Argument

Persia’s Little Prince

You don't have to be an apologist for the Shah to mourn the early death of his youngest son.

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1973: The Shah of Iran (1919 - 1980) with his third wife Farah Diba and their children, Prince Reza, Prince Ali Reza and the two younger children, Princess Farahnaz and Princess Leila. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Iranians, it was once said, are afflicted by a unique strain of melancholy: Those who live in Iran dream of leaving, while those who were exiled dream of going back.

When 44-year-old Alireza Pahlavi, the youngest son of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, took his life on Tuesday, it was undeniably attributable in part to a demoralizing malady, chronic depression, which he may have inherited from his father. But it was also an undeniable aftershock of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, whose reverberations are still being felt today.

A country like Iran that has repeatedly been subjected to public heartbreak over the last few decades — most notably the loss of over 200,000 native sons in the ruinous eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — naturally confronts the self-inflicted death of a child of privilege with mixed feelings.

As is often the case, however, Alireza Pahlavi’s great privileges were coupled with equally profound misfortune. Until he was 12, he had experienced a fairy-tale childhood as a scion of one of the world’s richest and most powerful monarchs. By 13, he had abruptly fled his homeland and experienced the painful and public humiliation of his family’s legacy, as well as the death of his father from cancer.

Later, he would lose the person closest to him when his younger sister Leila, age 31, killed herself in a London hotel room in 2001.         

For those, like myself, who were born outside Iran or left at a very young age, the term “exiles” was never an appropriate fit. We were second-generation immigrants, and we took it for granted that we would adopt new cultures and languages. We had few if any memories of or claims over what had been lost, only romanticized stories from elders about the verdant Caspian Sea region (shomal), the majestic Alborz Mountains, and the luscious Persian lamb whose fat was miraculously concentrated in the tail — the original “junk in the trunk.”    

Alireza Pahlavi’s generation of uprooted Iranians — young adolescents at the time of the revolution — were often affected more profoundly than those who were too young to remember, or old enough to cope. Three decades later, many still struggle to find their bearings. They negotiate what Brazilians would refer to as saudade, a deep longing for something that is unattainable. Their lack of rootedness has often prevented them from forging stable emotional relationships and fulfilling their professional potential.

I sometimes wondered why Alireza, a serious student who had cut short his Ph.D. studies at Harvard in ancient Iranian studies, remained silent all these years. Although the Pahlavi family’s experience as exiles was no doubt softened by significant (though significantly exaggerated) wealth, it was made more difficult by the scorn of many of their exiled compatriots who held them partially if not entirely accountable for their collective plight.

Consumed with his own demons, Alireza perhaps concluded that he had been dealt a hand that he could not win. If he remained on the sidelines he would be excoriated by some for not speaking out. And if he became active and outspoken, others would excoriate him for having Ahmed Chalabi-like aspirations, as they have his older brother Reza.

So he chose to remain in his Boston home, surrounded by his books, with the shades always pulled down.    

As a student of history, Alireza was perhaps puzzled by the discipline’s relationship to his father. While Hafez al-Assad, the ruthless Syrian dictator who massacred some 20,000 civilians in the city of Hama in 1982, is most commonly remembered as a “shrewd tactician,” it has become impossible to maintain intellectual credibility while writing about the Pahlavi era without referring to the Shah as a “blood-soaked,” “imperialist puppet.”

(It is one of the brutal realities of power and statecraft that today Assad’s son Bashar, president of Syria, is feted by visiting U.S. politicians and analysts extolling his shrewdness and moderation, while Alireza’s obituary writers render him the forgotten son of a two-bit dictator.)         

Meanwhile, longtime inhabitants of the Islamic Republic have developed a more nuanced take on their recent past. Of course, Iranians acknowledge that the rampant corruption and political repression that was endemic in Pahlavi’s Iran sowed the seeds of its own demise.

Still, a former senior Islamic Republic Foreign Ministry official, an ambassador in Asia and Europe, once confided to me over dinner in Paris that as “naive” young revolutionaries, he and his friends had grossly underestimated how difficult it would be to govern Iran and satisfy its fickle population. “We didn’t appreciate at the time,” I was surprised to hear him say, “the enormous challenges the Shah had to deal with.”

Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent revolutionary activist and one of the key strategists of the reform movement, recently said that before the revolution, Iranians enjoyed all types of freedoms save for political freedom, which the revolution was supposed to rectify. After the revolution, not only did they not attain political freedom, but they lost other freedoms in the process.   

There is no doubt that in its 32 years, the Islamic Republic has made significant forward progress, most notably in rural development and female education (in part because after the revolution traditional families were more apt to send their children to newly gender-segregated schools). 

But those statistics are rendered meaningless by an observation evident to those who have spent long periods in today’s Islamic Republic: Iran’s younger generations are desperate to leave their homeland.

Even if they manage to leave, however, Iran — or perhaps the myth of an idealized Iran that never actually existed — rarely leaves them.  

Any culture that, like Iran, manages to sustain itself over several millennia, emerging whole from countless invasions, engenders powerful attachments among its claimants.

In a 2001 poll conducted by the World Values Survey, Iranians ranked No. 1 in the world when it came to nationalism, with 92 percent of Iranians claiming they are “very proud” of their nationality (for point of comparison, 72 percent of Americans and less than 50 percent of the British and French felt “very proud”).

It is precisely this national pride and sense of civilization inheritance that renders Iran’s current reality so distressing to many people.

Two-thousand, five hundred years ago there was a grand Persian Empire led by a magnanimous ruler, Cyrus the Great, who was thought to have authored the world’s first bill of human rights. Today there is a theocracy that makes headlines when its rulers sentence women to be stoned to death for adultery or question the veracity of the Holocaust. 

Some amateur observers of Iran have confused Alireza Pahlavi’s death as a loss lamented only by “a handful of monarchists living a gilded lifestyle in Los Angeles,” as the cliché goes. The reality is a bit more complex.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, spent several years in prison in the 1970s for revolting against the Shah and experienced such horrific torture that he has difficulty walking without pain today. He told me that he has been so overcome with sadness after the death of Alireza Pahlavi that he cannot sleep. Others who were staunch supporters of deposed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, including my own father, feel the same.

But why?

Perhaps his death represents nostalgia for a time in which Iran’s name wasn’t synonymous with terrorism and religious intolerance, a time in which Iranians could get visas to visit foreign countries and would not be fingerprinted upon entering them, a time when Iranian scholars were peppered with questions about Omar Khayyam and Ferdowsi, rather than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and enriched uranium.  

When historians look back at Iran a century from now, they may well conclude that the 1979 Islamic revolution and its aftermath were a painful but necessary step in the country’s political maturation. Whereas elsewhere in the Middle East radical political Islam is still romanticized, Iranians have learned the hard way the perils of joining mosque and state.     

This is of little consolation to those Iranians who live in the here and now, and long to be reconnected with the homeland they once knew. They have no aspirations to be gilded monarchists or imperialist lackeys or agents of the CIA. They are merely expressing their natural longing to reconnect once again with the ancient culture of the land in which they were born.

With his suicide, Alireza Pahlavi offered a sobering reminder that those hopes are, for the moment, a distant dream.  His final wish was that his ashes be scattered in the Caspian Sea.  

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