Lessons from extremes, then and now


The spectre of Iran hangs in the air … today, as war rages, the indelible hand of the ayatollahs, the mullahs and their Islamic theocracy has got everyone by the short hairs. 

Here beginneth the first lesson:

On profligacy, repression and violence in the extreme.

In theory, a time comes when misrule ends. In Iran the replacement was, in non-Muslim eyes, a poor exchange. The overthrow of the last emperor, the profligate Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, made way for equally abominable religious extremism.

The Shah, who acceded to the throne in 1941, was an important ally of the gas-guzzling Americans for his oil. He lived a jet-setting life of luxury as the common man at home dreamt of being lifted from poverty. The regime ‘disappeared,’ killed, tortured and jailed thousands of opponents.

Sound familiar? I can think of dozens of leaders of today who fit the bill.

To keep it brief (our attention spans are waning), the Shah, at the height of his power. hosted a ludicrous three-day party to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of his Persian dynasty at the tomb of Cyrus I at Persepolis. 

Held In a glittering tented city built in the desert, the party, attended by 70 kings and queens, sheikhs and heads of state, cost US$ 600 million or thereabouts. It was a party to end all parties though few of the guests truly enjoyed it.

Trees were planted and thousands of birds were airlifted in from France and Spain to perch and chirp on them. All the birds died from heat exhaustion within days, as did the trees.

The free-spending pro-Western Shah tried earlier to pull Iran out of its feudal ways by ‘modernising’  Islamic tradition. Women no longer had to wear face veils, enraging fundamentalists like Ayatollah Khomeini who finally led the revolution that toppled him in 1979. 

What I liked best about the Shah’s story is how it ended. No-one in the Islamic world would give him exile, Egypt turned him away, Morocco turned him away but the Americans persuaded General Omar Torrijos of Panama to take him in.  

The ebullient, charismatic general took the Shah on drinking sprees, surrounded him with young hookers in bars, not quite the Swiss high society life of his St. Moritz palace that he was used to, but it sufficed until Jimmy Carter flew him to the United States for treatment for the cancer that was to kill him in the end.  

An irate Khomeini demanded the Shah’s extradition from the US to face trial and when that didn’t happen Iranian militants took 56 hostages at the US embassy in Teheran and kept hold of them for more than a year. Carter never recovered from the hostage crisis but it wasn’t the only reason he lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan in 1981. Carter lacked ‘cajones,’ said the Reaganites.

Here endeth the first lesson. 

Dictators, near and far, take heed. You could be next. Uprisings and coups d’etat seldom improve matters.

***Torrijos died in ‘81 in a suspicious plane crash believed to have been masterminded by successor Manuel Noriega, noted for his corruption and drug-trafficking.

I met Carter a few times and liked him. He once mentioned his tussles over the Shah. My first ever girlfriend was a Persian, the beautiful daughter of a fugitive from the Shah’s misrule. I made it my business to catalogue Iran news ever since. It was my 74th birthday on Sunday, November 19. And as I always say, it’s been a rich and rewarding journalistic life, except financially.


Britain’s Queen Elizabeth already had her doubts about the Shah and didn’t go, sending her husband Philip instead – he was able to mix with his Greek relatives as the incestuous royal families of Europe gathered together.

Shoe-collector Imelda Marcos was there. (She owned more shoes than our own Wicknell Chivayo.) Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, 79 at the time, brought his daughter and his dog Cheecheebee, wearing a diamond encrusted collar; the imperial doggie never left his side. Spiro Agnew represented Richard Nixon and chatted with Josef Broz Tito, one of the founders of the  Non-Aligned Movement. Nicolae Ceausescu, later to be a big pal of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, hobnobbed with Prince Rainier of Monaco and his movie star wife Grace Kelly. 

Nikolai Podgorny stood in for Brezhnev and greeted King Moshoeshoe of Lesotho warmly, Soviet eyes were by now focusing on African decolonisation for geo-political advantage. Georges Pompidou of France didn’t come because he couldn’t be seated beside the Shah’s good-looking empress, Farrah Diba. China’s Chairman Mao ignored the event entirely.

The tented bedroom suites had all the trappings – crystal glass tooth mugs plus Alkaseltser and tampons in the bedside drawers –  and Louis Vaudable, the owner of Maxim’s in Paris was in charge of the catering:18 tons of food including 1,000 kilos of caviar. Wine: Vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild, 2,500 bottles of champagne and 2,000 bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy. A lot of it went to waste

Car-sized lumps of ice were flown in each day. A hundred kilometers of highway sliced through the barren desert to Persepolis and 40 kilometers of silk were used in the tents’ decor. The extravagance knew no equal.

Autocrats beware. Whatever you do, don’t go over the top. Excess, benevolent or lethal, is always an ill wind that blows no good.

1 Comment

  1. allen pizzey on November 21, 2023 at 12:56 pm

    The good part is that the Shah types generally get what they in the end deserve, the bad part is that their successors usually turn out to be a variation on the theme, and their long-suffering subjects have to do it all over again.

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