Beautiful Butchers: The Shah Serves Up Caviar and Torture
November 14, 1977
The proof that torture can look better through a champagne glass and taste better after a mouthful of caviar will be provided next Tuesday by the arrival in the United States of someone who can boast of a most notable achievement: He has made torturers chic. Though Hitler won the admiration of half the British upper classes in the 1930’s, even he could not make the same boast.
Yet the Shah of Iran, whose own father was so ardent an admirer of the Nazis that he abdicated in 1941, can claim a double distinction: being the bane of the U.S. taxpayers (who paid the bills for his installation on the Peacock Throne and his maintenance thereafter) and being at the same time the toast of the smart set in Washington, New York, Paris, and London. Thus does the Shah differ from Idi Amin or the Emperor Bokassa, for, though as many prisoners scream in his torture chambers and face his firing squads, he is socially okay — and so are his emissaries abroad.
The social success of the Shah in the galaxy of international despots is the end result of a careful campaign, premised on two vital ingredients: snobbery and cash. Barbara Walters was recently able to confide to her ABC audience that, “There aren’t too many kings and queens around these days. Of the handful left, two couples have particular fascination for Americans. England’s own Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. And, for different, reasons, the Shah and Empress of Iran.
It was not always thus for the House of Pahlavi. The Shah can race a regal ancestry only to his father, Reza Shah, a fellow of common origins who was hoisted onto the Peacock Throne in the ’20s by the British. Reza Shah’s achievements — apart from looting the Iranian people in a fairly methodical manner — included the introduction of torture on a wide scale. Thus, when the present Shah was finally and securely installed on the throne in 1953 with the help oft he CIA, he was not particularly well placed to be a truly fashionable monarch.
But gradually he inched ahead of his peers, who at that time included such U.S. clients as Battista of Cuba and Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. Neither of those gentlemen ever had truly overweening social ambitions beyond the amassing of huge fortunes and the total control of their dominions. The Shah’s thoughts, however, always soared higher and he yearned to be placed in the national historical pantheon ranging back to the ancient Persian kings.
And in the eyes or international society, at least, he achieved his ambition with the famed coronation at Persepolis in 1967. 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.
Since then the Shah has gone from strength to strength, most notably in the boom days since the oil price hikes of 1973. Tehran is, as they say, the Mecca of every investment banker, industrialist, arms salesman, developer, and straightforward adventurer with a prospectus in one pocket and a bribe in the other.
Steady accrual of status was expressed through the increasing social success of the Shah’s plenipotentiaries abroad — most notably in the career of Ardeshir Zahedi, the present Iranian ambassador in Washington. This Zahedi’s father, General Fuzullah Zahedi, was one of those instrumental in securing the throne for the Shah in 1953. The son himself was once married to the Shah’s daughter. His function in Washington has been that of every ambassador: to lie abroad for his country. Zahedi — as is evidenced in the gossip columns weekly — has managed to sell the beautiful people on torture by the simple expedient of throwing large parties, amply furnished with caviar. He mastered, you might say, the political economy of Elizabeth Taylor and realized 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.
Zahedi threw the parties and in they came. Henry Kissinger, Nancy Kissinger, Senator Ed Brooke, Elizabeth Taylor dancing wildly with Senator Ed Brooke, Marion Javits, paid by the Iranians for the pleasure of her PR. William Rogen, John Murphy, John Lindsay, Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, Julian Goodman, Gregory and Veronique Peck, Phyllis and Bob Evans, the Baroness Stackelberg, Mrs. Drew Pearson, Page Lee Hufty, Polly Bergen, Buffy Cafritz, Sandra McElwaine, Diane von Furstenberg, David Frost, Mr. and Mrs. Tom Braden, Mrs. Frank Ikard, Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol, Yolanda Fox, even Birch Bayh. On and on the list of names goes, and on and on the parties go too: the political crowd, the Hollywood crowd, the art crowd, and the straight tacky crowd.
