Mourning Alireza Pahlavi, and Iran

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 7, 2011

Alireza Pahlavi, the youngest son of the last Shah of Iran, killed himself this week. The loss of one life by suicide is disheartening enough, but as Karim Sadjadpour points out, the young Pahlavi’s death is consequential from a nationalist perspective:

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.

  • Colin

    Maybe others have brought this up–I don’t know–but I cannot help but suspect that a chief part of what’s wrong with modern Iranian politics stem from that country’s very name, ‘Iran’ rather than ‘Persia’. Iran is a name bound to have a dark cloud around it, since it was conjured at a time when the deposed Shah’s father was running the show in the 1930s and got on well with Hitler, the rename a means of identifying with fellow “aryans” in Central Europe. And this wayward nation-state has retained brutal characteristics of National Socialism to this day, regardless of being headed by a monarch or a cleric.

    So, if there’s a longing for what Iran used to be, why shouldn’t there be a movement afoot to revive the name, Persia? Even how the old name sounds when spoken aloud is more inviting than ‘Iran’. Persia connotes a rich history and culture, whereas Iran brings to mind beatings and militancy. I can imagine a romantic getaway to Persia; I can’t imagine the same with a place named, ‘Iran’.

    • Anonymous

      Iranians have been referring to “Iran” long before the country changed from “Persia.” And the change was made by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the second to last Shah of Iran before the revolution, and the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty.

      • Colin

        Thanks for the clarification. I wasn’t aware of the usage of ‘Iran’ prior to its official adoption.

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