Opinion article by Cyrus Kadivar
Almost thirty-seven years after his overthrow and some would say ignominious fall, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, remains the victim of his tragic image and haunting legacy. In fact, there is something perverse in the way some Western media outlets - and the manner in which the Islamic Republic’s propaganda machine in Tehran - have underhandedly portrayed this enigmatic, often misunderstood historical figure. Few Middle East leaders who shaped their nation’s destinies in the 20th Century were so courted and abandoned by their own populace and international allies than the last Shah of Iran. Worse, it seems that every attempt has been made to trivialise his progressive reign and memory thus condemning him to oblivion.
Compared to his giant father, Reza Shah, the soldier-king who in 1926 crowned himself emperor and founded a new dynasty, the second Pahlavi was brought up in a privileged world of courtiers, generals, elderly statesmen and impatient nation-builders. Educated in a Tehran military school and a Swiss college, the prince had been groomed to rule and not reign. During his father’s era the foundations for an industrial state was laid out, hygiene improved, new monuments and buildings erected, thousands of miles of roads and a national railway constructed, old ways discarded, and a secular educational, banking and judicial system set up. A revitalised army and police force staffed by well-trained officers and equipment quelled rebellious tribes and brought security to towns and villages. Fanatic mullahs were beaten back to their mosques, women ordered to discard their veils, men shaved their beards and donned European-style hats and suits.
The slender uniformed figure who mounted the Peacock Throne in 1941 as a young, uncertain man faced many challenges. Not only was his pro-German father exiled by the British to South Africa, but the armies of the Allied Powers occupied Persia. When the new king hosted Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Tehran Conference he insisted on his desire to preserve the national unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Iran. After the war, during the late Forties and early Fifties, it was Stalin and Azerbaijani separatists followed by Prime Minister Mossadeq who after nationalising Iran’s oil industry threatened the Shah’s rule and Iranian existence by almost plunging his country into a bloody civil war and bankruptcy.
The political and tumultuous events of 1953 remains a matter of debate among historians and Iranians. The coup, counter-coup or national uprising that removed the aristocratic albeit nationalistic Dr Mohammed Mossadeq and his supporters from power had involved a curious motley of Anglo-American conspirators, royalists, communists, religious leaders, and ordinary townspeople. The Shah who had been exiled briefly first to Baghdad and then Rome, as his statues were toppled by pro-Moscow Tudeh Communist Party activists in the capital, returned in triumph convinced that he owed his throne to ‘God and the patriotic people.’ For many Iranians, especially the disciplined and ambitious military officers, the king remained the symbol and the glue that kept the country together. His enemies blasted him as a dictator who ruled by royal decree. In any case, Mossadeq was tried in a special court and sentenced to three years in prison for treason against the crown. Later, the Shah allowed his former premier to spend the last years of his life on his family estate until his death.
Meanwhile, the Shah, was all too aware that his survival and future success rested on a strong and centralised state, a loyal army and bringing about fundamental changes in his economically backward, tribal and ultra-traditional country whilst balancing his country’s independence at the height of the Cold War. Diplomacy and tortuous negotiations with the petroleum majors gave Iran a chance to increase oil revenues and navigate itself towards a better future. The concept of a monarch, especially an Iranian one, leading a revolution for the welfare of his subjects, was unheard of until the Sixties. What became known as the White Revolution, was an attempt to usher in an era of political, economic and social democracy.
The five pillars of the Shah’s plan to attain social justice was predicated on providing every Iranian with food, clothing, housing, medicine and education. Feudalism and the power-base of the powerful body of aristocratic landlords, tribal khans, bazaar merchants and leading clerics, were shaken to the core often brutally. To broaden his power base the Shah personally distributed deeds of land to countless peasants under the land reform laws. Women were given the vote and workers promised shares in new factories and industries that sprang up across the land. When in 1963 an obscure religious leader by the name of Rouhollah Khomeini inspired several days of rioting against the Shah’s policies the army took to the streets and crushed the revolt. Khomeini’s promotion to the title of ayatollah by his peers did not prevent his exile from the country nor did it deter the king and his ministers to push for a rushed modernisation of Iranian life. Volunteers in the Health and Literacy Corps were sent to the countryside to vaccinate villagers and teach them how to read and write in make-shift tents.
