By Mahlia Lone

The Shah had three wives, but only one compelling love: power 

The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century Pahlavi Dynasty of Iran

Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty was not an ancient royal house; it was specifically created by Great Britain after World War I, to halt Bolshevik Russia’s influence in Iran and to safeguard British interests in India. In fact, Reza Shah Pahlavi, the first Shah of Persia (as it was then known), was born in a village in 1878. His mother was a Muslim from Georgia, and his father was a Major in the 7th-Savadkuh Regiment of the Persian Army and fought in the Anglo Prussian War in 1856. Reza too became a soldier, like his father, and in 1921 was promoted by British General Ironside to the rank of Brigadier General to lead the Persian Cossack Brigade, thus becoming the last and only Persian commander of the brigade. His mission was to march on Tehran to prevent the Red Army that had already penetrated the countryside from taking over the weak Qajar dynasty’s government in Tehran. Reza became the Commander-in-Chief of the Persian Army after he was successful in wresting control of Tehran. By 1923, the British wanted Reza Shah to create a centralized power base in the country. He was thereby appointed Prime Minister by Persia’s Constituent Assembly in 1925 after amending the country’s 1906 Constitution and became the de facto ruler. Ahmed Shah Qajar, the previous ruler, fled the country and eventually died in exile. Impressed with Kemal Ataturk, Reza Shah was tempted to emulate him and declare the country a republic, but being dictatorial, he decided to establish a constitutional monarchy with the help of Shia clerics. On 15th of December that year, at the age of 47, he took his oath and became Iran’s first Pahlavi Shah. His son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was proclaimed the Crown Prince at Reza Shah’s coronation on 25th April 1926.

The Shah sits on the Peacock Throne on his Coronation

At the age of 11, Mohammad Reza had been sent to Switzerland to study at the Institut Le Rosey boarding school, becoming the first Iranian prince to be sent abroad for education. However, he returned to Iran after four years to attain his high school diploma, after which he attended Tehran’s military academy, and qualified as a pilot. On Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s suggestion to the Shah on a visit to Turkey, a strategic marriage was arranged between Mohammad Reza and Princess Fawzia, daughter of King Fuad I of Egypt and Nazli Sabri, sister of King Farouk I of Egypt. The marriage took place by proxy in 1939 at the Abdeen Palace in Cairo. Reza Shah did not even participate in the ceremony. It was a brief marriage that ended in divorce after Mohammad Raza ascended the throne, though the couple had a daughter together, Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi.

Untitled-1 Father, Reza Shah Pahlavi

A young Shah Son, a young Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi

Reza Shah spent the next 16 years modernizing his country, including replacing the name Persia with Iran. At the advent of World War II, the Shah declared Iran’s neutrality and the Allied powers were not pleased. They needed Iran as a transport corridor to Russia. Its geographical significance is illustrated by the name “The Bridge of Victory” later given to Iran by British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. The Shah felt that Britain and the Soviet Union had opportunistic and exploitative policies towards Iran. He cancelled the contract with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) to extract, refine and export Iran’s oil. After much negotiation a new contract was signed in 1933 that was also heavily tipped in APOC’s favour, barring Iran to sign a more lucrative contract with another company. On top of that, Germany had become Iran’s largest trading partner prior to WWII. Germany had even consented to sell Iran a steel mill that the country urgently needed. For these reasons, Britain and Soviet Union that had fought over the country less than two decades ago, now joined together to invade it in 1941. Iran’s army barely put up any resistance, leaving Reza Shah no choice but to accept a forced abdication in favour of his son, Mohammad Reza. He was issued a politely worded command by the British stating, “Would His Highness kindly abdicate in favour of his son, the heir to the throne? We have a high opinion of him and will ensure his position. But His Highness should not think there is any other solution.” And just like that again one Shah was summarily dismissed and replaced by another.

