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July 30, 2002
Book Review: The Persian Sphinx/Abbas Milani

By Mark Dankof


The Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution
by Abbas Milani

Hardcover ISBN: 0-934211-61-2
Mage Publishing Company (www.mage.com or 1-800-962-0922)
Washington, D. C.
399 pages/Copyright 2000-2001

Reviewed by Mark Dankof for Global News Net (GNN) and the Iranian Times
(global_news_net-subscribe@yahoogroups.com and www.iranian.com)

“Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You [the chief priests and the Pharisees of the Sanhedrin] know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish .’”
The Gospel of the Apostle John, chapter 11: 49-50

As a volume which chronicles the life and tragic death of Amir Abbas Hoveyda and his significance for 20th century Iran, The Persian Sphinx by Abbas Milani succeeds as both an excellent chronicle of historical record and a fascinating portrait of one of the most interesting and complicated political leaders of his time. Milani, the Chair of the Department of History and Political Science at the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, California, notes that biography as a genre of literature has a “tortured history in Iran [Preface, x.].” He explains to the uninitiated in Persian history that while the Achaemenid kings of 2,500 years ago were “unabashedly self assertive,” the advent of Islam saw a cultural and literary sea change where “the self was gradually eclipsed, and the individual was no longer directly described or revealed to the reader [Preface, x-xi].” Milani’s deep, kaleidoscopic portrait of Hoveyda however, repristinates the earlier candor and thoroughness of the Achaemenid inscriptions, for the purpose of emphasizing the essential role played by the late Prime Minister in the events shaping modern Iran, and the necessity of coming to grips with competing interpretations of his life in understanding Iran’s past, present, and future. The author thus introduces his presentation and analysis of Hoveyda by explaining that:

He [Hoveyda] was a far more complicated and interesting a character than I had ever imagined. He was a true intellectual, a man of cosmopolitan flair, a liberal at heart who served an illiberal master. He lived at the height of Iran’s historic struggle between modernity and tradition, Western cosmopolitanism and Persian isolationism, secularism and religious fundamentalism, and ultimately between civil society and democracy on one hand, and authoritarianism on the other. He embodied the hopes and aspirations, the accomplishments and the failures of a whole generation of, usually Western trained, technocrats who were bent on pulling Iran out of its cycle of poverty and repression and freeing it from the clutches of tradition. Pondering his life could also, I realized, shed light on serious questions about individual moral responsibility for acts within a political system, and the possibilities of reforming that system from within. I soon realized that much of what I had known about Hoveyda was a caricature of the man. The Persian Sphinx is an account of my attempt to find the man behind the mask, the self behind the caricature [Preface, x.].

Who then was the “man behind the mask,” the real Amir Abbas Hoveyda? What were the individual family, educational, and ideological influences and components which comprised his inner core and explain his actions as a Prime Minister of Iran in the days of the Pahlavi dynasty, finally leading to his eventual, fatal decision to remain there after Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s abdication from the throne and subsequent departure? Milani delves into all of these complex components and processes, enabling the reader to experience a deeper posthumous encounter with Hoveyda’s life and career, while recognizing the impossibility of achieving a comprehensive, final understanding of a riveting, sometimes puzzling man. In this regard, the Western reader will see Amir Abbas Hoveyda, in the final analysis, as an elusive enigma, much like the Persian nation he loved and led.

The multitude of influences upon Hoveyda mentioned by Milani are concurrently complementary and contradictory. Among the most important the author articulates in the narrative is the Prime Minister’s life long attachment to his mother, described by Milani in the language of psychotherapy as an “intensity of the oedipal relationship. . .partly the result of Ayn al-Molk’s (the father’s) aloof behavior and an inadvertent consequence of exile (p. 45).” Milani describes the family’s sojourns to Damascus and Beirut on diplomatic assignment with the Iranian government as alternatively positive and negative for the young Hoveyda. On the positive side, was Amir’s early exposure to the French, English, and Arabic languages, along with his prolonged encounter with Western ideological, political, and philosophical constructs and histories. On the sadder side, the formulative years outside of his home country produced a sense of transience and tragedy which would haunt Hoveyda for the remainder of his earthly life. Writing in his “Memories of Days of Youth ,” he describes early childhood in Beirut and Damascus as one who spent youth going “from one country to another–those who have never had a corner of the world to call their home and the place of rest, those who have never had an object that could become part of their memory are really nothing more than orphans (p. 45).” After his father’s death in March of 1936, when Amir Abbas was 17, the sudden downturn in the fortunes of his family left a sobering, permanent mark upon him as well. He chronicles this with the remark that “I learnt to live life simply and to never become too enthusiastic about, or enamored of life.”

