Open User Guide

The Enigma of Reza Pahlavi

Why does Reza Pahlavi get so much media attention?
Why does the mere mention of his name bring up so much lively debate on web sites, Internet chat rooms, Iranian TV and radio shows?
Why did people hail Reza Pahlavi as their leader during the recent disturbances in Iran?
Why is there a ban on the mention of the name of "Shah" in the Islamic Republic's press?
According to some of his critics Reza Pahlavi is a common unemployed suburban father, or as Elaine Sciolino of the New York Times claims a "footnote in history."

Other denouncers claim that Reza Pahlavi has a total of two to three thousand followers worldwide mostly composed of toothless balding octogenarian imperial generals and corrupt former courtiers in Paris, London and Los Angeles and is therefore "white noise" in Iranian political statistics.

Unlike most Iranians who generally first prepare the answers and then ask the questions, I have to admit that I do not know how many people would vote for Reza Pahlavi if there was a referendum held today nor do I claim to know the answer to some of the questions above. 

It does however seem logical to assume that Reza Pahlavi has an important view point on Iranian politics if the CNN, the BBC, Newsweek, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and LeMonde interview him or write about him.

After all, Iran has a former president of the Islamic Republic, former prime ministers, heads of Marxist and Islamist guerilla organizations, leaders of the secular national front, followers of Bazargan, dismayed former revolutionary guards, radical supporters of Khatami all in exile and in opposition to the Islamic Republic. 
Why are not they the subject of such intense scrutiny?
The typical Iranian answer is a variation of the all too familiar conspiracy theory.
The old CIA, Mossad, MI6 network is up to it again to have another 28th of Mordad.

On a saner note, even if such conspiracies did in fact exist, can the theorists come forward and explain why would the CIA select a man that they claim is a "has been" jet setter with no followers, tribe or army? 
I think the rational possibility to explore is that Reza Pahlavi has a rather sizable constituency inside and outside Iran and his popularity is neither a foreign plot nor a passing trend but is caused by profound socio economic changes in Iran. This however raises other questions.
Was not there a genuine revolution in Iran where people overthrew the monarchy?
There is no question that we had a populist revolution in Iran with the specific aim of toppling the Pahlavi regime. This was no sinister plot of the British or the CIA.

There is however nothing noble or legitimizing about a revolution. Societies can make mistakes the same way that their components i.e. individuals make mistakes. Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all came to power through popular revolutions with disastrous consequences for their societies.

The fact that the Iranian modern middle class threw in their lot with the Mollahs twenty-five years ago does not mean that the new generation has not learnt from the past and should be condemned to repeat their mistake and not change course.
Did not people turn out recently in millions to elect Khatami as their president?

Without a doubt the election of Mohammed Khatami had the full hearted support of the Iranian people.
However once the post election euphoria subsided, the realities of the Islamic republic became apparent. The army, security apparatus, revolutionary guards and the judiciary remained under the firm control of the Vali Faghih who answers to no one but God. As a result 4 years later, the independent press is shut down, the prisons are filled with writers, students and the so called loyal opposition who were all Khatami's backers. There have been no economic reforms, unemployment has actually become worst and corruption even within the administration is as rampant as before Khatami.

It is rather symbolic that the student movement leaders of the Office of Consolidated of Unity (Daftar e Tahkim Vahdat), who were staunch supporters of Khatami, began speaking of "transition from Khatami" to democracy (Gozar az Khatami.) in 2001 after Khatami's second election. As a result, their leaders were subsequently arrested, tortured and forced into televised cofessions and the organization was declared illegal.

In practice the Khatami presidency's main achievements can be summarized in the women's right to wear nail polish, a couple of trips by the President to Europe, an oil concession to Royal Dutch Shell and a lot of hot air.

On a theoretical level, Khatami at its best is the embodiment of the hypothesis that Islam and modernity may be compatible. Khatami's election was a test of Soroush's theory that liberal interpretations of religion may lead to an Islamic democracy.

