Iranian Oral History Project | Harvard University Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Sir Peter Ramsbotham
British AmbassadorTranscript 2 of 2
Edited Translation of Persian Transcript
Narrator: Sir Peter Ramsbotham
Date: October 18, 1985
Place: London, England
Interviewer: Habib Ladjevardi
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I wanted to say that on the television. They cut it all out, because it would have been very unpopular.
A. No, it would have been very unpopular there, you see. It was exactly contrary to what they were trying ... because they were piously making condemnatory judgments about another country ... totally different background to ourselves ... in terms of what happened to be a rather narrow set of moral precepts of the British twentieth century. That's what they were doing.
Q. There ... another interpretation of this question by some is that the Shah was so eager to have loyal lieutenants that the business of having them gain some financial benefits was sort of....
Q. ...as a token of repayment to them.
A. As a sop. Yes, probably. Probably, because there ... were so few other ways.... I don't know, maybe ... I hadn't of that, it's very interesting. I think that's probably right. They're so few other ways in which he could ... respond to that very natural human instinct of being recognized, of pride, of having a name, of having a high standard of living, so your children can see it, and so on.
There were very few other ways of doing it. He didn't have ... the civil service -- with great respect -- there didn't give you that status. You couldn't be made Sir Somebody Somebody-or-Other and have that position in the civil service. And even in the services, your position, as you see, the admirals being sacked and ... it wasn't at all secure. So how do you give them that? That is quite a good point. That may well have been one of the reasons. I hadn't thought of that. But that appeals to me as one of the reasons.
And the other one we had just touched on is, of course, that, as you say, the Pahlavi Foundation profited too, so.... You know, what's goose <sauce> for the gander and all that. I think that may be one of the reasons for it.
And people used to come and seek my advice -- not only British, but Canadian and other businessmen -- as to what was the going rate for those days. One had to give some advice on that, I remember.
Q. It's said that it was around five or ten percent. Is that...?
A. I don't know. I've forgotten what the actual thing was. Later on, of course, it all came out in America, with the ITT, and all that ... problems. But there was no other way in those days in which one could do these things.
Q. Another question I'd like to get your response to is: as you know, there is this conception among Iranians about this overwhelming British influence on Iran and on the Shah, in particular. Now, hearing you speak, one of the first things you said was the Shah in a way influenced the decision to select you as the ambassador to come to Iran.
A. In that case, he did, I think.
Q. So it shows that he had some power over....
A. Yes. I hadn't thought of that, but it's true.
Q. And then you also talked about some of your meetings with the Shah, and the fact that you had to sort of limit the topics that you discussed with him.
Q. And it sounded like only on a few occasions you discussed domestic politics.
A. That's right. Yes. That would be true. I mean, if you asked Denis Wright this question, the occasions on which Denis Wright would have had an opportunity to discuss domestic politics, I doubt if they were more than mine. I doubt it. I don't know if you remember....
Q. Yes. Yes.
A. I doubt if he did.
Q. Yes. Could you sort of address yourself more fully to this question, of the relative influence of the British ambassador over the Shah, and the Shah's influence over the British ambassador.
A. Yes. I think we're talking about two different things.
Q. How often did you see him, first of all?
A. Once a fortnight. I think he saw the American, the British, ambassador, obviously, more regularly than anybody else. Once a fortnight, I would guess. When there were things on, like Abu Musa and the Tunbs, then we met more frequently.
And then I would go ... I would travel with him sometimes. I mean, we were going to open IGAT <?>, or the gas pipeline, or something -- where there was a British thing. I would go down there and take part in that sort of ceremony. Or up in Tabriz or somewhere. And one saw him on those occasions, too.
And then, of course, I would see him, perhaps more regularly, when there were visitors. I mean, if the British minister of defense was out here, Peter Carrington would come and stay with me, we'd go and see the Shah for half an hour. And that was much more ... that could happen any time, depending when they came. He was always accessible. He worked so hard. I mean, a twelve-hour day was nothing; he never stopped. That was so.