Untitled-1 Princess Fawzia bint Fuad of Egypt Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi Princess Shahnaz Pahlavi, Fawzia & Mohammad Reza’s only child

Love struck the new and by now divorced Shah. Beautiful, emerald eyed Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiari was half German half Irani and the only daughter of Khalil Esfandiary, Iranian Ambassador to West Germany, and his wife, Eva Karl. Soraya had been brought up more as a German under the tutelage of her governess Frau Mantel, followed by a stint at a Swiss finishing school in Montreaux. While she was studying English in London at the age of 16 in 1948, she was befriended by the Shah’s younger sister Princess Shams. A relative of Soraya’s showed her picture to the Shah who became smitten with her. After his very first meeting with her, the Shah asked her father for her hand in marriage. Soon they were engaged and the Shah presented Soraya with a whopping 22.37 carat diamond ring. But his choice of a part Teutonic, liberal minded and Western educated bride was not popular with conservative Iranis. By her own admission in one of her two memoirs, she writes, “I was a dunce—I knew next to nothing of the geography, the legends of my country, nothing of its history, nothing of Muslim religion.”

As early as 1949, an assassination attempt was made on the new Shah that was attributed to the pro-Soviet Tudeh Party, resulting in the banning of that party. It is claimed that the attempt was actually made by a religious fundamentalist member of Fada’iyan-e Islam as the new Shah was considered too Western and too secular. The Shah’s reaction was to expand his constitutional powers and become even more powerful.

Untitled-3 copy Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran with his bride, Princess Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari

Soraya's massive engagement ring
22.37 carat diamond engagement ring

Untitled-4 Princess Soraya wore an emerald and diamond parure and tiara to match her green eyes

The Shah married Soraya in 1951 at the Marble Palace that his father had had built. The wedding had been delayed because the bride had been ill from typhoid. She wore a Christian Dior Couture gown from his New Look collection. It had 37 yards of silver lamé studded all over with tens of thousands of pearls, 6,000 diamonds, and 20,000 marabou feathers. It weighed a staggering 44 pounds (20 kilograms). Because she was still weak, the bride had difficulty walking in the heavy dress. Seeing her totter, the thoughtful Shah ordered a lady-in-waiting to cut the petticoats and train to lighten her load. Additionally, the strapless dress had a fitted long sleeve waist length jacket and veil for the Nikkah ceremony. Because the wedding was in Februaury, a full-length white mink cape kept the bride warm in the non-heated palace and she secretly wore woolen socks on her feet, which were hidden by the voluminous skirt. In the evening, for the 2000 people reception, the jacket and veil came off and an emerald and diamond parure from the crown jewels that matched her green eyes added even more sparkle. 5 tonnes of orchids, tulips and carnations had been flown in from Netherlands to do up the palace and the entertainment included a Roman equestrian circus. The couple received such lavish wedding gifts as a mink coat and a desk set glittering with black diamonds sent by Soviet head Joseph Stalin, a Steuben glass Bowl of Legends sent by U.S. President and Mrs. Truman, and silver Georgian candlesticks from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Though the new Queen headed Iran’s charity association, she was very much pampered and even had a pet seal, which she kept in the palace fountain. Just two years later, in 1953, the royal couple fled Tehran for Iraq and Italy after a failed revolution attempt in Iran, but they returned soon after.

Untitled-5 The wedding ensemble consisted of a feathered and jewelled gown, fitted, long sleeved, waist length jacket and mink coat all by Christian Dior

Seven years into the marriage, the royal couple was faced with a dilemma. They had come to a crossroads due to Soraya’s inability to have children, a fact confirmed by American doctors. Even the famous American fertility expert Dr. William Masters wasn’t able to help them. Their joint consultation with him has been immortalized in an episode of the TV show Masters of Sex. Though he was very much in love with Soraya, the Shah desperately needed a male heir. Under the Persian constitution, if the Shah had no heir, then the royal line would end. He tried to convince her to let him take a second wife, but Soraya was adamant. In an interview to the New York Times Soraya said that she did not want “the sanctity of marriage” violated and decided that “she could not accept the idea of sharing her husband’s love with another woman.” She added it was with a heavy heart and because he had no choice that the Shah reluctantly divorced her.

At that time of their separation, Soraya issued a statement to the Iranian people from her parents’ home in Germany, stating, “Since His Imperial Majesty Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi has deemed it necessary that a successor to the throne must be of direct descent in the male line from generation to generation to generation, I will with my deepest regret in the interest of the future of the State and of the welfare of the people in accordance with the desire of His Majesty the Emperor sacrifice my own happiness, and I will declare my consent to a separation from His Imperial Majesty.”

