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Ashraf Pahlavi: Portrait of a Persian Princess


By Cyrus Kadivar

A 1977 portrait of Princess Ashraf Pahlavi (1919-2016)

History often has trouble giving powerful women their due - Princess Ashraf Pahlavi certainly falls into this category. Her death on 7 January 2016 in Monte Carlo at the age of 96 did not spawn the usual publicity, controversy and myth that overshadowed her amazing life. We live in a world of vanishing icons and in their passing we are often drawn to the past - forensically sifting through the debris of time, piecing together the remains of an existence. Who was this woman? To understand her is to delve into an era that ended in 1979 when a nation in revolt led by a religious leader brought down the half-century old House of Pahlavi and buried 2,500 years of monarchy. Our story begins on the 26 October 1919.

On that chilly autumn day in Tehran, Reza Khan Pahlavi, the moustachioed, formidable Commander of the Persian Cossack Brigade, was smoking and pacing around the blue-tiled pool of his brick courtyard house, when an aide told him the good news. His wife Nimtaj Ayrumloo (later Taj-ol Moluk) had just given birth to a boy. Throwing away his cigarette, the uniformed military leader had rushed toward his house, his jackboots thumping against the cobbled pavement. At the door a midwife stopped him to say that there was another child on the way. Arriving five hours later, the girl, who was later named Ashraf, hardly generated the same excitement that had greeted her brother’s birth and that of her elder sister Shams.

From an early age, Ashraf felt an outsider, ever conscious that she would have to create a place for herself. In her own words, it was her twin brother Mohammed Reza, the future crown prince, not her, who would always be ‘the centre of my existence.’ Despite being raised in a large family of siblings and half-siblings (in his lifetime Reza Shah married six times and had 11 children in all), Ashraf had a lonely childhood. Her mother spoiled her pet daughter Shams and her father only had eyes for her twin. Only Ashraf’s nanny, a peasant woman, kept her company, telling her fairy tales, treating her like a royal princess.

Reza Khan before he became shah with his three of his children:
Mohammed Reza (L), Shams (C), and Ashraf

In April 1926, after Reza Shah was crowned king at the Golestan Palace, the Palace of Roses, he briefly moved in with his family in an annex of the former Qajar palace. Ashraf and Mohammed Reza used to play in the cypress-pine gardens, running down the massive halls with their high, ornate walls, frescoes, glittering mirror mosaic ceilings and the ever mystical Peacock Throne. Reza Shah adored his twins but was aware of their differences. Ashraf shared some of his stubbornness, fierce pride, and iron will. Mohammed Reza on the other hand was gentle, reserved and painfully shy. He suffered from typhoid fever and other childhood diseases whilst little Ashraf was physically robust and emotionally volatile. Like all siblings they quarrelled but they also confided in one another. If her pretty sister Shams loved her dolls, the tomboy Ashraf preferred the company of her brother and his male friends, riding or playing tennis with them.

When Reza Shah separated his heir from his mother, sisters and his French governess Madame Arfa, to give him a rounded education, first at a military cadet school and later at a private boarding school, Le Rosey, in Switzerland, Ashraf was inconsolable. Two years later, in 1933, Ashraf, her mother and Shams, travelled to Europe to see him. The Crown Prince had grown into a serious man and athlete with impeccable manners. Excited, Ashraf telegraphed her father to be allowed to stay with her brother. A stern Reza Shah summoned her back home.

In the winter of 1934 Ashraf and her sister Shams joined Queen Taj-ol Moluk in taking part in a ceremony at the new Tehran Teacher’s College where they appeared, unveiled, wearing a cap and special uniform. After that, all Iranian women were required to remove their veils. The outraged mullahs were unable to halt Reza Shah’s plans to modernise his backward country. In 1936 when the crown prince returned to Iran and enrolled in a military college, Reza Shah decided to marry off two of his daughters. Shams took Fereydoun Jam, a dashing army officer, as her husband, and Ashraf married Ali Qavam, the son of a Shirazi grandee.