Milani pays particular attention to the young Hoveyda’s eleven years of matriculation at the Lycee Francais beginning in 1928. The school, loosely affiliated with the French government, was “deeply and decidedly secular. . .students were steeped in French culture and language (p. 50).” (It would be left to Hoveyda’s mother to insure Amir’s inculcation in Persian culture and language.) But under the tutelage of the Lycee Francais, he would read Marx, Nietzsche, Renan, T. E. Lawrence, and Andre Malreaux, developing a particular affinity for Baron de Clapique, a central character of the latter’s La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate). Malreaux describes Clapique as a man fraught with paradoxes, and characterized by a dichotomy between “the one who wanted to live and the one who wanted to be destroyed (p. 58).” Milani takes Hoveyda’s special interest in this literary character and draws upon it as a point of major significance in understanding his enigmatic, paradoxical being. Of particular interest is Milani’s description of the components of the life of the fictitious Clapique, which bear an eerie resemblance to Hoveyda himself:

Man’s Fate is an existential musing on the early phases of the Chinese Revolution and Baron de Clapique is one of the more enigmatic, paradoxical, and complicated characters of the story. He is a lapsed aristocrat. He has an ironic disposition toward himself and the rest of the world. He knows he shall be “the court astrologer,” and that he “shall die trying to pluck the moon out of a pond.” He is generous to a fault. He tips the waiter handsomely with the last hundred dollars he owns. To women, he is polite and deferential, yet he seems incapable of having any sustained relationship with them.

He is more a man of instincts than principles. In the momentous struggles in Shanghai that are at the core of Man’s Fate, his sympathies are with the Communist revolutionaries, but he also has ties with the police, with the warlords, and with the different embassies that are supporting Chiang Kai-shek’s imminent massacre of the Communists. He deals in antiques; some say he even dabbles in the sale of opium. Gisor, the wise voice of the novel, however, sees the baron as someone who lives in a world of his own imagination, a world full of dreams, lies, and fabrications; in short, he suffers from “mythomania. . .his mythomania is a means of denying life (pp. 57-58).”

Milani observes that this exposure and affinity for modern and Western thought would facilitate Hoveyda’s rapid ascendancy in career and power in Iran, while simultaneously becoming his Achilles heel (p. 61), quoting his wife, Laila, as saying that “he was too European for Iranians.” Like Beirut itself, Hoveyda would seem to be an embodiment of the confluence and coexistence of East and West, Europe (France) and the Islamic world. To the extent that his life was dedicated to the facilitation of mutual dialogue and understanding between these geographical, historical, and ideological chasms, he presents himself as a most gallant and complex figure imbued with the Romanticism of his most cherished Western writers and philosophers. To the extent that his imprisonment, trial, and execution in 1979 contain an eternal, transcendent meaning, it may be in the context of the symbolism of a substitutionary atonement rooted in a selfless love of a collective people and its history. In this light, the tragic death of a Prime Minister influenced by French Romanticism and Existentialism---and possessive of a commitment to a secularized Western educational and technological model as the temporal salvation of his Persian people---may also possess overtones reminiscent of a Pauline interpretation of the death of Christ, or the Shiite interpretation of the death of Hussein at Karbala. Herein lies another paradox in the analysis of the ontology of Amir Abbas Hoveyda–a temporal death laden with religious, spiritual, and theological overtones and interpretation, coexisting with a man who in life expressed a disdain for organized religion. Milani describes this facet of the complex whole on page 93:

Hoveyda had been educated by French secularists; he was an avid reader of Voltaire and a genuine advocate of the Enlightenment. It was Voltaire who said, Ecrasez l’infame (crush infamy), when referring to organized religion. Hoveyda was as likely to quote Voltaire as Nietzsche when discussing religion in private. “He was a militant atheist,” Chubak often said. To the many private inquiries from his family and friends about his spiritual stance, Hoveyda would usually confess to a decided disdain for all organized religion. In a culture deeply imbued with religious affinities, he was less than enthusiastic about religion. Whereas in later years, after his rise to power, he took on the persona of a figure who at least publicly, albeit unconvincingly, professed to be a Muslim and heeded the strictures of the Shiite faith, in his younger days, when he was a junior conscript officer, he espoused the ideas of Voltaire. Organized religion, in any guise, Hoveyda believed, had in the long run exercised a negative impact on the course of human history; superstition, intolerance, and ignorance had been its chief gifts to humanity. In his private attacks on religion, Bahais and Shiites, Christians and Jews were all treated with the same tone of disapproval.