555 Moments 44 Photo courtesy LIFE magazine

On 21st March 1958, Iranian New Year’s Day, the Shah announced his divorce to the Iranian people in a TV and radio broadcasted speech that was broadcast, adding he would not remarry in haste. His voice shook with emotion, clearly he had been crying.

The Shah still loved his ex-wife; he granted Soraya the title Princess of Iran and made sure she received a monthly $7000 payment from the State of Iran. They continued to meet in Europe after their divorce, even though Sorarya had started a film career. She had always harboured a fantasy to be a film star. Despite taking acting lessons, she only managed to appear in two films. Through her new connections, she met the married Italian director Franco Indovina and they started a love affair. Unfortunately, this too ended prematurely with his tragic death in a plane crash only five years later.

Heart-broken Soraya relocated to Paris and bought an apartment on the posh and happening Avenue Montaigne, which sold at her death for $3 million. Soraya travelled, was fond of frequenting the Plaza Athenee Hotel near her home, attended parties thrown by the aristocratic feminist and woman of letters Edmee, Duchess de La Rochefoucauld, who kept a famous salon. She also made friends with her celebrity hair stylist Alexandre Zouari who introduced her to the young, glitzy crowd. But still lonely and depressed, she was called the “Princess with the sad eyes” by those who met her. In 1991, she wrote her second autobiography, Le Palais Des Solitudes (The Palace of Loneliness). She died in 2001 at the age of 69 in Paris. Her body was found by her cleaner.

Untitled-11 copy Soraya appeared in two European films after her divorce from the Shah

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Princess Soraya bequeathed her £50 million fortune, including her engagement ring, a 1958 Rolls Royce, countless furs and costly paintings that were all auctioned off to her younger brother and only sibling, Prince Bijan Esfandiary, but he too died only a week later at his home in Cologne. Since they had no living relatives and he had made no will, the entire fortune went to the German state government (and not Iran) where it was used to pay for street lighting, rubbish collection and other public amenities in North Rhine Westphalia where the Prince lived at the time of his death. Perhaps the Irani people were right when they claimed their Queen was more German than Irani.

Meanwhile in 1951, Mohammad Mosaddegh had been elected Prime Minister of Iran; in a bold move, he immediately nationalised the country’s petroleum industry after getting a unanimous vote authorising this from the country’s Parliament. The industry had been controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), APOC’s new name, which had been an extremely lucrative venture for the British and also gave them a lot of regional clout. Together the American CIA and British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) funded and led the covert Operation Ajax to depose Mosaddegh with the help of the Irani military, led by General Fazlollah Zahedi, who the CIA bribed with $1 million in cash. The Shah was in on the conspiracy and had agreed to dismiss the patriotic Mosaddegh as Prime Minister and replace him with a candidate backed by the British and Americans. As with subsequent American involvements in the country, the coup d’etat failed. The Shah with Soraya fled Tehran first to Baghdad and then Rome. However, a second coup attempt was successful, Mosaddegh was deposed, arrested and tried and the ‘merciful’ Shah commuted his sentence to three years followed by life in exile. Zahedi became the new puppet PM.

Coronation Day
Coronation family portrait

Attracted to European women, the two times divorced Shah’s eye next lit on the blonde Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, daughter of the deposed Italian King Umberto II and Marie José of Belgium, known as the “May Queen” due to her brief month long tenure as Queen. But the Princess was a Roman Catholic. First meeting 19 year old Princess Maria during a skiing holiday in Switzerland in 1958, the Shah proposed shortly after. According to Dr. Abbas Milani and Amir Taheri, who wrote Mohammad Reza’s biography Majestic Failure, she accepted the proposal conditionally, depending on the consent of her father and the Pope. The Shah returned to Tehran to pave the way and clear any legal hurdles to the marriage, as the Iranian constitution at that time stated that King must take a Persian Muslim as wife. He hired a team of French genealogists to prove her distant Persian connection and asked the Princess to convert to Islam. First her father, though privately a homosexual but a conservative Roman Catholic where his daughter was concerned, withheld his consent. After the Shah offered to pay him handsomely for his consent, Umberto II left it up to the Pope who was asked to issue a special dispensation for the marriage. Pope John XXIII promptly vetoed the match. Horror of horrors, a marriage between a “Muslim sovereign and a Catholic princess,” was called “a grave danger” in an editorial in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, a Roman Catholic was barred from marrying a divorced person on pains of excommunication and this threat was conveyed to the Princess. The Shah himself went to the Vatican in 1959, and the Pope plainly told him that he would sanction the marriage on the condition that Mohammed Shah convert to Catholicism. The engagement was mutually called off. Princess Maria went on to become a published historian and married a fellow Italian after more than a decade.