The old Shah was now ensconced at the Marble Palace with his family and last wife Esmat. There he kept up his disciplined lifestyle of near Spartan simplicity - he slept on the floor, permitting himself only one small luxury: a silver cigarette case. When his son brought over his lovely bride, the Egyptian Princess Fawzia, to Tehran in 1939, he allowed them to stay at the palace. In the stifling Pahlavi court, Ashraf treated Fawzia as a sister. Despite her unhappy marriage, Ashraf gave birth to a son, Shahram. Six months later, in 1940, Fawzia gave birth to Shahnaz.

The young princess in the palace grounds.

The Anglo-Russian invasion of Iran in 1941 led to Reza Shah’s abdication. Ashraf wanted to follow her father in exile but he ordered her to stay in Iran. ‘Your brother needs you more than I do,’ he told her. Mohammed Reza was now the new shah. In 1942, after divorcing her husband, Ashraf began an affair with Houshang Teymourtash, the son of Reza Shah’s former court minister. To her chagrin, Mohammed Reza Shah scuttled their budding romance. Distraught, a tearful Ashraf left Iran for South Africa to visit her exiled father who looked unwell and did not have long to live. On her way back she stopped in Egypt where the married King Farouk paid lavish attention to her, throwing gala parties on his royal yacht and his summer palace in Alexandria. ‘I tried to discourage Farouk without hurting his pride,” she later wrote.

Galloping her horse one day at the royal riding club, Ashraf met Ahmad Shafiq, the son of Farouk’s royal minister. They courted and were married in the spring of 1944 in Cairo. ‘If I didn’t have stars in my eyes,’ Ashraf confessed, ‘I did have a handsome, charming husband.’ Three months later her father died. Reza Shah’s body was flown to Egypt and temporarily housed in a royal mosque until his reburial in Tehran. Ashraf returned to Iran with her husband Shafiq and had two children together: a boy, Shahriar, and a girl, Azadeh. Her sister Shams left Jam to marry Mehrdad Pahlbod, a civil engineer with a talent for music.

The post-war years brought new challenges to the Shah. His personal life was in disarray after his wife Fawzia left him and returned to Cairo. In 1946, a pro-Soviet republic was established in Iranian Azerbaijan. The Shah appealed to the U.N. and sent his sister Ashraf with an Iranian delegation to negotiate with Joseph Stalin. The pipe-smoking dictator was reportedly captivated by the petite, steely princess with the raven-black-hair, red-lips and dark eyes. At the Kremlin, the Persian princess argued Iran’s case with passion and conviction. Stalin sent her a sable coat as a souvenir of her trip to Moscow. Seven months later thanks to US pressure, the Soviets left Iranian soil and the Shah’s army ‘liberated’ Azerbaijan.

Tehran’s high society now took notice of the feisty young princess. ‘Since there were few people my brother could trust and rely on, and since I had promised my father I would stand by him,’ Ashraf once said, ‘I began my career on the domestic political scene.’ Her villa opposite the royal palace was where she held court. In her chandeliered living room bedecked with tiger-skin sofas, empire chairs, porcelain vases, gilt framed oil-paintings, and the marble busts of her father, the princess gathered a coterie of dominant figures with the aim of building a political base for her brother, mobilise supporters and neutralise any threats to his rule.

Foreign ambassadors in Tehran nicknamed Ashraf ‘The Black Panther of Iran’ and ‘The Power Behind the Throne.’ But for all her shrewd activities on his behalf, there were rumours in Tehran that the Shah did not completely trust his twin sister. In 1948 Ashraf had been successful in getting rid of Ahmad Qavam, the single-minded prime minister, in favour of her ally Abol Hossein Hajir. An attempt on the Shah’s life at Tehran University in February 1949, brought the twins closer to each other. Ashraf later recounted that she had rushed to the hospital where her brother was being treated for his injuries only to faint when she saw his uniform covered in blood. The kingdom was plunged into greater turmoil when two prime ministers, Hajir and Razmara, both recipients of Ashraf’s political support and affection, were assassinated by religious fanatics.