This theory had serious flaws and religious democracy never had a chance to begin with. Protestantism saved Christianity in some parts of the world but did not lead to separation of church and state which is a prerequisite of democracy.

In other words, a liberal interpretation of religion may save Islam from extinction but for democratic institutions to flourish, religion, liberal or dogmatic, needs to be driven out of the state apparatus.
In fact, Sorush and people in his "Kian" magazine circle were the first to recognize the underlying flaw of their theory.

I had a first impression of that when Sorush the Islamic revivalist who was calling Ghazali, Mowlavi, Shariati and Khomeini his intellectual models in his earlier books came full circle in 1999 and called Mohammed Ali Foroughi's "Seyr-e Hekamt dar Europa" which is a history of western philosophy as the greatest philosophical work ever done by a contemporary Iranian.

The failure of Khomeini style fundamentalism and now Khatami's Islamic reformism to address and resolve the Iranian society's main problem of backwardness has now opened new vistas in Iranian politics. The questions which many rightfully ask are:
Supposing Islam as a form of government failed why would the Iranian people want to revert to monarchy?
Supposing that constitutional monarchy is a suitable form of government for Iran why should it be the Pahlavis again?

Who are Reza Pahlavi's constituents in or outside Iran?
I think one of the common mistakes is to confuse the Pahlavi regime with absolute oriental monarchies that we have had throughout our history in the form that they currently exist in Saudi Arabia or the Persian Gulf Sheikdoms such as the United Arab Emirates.
The oriental monarchy died in Iran when a mere commoner assassinated the Shadow of God on earth, the Pinnacle of the Universe, Nasser Eddin Shah. That famous shot in the ShahAbdolazim shrine rang the death knell of the divine right of the Sultan once and for all.
Since its inception, the Pahlavi regime was at the same time a product and promoter of Iran's embryonic modern middle class.
The men who founded and later staffed the Pahlavi regime were not aristocrats, feudal landlords or tribal leaders. They had not ridden on horses to conquer and loot new territories. 

Davar, Foroughi or Taghizadeh, just to name a few, were all educated radical constitutionalists from middle class backgrounds. They constituted the cream of the crop of Iran's intelengensia. They were well versed in Persian literature and Islamic doctrine and at the same time had an intimate knowledge of western political thought and philosophy. Without an exception, these men were scrupulously honest with almost a Sufi's disdain for the trappings of power. Many of them died not even owning their homes.

They all had a purely secular agenda even though many of them such as Kasravi, Taqizadeh or Akhavi came from clerical families. As such, they had first hand experience of the degrading primitiveness, misplaced self-righteousness, nauseating bigotry, sanctimonious hypocrisy and shameless corruption of the Mollas.
These men had a vision for the modernization of Iran.
The experience of the constitutional revolution and its chaotic aftermath where Iran's existence as a sovereign nation was threatened had taught them that democracy could not flourish before economic development. In other words, first there had to be an Iran, second it had to have an economy and third people needed to be literate and then there could be meaningful elections and democracy.

In a way, they were the Iranian pioneers of the South Asian or Japanese model of modernization. They believed that to modernize and save Iran from impending disaster, they had to acquire western thoughts, philosophies and technologies. 
Their patriotism was positive and oriented towards opening Iran to the world.
They painfully recognized that the traditional Persian culture that they so much loved had become too isolated and inward looking and needed updating.
After all as Dariush Shayegan says:" We had taken a vacation from human history for the last thousand years."

What transpired in Iran over the next half century is simply the implementation of that vision. 
The Pahlavi regime was not a military dictatorship. The army chiefs were never devising social or economic policies. They were tools in the hands of the intellectuals.

In his memoirs, Ali Akabar Siassi, the founder and future president of Tehran University has a telling passage. He and his friends, all educated middle class intellectuals formed a political club and wrote a charter. Reza Shah heard of their activities and called Siassi for a meeting. Reza Shah asked a young intimidated Siassi rather testingly about their activities. Siassi read the charter which called for the reorganization of the army and bureaucracy, a secular judiciary, new modern schools and universities, establishment of heavy basic industries etc.