In 1967 the Shah felt secure enough to stage his much-delayed coronation and crowned his wife, Farah, empress. In doing so he elevated the role of many Iranian women. His son Reza, barely seven years of age, watched his parents with the knowledge that one day he would have to fulfil his role as heir to the oldest monarchy in the world. But there was still much to be done. The Shah worked long hours in his office and devoted much time to audiences with his high officials but also with private visitors, including foreigners. Fluent in Persian, French and English he impressed journalists with his command of geopolitics, oil and military affairs. Unlike his two previous wives (Fawzia and Soraya) whom the Shah had divorced, his third wife Farah proved a worthy queen. In later years while the Shah dealt with matters of state, the Shahbanou as the empress was called, engaged in cultural and social welfare activities. By 1971 when the Shah hosted a commemorative ceremony among the ruins of Pasargade and Persepolis where kings Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes once ruled the mighty Persian Empire, Iran appeared on the verge of a historical rebirth as a major regional power.
Many heads of state paid homage to the Iranian ruler who travelled widely both on state visits and in an unofficial capacity. At home he made frequent inspection tours in the Iranian provinces to ensure that his development projects were being carried out efficiently and on schedule. A trained soldier he took pride in attending army parades and air force exercises, and took special interest in the expansion of his navy and domination of the Persian Gulf. Vast sums were spent on creating the imperial armed forces with the latest purchases of fighter-jets, tanks, armoured personnel cars and ships. New industries, schools and universities, dams, modern hospitals and clinics, airports, ports and roads were built. There was even a plan to build nuclear power plants. To support national development, thousands of students were sent to Europe and America on government scholarships to acquire the necessary skills in the hope that they would return and build what the Shah referred as ‘the Great Civilisation.’
Millions of Iranian children enjoyed a free public education and dozens of universities were opened. Under the auspices of the Empress, libraries, art schools, museums, and day-care centres flourished. Cinema, ballet, opera and theatre were promoted and a modern Rudaki Concert Hall staged classical and international performances. Furthermore, the impressive economic growth in Iran that took place between 1968-1975 during the premiership of Amir Abbas Hoveyda and his technocratic cabinet, convinced many that Iran was heading in the right direction. Foreign policy was a combination of sophistication and charm. Iranian diplomats often functioned as personal envoys of the Shahanshah. Western and Asian businessmen flocked to Tehran, filling the hotel lobbies as they sought to grab a piece of the action. To some the Shah’s ambitious projects appeared grandiose at times and yet his planners were counting on the nation’s human talent, bonanza oil revenues and international investors. Ordinary people opened savings accounts, bought land and owned their own Peykan cars.
Government officials promised a glorious decade ahead. Having taken a leading role in OPEC in raising oil prices, the Shah won many third world admirers but also enemies, among them Saudi Arabia. In Washington and certain European capitals there were people who felt the Shah was going too far, that he was quoting one former British diplomat who had served as ambassador in Iran, ‘getting too big for his boots.’
Behind the carefully cultivated imperial image, the ‘King of Kings’ was a rather shy man with a passion for outdoor sports, driving fast cars and flying private jets. His personal habits were despite the luxurious life-style of his flamboyant court modest and unostentatious. Life in Pahlavi Iran meant different things to many people. At times it was a tale of two cities. Despite its quasi-democratic two-party system and the Shah’s autocratic policies, Iran was a stable and progressive nation and unlike its neighbours, socially free. Men and women received equal treatment in the eyes of the law. The country was a model of social tolerance between ethnicities, religious minorities and diverse ways of life. In a pre-dominantly Shi’a Islamic country, religious minorities: Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and Bahais; were free to worship, benefited from the opportunities offered them and looked upon as Iranian citizens.
