patrolled deep into the Indian Ocean, and prowled the coast of East Africa. The regular army was complemented by two paramilitary forces. Seventy-five thousand gendarmerie guarded the borders and secured the countryside, trained to provide early warning of foreign aggression or internal subversion, and their 45 regiments and 2,240 gendarmerie posts were equipped with light machine guns, mortars, helicopters, and patrol boats. The National Resistance Force numbered 80,000 personnel and was organized into local-level company- and battalion-size units outfitted with small arms and rifles. The Iranian police was 40,000-strong.

In his fervent nationalism and authoritarian leadership the King of Iran echoed the rulers of centuries past but in particular his idol President Charles de Gaulle of France, the very model of the twentieth-century nationalist strongman. "His is a formidable personality, which he employs skillfully to advance Iran's interests in such matters as increasing oil revenue and acquiring sophisticated military equipment from hesitant sellers," noted an American intelligence assessment. "In short, the Shah has developed into a confident ruler, who knows what he wants and how to get it. He is sure that his way is best for Iran and that monarchical power, wisely used, is essential to the country's well-being. He is, all in all, a popular and respected king. We might ask: Are there no flies in the ointment of Iranian success? Do not some wish him ill and work against him? Can he continue to go onward and upward forever?"

* * *

After breakfast, the Shah returned to his bathroom to shave and brush his teeth. Dressing with the help of his valet, he selected a cravat and slipped a miniature copy of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, inside his front breast jacket pocket. Courtiers recalled the time he walked into his office, patted his jacket, and with a stricken look on his face exclaimed, "My Quran, I forgot it! I have to go back!" Ready for the day and already fully briefed on the domestic and international situation, at nine o'clock he exited his suite accompanied by Colonel Kiomars Djahinbini, his personal bodyguard and the head of palace security. The colonel walked a pace behind and for the remainder of the day never let the Shah out of his sight. Together they crossed a landing, headed down a flight of stairs past smartly saluting military guards, and strolled out onto the sunlit palace grounds. "I remember him coming down the stairs," recalled Crown Prince Reza, who was seventeen years old in December 1977 and in his last year of high school before moving to Texas to train as a pilot at Fort Reese Air Force Base. "He would ask me to walk to his office with him. The first question of the day was always the weather report."

His office was a short walk away from the Niavaran residence along a pathway shaded by plane trees, down a flight of stone steps, and through a small wooded grove that led to a second palace, the Jahan Nama, the low-slung residence of the former ruling Qajar Dynasty. Now refurbished as an office complex, the Jahan Nama boasted exquisite Persian carpets, intricate tile work, and luminous stained-glass windows. Greeted at the entrance by Grand Master of Ceremonies Amir Aslan Afshar, he climbed the stairwell to the second floor along a corridor that passed several anterooms, including one for gift wrapping and another for the palace dentist, before entering his office, a vast, cavernous space whose spectacular mirrored ceiling and inlaid walls resembled a jewel box radiating diamond light. Regardless of the temperature and season, he worked without air-conditioning. Sensitive to chills and drafts, he could not abide modern artificial air to the point where he drove with the windows down and forbade the installation of cooling devices in his various residences — he hated the expense as much as the air. But by late May, with the heat from the plains climbing up the hillsides, Niavaran became so oppressive that the entire household was forced to decamp farther up the slopes of the Alborz Mountains to Saadabad, a second royal compound of lush, forested acreage whose White Palace served as the Pahlavis' summer residence. When temperatures cooled again in the autumn the family and their servants returned to Niavaran, and the White Palace was converted into a guesthouse for visiting foreign heads of state.


Excerpted from The Fall of Heaven by Andrew Scott Cooper. Copyright © 2016 Andrew Scott Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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