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No regrets
I am proud of having served my country under the former regime

By Cyrus Kadivar
April 12, 2002
The Iranian

Adjusting his spectacles the small man sat opposite me across a round glass table. He blinked twice as the warm sunshine streamed through the window illuminating his face. At seventy-three he seemed younger than his age and very alert.

As the Head of the Plan and Budget Organization during the last five years of the Hoveyda cabinet, he had once been among the more significant ministers in the Shah's regime. His position had put him in daily contact with the prime minister and enabled him to have frequent audiences with Mohammed Reza Shah.

Abdol-Madjid Madjidi was not only an ex officio member of most of the important high councils of public corporations and universities, but his close friendship with Prime Minister Hoveyda had helped keep him informed of other events in which he was not directly a participant. See photos

I was fortunate to meet him again. This was the third time we were seeing each other. I reminded him of the two previous occasions. The first time was in October 1996 in Paris. We had just returned from the funeral of my father's cousin, a former Health Minister under the Shah. We had shared a lift to Anoushiravan Pouyan's apartment where his friends and relatives were holding a wake for him.

The second time was in April 2000 at a Mihan Foundation Nowruz picnic at Runney Meade under a large striped marquee where we had sought refuge from the rain. On both occasions we had spoken briefly about his past activities.

On our third meeting I finally had a chance to hear more. Mr Madjidi had come from Paris and was staying for a few days at a friend's London apartment in Holland Park. He spoke frankly about his experiences and the Shah's downfall.

"I once wrote a list of what I considered to be the causes of the revolution," Madjidi told me. "It came to about more than 20 more or less important factors. But I believe three factors accelerated the collapse." "Can you please tell me what they were?" I asked eagerly. Here was a man who knew.

"The first reason was Iran's hawkish oil policies in the 1970s," Madjidi explained in a soft voice. "The second reason was the clash between modernity and tradition caused by reckless public policies," he continued, his fingers barely tapping the glass table. "And the third factor was the undeniable effect of the late Shah's secret illness on his performance and decision-making."

Few people could have provided me with recollections of a period long gone like Abdol-Madjid Madjidi. His rise as one of Mohammed Reza Shah's brilliant technocrats came against a political landscape and a rapidly changing Iran. Born in Tehran in 1929, he was the son of a lawyer who had been jailed twice after Reza Shah's coup of 1921. Madjidi's teenager years had coincided with a politically turbulent period in Iran and during his high school college years he had flirted briefly with the left.

As a university student he had been swept by the daily political debates and mass demonstrations often attending meetings and discussion groups with his friends. Upon receiving a bachelor's degree from the Tehran University Faculty of Law, Madjidi, then 20 years old, left for Paris where he continued his political activism.

"Paris was a hotbed of various political groups," Madjidi recalled. "Dr Mossadegh and his campaign for the nationalisation of Iranian oil created great excitement."

After earning a doctorate degree from the University of Paris, Madjidi had returned to Iran joining his father's law cabinet. As a member of the Iranian Student Association, he had supported Dr Mossadegh. The royalist coup of August 1953 that brought down his anti-British government made a deep impression on him.

"Looking back," Madjidi said, "I believe that Mossadegh made a few mistakes and in a large part was responsible for the rift that developed between him and the Shah. If at the time the king and his prime minister, who enjoyed the mass support of the Iranian people, had sat together and resolved their differences, our country would not have fallen into the abyss of the Islamic revolution."

The events of August 1953 and their immediate aftermath divided the ruling elite and created wounds that were never fully healed. The Shah was back on his Peacock Throne, but he no longer had the chance of setting an agenda that would be wholeheartedly adopted by his people. A section of the ruling elite would never forgive him, no matter what victories or good he achieved for Iran.

Reversing Mossadegh's "negative balance" foreign policy with his own "positive nationalism", Mohammed Reza Shah adopted a new economic strategy for the nation. He unleashed an interventionist attitude towards economic development and in 1954 he revived the Plan Organisation which had become ineffective due to the lack of financial resources needed for reconstruction and development of the country.