The Shah and his government were always keen to keep the religious establishment in their pockets showering them with generous donations and seeing that the holy shrines of Qom, Shiraz and Mashad were kept in good shape. However, a new generation, especially among the fast-growing and pampered middle class, grew impatient and more demanding. Education, contact with the West, and rising living standards did not however lead to the kind of political development that some intellectuals aspired to. The Shah appeared unable to make up his mind on the subject. He toyed with the idea of opening up the political system only to back out when his regime came under attack in the Seventies by well-armed left-wing guerrilla movements. Savak, the security-intelligence organisation, waged a ruthless campaign to weed out the threat.
Having survived several assassination attempts the Shah distanced himself from constitutional constraints and dismissed Western-style democracy in Iran as a recipe for disaster and anarchy. His decision to create a one-party system did not go down well with the people despite attracting a million adherents. In 1976 the Shah celebrated half-century of Pahlavi rule at the mausoleum housing the tomb of his illustrious father, Reza Shah. But within a year a dark cloud had appeared over the country. The bottle-necks, bureaucratic delays and the economic slow-down forced the Shah to back-track his ambitious plans. Amir Abbas Hoveyda, the affable and balding politician who sported an orchid in his lapel, smoked a Dunhill pipe and walked with a cane, was replaced by the serious, humourless Dr Jamshid Amouzegar, a former finance minister. The Shah once again surprised the nation by appearing on television where during a press conference he announced his plans to liberalise and open up the political space in the country. The advent of a new American president in the form of Jimmy Carter who advocated more democracy and an improvement in human rights in Iran was seen as a bad omen by the Shah. For decades the Iranian ruler had been treated as Washington’s key ally in the turbulent Middle East and regarded as a potentate and statesman. His formidable military power, funded mostly by America, and his leadership had kept his country in peace. And yet, the US press and Congress had for several years criticised the Shah’s Iran pointing at top-level corruption and repression. Some stories of political prisoners being tortured or killed by Savak were true but many of them were grossly exaggerated.
But President Carter, despite being a Democrat, and like seven other US presidents, tried to reassure the Shah of his support in a lavish dinner held in Tehran in his honour. Both leaders toasted each other and the special relationship between their two countries and great nations. Within weeks of Carter’s visit, Iran was on a downhill slope. Mounting opposition to the Shah’s rule from left-wing and nationalist student university groups, bazaar merchants, disgruntled workers and Islamic radicals reached a hiatus in 1978. One Iranian at court was astonished to find the king and his generals supremely confident that they could handle any disturbances that erupted sporadically in the capital and other cities.
Then there was a lull. That summer before the storm broke, the king and his family vacationed along the Caspian Sea while opposition groups loyal to the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini organised religiously inspired political demonstrations. Earlier in the year clashes between Islamists and police over the publication of an article considered insulting to the exiled Khomeini had led to dozens of fatalities. Funerals and commemorative gatherings for the fallen ‘martyrs’ galvanised ordinary folks to take to the mosques and the streets and shout: ‘Death to the Shah!’ Iranians fed up with the Shah accused him of violating the constitution, of being a US puppet, and allowing his cronies and family to enrich themselves when two million people lived in slums on the edge of the vibrant and shiny capital.
Despite these developments, in August 1978, the Shah announced that he planned to hold genuine free elections for the following year. Unbeknownst to his people, the monarch had for the last five years been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. His desire to preserve his achievements, his concerns for the future of the country and dynasty and perhaps his sense of mortality may have had something to do with his new stance. Several leading ayatollahs inside Iran warned the Shah that Khomeini had to be stopped and urged further reforms to placate the rising protest movement. The burning of a cinema in the oil-rich city of Abadan and the shooting of demonstrators at Tehran’s Jaleh Square put an end to any hope of compromise. Although both incidents were provoked by Khomeini’s followers it was the king and his supporters whom the angry public blamed for their inept handling of the crisis. Cassette tapes of Khomeini’s vitriolic recorded speeches attacking the Shah were smuggled into Iran by pilgrims returning from the holy shrines in neighbouring Iraq where Khomeini was based. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s strongman offered to liquidate the trouble-some cleric in Najaf but was turned down by the Shah who had no intention to inflame the situation.
