Books in Quarantine — The Savak, the story of the Shah’s brutal intelligence apparatus

Mohammed Saad , Thursday 14 May 2020

Since the cycle of new publications has slowed due to coronavirus, Ahram Online offers recommendations of books not necessarily published recently that you can read during quarantine


The Savak, Translated by: Mahmoud Salama Alawy, Revised by: Mohamed El-Sayed Gamal El-Din (Cairo: National Centre for Translation) 2003, 301pp.

The Savak was one of the most infamous and brutal security and intelligence apparatuses of the 20th century. With no checks on its powers, the Savak became an octopus that had tentacles over every mouth and every aspect of the lives of the Iranian people from 1957 to 1979.

The word Savak (pronounced Sawak in Persian) is an acronym for National Organisation for Security and Intelligence, which was established by the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled Iran between (1941 until his ousting in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution), after the end of the military government in Iran.

Scarce is the material we have on it in the Persian language, but a book released in 2002 from the Egyptian National Centre for Translation by a Persian writer, Taghi Najari Rad, fills some of that void.

The book gives an overview of the political and social conditions under which the Shah’s regime felt the need to establish this brutal security apparatus and the roles played by the CIA and MI6 in establishing it and training its officers, and exchanging intelligence with them. In doing so the book delves into the political and security relations that the Shah and his regime had with the US and Britain, and shows how much they knew about his brutal ways and how they supported them, as long as they kept him in power and kept the oil industry under his and their control.

What differentiates this book from other books written about the same timeframe is that this book actually depends on Savak documents that the author obtained from the Islamic Revolution Archives Centre in the 1990s. The documents allowed him to draw a picture of the internal structure of the Savak, the reports of the four chiefs of the Savak to the Shah, and how this apparatus became an uncontrollable monster that spied on everyone, including the Shah and the chiefs of the Savak itself.

One important element of the book is that it gives us a collage of the political and religious factions that existed and led to the ouster of the Shah in 1979, after 22 years under the brutality of the Savak. The author draws a picture of the nationalist and leftist parties and movements in addition to the religious clerics, and follows the rise of Khamenei, and the Shah’s long game with him that led to exiling Khamenei to Turkey and then Iraq and Paris, and the anger that the Shah brought on his regime by prosecuting religious leaders, a move that he himself was wary of.

The book gives conflicting pictures of the Shah as a king in denial who refused to hear any reports about displeasure among his people, or complaints about taxes and unemployment, which led the Savak chiefs to only let him hear what he wanted to hear, leading most of their reporting to him becoming empty banal news about the ruling elite itself. The author says that this led the Shah to be completely disconnected from reality, so much so that he was shocked when he was removed and exiled.

The other picture is of a king wary of the riots happening in the country against protest his corruption and the brutality of the Savak and their ways of controlling all aspects of the lives of Iranians. The Savak was pervasive in Iranian society, to the extent that members of the same family didn’t feel they can speak their minds freely among themselves, fearing one of them was an agent for the Savak.

The Savak maintained a close eye on published books and newspapers, and only allowed 3,000 copies of any given newspaper or a periodical. One of their tactics, in order to arrest and identify dissidents, was allowing the publishing of some books previously banned only to arrest those who read and bought these books.

The author argues throughout that the Shah established this apparatus to protect his throne after military rule became untenable, yet this apparatus itself was the reason behind his overthrow in 1979, due to their unprecedented brutality.

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