After 37 years on the Peacock Throne, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi faces the worst crisis of his reign. In response to weeks of rioting by anti-reform Muslim rightists as well as student leftists and a strike by the 67,000 workers of Iran's nationalized petroleum industry, the embattled Shah set up a military government and invoked martial law. Then, promising "to make up for past mistakes, to fight corruption and injustice and to form a national government to carry out free elections, " he jailed more than 35 top officials—including Iran's premier from 1965 to 1977 and the former head of SAVAK, the country's secret police. Keeping close watch on developments in Iran is Marvin Zonis, 42, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago and past president of the American Institute of Iranian Studies. The Boston-born son of Rumanian and Ukrainian immigrants, Zonis obtained his bachelor's degree at Yale and while at MIT did field work in Iran for his Ph.D. thesis. Later published by Princeton University Press under the title The Political Elite of Iran, it is now in its third paperback edition. Married since 1976 to second wife Lucy Salenger, a former CBS correspondent who is director of the Illinois State Film Office, Zonis is planning to visit Iran next month. Recently he discussed the Shah's chances for survival with Linda Witt of PEOPLE.

What is happening in Iran?

It's a truly massive revolutionary phenomenon: all strata of society united around a few religious symbols to oppose the political system. Yet there's a total misunderstanding on the part of the American people. They tend to think of these protesters as merely reactionary religious fanatics opposed to modernization and reform while the Shah is dragging a 12th-century people into the 20th century. That's not so. Iranians are politically very aware, especially in the cities where the riots are taking place.

Is the situation similar to, say, Vietnam?

One of the things that makes this so gripping is that it is not at all like Vietnam. In Vietnam, you knew who was going to take over if the U.S. lost. But here we don't know who would come to power should the Shah fall.

Are the Soviets or Chinese involved?

I know of no evidence to suggest there is any significant Communist involvement—though Iran has a few of its own Maoists and Marxists. The Shah talks about outside agitators, but that's a big copout.

Then this is a civil war?

Not really. To have that, you have to have two parts of the people fighting each other. Nobody in Iran is going to fight anybody except the Shah, and nobody is going to fight for him except the army. It's not a civil war—it's an insurrection.

How many Iranians oppose the Shah?

The government admits there were a million people in the streets of Tehran one day in September. That's one million in a city of 4.5 million—at least one person from every family!

Can the new military regime keep the lid on this unrest?

It's not a sure bet, but I think they probably can. But how they do it has a lot to do with whether or not the Shah stays in power.

Do you think the Shah will survive?

Yes, the guy's been learning his job for 37 years and he's proficient at it. He has known eight U.S. Presidents. A vast number of Iranians still support him as a symbol of unity and stability, whose experience and wisdom—which are considerable—can be called upon. But everyone wants to restore parliamentary government.

What Iranians support the Shah?

For the peasantry he is like God, but they aren't really involved. His main support is in the civil service and upper classes. As for the middle class, I can't tell you the bitterness pouring from them about the venality, tyranny and repression of the last few years. These people have reached a very high level of political sophistication. They aren't Bedouins. They want to be in control of their own destiny.

Is the Shah's survival in our interest?

I believe it is in the best interest of both Iran and the U.S.—if the system opens up and if some of the political forces in the country are allowed to function. If the Shah is overthrown and the U.S. seems unable and unwilling to help, the effect on the Saudi Arabian royal house would be stunning because there is no country we have been closer to than Iran. The Saudis are sitting on 25 percent of the world's oil. It would weaken their commitment to the U.S.

Is this a religious fight?

No, only a small part of what is going on has anything to do with the government's attempt to diminish the authority of religious leaders opposed to reforms. The key thing is that the nonreligious opposition is expressing itself in religious symbolism. For example, they announced that on December 10, the anniversary of the eighth-century martyrdom of Mohammed's grandson, they will bring down the government. Imagine announcing a revolution in advance! If there are even 500,000 in the streets of Tehran on the 10th, it is going to be a disaster.

What is your own impression of the Shah?

Between 1963 and 1971 I had three lengthy private audiences with him. It's hard to keep your wits about you in the presence of a king. A Shah doesn't have to do much to be charming. But he is not the same Shah he was five or 10 years ago. He has become increasingly less willing to listen to anyone's opinion—only to sycophants. As he got busier, the queen, Farah, took over. She's very impressive, very eager to listen, a woman with a lot to say. I always felt she was the best thing to happen to the Pahlavi dynasty.

How did the Shah come to power?

This is what gets Iranians so angry. This guy is the richest man in the world. But his father was only an illiterate army sergeant living on a soldier's pay. It was the highest rank Iranians could hold back when all the officers were Russian Cossacks. In 1921 the British got the Iranian government to kick out the Russians and made Reza the head of the army. Four years later the British helped him pull off a coup. He became Shah and started the "Pahlavi dynasty."

Then what happened?

Early in World War II the British and Russians invaded; they feared that Reza Shah was pro-Nazi. Soon Reza Shah was out and his 21-year-old son, the present Shah, was installed. He was very scared, very naive and totally propped up by the British.

When did America take over the role?

In 1953 there was a coup engineered by the premier, Mossadegh. The Shah wanted to quit, but Kermit Roosevelt and other CIA officials in Iran masterminded an uprising. Soon Iranian army units were dispatched to arrest the premier. From then, until Kennedy stopped it, we balanced the Shah's budget—between 1954 and 1962 we gave him more than a billion and a half!

How corrupt is the Shah's regime?

The level of corruption in Iran is breathtaking. There's so much money there—especially since the oil boom—you'd think who cares if a factory which is supposed to cost $2 million costs $4 million? But in Iran they lose sight of the goal: "Screw the factory, let's split the four million!" Yet industrialization is crucial. Iran's petroleum is very finite. It will run out within this century. Then what?

Why has the Shah ordered an investigation of corruption against some 60 members of the royal family?

There is no significant development project done without a member of the royal family involved. Princess Ashraf is the worst representative. She is reported to be responsible for selling some of Iran's archeological treasures on the black market. But she was chairman of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights! That's the sort of hypocrisy so despised by the people.

The Shah says that literacy has increased to 52 percent vs. 10 percent a generation ago, and per capita income has increased from $150 to $2,250 in a little over a decade. Hasn't he really improved Iran's standard of living?

Oh, immeasurably. But it's a bit like "Let them eat cake" when it's not cake they want. The Shah has claimed that Iran is on a level—in living, social welfare and intellectual sophistication—with Sweden! He has an unrealistic sense of how great he and Iran are.

What caused this attitude?

The oil boom. Between 1970 and 1978 Iran's oil revenues jumped from $1 billion to over $20 billion.

Are people being tortured in Iran?

Not at this moment. In fact, the Shah is arresting his own top people. But can you imagine what will happen when they spill the beans about who gave the orders?

If the Shah falls, what is Iran's fate?

There are many minorities, and fragmentation is a real danger. Some experts foresee a series of revolutions and argue that's what Iran needs as a shakedown. I think that is a long, destructive process. But every major power seems to want him to stay. The Americans support him. The Chinese think he's a major bulwark against Soviet expansion—he shares 1,500 miles of border with the U.S.S.R. The Soviets and even the radical Iraqis back him. Politics does make strange bedfellows.