Majesty Magazine - London December 2009
FIFTY YEARS AGO her marriage made headlines all over the
world. Twenty years later the couple’s departure from their homeland opened a
new and tragic page in the history of the Middle East and the world.
She met the Kennedys and de Gaulle, and countless other personalities who made history. In 1971 together with her husband she entertained dozens of kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers during the celebrations marking 2,500 years of monarchy in her native land.
Empress Farah of Iran, wife of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, has lived in exile for 30 years. She divides her time between her Paris home and Washington, where her elder son Prince Reza Pahlavi lives with his family. For years he has been trying to unite the fractured and notoriously inflexible Iranian emigrants in order to create a united front against the clerical regime in Tehran. Some of the émigrés call Prince Reza ‘the Shah’, since after his father’s death he has assumed the title and functions of the head of the imperial house of Iran.
The Empress, Shahbanou in Persian, supports her son in his struggle and maintains a wide web of contacts with Iranians — both outside and inside Iran — but she lets him do most of the talking. The Empress received Majesty in her elegant but far from ostentatious Paris apartment, where lots of mementos (photos, sculptures and paintings) testify to the enduring love of her life, the late Shah.
Enduring Love is actually the title of Empress Farah’s memoirs, published three years ago. They open with a heartbreaking rendition of the imperial couple’s last 24 hours in Tehran before Mohammad Reza Pahlavi took the controls of his silver Boeing 707 Falcon to fly towards exile and eventual death in Egypt in 1980.
It is for the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt that the Shahbanou reserves her warmest words when I ask her which of the political leaders she has met left the most lasting impression on her. ‘President Sadat was a courageous and principled man,’ she recalls. ‘He treated us as friends, as members of his own family when everyone deserted the Shah and he did not have a home. We are still great friends with Jehan Sadat, his widow, and we are in touch regularly.’
I ask Her Majesty what is her most poignant memory of 16 January 1979, the day she left Iran. ‘There were several dramatic moments,’ she replies. ‘You know, most people would remember how an officer rushed to kneel before the Emperor, kissed his hands and begged him to stay [the moment was captured by a photographer and remains one of the most dramatic images of these historic events]. However, it was the tears that I saw in the eyes of my husband, usually so composed and strong-willed, that were the saddest and sadly unforgettable sight for me.
Some historians as well as Iranian émigrés say that the Shah should have remained in Iran and put the Islamic movement down by force, if necessary. They claim that by choosing to fly abroad he left the country at the mercy of Ayatollah Khomeini and his radical followers.
The Empress admits that events went not as Mohammad Reza Pahlavi thought they would, but she says that this course of action seemed logical at the time. ‘The aim of our departure was to let passions calm down a little and the new government of Shahpour Bakhtiar [a liberal reformer and constitutional monarchist] to acquire a certain freedom of action and political manoeuvring space. ‘The army at the time remained loyal to the throne. But my husband was always of the opinion that a monarch does not have a right to pay for power with the blood of his people. Well, sad as it is, but the situation shifted dramatically and we know what happened next.’
I cannot help asking why the Shah, an astute and experienced
politician, and his advisors missed the moment when popular feelings started to
turn against the monarchy, and the political and economic system that
underpinned it. The Shahbanou explains that, in her view, there were several
reasons for this. ‘Firstly, economic development in the 1960s and early 1970s
was very rapid, but when inflation and recession set in during the later part of
1970s the government turned out to be unable to meet the demands of the people,
who had become used to economic growth. Secondly, the Shah and I paid too much
attention to social and economic issues, but did not do so with regard to
political development, which lagged behind. The people’s participation in the
life of the country was insufficient. We were not organised enough to meet the
challenges of the time, while our opponents were organised all too well!’
The Empress is candid in her assessment. ‘In the end, everyone misjudged the situation: we, the government, those leftists, who thought that Khomeini would bring freedom and democracy to Iran and of course, those powers that interfered in Iran.’
‘Yes,’ she replies. ‘The Soviets thought that Khomeini would pave the way for the Iranian Communists — the Tudeh party. The ayatollah used the leftists to overthrow the Shah and then butchered them. Thousands died, but some managed to escape the country. I have met some of those former leftists, and today they take quite a different view of the past. But you know, all these past differences among opponents of the current regime should be forgotten now in order to fight for a free and democratic Iran.’
