From The Archives

Cozying Up to Murderous Despots — What Could Go Wrong?

Before Mohammed bin Salman, the elite feted the Shah of Iran, despite all the blood on his hands


As more information is leaked about the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by minions of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, we were reminded of another royal family in the region. In the mid-1970s, much of Washington’s elite and a swath of America’s glitterati welcomed the Shah of Iran, in spite of the fact that he was a known torturer and murderer of his own citizens. In the November 14, 1977, issue of the Village Voice, Alexander Cockburn, James Ridgeway, and Jan Albert wrote that when the Shah had been crowned a decade earlier, “Virtually every king was there except Kong. In a tented city a goodly proportion of the executives, chiselers, and spongers of western capitalism gathered to marvel and stayed to gorge at a coming-out gala for a regime of unexampled savagery.” The writers pointed out that Iran’s ambassador to the U.S. had the political insight to realize that “one star-studded bash, well-reported in the gossip columns, can do much to offset a couple of Amnesty reports about torture and a few intellectuals detailing exactly how the Shah’s secret police ripped out their fingernails.”

Which is pretty gruesome, but if current reports coming out of the Turkish news media are correct — that Khashoggi’s fingers were severed and he was beheaded and dismembered — then we are dealing with a regime every bit as bloodthirsty as the Shah’s. As the Voice reported back then, the rich and powerful had been happy to turn a blind eye to the brutality: “An invitation from [Iran’s ambassador] is something to be cherished,” Buffy Cafritz, the wife of a big-time political donor, told the Voice at the time, adding, “He invites all the glamour people — Polly Bergen and Diana Vreeland came to the Warhol party.”

When asked what she thought of the Shah’s record of torture, and whether she had questioned the ambassador about it, she elided the question with the response, “He’s not anti-American.” Then she elaborated: “At almost all of his parties he makes after-dinner speeches toasting the friendship of Iran and America. He is a good friend of America’s. Besides, these reports are exaggerated. There are open lines of communication between our countries and the Shah is our friend.”

Just as now, apparently, Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, and Mohammed bin Salman are each a “good friend” of America. MBS is, according to President Trump, a particularly good friend, because he is buying somewhere north of $100 billion worth of American arms (although many sources are reporting that number as being actually much smaller, with some arriving at a total below $4 billion).

In November 1977, the Iranian revolution and the fall of the Shah were only months away. The U.S. has spent the intervening years painstakingly repairing the bad blood between the two countries, a difficult process that the international community felt was bearing fruit…until President Trump pulled America out of the Iran nuclear deal this past May. Instead, the leader of the free world has placed his faith in the likes of the Saudi crown prince. As the articles on the pages below remind us, cozying up to murderous despots rarely comes to a good end.