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Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy

Untitled-13 copy The Shah & Farah Diba on their wedding day dsfdsfds Farah in a coat worn over a gown, designed by YSL for Dior

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Harry Winston was commissioned to make the Noor-ol-Ain tiara especially for the wedding. The tiara gets it name from the central 60 carat pink diamond. With its sister stone, the 180 carat Darya-e-Noor, both were once a part of the Great Table Diamond from Golcanda brought back by Nader Shah

After this debacle, Princess Shahnaz stepped in to arrange a suitable marriage for her father, the Shah, so he could produce a male heir. In the Irani Embassy in Paris, a young Farah Diba was introduced to him in the summer of ‘59.

Farah was born in Tehran, the only child of Captain Sohrab Diba, of Irani-Azerbaijani descent, and his wife, Farideh Ghotbi. Captain Sohrab belonged to an affluent and noble family, his father had been the Persian Ambassador to the Russian Romanov Court. The Captain, a graduate of the prestigious French Military Academy at St. Cyr, served as an officer in the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces, but he died suddenly leaving his wife and daughter badly off financially, who were then forced to leave their large Tehran villa and move to the cramped apartment of Farideh’s brother. Farah Diba attended the Italian School in Tehran, then the French Jeanne d’Arc School and later the Lycée Razi. A sporty girl, she was the captain of her school’s basketball team. On a State scholarship, she went to Paris to studying architecture at the École Spéciale d’Architecture. The Shah frequently met State-sponsored students studying at Irani Embassies whenever he was travelling abroad. In February, at the Embassy in Paris, he met the pretty 21 year old Farah. Things moved fast. On her summer trip to Tehran, Farah was formally courted by the 40 year old Shah, as orchestrated by Princess Shahnaz, and within months an engagement was announced.

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The marriage took place swiftly at the end of the year. The bride chose Yves Saint Laurent, then the designer for Dior, to make the all important wedding gown. The dress had a modest scoop neck, and matching coat. The ensemble had Persian motifs embellished in sequins, imitation pearls, and silver thread. The train had a fur-lined hem with blue sewn in the hem for good luck. Farah had her pick of the crown jewels. On her head rested the 2 kgs. (more than 4 lbs.) Noor-ol-Ain tiara that has the sixty carat pink Noor-ol-Ain (Eye of Light) diamond as the centrepiece. This had been cut from the Great Table Diamond, mined in Golcanda, India, and has a sister diamond, the 180 carat Darya-e-Noor (River of Light). The Golcanda diamond had been brought back to Persia by Nader Shah in1736 after he plundered Delhi as part of payment for him to return to Tehran. The Shah commissioned Harry Winston to design a tiara around the Noor-ol-Ain. The platinum tiara was set with 324 pink, yellow, and white diamonds, all larger than 14 carats. Today, this tiara and the Iranian crown jewels collection are on display at the National Treasury of Iran in the Central Bank in Tehran.

Within the year, Farah produced the much awaited male heir, Crown Prince Raza Pahlavi born in 1960, and the marriage was deemed a success, followed by Princess Farahnaz Pahlavi of Iran, Prince Ali Reza Pahlavi and Princess Leila Pahlavi of Iran. Initially, the Queen was engrossed in producing her children, but once that was accomplished she became much more actively involved in government affairs, particularly in women’s rights issues and cultural development.

Untitled-17 copy Moments Untitled-18 copy On a skiing holiday

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Due to its massive oil production, Iran’s oil revenues soared during this time and the Shah became Middle East’s pre-eminent leader, referring to himself as the “Guardian” of the Persian Gulf. Autocratic, he famously said in 1961 “when Iranians learn to behave like Swedes, I will behave like the King of Sweden.”

