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 Write for The Iranian

Free elections, 1979
My last audience with the Shah

August 18, 2000
The Iranian

In April 1978, I was summoned to Tehran.The Shah wanted to give me special instructions about the forthcoming special session of the U.N. General Assembly on disarmament, initiated by the Soviet Union.This was about a month after the riots provoked by Ayatollah Khomeini's followers in Tabriz. My audience with the monarch was fixed for Wednesday April 12th at 11 o'clock a.m. I was ushered in a parlor room where the commanders of the different branches of the army were waiting to be received. The Shah would see them one by one! He was running late in his schedule because of an urgent meeting with the minister of interior. I had a lunch appointment with my brother. I called his office to inform him that I would be late and he should not wait for me.

It was almost half past twelve when I entered the Shah's office. He did not seem worried at all . He listened to my report and gave some instructions about the way we should vote at the U.N. meeting. This whole business did not take more than fifteen minutes. He rose from his chair. I too got up thinking that the audience was over. But he did not extend his hand. As was his wont, he put his thumbs in the armholes of his vest and paced the vast room. He spoke about the "events" (the unrest provoked by religious elements). I remained standing , following his movements with my eyes.

Suddenly he stopped in front of me and said: "These demonstrations by some religious elements are orchestrated by the oil companies." He remained silent for a few seconds staring at me as if he were verifying the impact of his words. Then he resumed walking, and talking. "They are angry at my policies. I have truly and practically nationalized the oil industry. Mossadegh did nothing of the sort. His nationalization of the British company was just words on paper. We were almost ruined and had to accept the 'consortium' agreement with several Western oil corporations including the British! I have just dismissed them all and taken into my own hands all the oil business, from extraction to the selling of our refined products in gas stations all over the world! The National Iranian Oil Company is now one of the great oil corporations of the world. The eighth sister!"

He again stopped abreast of me and stared directly into my eyes. I did not utter a word. He resumed his pacing in silence. When he turned his back to me, I glanced at my wristwatch: it almost was one. He stopped for the third time in front of me: "Mossadegh was the agent of foreign interests as Khomeini is. We have documents proving this beyond the shadow of a doubt. Besides, this molla is not a real Iranian. He is Indian rather and his mother was not reputable."

The shah's tone evinced anger as he alluded to the ill-advised article on Khomeini which had been published in one of Tehran's dailies on his own orders . He again gazed at me, this time as if he were waiting for a comment on my part . I said: "Your Majesty, if such documents do exist, why doesn't the government publishes them?" He restarted his slow pacing . "Yes,we are pondering the matter." I added: "Such a publication would settle the matter once and for all if genuine proofs exists."

By the sound of his voice I understood that he disliked my doubting the validity of the documents. "At any rate," he continued, "this is secondary. I am devising plans which will crown my White Revolution. Now that economic welfare has been achieved and our defense and recuperation of our oil resources give us an edge on our neighbors, we are not a developing country anymore. We are among the advanced ones. Soon,we will be in the vicinity of the so-called 7-Gs. I think therefore the time has come to transform our regime into a genuine constitutional monarchy. Juan Carlos did it in Spain, a country less rich than ours!"

He expanded on the subject and emitted doubts about the ability of the Crown Prince Reza to fill his shoes: "He is too young anyway and I don't think that anybody can accomplish what I did and withstand all the pressures and sabotage I found on my path. I have sacrificed my health for the country!"