How do they like the parties and their host? Here’s a fairly representative series of remarks from Mrs. Bill Cafritz, wife of a Washington builder. “Every adjective in the book has been used to describe Ardeshir,” she confided to The Voice‘s Jan Albert a few months back. “He’s a warm, marvelous host, expert with food and wines. He’s not just an ordinary host. His centerpieces are famous. He’s had glass globes with flowers coming out of them. For Andy Warhol’s party he had hearts with Campbell soup cans. All his parties, in every detail, from food to music to guests to decor are highly imaginative. He makes every guest feel that he is intent and interested in them. An invitation from Ardeshir is something to be cherished. He invites all the glamour people — Polly Bergen and Diana Vreeland came to the Warhol party.”
Mrs. Cafritz was then asked how she felt about the matter of torture in Iran, and whether she had asked Zahedi about it. “He’s not anti-American,” she replied. “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. It’s not for me to make judgements. They should be made at a higher level. Everyone just has the best to say about him.”
To a similar sort of query from Jan Albert, Mrs. Frank Ikard (wife of the head of the American Petroleum Institute) stressed the beauties of Zahedi’s character — “the most kind, warm-hearted man, the friendliest and most outgoing” — while taking a balanced view on the matter of torture. “I have never been interested in international news,” she said. adding that she was the kind of person who felt we should “clean things up in our own back yard first. Besides, if you had a brother who was a black sheep I wouldn’t hold it against you. These reports are largely youthful mutterings. Anyway, Ardeshir’s house is not the place to find out such things.” She added that her son, a reporter in Iran for the Tehran Journal, had never mentioned such subjects to her.
And so it goes — from Elizabeth Taylor through fascist chic’s recording angel, Andy Warhol, with his Polaroid and his tape recorder.
Would they all go to a similar sort of bash, hosted by Amin’s Washington envoy? Probably not, for reasons of taste. And of course there is the fact that the Iranians are, as you might say, sophisticated — and not even Arabs at that: the children of Xerxes rather than Ham.
If the Shah’s regime were not so repulsive, there would be something pathetic about his pronounced social ambitions and desire to make his palace a haven for the rich, the famous, and the beautiful. Not so long ago it was the turn of Farrah Fawcett-Majors to rest up in the shadow of the Peacock Throne. In his arriviste dreams, said one journalist long in Tehran, the Shah probably thought a double-barrelled name was a sure emblem of ancient and distinguished social lineage.
The bloom is going off the rose. Despite Zahedi’s greatest efforts and the precipitate rush to his parties by the beautiful people, there is general recognition that the Shah’s regime is not an emblem of liberty. The U.S. will continue to sell him arms. American universities will go on taking his money, socialites will go on drinking his champagne and eating his caviar. Money always talks, but it will have to do so amid increasing clamor about one of the most savage regimes of the 20th century. ■
How Rich is the Shah?
The present inhabitant of the Peacock Throne has attained the dream of every rich person around the world: he has funneled his assets into a private foundation whose proceedings are secret and whose operations are beyond scrutiny. The Pahlavi Foundation, now 19 years old, is thought to have assets of more than $1 billion and is a combined charitable foundation and family trust fund. The Shah is its chief officer and selects all board members. The income is tax-free and can be drawn only the Shah’s family.
The Shah’s father (a former army sergeant who seized the throne under the aegis of the British in 1926) laid the basis for the Pahlavi family’s wealth by simply stealing it. He confiscated vast estates which he designated as crown lands. His son later sold off some of this land and began to invest in industrial and financial enterprises: the cement industry (which the Shah virtually controls); sugar-processing installations; insurance and banking businesses; assembly plants; hotels; computer equipment marketing, and the like. The Shah is thus not only the leader of his country; he is also its chief stockholder.