Within a few months, a new seven-year development plan was unveiled and in a speech the Shah described his economic philosophy as one where the state would play a vital role in the coordination and enhancement of national production.

During this period, Madjidi joined the Export Development Bank and when Abol-Hassan Ebtehaj activated the Plan Organisation, he joined that institution as an assistant economist in 1956. Four years later, Madjidi was sent to Harvard University in the United States, on a fellowship of the Ford Foundation, where he earned a Master's Degree in Public Administration (Economics).

In the 1960s the Shah continued to solidify his power base. Having divorced the beautiful Soraya, he had in December 1959 married the French educated Farah Diba who on 31st October 1960 gave him a male heir in the person of Reza Pahlavi.

In January 1963 the Shah launched a series of reforms that became known as the "White Revolution". These reforms generated some enthusiasm in the backward countryside where living conditions had remained unchanged for centuries.

Peasants received land deeds from the hands of the Shah in highly publicised events. Other reforms gave Iranian women the right to vote and workers a share in company profits, education and health corps for rural areas.

Madjidi's return to Iran once again coincided with a period of great change but also political instability. In the summer of 1963, supported by a number of dispossessed landowners, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini led a violent uprising against the Shah's reforms. The government was forced to call in the army to restore order. The troublesome cleric was arrested and exiled to neighbouring Turkey and later Iraq.

Mohammed Reza Shah believed that nothing was too good for Iran and had persuaded himself that, provided the nation followed him with conviction, the sky was the limit. His idealism and energetic passion for modernisation was shared by a new group of Western educated technocrats who felt they had all the solutions.

"I had the privilege to work closely with the late Shah," Madjidi revealed with some emotion. "His Majesty had a comprehensive vision for the future of Iran. He was a workholic and a patriot. The modernisation of Iran was the principal goal of his life. His Majesty believed, despite his Swiss education,that Iran was not yet ripe for democracy. He wanted to turn Iran into a second Japan, make her one of the five or six major world powers by the end of the 20th century."

In 1965, Madjidi had been appointed assistant to the prime minister and head of the Central Budget Bureau. Two years later he had joined the Hoveyda cabinet as minister of agricultural products and consumer goods. The two men became close friends. "I knew Hoveyda well," Madjidi told me. "He became prime minister after Mansour's assassination. He quickly understood the monarch's psychology and enjoyed His Majesty's full trust and confidence because he was compliant."

In 1968 Madjidi was appointed minister of labour and social affairs and served in this position for four and a half years. In this capacity he strived for the improvement of the working conditions of the labourers and introduced a number of social legislations for enhancing the social protection of the working class and white collar employees.

In January 1973, he returned to the Plan and Budget Organization as its Minister. There, he took charge of revising the Fifth Development Plan -- a responsibility that grew in complexity after the Shah triumphantly quadrupled the price of oil. Hoveyda soon presided over the expenditure of fabulous sums and reforming of the status of government employees.

"I believe that Iran's economic miracle occurred between 1963 and 1973," Madjidi told me with a degree of pride. "We truly achieved extraordinary growth."

According to the World Bank report, Iran's annual rate of growth during those 10 years of the Hoveyda government was 11.2 per cent, while inflation was only 1.4 per cent. This was before the OPEC oil hike. The physical transformation of the country included the building of steel plants, dams, vast telecommunication networks, factories, high-rise apartments, modern hospitals, universities and schools, airports, shipping ports and highways.

"His Majesty wanted Iran to become modernized quickly, for Iran to become industrialized, for everything to become mechanized and computerized," Madjidi explained. "These projects were very much favoured by him and were naturally assigned the highest priority sometimes at the expense of social issues. In my rapport with him I found His Majesty generally a very logical decision-maker with a tendency to quickly pass over critical issues."

