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.
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.