A second assassination attempt was made on the Shah in 1965 when a soldier shot his way through the Marble Palace, but was killed before he could reach the royal quarters, after he had killed two civilian guards. According to former KGB officer Vladimir Kuzichkin, the Shah was also allegedly targeted for his pro-West stance by the Soviet Union, using a TV remote control detonated bomb hidden Volkswagen Beetle that failed to detonate.  Apparently, the Soviets made many failed assassination attempts on his life during the height of the Cold War. However, the Shah proved to be like the proverbial cat with nine lives.

26 years after his reign began, on 26th Ocotber 1967 the Shah, in an elaborate coronation ceremony,  took the ancient title of Shahnshah (Emperor), the Queen was crowned as the first Shahbano (the Empress) and Crown Prince Raza was designated as the successor officially. The reason the Shah gave for waiting so long for the coronation was because he said there was “no honour in being the Emperor of a poor country,” which in his opinion Iran had been up till that time. Rich heraldry was incorporated to symbolize the Pahlavi reign and ancient Persian heritage. The imperial crown image was included in every official state document and symbol, from the badges of the armed forces to paper money and coinage. The personal standards for the Shahnshah, Shahbanu and Crown Prince had a field of pale blue, the traditional colour of the Iranian Imperial Family, a central heraldic motif of the individual. The Imperial Iranian national flag was in the top left quadrant of each standard. The appropriate Imperial standard was flown beside the national flag when the individual was present in a building. All this pomp and circumstance was due to the fact that the Shah was very conscious of the fact that his father came up the ranks and was a “self made monarch.”

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The glamorous Shahbanu

In the ‘60s, the Shah introduced a series of economic, social and political reforms, which were collectively known as the White Revolution. The goal was to transform Iran into a global power, modernize the country, nationalise certain industries, grant women suffrage, push for universal education and increase the national income. To win mass popularity and simultaneously curtail the power of ancient elite feudal families he expropriated large estates and gave them to more than four million small farmers. He also gave factory workers shares in the mills in which they worked. However, the wealthy land owners and middle income merchant class of the bazaars felt defrauded. Due to rampant corruption, much wealth found its way into the pockets of the extended royal family, their psychophants and government officials, not the poor.  The White Revolution was said to be “shoddily planned and haphazardly carried out,” its main aim to centralize power. The Shia clergy also resented Iran’s pro-Western stance and friendly relations with Israel.

A U.S. Embassy dispatch stated, “The Shah’s picture is everywhere. The beginning of all film showings in public theaters presents the Shah in various regal poses accompanied by the strains of the National Anthem….The monarch also actively extends his influence to all phases of social affairs…there is hardly any activity or vocation which the Shah or members of his family or his closest friends do not have a direct or at least a symbolic involvement.”

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With Nusrat Bhutto on a visit to Pakistan

But the Shah still paid lip service to a two-party democratic process and said, “If I were a dictator rather than a constitutional monarch, then I might be tempted to sponsor a single dominant party such as Hitler organized.”

The Shah realized that to modernize his country, education was key. Starting from the ‘60s new elementary schools and literacy courses were set up in remote villages by the Imperial Iranian Armed Forces, which became known as the “Army of Knowledge.” By 1966 the school attendance of urban seven to fourteen year olds was estimated at 75 per cent and this further rose in the ‘70s. A government program provided free of charge meals to school children. Islamic theologians were formally established as clerics after passing special exams. A quarter of the scientists working in Iran’s nuclear program were women that had been sent abroad to study along with their male counterparts. The Armed Forces were also called on to build infrastructure projects throughout the country. Several steel, power and automobile plants, telecommunications and petrochemical facilities, as well as dams were established to expand the country’s industrial base. The Aryamehr University of Technology was founded to fuel the country’s technological prowess.

Untitled-24 copy The Pahlavi clan in their Greenwich, Connecticut home in happier times

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Untitled-26 copy Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi with his wife & 3 daughters

Unfortunately, Iran’s labour market could not keep pace with the new graduates swelling the ranks of the labour force. In 1966, high school graduates had “a higher rate of unemployment than the uneducated.” The number of educated but unemployed and frustrated youth kept growing, providing manpower for the coming Revolution. To be fair, national rose dramatically in this period, but this is in part due to the soaring oil price in the ‘70s.

