- The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran by Andrew Scott Cooper
Despite the passage of nearly four decades since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, memories have not faded and tempers have not cooled. Writing about the fall of the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, is not for the thin-skinned or faint-hearted. With both his earlier book, Oil Kings, and his new work, The Fall of Heaven, Andrew Scott Cooper has set out to deliberately provoke debate, controversy, and no doubt a little publicity. Much like Oil Kings, Cooper’s latest book is aimed not at scholars but at a broad general audience. His goal is to challenge the popular narrative of a brutal megalomaniacal shah, which he regards as “one-dimensional” and an “airbrush of the historical record” (p. 9). In Cooper’s telling, the shah was a “benevolent autocrat,” whose reforms precipitated the very forces that the Iranian monarch was unwilling to suppress by force, leading ultimately to his downfall (p. 11).
The story arc of Fall of Heaven focuses on the revolutionary forces that were unleashed by the shah’s decision to launch a liberalization policy in 1976. Cooper argues that the shah “spent the last two and half years of his reign dismantling personal rule in an attempt to democratize Iranian political life” (p. 9). He then chronicles how the shah’s militant opponents took advantage of this opening by fomenting instability through deliberate acts of violence that thwarted any chance for compromise or reform. In the face of growing unrest, the shah pushed ahead with his “Tehran Spring.” In doing so, Cooper argues, he “removed the mask of authoritarianism with which he had never been comfortable and revealed his true colours as a progressive and social activist” (p. 338). Ultimately, when confronted with millions of Iranians calling for his demise, “the Shah surrendered power rather than unleash the army and start a civil war” (p. 9). Both the Iranian opposition and foreign governments were surprised that the shah was unwilling to spill blood to retain his throne. They interpreted his inaction as paralysis and weakness. In Cooper’s account, however, the shah’s willingness to relinquish power was an act of “courage and tremendous self-sacrifice” (p. 393).
With a rich fly-on-the-wall narrative, Fall of Heaven captures the tensions within the shah’s inner circle between hawks who advised a crackdown and doves who counseled accommodating more moderate liberal elements of the opposition. In doing so, Cooper succeeds in providing a window into the “interior life” of the Pahlavi imperial court during the Iranian Revolution (p. 14). There is ample evidence to support Cooper’s contention that the shah desperately sought to avoid bloodshed. As the shah repeatedly told those who counseled action, “I’m not a Suharto. A king cannot kill his nation” (p. 428). This was in stark contrast to his Islamist opponents who cynically employed the most vicious violence in order to destabilize the country, regardless of the human cost. But Cooper then overplays his hand by arguing that the shah was a misunderstood reformer. In fact, throughout his reign the shah desperately avoided any meaningful political reform. His two modest flirtations with liberalization in the early 1960s and the late 1970s were begrudging concessions made at times of domestic crisis and under foreign pressure, rather than bold reforms intended to transition Iran to democracy.
The most important voice for moderation and accommodation in the shah’s court was that of his wife, Empress Farah. She emerges from the pages of Fall of Heaven as Pahlavi Iran’s Diana, Princess of Wales, a people’s empress who was determined to maintain a popular touch, while her husband became increasingly isolated and distanced from his subjects. Farah used her privileged position to assemble around her a group of ambitious men who “stood for more political freedom, restraints on [the Iranian secret police,] SAVAK, and an end to censorship” [End Page...