But on this question of influence, you see, I think there were two separate things. One is the actual occasions when -- I'm talking about the British ambassador's influence, or British foreign minister through the ambassador. There's a point in which you might say ... like in the past, when <there was> a weak Shah, some hundred, two hundred years ago, there might be a British ambassador who would say, "I'm sorry, we have a gunboat out there, and we wish the troops to do this, that, and the other." Maybe in the last war a sort of situation like that would have occurred. That's one form of influence. And that didn't occur.
But the other was much more insidious, which you must know very well about, which is the general belief that even the Shah half-shared, intelligent as he was, which was much more shared the further you went down in the country, that there was this sort of curious, insidious British influence. Nobody quite knew how it came or what it did, but that it had never left the country, and it was there. And it would take ludicrous forms, like that Mossadegh was really a British agent, and that sort of thing.
And the Persian mind -- which is why I love Persia so much, because it's a land of poets, and I just love all that, but they're not very good in this sense -- is so fertile and inventive that they can almost create pictures for themselves which ... and half believe it. You don't wholly believe it, but half believe it. And this, I think, is symptomatic also, and I think, of the Shah, insofar as he's very Persian. I use the word "Persian" because I....
The Shah said to me once -- I must just divert for a moment, I'll come back -- said.... I can't remember what happened. I said.... During the time ... one of his real hates against Iraq. And I don't know what prompted me, and I said, "You know, Your Majesty, I find it difficult, and certainly the British people, sometimes reading the paper ... find it difficult to distinguish between Iran and Iraq. You know, it's.... There's Persia. They know Persia, sixteenth century, <unclear> and all that. It's known. They know about Persia: Persian music, Persian literature, and all that. Iraqi literature -- nobody ever heard of it. But it's a great pity, that, and I know that your father ... that it had to be, and that it's correct from the point of view of geography and Farsi and all those things. I understand that. But it's a trend <?>. And I would like to have occasion when I could...."
"Oh," he said, "use the word Persia whenever you like." He said -- just like that. You know the thing. And I kept that to myself. And then I did it. I never told Hoveida. I did it. Hoveida ... Persia. He was very upset. And then I let it be known through ... (was it Raji, or somebody, his private secretary?) ... I said that the Shah had approved of my doing this. Just a side story.
But this insidious influence, it comes out very well in Denis Wright's last book about the Persians and English. I mean, it comes out in the introduction very well there too. I wrote a little blurb on the same theme for it.
They can't believe.... I'll tell you another anecdote which illustrates this silent influence. That poor Nikpay -- it's so sad, little Nikpay, the mayor -- very able man. And I got to know him quite well, and my wife got to know his wife, and so on. And one day he rang up or said he'd ... if I had time, would I like to see southern Tehran, because he'd done a lot of improvements there, and he'd like to take me around. There was an abbatoir, you know, a slaughterhouse, he was particularly proud of, and all that. Not many British ambassadors have a chance of going to all that part of southern Tehran, so I said yes. "Well," he said, "I'll pick you up at the doors of your embassy, in Ferdowsi Avenue, and we'll go off together."
He picked me up alone; he was driving his car alone. I think there were ... I noticed a car behind, that's all right. And off we went. And we went round the other.... And I said to myself, after about two hours -- it was very interesting -- "Why -- he's such a busy man -- why does he want to take me all around southern Tehran? He's a friend, but I mean.... You know, it's very nice, but it's not all that important for him." And yet, on the way back ... it was very subtle, you had to really listen to it, but what it came to -- and I assure you, I'm not kidding -- he was really ... I mean, he was wanting me to use my influence with the Shah to make him prime minister.
Q. I thought he was so close to Hoveida?
A. And that's a fact. Now isn't that interesting? And the point is that, if he'd known the circumstances which we are talking about, that the opportunities for any British ambassador -- and I'm pretty certain, I can't talk for him, I'm pretty certain it went for Denis Wright's eight years there, too -- to actually discuss, or the Shah asking your opinion, about who should be prime minister, or that, are very, very rare -- few and far between.