In the mid-1970s, Iran appeared stable with a growing, prosperous middle class. Steering an increasingly authoritarian course the Shah spoke of reaching the gates of the "Great Civilisation" within a decade or so. Prime Minister Hoveyda and his colleagues saw it as their patriotic duty to make the Shah's personal style of government work and carried his policies with unquestionable loyalty. They were apolitical and technocrats in the true sense of the word.

When the Shah decided to largely expand the scope of the Fifth Plan at a stroke Madjidi was the only minister who disagreed, based on the meticulous studies that his colleagues had done in the P.B.B. In his view this arbitrary decision spelt economic disaster. In early 1973 Madjidi urged Court Minister Alam to warn His Majesty of the perils because Prime Minister Hoveyda was "reluctant to spell out the facts."

In February 1975 Madjidi travelled to St.Moritz where each year the Shah and the royal family spent their winter holidays. It was at the posh Hotel Suvretta, after Madjidi had given his annual national budget report, that the Shah informed him of his plans to abolish the two-party system and replace it with a sort of single popular system which later became known as the Rastakhiz or Resurrection party.

"You can tell the Prime Minister in Tehran about our discussion," the Shah instructed Madjidi. From a secure telephone in the basement of the Hotel Suvretta, Madjidi phoned Hoveyda and told him the disturbing news. "You're mistaken," Hoveyda replied incredulously. "HIM has said such things many times before but he does not mean it really."

A month later, despite his grave reservation, Madjidi was asked by the NIRT political analyst, Parviz Nikkhah (executed after the revolution), to explain the rationale behind the creation of the Rastakhiz Party. "It is not meant to be a party but a movement," Madjidi explained. Apparently this comment upset the Shah and Hoveyda a great deal.

Like many of the Shah's political gimmicks, Rastakhiz was doomed to inanition from the outset. It failed to gain momentum despite massive public expressions of support in party rallies. Absurdly, those who refused to join the "King's Party" were to be formally offered their passports and a passage to exile.

"The creation of the Rastakhiz had been to motivate all Iranians to participate in the development of their country," Madjidi reflected. "Instead it did more harm than good. In hindsight, I should have stood up to His Majesty on this point." In 1976 the country obediently went through the motions of celebrating 50 years of Pahlavi rule, but there was no trace of spontaneity or affection amongst the people. The government was now heading for a sizable budgetary deficit. Oil prices were falling at a time of rising expectations, political unrest and inflation.

Early in the year Madjidi met with Alam in the hope of warning the Shah about the grim future. Going through the various projects of particular interest to HIM, he recited a depressing catalogue of financial shortages, nepotism and corruption. Peasants were leaving their lands and pouring into the cities threatening the social structure. The oil rush was ruining everything and the bureaucracy proved incapable of absorbing the rapid changes. Government policies were too rigid and the economy had become too large and too complex to be run by one man. In his diaries published long after his death, Assadollah Alam noted, "I genuinely fear that this may be the first vague rumbling of impending revolution."

The Shah was forced to call a meeting of the High Council for Economic Affairs attended by Prime minister Hoveyda, Asafya (deputy prime minister), Houshang Ansari (Finance Minister), Hassan Ali Mehran (Head of the Central Bank of Iran) and Madjidi.

"His Majesty did not look well," Madjidi recalled. "He was sunk in gloom and to our surprise he kept taking these mysterious pink pills during the meeting."

That day the Shah asked his ministers to explain the economic mess plaguing the country. He was by now aware that the after-effects of the boom seemed beyond correction.

"How did we get into this situation?" the Shah asked in a grave and dejected tone.

"Everyone in the room sat in silence," Madjidi said. "I was the only person to speak. I blamed the problems on the money rush that had dislocated the economy."

Madjidi explained how before the oil hike Iranians had been living like happy peasants who worked hard and prayed daily for a bit of rain. While it poured they were grateful but soon the rain turned into a flood washing away their livelihoods.

The Shah was furious by what he had just heard. Bringing the session to an abrupt end he stood up and walked out the chandeliered room without saying a word.