Instead to the bewilderment of the French authorities he had expressed relief that the Grand Ayatollah was allowed to settle in a quiet Paris suburb. This proved a major error on his part. Every day hundreds of curious journalists were drawn to Khomeini’s modest residence to interview him. Khomeini was then in his late seventies. Shrewd and charismatic he soon proved himself an adept manipulator of Iranian and Western opinion, hiding his extreme theocratic views while his secular advisors presented him as a democratic populist fighting for justice and a free Iran. Whether sitting under an apple tree in his garden or leaning against a cushion in his bare living room this mysterious black-turbaned man with his white beard and ferocious eyes, had one message: ‘The Iranian people don’t want the Shah...he must go!’
On his fifty-ninth birthday on the 26th October 1978 the monarch, to the consternation of his security chiefs, ordered the immediate pardon and release of all political prisoners and granted an end to press censorship. Criticism of the government and live debates between parliamentary deputies on state media became common place. Several ministers and well-known businessmen were put on trial accused of corruption and a code of conduct for the Imperial Family drafted but not released until a month later. Neither the governments of Prime Minister Sharif-Emami who pushed for ‘national reconciliation’ nor the military ‘junta’ government of Field Marshal Azhari was able to turn the tide of what became the Iranian Revolution.
Strikes, demonstrations and street battles between rampaging mobs and a demoralised military and security force brought the once-powerful shah’s crumbling oil-rich empire to its knees. In Tehran and major cities protestors set fire to hundreds of banks, cinemas, restaurants, night clubs, government offices and businesses. Foreigners who had lived and worked in Iran packed up and left in their hundreds as did some of Iran’s wealthiest elite families. Western response to the Iranian crisis was equally confusing, especially for the beleaguered monarch who received the US and British ambassadors on a regular basis, desperately vacillating between staying or leaving the country. BBC Persian broadcasts predicting the end of the Shah further weakened the Pahlavi establishment.
In the final days of his rule the Shah, ill and depressed, became more reliant on his wife who in her own way tried to bolster the morale of her husband and his waning supporters. Several key generals rushed to the Niavaran Palace and begged His Majesty to accept their plans for an iron-fisted approach to the Khomeini-led revolt. Only mass arrests and a shoot-to-kill policy they argued could stop the nightmare looming on the horizon. Almost everyone including the revolutionaries expected a clampdown.
However, the Shah was not a tyrant. In one of his last interviews he repeated that he was a religious man with a mystical bent. He felt Khomeini was settling a personal score with him and expressed his confusion that such a man could have such a wide following. To the chagrin of his military leaders and die-hard supporters, the Shah, a virtual prisoner of events, was not prepared to order a bloodbath to save his throne. There was a reason for his sudden loss of will and decisiveness. All his life the Shah had convinced himself that he had a divine-mission and personal duty and obligation to lead Iran to greatness. He still kept faith that a ‘silent majority’ would eventually rise up and stand up to the ‘mad Khomeini’ and defend the monarchy.
At the end the Shah turned to Dr Shapour Bakhtiar, a former supporter of the pro-Mossadeq National Front. Bakhtiar who advised the Shah to leave the country temporarily regarded himself as a constitutional monarchist, a social democrat, and a secular politician. The Americans and European leaders had already concluded that the Shah was finished and preferred a transitional regime friendly to the West. Exhausted and broken by his people’s ‘ingratitude’ the Shah spoke of taking a holiday to recuperate and a medical check-up. In fact, with Bakhtiar’s government installed, it proved the final curtain for the Pahlavi dynasty. On the 16th January 1979 a tearful Mohammed Reza Shah and his empress bid farewell to their grief-stricken Imperial Guard, servants and valets, and boarded the royal aircraft and flew into exile.