In addition, the national budget provides expenses for the imperial court, plus $1 billion for a revolving discretionary fund. Prudently mindful of the possibility of exile one day, the Shah is also thought to have over $1 billion banked abroad.
As the Pahlavi Foundation’s chief officer, the Shah is entitled to 25 per cent of the income of the foundation. He has stipulated that he is not accepting this money. His son and heir will become entitled to the 25 per cent take, which as Eric Pace of The New York Times pointed out last year in a report on the foundation — could run into tens of millions of dollars annually.
New Yorkers who desire an immediate sense of the Shah’s financial status can proceed to the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street where a 36-story building for the tax-exempt Pahlavi Foundation of New York is being erected. The Pahlavi Foundation of New York was created by the Pahlavi Foundation of Iran in 1973. The nominal charitable purpose of the New York outfit is to provide funds for Iranian students going to American universities. In an article on the U.S. foundation published last fall, Ann Crittenden reported in The New York Times that, “Two individuals close to these early arrangements say that from the first, however, the acquisition [of the site] was considered solely as an investment for the Iranian foundation and as a showcase site for offices of Iranian companies and government agencies in New York City — such as the Iranian consulate, the National Iranian Oil Company, the Bank Melli, and various tourist offices. One man who was intimately involved and who asked not to be identified, laughed when asked if the scholarship program was ever discussed: “It’s egregious,” he said,”with all of the problems New York City has, for an immensely wealthy foreign outfit to come in and receive a tax exemption at almost the same moment when the same government has just created an oil crisis.’ ”
Vitally concerned with the establishment of the tax-exempt foundation here were several well-known local faces: one was William Rogers, former secretary of state under Nixon and partner in the law firm of Rogers and Wells. Rogers set up the foundation and its address is currently at his law office. Also involved was Representative John Murphy of Staten Island, a frequent visitor to Iran. He, along with Rogers, is on the board of the foundation and has acknowledged his involvement in its business affairs, particularly in the construction contracting for the Fifth Avenue building. And indeed, helping out one would-be contractor — John Tishman of Tishman Realty and Construction Company — was former Mayor John Lindsay. The architect is John Warnacke. Another adviser to the Pahlavi Foundation is former Assistant Treasury Secretary James A. Reed. He told Crittenden that foundation officials in Tehran had said they would not go ahead with the New York operation unless they were able to get tax-exempt status. Thus, American taxpayers help finance an operation designed to further the Shah’s personal and political interests abroad. Even Amin hasn’t the gall to demand these kinds of favors. ■
The Iranian National Pastime: Torture
“The torture on the second day of my arrest consisted of seventy-five blows with a plaited wire whip at the soles of my feet. I was whipped on my hands as well, and the head torturer took the small finger of my left hand and broke it, saying he was going to break my fingers one by one, each day. Then I was told that if I didn’t confess my wife and thirteen-year-old daughter would be raped in front of my eyes. All this time I was being beaten from head to toe.
“Then a pistol was held at my temple by the head torturer, Dr. Azudi, and he prepared to shoot. In fact the sound of the shooting came and I fainted. When I opened my eyes, I was being interrogated by someone called Dr. Rezvan. The interrogation, combined with psychological torture and sometimes additional beating, went on for 102 days until I was let out…
” … There were also all sizes of whips hanging from nails on the walls. Electric prods stood on little stools. The nail-plucking instrument stood on the far side. I could only recognize these devices upon later remembrance and through the description of others, as well as by personal experience. The gallows stood on the other side. They hang you upside down and then someone beats you with a club on your legs, or uses the electric prod on your chest or your genitals, or they lower you down, pull your pants up and one of them tries to rape you while you’re still hanging upside down …
” … This is what happens to a prisoner of the first importance. First he is beaten by several torturers at once, with sticks and clubs. If he doesn’t confess, he is hanged upside down and beaten; if this doesn’t work, he is raped; and if he still shows signs of resistance, he is given electric shock which turns him into a howling dog; and if he is still obstinate, his nails and sometimes all his teeth are pulled out, and in certain exceptional cases, a hot iron rod is put into one side of the face to force its way to the other side, burning the entire mouth and the tongue. A young man was killed in this way. At other times he is thrown down on his stomach on the iron bed and boiling water is pumped into his rectum by an enema.