"Once His Majesty had left everyone criticised me," Madjidi said sourly. "They wanted me to stay quiet. I reminded these Gentlemen that it was our duty to keep His Majesty informed of the true situation in the country. Not doing so was a great disservice. I am now convinced that during the last years of his rule His Majesty was kept in the dark on many vital issues and even SAVAK lied to him."

A few days later, the Prime Minister told Madjidi that the Monarch had ordered the government to deal with the rampant shortcomings. Many large projects were being cancelled. A new degree of realism was to be injected from now on.

"His Majesty loves your brilliant mind but hates your sharp tongue," Hoveyda warned.

"But somebody has to tell HIM the truth," Madjidi argued. "What's the point of always agreeing?"

Hoveyda then asked Madjidi if he knew why the Shah was taking those pink pills. "You are the Prime Minister," Madjidi replied. "You should know better than me."

Until then no one outside a tiny circle around the Shah realized that he was dying of cancer. Since 1974 everyone in the know had played the game by living with the horrible truth without daring to discuss it openly, at least not in front of the emperor. "I believe that His Majesty's judgment was affected by the drugs he took," Madjidi told me. "During the last years of his rule, His Majesty was depressed. He seemed tired and unusually passive, introspective, and withdrawn. The worsening of his physical condition heightened his sense of insecurity."

Hoveyda's cabinet resigned in August 1977 and the Shah turned to Jamshid Amouzegar to form a new government. Subsequently, Madjidi was appointed Director of the Shahbanu Farah Foundation. Hoveyda was promoted to Court Minister.

One night, in the early fall of 1978, Madjidi was invited to a dinner party at Princess Fatemeh's villa. As the guests retired to watch a film, the Shah unburdened himself with Madjidi. "What do you think I should do?" he asked plaintively. "Sire, the political landscape has changed dramatically," Madjidi explained bluntly. "We must allow for all political parties to participate in genuine elections. Why shouldn't we have a Socialist Party? Every democratic country has one."

The Shah appeared as though he was waking from a dream. "I want you to form a party and call it the Iranian Socialist Party," the Shah said looking directly into his eyes. "But Sire, if I did such a thing people would simply laugh me off," Madjidi replied.

The last eight months had taken its toll on the Shah's nerves. There were elements of panic in the measures he felt obliged to take. He now admitted that abolishing the two-party system in favour of a single party, the Rastakhiz had been a mistake. He spoke of holding free elections in June 1979.

Amouzegar was replaced by Sharif Emami who promised complete freedom of the press. But it was already too late. The course of revolution could not be stemmed.

By the fall of 1978, professionals, workers and teachers joined the bazaaris, clergy, students, middle-class intellectuals, and the urban poor in challenging the Shah's regime on a large scale. In September martial law was declared and clashes between troops and demonstrators willing to sacrifice themselves led to many fatal casualties despite the monarch's reluctance to support a bloody crackdown.

"His Majesty was not a bloodsucker as his enemies wrongly described him," Madjidi told me. "In all the years I served him I never saw him behaving as a tyrant."

Mohammed Reza Shah was no Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein or Hitler. He was obsessed with the notion of going down in history as a benevolent ruler not a ruthless dictator. In his conversations with his top generals he urged them to avoid any further bloodshed as he searched for a political solution out of the crisis.

By the third week of October, strikes and violent unrest had paralysed the country. Meanwhile the wealthy elite was escaping to the West, taking whatever they could out of Iran. Khomeini was expelled from Iraq and went to France, where he called for the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of an Islamic republic.

Against this sombre background Madjidi kept a low profile. Every day he ventured out of his house to his office in South Vanak next to those high-rise ASP buildings.

"Like many Iranians I followed the events in the newspapers and listened to the BBC and VOA," Madjidi remembered. "The situation became gloomier each day."

On 5th November from his high office window Madjidi watched in horror as demonstrators set fire to large sections of Tehran. Plumes of smoke rose from burning cinemas, banks, ministry buildings, car dealerships and department stores. By nightfall, Prime Minister Sharif-Emami had tendered his resignation and an extremely despondent Shah was forced to appoint his Chief of Staff of the Imperial Armed Forces, General Gholam Reza Azhari, to head a military government.

