Trained first as a political analyst of Iran, Zonis then learned about psychoanalysis; this first fruit of his learning is a highly original and rich interpretation of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Zonis holds that the shah was at heart anything but the grandiose, imperious man he appeared to be in public; that, in fact, the act of countering his personal inclinations and acting like a sovereign cost him dearly. To maintain the imperial front, Zonis argues, he relied on four main sources of psychic support: the admiration of his subjects, ties to three intimates (a Swiss gardener's son, an Iranian childhood friend, and his twin sister Ashraf), a belief in God's protection, and close relations with American presidents. These four served him well for decades; but then, in his moment of crisis, all failed him. As this happened, "he found it ever more difficult to maintain his lifelong psychic patterns and his psychic equilibrium." Emotionally paralyzed, the shah regressed to childhood ways. And so he lost his throne.
Majestic Failure includes an appealing diversity of materials. One chapter analyses the shah's obsession with flying and heights, another provides a virtuoso history of foreign interference in Iranian politics. In addition to detailed information about Pahlavi's peculiar relations with his parents (while his mother had a much larger role in his life than his father, volume one of his autobiography mentions her 12 times, him 784 times), Zonis also offers policy advice. Some is specific (help incapacitated rulers, such as the shah in 1978, make hard decisions), some general (include a psychoanalytic element in foreign policy studies), all is sensible.