New Book Shows Why the Shah’s Iran Collapsed From Within—and Why the Islamists Today May Have a Similar Fate

January 26, 2021 3:41 pm (EST)

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Offering a new view of one of America’s most important, strained, and misunderstood relationships of the postwar era, The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty tells the history of the United States and Iran from the time the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ascended to the throne in 1941 to the 1979 revolution that brought the present Islamist government to power.

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“Any history of the Pahlavi dynasty must take into account the outsized role that America played in Iran,” but “for all of America’s meddling, the revolution was truly a Persian affair,” argues Ray Takeyh, the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), in his new book. “To fully appreciate how a seemingly formidable monarchy collapsed so suddenly, one must trace its evolution from the time the shah first came to power.”

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Through extensive research, Takeyh shows that the revolution was not, as is widely believed, the popular overthrow of a powerful and ruthless puppet of the United States. Rather, it followed decades of corrosion of Iran’s political establishment by an autocratic ruler who demanded fealty but lacked the personal strength to make hard decisions, and ultimately lost the support of every sector of Iranian society. “The shah was not the man to lead the nation through a crisis,” notes Takeyh. “When the revolution came, the system he had been hollowing out for so long simply crumbled.”

The book provides new interpretations of critical events—including the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—revising the traditional understanding of America and Iran’s complex and difficult history.

For example, “Iran in the 1970s was a nation in discontent. Its political order was suffocating and its economy was cooling. Intelligence and embassy reports documented the signs of distress and described how the monarchy lacked support in key sectors of society. They noted ferment among the young, gloom among the middle class, and increasing unity between the religious and secular opposition movements,” writes Takeyh. “The tragedy is that these warnings were ignored, and those who issued them were later blamed for the ‘intelligence failure,’” he adds.

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In the end, “the revolution would not have succeeded without a man of unusual determination who brooked no compromise,” Takeyh maintains. “The many strands of opposition submitted to Khomeini because he seemed the most capable of leading the revolution to success.”

“The Islamic Republic has now been in power slightly longer than the shah’s monarchy. It is a different regime, existing in a different time, yet it is making many of the shah’s mistakes,” the author contends. “Like the monarchy in its later years, the Islamic Republic is at an impasse, having become a regime that cannot reform itself even when it senses an urgent need for change.”

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“The theme of Iranian history is a populace seeking to emancipate itself from tyranny—first monarchical, now Islamist,” Takeyh writes. “The Islamic Republic stands today as a regime without a real constituency, covering itself in an ideology that few believe in.”

“The only thing that can be said with certainty is that the Iranian masses’ search for freedom continues. Should it one day succeed, it will confound another generation of Americans who had assured themselves that, like the shah, the Islamic Republic would endure,” he concludes.

Read more about The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty and order your copy at cfr.org/LastShah

To interview the author, please contact the Global Communications and Media Relations team at 212.434.9888 or [email protected].

Praise for The Last Shah:

“An original interpretation that puts Iranian actors where they belong: at center stage.”—Wall Street Journal 

“Books on twentieth century Iran abound, but none deliver the substance or the insight that Ray Takeyh does. For the clearest view of Iran for the last one hundred years, this book is it.”—Marvin Zonis

“Ray Takeyh’s astute and provocative study of the last shah of Iran sheds new light on the Cold-War foreign policy of the United States, the impact of individual personalities on the course of history, and the causes of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, with which the world has now had to live for more than four decades.”—Michael Mandelbaum

“Ray Takeyh has compellingly written the prequel to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s forty-year confrontation with the United States. He tells this fascinating story with unmatched perspicacity and insight all while restoring the agency of Iranian participants in this frequently tragic tale. Anyone who wants to understand the current impasse with Iran will have to come to grips with the arguments he makes and the issues he illuminates.”—Eric Edelman

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