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Dr Khodadad Farmanfarmaian: A Man For All Seasons


By Cyrus Kadivar

Dr Khodadad Farmanfarmaian: 8 May 1928-16 December 2015
(photo taken by Cyrus Kadivar in 2012 in London)

Dr Khodadad Farmanfarmaian who passed away on the 16 December 2015 in London, England at the age of 87, left behind an American wife, two daughters, a son, seven grandchildren, five great grandchildren and a legion of siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, friends and colleagues. Eleven days later at a memorial held at the Carlton Tower Hotel well over a hundred people shuffled about into a glittering ballroom to honour a fine man who had made a difference in their lives and that of their beloved homeland. On a console, in front of a burning candle, lay the open remembrance book. There were also several large and small-framed pictures.

Glowing in the flickering light the images, which dated back to the 1960s, and 70s, evoked an irrecoverable and nostalgic epoch when Western-educated technocrats like Khodadad were building a modern Iran and basking in the enviable glory of their hard-work and national achievements. Two of the displayed and enlarged pictures separated the public figure from the private man. One was a black-white snapshot of the dark-haired former head of the Central Bank and Managing-Director of the Plan-and-Budget-Organisation (P.B.O.) in formal attire with the last Shah of Iran in full regalia and several ministers at a palace gala. The other was a colour photo of a grinning Khodadad in khaki summer wear, a cigarette in hand, relaxing in a Persian garden in Tehran. Beaming alongside him his wife Joanna, a dazzling blonde in a white flowery dress.

For those who did not know the man personally his name alone carried the weight of history. His origins truly belonged to another time. Khodadad’s father had once been one of the most able princes of the Qajar dynasty and cousin, brother-in-law, and son-in-law of Mozaffereddin Shah, the king who agreed to grant Persia a constitution and a Majlis (National Consultative Assembly) in 1906. During WWI Prince Farman-Farma had served the Qajar king and his country as Governor-General of Fars Province and enjoyed good relations with the British and his friend Brigadier-General Percy Sykes, the Commander of the South-Persia Rifles.

When Khodadad was born on 8 May 1928 to Prince Abol Hossein Mirza Farman-Farma and his seventh and youngest wife Hamdam Khanoum, the Qajar dynasty had been abolished by an act of Parliament. Instead a new king, Reza Shah Pahlavi, a former Persian Cossack Brigade officer, who had seized power in 1921 from the young Ahmad Shah, and crowned himself Shahanshah (King of Kings), now sat on the Peacock Throne. By the time Khodadad opened his eyes, his father: a proud grandee whose title Farman-Farma means ‘Giver of Royal Orders.’ was old and sick.

Forced to prove his loyalty to the Pahlavi ruler, the Prince had under duress, ‘gifted’ a large part of his tree-lined compound in what is now downtown Tehran to Reza Shah who later built his Marble Palace on it. Prince Farman-Farma and his large family, including Khodadad, lived in a number of houses on what remained of the garden. Reza Shah (who had once served Prince Farman-Farma as a gunnery sergeant) had ended the latter’s political life and that of two of his elder sons: the Sorbonne-educated Nosrat-ed-Dowleh (strangled in 1937 while under house arrest by order of the shah) and Abbas Mirza Salar-Lashgar, who had served as military advisor to the deposed Ahmad Shah Qajar.

During his Persian childhood, Khodi, as his friends often called him, remained in awe of his strict and disciplinarian father who as the head patriarch insisted that all his twenty-six boys and thirteen girls should devote themselves to their studies. A proper education and acquiring skills, he reminded them was the key to survival and success in a fast, changing world. In his youth Khodadad, like many children of the old and new elite families, had been schooled in several private and secular educational institutions run and administered by Muslim and minority groups. In 1939 when Khodi was eleven, his father died aged 82. Prince Farman-Farma’s will and testament had ensured that his eight wives and all his children received an equal share of land and money to avoid any disputes. Khodadad and his siblings were handed over to several trusted men who acted as their guardians.

These were turbulent times. A few prominent Qajar aristocrats, known Anglophiles who had lost their privileged status in Pahlavi Iran, were cheered by rumours that the English were plotting to bring back a prince of the blood (then serving in the British Royal Navy) to replace the pro-German Reza Shah. But under the Pahlavi monarchy their once feudal country had undergone many political, social, military and economic changes. Few Iranians, even the European educated liberals, emancipated women, ambitious generals, former khans, and clerical opponents of the old shah’s dictatorship wanted to reinstate an obsolete dynasty.

When Reza Shah, the nationalist and modernising king who had ruled Iran with an iron-fist, was deposed in 1941 by the invading armies of Russia and Britain, the Allies were persuaded by several elderly statesmen, notably the ex-prime minister Mohamad Ali Foroughi, not to make the mistake of bringing back the unpopular Qajars. Instead they were urged to allow Mohammed Reza, a shy and patriotic young man, to succeed his exiled father to the throne. While war raged in Europe, in 1943, after a spell at the famous elitist Alborz College, Khodadad and a brother, accompanied by their guardians, were sent to the American University of Beirut prep school.