In ’71, the celebration of the anniversary of 2,500 years of continuous monarchy since the founding of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great took place to further consolidate the monarchy’s power. Controversially, the Irani calendar was changed from the hegira to the beginning of the Persian Empire, measured from Cyrus the Great’s coronation. The New York Times reported that $100 million was spent on the celebrations. A tent city covering 160 acres was erected next to the ancient ruins of Persepolis (ceremonial capital of ancient Persia), including three huge royal tents and fifty nine smaller ones arranged in a star-shaped design. French chefs from Maxim’s of Paris prepared breast of peacock entrees for royalty and dignitaries who flew in from the world over, which the guests ate off Limoges porcelain, washing it down with champagne in Baccarat crystal glasses. Interior design firm Maison Jansen, which had been contracted by U.S. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to redecorate the White House, redecorated the buildings that received the dignitaries.

Untitled-27 copy Princess Leila Pahlavi of Iran was a Valentino model Untitled-28 copy Prince Ali Reza & Queen Farah Pahlavi at Leila’s funeral Untitled-29 copy Farah Pahlavi is still sophisticated, elegant & well maintained

Next to this ostentatious and flamboyant display, the poverty in nearby villages stood out in stark contrast. University students went on strike in protest. The Shah kept the exorbitant cost of this extravagant celebration under wraps, which he justified by claiming it would bring in new investments to Iran, establish its importance and give the country more regional clout.

The Empress had also kept herself busy by focussing on culture and the arts. Though historically a culturally rich country, Iran of the ‘60s was empty of much of its heritage. Many of its artistic treasures lay in foreign museums and private collections. The Empress decided it was high time they were brought back. She secured permission and funds to buy back a wide selection of Iranian artifacts and contracted brother antique dealers Houshang and Mehdi Mahboubian, who helped her locate and attain these treasures from ‘72-78. Following the model of Britain’s National Trust, several national museums were founded to house these repatriated acquisitions, including the Negarestan Cultural Center, the Reza Abbasi Museum, the Khorramabad Museum housing the Lorestan bronzes, the National Carpet Gallery and the Abgineh Museum for Ceramics and Glassware. The Empress had a staff of 40 to assist her in the patronage of 24 educational, health and cultural organizations in all. She also carried out humanitarian work, travelling to far flung poor areas of Iran where she gained popularity in the early ’70s.

One legacy of the Empress, the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art proved a conundrum for the anti-West Islamic Republic government that replaced the Shah’s regime. The Empress, using State funds, had shrewdly amassed a priceless Western Art collection during the depressed Art market of the ‘70s. Irani sculptor and Cultural Adviser to the Empress, Parviz Tanavoli said that the collection had been bought for “tens, not hundreds, of millions of dollars.” Approximately, 150 masterpieces of artists including works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, George Grosz, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, and Roy Lichtenstein were bought and displayed at the Museum. It became one of the most significant collections of Modern Art in the world, excluding Europe and the U.S. Today, the value of this collection is estimated at US$2.8 billion. After the ’79 Revolution, the collection lay for nearly two decades in the Museum’s storage vaults. After much public speculation about the fate of the priceless masterpieces, the collection was briefly displayed in an exhibition in Tehran in ’05.

Untitled-30 copy The family now lives in Washington D.C.

 Under the Empress’ patronage, the  Shiraz Arts Festival for the performing arts was held every summer from 1967 until 1977, featuring live performances by both Iranian and Western artists performing  music, dance, drama and poetry. The festival program also showed films held symposia and debates in Shiraz, Persepolis and many other locations. The avant garde festival became increasing controversial and unpopular amongst conservative, orthodox Muslim Iranis.

By 1975, the Shah abandoned all pretense of even a two-party system of government. Only the Rastakhiz (Resurrection) State-sponsored political party was recognized, while the Communist Tudeh party was banned.  Political dissidents were jailed by the thousands. The Shah said, “We must straighten out Iranians’ ranks. To do so, we divide them into two categories: those who believe in Monarchy, the Constitution and the Six Bahman Revolution and those who don’t….A person who does not enter the new political party and does not believe in the three cardinal principles will have only two choices. He is either an individual who belongs to an illegal organization… in other words a traitor. Such an individual belongs to an Iranian prison, or if he desires he can leave the country tomorrow, without even paying exit fees; he can go anywhere he likes, because he is not Iranian, he has no nation, and his activities are illegal and punishable according to the law.”