Didn't you get that impression from Denis?
Q. Yes. Yes. I'd like <unclear>.
A. No, no. I know. I'm not.... Of course you do, but I mean, I....
A. I don't think I'm saying anything different. And yet, almost impossible for Iranians to accept that. And here's a man as intelligent as Nikpay, as Westernized as Nikpay, who thought still ... something in him was very, very Persian, and he believed that.... He didn't ask the American ambassador this. He's much more powerful.
Q. So basically, the major points of discussion between the British ambassador and the Shah were foreign policy and commercial?
A. Foreign policy, that's right. Foreign policy, commercial. And general. I mean, he very much appreciated assessments of what we thought the Russians were up to, what was really happening in Afghanistan, and that sort of thing. I mean, he liked talking about these things; he liked a global view. And on the oil industry, which I knew a certain amount about; I'd been head of the oil department in the Foreign Office in the Mossadegh days. And all that. He liked to know about that and discuss that. But he didn't welcome discussions of.... And, of course, if there were a Queen's visit, we'd talk about Persepolis and those sort of internal things. But he didn't really want to talk about his policies in the country.
Unless I had.... Supposing I had the British minister of Education out to stay with me, and I took him to see the Shah for a talk he was interested in. And he'd talk about education and schools. And he'd talk about his education program, and comment, and that sort of thing. That's different. But I don't think he'd want to talk with me about it unless I had some visitor who sparked it off. I think that's fair.
Q. Now, <unclear> talk to me about this sort of frame of mind among some Iranians, they would say, "Yes, the British ambassador wouldn't be involved in this kind of discussion. But the MI-6 man who went to see the Shah every week, he was the one who would be talking to him about these subjects."
A. I don't think so. I don't think so. It depends. Some of them, in the past, may have done, may have had those discussions. I don't think so, because I saw all their reports. I mean, the great thing about MI-6, as you call it, abroad, as compared with the CIA -- Well, it's better now -- is that the American ambassador didn't control the CIA properly. He knew they had to be kept informed, like that, but he didn't control them.
Whereas I'd have been absolutely furious -- furious -- if the MI-6 representative and his staff had done anything or said anything like that, which I didn't know about.
A. Oh, yes. I couldn't ... I didn't necessarily.... Quite often I would ask them to find something out for me, and this type of thing like that. And I didn't control them wholly, in that sense, I mean, they had their office, and all that. And from the point of view of the people who they operated with, Iranians that they operated with, and the SAVAK, that all went on every day.
But I used to go and have dinner with Nasiri and my MI-6 representative, and all that type of thing. It was very much more intimate. I very much doubt if that happened on the American ambassador's side. I don't know. He might have become.... Certainly it didn't in the earlier days.
So, I don't think that.... And I saw all reports. So I can't recall anything of substance that went on between the Shah and an embassy representative that was of a different dimension to what the Shah and I talked about. I'd have remembered it if I had. I don't remember it.
Q. What was the purpose of this <unclear>?
A. I think he liked.... First place, I think he liked the personal touch of someone who didn't represent the whole weight.... It was rather ... it was a slight facade ... it didn't represent the weight of the foreign secretary and all that, as I did. Where what he said to me would be recorded in an official telegram or something from the British ambassador.
There was a convention, which he accepted -- it worked very well and improved over the years -- that he was chatting with somebody who ... with whom he could convey points informally. It was very, very useful. And I made use of it, because there were things, little things, that one could ... a word one could put in on this, that, or the other, which I didn't want to make too heavy or weighty in a direct exchange. And also, they were very good. I mean, they knew what the Shah wanted to know. They knew what the Israeli intelligence were up to, and all those sort of things. And all these different things like that, which were very useful for him. I think that was a very important.... It went back for many years, you know, the connection there.
