Of Iran And Its Last Shah: A Conversation With Gholam Reza Afkhami

The last King of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, is commonly given a harsh verdict. But is this assessment fair, or even accurate? Through the kind and generous courtesy of Kayhan Life Magazine, we are so very pleased to present this interview with Gholam Reza Afkhami, who rectifies many of the assumptions about the late Shah. Mr. Afkhami is an academic, author and former Deputy Minister of Iran. He is currently a senior scholar and research director at the Foundation for Iranian Studies (FIS), a research institute in Washington, DC.

Mr. Afkhami served as Iran’s deputy interior minister in the mid-1970s, and Secretary General of Iran’s National Committee for World Literacy Program (1975–1979), a committee headed by Mohammad Reza Shah. After the Revolution in 1979, Mr. Afkhami moved to the U.S. and became a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institute, from 1980 to 1983. He is the author of several books, most recently, The Life and Times of the Shah. He is here interviewed by Cyrus Kadivar, the London-based author, journalist and consultant.


Cyrus Kadivar (CK): As an insider, you had a unique opportunity to observe the Pahlavi dynasty’s daily workings. Eleven years ago, you published your epic biography of the Shah. How would you summarize the monarch’s personality compared to his father Reza Shah?

Gholam Reza Afkhami (GRA): I have learned most of what I know of the life and times of Mohammad Reza Shah by studying the history of Iran under the two Pahlavi kings and by communicating with those closely involved with their personal and political lives. The young Mohammad Reza acquired many of his father’s habits, though temperamentally he was his father’s opposite. Reza Shah was naturally aggressive. Mohammad Reza was shy and withdrawn, even when at the apogee of power. The father slept on the floor in an unadorned room. The son also lived in relative simplicity, though the difference in the circumstances of their respective birth and childhood made his surroundings more opulent. The father dressed invariably in a plain soldier’s uniform—no adornment, no medal, no pomp. The son was in full regalia when in military uniform. Normally, however, he wore civilian clothes. He was punctual, disciplined, and given to daily routines he almost religiously followed, even when on vacation. Like his father, he also walked around his office while receiving government officials and discussing state affairs.

CK: Mohammad Reza Shah married three times in his lifetime. Can you tell us about his relationships with each one of his queens?

GRA: His first wife, Fawzieh, an Egyptian princess, was chosen for him. She was beautiful, and he grew to like her, but Fawzieh remained cold and distant. With Soraya, his second wife, he truly fell in love, allowing her to dominate him in family matters. Much to the Shah’s chagrin, Soraya could not give him an heir, and refused to submit to an operation which might have enabled her to become pregnant. That refusal did not diminish the Shah’s affection, though it led to divorce, because the imperative of [producing] an heir to the throne trumped the Shah’s love.

The Shah’s third wife, Farah Diba, later Shahbanu Farah, was 21 years old when she married, almost the same age as the king’s other brides at the time of marriage. She was smarter, more energetic, more active, and considerably more interested in the affairs of the nation. More importantly, she bore the Shah a male heir in less than a year, which made her position secure, and the Shah’s relationship with her unique.

CK: What were some of the King’s personal hobbies?

GRA: The Shah was good at sports. He had learned skiing at Le Rosay [his Swiss boarding school] and, back in Tehran, never missed a chance to ski on the rare days that snow covered the rather primitive ski slopes of the Elahiyeh hills near Tehran and, in later years, of Shemshak and Gajereh on the slopes of the Alborz. He also skied in the Alps near his winter cottage in St. Moritz. He regularly played tennis, until it became difficult for him to continue because of his eyesight.

He was also an accomplished horseman, the kind who liked his horses sprightly and quick to the touch, requiring no encouragement to move. He enjoyed speed and courted danger beyond the boundaries of propriety for a king. His queens, though with him at different periods of his life, were equally afraid to be in the car when he drove, and they told him so. It was the same when he piloted a plane or a helicopter. He followed the rules, but also took risks, explaining that he was protected by the Almighty.

CK: Did the 1953 Crisis with Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh have an impact on the Shah’s psychology and his mode of governing after his dramatic restoration to the throne?

