Friday, 27 February 2009

The Shah of Iran (1941-1979)

October 1971 saw the celebration of the Twenty-five hundredth anniversary of the Imperial Iranian monarchy. More then $200 million were spent just to gather dignitaries from across the globe to the uninhabited ancient city of Persepolis the former capital of pre-Islamic Persia.

The Shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, would later align himself with another Persian ruler- Cyrus the Great, who first originated the Zoroastrian Empire in 539 BC and had awarded himself the title king of kings.

By proclaiming himself Shahenshah (Shah of Shahs), amongst other things the former Sandhurst graduate and English speaking monarch infuriated the masses further as the title was ambiguous with Islamic law implying he was bigger then Allah Himself.

In a secular state, no one would have given it a second thought, but in a society of staunchly religious and zealous patriots (even if they were Shia, a minority in the Muslim World) it was one step, amongst many, that went just a little too far.

The weeklong celebrations, at an estimated cost of $100 million, featured a banquet catered specially by Maxims of Paris. The feast remains the most expensive menu ever to be served ever. 

The meal which lasted 5 and a half hours; comprised of quails’ eggs stuffed with Iranian caviar, a mousse of crayfish tails in Natuna sauce, stuffed rack of roast lamb, a main course of roast peacock stuffed with foie gras, fig rigs and raspberry sweet champagne sherbet.

Included were over 25,000 bottles of a variation of special and distinctive wines for the guests, an ingredient so deeply resented by Islam, one of which, the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1945 cost £40 a bottle.

Over two hundred heads of state, kings, dukes, princes and  including Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Princess Anne and the Duke of Edinburgh of the UK (the daughter and husband of Queen Elizabeth II respectively), Spiro Agnew, the Vice President of the USA were among the many guests of honour, while barbed wires, and heavily armed police troops guarded the special silk brocaded areas allocated to the Shah's foreign guests. 

While the Shah opened his country to the outside world, he shut his own people out. Iranians could watch, but not attend the most famous occasion of their nation to date from behind fortified gates. Even the University of Tehran, near the site of the Shah's chosen venue, was closed for the event, to prevent students from taking a look.

The extravagance and royal expense combined with the charm and elegance of an educated and handsome gentleman would ensure the feast and commemoration in Western-style ceremony convinced Europeans Iran was far from radical reform.

A wave of student demonstrations followed that were ruthlessly suppressed by the SAVAK the Shah’s European-trained secret police force, and led to the arrests and executions of many participants in the weeks that followed. 

Four years later in 1975 came the 50th anniversary of the Pahlavi dynasty, which had originally started by the Shah’s father and former general, Reza Khan Pahlavi, in 1925 overthrowing the pro-British Qajar dynasty from Afghanistan.

The festivities and celebrations already unpopular because it clashed with Islamic festivals that were ignored also featured the commemoration of ancient gods and pagan rituals of the fire-worshipping Parsee religion accompanied by drinking binges (a form of alcohol) and Western pop music in a Muslim majority State.

The Shah’s dream was that Iran would become a Modern State by the Twenty-first Century and this vision was epitomised in the form of the ‘White revolution’ begun in 1963. Western influences therefore were not dangerous but healthy and represented an image of better things to come.

Another aspiration was on conservative lines, to preserve and maintain a lasting legacy of progressive political and financial stability based on the Western model. To the Shah, this translated into almost divine legitimacy to rule with assertive and responsible leadership, namely in any way he desired, and all opposition be it innocent or violent could be lawfully repressed.  

Even this measure was however still insecure, the Shah needed an heir, to exact and refine his perfect constitutional system with precision, and for this he divorced two popular queens who had not bore him the much needed son and married a third time just to get it.

His obsession with getting a male heir also led him to delay his coronation for eighteen years until 1960 when the son he so badly needed was finally born. By this time a bridge of understanding was beginning to develop between those who desired to see a violent end to the monarchy and the moderates who questioned whether the Shah was really in touch with Iranian needs. 

Policies that were more suitable for advanced and more developed nations were thrust on to the economy and the country’s infrastructure. Large and local industries unable to sustain or understand the additional burden collapsed under the pressure. Others that were able to continue only did so through huge losses and smaller workforces. 

At the cost of popularity, representation lack of alternative action and the Shah’s executive inexperience opposition started to mount. Seen by some as the successor to the nationalistic movement in the fifties, the movement at first incoherent and without charismatic leadership in the sixties began to encompass a clear set of goals and grievances by its climax in the late seventies.

The Shah’s constant rejection of political activity, a separation of legislative powers and different courses of ideology led first to an assassination attempt in 1949 where he was badly wounded and then to the creation of the Iranian Resurgence Party as a compromise choice in the 60s.

In retrospect, the party’s very existence was a reflection of the same Imperial order it was theoretically designed to compete against. No decision, opinion, value or rule could be added or rejected within the party without the prior consent and authorisation of the Shah himself.   

The reality of modernisation and royal excess was not too attractive either, whilst it was true many Iranians enjoyed a better lifestyle and improved health and leisure facilities the majority did not.

Those that did, like the Shah, were modern-educated, politically oriented and highly secular social nationalists interested more in economics and wealth and at best tolerated religion, if only for the sake of self-preservation.

The majority of Iranians however lived in rural areas, but the promises of the ‘White revolution’ initially brought hope to them most. At first, a few reforms led to some shifts in ideaology and centuries old principles. 