Reza Shah then smiled, congratulated him and told him:
_"You the young educated patriots make the plans and I the old soldier promise you that I will implement them. (Fekr az shoma, Kar az man)."

Arguably the union of the old provincial soldier and the young cosmopolitan intellectuals was the best thing which happened to Iran in its entire post Islamic history. They accomplished the impossible.
In a span of sixteen years, out of the rubble of an old decaying oriental empire, they built a modern state. They built a strong army, an effective bureaucracy, a secular and clean judiciary, schools, universities, railroads, hospitals, dams, factories, hotels.

They did that without a cent of foreign debt, minimal oil revenues, a largely illiterate and scattered populace and a skeleton staff of college graduates. They did not attempt utopian social engineering. There was no mass genocide of the ancient regime. There were no periodic Stalinist purges. There was no foreign adventurism.There was no ethnic or religious stereotyping and cleansing. 
They gave Iran the self respect and national pride that it had lost for hundreds of years.

A disciplinarian model of development had its costs. Bringing a nation out of the abyss did require sacrifice. Some of these young men ended up in jail, exile or internal disgrace. Democratic institutions never sprang up.
The benefits however were far greater than the costs and Iran definitely gained.

Like his father Mohamad Reza Shah was never an oriental Sultan, unlike his father he was never a pure soldier. More than anything Mohamad Reza Shah was a technocrat whose sole aim in life was to finish the job that Davar and Foroughi had started.

Neither Davar and his friends, nor Reza Shah or Mohamad Reza Shah ever thought that Iran's priority was democracy. They never promised democracy. They promised economic development and they delivered it. In retrospect, there had to be a measure of political development accompanying the building of the country but there was no question that the mandate given to the Pahlavis was first and foremost the rebuilding of the country's infrastructure and raising its standard of living.

The popularity of Reza Pahlavi is more than anything a result of Iran's changing demographics. 
In 1978 40% of Iran's population were city dewelers and 50% of them had emigrated to the cities in the last 5 years before the revolution. As a result over 80% of Iran's population had a traditional village mentality.

They did not understand modern values because they did not have modern needs. The Mollas were their traditional leaders. The aim of the revolution was therefore not freedom or development but the reinstatement of traditional values such as the veil.

It was not therefore surprising that Iran's educated modern middle class regardless of their political persuasions had to leave Iran or became pariahs at home once Mohamad Reza Shah left.

Today 70% of Iran's population are city dewelers. In the years since the revolution the absence of Modernity has brought them unemployment, lack of civic services, absence of a real judiciary etc.

As a result, the modernization paradigm which 80 years ago only belonged to the educated elite has now become the common man's objective except they want to achieve "Davar's Dream" within a democratic framework.

The other important change is the age of the Iranian population. Fifty percent of all Iranians have been born after the revolution and have absolutely no idea of the revolutionary era. They want social and political freedoms, jobs. The Islamic Republic has failed to deliver and they are looking for an alternative.

The reason that Reza Pahlavi has emerged as the leader of the new modern middle-class movement in Iran is not because educated Iranians have suddenly become fond of Oriental Sultans fully equipped with seraglios, eunuchs, concubines and henchmen. 
Reza Pahlavi is a symbol of an alternative vision for Iran, the continuation of a political dynasty which successfully delivered the economic development side of the equation and never lied to Iranians.
The question that many ask is whether Reza Pahlavi can deliver "Davar's Dream" within a democratic framework.

The structuring of a democratic framework depends on the method that power is transferred. If the power is transferred through non violent means such as a campaign of civil disobedience and ultimately a multi-staged National Referendum under International Observation, the means of a coercive takeover of the state will simply not exist for any group, monarchist, republican or otherwise. 
The argument that Reza Pahlavi by virtue of his pedigree and name recognition cannot lead a democratic movement thus becomes baseless.

The fact that you have the political families of Bush, Gore, Kennedy or Roosevelt in the United States or the Francois Poncets in France or the Churchills in England or the Buttos in Pakistan or the Gandis in India just to name a few has not been an obstacle to democracy in their respective countries.