“Other types of torture are used which have never been heard of in other despotic systems. A heavy weight is hung from the testicles of the prisoner, maiming him in only a few minutes. Even the strongest prisoners are crippled in this way. In the case of the woman, the electric baton is moved over the naked body with the power increased on the breasts and the interstices of the vagina. I have heard women screaming and laughing hysterically, shouting, ‘Don’t do it, I’ll tell you.’ Rape is also a common pracrice. Thirteen-year-old girls have been raped in order to betray their parents, brothers or relatives.” Reza Bahareni was finally freed from the Shah’s prisons in 1974 under international pressure. His descriptions come from his book, God’s Shadow and from an article by him published in The New York Review of Books on October 28, 1976. Other statements attributed to Bahareni in this issue of The Voice are taken from the same article. ■
Some Facts at a Glance
• “The Shah of Iran,” said Martin Ennals in the introduction to Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 1974-5, “retains his benevolent image despite the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief.” The total number of political prisoners for 1975, stated the report, “has been reported at times throughout the year to be anything from 25,000 to 100,000.”
• Thousands of people have been executed over the last 23 years. According to Bahareni, more than 300,000 people have been in and out of jail in the last 20 years.
• Ninety-five per cent of the press is controlled by two families taking their orders from the Shah and the police.
• There is only one political party — the Resurgence Party — whose membership is compulsory for the entire adult population.
• The vast bulk of the population is desperately poor, undernourished, and uneducated. In Quri-Chai, the northern slums of Tabriz, there is only one school for 100,000 children.
• There are 34 million people in Iran. Only half are Persian; the rest are Azarbaijanis, Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis, along with Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. The Shah considers all Iranians to be Aryan, who must learn one language, Persian. He is attempting to purge the Persian language of all Arab and Turkish elements, thus proscribing 40 per cent of the vocabulary. The Shah himself speaks Persian badly, faring better in French and English. ■
Why the US Backs the Shah
The reason the Shah is where he is today is because the U.S. government put him there.
By 1949, the Middle East was perceived by American foreign policy planners as perhaps the most critical area in the world in the contest between the U.S. and the Soviets. As George McGhee, then assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, recently recalled in congressional testimony: “The governments in the area were very unstable. We had no security pact covering this area. The Soviets had threatened Greece, Turkey, and Iran. As a result of the very strong position taken by President Truman we were able to dislodge the Soviets from northern Iran, where they had demanded an oil concession. Although we had already bolstered Greece and Turkey through the Greek-Turkish aid program, both were still in a precarious state. The Arab states were hostile to us because of our involvement in Israeli affairs.”
McGhee pointed out, “At this time the principal threat to the Middle East lay in the possibility of nationalist leaders moving to upset regimes which were relatively inept and corrupt, and not attuned to the modern world. There was also always in the background the reaction in the Arab states to what happened elsewhere. For example, had there been a Comnunist seizure in Iran, we would have expected a similar threat in the Arab states.” And, of course, underlying American concern for the politics of the region was the business of oil, which McGhee described as “the jackpot of world oil. To have American companies owning the concession there was a great advantage for our rountry.”
It was against this background that Iran’s nationalist premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, sought to increase the country’s participation in the affairs of the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Co.
When the British refused to meet his demands, Mossadegh nationalized the company. The seizure reverberated throughout the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia the finance minister threatened to shut down the Aramco concession if more money was not forthcoming.