Q. Was the man a younger type? Or was he sort of the same...?
A. A younger type. Oh, yes. Yes, younger type, and ... some years before I came, he'd be.... I mean, the Shah was younger. I mean they'd go off to the night clubs together, perhaps. That sort of relationship, you know, in the past. And I think helpful. But never was there a ... to my knowledge, not in my time -- and I don't recall stories of it before -- where that particular connection was doing something not in line with what the ambassador was doing. I don't think so.
I can ask you a question? I don't see why I shouldn't. Have you got ... I mean from your talking with all the other ... some of the other names you mentioned and so on, have you had a different impresssion from that?
A. No. I mean, you....
Q. While you were there, what impression did you have of the Queen's, of Shahbanou Farah's, power? And role?
A. Ahhhh. On certain things.... On cultural matters, at one time, very considerable. And I think she did have a quieting effect on him, a sort of soothing effect on him. And it was very remarkable. I mean, if she made a ... if she went to Kerman, Hoveida would go with her, and it would be a process. It wouldn't.... She had a ... the Shah obviously.... And that couldn't have happened if the Shah didn't wish it to happen. So one must assume that he attached importance, too, to her playing that role. And the ... with all the festival at Persepolis, and that ... which I think she carried much too far, incidentally. I think she must have shocked a lot of mullahs in some of the things she put on. Which probably had some effect on what happened later, I'm afraid. That's a minus I put against her.
But in all other respects she was a great plus. My wife saw a lot of her. They used to ... they did together ... they ... all the ancient costumes, you may remember if you were there at the time, and they all paraded together. And the history of the women's costumes down the ages in Persia. All those things she did beautifully. And we took distinguished people to see her too. No, I think she led ... perhaps she was used to it, but I mean he had his own\amours\quite separate from her, which were fairly crude. And I don't think she could have liked that very much.
Q. But in the area of politics, do you think she had much influence?
A. No, I don't. None at all politically. I mean, in terms of: "Shall I sack those admirals?" or whatever it is ... or Abu Musa, Tunbs ... none at all. I doubt if they talked about it. I doubt that.
But they had these reunions: Mondays was with his mother ... and I've forgotten, you know. And occasionally one went to these things and one could sort of get some sort of atmosphere. It was all right.
But I think her cultural influence was considerable. She raised standards. And a lot of the things that ... she was so intelligent, and a lot of the projects that she backed were invaluable, I think. And he wouldn't have thought of them.
Q. How about Princess Ashraf?
A. I didn't know her so well. I think by the time I got there, you see -- I'm talking about ... I got there in '71 -- she'd played her role, in a sense.
Q. I see.
A. I think I'm right. You'll recollect better than I do. But I think from '71 onwards she wasn't there very much.
Q. In Europe and America.
A. In Europe and America most of the time. I only saw her ... I met her once or twice ... saw her in America, actually. I think the influences had been before. Denis Wright would have spoken about that better than I would.
His brothers I saw a certain amount of. And ... his brother-in-law, particularly, who was the head of the air force, who died, unfortunately.
Q. What was he like?
A. I liked him. He was a sort of ... he was out of one of these American comic magazines -- not comic -- magazines. I mean, he was very good-looking, incredibly brave, did everything, and was all very macho, you know. And his wife, of course, the Shah's younger sister, they were very cheerful. They used to have one to supper there. And this enormous cinema screen would appear from the ground, and we'd.... It was all very nice, like that, but fairly superficial and rather childish, if you like. But he was a marvellous ... very ... I mean he built up the Amer-- ... Iranian air force, you know. He was very good.
Q. You almost said "American air force".
A. Well, it was. Yes, yes. Well, of course it had to be. How can you...? I mean, so it is in all countries.
Q. What did your air force people think of his competence?
A. Oh, I think very much.
Q. Was he as good as they say he was?
A. Oh, I think so. I mean, he was.... I'd been High Commissioner in Cyprus before that, as you know, and I had a certain interest in that. But one time when we arranged ... and the Iranian air force, the Phantoms, under his command did an exercise over Cyprus and round and back. It's a very difficult thing to do, I mean technically, so I'm told. And our people, who are pretty critical, you know, like sort of saying, "Only we can do it" -- they were very well impressed. I think he was the best ... I think that was the best of your three services ... at that time. As I recall.