He kept silent for a short moment, then invited me to sit while he returned to his desk. A servant came in with a tray on which were a medicine flagon and a glass of water. The Shah bolted a pill. Then he leant against the back of his seat and spoke in a very soft voice, as if he were gathering wool: "The time is coming for me to withdraw. I have served the nation to the best of my ability and I think that I have done a lot of positive things. All foreign leaders admire our achievements. The country is ready for democracy. I have the intention of giving to Iranians the freedom of expression and all other liberties. Political parties would be allowed. I am only wondering if we should extend this freedom to the Tudeh (communist) Party. They cooperated in 1946 with the Soviets for the secession of Azerbaijan. I really don't know yet. After all Juan Carlos receives the Spanish communists and even jokes with them! Maybe. At the end of the term of the present parliament free elections would be organized with the participation of candidates from all parties. In the summer of 1979. And I would empower as prime minister the head of the winning party or coalition according to the Constitution. Our people are not less educated and able than the Spanish!"

I was flabbergasted. I certainly was not expecting such confidences on the part of the Shah . After a minute or two of silence, his lips gave a faint smile: "I know it is lunch time.You must be starving. But I wanted you to listen to me because I want to entrust you with a secret mission. I want you to do something for me. You already have accomplished a delicate mission and kept its secrecy (he was alluding to a 1967 encounter with North Vietnamese on behalf of President Johnson). I want you to do the same with what I instruct you now: Upon your return to New York, explore very discreetly the possibility of having an international team of acceptable observers to watch our elections and make sure that they are really and completely free. This should not be construed as weakness on our part. What I aim at, is to nick adverse leftist propaganda in the bud. So be very careful about the people you contact."

I couldn't believe my ears. Only a year earlier, he was speaking of continuing in the same direction. I remembered very well his words when I was reporting to him on the U.N. matters in 1977: "I shall remain at the top of the country. People need me and I have to complete the White Revolution... A lot must still be done, among other things, in the realm of education. Iranians are not yet ready for democracy." I thought to myself that, as usual, contradictions did not bother him!

On the way to my brother's residence, I was wondering what had prompted a 180-degree change in the Shah's mind. He did not seem too much concerned about the growing religious unrest. At one point, referring to the Basque terrorist activities in Spain, he said : "There is a price to pay in order to change the system and introduce democracy." Then why did he envisage a sudden and rapid change of his own regime? Probably because of his health problems . But at that time nobody (except himself) knew about his terminal illness.

I arrived at my brother's as he was saying good-bye to his guests. I had a bite in the kitchen and joined him for a cup of tea in his office. I told him about my bewilderment. He confirmed the Shah's decision "He had this on his agenda, long before the start of the unrest." "But then why the hurry?" I asked. My brother skipped the question. I said : "He should stop attacking Mossadegh and the mollas. That's counterproductive. Mossadegh is considered a national hero by the masses. It seems as if the Shah were jealous of the old man. On the substance of democratization, nobody would believe him!" My brother said : "Yet, he is sincere. I have suggested to privately contact some of the dissidents. He has agreed. Juan Carlos' performance has impressed him." I retorted : " I understand. But one cannot Franco and Juan Carlos be at the same time. The Spanish dictator had similar ideas toward the end of his life. That's why he presented Juan Carlos as his heir. But he let the latter accomplish the change. He knew people would not believe his words! I am afraid the Shah is going to blunder." A servant was coming in and my brother changed the subject.

On the plane back to New York, the Shah's revelations continued to churn in my head. I thought that part of his plans must have leaked and reached some mollas, especially the more fundamentalist elements. For the latter, real free elections and democracy was a direct threat to their influence on the masses. They would find themselves as a tiny minority in the parliament . On the other hand bazaar merchants dreaded modernization which was eroding their centuries-old financial practices. I hesitated to inquire about the possibility of inviting international observers to check free elections. After the special session of the General Assembly on disarmament, I took a week off and went to Colorado. On June 20th, the Shah called me personally and asked if I had found a responsible organization to oversee elections. He also asked about the translation of his book ("Toward the Great Civilization", which he had asked me to translate into French and which I had completed with the help of one of my staff members) .This was the second or third time in my fifteen years of service at the foreign ministry that the monarch was directly and personally calling me over the telephone! Decidedly something had changed. But obviously, it was too late.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Fereydoun Hoveyda

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