A multitude of facets, angles, and paradoxes consistently emanate from The Persian Sphinx as it relates accounts of the significant events, actions, and associations of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, which overlap with much of the modern history of Iran in the 20th century. Many of these are properly seen as potential research projects themselves, on the basis of their own individual significance and contribution to Persian history. These include the Bahai religion of Hoveyda’s paternal grandfather (along with the circumstantial evidence linking his father to this faith); Hoveyda’s alleged early sympathy for Zionism in his early years in the midst of Beirut academia; his alleged commitment to a “Utopian eclecticism” (the tendency to believe–particularly accentuated late in the Prime Minister’s life–that an imagined, theoretical resolution of a problem is equal to its solution in the real world); the role of Hoveyda’s uncle, Abol-Hossein Sardari, in utilizing blank Persian passports in wartime Paris to save some 1500 Jewish lives from Nazi genocide; the significant influence of key relationships with Persian intellectuals in the Hoveyda saga, including those with Hamid Rahnema (Iran), Natel Khanlari (Sokhan), and the anti-Islamic/atheistic modern Iranian writers Sadeq Chubak and Sadeq Hedayat; the role of Middle East Le Monde correspondent Edouard Sablier in inculcating Hoveyda in the art of developing friendly sources and contacts in the context of media relations; the 1945 Iranian embassy scandal in Paris and Bern (the “Paris Story”) where unproven whispers and allegations of Hoveyda’s involvement in a contraband currency and gold smuggling ring would follow him to his grave in 1979; the Freemasonry of Hoveyda; the truth behind the American inspired coup against Mossadeq in 1953; what really transpired in the marriage and divorce of Hoveyda and his wife, Laila; the friendship of Hoveyda and Hassan Ali Mansur and the total story behind the successful assassination plot against the latter in 1965; a thorough evaluation of the infamous and ultimately unsuccessful “White Revolution”; the morally and politically dubious role of the CIA, British MI6, and the Israeli Mossad in assisting the Pahlavi regime in the creation of the dreaded SAVAK intelligence organization in 1957; the need for an ongoing re-examination of the allegations of the Shah’s involvement in the channeling of illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon in his 1960 race against John Kennedy; the significance of the June 1963 Tehran uprisings as a precursor to the 1979 Islamic Revolution; the deeper reasons for the ultimate failures of both the National Front and the Progressive Circle to develop a sophisticated, technocratic Persian political system devoid of the trappings of both monarchy and Islamic theocracy; what the nature of the relationship really was between Amir Abbas Hoveyda and SAVAK during his 13 year reign as Prime Minister; and finally, how the Shiite principles of Taghiya (“dissimulation”) and Tarof (“meanings and intentions hidden behind a maze of honorific discourse and rules of propriety”) play a role in the life of domestic Iranian political dialogue as well as in its diplomacy with the West.

Milani also relates the strange tale of two separate literary quotations which appear at different junctures in the linear history of the life of Amir Abbas Hoveyda and suggest an eerie, prophetic premonition of his heroic, tragic martyrdom on behalf of the Iranian nation which would serve as his final epitaph. The first such quotation is an excerpt of a poem contained in a letter written by Hoveyda in 1937 to Renee Demont, a lifelong friend whose friendship with the future Prime Minister began during their mutual sojourn in Beirut at the French school known as the Lycee Francais, and would continue for the remainder of Hoveyda’s life in the form of correspondence, until his arrest and execution. Comprised of four lines from de Vigny’s “The Death of the Wolf,” Milani terms their echoes of Hoveyda’s own life and fate “chilling”:

Wailing, weeping, praying are equally dastardly acts.
Energetically perform your long and arduous task,
On the road where Destiny has beckoned you.
And then, like me, suffer and die in silence.

The second quotation is even more striking. It occurred during Hoveyda’s state visit to the United States in December of 1968. After providing the reader with an excellent chronicle of the Prime Minister’s trip to visit President Lyndon Johnson and a synopsis of the content of their diplomatic and political dialogue, Milani mentions LBJ’s unwitting prediction of Hoveyda’s future in the course of a state dinner held in the latter’s honor. The prediction takes the form of the employment by the President of a quotation from Shakespeare’s King Lear, a grim, proleptic foreshadowing of the Prime Minister’s future betrayal by the Shah and the coterie around the Pahlavi throne that would flee Iran in 1978-79, along with Hoveyda’s destiny as the one to face his accusers and offer his last will and testament to the people:

That sir which serves and seeks for gain
And follows but for form,
Will pack and leave when it begins to rain,
And leave thee in the storm. . .