The Shah’s words, “he has no nation” held an ominous tone and those words ironically applied to him in just a couple of years. Was it Karma at play?!

As resentment seethed at home, the Shah’s regime also lost the favour of the American President Jimmy Carter’s administration due to the former’s role in jacking up the oil price through his leading role in the Organization of the Oil Producing Countries (OPEC). To keep the national income high, the Shah was instrumental in fixing the high price of OPEC oil in the ‘70s that daily poured millions of dollars into the government’s coffers. The American public blamed their own government for failure to take charge of the situation, which turned to Saudi Arabia, its new ally. The American government and media started publicly criticizing Iran’s human rights records. Sensing that the Shah was being abandoned just as his father was before him, street demonstrations increased in size and frequency and the political situation snowballed out the government’s control.

In ’77, the first militant anti-Shah demonstration numbered only a few hundred after the death of Shia cleric and political opponent Ayotollah Ruhoallah Khomeini’s son Mostafa. By next year, well organized national strikes paralyzed the country. Then, on 8th September 1978, a day that is remembered as “Black Friday,” though Martial Law had been imposed, thousands had gathered in Tehran’s Jaleh Square for a religious demonstration. The soldiers opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. This marked “the point of no return” for the regime. To calm the situation, in early October, the Shah allowed exiled political dissidents to return, but it was too little too late. In December, 6 to 9 million strong demonstrators, more than 10 per cent of the citizens, were marching on the streets. Public statues of the Pahlavis were being defaced and “every sign of the Pahlavi dynasty” was destroyed by the angry demonstrators. In February, pro-Khomeini revolutionary guerrilla and rebel soldiers had taken over the street fighting. The military stepped to the side and, on the evening of 11th February 1977, the Shah’s reign was over. The revolutionaries had won. The Iranian monarchy was formally abolished, and Iran was declared an Islamic Republic led by Khomeini, who took over the reins of power.

The Revolutionary government in Iran ordered the arrest (and later execution) of the Shah and the Shahbanu. The Shah and his family had already fled into exile to Egypt on 16th January 1979, as Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and First Lady Jehan Al Sadat were personal friends. However, Iran started pressing for extradition. Over the next 14 months, to keep trouble at bay, one by one countries around the world shut their doors on the royal family. After Egypt, the Pahlavis stayed briefly in Morocco as guests of King Hassan II. In the article Little pain expected in exile for Shah published in The Spokesman Review, it was estimated that the Shah had a personal fortune of $1 billion. Despite this wealth, the family had nowhere to go.

The Pahlavis headed to the Caribbean, where they were granted temporary refuge in the Bahamas on Paradise Island, which the Empress recalled as the “darkest days in her life.” The Shah tried to buy the island for $425 million, but his offer was rejected. Next stop was South America. Mexico issued them a short visa and they moved into a rented villa in Cuernavaca near Mexico City. The stress took a toll and the Shah’s long-term illness of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, rapidly got worse. They got permission to seek medical treatment in the U.S. Iranis became incensed with the U.S. government for harbouring the Shah and they attacked the American Embassy in Tehran. The bungled attempt by the U.S. to rescue the  Americans Embassy staff and citizens that were held hostage for 444 days became known as the Iran hostage crisis. Again, the Shah and his family became a liability to the host nation and were asked to leave. This time, they headed to Contadora Island, Panama.

Learning that, succumbing to Irani pressure, the Panamanian Government wanted to arrest the Shah and extradite him to Iran, Farah pleaded with Jehan Al Sadat to let them return to Egypt. There three months later on 27th July 1980, the Shah mercifully died. In just over a year he went from being a powerful monarch to a beaten and tired, old, sick man with nowhere to call home. He was buried at Al-Rifa’i Mosque, Cairo.