On the 1st February Khomeini and his entourage returned to Iran aboard an Air France jet and named a rival provisional government whilst calling on the armed forces to join the people in the name of God and Islam. A million people took to the streets to show their support for the man they now considered an ‘Imam.’ The Bakhtiar government simply melted away as Tehran witnessed an insurrection by air force cadets and left-wing and pro-Khomeini armed gangs. Having lost control of the situation and bereft of the Shah, a dozen top military generals had no option but to capitulate to revolutionary forces. In the aftermath of Khomeini’s victory thousands of the Shah’s military and civilian supporters including ex-premier Hoveyda who had been arrested by the Azhari government on trumped-up charges as a scape-goat were rounded up, tried by revolutionary courts presided by clerics and once found guilty sent away to be shot by a firing squad. In this climate of terror a referendum was held that ended the monarchy in favour of an Islamic Republic. Hardliners in Khomeini’s camp began to persecute anyone they considered a threat to their newly gained power. Once the royalists had been punished the mullahs began a purge of liberal and leftist groups who had once collaborated to overthrow the Shah. Women were harassed and forced to wear the veil. Drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, tribal leaders, prominent Jewish leaders and religious minorities primarily the Bahai’s were murdered in their hundreds.
In exile, Mohammed Reza Shah as his memoir Answer to History reveal, was a man who felt betrayed by his former allies, especially by the Carter administration which after Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran taking over 50 hostages, had no time for him. Eighteen months after leaving Iran and having moved from Egypt to Morocco then the Bahamas, Mexico, the USA, Panama the Shah was back to the welcoming arms of President Anwar Sadat. Not long before his death, as he sat on the veranda of the Kubbeh Palace that once belonged to Egypt’s former king, the sixty-year old Shah had told an American reporter that he doubted he would ever return to his throne. He still hoped for his eldest son Crown Prince Reza to continue the dynastic line. What was happening in his country was nothing short of a catastrophe.
Having spent a lifetime watching his country’s development the Shah remarked philosophically that it took a tree many years to grow but only a minute to cut it down. It pained him to watch the radicalised mullahs obliterating everything he and Reza Shah (his tomb in Iran was demolished by the new regime) had achieved over the last fifty years. His voice cracking with emotion, he said, ‘We were thinking of building the Great Civilisation...enriched by art and by spirit and now it is all destroyed.’ There was truth in that statement. Khomeini’s rule was, in all significant respects, a disaster. When the Shah died on 27th July 1980 it was President Sadat (himself assassinated a year later by Islamic terrorists) who ordered a state funeral for the Iranian emperor who was buried with pomp and ceremony at the Grand Rifa’i Mosque in a special room with a marble tombstone and a flag.
With the end of 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran came decades of revolution, war and international isolation, repression, intolerance, blood-letting, economic ruin, the exile of several million Iranians and political mayhem. Compared to the atrocities and monstrous brutality of the Islamic Republic over the decades, the Shah’s reign was benign. Of course, much has changed in Iran since then. The revolutionary fever is gone. The population is over double what it was under the former regime with 80 million people. Many of them are in their twenties or thirties, better educated and eager to pursue a better life. The political, cultural and social environment is always evolving, and the nation has a long way to go before it can come to terms with the past and as Iranians hope pave the way for a new chapter - even if that is yet unclear. Nostalgia aside, for many Iranians, the Shah has long been gone but his legacy has not.
Looking back at it all and with the benefit of hindsight, the tragedy of the Shah was not in the way he ruled his geopolitically strategic kingdom which for 37 years had appeared ‘magnificently powerful and secure,’ nor in his ‘flawed’ personality, not even in his rushed attempts to modernise and transform Iran, but rooted (as Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of Titans of History has written) in the fact that his well-meaning “achievements were overshadowed by his downfall.”
At a time when the Middle East is tearing itself apart and with the clear and present danger of Iran being drawn into the fray, the memory of the late Shah and what his country could have been still haunts the living. For younger Iranians born after the 1979 Revolution and raised in a theocracy and for those old enough to remember the halcyon days when their country was an island of stability in a less unstable world and a respected ally of the West with friendly relations with most countries of the world including Russia, Israel and China, Mohammed Reza Shah remains a subject of continued debate, academic research, and historical curiosity.
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