Q. Why was Asadollah Alam so close to British ambassadors?
A. That's a very good question. I think he.... He was very close to them. I think he just liked the British ... way. I don't know how ... I don't know when it all started. Did it go back...? I mean, Denis Wright particularly, they used to ride together, they had so much in common, used to go skiing together in Europe. Did it go back beyond Denis? It did, did it?
Q. I don't know. Before that, you mean?
Q. I don't know.
A. That would have been Harrison's days, and.... I don't know, but he was certainly.... And I inherited all that from Denis, and saw a great deal of him. Although I didn't go riding with him in the same way, but.... I think he just ... they liked each other. I think he liked our ways, and ... I don't think he was very.... I don't think he was particularly enamored of the American way. I think he rather -- I'm only guessing now -- I think he likened himself a little bit to the English aristocrat. Which is not the same as the American tycoon.
A. I think so. And out in.... Where was he out? In...?
A. Birjand. I don't know. You know that part of the world is very much a world of its own there. And ... I mean, he gave me when I left one of the carpets they'd made at Birjand and all that. I think it was.... He was a great ... I think a great "Marcher Baron", who lived on the Welsh Marches in the fourteenth century. I mean, he was a kinglet, a duke, in his domain. That's British ... in a sense. Looking after his people, rather stern. And some people had had their heads cut off, well, too bad, that's to keep law and order, but it's fair. And so on.
And that's not an American concept at all. I'm only guessing, but I suspect that's where the affinity lies. And riding, and all these things -- honor -- acts of honor and dignity. He liked that.
Q. What sort of influence do you think he had over the Shah?
A. Enormous. Well, I don't think anybody.... I think the Shah was quite extraordinary. For a man who was initially weak, in one sense, as it came out later, I think ... I don't suppose.... I mean, I think he prevented the Shah doing things; I doubt if he made him do many things. I think that's true of them all. But I'm sure he was probably the most influential -- consistently -- on different subjects. And the Shah relied on him enormously, and he was invaluable to him ... used him.
And they had had this boyhood experience, you know. As, indeed, Shahpour Reporter had. This is where the.... The Shah couldn't trust anybody, so he had to go right back to his childhood to find these links, I think.
But I think he had a great deal of influence. Certainly, every message, everything I wanted, immediately went to the Shah. I mean, he just had his ear all the time. Because he never stopped, you see. Every day he saw him. I mean, he never had an evening to himself.
I always felt sorry for her. He had a lovely home; I used to go to his lovely home. He hardly used his home.
Q. By "her" you mean Mrs. Alam?
A. His wife, yes. Who is now in London.
A. Because, I mean, it wasn't ... he isn't ... he was a very fine husband, but he'd ... given his life to the Shah. It wasn't a home life.
Q. There are those friends of his who say that he was sort of disenchanted in the last years of his life because he had no longer any influence.
A. I think he was probably quite happy to die. Because I don't think he had any other interests in his life. His children turned out unhappily. And nothing went well. I think he died at the right time. A lovely man. So nice-looking.
Q. Did you ever get to meet or know General Fardoust?
A. Not well. Yes. You've seen him, have you?
Q. General Fardoust.
A. Oh, General Fardoust, who was at the....
Q. He was in the intelligence in Iran and Iraq, and there were all kinds of stories....
A. All the stories about him now. I knew him. He was number something or other -- I don't remember what -- in my day. There was another, a number two, in SAVAK who I used to ... it began with M ... who I saw a lot of. Very intelligent man -- I've forgotten his name.
A. Yes. Something like that. That's right. Mo'tazed. So I do certainly remember him. Well, you ask me names, but I wouldn't be as good on ... I wouldn't be all that good on them. What was the other thing I was going to say? Something.... Well, never mind.