Upon graduation, Khodadad spent two years in Iran, visiting his family’s estates in Hamadan, where he witnessed rural life in Persia, the relationship between the rich and powerful landlords and the harsh life of farmers and peasants in the villages. In 1946, Khodadad arrived in England, a depressing country suffering from the ravages of the war and rationing. By then most of the late Farman-Farma’s children (altogether 32) were dispersed all over the world. While attending a tutorial school in Oxford, improving his English, this privileged son of an aristocrat, often spent hours with his Austrian teacher learning about Karl Marx. Not long after his older brother Abolbashar persuaded him to go America to continue his studies.

America enthralled and captivated Khodadad from the start. With Abol, he enrolled in a small college in Greeley, Colorado where his American classmates laughed at his lengthy and unpronounceable name and called him Joe. Most of them had no clue where Iran was located, but they liked him and he felt accepted. It was also in Greeley, that Khodi met Joanna whom he described as ‘one of the greatest experiences of my life.’ and within four weeks, in the summer of 1949, a judge married them in a civil ceremony. Cyrus, Khodadad’s brother, signed the marriage certificate. After a brief honeymoon in Chicago, Khodadad then in his twenties, moved to Palo Alto to take his BA and MA in Economics at Stanford University where their first child, Tanya, was born.

In 1952, Khodadad moved back to Boulder, Colorado to do his Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Colorado. The same year, Iran was in turmoil as the then Prime Minister Mohamad Mossadeq (a Qajar prince and Khodadad’s paternal first cousin) and the Shah were at odds over the nationalisation of oil. After the coup of 1953, that removed Mossadeq, Khodadad, who used to receive funds from his family in Tehran, was forced to look for a job after the Iranian government put an end to foreign transfers.

He was already in demand as an academic star at UC, and was offered a job at Brown University as an instructor of economics not long after. In 1955, this was followed by a university fellowship at Harvard. The following year, 1956, he received a grant to work on an agriculture project in Iran and took his wife with him. During his talks with top officials, bureaucrats and ordinary people, Khodadad realised that the government needed reforms and proper planning if the Shah’s goal to move his country forwards after the Mossadeq debacle was to succeed. While in Tehran, during a cocktail party, Khodadad made contact with Abol Hassan Ebtehaj, a man who was to change his life. Ebtehaj, who is remembered today as a pioneer banker and a foremost economic planner in 20th Century Iran, was at the time a forceful and colourful person. A restless and anxious Mohammed Reza Shah had recently appointed Ebtehaj as head of the Plan Organisation (P.O.) and given him freedom to shake-up this important organisation.

Dr Khodadad Farmanfarmaian (left)  Abol Hassan Ebtehaj (middle) and Mehdi Samii on far right.

Ebtehaj, a former IMF banker with solid Washington connections, was looking for bright, honest and patriotic individuals to help him in Iran and tried to lure Khodadad to leave the USA. Ebtehaj offered his top job to Khodadad at the Plan Organisation. Khodadad was not sure. He now had two daughters and a tenured position at Princeton where he taught economics, but when Princeton agreed to a one year leave of absence, in 1958 Khodadad took his family back to Tehran and began working with Ebtehaj. The Ford Foundation had given the P.O. a grant to pay for foreign advisors and train Iranians. Dr Khodadad Farmanfarmaian was put in charge of the Economic Bureau of the Plan Organisation and with his loyal and bright deputy Reza Moghaddam, they hired a competent team of Iranian economists. Working with Abol Hassan Ebtehaj, a no-nonsense, volatile and uncompromising professional was one of Khodadad’s major life changing experiences.

During his tenure, Ebtehaj had launched an ambitious dam (Dez and Karaj) and national road building program in Iran and Khodadad, himself a straight shooter, was heavily involved. Ebtehaj, a tough public servant, had always believed that Iranian traditional bureaucracy was ‘inefficient and corrupt’ and that the Plan Organisation had to set a higher standard. Petty jealousies and the machinations of scheming ministers eventually drove a wedge between the Shah and his protege Ebtehaj. In February 1959, after Ebtehaj resigned and returned to commercial banking, Khodadad was left to fend for himself. If Ebtehaj taught him anything in that one year, he confessed years later, it was that ‘he made us feel the urgent need for development in Iran...he made us love Iran.’

The next two years were difficult times for Khodadad who became deputy-head of the P.O. His relations with his successive bosses were equally frustrating and often drove him to see the Shah whom he considered a refuge from the politicking. As a young man, the Shah nine years his senior, impressed Khodadad. He felt that the monarch was a modern man, a devoted leader interested in developing his country. He often lost his temper with sycophants and his ministers. In many ways the Shah was in Khodadad’s opinion a ‘Hamlet figure’ caught between democratic and autocratic tendencies brought about by the daily pressures.

