The memoirs of the Iranian Empress An Enduring Love were an immediate best-seller in Europe and have received plenty of attention in the United States. The release of this book 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 hand 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.
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 the burgeoning of a nation located in the backward Middle East with a high standard of living and the most advanced political expectations.
Although the 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 that itself was an inevitable outgrowth of the overall modernization and development programme avidly pursued by the government. 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 remembrance of the rampant disease, poverty and illiteracy gripping 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, although thanks to the great efforts of the first Pahlavi king the country was pulling itself out of its wretched medieval conditions, Iranians still lived under the constant threat of foreign intervention, disease and insecurity. In An Enduring Love Empress Farah recounts the dire conditions of the country at the 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. (p. 19)
Farah Pahlavi grew up in a family that valued and revered education. A watchful and anxious mother vigorously monitored her progress at school. Although early on she became familiar with French language and literature, her cultural references remained Iranian. She mentions Ferdowsi, Hafez, Sa’adi and Khayyam as the staple intellectual repast of her family at the time when she was growing up. This was the case for the majority of the Iranians. Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (The book of Kings) was the favorite of the poor and the rich. Even illiterate Iranians could recite the stories of Shahnameh by heart. Empress Farah calls this book ‘the incarnation of Iranian identity and pride’ (ibid. p. 33). The superhuman expectations the Iranian people invested in their monarchs had its roots in that literary tradition. The patterns and paradigms available to the Shah himself also came from within that tradition.
Those students, who thanks to the Shah’s modernization programme received government grants and travelled to Europe and the United States, acquired new cultural references. Some of them failed to see the real depth behind these new cerebral encounters. One of these students was the French-educated Ali Shariati who, according to Dr. Ehsan Naraghi, was more responsible for the success of the Islamic Revolution than the mullahs themselves. Naraghi in a book entitled Kheshte Kham (In Adobe) indicates how Shariati lampooned Iranian literature and dismissed the great classical poets of his country:
Shariati went as far as ridiculing the whole Iranian literature and its great poets and writers. Go and read his Kavir book (Hoboot dar Kavir - Falling in Desert), he calls Ferdowsi a theoretician and a feudal literary figure. Denouncing Sa’adi and Hafez, he refers to them as disseminators of dissipation (p. 129).
Similarly the Islamic Revolution tried to jettison many of the icons and traditions of Iranian heritage. Its success was a great setback for Iranian nationalism and a tremendous gain for Arab and international extremism. Ebrahim Nabavi the prominent Iranian satirist in a recent article about Ali Shariati highlights the irreparable damage done by him and his followers to the country’s hopes and aspirations. In his clear-cut style Nabavi contends that the logical corollary of all Shariati’s teachings is incitement of endless violence, tyranny and terrorism.
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 and at the same time protecting his homeland from the likes of Mr. Shariati, the Tudeh communist party and terrorist organizations such as Mojaheddin Khalgh. 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” (p. 136). There is bitter irony in the fact that the king forgave a man called Parviz Nickhah – the brain behind a leftist group who sent a hit man to assassinate the shah - and provided him with an important position in Iranian television, but this same person was later executed by the Islamic revolutionaries for this sin of being forgiven by the man they hated so much.
As it was proven after the revolution, when the Iraqis took advantage of the 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 neighbors to invade the country and take over part of its territory. In Iran, Islamic terrorism and communism – or as the Shah used to call them ‘the accursed alliance of the red and the black’ (ibid p. 128) – have time and again done duty as the fifth column of the enemy. In 1946, the Soviets with the help of the Iranian Communist Party tried to secede and break up the country. Empress Farah recounts the relief and jubilation of Iranians when the Shah was finally able to bring order to that northern province and restore the unity of the country. However, in 1979, the forces of “black reaction” defeated him and Arab and Islamic obscurantism swallowed up Iranian nationalism.
Those critics today who, after the end of the Cold War sit in their ivory towers and complacently criticize the Shah’s human rights records 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 headquarter of the Ba’ath 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 to 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 his agrarian reform.
Elaine Sciolino, The New York Times' Paris bureau chief who accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini on that fateful journey from Paris to Tehran in 1979, and Abbas Milani the author of several books on Iran, accuse Farah Pahlavi of attempting to gloss over her husband’s authoritarianism and rehabilitate his place in history. If looking at modern Iranian politics leads to the rehabilitation of the Shah’s place in the history, Farah Pahlavi by no means can be accused of being the only person who has made such an attempt. The following quote from Desafíos a la libertad (1994) 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 claims, “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” (p. 46). The book takes pains to convey the message that today, more than anything, Iranians should 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 still morbidly occupy 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