Many peasants, spurred on by changes, set off in their thousands for the luxury of the cities only to be squashed together in the poorest districts; creating unsanitary impoverished ghettos and slums such as in poverty-stricken black- majority neighbourhoods in New York and elsewhere in America today. And as the immigrants increased so did disease and food shortages.

Away from the glamour and affluence of the middle class neighbourhoods, the ghettos lacked proper water supplies, forced tens of families to share the same huts and toilets and made living conditions virtually intolerable.

Unlike most of the Developing World, Iran had been largely self-sufficient as an agricultural economy before the Pahlavi dynasty emerged in 1925. Over-expenditure on the lavish lifestyles, pomp and ceremonies of the two leaders since then stripped the country dry of so much of its hard-earned revenue and forced a deeper divide between the reformers and radicals. 

The Shah used approximately $1 billion annually on imports as well as the extra income from the Oil industry to further modernisation alone, whilst ignoring the growing number of dissatisfied job seekers having to join the unemployment statistics when jobs were still available.

Newer industries, especially Western banks, corporations and entrepreneurs made dependence on a large native workforce less necessary, making dissent to the Shah all the more widespread. Western coverage of this was virtually non existent, and was carefully hidden behind the veil of sustained economic growth.        

In 1973, the Shah did not participate in the famous Arab-Israeli War of that year nor support the Oil embargo against the West, but as a gesture of good will said all Muslims from now on, should see Israel as the common enemy.             

Prior to this, Iran under the Shah, was the only Muslim country to have diplomatic relations with the Jewish State and this friendship went far beyond any ordinary diplomatic need. Israeli politicians and diplomats were especially admired by the Shah and often gave him advice on how best to direct his affairs.

But, by far his greatest asset was Oil and that brought assistance from the USA. It was on an American military plane that the Shah returned to Iran from his first exile in Rome on August 1953.

At that time, his Prime Minister, Muhammad Mossadegh, had gained much popularity, increased his share of legislative power nationalised the Oil industry and spoke to the masses of Western exploitation of Iranian society.

After the Second Revolution in January 1979, when the unpopular monarch left for exile, the Shah’s twenty-year old son, Reza Khan, became the ‘legitimate’ king-in-exile upon his father’s death the following year.  

For the first few years in Ayahtollah Khomeini’s Iran, there was still some hope for him to reclaim his father’s lost throne through covert US assistance and restore the once ‘unbreakable’ relationship Iran had with the US, that hope has now faded. 

It might be wise however, to just think how could a government survive if it represented everything contrary to the populace, encouraged unpopular values and influences and glorified the Zoroastrian religion instead of Islam.

Unlike many States prepared to concede some religious codes and customs balanced with a greater share of their own ideas and secular systems, the Shah simply relied on American support and a future First World status.

By ignoring the concerns and fears of its spiritual leaders (especially within a deeply religious rural community, which made up the majority) he was seen to be ‘burying’ Iran’s national and social identities in favour of Western vices, and made the former seemingly inferior whilst the latter appeared to be superior.

The Shah was a more then occasional visitor to the United States, made regular appearances in popular American talk-shows granted many interviews and even visited Hollywood studios- a fate even some European leaders don’t do this much.

Even in Iran itself, he preferred to speak in English rather then Persian, discouraged discussion about Islam and imposed strict laws against practising Muslims. His vision of a modern Iran was realised as being a wealthy but under-nourished and elitist repressive state. Whilst opening the doors to foreigners he shut his own population out.

Today, many writers across the World acknowledge the Shah was no more then a mouthpiece for the West and his government a puppet state of the U.S.A, and if one specific issue could be singled out for his eventual collapse- it was his pro-American stance and his fiercely loyal devotion towards them and their policies.       

The huge and increasingly overwhelming American military presence in the country began to frighten many; cutting across religious and socio-political boundaries. The US Army treated Iran as their own country.

At first sight, it was accepted that the Shah was only preserving Iranian sovereignty from oppressive insurgents opposed to modernisation but since 1964 their power had steadily begun to increase following laws granting them special privileges.

The previous year, while the Americans watched and did nothing, the Shah authorised a repressive campaign against supporters of Khomeini starting in June when paratroopers landed at a seminary in which over 200 students were killed. 

The middle classes, the group the Shah represented most, but alienated by the country’s declining stature and finances, voiced their concerns and discontent openly and for the first time joined in the demonstrations and anti-monarchist marches alongside the same students and workers they had been condemning only a few years earlier.     

The Pahlavi dynasty which collapsed in early 1979 as a result of growing opposition and unrest towards it may have lasted just over fifty years, but also might have represented all those leaders that had come before them as well.

Iranians had not known of a government not ruled by an absolute monarch for more then two thousand years and this is noticeably one factor often missed out in historical reviews of Iran. His regal appearance, imposing wealth and distance from ordinary Iranians made the monarchy assume an evil image of empire, imperialism and arrogance.

The Shah therefore, may have been seen as more then just the last remnance of mental colonialism by the West from within Iranian society. He was also the last obstacle to republicanism and popular government.

The SAVAK’s invincibility, the greatest single power and force in the Middle East at the time was forever destroyed by a mixture of peasants, ordinary workers, clerics and large members of the middle class-all civilians. Many observers to this day still find it difficult to understand how could this happen and why in the end it did. 

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