In those early years, Khodadad once revealed, the Shah mostly accepted advice and allowed debate on issues in private audiences. But after Prime Minister Amini’s resignation in 1961, the same monarch, assumed the role of a revolutionary and benevolent despot. Challenging the landlords and powerful ayatollahs, he launched a massive reform program giving women the right to vote, distributed land to the peasants, and allocated shares to workers. When the fanatical Khomeini attacked the Shah’s policies he was immediately arrested on orders of Prime Minister Asadollah Alam (later he became Chancellor of Pahlavi University in Shiraz and Court Minister). In the capital, religious demonstrators were fired upon by army units and martial law declared. The White Revolution as the Shah’s reforms were dubbed, marked the start of rule by royal decree. In the 1960s, Khodadad’s apolitical career as Deputy-Governor of the Central Bank under his mentor Dr Mehdi Samii, soared to new heights. His talent and confidence made him an ideal person to head the bank in 1968. As Iran’s oil revenues increased the Shah and his government grew more haughty and confident.

Where there is money there is politics. Heading the Central Bank meant that Khodadad had to navigate the complex labyrinth of the Iranian body politics with the Shah, the Prime Minister, the Majlis and the high and mighty of the realm. The country was in full throttle and the Shah’s ambition to elevate Iran to great-nation status unstoppable. During his tenure, the Central Bank was held in high regard by the government and the public at large. Nonetheless, at cabinet meetings, Khodadad used to have ‘bloody wars’ with Prime Minister Hoveyda whenever the latter asked for more funds. Often the bank would refuse and the fight would go up to the Shah.

In 1970, Dr Khodadad Farmanfarmaian was appointed head of the Plan and Budget Organisation (P.B.O.) and stayed there until 1973. His predecessor went back to run the Central Bank. At the P.B.O. Khodadad quickly realised that a large portion of the national budget went to military expenditures. This was a territory that no minister dared challenge the Shah about and when Khodadad did so, he was told that Iran needed a strong armed force to guard it against its enemies. ‘When I think of the dangers to our country from outside,’ the Shah once told Khodadad, ‘then I say the hell with more clinics!’ Khodadad soon fell out with Hoveyda. Several weeks after a heated argument with the PM before the formal presentation of the Fifth Plan to the Shah at Persepolis, an angry Khodadad offered his resignation.

Dr Khodadad Farmanfarmaian with Hoveyda. The two men fell out in 1973.

The Shah’s OPEC victory in 1974 opened the floodgates to petro-dollars and filled the government coffers. The Plan budget had been estimated at $20 billion dollars but within six months it was revised to $70 billion dollars. His friend, Dr Abdol Madjid-Madjidi, replaced Khodadad. When he left office, Khodadad was in a bad financial state and in debt. His house belonged to the Central Bank. After rejecting another banking job, Khodadad received the Shah’s blessing to set up a private industrial bank (Bank Sanaye Iran) with a group of industrialists and named Chairman. This was the first time he ever made money while in Iran.

Four years later came the revolution that rocked his world in 1978. The fall of the Shah came as a shock to Khodadad. The idea that Ayatollah Khomeini should overthrow the monarchy and establish an Islamic Republic never occurred to him. Twice arrested in 1979, he finally managed to escape to the West and settled in London where after a time at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy in Boston, he worked for the Hinduja Group managing their private bank. He often spoke of writing his memoirs but never found the time. His major contribution was a lengthy interview in 1982 with Habib Ladjevardi’s Iranian Oral History Project at Harvard University center for Middle Eastern Studies.

In exile, Khodadad kept in touch with his family and friends. He often met with Ebtehaj, Samii, Madjidi and Moghaddam talking about their days in Iran, their hopes and dreams. Unlike the Shah who lost his throne, and people like Hoveyda who were murdered by the revolutionaries, they were among the lucky members of a Golden Era. Khodadad continued working until the last few months of his life, always indebt to the Hindujas for his position. In his office there was a photograph of his father - the man who he credited with everything he had become and achieved in his life.

Khodadad also enjoyed meeting younger Iranians interested in learning more about this immaculately dressed gentleman. Almost everyone - including the author of this article - will attest that they never met a kinder and gallant man. His sense of etiquette, good-natured smile, his emphasis on the importance of education, children and love of family, pride in what his generation achieved for Iran, never ceased to fascinate those who knew him.

There was no sign of pity in his voice when Khodadad looked back at his career as he poured wine for his guest at an Italian restaurant next to his office. “I wouldn’t change it one bit,” he would say, his eyes twinkling. He always reminisced with disarming honesty and candour. He lived with Joanna, his wife of 67 years, in a small Chelsea apartment tastefully adorned with books, Persian calligraphy and pictures of his illustrious ancestors and family.

His battle with lung cancer was not known by everyone. When he died, Dr Khodadad Farmanfarmaian left a big void in this world. At Khodadad’s memorial, after all the tearful and inspirational speeches had been made, his daughter, Juni, asked everyone present to raise their drinks to a very special man. Somehow it was to his credit that the atmosphere was one of celebration and not mourning. One felt that perhaps his spirit was enjoying the event, or at least that’s what he would have wanted. Later when all had been said and done, family members gathered up his pictures, and as the grand room slowly emptied, the large candle that had shone so bright that night was extinguished.

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