In the world of libertarian economists, Bryan Caplan really isn’t the worst, but arguing that the Shah was “strong on civil liberties” is about the dumbest thing one can possibly say about the history of Iran.
Strong on civil liberties, weak on economic liberties – it almost seems like American liberals should have liked the Shah.
Herpty derpty. What did actual Iranians say about the Shah’s glorious civil liberties? From a 1979 piece written by Iranians in the Harvard Crimson:
SAVAK conducted most of the torture, under the friendly guidance of the CIA. which set up SAVAK in 1957 and taught them how to interrogate suspects. Amnesty International reports methods of torture that included “whipping and beating, electric shocks, extraction of teeth and nails, boiling water pumped into the rectum, heavy weights hung on the testicles, tying the prisoner to a metal table heated to a white heat, inserting a broken bottle into the anus, and rape.”
The Shah’s regime responded violently in kind, establishing the infamous Joint Committee to Fight Terrorism, which was headed by Sabeti in practice, though it always had a military officer as its figurehead chief. “By 1970,” writes Dr. Abbas Milani in The Persian Sphinx, Sabeti’s “power permeated all facets of Iranian life.” Torture, beatings, show trials in military courts, executions, and even extra-judicial killings were all normal modes of operation for the SAVAK and the Committee. For example, Mehdi Rezaei, an MKO member, was arrested in April 1972 and executed that September at the age of 20, after enduring horrific torture. Ali Asghar Badizadegan, one of the MKO’s founders, was forced into an electric oven according to his comrade Lotfollah Meysami. He was burned so badly that he became paralyzed, and the SAVAK refused to turn over his body after he was executed in May 1972. As Ali Gheissari writes in Iranian Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century, under Sabeti the Committee was also “responsible for the arbitrary detention, interrogation, and torture of many university students during that period.”
Two classmates of mine, Mohammad Ali Bagheri, a pious Muslim, and Hamid Arian, a secular leftist, were lost to the political violence of the era. We were all students at the Faculty of Engineering of the University of Tehran, having been admitted in 1972 after passing the national entrance examination, or concours. Bagheri was executed by the regime, while Arian was killed in an armed clash with the SAVAK. Four other good young men that I personally knew, all secular leftists, who were a year or two ahead of me in the engineering department, were also killed: Mahmoud Vahidi and Saeed Kord were poisoned in the notorious Evin Prison, while Mansoor Farshidi and Mahmoud Namazi were killed in an armed clash. Numerous other students, including many friends in the engineering department, were imprisoned, beaten, and given long jail sentences.
To comprehend the atmosphere of terror that dominated the political arena at that time, consider the following. The house of a student friend of mine was raided by the SAVAK, and an engineering book was found there that he had borrowed from the engineering department library. In those days, the borrower’s name would be written on a card attached to the back of the book. One of the students who had previously borrowed the book was Nastaran Al-e Agha, an engineering student and a major figure in the Fadaian who was killed on June 22, 1976, in an armed confrontation with the SAVAK. Because the book had been borrowed previously by Al-e Agha, my friend was held in jail for months, just to make sure that there was no connection between the two. Such was the state of terror in the days when Sabeti was at the helm of the Committee and the leading figure in the conflict between the opposition and the Pahlavi regime. His name was identified with a host of brutal acts. He would appear on national television and talk about what had happened every time the regime declared a “victory” against the opposition, and in particular the “terrorist” MKO and Fadaian.
I remember one distinguished expert who reviewed my work said,
basically, how can Rejali say torture is part of modernity? If that was
true, America would torture too. It really was amazing, in retrospect,
how willfully blind people wanted to be. I grew up in Iran at a time
when the Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, did not hesitate torturing
Islamic and Marxist insurgents. No one thought torture was something
incompatible with cars, fast food, washing machines and other parts of
modern life. I remember talking to a high-ranking SAVAK officer years
after the Shah was gone, and he certainly felt he played an important
role in modernization. It wasn’t the last time I’ve heard torturers say
how important they are in making their country safe for economic
Another point: Everyone forgets that the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979
was the revolution against torture. When the Shah criticized Khomayni as
a blackrobed Islamic medieval throwback, Khomayni replied, look who is
talking, the man who tortures. This was powerful rhetoric for
recruiting people, then as it is now. People joined the revolutionary
opposition because of the Shah’s brutality, and they remembered who
installed him. If anyone wants to know why Iranians hated the US so,
all they have to do is ask what America’s role was in promoting torture
in Iran. Torture not only shaped the revolution, it was the factor that
has deeply poisoned the relationship of Iran with the West. So why trust
the West again? And the Iranian leadership doesn’t.
So right, strong on civil liberties.