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The shah and the people
Part One: The life
Part Two

Afshin Afshari
January 2, 2005

The time may have come, for us Iranians, to set a dispassionate eye on Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi as a human being with strengths and shortcomings. Time to try to understand the complex personality of the bright but fragile child who was thrust, by his father and historical circumstances, into the mould of a millennia-old autocracy which did not fit him.

Could he have done any better, given his deeply rooted personality traits and his upbringing? The purpose of these articles (in four parts: "The Life", "The Person", "The People", "Iran-USA Relations") is to help you, the reader-citizen, to answer that question. And, perhaps, to empathize with a king who as a youth candidly declared that "he would prefer a job that spared him form the burden of decision-making." [A. Alikhani, Introduction to Asadollah Alamís Diaries, 1991]

Here is the first article in the series: "The Life".


Every Persian child should feel that he can count upon the love of his mother and find shelter and refuge in her arms. The young child must feel that his mother, along with a few other people in his small world, care intensely about him and his welfare. He must be sure that he can always go to his mother and that he is never cut off from her. - M. R. Pahlavi , Mission for My Country (1961)

The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his twin sister Ashraf were born on October 26, 1919. His father, Reza Khan was a colonel of the Persian Cossac Brigade. With British blessing (and explicit guidance, it is said [1]), on the 21st February 1921, he overthrew the central government, becoming the new strong man of Iran - initially minister of war, eventually the first Shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. Reza Khan was remembered by all who knew him as a formidable and daunting figure, and his children were no exception: 

Reza Shah ... could be one of the pleasantest men in the world, yet he could be one of the most frightening ... strong men often trembled just to look at him. He had an almost devastating ability to assess human nature. [2]


The same qualities that made him a formidable soldier - piercing eyes that could wither a subordinate, intolerance for error and imperfection, insistence on strict military discipline - also made him an awesome and frightening father. [3]

Mohammad Reza's mother, Taj-ol-Moluk, was probably the only person to dare challenge Reza Khan's authority:

At a time when Iranian women were veiled and "hidden", when they had virtually no rights, when they were expected to submit totally to male authority, my mother wasn't afraid to argue with my father or to challenge his decisions. [3]

She, herself, had been raised in a family with military tradition (her father was a famous Caucasian military officer). In 1922, Reza Khan, then the most powerful man in Persia, decided to take a second wife. Having several wives was not uncommon at that time in Iran (in fact, over his entire life, Reza Khan married five women, the Shahís mother being second; he divorced from his first wife). When she learned about this, Taj-ol-Moluk forced him to move into separate quarters, allowing him to visit his children only infrequently:

For a long time, she refused to see my father... In the face of this unheard challenge to his authority, the Shah [Reza Khan] would literally hide when he saw my mother come. [3] 

According to Alamís diaries [4], it appears that she never loved her husband: 

The Queen Mother told us stories of her married life with Reza Shah. On her wedding night, her husband, then a mere brigadier was forced to ply her with brandy to calm her nerves. Even as Queen, she said, she did her best to keep out of his way. [Alamís diaries: Entry dated 8 October 1975]

How could I have been in love with him? Most of the time I was far too cross. [The Queen Motherí words regarding her love for Reza Khan according to Alamís diaries: Entry dated 17 April 1976] 

Following the separation between Taj-ol-Moulk and Reza Khan, the Shah was brought up in an almost exclusively feminine environment surrounded by his mother and his two sisters, Ashraf and Shams (who was born three years before him). His motherís favorite child was Shams and, given her toughness, Zonis [5] speculates that she did not provide Mohammad Reza with all the love that he needed although he became very attached to her. 

At the age of six, Mohammad Reza officially became the Crown Prince and Reza Shah imposed a dramatic change on him. He decided that the Crown Prince should live in an entirely masculine environment (with the exception of a French governess). He was abruptly separated from his mother and sisters and sent to another palace. For him, Reza Shah established a military elementary school. Probably as a result of this major trauma, within eighteen months of his separation from his mother, he contracted a number of life-threatening illnesses (typhoid fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, malaria). At the same time, he started having visions. He firmly believed that there was a causal relationship between the visions and his recovery (more on this in the next article). 

