Amir Abbas Hoveyda was the prime minister of Iran from 1965 to 1978, the year before the revolution that toppled the shah and brought to power Ayatollah Khomeini. Having occupied the highest office for longer than anyone else under the shah, he became one of the first targets of the revolution, and after a brief trial by a revolutionary court, he was shot.
In the two decades since, Hoveyda has appeared in the post-mortem avalanche of books on the shah and his regime, each writer painting a different portrait of him. The Persian Sphinx is the first full-length biography to do justice to this clever, complex and ultimately tragic man. Abbas Milani, a Persian-American professor of history and political science, writes well, with a sense of drama worthy of the riveting tale he tells. In the early 1970s, when Hoveyda was at the zenith of his career, his future biographer was a young Maoist activist who wanted to import the Chinese cultural revolution to Persia, and spent some time in jail. It is a measure of the scholar's generosity that his book is free from resentment and prejudice.
Apart from interviewing Hoveyda's family, friends and colleagues, Milani has combed through the archives and letters of the US State Department, the English and French and other foreign services, even charming a French official to let him look at classified material. Iranians are prone to conspiracy theories, and he cuts through their tangles like an explorer with a machete. The result is a history of the shah's reign from 1941 to the revolution.
Hoveyda was born in 1919 into a patrician family. When he was three years old, his diplomat father was posted to Beirut where he grew up and was educated in a cosmopolitan Francophone milieu. After university in Paris, he returned to Persia and entered the diplomatic service. In the early 1960s, the shah embarked upon a rapid development programme and gathered a group of young technocrats to form a new government. Hoveyda was among them, and in 1965 when his predecessor was assassinated by an Islamist extremist, the shah appointed him prime minister. Hoveyda was reluctant, saying that he was not qualified for the job. "We ourselves will teach you," the shah persuaded him.
No drug is more intoxicating than power; soon Hoveyda was hooked, and for a while all went well. Shrewd, witty, erudite, with an ironic sense of humour, he charmed all those who came into his orbit. He spoke many languages and was at his happiest among intellectuals and artists whom he tried to encourage and help. He soon realised that the key to his survival was total subservience to the shah: when some reporter suggested that he was "number two" in the realm, he replied: "There is no number two - there is only number one, and we all obey his orders."
This became his leitmotiv, and would constitute the main charge against him: why did he not resign in protest when the shah's policies became clearly disastrous? It seems that Hoveyda believed that he could do more with power than without it, by co-opting the dissident intellectuals, leftists, nationalists, and pushing ahead programmes of development and reform, in the hope that democracy would naturally follow. His own personal honesty was never questioned: he lived modestly with his old mother and used his prime minister's "discretionary fund" to implement welfare and cultural programmes. But like the shah himself, he was said to be tolerant of corruption in others around him.
By 1974 the huge increase in oil revenues led to the dislocation of the fragile economy and public discontent. Then, Jimmy Carter's presidency and his advocacy of human rights forced the shah to introduce a measure of political liberalisation. As a symbol of change Hoveyda was removed from premiership and later jailed (though the shah did offer him a diplomatic post in Europe). Milani describes the meeting at the shah's palace where his faithful prime minister's fate was debated and sealed. Among those present were some of Hoveyda's rivals and enemies, and they persuaded the shah to throw Hoveyda to the wolves. If true, this single act of personal betrayal of a loyal servant and friend seems more unforgivable than all the shah's political errors and misdeeds.
Unfortunately, no one from the shah's family and close associates cooperated with Milani, and as a result his excellent book is somewhat lopsided: the shah appears as the only villain of the piece, the sole author of the tragedy that befell the country and cost him his throne. In truth, the whole political class was responsible, as Milani's book demonstrates; it shared the shah's aspirations for a modern, westernised Iran, if not always his methods.
When the revolution came and the prison doors were broken down, most prisoners escaped. Hoveyda did not - "I believe in the justice of the Islamic Republic," he said; he "had been made a scapegoat" by the shah, and hoped for a fair trial to exonerate himself. He believed that some of the vociferous mullahs he had silenced with his largesse would stand by him. He thought that his friends in the West, particularly French intellectuals and journalists, would plead his cause. But in those days the western media were all pro-Khomeini, regarding him as a Gandhi figure who would bring purity and prosperity to the country. So when a French television crew went to see Hoveyda in prison, the interview turned into the prosecution of the shah's regime and of Hoveyda as its foremost representative.
Fearing for his life, members of the new government went to see Khomeini and asked him to give Hoveyda a proper public trial. "Criminals don't need trial," he retorted (against both the letter and the spirit of Islam), but eventually agreed. But the zealous "hanging judge" Khalkhali and his cohorts thought they knew their master's wishes better than his democratic acolytes, and hurried the procedures before receiving specific orders.
Milani's dramatic description of the brief court session in the middle of the night brings to mind Stalin's show trials. There was no defence lawyer and the judge was also the prosecutor. Hoveyda was condemned. As he was taken from the courtroom, someone shot him in the neck, to ensure a slow, painful death.
Shua Guppy is a Persian-born writer.
The Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution
Author - Abbas Milani
ISBN - 1 85043 328 3
Publisher - Tauris
Price - £17.95
Pages - 400