Both Aramco officials and the U.S. State Department, acting independently, concluded — as McGhee later put it — that a “big move had to be made.” Thereupon, the Middle East underwent political convulsions which eventually were felt within the U.S. itself. First, this country did a secret deal with Saudi Arabia that allowed Aramco to take a tax break, offsetting its royalty payments to Saudi Arabia against U.S. taxes. The net effect of this was a subsidy, continuing to this day, of Saudi Arabia and the oil companies by the U.S. taxpayer.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department, quite independently of other branches of government, began to press actively two grand jury investigations, attacking the international petroleum cartel. These investigations followed publication of a lengthy report by the Federal Trade Commission, which spelled out the details of the cartel’s operations. When Dean Acheson, then secretary of state, found out about the Justice Department probe, he opposed it vigorously, on the grounds that the results of such an investigation “will probably be to cause a decrease in political stability in the region [Middle East].” Acheson’s view eventually prevailed and President Truman himself downgraded the inquiry from a criminal to civil proceeding, on national security grounds.
Eisenhower, taking office at the start of 1953, held to the same line. By the middle of 1953 Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, turned up in Switzerland for meetings with Loy Henderson, the ambassador to Iran, and with the sister of the present Shah. Soon after, American intelligence agents — notably Kermit Roosevelt — appeared in Tehran. The Shah dismissed Mossadegh, who paid no attention and remained in office. The Shah left the country. On August 18, units of off-duty police and soldiers joined mobs in overthrowing Mossadegh. The Shah returned from exile and, thus aided by the CIA and Iranian associates, took charge of the country.
Two months after the Shah was restored to power, Herbert Hoover, Jr., set to work reorganizing the Iranian oil industry. Hoover soon persuaded major American oil companies to join in a consortium that would exploit Iran’s oil: In part, they agreed with the plan because of the downgrading of the Justice Department’s cartel case. Eisenhower’s attorney general formally sanctioned the new deal, ruling that the proposed consortium would not, in itself, constitute an unreasonable restraint of trade. The cartel was never brought to trial and instead members of the consortium signed a participants’ agreement which had the effect of sanctioning the cartel and indeed making it an instrument of cold war policy.
Hence it is no academic exercise to regard the Shah not only as a U.S.-sponsored oppressor of his own people but of the American people as well. His role has been to help maintain the international oil cartel, with the resulting bogus shortages, price hikes, and penalties attaching to the present international system of oil extraction and distribution.
Oil, of course, forms the basis for American interest in Iran. But in the last 25 years the game has changed somewhat from its original primitive terms. Now, in order to get the oil, the American government has to pay off the Shah in other ways. As part of the U.S.’s policy to maintain the Shah and his repressive apparatus, it was necessary to train and supply a police force and army for him. The tastes of the army have grown more profligate over the years.
In 1972, the U.S. was sending the Iranians a half-billion dollars worth of military armaments. In the current fiscal year the U.S. is sending $5.3 billion worth of weapons. This is paid for by Americans in the form of higher prices for petroleum products, and in aid. The long-term scheme for Iran is a vast process of industrialization, with American companies forming joint ventures with Iranian companies, leading toward the establishment of industries such as aluminum, steel, and a whole variety of mining exploration. The idea in this is not to make life any better for the Iranian people, but to achieve savings in manufacture, due to the plentiful and immediate supply of energy (natural gas).
The Shah, always a client of the United States, visits Washington next week (until the postponement of his trip, President Carter was to have dropped in on Tehran for lunch later in the month in the course of his grand tour). As Henry Kissinger remarked, the interests of the United States and Iran coincide and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s security adviser, agrees. Iran is one of those impending powers, argues Brzezinski, to which the U.S. may pay court. Other nations on the Carter schedule included Venezuela, Brazil, and Nigeria. For all the talk about human rights, the Carter administration has been careful not to offend Iran. The king of torturers will be received with decorousness and respect, even though any honest toast at the White House banquet would demand silence and sorrow for the thousands who have died for opposing a regime built in blood. ■
Law Enforcement in Iran
Every tyranny needs an efficient secret police force and Iran can boast of one of the most awesome in recent world history — namely, the infamous SAVAK.