After long deliberation, the Shah, against his better judgement, agreed to throw his most loyal servant to the wolves in the vain hope of saving his throne. On Wednesday, 8th November 1978, Madjidi received a phone call from Hoveyda telling him that he expected to be arrested soon.

That evening Madjidi drove to Hoveyda's mother's house, which was ten minutes from where he lived. When he got there Madjidi found Hoveyda sitting on a sofa with his ex-wife Leila Emami. A few of his former colleagues and friends were there to comfort him. But Hoveyda tried to downplay everything.

"We spoke for thirty or forty-five minutes," Madjidi recalled sadly. "I was very worried for him but he tried to shrug away any fear. He even tried to cheer me up." Despite his inner anxities, Hoveyda appeared terribly calm and resigned to his fate. Puffing contentedly on his Dunhill pipe, he told his friends that the Shah had personally called him to say that he should consider himself under house arrest.

"Don't worry if they come after you as well," Hoveyda told Madjidi, "It goes with the territory. As politicians we have to bear it. Everything will sort itself out eventually."

Hoveyda and Madjidi embraced each other emotionally and said their goodbyes. At 7:30p.m. Hoveyda was taken into custody and held prisoner at a SAVAK villa set in a beautiful park. Madjidi spent a sleepless night. It was a matter of time before he too would be arrested. Already, in addition to Hoveyda, the military had arrested 35 former top officials, including General Nassiri, the former security chief.

In the days that followed Hoveyda remained in touch with Madjidi calling him regularly at night from his place of detention. Hoveyda was convinced that after a show trial where he would be found innocent he would be released at once.

"One night a worried Hoveyda called me," Madjidi remembered. "He had been visited by General Moghaddam, the new Chief of SAVAK, who had told him that Their Majesties were scheduled to leave the country the following week. Hoveyda felt that the situation was getting too dangerous. He urged me to get out quickly."

Almost immediately after his conversation with Hoveyda, Madjidi went to the Niavaran Palace. During an audience he pleaded openly with Empress Farah to let him leave the country under the pretext of attending a UNESCO seminar. "I'm worried for you," the Empress replied anxiously. "But I don't know what to do anymore."

"Your Majesty," Madjidi persisted, "Please ask the Prime Minister to grant me an exit visa."

Picking up the telephone the Empress called Ahmad Mirfendereski, Bakhtiar's Foreign Minister, and explained the situation. Mirfendereski asked Madjidi to come to his office. "I will do what I can," he said. "But the final decision is with the Prime Minister."

Shapour Bakhtiar, the Shah's last prime minister dubbed by many observers as the "Iranian Kerensky", refused to allow Madjidi to leave the country. "If everyone leaves what am I supposed to do on my own?" Bakhtiar had complained.

In the days following the royal couple's departure on 16th January 1979, Madjidi spent his time working. Almost regularly he toured Tehran's museums ensuring that the precious carpets, antiques, paintings and jewels were arranged safely in boxes or removed to basements in case of looting by unruly mobs.

On 1st February 1979 a white Air France Jumbo jet, gleaming in the fresh morning sun, slid gently towards the tarmac at Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport. With his eyes glued on the television set Madjidi watched in disbelief as Ayatollah Khomeini emerged from the plane in his black turban and flowing robes. Inexplicably, Prime Minister Bakhtiar ordered Madjidi's arrest the next day.

On 2nd February, Madjidi had just finished seeing a dinner guest off when two military jeeps surrounded his house. An army officer got out and rang the bell. When Madjidi opened the door he asked the officer if he had come to arrest him.

"No, Mr Madjidi," the officer replied. "But you must come with me at once to the Martial Law Headquarters for questioning. We will return you in the morning."

"I went upstairs to pick up a night bag," Madjidi recounted. "A few soldiers burst into the bedroom and upset my wife. I was escorted outside and put into a Paykan car."

