The recent nationwide uprising in Iran is a testament to the people’s desire for fundamental change and the establishment of a secular, democratic, republic. So, in these circumstances, to champion the son of the deposed and widely hated Shah, Reza Pahlavi, as a “symbol of hope” is to indulge in a farcical distortion of history and morality.
A recent attempt to romanticize the Pahlavi name, tracing it back to the 1st century(!), is nothing short of comical. The truth is that Reza Pahlavi’s grandfather, born as Reza Savadkouhi, was an illiterate villager who later shamelessly seized thousands of acres of land as an authoritarian and a bully. The Pahlavi regimes were not symbols of modernization and progress but were founded on coups, killings, torture, media suppression, and a glaring lack of popular legitimacy.
Reza Khan, the self-imposed Shah, rose to power through a British-backed coup, marching and occupying Tehran in 1921. His brutal actions as a member of the Russian Cossack Brigade during the 1906 Constitution Revolution, killing democracy activists, foreshadowed his oppressive rule. Under his reign, he forcefully confiscated vast estates, amassing immense wealth for his family while undermining democratic movements in Iran. By the time he was deposed, he is believed to have forcibly seized 44,000 land titles from their owners.
The Pahlavis’ alliance with Hitler’s Nazi Germany during World War II further exposes their questionable judgment and alignment with oppressive forces. As Hitler was killing Jews in the 1930s, Reza Khan proudly idolized him in Iran. The joint occupation of Iran by Britain and the Soviets in 1941, fearing the Shah’s cooperation with Hitler, led to his abdication and the transfer of power to his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Mohammad Reza’s own memoirs paint a grim picture of his father’s violent temperament, describing him as “one of the most frightening men I’ve ever known.”
The Shah’s coup against the democratically-elected prime minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, with the covert assistance of the U.S. and the U.K. in “Operation Ajax,” resulted in a subsequent oppressive rule with the establishment of the SAVAK secret police. By the end of his rule, the Shah had established a one-party system (Rastakhiz – Resurgent) and brutally suppressed free expression and the media.
The Shah himself admitted to suppression and corruption in a final televised address shortly before the revolution on November 5, 1978: “You, the people of Iran, have risen up against oppression and corruption. … I will pledge to never repeat the mistakes, unlawfulness, oppression, and corruption of the past, and that the mistakes of the past will be compensated in all aspects.”
He was also inherently and vehemently misogynistic. In an interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in October 1973, he said: “What do these feminists want? … You’ve never produced a Michelangelo or a Bach. You’ve never even produced a great cook. And don’t talk of opportunities. Are you joking? Have you lacked the opportunity to give history a great cook? You have produced nothing great, nothing! Tell me, how many women capable of governing have you met in the course of interviews such as this?”
The true heir to the Pahlavi dictatorship is Khomeini and his mullahs. The Pahlavis’ oppressive rule left space for the mullahs to flourish socially and politically since the 1930s. The Pahlavi dictatorships imprisoned, tortured and killed democracy activists, intellectuals, authors, musicians, and women. This is while they deliberately allowed the mullahs to spread fundamentalist ideology. Under the Shah, the mullahs received funding and freedom to build thousands of new mosques and shrines to recruit more fundamentalists and soldiers who were defrauded and driven into poverty by the Shah’s policies. This is how Khomeini was enabled to steal the people’s anti-monarchic revolution.
Today, the Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi boasts about his “direct contacts” with the mullahs’ Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Even when the United States designated the IRGC a terrorist entity, and while the IRGC plays a central role in suppressing protesters on the streets, Reza Pahlavi has routinely supported its forces. In December 2018, he told a think tank in Washington: “Soldiers and militiamen are the target audience of some of my messages… They have a place in the future, and they should. They must have a place. I say this based on my direct contacts with representatives of Iran’s military and paramilitary forces that happen on a daily basis. These are increasing every day.”
Indeed, his misguided statements of support for the regime’s IRGC have been met with universal derision and censure, exposing his ineptitude and lack of acumen in understanding the pulse of the Iranian populace.
Instead of presenting Reza Pahlavi as a “viable alternative,” those nostalgic for the deposed monarchy should apologize for depriving Iranians of democracy for half a century and facilitating Khomeini’s ascent to power. It’s time to acknowledge the historical missteps and seek genuine solutions rather than clinging to a romanticized past that only perpetuates the cycle of oppression.
Monarchy in Iran is outdated, hated, and historically rejected by the Iranian people through a massive revolution. This can be seen today during massive uprisings when university students and others chant the popular slogan “No to the oppressor, be it the Shah or the Mullah.”