These shocking events happened at a time when the Shah was preoccupied with his new wife, Soraya Esfandiyari, a striking Iranian-German woman with green eyes. Then came Dr Mohamad Mossadeq, the Majlis politician who stirred up a nationalist movement to wrest control of Iran’s oil industry from its British owners. The radical cleric Ayatollah Kashani, mobilised the streets of Tehran against Great Britain and in support of Mossadeq. In 1951 the Shah reluctantly accepted to appoint Dr Mossadeq as prime minister. From the start, Ashraf intuitively distrusted the eccentric old man, a Qajar prince and landowner who had been jailed in the past by her father only to be given amnesty and released by her brother.

The antipathy between the two of them was a major source of friction between the court and the government. One day over tea at Ashraf’s home, as the princess was outlining her plans for a new nursing school, Mossadeq interrupted her and began a tirade against Reza Shah. Ashraf was so upset that she instructed her butler to escort the prime minister out of the villa. Offended, Mossadeq went to the Shah and demanded the princess be expelled from the country. The king sided with his prime minister. ‘I advise you to take your family and go to Paris,’ he told his sister. For the proud princess this was a personal blow. When her husband refused to accompany her, she took her three children with her.

The two years spent away from Iran was for Ashraf, a woman in her thirties, a time of financial hardship and constant worries until she met Mehdi Bushehri, the man who would become her third and last husband. Bushehri was the refined son of an Iranian businessman and his Caucasian wife. It was he who introduced the princess to jazz and dancing. He took her to parties, the cinema, museums and art galleries, and read her the works of French writers and philosophers: Sartre and Malraux. ‘Mehdi completely changed my life,’ Princess Ashraf later admitted in her memoirs, Faces in the Mirror. The Shah’s sister fell in love with Mehdi but when the latter asked her to marry him she hesitated.

In reality, Ashraf had not yet resolved the question of her Egyptian husband. She was also concerned for her brother who clashed with Mossadeq as the latter appeared to be pushing Iran over the edge after the West boycotted Iranian oil. During this period, Ashraf was drawn into a cloak-and-dagger operation that would have a major impact on Iran’s political future for decades. That summer of 1953, via an intermediary, Ashraf clandestinely met with two men in Paris who revealed that they were acting on behalf of the American and the British government. They spoke of a covert plan hatched by their intelligence services to remove Mossadeq using a network of foreign operatives, Iranian army officers, royalists, clerics, bazaar merchants and ordinary folks loyal to the crown. The role of Her Royal Highness was vital. They needed her to deliver a letter to her brother which would prompt the Shah to act swiftly if he wanted to keep his throne. After a second meeting Ashraf agreed to be a messenger.

The plane carrying Princess Ashraf left Orly Airport on a wet July afternoon and landed some five hours later in Tehran. Under cover of night, a female friend ushered her to a taxi and took her to a villa at the Saadabad Palace compound belonging to a half-brother. When Mossadeq learned of Ashraf’s presence in the capital he sent his martial law chief to tell her that she was under house arrest and threatened her with deportation. Ashraf told him to get lost. The Shah persuaded his furious prime minister to let his twin sister remain for a few more days to attend to private matters. Ashraf never met with her brother but during her stay managed to slip the envelope with the secret message to Queen Soraya who passed it to the king. Ashraf left for Paris ten days later.