With that chapter closed President Sadat gave the widow the use of Koubbeh Palace in Cairo, but he too was assassinated in October 1981. President Ronald Reagan stepped in to rescue the family and informed them that they were welcome to the U.S. where they finally settled in the upscale town of Greenwich, Connecticut. You would think that the disgraced royals family’s trouble were finally at an end, but this was not to be.

It turned out that the younger two children had been so traumatized by the upheaval in their lives that they grew up to suffer acute depression and both committed suicide, one after another. Princess Leila was a very pretty girl, full of promise; she was a graduate of Brown University and worked as a model for Valentino. But she also had a dark, tortured side, suffering from anorexia nervosa as well as a drug addiction. She flitted aimlessly between Paris and Greenwhich,  anorexia wasting away her good looks. In 2001, she was found dead in a London hotel room from an overdose of tranquilizers and cocaine. She is buried in the Cimetière de Passy, Paris. Members of the French royal family and the late French President François Mitterrand’s nephew, Fredric attended her funeral along with her family.

Ali Reza was extremely close to his sister and her death had a profound effect on him. He had gotten his Bachelors from Princeton and Masters from Columbia, as well as was studying for his Phd at Harvard and had been called “one of the world’s most eligible princes.” With everything to live for, in January 2011, handsome and dapper Ali shot himself to death in his Boston apartment at the age of 44.

Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, and author of a biography of the Shah, said the Pahlavis have a record of depression, “Sadly, the Shah did have a propensity for depression. In nearly every major profile of him prepared by the CIA, or British and American embassies, there is some allusion to this brooding, melancholy tendency. One report calls him ‘Hamlet-like.’ The other side of this tendency was the Shah’s love of speed, fast cars, and flying. The sad young man (Ali Reza) who killed himself apparently shared both qualities.”

The Pahlavi family in a more politic message on Reza Pahlavi’s website, wrote that Ali was “deeply disturbed by all the ills fallen upon his beloved homeland and struggled for years to overcome his sorrow.”

Ali’s final wishes were to be cremated and his ashes scattered on the Caspian Sea. Posthumously, seven months after his death, his daughter Iryana Leila was born to his girlfriend. Farah recognized her as a full member of their family and a Princess of Iran.

Second born Princess Yasmin Farahnaz Pahlavi, armed with a Masters from Columbia tried to join UNICEF, but her mother said in a 2004 interview to the Los Angeles Times that she was rejected  because of her name. She lives in New York City. Half sister Princess Shahnaz is twice divorced, has three children and has lived in Switzerland ever since she left Iran.

The success story is the Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, a political science graduate and trained Air Force pilot, who is the founder and leader of the National Council of Iran, a government in exile of Iran. Happily married to a children’s rights advocate Yasmine, the couple have three daughters the Princesses Noor, Iman and Farah. The Prince is extremely popular with Iranian expatriates who left Iran at the time of the Revolution and even some Irani citizens living within the country.

Irani born lawyer, Afshin Ellian said, “In Iran, there are two names known to virtually all, even in the most remote villages. The first name is Khamenei (the current Supreme Leader of Iran) and the second one is Reza Pahlavi.”

In 2011, Radio Fardah named Reza Pahlavi Iran’s Person Of The Year in a 2011 online poll that was filled by expat and resident Iranis. In 2014, Reza Pahlavi founded his own television and radio network Ofogh Iran. He campaigns for human rights, democracy and Irani solidarity. He is a moderate, secular Muslim who has performed Hajj and calls for a separation of religion and state in Iran and for free and fair elections. The choice of government whether a constitutional monarchy or a republic he says should be left up to the Irani people to decide.

Inspired by the Arab Spring, the Irani youth in February 2011 took to the streets to demand a return to democracy. On that occasion, Reza Pahlavi said in an interview to the Daily Telegraph, “Fundamental and necessary change is long overdue for our region and we have a whole generation of young Egyptians and Iranians not willing to take no for an answer. Democratisation is now an imperative that cannot be denied. It is only a matter of time before the whole region can transform itself.”

The Pahlavis enduring legacy to Iran has been the universal education that Mohammad Raza Shah started in the formerly backward country. 91 per cent of Irani adults are literate, according to 2015 estimates. The Shah’s downfall proved to be his despotic nature and totalitarian rule that suffocated the Irani people and ultimately led to the Shia clergy led Revolution.

Good Times


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