Madjidi was driven to Jamshidiyeh Army Base and locked up in a military infirmary room with five other top officials including Dr Houshang Nahavandi, the Empress's Bureau Chief. For the next nine days, Madjidi slept on a small cot and ate army food. He exercised or talked for long hours with the other prisoners including the former Tehran mayor and several Hoveyda cabinet ministers.

"We had become scapegoats for all that had gone wrong in the former regime," Madjidi confessed. "We were very upset." It was not difficult to sympathise with Madjidi. After all he and his colleagues had worked hard toward improving the material conditions and welfare of the people.

Amazon Honor System"Those who were imprisoned with me were the best servants of Iran who in all respects had done their utmost and with good intentions and honor," Madjidi said. "To arrest them in the way that it was done was a very big mistake by the regime."

When Bakhtiar's government fell on 12th February 1979, armed gangs attacked the Jamshidieyeh Army Base. Heavy shooting began at 2:30pm and lasted until 6:30pm. Many were killed and wounded. Buildings were set on fire.

"A group of us decided to escape," Madjidi said. "But we were caught at the gates. An armed rebel pointed a machine-gun at my chest and told me not to move." As he stood in the cold winter night Madjidi decided to take the risk of his lifetime. He had no intention of being submitted to the angry mob for punishment.

"In a split second as my captor turned his head I made a run for it," Madjidi said. "I hid between a tank and an army truck, six meters from the gate at Jamshidiyeh."

When the shooting had died out Madjidi noticed someone behind him. "Go," the man shouted. "As I headed for the gate I saw a band of revolutionaries storming towards me," Madjidi continued. "I froze in my shoes. But the mob just went past me. I still remember how I walked through a corridor of rifle barrels waving in the air. Outside the gates I dashed towards the Carpet Museum. I stopped to see if anyone was following me. Nobody was there. It was a quarter to seven. It was dark and very cold. All around me buildings were on fire. Now what, I asked myself."

As we sat in the sunny London room I could not help wondering what would have happened to Madjidi had he been caught that night. Nahavandi, Valian and Homayoun managed to get out of Iran. Those who did not escape like Hoveyda, Nikpay, Nassiri and Rouhani were eventually shot by the revolutionaries.

"In the cover of darkness," Madjidi said, "I made my way to a small drugstore and rang my house. A few minutes later, my daughter and her husband, arrived in a car. They drove me away and hid me in different houses for the next three and a half months. I left the country illegally crossing the Iran-Turkish border and made my way to Paris. My wife and children joined me later."

Like many Iranian exiles of his generation who considered themselves as pioneers, Madjidi had to start all over again. A few years ago he lost his wife in a car accident. His only joy these days are reading, painting and visiting his daughters.

Madjidi was smiling as he autographed a copy of his memoirs published in 1998 by Harvard University under Habib Ladjevardi's Iranian Oral History Project.

"Despite all that happened to me I have no regrets," Madjidi said. "I am proud of having served my country under the former regime. It was I who introduced the practice of regularly adjusting the minimum wage. I initiated so many social and humanitarian programs. I served as Secretary General of the Red Lion and Sun Society. I devoted so much time and effort in the field of art and culture. At thirty-six I reformed Iran's national budget system and prepared and implemented successfully 9 national budgets. I like to think that what my generation achieved will one day be appreciated."

It was almost noon. Mr Madjidi was late for a lunch appointment. He stood up in his tweed jacket and red tie. He bid me farewell. As I left he broke into a narrow smile. Maybe, I thought, it was because statistically he had narrowly cheated death during the revolution. Or had our talks revived in him a deep satisfaction in his achievements, I wondered. For someone who had dedicated the best years of his life to seeing that his compatriots ate better food, had a better life and better housing, it was enough to be alive to tell the tale.

The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all. -- John Maynard Keynes

See photos

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Cyrus Kadivar

By Cyrus Kadivar

Kadivar's features index


Too much, too fast
... and too many mistakes. The Shah's budget director looks back
Edited by Habid Ladjevardi

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