At the age of twelve he was sent to Le Rosey secondary school in Switzerland and stayed there five years. During these years, his mother visited him only once. He undoubtedly lived an unhappy and solitary life there: 

At dinner HIM [His Imperial Majesty] reminisced about his childhood. Apparently, Dr. Nafici, his tutor, never allowed him to go skiing or swimming when they were in Switzerland. He thinks as a result he may have grown up with some sort of complex. [Alamís diaries: Entry dated of 13 April 1974] 

My friends were having fun, laughing and dancing while I was sitting alone in my room... I had a radio and gramophone to keep me company, but what fun were they compared with the festivities my friends enjoyed. [2]

It seems that his closest friend in Switzerland was Ernest Perron, the son of the school's gardener. Perron was ten years older than Mohammad Reza. Upon his return to Iran, he insisted on bringing Perron with him. It is truly amazing that despite his father's strong opposition, Mohammad Reza managed to keep Perron at the court. Although the Shah never mentions Perron in his books, their friendship lasted for more than twenty years. According to Sorayaís diaries (published in Persian), the Shah consulted him on an almost daily basis. Perron left Iran in 1953, apparently following American insistence on the removal of such a constant source of rumors.  

Reza Shah did not fully trust his son and did not hide his concerns about the future of Iran after him: 

My father said he wanted to improve the Government's administrative machinery to such a degree that if he should die, the day-to-day process of administration would operate almost automatically without the need of continuous supervision from the top. I was still rather young and perhaps not very mature, and I took his remark as an insult. "What does he mean?" I thought. "Does he think that if he were gone I couldn't take over and continue his work?" Although naturally I didn't say anything, his remark really nettled me. [2] 

Reza Shah abdicated in August 1941 after the invasion of Iran by the British and the Soviets who suspected him of Nazi sympathies. He was exiled to South Africa. Mohammad Reza took the throne. Clearly worried about the preparedness of the prince for his new responsibilities, Reza Shah told Ashraf before his departure: 

I know you can be strong, but I want you always to be strong for your brother. Stay close to him and tell him to stand firm in the face of dangers of any kind. [3] 

Mohammad Reza himself remembers his father's last message: 

The very last message I received from him in his exile was on a phonograph record. "My son," he said to me, "fear nothing." [2] 

Reaching for the sky
Beginning in 1945, the allied forces started evacuating Iran. The Soviets stayed on until 1946 when, reluctantly (pressured by an American ultimatum), they withdrew, abandoning the two "autonomous republics" that they had established in the North. In December 1946, after it became clear that the Soviets would not reinvade Iran to salvage their protectorates, the Shah led his troops to "victory" in the Northern republics. Zonis [5] believes that the fact that he had acquired his authorization to fly only two months before the events, gave him the courage to exercise, quite effectively, his leadership on this occasion.

Throughout his life, flying, airplanes, and the air force played a significant role in the Shahís psychic reinforcement (more on this in the next article). The year 1948 is seen by Zonis [5] as the year of consolidation of the link between his personal strength and flying. Several relevant incidents occurred in that year, including a plane crash with the Shah at the controls. He survived the crash and this event enforced him in his belief that he was protected by God. That same year, he decided to divorce Fawzia, his first wife chosen by Reza Shah.

I think that the major transformations took place later, after the CIA-sponsored coup which toppled Mossadegh in 1953. The successful repression, thanks to Alam, of Khomeiny's first uprising in 1963 constituted the second major step of the process. Zonis [5] reports the following conversation (the source, "a close friend of Alam", is not named) between the Shah and Alam about the 1963 riots:

"What shall we do?" the Shah asked.

"If you want to get tough," Alam responded, "get tough. But if you take half measures, you will lose everything."

