The shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, poses in Iran’s parliament building in 1954. His efforts to modernize the country were criticized by religious leaders and other activists. (Aziz Rashki/Associated Press)

Nazila Fathi was a correspondent for the New York Times based in Tehran from 1999 to 2009 and is the author of the “The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran.”

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, known as the shah, has always been portrayed as both ruthless and craven — the last emperor of Iran who fled on the eve of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Nearly four decades after his death, a new book offers a more sympathetic, nuanced portrait of him and the dynasty he was born into.

"The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran" by Andrew Scott Cooper (Henry Holt)

In “The Fall of Heaven,” Andrew Scott Cooper uses newly declassified U.S. documents from the Carter administration, interviews with the shah’s aides and revolutionary leaders as well as his own research in Iran to make the case that the shah has been misinterpreted, reduced to “a bloodless enigma.” Cooper, a Middle East specialist and the author of “Oil Kings: How the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia Changed the Balance of Power in the Middle East,” offers a convincing narrative about who the man was and the dynamics that led to his downfall.

The shah came to power in 1941 after the British and the Soviets forced his father, Reza Pahlavi, to abdicate in his favor. He survived two major political upheavals, and by the early 1960s, oil wealth enabled him to modernize Iran. Religious leaders, however, accused him of Westernizing the country. Communist and nationalist activists criticized him, saying he distributed wealth and power among the ruling elite. His secret police grew more repressive, seeking to end opposition but instead alienating students and intellectuals.

The seeds of the shah’s downfall began in 1977, Cooper argues, after Saudi Arabia flooded markets with cheap oil. The shortfall in Iran’s oil revenue, combined with a drought, forced dissatisfied laborers to flock to larger cities, looking for work. The shah introduced political and social liberalization to ease the mood, unaware, Cooper notes, that his policies provided religious extremists with a context to mobilize the masses against him. According to Cooper, by the time he left the country in January 1979 the shah had, by his reforms, reduced his role to that of a constitutional figure­head. A series of missteps, economic disruptions and miscalculations by Western powers, as well as a well-funded opposition, crippled the shah’s efforts to save himself.

Cooper’s narrative describes in depth the building blocks of the movement against the shah. Most shocking perhaps were the deceptive tactics the opposition used to demonize him. Cooper claims, for example, that Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, a nationalist-left activist who deposed the shah with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and later served as the first president, told him how they manipulated the Western media’s coverage of Iran. The revolutionaries “studied western journalists’ reporting methods, fed them story ideas, steered them toward sympathetic interviewees, and supplied them with the revolutionary movement’s facts and figures,” Cooper argues, citing Bani-Sadr. This led to the publication of grossly inflated numbers of activists jailed and executed by the shah’s secret police. The figures, Cooper says, helped provoke anti-shah sentiments and were not corrected, even after Red Cross inspectors investigated and rejected the claims. Revolutionaries themselves, the book notes, have since refuted the numbers.

To bolster the impression that the shah was bent on murdering his people, the opposition initiated violence and blamed it on the shah. In the year before the victory of the revolution, the Islamists burned hundreds of private businesses, including cinemas, Cooper writes. The most brutal attack came in August 1978, when 430 men, women and children were burned to death at Rex Cinema in the southern city of Abadan — the worst arson since World War II. The inferno was intended “to destabilize and panic Iranian society,” Cooper argues. It also successfully fanned the flames of hostility toward the shah across the country. The culprit, Cooper writes, based on evidence in the 2013 book “Days of God” by James Buchan, was Hossein Takbalizadeh, an Islamist linked to a local Khomeini underground cell who was eventually tried and convicted of murder by an Iranian court after the revolution.

The arrival of William Sullivan, U.S. ambassador to Tehran, in the summer of 1977 was not good news for the shah, Cooper contends. “He showed little or any sensitivity to the unique pressures that the shah faced at home by supporting U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, selling oil to Israel, and guarding the approaches to the Persian Gulf from any array of adversaries,” Cooper writes . Sullivan even joked about the shah’s fall and a possible revolution in front of the royal family’s friends and advisers. In his communications with Washington, Sullivan continued to dismiss worries by moderate religious leaders — including opponents of the shah — over the consequences of the shah’s departure, arguing that their fears “were not very coherent or well reasoned.” It was only in the shah’s final days in Iran, Cooper concludes, that “Ambassador Sullivan received crucial intelligence suggesting that he might have backed the wrong horse after all.”

Cooper’s account also sheds light on the mysterious disappearance of a Shiite cleric, Imam Musa Sadr, and what might have led to his fate. A prominent Iranian-born cleric, Sadr had lived in Lebanon for nearly two decades and went missing in Tripoli, Libya, where Moammar Gaddafi had invited him to meet with a Khomeini aide in late August 1978. The revolutionaries have long portrayed him as a Khomeini sympathizer.

Cooper writes that Sadr feared Khomeini’s rise to power and had secretly contacted the shah. “This is the juice of a sick mind,” he told a close aide of the shah about Khomeini. In July 1978, Sadr sent a message to the shah, offering to help him and speak to Khomeini on his behalf, the mediator between the two men told Cooper.

The shah welcomed the gesture and saw him as a means of blocking Khomeini’s power grab. Sadr, in the meantime, harbored a dream of returning to Iran to play a role in public life. Other moderate clerics viewed Sadr as the only charismatic leader who was capable of standing up to Khomeini. “By the summer of 1978, he and the shah were two men in search of a lifeline,” Cooper writes. The shah agreed to send a representative to West Germany to meet Sadr. A week before the meeting, Sadr traveled to Tripoli to meet Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, Khomeini’s aide. Beheshti never came. Instead, he told Gaddafi over the phone that his “guest” was “a threat to Khomeini.” Drawing on a variety of sources, Cooper deduces that Sadr was eventually killed on the orders of Gaddafi.

Until the end, “nationalism was like a religion” for the shah, Cooper argues. Over nearly four decades, the shah transformed a backward, poverty-stricken country into a powerful one with the most educated workforce in the Middle East. In the days leading to the revolution, as protests against him culminated, lymphoma ravaged his body. Yet he refused to kill to keep his throne. According to Cooper, an aide at the shah’s deathbed asked the former ruler, “Why didn’t you finish all out against Khomeini?” The shah’s answer: “I wasn’t the man. If you wanted someone to kill people you had to find somebody else.”

This sober narrative will resonate with many Iranians — including myself — who lived under the grim conditions Khomeini introduced after the revolution. As other countries in the Middle East are going through similar transformations and vying for political reform, Cooper reminds us of the ability of power-hungry leaders, capable of manipulating people’s desire for change, to build even more brutal and unaccountable systems.

The fall of heaven
The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran

By Andrew Scott Cooper

Henry Holt. 587 pp. $36