Q. What do you remember about Hoveida?
A. An amusing man. You smile even asking me about him. Because everybody does. There's a man of great civilization and culture. But the French stamp never left him. He was ... it came through. And if you talk about the Shah or Asadollah ... favoring, if you like, the British, well Hoveida had the same attitude to France. Partly his upbringing, and partly the ... he had worked for the French ... the IPC and all that, in the oil industry. And an amusing, witty man. It's very sad. Poor Hoveida.
But I don't think he had a lot of scruples, either. He couldn't do. Not very easy to hold that job as long as he did and keep going, you know, with a man as difficult as the Shah. As his successor showed. I mean, look what happened after him. So if you compare him with what happened after. Someone as intelligent as Amouzegar -- what happened to him. It shows what a good job Hoveida did in the circumstances, I would think. It has to be relative. You can't judge him in the absolute. And he was witty, and amusing, and....
I didn't have many occasions when I actually saw him with the Shah. I did with other people, but I never saw him just when the two were there, so I can't judge. I should think it'd be a sad spectacle. I suspect. Because the Shah....
Q. Did you have any occasion to meet with the foreign minister? Or were all your dealings with the Shah?
A. Oh, no. Mostly with ... I mean, I'd see the foreign minister on day-to-day things.
A. Oh, yes. And it was rightly so. And it's unfair -- but I made a point of it. I mean I wouldn't.... It's not fair on Zahedi, who wasn't a very good foreign minister; he was too ebullient and powerful in other respects. But poor Khal'atbari, it was very unfair, poor man. I would make a point of telling him everything. I mean, because I'm a civil servant; I'm trained that way. If I'd been a ... if I was a political appointment, I might not have thought like that. But you can't run a country ... and a foreign ministry, which has to send instructions to ambassadors, can't operate if the foreign minister is not fully in the picture. And although I needn't have done so all the time, I made a point of -- and I think it's right -- of Khal'atbari knowing pretty well everything I was telling the Shah. Had to build him up, you know. It was very important to do that.
That's a nice man. Courteous. A charming wife. Very nice person. Oh -- so sad. He never asked to be foreign minister, want to be ... elevated to that and then killed. Very sad. But I liked him a lot.
And Ardeshir rang me up last week. He's over ... he was over in London. He's just left. Gone back to Geneva. I don't know, I suppose he lives surrounded by guards, does he? Security guards?
Q. I don't know....
A. He was a character. Because the Americans had never seen anything like him, when he was ambassador there. They never quite got over ... caviar every day .... A character.
Q. What's happened recently with the BBC? How do you now look back at the Shah's sort of suspicion that the BBC in fact....
Q. ...listened to the foreign office...?
A. Yes. Well, I think it's still the case. I think it's still the case. I mean, it just.... I think it's the exception that proves the rule. I think it must have been a great shock to the BBC when the prime minister, or whoever it was, let it be known that this couldn't happen. Because he was such a.... I mean, it was thought to be such a monstrous thing that the exception must be risked despite the sort of conclusion that you might draw from it, and others. I think it was the exception. And I think it's very rare.
It may have not had that effect, but it was certainly not true in my day. I was always in trouble because Panorama never sent their top team to Iran. Their top team would probably go around the UK or to America, at the most, <unclear>, and they were usually second-rate people who came out. Who were wanting to make their name cheaply and quickly. Which is so easy to do. And therefore they would go and televise some scene of poverty in Esfahan or something like that and present it. And of course the Shah was furious. And over-react.
Q. Did he actually see the films? Did they fly them over?
A. Oh, I think so. Or he'd get a report on them, and that sort of thing. And he always thought, as you know, that the BBC Persian Service was riddled with people who opposed him. Which was not true. But those were <?> things. I mean, those things every British ambassador had to accept and go on. They recurred, and one would quiet him. And I remember, as I told you, on one of these occasions, when I felt angry and indignant, and said, "You really must consult me before reacting on these things, then I will explain." So they became fairly frequent, but you'll never get that out of their mind. It's still part of this suspicion, the Nikpay Syndrome, we can call it, which everybody has. And I suspect most of your countrymen have it.