GRA: The Shah never forgot the effect of the first decade of his [reign.] Never again, he might have thought, as he flew back to Tehran from Rome. Never again would he be so poor and vulnerable as he was in Rome. Never again would he be the plaything of another man, as he had been of Mossadegh. Never again would he forget his father’s advice: any man worth asking for help in the arduous work of making a nation will seek your place if allowed. This was in 1953.

Twenty years later, by 1974, his country and the world had changed. He had solved the oil issue, his country was on the verge of having more income than it needed, the Iranian military had become one of the most powerful in the Middle East, significant economic and technological relations had been established between Iran and the rest of the world, and the Shah was satisfied that his country was making palpable progress. His problem now was of a different genre: he knew he was ill and had to prepare the country and his son for a future of which he could not be sure.

CK: The Pahlavi regime has been described by some historians and critics as having been politically repressive and socially progressive. Do you agree with that assessment?

GRA: Politically, the White Revolution, by increasing the mobility of the population, facilitated the political atomization of society, rendering a greater number of people accessible to the authority and command of central government. By focusing political attention on the Shah, it gradually eroded the authority of other central sources of power, leading toward a concentration of power in his hands. This suggested political power but not necessarily political repression. The regime, however, was socially progressive.

CK: Mohammed Reza Shah began his rule as a constitutional monarch. By the Seventies he was the King of oil and the supreme autocrat ruling over 34 million Iranians. He abolished the two-party system in favor of a single party, Rastakhiz, began to liberalize the political system, and in August 1978, after protests in the streets, he promised free elections. Did the Shah ever believe in democracy?

GRA: The Shah was deep down a democrat. Democracy, however, is first and foremost an expression of culture. He began to understand this during the first years of his reign, especially his experience with Mossadegh. His 1976 liberalization policy was likely a plan to prepare the ground for the Crown Prince to ascend the throne when he no longer would be able to continue.

CK: How would you describe Iranian society in the 1970s?

GRA: Iran under the Shah was an open society. The economic boom had made it possible for people from different walks of life to travel abroad by the hundreds of thousands each year, while foreigners came in by comparable numbers. Women were gradually achieving equality with men and increasingly participated in the kinds of work that had been traditionally reserved for men. All of this irked the traditional populations and puritans, but it was hardly an example of repression.

In the mid-1970s, Iran’s relations with the West were determined largely by Iran’s relations with the United States. By 1975, Iran had become a showcase of development among Third World countries, boasting one of the highest rates of economic growth, a superior record of social services, and a critical mass for takeoff in science and technology — making steady progress in fields ranging from women’s rights and environmental protection to intercultural and cross-cultural communication and literacy and life-long non-formal education. As a result of these and other changes, the country was a brain gainer in 1975, unprecedented for a Third World country at the time.

CK: And Jimmy Carter?

GRA: When in 1977 Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th president of the United States, the Shah was certain that he would survive him. Carter was ambivalent about the Shah, as reflected in his administration. When they first met on 15 November 1977 in Washington, the President found the Shah to be “a likable man—erect without being pompous, seemingly calm and self-assured, and surprisingly modest in demeanor.”

Carter’s Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan later observed that “of all the people we had seen during that period — [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, [German Chancellor Helmut] Schmidt, [British Prime Minister James] Callaghan, [French President Valery] Giscard [d’Estaing], and scores of others—the Shah was easily the most impressive.” The Shah conducted “a tour d’horizon of the world,” Jordan continued, “describing with great accuracy the problems facing the West, the strategic importance of Iran, and the critical nature of US-Iran relations. He spoke for almost an hour without notes. It was more than a presentation—it was a performance.”

The Shah was pleasantly surprised to hear in mid-December that the President wished to spend New Year’s Eve 1977 in Tehran, in between trips to Poland and India. The most surprising event of Carter’s visit, however, was his toast at at the dinner the Shah gave in his honor at Sahebgharanieh Palace. Carter lavishly praised the Iranian monarch’s leadership and called his country ‘an Island of stability in one of the most troubled regions of the world.’

