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
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
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
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
The old CIA, Mossad, MI6 network is up to it again to have another 28th
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.