A. And will always have it. Even if the Archangel appeared and assured everybody that this was so in 1700 or whenever it is, it is not so now, they would still half-think that, not wholly, but half-think. So there's nothing you can do. You just have to live with it. In my judgment.
Q. I have one last question.
A. It's interesting.
Q. My last question has to do with the -- what shall I say? -- extent or.... Well, anyhow, I won't put it that way. To what extent, if any, did the British embassy, including its intelligence arm, maintain contact with the clergy?
A. Well, I wish we had more. We didn't. We didn't. Or hardly at all. I mean, for instance, when I was there, I only just knew about Khomeini as a name. And that was.... And one of the reasons -- this is obvious -- but one of the reasons why we didn't was that, in a sense, the clergy would be regarded.... If we'd done that, the Shah would have regarded that as potential opposition to him. Anything was potential opposition, apart from his own contacts. SAVAK, which was everywhere, would have reported in some, probably exaggerated, way, whatever the contacts were, however minor they were.
I was in contact with the Kurdish leader, who came to my ... insisted on seeing me in my garden at Gholhak. I rang up Asadollah beforehand to tell him. To avoid any exaggerated stories from some SAVAK person, probably on my own staff, who would have reported it. You see?
So, how do you manage? It's not very ... it's not very bold, it's not a very dignified thing to say, but the fact is that if, like Britain, we were wanting to sell a lot of Chieftain tanks to the Shah, have a quiet life, and increase Britain's balance of payments, and all that. And here you had a man who overreacted very quickly. Why risk losing a British interest -- which is what the government's job in life for the British people is, to advance the British interest -- by making a contact with somebody else in a time when, as far as we could see, there was no reason why the Shah shouldn't continue?
We weren't in favor of him, but, I mean, the alternatives were not as good, probably. And he was in charge of the services; as I say, he sacked his admiral. As far as I could see, SAVAK was loyal to him; the army was loyal to him. He'd got a regency arrangement if he died suddenly, with the Queen and Asadollah and others ... Eghbal, I think. I've forgotten what it was. And I went into all that. There was no reason to believe.... Lots of discontent: students, goodness knows what.
And one of my last.... I wrote a valedictory dispatch in December '73, before I left for America, which was what? --six years before he went -- summing things up. In which I said that the only possible discontent was the mullahs, I thought -- or words to that effect. I remember the passage. Because they ... I always felt that the mullahs in Persia, whatever you may say about some of them, were exceptional in Moslem countries -- very close to their villages, very close to their villagers. If you travelled, as I did, a lot, they actually, the good ones, represented their villages. They knew what was going on. They were good people. They weren't like the Buddhists in some of these countries, just political creatures. They were good people. They minded.
And I felt -- and I picked it up somewhere -- they were getting ... they minded, they resented the vulgarization of Tehran, for instance. The vulgarity which was coming in with all this get-rich-quick industrialization. The dollar and the pound, it's always the vulgar and ugly side of British and American civilization -- not what you know. It's the ugly side that comes in when you drag imports in, and people coming out to make money quickly in Iran. All that was hurting Iran.
It's one of the oldest cultures in the world -- this wonderful country -- and deep religious roots in the people, moral and religious roots. You've only got to travel around the villages to feel that and know that. And here was all this cheap vulgarity and porn -- all sorts of things coming in. That must have hurt and shocked -- and I'm sure it did -- a lot of the mullahs. We were talking about mullahs. A lot of ordinary Iranians, too. Secular people, who were religious. And I felt that.
And you've only got to see these doctors in Tehran, with their enormous swimming pools and the like. It was bad. It was greed. Greed had got in. And the Shah had let it in. It's part of what we were saying about allowing corruption just because it was <unclear>. He didn't understand too much about that. And that upset them. I remember saying that I thought sometime there would be a reaction. That's as near as I got in my valedictory in '73 to saying that there were feelings against the Shah and his policies. I remember that.