A few months later, the Shah began to suspect that the West was planning to unhinge his rule.

CK: Why did the king hide his illness from his people and most of his inner circle? Did his cancer impact his decision making and morale during the final months of his rule?

GRA: What would have happened if the Shah had disclosed his illness is a moot point. Chances are that nothing significantly different would have occurred from within the regime, but the opposition would have become more empowered learning that the Shah was incapacitated. The Shah, however, was not incapacitated, at least not as a result of his illness. Those who knew him intimately saw nothing debilitating in his mental or physical agility. His twin sister Ashraf believed he was in complete control.

His government and those he consulted with never suspected that he was ill. His generals saw some indecisiveness at the end but attributed it mostly to the pressures of the time. The two ambassadors who met him several times a week saw in him mood alterations, but nothing that would suggest illness. His friends who were with him almost daily during his moments of rest never thought he was ill.

“He was active; he did his exercises, and his demeanor was not changed,” said Professor Yahya Adl, an old friend going back to the times when he was still crown prince. Adl was a witness night after night to the Shah’s orders to his generals not to be violent enforcing martial law. He was not surprised, nor did he attribute it to the shah’s being ill or in any way not being himself. “He was always like this, since I have known him. He shunned violence, hoping some other way would be found to calm the situation.”

CK: Liberals, followers of Mossadegh, and leftwing opponents who supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the leader of the revolutionary movement later complained that their movement was ‘hijacked’ by Islamic fundamentalists. Do you agree with that view?

GRA: No. Neither of these groups was in a position to oppose Khomeini or successfully depose him after he had returned to Iran once the Shah had shown that he would not fight. Theirs was not a movement. It was at best a support for Khomeini’s movement.

CK: What were the Shah’s domestic challenges in the last years in power? Could he have done anything differently to save his throne?

GRA: In 1976 he opted for a new path. He experimented with decentralization of decision making, tried to rebuild the political structure through a movement called Rastakhiz that he hoped would evolve into a multi-party, democratic system. Had he had more time for civic organizing or been prepared to fight the far left and far right opposition, Iran and his son would have been the most precious legacy he would have left his people. He did not, and died a far better man, unwilling to succeed at the cost of his people’s life. Iranians lost a promising future. Less than three years later, he died in Egypt.

CK: Do you still regard the Iranian revolution as Thanatos on a National Scale, the title of one of your books?

GRA: In Greek mythology, Thanatos represents death. In his psychoanalytic interpretation of human life process, Sigmund Freud speaks of “the death instinct,” suggesting varieties of the urge toward self-destruction. In my representation of Thanatos, diverse groups of intelligent Iranians belonging to a spectrum of left to right, knowing little about Khomeini and what he stood for, abandoned reason and fact in favor of destroying a progressive system of government.

CK: Was the 1979 Iranian revolution inevitable? Could the Shah have done anything to forestall it? To what extent was he badly advised or contributed to his own downfall?

GRA: The Iranian revolution was not inevitable. It happened because it was made possible. It was made possible because the Shah’s military could but did not stop it. The military did not stop it because the military obeyed the Shah and the Shah would not allow it. The Shah did not allow it because, as always, he would not accede to causing his people’s death. And though he had a variety of advice, at the end, he himself became the cause of his own downfall.

CK: How would Iran have looked today if the Pahlavi monarchy had not fallen?

GRA: Clearly, Iran would be very different today had the Revolution not occurred. So would the rest of the Middle East. There would have been no Iran-Iraq war; Islamism would have been contained; untold number of Iranians, Iraqis and others would not have died, become maimed, or suffered displacement and exile; untold amounts of wealth, property, or infrastructure would not have been destroyed; clashes of civilizations likely would not have been invented, or if invented, believed [in] or implemented; the United States would not have been involved in war in the Persian Gulf; and, perhaps, globalization would have taken a slightly kinder hue. These, of course, are mere speculations. What has been and what might have been, however, can alert us to our past mistakes, present options, and future possibilities.


