Monday, December 31, 2012

An Enduring Love by Farah Pahlavi

When I was in my first year of college, my roommate was from Iran. This was the year that the Iranian revolutionaries, under the direction of Khomeini, stormed the U.S. Embasssy and took our diplomats hostage for over 400 days. So, I found Farah Pahlavi's book interesting on a semi-personal level.

By most measures, Iran under the Shah was slowly working its way into the 20th century, leaving behind its tribal origins and building modern infrastructure, schools, and hospitals, and liberalizing its political structure gradually.

"(In 1925) The country was in the hands of tribal chiefs and large landowners, and the only law was the law of the strongest. The main resources had been handed over to foreigners: the British operated our oil; our army, or waht was left of it, took orders from Russian officers in the north and British officers in the south; Belgians ran our customs services, the Swedes our police, and so on...A quarter of a century later, the Iran I knew had schools, universities and hospitals; if the roads wer not all paved yet, they did at least exist; finally, the Trans-Iranian Railway linked the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. There was certainly a lot yet to be built, but for my parents' generation, who could see how much had been achieved, Reza Shah had given his country what Mustafa Kemal Attaturk had given Turkey: a bloodless industrial and cultural revolution."

Farah grew up somewhat privileged in a politically-connected family whose power derived somewhat from their descent from the Prophet Mohammed, though her father passed away when she was quite young. Of her father's illness, she writes:

"I was told Father had gone to Europe for treatment. It was a lie. He had died."

A cultural thing? It seems very strange to me that they would continue the fiction for several years.

When she was invited to attend a communist rally in Paris as a student there, she could not understand why all Iranians did not venerate the Shah, as her family did. It occurs to me that the royalists in Iran and elsewhere were, of course, strongly anti-communist - for their own preservation - and that the roots of the West's support of strong authoritarians in the Middle East most likely dates back to the Cold War, in a "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" sort of way. As long as the Assads, Hussein and Pahlavis opposed the Soviet threat, our governments did their best to keep them in power, even if it meant ignoring the need for democratic reforms and the human rights violations taking place there.

The Shah's previous wife had been unable to bear children, so obviously Farah was selected in hopes she'd be more fruitful, and she did, indeed, bear him four children, including a male heir. However, as a well-educated, somewhat modern, woman (she studied in Paris after finishing high school), she was probably responsible for many of the improvements that came to pass for the general population of Iran under his rule, especially in the area of women's rights.

"I inspected, I opened buildings and institutes, but while doing so, I watched, I listened and I learned. At the same time I received a lot of correspondence. These letters were extremely affecting; the often awkwardly expressed accounts of tragic situations enabled me to learn about the problems of the moment. In the farthest provinces people were still suffering great poverty, infant mortality was high, schools were few and far between, children lacked hygiene and were weakened by malnutrition."

To counter these problems, in 1962, the Shah announced his White Revolution, which included six great reforms:
  • Agrarian reform - those with extensive land holdings were required to sell certain portions of their property to the government, which parceled it out to the peasants. Governmental land registrars were also put into effect, replacing the role of the Islamic clergy - which cut off a major source of their income. (This obviously had repercussions later on because of the hostility of the imams. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Shah's father had implemented civil law to replace sharia law, also reducing the authority and income of the clergy.)
  • Privatizing some state enterprises.
  • Nationalization of forests and pasture lands.
  • Reserving twenty percent of the shares in Iranian companies for workers and managers.
  • Giving women the right to vote and become candidates for election.
  • Creating a Literacy Corps, responsible for bringing literacy to remote areas. In the 1960s, the illiteracy rate in Iran was at 70 percent. Over the next twenty years, the problem was vanquished, and early successes with this program were responsible for the establishment of a national Public Health Corps and a Development Corps which taught modern farming methods.
Regarding western attacks on the pace of democratic reforms, the shah,

"...believed that Iran's economic awakening was still to fragile to survive a complete liberalization of society, a Western-style liberalization. 'The country still needs a decade of stability to get to that stage,' he would say, 'but I want my son to reign in a different way from me.' He had hoped to pass on to Reza a state that was ready for democracy."


"The most violent opponents of the monarchy were precisely these young people who had received state scholarships to study in the United States or Europe...within and without the country, the clandestine Communist Party and the extreme left continued recruiting young idealists or fanatics who wanted to overthrow the regime and install a popular dictatorship on the Soviet or Chinese model."

Sound familiar?

When the revolution heated up:

" became clear that 'liberals' and leftists, many of whom had nothing in common with the mullahs, adhered to their movement for access to the wider population. And so religion was shamelessly used as a tool to stir up the people, in particular by the communists, who had the banning of religious practice as one of their aims if they came to power. Each component of this heterogeneous revolutionary coalition...had an opportunistic interest in allying themselves with the others, but it was obvious that if one day they took control of the country, none of them would stop until they had eliminated their former associates - which is exactly what happened."

If, like me, you grew up during the 70s, and never really got the word from our negligent mainstream media about what really went on in the middle east, this book should prove interesting. Couple it with Queen Noor's book, and you'll begin to see some patterns.

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