So, my contacts with the mullahs were nil, virtually, apart from the.... Well, one had ... reports, you know, came in. One knew a little bit about it. We never made a point of doing that for the reasons I've explained. It would be too costly and risky.
The same about opposition generally. I know some American young people in the State Department have said that they should have done more of this, that, and the other. But they would have spent ... there was a big price they would have paid if they had tried. Don't you think? I mean, they could have done it, but at what price?
Q. Well, one thing that surprised me, and still surprises me: how was it that the West didn't know about the Shah's illness?
A. Well, I think ... I mean, I knew when I was ... in '73, I was one of the few people who knew that French doctors were coming out, not only to see his mother, but to look at him. Because he had skin cancer at that time. I think. It may have been worse than that. That was in '73. So we did know about it. But then he got better, I think. I don't know too much about that. I do remember it happened in my day, and I was sworn to secrecy about this by Asadollah or somebody. And it was because his mother was also being treated. Was it his mother? Or somebody else? Anyhow, the doctors were coming out then. Already. Isn't that right? About as early as that.
And we don't know what happened later. But of course this is what ... one of the main factors that undid the Shah and debilitated him, that he lost confidence and decision-making. Which was only one ... as a young man ... he didn't have any young men. It was a fairly artificial thing he'd got for himself, as I've explained. And that could be taken from you. And if you go.... If you're not surrounded by love, which he lacked all his life, and being cared for, you really lose strength very quickly.
And I imagine ... others after me, Parsons, will know much better than I did, but I think that must have been a big factor. It sapped his will.
Q. What was the effect of Mr. Alam's swearing you to secrecy? Does that mean that...?
A. Yes. I think at the time he didn't want it generally known.... I exaggerated perhaps by saying "swearing to secrecy", but he didn't want it generally known that the Shah was being visited by doctors.
Q. According to the American doctors who looked at <him>, it seems that they didn't know he had cancer until he was in exile.
A. I don't think he did have proper cancer til then. I think he had a skin cancer very early on. And they probably cured him.
Q. Did the Foreign Office know that he had skin cancer?
A. I think they did. But skin cancer -- I mean, President Reagan has skin cancer.
A. It's not very serious. And, as far as I know -- I left in '74 -- as far as I know, he got over it and there was nothing more heard of it. I don't know. But I do know -- remember -- that at the time. And it may have scared him, unknown to us at the time. As it may scare Reagan unknown to us. We don't know. Although he's much older.
Q. I'd never heard this about the skin cancer. I had assumed that from the beginning it was the same kind of whatever cancer he had.
A. Well, I think it was skin cancer. Again, my memory's so bad. But I do remember French doctors then.
A. You knew that, did you?
Q. Well, I recently found out, after one interview. I didn't know....
A. I mean, somebody else told you, did they?
Q. Oh, yes. Yes.
A. Yes. Yes. Oh, good. I mean, I don't think I invented that, but....
Q. No. No. This is general knowledge....
A. The French doctors....
Q. ...now we know that they were....
A. Well I think the French doctors were skin cancer. I think. That could be easily ... somebody ought to check that. I may be wrong. Or they may have been general cancer doctors. I don't know.
Q. But I don't think they were too serious about it. I didn't take it seriously because Asadollah didn't take it seriously. That's why I think they were skin cancer. If it had been something else....
Q. It sounds like he had made that up.
A. Maybe. Maybe that's what he told me.
Q. You know, as camouflage for something more serious.
A. Maybe. It could have been. I mean, in which case I was taken in, because I didn't.... I accepted that. Probably -- almost certainly -- reported it.
A. But I never thought of it at that time as something that would debilitate the Shah. Otherwise I would have included it in my assessment at the end. With the mullahs and all the rest of it. But I never did. Don't think I did. Well, one makes mistakes.
Q. Well, I'd like to express my gratitude for ... your time.
A. Well, there it is. There it is.
Copyright © 2003 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard University)
Dr. Habib Ladjevardi
Iranian Oral History Project
Center for Middle Eastern Studies
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Cambridge, MA 02138