The man who dreamt of a modern, rich, democratic, peaceful Iran

 19th January, 2009

Remarkable and scrupulously fair magazine coverage by Swiss television’s Temps présent (1978, in French), produced just one year before the Shah’s departure into exile. It shows a series of interviews with the late Shah of Iran and his family. The picture that emerges from this footage—taken just one year before the Shah was forced into exile with the complicity of his former Western allies and Iran descended first into chaos, then into mediaeval barbarity—is one of a forward-looking, remarkably intelligent man dedicated to his people's service and desperate to succeed in his modernisation programme at a time when he was fighting terminal cancer. I apologise for the absence of English sub-titles.

On January 18, 1979, just one year after the above documentary was produced by Swiss television, the Shah of Iran, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and his Empress, Farah, were driven from their official residence at Niavaran Palace to Tehran airport, forced by their Western allies into an exile that would ultimately end, for the Shah himself, in an untimely death from cancer one and a half years later.

I have always felt the treatment of this man by the media was profoundly unjust. The late Shah’s father, Reza Khan, was offered the crown in 1925 four years after he toppled the last reigning member of the Qadjar dynasty. Ironically, it was the Iranian clergy which at that time insisted on retaining the monarchy, believing the republic which would have had Reza Khan’s preference to be incompatible with the Mohammedan religion1. Reza Khan, who modeled his action on that of Ataturk, soon fell out with the powerful shiite clergy over his desire to modernise a deeply backward country that had effectively been ruled, in the latter years of the Qadjar dynasty, as a Anglo-Russian condominium. The clergy opposed the Pahlavi dynasty’s efforts to fight illiteracy, improve the status of women and redistribute land, the vast majority of which was owned by the clergy. After Reza Khan was deposed by the British in 1941, using the convenient pretext that he had not taken sides clearly in the Second World War, his young son succeeded him.

To the annoyance of the British, who had hoped he would be more pliable, the second Pahlavi monarch continued his father’s reforms and never deviated from that course throughout his reign. In the early 1960s, he embarked on an extremely ambitious modernization called the White Revolution, in the course of which he distributed his own land to those who worked on it and gave women the vote. Male army conscripts and women volunteers were also sent out to each small village2 to teach peasants to read and write and to fight disease. The clergy reacted with fury, instigating a series of violent demonstrations in 1963, following which the leading agitator, Ruhollah Khomeini, was sent into exile after the Shah refused to have him executed. Iran’s rapidly rising oil revenues, meanwhile, were employed to improve the country’s infrastructures.

The results were spectacular: In 1963, the illiteracy ratio was 85%3. Iran’s economic growth rate in those years was the highest in the world and by 1974 it had become the tenth richest country4.

There are few examples in recent history of such dedication to the public interest. Why, then, the ignominious end? The Shah himself admitted that he had underestimated the nefarious influence of the reactionary clergy and, even more, the extent to which they succeeded in manipulating the Marxist left, the Western media and, ultimately, the Shah’s own allies into believing he was bloodthirsty dictator. The fundamentalist factions bent on returning Iran to the Middle Ages and undoing the work of the hated Pahlavis outmanoeuvred everyone: leftists, Western governments and the educated middle-class all connived at the institution of a bloodthirsty, criminal regime run by a mixture of fanatical madmen and corrupt thugs, but by the time they realized their mistake—and some of them never did—the clerics had shut their bolt. The consequences for the region were immediate and dramatic: Israel’s soundest friend, who had played a decisive role in the 1977 peace talks between Menaham Begin and Anwar Sadat, had its resources put in the service of the crazed fanaticism of the Hizbollah, a criminal organization bent on the destruction of the Jewish state.

I for one have not lost hope that, one day, Iran will be liberated from the horrendous rule of the mullahs and become again what the Pahlavis had made it and what it should never have stopped being: a beacon of progress and tolerance in the world’s most troubled area.

  1. A rather similar position, I guess to our James I’s No Bishop, no King. ↩︎

  2. In the 1960s, 70% of Iran’s population lived in rural areas. ↩︎

  3. V. Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, Réponse à l’Histoire, Albin Michel (1980), p. 107. ↩︎

  4. Ibid., p. 160. ↩︎