The Empress is scathing in her criticism of the Iranian authorities. ‘All this so-called Islamic revolution turned out to be a big lie. Khomeini promised a lot of things to the people — free gas, free electricity, equality for women. Those speeches of his were distributed in Iran clandestinely on cassette tapes. Today you cannot find the speeches anywhere; they are banned by the regime.’
When I ask Her Majesty why there are still quite a few people supporting it, she says that she maintains contact with people inside the country and meets those who come from Iran. ‘Things I hear from them are very depressing. And, believe me, they are not telling them to my son or me in order to curry favour or look good in our eyes. Of course there are people who still believe in the regime out of religious convictions or just because they made lots of money through the right connections. ‘But for the majority of the Iranian people the situation is dire.
There is massive unemployment, low wages, and sometimes outright malnutrition. Drug use and prostitution are on the rise. It’s nothing but hardship for the ordinary man.’ ‘What is the significance of the movement we have seen being born after 12 June?’ I wonder. ‘Is it a long-term phenomenon?’ ‘The Islamic Republic has lost its legitimacy and there is a fissure in the power structure,’ the Empress replies. ‘For the first time the traditional middle class has also joined the protest movement. The fissure between the older generation and the younger Iranians is expanding; 70 per cent of the population is under 30 and they do not accept this regime. There will be civil disobedience among other sectors of the society.’
‘Now that the movement has been suppressed — at least temporarily — what do you expect from the Tehran regime?’ I continue.
‘It is difficult for me to predict, but I think the regime will do everything in its power to save itself,’ Her Majesty says. ‘On the one hand, it will take some popular measures in order to placate some sectors of the society. On the other, if civil disobedience continues, the Revolutionary Guard would step in and take full control of the government. We have to wait and see how the Islamic Republic reacts to the pressure of the international
community regarding its nuclear programme
‘What can and should the West do in these new circumstances?’
‘The West should support the freedom-loving people of Iran and strongly condemn the terrible human rights abuses of unwarranted imprisonment, torture, rape and assassination,’ the Shahbanou suggests. ‘The long-term
interest of the West lies in the end of repressive and fanatical regimes in the Middle East, and its interest is best served by security and stability in the region. The moral support of the West coupled with support from the Iranian Diaspora will embolden the people of Iran in their struggle for freedom. They will realise that the world has not forgotten them. We all should bear in mind what Vaclav Havel said, “Think of the power of the powerless”.’
At the end of our conversation, I wonder if the Empress still hopes that her son will one day ascend the Peacock Throne. ‘Today, many people reminisce fondly about my husband’s rule. My son likes to say “With my father Iran strived to become like South Korea. But under the present regime it rather resembles North Korea.” The main goal is for Iran to become a free and democratic country. It is for the Iranians themselves to decide whether they want a constitutional monarchy or a republic. My son will accept the decision of the people.’
As I prepare to take my leave, I ask Her Majesty what are the most cherished moments of her life as reigning Empress of Iran.
‘Well, of course, the births of my children were the most memorable — as for every mother. But I would say it was witnessing Iran’s economic and social development, visiting towns and villages and seeing how life improved there in my husband’s reign — that was real joy!’ LU
For further information about the Shahbanou please visit her official website: http://www.farahpahlavi.org
The deeply caring Empress speaks at The deeply caring Empress speaks at length with Konstantin von Eggert at her Paris home
At right: A painting on the staircase is a constant reminder of much happier times
Left:Empress Farah Pahlavi remains determined to do every thing she can to help her compatriots
Right: Her Majesty with her elder son and daughter-in-law at the wedding of Prince Felipe and Letizia in Madrid 2004
Right: The Shah and Shahbanou of Iran after their wedding banquet at Golestan Palace, Tehran, on 2 December 1959
Left: The Imperial Family at the Shahbanou's USA home in 1998
From top left toright: Noor, Reza Pahlavi, Ali Reza Pahlavi, Leila and Iman The Empress, Yasmine and Farahnaz Pahlavi.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his family during their brief stay in the Bahamas, April 1979