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

By Bill, James A. | The Middle East Journal, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Bill, James A., The Middle East Journal


The Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution, by Abbas Milani. Washington, DC: Mage Publishers, 2000. xvii + 399 pages. Notes to p. 383. Index to p. 399. $29.95.

Reviewed by James A. Bill

Amir `Abbas Hoveyda lived in revolutionary times and died a gruesome death as a human byproduct of those times. Hoveyda served as Prime Minister of Iran for nearly 13 years-- longer than anyone in modern Iranian history. Hoveyda painted the protective varnish over the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and, in the process, he became a lighting rod for the Shah's repressive rule. While most members of the Shah's elite fled the country at the time of the revolution, Hoveyda chose to stay behind. Already fired by the Shah and used as a scapegoat for Pahlavi rule, Hoveyda had the guts and grit to face the ugly proceedings of revolutionary courts gone berserk. On 7 April 1979, he paid for it with his life when, after a perfunctory trial, revolutionary thugs executed him by firing three bullets into his head.

The story of Hoveyda is in many ways the story of the Iranian revolution. In this beautifully written biography of Hoveyda, Abbas Milani provides us with a superb analysis of Iran and its poorly understood revolution. Milani skillfully weaves the story of Hoveyda into the revolutionary tale of Iran. Few studies of the Iranian revolution can match the objectivity and persuasiveness of this volume.

In his persona, Amir `Abbas Hoveyda carried all the subtle complexities and contradictions of Iranian culture. Hoveyda was both naive and cynical. He could be obsequious and at the same time overbearing. He was impolitely blunt but he was also a master at dissembling. He was paranoiac and oddly trusting. Finally, Hoveyda was both a product of Europe and a product of Iran.

Educated in Europe, Hoveyda was fluent in French and English. Like many members of the Iranian intelligentsia, Hoveyda was more at home in Europe than he was in the Iranian countryside. He was intensely secular in his beliefs and had little in common with the Iranian masses and the Shi'i clerics.

With his pipe, walking stick, flowery ties, and orchid in his lapel, Hoveyda was viewed by the traditional masses as a kind of dandy, a western fop. He was afokoli-a pejorative term referring to a tie-wearing dude. The raw edges of this clash in class and culture is seen in Abbas Milani's juxtaposition between Sadegh Khalkhali, the "hanging judge" of the revolution, and Hoveyda.

Hoveyda served as the great mediator between the Shah and the people. While bowing and scraping before the king, he would at the same time crush political opponents beneath his feet. Hoveyda was not financially corrupt; indeed, in the first several years of his prime ministership, he led a crusade against corruption in the country. Power was his aphrodaisiac.

The Shah of Iran used Hoveyda as a political balancing wheel against other influential politicians of ambition and drive. Over the years, the Prime Minister fought brutal political battles against many members of the Shah's power elite. …

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