The letter to the Shah had contained a strong message from the Americans and the British that they would support His Majesty’s decision to exercise his constitutional right to dismiss Mossadeq. However, plans to remove Mossadeq failed and was condemned by the prime minister as a coup while his supporters and Tudeh communists toppled the king’s statues. The Shah, his wife and two aides flew out of Iran seeking refuge first in Iraq and then Italy. The Shah was in Rome when Ashraf phoned him. She found him anxiously awaiting for events to unfold. A friend drove the edgy princess from Nice to the Hotel Excelsior. When she reached the hotel lobby she found her brother in a jubilant mood as he told reporters how the tables had turned against Mossadeq.

The events of 1953 has been amply documented and debated by academics years after it happened. However, on that 20 August, the Shah had spoken of how the people of Tehran had risen in support of their king. He made no mention of Operation AJAX (the orchestrated plan drawn up by US and British intelligence to depose Mossadeq) nor the fact that the day had been won with American money (it has been claimed that between $60,000 and a million dollars was given to royalist forces), the CIA network run by Kermit Roosevelt, the Shah’s active supporters in the army, the mosque and the bazaar, but also the ‘spontaneous’ uprising of downtown Tehranis. Backed by tanks and loyal military units, General Zahedi was now the new PM and in charge of the country. Royal statues that had been uprooted were triumphantly restored and his portraits brandished everywhere. The Shah was received at the airport as a hero by his officers and ministers. A new chapter in Pahlavi history had been written.

When Mohammed Reza Shah reclaimed his throne, an exhausted Princess Ashraf retreated to a private sanatorium in the Swiss village of Arosa to recover her health. Upon her return to Tehran the princess found her brother more resolute than before. With Dr Mossadeq out of the way (he was later tried and sentenced to 3 years in prison) and the new secret police rounding up National Front supporters and the Tudeh communists (there were dozens of executions), the Shah was determined to restore order and pull his bankrupt country out of its underdeveloped status. In 1959, a year after the Shah divorced Soraya for failing to produce an heir, he married Farah Diba, an Iranian arts student who twelve months later gave birth to Crown Prince Reza. That same year, Princess Ashraf left Ahmad Shafiq and married Mehdi Bushehri in Paris. They spent their honeymoon on the Cote d'Azur at her house in Juan-les-Pins.

Ashraf's third wedding in Paris (1960).

During the 1960s the Shah broadened his popular support by launching his White Revolution and exiling Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious leader fiercely opposed to the reforms including women’s right to vote. Ashraf soon emerged as a trail blazer for gender equality as more women entered parliament, the armed forces and other professional vocations. One of her key achievements was the creation of the Women’s Organisation of Iran which grew to have a million members and thousands of branches around the country. Her support for the Family Protection Act in 1967 gave Iran’s women the most sweeping civil rights in the Islamic Middle East.

In 1969 Ashraf turned her attention to combatting illiteracy, poverty and improving human rights for women. While the Shah’s wife dealt with social and cultural affairs, and Princess Shams served as the head of the Lion and Sun Organisation, Ashraf chaired committees and charities. A noted diplomat she led Iran’s delegation to the United Nations, spoke on world affairs and went on a friendly visit to China. On every occasion, she publicised her brother’s efforts to take Iran to greater heights. Andy Warhol immortalised her in one of his paintings.

Ashraf Pahlavi with Mohammed Reza Shah

Notwithstanding the dizzying changes in Iran and the rising standards in living, the political system remained rigid and subservient to the king. For those seeking to discredit the Shah, Ashraf was an obvious political target. Mullahs and dissidents at home and abroad viewed her as an apologist for her brother’s authoritarian regime. They accused her of amassing a fortune, meddling in state affairs, and every other sin. In September 1977, hooded gunmen fired on her Rolls-Royce killing her lady-in-waiting and injuring her chauffeur as the party returned from a casino in Cannes. Her love affairs and business dealings were a source of much gossip and embarrassment for the Shah and his government.

