London-“Dour faced”, “inflexible” and’ stingy”. These are some of the labels attached to Iranian politician Jamshid Amuzegar who has just passed away in exile in Maryland, United States, aged 93.
Amuzegar was the Prime Minister of Iran from August 1977 to August 1978 at a time that Iran, then led by the Shah, was heading for the most dramatic event in its contemporary history, later baptized as “the Islamic Revolution.”
The unflattering soubriquets cited above did contain a grain of truth about Amuzegar. But they also concealed a great deal. Amuzegar was certainly unsmiling, a fact that was to his disadvantage in a society that cherished tactile cuddliness, even if only a pose. He was also an adept of frontal attacks on positions and ideas he didn’t deem proper and right.
In a society in which hiding one’s true opinion is a polished art, that, too, was a minus for a politician. The label “stingy’ isn’t off the mark either. The brown envelopes filled with crisp bank-notes, the shining gold coins, the expensive watches bearing his name and other baubles with which men of power in the “Orient” demonstrate their power and wealth were not for him.
What is remarkable is that, though he came from a middle class provincial family and never mastered the science of Persian flattery, Amuzegar managed to build an exceptional career. Married to an Austrian lady, Amuzegar could not play the traditional card of family networks to pave his way to the top. In fact he is the only politician in contemporary Iranian history to have served in five different ministerial positions, Health, Labor, Agriculture, Finance, and the Interior, before being appointed Prime Minister. To add an even more curious layer of color, two of Amuzegar’s brothers also served as cabinet ministers.
Jamshid was born in 1923 in Estahbanat, a small town in the southern province of Fars, the son of a Habiballah Amuzegar, one of the first judges in the modern European-style judiciary created by Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty. Interested in Persian literature and having had a stint as a journalist in the daily Ettelaat, Habiballh wanted all his sons to obtain higher education.
Thus Jamshid enrolled in Tehran University’s Faculty of Law, only to find out that he had a more scientific bend of mind. Soon after World War II, he became one of the first generation of Iranians to be sent to the United States for higher education where he obtained a degree in civil engineering from the Cornell University before obtaining a doctorate in hydraulics from Washington University.
However, it was thanks to special courses organized by the US-sponsored Point IV aid project that Amuzegar became one of the first generation of Iranian bureaucrats and technocrats to get trained in modern management techniques.
Amuzegar and his generation did a great deal for modernizing the Iranian civil service which, dating back to the 16th century had remained atrophied in its old ways. He also played a pioneering role in shaping Iran’s first modern Labor Code with the help of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
In the 1960s, Amuzegar also managed Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda’s reform movement aimed at streamlining the civil service, decentralization and greater public participation in local decision-making.
However, Amuzegar earned international fame as Iran’s point-man in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Set up by Iran and Venezuela in 1960, OPEC’s task was to defend producing nations against international oil cartels that dictated off-take levels and prices.
In the 1970s, thanks to close cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, then the two giants of the global oil industry, crude prices rose from under $4 to $11 per barrel. With Ahmad Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Oil Minister, Amuzegar formed a duo that was the bogey of the oil cartel and the darling of Iranians and Arabs fed up with the shenanigans of the Seven Sisters.
In 1975, Amuzegar won international fame with an incident that he would rather have avoided. He, Yamani and other OPEC ministers were seized as hostages during an OPEC conference in Vienna by a six-man Palestinian commando led by the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos Sanchez, alias “The Jackal” and taken to Libya where Colonel Muammar Kaddhafi unrolled the red carpet for them.
In those dramatic days, the joke in Tehran was that Amuzegar’s cool nerves and absence of emotions may actually finish off Carlos. In the end, however, the ministers were released in exchange for a ransom of $25 million negotiated by Kaddhafi for Carlos.
Back in Tehran, the Shah rewarded Amuzegar with the Crown Medal number one, the highest decoration the monarch could give. Amuzegar became the first and only person to get that distinction without having served as prime minister. However, the post pf prime minister was not far away, and only two years later Amuzegar was asked to form a Cabinet.
Sadly, Amuzegar’s premiership ran into trouble almost from the first day as his abrasive manner antagonized some of his ministers and several senior civil servants while the Iranian economy was heading for a slowdown. His response to the looming economic crisis was austerity in the shape of massive cuts in public expenditure, a measure that intensified the slowdown. A technocrat, Amuzegar was unable to fully gauge what was going on, something that required political acumen which he lacked. Unwilling to deploy the iron fist while also refusing to splash money around to buy support, Amuzegar’s government became more fragile daily as protest demonstrations spread to more and more cities.
By August 1978 when he tendered his resignation, Amuzegar’s premiership had become untenable as Iran plunged deeper into turmoil. He was a misunderstood man whose serious demeanor hid his sense of humor and his almost fanatical love of Iran remained masked by his no-nonsense attitude.