The featured image shows the official 1973 portrait of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Arab Science: Dispelling The Ambiguity

Introduction

In 1883, Ernest Renan gave a lecture at the Sorbonne entitled, “Islamism and Science” (later published by Calmann-Lévy). It was the rationalist credo of a man of science who was familiar with history. Above all, it had the merit and interest of calling attention to an ambiguity, which had not escaped the Semitizer that he was, and which is contained in these words: “Arab science, Muslim civilization, Muslim science”.

This ambiguity has never been dispelled, and it is urgent to do so. Ernest Renan can actually be used in doing so.

His observation is simple: From about the year 775 until about the middle of the thirteenth century, there can be no doubt that there were very distinguished scholars and thinkers in Muslim countries. From this assumption was constructed the idea of an “Arab science,” of a “Muslim civilization” (today named as, “Islam, cradle of civilization”), even of a “Muslim science.” The ambiguity, meanwhile, has far from disappeared.

The Prominent Role Of Persia And Eastern Christians

What happened from the Hegira to the year 775, in other words, during the reign of the first four caliphs? Of course, “Omar did not burn the library of Alexandria;” but the principle that he conquered the world is infinitely more destructive: it attacks scholarly research and the very work of the mind. There is nothing more foreign to what can be called the “philosophy of science” than the first century of Islam.

Under the first four caliphs, there were no intellectual movements of a secular character. Islam was, “in the moment of conquest,” as the orientalists of the 19th century put it euphemistically, that is largely occupied with conquering, dominating, sowing desolation and ravaging the old lands of civilization.

But around the year 750, Persia gained the upper hand. It saw the dynasty of the children of Abbas come to triumph over the children of the Beni-Omeyrra. In other words, Persia chose the Abbasids against the Umayyads. The center of Islam was transported to the Tigris-Euphrates region.

This is where the traces of one of the most brilliant civilizations that the East has known can be found: that of the Sassanid Persians, who defeated the Arsacid Parthians, and took up the torch from the Achaemenids, whose brilliant state had been destroyed by Alexander. This Sassanid civilization experienced its zenith under the reign of Khosrow I Anushirvan. All tradition recognizes him as a great king. He did not just try to merely continue and resume a tradition of art and industry that had flourished for centuries; rather, he added to it an intellectual endeavor of great openness. Driven from Constantinople, the Eastern part of Greek philosophy took refuge in Persia.

Khosrow had books translated from India, which he commanded his personal physician, Burzoe, to personally research. The Fables of Bidpaï constitute one of the sources of our fabulist, Jean de la Fontaine. But this book disappeared when the Muslim armies arrived on the Iranian plateau, when the river, according to tradition, ran black with the ink of books. It was only later that this book of wisdom was rediscovered and translated from Pahlavi (Middle Persian) into Arabic, as Kalila wa Dimna , by Ibn al-Muqaffa, a Persian zindiq who had converted to Islam.

Above all, Christians of all persuasions formed the largest part of the population, for by then Persia was largely Christianized. They were well-versed in Greek science and philosophy, and medicine was entirely in their hands. Bishops were logicians, geometers. Khusrow founded the Academy of Gundishapur, the first medical university, a kind of “Silicone Valley” of its day.

When the followers of Muhammad arrived on the Iranian plateau, they put a stop to all this development for a hundred years.

But a century later, the rise of the Abbasids was akin to a resurrection of the brilliance of Khusrow Anushirvan. The Abbasids were like resurrected Sassanids. Persian troops, Persian leaders were at the head of this revolution. The founders – Abul-Abbas and especially Mansur, surrounded themselves with Persians. The intimate advisers of the princes, the prime ministers, were the Barmakids, a family from ancient Persia, who had converted to Islam late and without conviction. Christians soon surrounded these little believing caliphs – and with a sort of exclusive privilege, became their first doctors. The city of Harran, which remained pagan, and which had kept all the scientific tradition of the Greeks (and no doubt Indian) antiquity, as well as Syriac, provided the new school with a considerable contingent of scholars – foreign to the new revealed religion – especially skilled astronomers.

Baghdad thus stood as the capital of this resurgent Persia. All the great surviving tradition of the Gundishapur school was transported there.

