Amir Abbas Hoveyda
Parviz C. Radji

Personal Assistant to A.A. Hoveyda 1965-1976
London, April 7, 1999

By any standards, Amir Abbas Hoveyda, whose execution twenty years ago today this site commemorates, was a remarkable man. To his high intelligence, vast erudition and quick mind, he brought a generosity of spirit, a personal charm and affability that disarmed even the most vociferous of his critics. It took the tragic events of the final chapter of his life to demonstrate that he was richly endowed with courage and loyalty as well.

However, in any reference to the personality of Hoveyda, it would be disingenuous to ignore the one criticism most persistently levelled against him, as much by his political opponents as by his loyal supporters: namely, that he became too easily seduced by the superficial trappings of power to resist when policies went against his principles, or to let go when he knew that his continued incumbency served no useful purpose.

This is, perhaps, not an unfair criticism. Thirteen years in office for an elected prime minister, is a lifetime; for an appointed one, it is an eternity. Modern political life demands change for change's sake, as people tire in time of the physiognomy and rhetoric of their political leaders. Though he confessed privately but frequently that the Shah's concept of dialogue was "I speak, you listen," Hoveyda stayed on, or more accurately, was asked to stay on, twelve years as prime minister, one as court minister. So did a vast number of those who for years served in an infinite variety of senior positions under the monarchy. It would be foolish to imply that those who remained with the regime were not at times at variance with its policies, even to the point of resignation. To say, however, that those who did not resign their office thought the Shah's regime flawless, is as absurd as to say that those who did resign were against everything that the Shah had done. Ultimately, those who identified with the Shah's aims, even if not with his methods, had to choose between staying with the regime in the hope, however faint, of influencing things from within, or rejecting the entire system in order to shout abuse from the sidelines as political outcasts. This was a national dilemna , which the person of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, in the most acute form, came to embody.

Not that any but the most intimate of his associates ever had the slightest inkling of his inner doubts and reservations. Outwardly, his unquestioning support of the Shah's policies was the very prerequisite of the retention of his high office. On only two occasions, as far as I know, did this facade of imperturbability suffer a visible and public slippage. The first, in 1973, was when a close personal friend of the monarch and a certified drug user, was arrested at Geneva airport with a small quantity of opium in his possession. Over the objections of the Swiss authorities, the Shah allowed his friend to plead diplomatic immunity and board the royal plane bound for Tehran. Apprised of the situation by telephone, Hoveyda met the Shah on his return at the airport, and when the matter was brought up by the Shah, Hoveyda said that the demand of the Swiss authorities for detaining the man should have been complied with. When the Shah explained that the detention of the man, who was medically registered as an addict, would have meant his certain death, Hoveyda replied that that would have been preferable "to leaving ourselves open to the charge of drug smuggling via the royal plane". Stunned by the impudence of Hoveyda, the Shah turned his back and boarded his helicopter without saying goodbye to his prime minister. Next day, the international media led by the Swiss and the French press reminded the world that to date, Iran had executed over a hundred people for drug smuggling but that the royal entourage was obviously immune from such disagreeable consequences.

For four days, the Shah refused to contact Hoveyda. As rumours speculated about the prime minister's imminent departure, Hoveyda let it be known through trusted intermediaries that he would go quietly if asked. But as the scandal eventually showed signs of abatement, Hoveyda was gradually permitted back into royal favour.

The other occasion relates to the Shah's public announcement in 1975 that henceforth Iran was to be a one party system. The look of shocked disbelief and bewilderment on the face of his prime minister made it abundantly clear to one and all that this was the first he was hearing of so radical a decision. On this occasion, however, the question of resignation did not even arise.

Why not, one may well ask, if the Shah's initiatives, on these and on other occasions, went so much against the grain of Hoveyda's convictions? One can only speculate, but from my knowledge of the man, I believe it was the enormity of the gratitude Hoveyda felt to his sovereign that, despite frequent reservations, impelled him to toe the line unquestioningly. From a vast reservoir of more senior candidates, the Shah had hand-picked him in 1965 from virtual obscurity, to entrust him with the highest appointed office in the land. He had bestowed upon his prime minister the grandest honours that lay in his gift. As time went by, he came not only to trust Hoveyda completely, but to rely on his invaluable advice with increasing frequency. Given the Shah's autocratic nature and tendency to hold on to every lever of power, no prime minister of Than could ever regard himself more than an executor of his sovereign's wishes. And yet within the confines of these clearly defined roles, the Shah held Hoveyda's intelligence and ability in the highest regard, persuaded for no less than twelve years that no one could serve him with greater competence or honesty than Amir Abbas. There was also the added, and hugely important, dimension of the Shah's personal affection for Hoveyda, an affection that had preserved the prime minister in office despite the unceasing machinations of the more influential members of the Shah's family, and those of Hoveyda's impatient and powerful potential successors. Even though the Shah was a rigid protocolaire and disciplinarian, outwardly lacking in any manifestation of warmth or approachability, Hoveyda was allowed on informal occasions to converse with his sovereign, with a glass of whisky in one hand and pistachio nuts in the other. No prime minister of Iran, including the Shah's boyhood friend, Amir Assadollah Alam, was ever permitted an equal degree of public intimacy in the royal presence.

Of all this, Hoveyda was acutely aware. Whatever the political considerations over which he agonised privately, his basic humanity and quintessential decency prevented him from distancing himself from an individual who had been his undoubted benefactor for so long. And in any case, even if he had wanted to--and I find it difficult to concede that he ever even contemplated it-- there was, after so many years of close association, no conceivable manner in which his reservations about the Shah's policies could be expressed without bringing upon himself the label, either of a perfidious defeafist or of a self-serving and contemptible opportunist.

By the autumn of 1978, battered by the upheavals unleashed by his political liberalisation from without, and ravaged by his cancer from within, the Shah succumbed to the demands of Hoveyda's known opponents by placing him under house arrest. Until then, he had resolutely upheld that "to put Hoveyda on trial was tantamount to placing the regime on trial".  Now, enfeebled in his resolve and desperate to stem the tide of popular discontent that inexorably rose to engulf him, he was offering his trusted and loyal aide as a sacrificial piece to appease the call for blood.

The Shah left Iran in January 1979. As an avid student of French history and revolution, Hoveyda must have known the fate that awaited him. His trial, a judicial farce by any criterion, comprised two impromptu sessions convened in the middle of the night. When the local papers reported that he had cried during the opening session, he seized the occasion of his second appearance to deny he had ever cried, or that he would ever cry. Though he asked that his actions be judged by a court of law and stated that his "hands were tainted with neither blood nor money," he knew that in the revolutionary turmoil of the times, a "people's tribunal," presided over by an Islamic equivalent of Fouquier-Tinville would inevitably be the order of the day. It is a tribute to Hoveyda's strength of character, his immense courage and abiding loyalty that to the end, he maintained the utmost dignity and, despite enormous pressure, not once disparaged his departed sovereign. It will also remain one of the cruel ironies of Iranian history that the man who rescued Amir Abbas Hoveyda from political obscurity to elevate him to the rank of Iran's longest serving prime minister, also bears the ultimate responsibility for abandoning him to his executioners.

Parviz Raji was Ambassador of Iran to the UK. He is the author of  "In the Service of the Peacock Throne -
The Diaries of the Shah's Last Ambassador to London."
published by Hamish Hamilton: London.

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