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The Shah & She
An old ruler and a new Iran.


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Farah Pahlavi’s An Enduring Love was an immediate bestseller in Europe and has received plenty of attention in the United States. The book’s release has presented a fresh opportunity for those interested in modern Iranian history to revaluate the record of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the challenges he faced during his reign. While on the one hand he was pushing incessantly for the advancement of Iran, on the other, he had to recreate his own role as a modern king of an ancient monarchy. The roots of his tragic fate are to be found in the relentless tension between these two competing exigencies. Farah Pahlavi’s memoirs provide the reader with the opportunity to grasp the immensity of this challenge.

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In a poverty-stricken country beset by ignorance, insecurity, and disease, the shah mobilized all the resources at his disposal to address the most urgent issues of health care, education, and territorial security. Ironically, it was the brilliant success of his objectives that prepared the ground for his violent downfall. The unremitting speed of development led to higher standards of living and, inevitably, heightened political expectations to unsustainable levels.

Although the 1979 revolution eventually fell into the hands of the most fanatical and retrograde forces in society, one cannot forget that it was initially fuelled by a desire for greater political freedom. Political reform that would mirror the rise in the standard of living was energetically demanded by an ambitious, restless, and educated young population that had no memory of the rampant disease, poverty, and illiteracy that had gripped the country just few decades previously.

Farah Pahlavi herself belonged to a generation that still had vivid memories of the humiliating backwardness of the country. When the reins of power were delivered into the hands of the young Mohammad Reza, Iranians lived under the constant threat of foreign intervention, disease, and insecurity. In her book, Empress Farah recounts the dire conditions of the country at a time when even the capital was deprived of the most basic necessities, like clean water:

Every district had its day for receiving this muddy running water. Directed by small dams, it flowed for a few hours into a tank under the house or a reservoir usually dug in the courtyard or the garden. We had both tank and reservoir, and I remember watching with great curiosity as all the water with rubbish collected further up the channel flowed into them: watermelon peel, dead leaves, cigarette butts, bits of wood. The water settled after a day or two and could be pumped up into a tank in the attic, which supplied the kitchen and the bathrooms. In spite of the quicklime added to the water in the tank, little worms proliferated there; our parents were forever telling us never to drink water from the faucet.

The shah, as a head of state who had sworn to preserve his country’s sovereignty, walked a thin line in staying within his remit as a constitutional monarch while protecting his homeland from the likes of the revolutionaries, the Communists, and the terrorists organizations. Reading Farah Pahlavi’s memoirs we are reminded again of how the king “could forgive those who had designs on his life, but not those who threatened the security and unity of the country.” There is bitter irony in the fact that the king forgave a man called Parviz Nickhah–the brain behind a Leftist group that sent a hit man to assassinate the shah–and provided him with an important position in Iranian television. This same person was later executed by the Islamic revolutionaries for his sin of being forgiven by the man they hated so much.

As was proven after the revolution, when the Iraqis took advantage of Iranian military weakness and internal chaos by attacking the border province of Khuzestan, the foreign military threat was not a figment of the shah’s imagination. He had learned from painful lessons of history that the weakness of the central government had always whetted the appetite of Iran’s neighbors to invade the country. In Iran, Islamic terrorism and Communism, or as the shah used to call them, “the accursed alliance of the red and the black,” have time and again done duty as the fifth column of the enemy.

Those critics today who, after the end of the Cold War, sit in their ivory towers and complacently criticize the shah’s human-rights record according to the most up-to-date democratic standards, should remember that the geopolitical landmarks of the shah’s era were Gulag prison camps in the north, and the headquarters of the Baath party in the south. Surrounded on both sides by those infernal waters, the shah was battling against all odds to navigate his country towards modernization and progress.

If the shah’s removal from power was the magic formula many people claimed it would be, today, a quarter of a century after his death, Iran should not be experiencing one of the darkest and most oppressive times in its history. What held the country back from political development in the time of the shah was rooted in those backward forces that have gained considerable ground since the victory of 1979 revolution. Those forces raised formidable obstacles in the path of the shah’s reform program every step of the way. Some powerful segments of the Shiite clergy fought tooth and nail against the granting of voting rights to women and agrarian reform.

Elaine Sciolino, the New York Times Paris bureau chief who in 1979 accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini on that fateful journey from Paris to Tehran, and Abbas Milani the author of several books on Iran, accuse Farah Pahlavi of attempting in her memoirs to gloss over her husband’s authoritarianism and rehabilitate his place in history. If looking at modern Iranian politics unencumbered by sectarian animus leads to the rehabilitation of the shah, Farah Pahlavi can by no means be accused of being the only person who has made such an attempt. The following quote from Desafíos a la libertad by Mario Vargas Llosa, the celebrated Peruvian writer, more than corroborates Empress Farah’s account of the great achievements and the tragic fall of the Iranian monarch:

When the Shah was overthrown and the Ayatollahs took over, the world heaved a sigh of satisfaction: a tyrant had fallen and a popular government was born. Very few were then aware of the awful truth, that the real reason for the uprising of the Iranian people against Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was not his megalomania and his wild spending, neither corruption, nor the crimes of the SAVAK his sinister secret police, but the agrarian reform destined to put an end to feudalism and transfer land belonging to the clergy to the mass of new landowners, as well as his efforts to westernize Iran by emancipating women and secularization of the government. It was these measures that aggravated the imams who then converted all mosques into centers of rebellion against ’sacrilege’ and ‘impiety.’ The Shah did not fall because of the many evils he caused his people, but for the good things he tried to do.

In her book review (May 2, 2004), Sciolino states: “Farah Diba is so full of anger and bitterness that her memoir distorts more than it enlightens.” Nothing can be further from the truth. Her memoirs abound with affection and sympathy for her countrymen. Even a prime minister like Mohammad Mossadeq, who nearly caused the shah’s overthrow in 1953, is treated with fairness and praised for his “courage” and “firmness.” The book takes pains to convey the message that today, more than ever, Iranians must stop dwelling on the past. They should move beyond the stage of bitter recriminations in order to make a joint effort in reconstructing their country. Concerning the divisive interpretations of events that led to Mossadeq’s ouster–and which still morbidly occupy the thoughts of many Iranians–she writes: “My wish today is that all Iranians put an end to this fifty-year-old quarrel. It has no place in the Iran of tomorrow, which all of us should build together.”

Remembering the best they have been able to achieve, and relying on the excellence and humanity of their culture, is essential for Iranians to pull the country out of its present quagmire. An Enduring Love is a forward-looking document and a valuable lesson in generosity, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It helps Iranians to recognize the true sources of their strength and to opt for a future worthy of their great heritage.

Reza Bayegan is an Iranian-born commentator currently living in France.



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