Greco-Sassanid Science

Certainly, the language of conquest cannot be supplanted, religion cannot be completely denied. But the spirit of this new civilization was essentially mixed: The Parsis, the Christians, won. The administration, (especially the police) was in Christian hands.

All of these brilliant caliphs were hardly Muslims, and if they externally practiced the religion of which they were leaders, their spirit was elsewhere. They sought out the learning of India, old Persia and Greece. From time to time, the pietists appeared, and the caliph of the moment sacrificed his unfaithful friends or free thinkers. Then the breath of independence took hold again and he called back his scholars and his companions of pleasure.

The fables of the One Thousand and One Nights have fixed the features of this civilization, a curious mixture of official rigor and concealed laxity, where the serious arts, like those of the joyful life, flourished, thanks to the protection of misguided rulers of a fanatic religion.

The Syrian Christian doctors, continuers of the last Greek schools, well versed in philosophy, mathematics, medicine and astronomy were then employed by the caliphs to translate into Arabic the encyclopedia of Aristotle, Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy – the entire body of Greek science, but also Syriac, and undoubtedly also Indian.

A few more active minds were beginning to speculate on the eternal mysteries, with Al-Kindi in the lead. They were called filsuf; today they say falsafa; and afterwards, this exotic word was taken up within Islam but with a negative connotation. But rationalism prospered there: a sort of philosophical society, “Brethren of Purity” began to publish a philosophical encyclopedia; Al Fârâbî and Avicenna emerged; chemistry continued its underground work.

Muslim Spain took up these studies after the East; the Jews bring an active component of the collaboration there. Men like Avempace, Abubacer, Averroes elevated philosophical thought in the twelfth century to new heights.

This great ensemble which is called “Arabic” is called so only because what it wrote was in Arabic – and again, it also passed through a powerful Syriac corpus, largely destroyed, deliberately, in order to erase the traces of any existence of this Eastern Christianity. In fact, this “Arab science” was above all Greco-Sassanid. And a deep Christian leaven was its ferment.

The Awakening Of Europe

Science should have reached the West through Byzantium. But on the one hand, the treasures that they did not read, the Byzantines did not deign to share, and on the other hand, between the Latin world and the Byzantine world, religious discussions had created a deep antipathy, reinforced by the crusade of 1204. What Europe could not get from the libraries of Constantinople, where the originals were located, she sought out in the often-mediocre translations of a language which did not lend itself to rendering Greek thought, with all its abstraction and its subtleties.

It was through the Syriac and Arabic translations of books on Greek science and philosophy that Europe received the leaven of ancient tradition, necessary for the blossoming of its genius. For Greek science to reach Europe, it had to pass through Syria, Baghdad, Cordoba and Toledo. A poorly translated Greek science was sought out in Spain.

By the time Averroès died in Morocco, lonely and abandoned, Europe was on the rise. But it was predominantly Latin in its culture, and it had no Hellenists. We would have to wait another three hundred years for a Lefèvre d´Etaples, or a Budé.

From 1130 to 1150, an active college of translators, established in Toledo under the patronage of Archbishop Raymond, translated the most important works of this “Greco-Sassanid science in the Arabic language” into Latin. From the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Arab Aristotle entered the University of Paris. He had earlier entered the orbis litterarum through Boethius, but Boethius was not able to translate anything more than the Organon.

From around 1275, two shifts appeared. The first saw the Muslim countries enter into a state of the steepest decline. The second saw Western Europe resolutely take the path of the scientific search for truth. By the time Averroes became famous in the Latin schools, he was entirely forgotten by his co-religionists.

After the year 1200, there was no longer a single renowned philosopher within Islam. From 1200, philosophy and science were abolished in Muslim countries: philosophical manuscripts were destroyed (they burned the books of Averroes). Astronomy alone was tolerated to determine the direction of prayer.

Then the Turks took hegemony of Islam and manifested a complete lack of philosophical and scientific spirit. Apart from a few rare exceptions, like Ibn-Khaldun, Islam no longer had a broad mind. It killed off science and philosophy in its midst. It also killed a lot of men, women, children; and when it didn’t kill them, it oppressed them.