The Sazamane Ettella’at va Amniyate Keshvar (State Security and Intelligence Organization) was set up in 1956 with the help of the American CIA and, according to some reports, Israeli intelligence. The Shah himself has claimed that SAVAK has about 3000 people. Other estimates put the number at more than 60,000 and beyond that to an army of agents and informants amounting to hundreds of thousands. SAVAK, controlled by the Shah, is now run by General Hossein Fardust, a former classmate of the Shah, described by him as “a special friend.”
SAVAK is not only the cutting edge of oppression and torture in Iran, but operates on a worldwide scale as well. Documented cases of its activities in Europe and the United States have received much publicity — including espionage and harassment of Iranian students working abroad and of political exiles. Agents of SAVAK have been dispatched abroad with missions of assassination.
This army of spies and torturers should have a special meaning for American citizens. As exiled writer Reza Bahareni put it: “Imagine a more tyrannical and primitive George III being crowned 6000 miles away by the very descendants of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin with money raised by the American taxpayer. The CIA re-created the monarchy, built up the SAVAK and trained all its prominent members, and stood by the Shah and his secret police as their powerful ally. Iran became the police state it is now.” Bahareni did not mention that as a final expression of courtesy Richard Nixon sent former CIA head Richard Helms to be the American ambassador in Tehran. ■
Already, law enforcement officials In Washington are worried about reception committees for the Shah when he arrives next Tuesday. It is possible that as many as 20,000 demonstrators will converge from around the country for the two-day visit. A compromise supervised by the Secret Service and the National Park Service that has stipulated that on Tuesday pro-Shah demonstrators will be allowed to congregate nearer the White House. Anti-Shah Iranian students will be given the prime spot on Wednesday, when he leaves.
According to Iranian students in the U.S. opposed to the Shah, SAVAK agents have been carefully building up for the Shah’s visit, offering individuals from all over the U.S. up to $300 to travel to Washington to demonstrate their loyalty. Iranian students in the New School’s political economy division have stated that they have been approached and offered bus fare to Washington, if they join the pro-Shah group. Anti-Shah demonstrations will also be held in San Francisco. The Shah will be staying in Blair House. No demonstrators will be allowed within 500 feet of the building.
Anti-Shah Iranian students in the United States have not only been harassed by SAVAK agents, but also by college administrations and U. S. police. Darioush Bayandor, adviser to Iran’s ex-prime minister Hoveida, has been quoted as saying that “SAVAK has agents outside Iranian borders to detect subversive elements and their links with other countries that might be against Iran and to penetrate the ranks of students and make sure their organizations are not used to harm Iran.” Iranian student groups at American colleges around the country have protested the interference of college administrations and police in their meetings, demonstrations, and finally their private conversations.
At Emporia College in Kansas, a group of Iranian students were told that they would be arrested if they picketed in the presence of an Iranian government representative at a cultural day on campus. The official pretext was that the students were not an officially recognized organization. They had made repeated applications and were denied approval.
Ninety-two students in Houston, marching in front of the French Consulate at the end of 1976 to protest the expulsion of some Iranian nationals from Paris, were arrested and beaten up by local police. Many witnesses have testified to the fact that the demonstration was orderly and peaceful and that the attack by police was unprovoked.
At San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, students were forbidden to form a club by school officials who insisted that tapes of any meetings held in their native tongue be made and handed over to the administration for review. If held in English, a school representative was to be present. This harrassment culminated in several students being arrested for conversing in Persian over lunch. A teacher approached them and reminded them that it was against the rules to hold meetings in “a foreign language.” Police arrived and charged students with resisting arrest and menacing police and school authorities. In this and other instances, the police passed the names of Iranian student transgressors along to the Iranian consulate, and received letters of congratulation on a job well done and thanks from Zahedi. ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 4, 2020