Witness: FROM THE SHAH TO THE SECRET ARMS DEAL, AN INSIDER’S ACCOUNT OF U.S. INVOLVEMENT IN IRAN by Mansur Rafizadeh (Morrow: $18.95; 396 pp., illustrated)

Keddie, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of "Roots of Revolution: An Interpretive History of Modern Iran" (Yale) and co-editor of "Shi-ism and Social Protest" (Yale)

Mansur Rafizadeh, who presents himself as the longtime U.S. head of the late shah’s dreaded SAVAK, or secret police, has written a readable story of his political life from his childhood in Iran until the present. The great problem, nearly as much for the Iran specialist as for the non-specialist, is to judge how much of this dramatic account is true, and how much is self-serving invention. Independent corroboration is seldom possible, as the author’s stories largely concern persons who are dead or unreachable, and he is careful to present himself as a nobly motivated actor, devoted to using his position to undermine the shah’s dictatorship.

The main attraction of the book for many readers lies in its dramatic or scandalous tales about persons in high places. Already notorious is his story of the late shah’s literally feeding a political opponent to lions in the Tehran zoo. Almost as well known is the author’s account of catching the shah in bed with his longtime bosom friend and then prime minister, Asadollah Alam.

These stories were not generally circulated even by opponents of the shah during his lifetime, and they lack independent corroboration. Like many others in the book, they seem highly improbable to one who knows the persons and circumstances involved.


Rafizadeh’s main motive in writing this book, to judge from its contents, is to present himself as a liberal patriot who now wishes to tell all about the evil in high places under both the shah and Khomeini. He particularly repeats and adds to negative stories about the shah, without any regard for their plausibility. By his own account, Rafizadeh joined SAVAK in order to change Iran from within in a liberal direction--a most implausible motivation. Equally unlikely is his account of his years in SAVAK in the United States where he does less than nothing for the shah and yet is kept on. He never turns in a student or other activist, and never organizes a demonstration on behalf of the shah. In fact, to judge from his account, even the large counterdemonstration by pro-shah Iranians in the United States in 1977, which resulted in inadvertent tear-gassing of the shah and President Carter on national television, was a surprise to him.

Rafizadeh fills his book with almost every well-known Iranian conspiracy theory directed against the shah or Khomeini. The shah is seen as fomenting assassinations of his prime ministers and terrorism by leftists--the latter in order to justify political crackdowns. Khomeini’s liberal advisers are presented as CIA agents--a strange charge from one who claims to have been a CIA man for years.

The best part of the book is the one where the author has the least self-interest--the vivid account of his childhood and youth. Other than that, except for titillation perhaps better gained from epics about the decline of the Roman Empire, the book cannot be recommended for a general public. Those wanting to know about contemporary Iran and U.S.-Iran relations would be better served by such books as Gary Sick’s “All Fall Down,” Roy Mottahedeh’s “The Mantle of the Prophet,” or Shaul Bakhash’s “The Reign of the Ayatollahs.” For a more realistic view by an Iranian diplomat, Parviz Radji’s “In the Service of the Peacock Throne” can be recommended. Though we might like to know what it was like to be an Iranian SAVAK officer abroad and also in close contact with the CIA, Rafizadeh’s book is too unreliable to be truly informative.