Finally, Milani’s opening and closing chapters document and analyze the known specifics of the betrayal of Hoveyda by the Pahlavi regime, his imprisonment, the outlandish character of his trial by Western standards of jurisprudence, and his death at the hands of a .38 caliber pistol in a mode reminiscent of a political assassination, not a formal execution. The picture painted is indeed an ugly one. Pages 297-307 of the narrative deserve special scrutiny, as they chronicle the known facts surrounding the events of November 8, 1979 which led to the Prime Minister’s betrayal by his former colleagues and subsequent arrest. Most penetrating at this juncture in Milani’s narrative is the account of the chilling utilitarian methodology of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his coterie of advisors in casting Hoveyda aside in the interest of self preservation. Of particular note is the account provided by the author of the Shah’s duplicitous prevarications with British Ambassador Sir Anthony Parsons in regard to the former’s actual plans for the final disposal of his Prime Minister. This event, which took place only 24 hours before the unraveling of Hoveyda’s position, combined with the circumstantial evidence provided by Milani that the vote of the Shah’s advisors to abandon Hoveyda was unanimous, serve as what must surely be seen in historical retrospective as the lowest moral and political ebb in the dying days of the Pahlavi dynasty. It is a sordid tale sure to reemerge for reexamination and final appraisal of the Pahlavi past–and the future--if the entrance of Reza Pahlavi into the Iranian and world political scene proves to be an attempted reprise of his father’s rule and legacy.

What then remains as the final legacy of Amir Abbas Hoveyda? The twin towers of tragedy and honor would seem to be the elements of his life most indelibly imprinted in the minds of both his adherents and detractors in Iran and the West. Tragedy in that his dream of a technologically oriented Iran with strengthened democratic institutions and free expression of ideas perished in the polarized dichotomy and conflict between an increasingly despotic Pahlavi dynasty lost in the Achaemenid world of ancient Persia, and the destructive theocratic impulses of the Islamic Republic that followed. Tragedy in that Hoveyda, in Milani’s analysis, “made a wager” that his own liberalism, in irreconcilable conflict with the Shah’s authoritarian bent, would eventually win out when economic growth and the development of an Iranian middle class moderated the monarch’s desire for one-man rule (p. 238). In the end, the Prime Minister would lose the wager at the cost of his life–and radical Shiite Islam would emerge as the only alternative to the end of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Yet the reader will discover that honor finally trumps tragedy in the violent, undeserved death meted out to a man whose final legacy will remain rooted in his willingness to remain in Iran (when its king and 5 other former Prime Ministers fled), to provide a courageous last will and testament on behalf of his own career in public service to the Pahlavi regime, his motives, and his eternal love for the Iranian people and nation. Milani notes the painful irony and paradoxes inherent in the mutual fates of Hoveyda and Bani Sadr–one at the hands of the monarchy, the other a victim of the machinations of the Ayatollah Khomeini. A Persian mythological and historical interpretation of these deaths is put forth by the author on page 28:

Upon reflection, in spite of many obvious differences between Hoveyda and Bani Sadr, there is at least one striking similarity in their fates–both men related as sons to powerful father figures that eventually turned against them. For Hoveyda one such figure was the shah–often referred to as the nation’s “crowned father”–and for Bani Sadr it was the ayatollah, who on more than one occasion had referred to his young advisor as “my son.” In the classic Western Oedipus myth, the son kills the father. Perhaps patricide is a metaphor for the historical price societies must pay for progress. In Iran’s archetypal story, in the Shahnemeh, it is the father, Rostam, who kills his son, Sohrab. The story, considered by many as one of the keys to the riddle to Persian history, is a metaphor for the victory of the patriarch, for a system in which fathers devour their sons in order to maintain their own power. As the shah had proved willing to sacrifice Hoveyda, the ayatollah soon proved no less willing to sacrifice his surrogate son, Bani Sadr.

Milani’s effective prose throughout the narrative is complemented by excellent footnotes and copious use of poignant photographs which capture the legendary Hoveyda from earliest youth to the end of his temporal life. For anyone interested in developing a representative repository of books on Iran and the Pahlavi years, The Persian Sphinx is both an excellent investment and a moving, informative reading experience.

(Mark Dankof is a correspondent for the Internet news service, Global News Net (GNN), and the orthodox Lutheran weekly, Christian News. An ordained Lutheran pastor and post-graduate student of systematic theology, he was a 3rd party candidate for the United States Senate in Delaware in the year 2000. His web site may be found at www.MarkDankof.com. Free subscriptions to Global News Net may be obtained on-line at global_news_net-subscribe@yahoogroups.com . Pastor Dankof’s recent interview with Fereydoun Hoveyda , the former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, will soon be released to Global News Net and the Iranian Times.

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