By the mid-Seventies the luxurious lifestyles of the Pahlavi family and the myriad stories of alleged corruption, nepotism and scandal provided plentiful ammunition for the anti-shah dissidents. It wasn’t until September 1978 when opposition to his rule turned to revolution that the monarch ordered a code of conduct for the imperial family to be drawn up. Many of the royals abandoned their mansions, packed their valuables and suitcases, and left the country. In her memoirs Princess Ashraf described a depressing helicopter ride over the sprawling Iranian capital where she had observed tens of thousands of angry men and women demonstrating against the Shah. ‘Is this how it ends?’ she had wondered. When Princess Ashraf reached the palace she described what she had witnessed. She offered to stay with her brother but he sent her away. Parviz Radji, Imperial Iran’s last ambassador to London who owed his exalted position to Ashraf’s patronage, would later recall in his revealing diaries how a gloomy and bitter princess had called him to say: ‘For us Pahlavis, it is virtually over.’

From the safety of her Manhattan apartment the princess followed the rapid disintegration of the Pahlavi monarchy on the news. Mohammed Reza Shah eventually left Tehran for good in January 1979. After the Ayatollah returned from France and took power in Iran he demanded the Shah’s extradition. In desperation, Ashraf wrote to her friend David Rockefeller to help find her brother asylum. After his short stay in Egypt and Morocco, the Shah and his family, thanks to the Rockefellers moved to the Bahamas and then Mexico. His arrival in the US led to the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and the Hostage Crisis.

On 7 December 1979, when the Shah was in Texas, Ashraf’s son Shahriar, an imperial Navy captain, was murdered by one of the Islamic government’s agents in Paris, where he was organizing a resistance movement against the Islamic revolutionaries. Abandoned by the Americans and his former allies, the sixty year old Shah moved to Panama and then Egypt where he died on the 27 July 1980. Ashraf was present at the hospital alongside the empress and loyal retainers when the emperor drew his last breath. The Shah was buried at the Grand Rifa’i Mosque after Sadat ordered a state funeral. In Tehran revolutionaries destroyed the mausoleum of Reza Shah as they built an Islamic republic.

In exile, Ashraf shuttled with her ever-present bodyguards between homes in Paris, New York and Monte Carlo. Besides her memoirs, she published two more books in which she defended the Shah’s record and refuted the exaggerated charges against herself. She also accused the West of ‘betraying’ her brother and his enemies of ‘hypocrisy’ and of ‘using lies and propaganda’ to besmirch the Pahlavi dynasty. Her greatest regret was seeing Iranian women wearing the black veil again. Every year she took out ads in the International Herald Tribune in order to keep her brother’s memory and his legacy alive.

An exiled princess with a photo of her late twin brother.

Those who knew Ashraf Pahlavi intimately spoke of her kindness, generosity and monarchist fervour. She gave money to groups seeking to overthrow the Khomeini regime, set up an opposition newspaper and supported several families of officers shot by the revolutionaries for serving under the Shah. She also left an endowment to a non-profit institute dedicated to historical research on Iran’s past. Family tragedies haunted Ashraf: two of her twin brother’s youngest children, Leila and Ali Reza, took their lives. Her own daughter Azadeh (Dodi), a political activist, died in 2011. Gradually the princess faded from public view.

Although she grew frail and lost her memory, Princess Ashraf spent her last years in dignity, looked after by her nurses and a caring entourage, at her home in Monaco. Her last ex-husband Mehdi Bushehri passed away a long time ago. Her surviving son Shahram and her grandchildren remained close as did her former companions. It was Reza Pahlavi, the shah’s eldest son, who broadcast his aunt’s death on social media. This was followed by a statement by Robert F. Armao, a loyal friend and spokesman for the royal family. ‘Her Highness did an awful lot for her country, whatever her human faults,’ he said. For a woman whose lust for life was marked by intrigue, glamour, privilege and personal tragedy, these words seemed like an appropriate epitaph.

Note: Ashraf Pahlavi died on 7 January 2016 in Monte Carlo. She was buried in Monaco on 14 January 2016 in the presence of Empress Farah and close members of the Pahlavi family and about 70 other Iranians.

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