"Yes, but what shall we do?" the Shah repeated.

"Don't worry," the Prime minister answered, "Iíll manage it."

"How?" asked the Shah.

"Iíll weigh the balls of your Majesty," Alam declared, "and see how heavy they are. Then I'll know how to deal with the riots." [6]


In his introduction to Alam's diaries [4], A. Alikhani, member of the Economic Council under the Shah, sheds some light on the mechanism of the consolidation process:

 A secretive man by nature, the Shah could however be disarmingly candid. Once during a meeting of the Economic Council, he declared that he grabbed at each new success, each new burst of popular approval, as an opportunity to consolidate his personal power.


In 1967, the Shah crowned himself as his father had done before him:

 He reasoned this way: "I represent the people of Iran. Through my hands, it is they who crown me." [7]


As his grandiosity grew, the Shahís interests became increasingly focused on the army (and the air force in particular) and the foreign policy, while the other aspects of government, deemed less important, was left to subordinates. Reinforced by Nixon's promise to sell any non-nuclear weapon to Iran and the explosion of the oil revenues in the early 1970s, the Shah let the military build-up program take unreasonable proportions. While the Shah daydreamed about the "Great Civilization" and his propaganda apparatus relayed unquestioningly his implausible visions, the Iranian people got increasingly cynical and resentful and distanced themselves from the monarch and his regime.

The End
The Shah's cancer was apparently diagnosed in 1974. However, it seems that, initially, his immediate entourage (including his personal doctor) reached the tacit decision that the word "cancer" should not be used before him: He was informed that he had "Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia". Therefore, it can be safely speculated that the Shah was not fully aware of the true nature or extent of his disease until 1977. At that time, his French doctors finally informed him of the gravity of his situation and, according to Zonis [5], prescribed him the drug Prednisone. The drug is believed to have powerfully debilitating effects. The simultaneity of these events with the outset of the Iranian revolution is remarkable.


As public unrest grew and his psychic supports deserted him (more on the Shahís psychic supports in the next article), in accordance with a lifelong pattern of flight in the face of challenge (for instance, according to Princess Ashraf [3], he envisaged suicide, for himself and his twin sister, during the Soviet-British invasion of Iran in 1941; during the 1953 CIA coup against Mossadegh, he insisted on leaving the country with Soraya and awaiting the result of the operation in Rome), the Shah withdrew support from his own government--even criticizing the regime publicly--and ordered the arrest of several of his most loyal servants and companions including ex-prime minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda (see for instance [8]). With the exception of Empress Farah, the Shah spent his last days in Iran in extreme loneliness. Ambassador Sullivan [9] about a meeting he had with the Shah in August 1978:


This rather tense conversation seemed to be cathartic to the Shah... It was clear that he had no one, with the possible exception of the empress, with whom he could talk as he had just talked to me.


The Shah left Iran on January 16, 1979 leaving a weak government behind. He died on July 27, 1980 in Egypt.


His mother who had become senile was sent to Princess Shams' house in the U.S. She left the world unaware of the tragic end of her son and even of the true gravity of the turmoil in Iran. >>> Part Two

[1] Faced with the Bolshevik threat, Great Britain felt the need for a strong and centralized government in Iran.

[2] Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1961), "Mission for My Country", McGraw-Hill.

[3] Ashraf Pahlavi (1980), "Faces in a mirror: Memoirs from Exile", Prentice-Hall.

[4] Assadollah Alam (1991), "The Shah and I", St. Martin's Press.

[5] Mavin Zonis (1991), "Majestic Failure", The University of Chicago Press.

[6] Alam, as prime minister, ended the riot in a blood shed.

[7] Farah Pahlavi (1978), "My Thousand and One Days: An Autobiography", W. H. Allen.

[8] Abbas Milani (2003), "The Persian Sphinx: Amir Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution", Mage Publishers.

[9] William H. Sullivan (1981), "Mission to Iran", Norton.

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The Persian Sphinx
Amir-Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution
by Abbas Milani
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