Among all the philosophers and scholars, only one was Arab: Al-Kindi. All the others were Persians, Transoxians – people from Bokhara and Samarkand (in other words from Central Asia), and Spaniards – from Cordoba, Seville. They used Arabic because it was the language of the dominant who had imposed themselves. In the 14th and 15th centuries, historians or historiographers of Islam were compilers and translators of encyclopedists – they did not innovate. But this corpus would reach nascent orientalist science, through Antoine Galland, then stationed in Constantinople. And, above all, thanks to the compilation work of Barthelemy d´Herbelot, the author of the Bibliothèque orientale.

Giving Arabia credit for science and philosophy is like giving credit for Latin Christian literature, the Scholastics, the Renaissance, the science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to Rome, because it is written in Latin.

Arab Science Or Muslim Science?

This science was not Arab. But was it Muslim? No, because this movement was the joint work of Persians, Christians, Jews, Harannians, (inhabitants of Harran), Ismailis and Muslims (who inwardly revolted against their own religion). This great movement received nothing but curses from Orthodox Muslims: Mamun was damned by theologians (the misfortunes which afflicted his reign were regarded as punishments for his tolerance of doctrines foreign to Islam). It was not uncommon for those who cultivated these studies to be called sendiks or zendiks – they were beaten in the streets, their houses burned down, and often the authorities put them to death.

Islam had always persecuted science and philosophy. Then it ended up suffocating both.

We must therefore distinguish three periods. The first, from the Hegira to the 7th century, is a period of conquest and crimes. But also barely concealed disbelief. The first Arabs, who joined the movement hardly believed in the Prophet’s mission.

Second, from the 7th to the 12th century, Islam, undermined by sects and tempered by a species of Protestantism (mutazilism) was less organized and much less fanatic than it was in the second age yet to come, and the work of the mind succeeded in maintaining itself.

Third came the absolute reign of dogma, without any possible separation of the spiritual and the temporal.

In the first half of the Middle Ages (the second period), Islam supported philosophy because it could not prevent it, for the it was without cohesion, and thus poorly equipped for terror. The policing was in Christian hands and was mainly engaged in pursuing Alid intrigues.

When Islam gained truly believing masses, it stifled everything. But at the same time, it destroyed the salt of the earth and the leaven which makes the dough rise. It turned conquered countries into regions that were closed to the rational cultivation of the mind. For Islam, research was pointless, frivolous, godless; the science of nature was an offense against God; historical science applying to times before Islam might revive old errors – and applying science to Islam might lay bare the extent of its devastation and its power of destruction and desolation.

Anyone who yet maintains a little lucidity today cannot fail to see the current inferiority of Muslim countries: the decadence of governed states, the intellectual poverty of those who derive their culture and education from this religion alone, and the boundless contempt. for other religions, which then authorizes all persecutions, exactions and the worst crimes of our times. And then there is the treatment inflicted on women. Believing that God gives fortune and power to whomever he sees fit, Islam has the deepest contempt for education, for science, and for everything that makes up the European spirit.

Conclusion

To all appearances, the Muslim world has entered a sort of fourth period. On the one hand, it has a mass of believers who have never questioned their doctrine, and who more often than not know nothing about the Koran which is not translated into their language. On the other hand, it has an army of fanatics. An army, and not just a few intellectuals – determined to do battle with a Europe that for several centuries held the destiny of the world in its hands. But which no longer holds them.

Islam intends to establish the kingdom of Allah on earth, which involves converting all peoples, and bringing the whole world under its own Law, the law of submission and oppression.

Conversion to Islam removes all religious diversity in the world. But not only that – It eliminates ethnic diversity: the Berber, the Sudanese, the Circassian, the Afghan, the Malay, the Egyptian, the Nubian who have become Muslims are that no longer. They are Muslims. Persia alone was an exception. French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Swabian, Croatian who have become Muslims will no longer be all those. They will only be Muslims.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

(The original article in French was translated by N. Dass)


The featured image shows an imaginary debate between Averroes and Porphyry, from Monfredo de Monte Imperiali’s Liber de herbis, 14th century.