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The shah and the people
Part 2: A tentative sketch of the Shah's personality
Part One

Afshin Afshari
February 14, 2005

In interpersonal relationships, individuals repeat past patterns of interaction in the present, and in the process many regressive forces come into play. Leaders are ideal outlets for these transference reactions. (M. K. de Vries [1])

In Part One of this series, the main life events of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the late Shah of Iran, were briefly recounted. Here, we will attempt to sketch a psychological profile. In this context, the use of certain psycho-analytical terminology and concepts seems appropriate. Naturally, the characterizations set forth herein bear no clinical significance and should therefore be taken, simply, as indicative of one possible paradigm for understanding this complex multi-facetted personality.


It can be safely assumed that Mohammad Reza's mother, Taj-ol-Moluk, strongly resented Reza Shah's decision, in 1922, to get married again. Moreover, it is likely, as hinted by Zonis [2], that manipulation of the young boy (attempting to turn him against his father) was seen by his mother as the ideal instrument of her revenge from her husband.

During the first six years of his life, Mohammad Reza was very close to his motherand although she may not have provided him with all the love he needed, she, nonetheless, became the main object of psychological identification in the early days of the child's life. Despite their abrupt -- and certainly traumatic -- separation in 1925 (when Reza Shah decided that Crown Prince should live in an entirely masculine environment, separating him from his mother and sisters and sending him to another palace), she remained, through adulthood, an essential pillar of Mohammad Reza's psychic balance. In his adult life, he used to dine with her several times a week. Perhaps as an unconscious reaction to the overwhelming psychological influence wielded by his mother during those early days, he seldom mentions her in his books (in sharp contrast with his father) and always showed mixed feelings toward women in general:

Nobody can influence me, nobody at all. And a woman still less... All I can say is that women, when they are in power, are much harsher than men. Much more cruel. Much more bloodthirsty. I'm quoting facts, not opinions. You're heartless when you're rulers ... You're schemers, you're evil. Every one of you. [3]

HIM [His Imperial Majesty] remarked that every woman is flawed in some way, however trivial. (Alam [4], Entry dated 16 June 1975)

Notwithstanding his own -- and his father's -- resentment of this aspect of his personality, it can be argued that his feminine identification defined the basis of Mohammad Reza Shah's innermost (hidden) self. He would often regress to a passive and dependent state in the face of danger. Certainly, the most visible instances of such regressions are his flight to Italy in 1952 in the height of the Mossadegh crisis [5] and his flight to Egypt during the 1979 revolution. But anecdotal evidence for similar behavior during periods of crisis abound. Shawcross [6], for instance, reveals that, in the days preceding his final departure from Iran, the Shah received Admiral Habib Olahi and several other officers who had come to ask for his authorization to act. The Admiral was struck by his ambiguous and aloof attitude:

He seemed to refuse to accept responsibility for any initiative, even when he would be outside the country... If it worked, he would come back. Otherwise, we would be judged and executed.

Fereydoun Hooveyda [7] has a congruent assessment:

Everyone now agrees that during the last eight months of his reign the Shah was not functioning. He listened to visitors but did not hear them. He had long bouts of silence and stopped issuing instructions.

No doubt Mohammad Reza's formidable and perceptive father (who, said the son, "had an almost devastating ability to assess human nature" [8]) had come to recognize and loathe this aspect of his son's personality.

The very last message I received from him in his exile was on a phonograph record. "My son," he said to me, "fear nothing." [8] 


As mentioned in the previous article, the Shah started having visions soon after being separated from his mother. Within eighteen months of that traumatic event, he contracted a number of life-threatening illnesses (typhoid fever, whooping cough, diphtheria, malaria). And it is not surprising that he came to the belief that his survival could only be a result of divine intervention:

In my dream, Ali [the son-in-law of the Prophet] ... held a bowl containing a liquid. He told me to drink which I did. The next day, the crisis of my fever was over, and I was on the road to rapid recovery. [8]

He also describes a vision he had the following year when falling from his horse:

When I regained consciousness, the members of the party were expressing astonishment that I had not even a scratch. I told them that as I fell, I had clearly seen one of our saints, named Abbas, and that I had felt him holding me and preventing me from crushing my head against the rock. [8]

And the following year, walking near the palace with his guardian:

I clearly saw before me a man with a halo around his head... As we passed one another, I knew him at once. He was the Imam or descendant of Mohammad [the Prophet] who, according to our faith, disappeared but is expected to come again to save the world. [8]

Later, in his famous interview with Oriana Fallaci [3], he describes his mystical interaction with God within the context of the loneliness imposed by his function:

A king who doesn't need to account to anyone for what he says and does is unavoidably doomed to loneliness. However, I am not entirely alone, because a force others can't perceive accompanies me. My mystical force. Moreover, I receive messages. I have lived with God beside me since I was 5 years old. Since, that is, God sent me those visions... You don't believe in God and you don't believe in me. Lots of people don't. Even my father didn't believe me. He never did and laughed about it.

Undoubtedly, he genuinely believed that he benefited from divine protection not only during childhood but throughout his entire life:

I have learned by experience that a tragic end awaits anyone who dares cross swords with me; Nasser is no more, John and Robert Kennedy died at the hands of assassins, their brother Edward has been disgraced, Khrushchev was toppled, the list is endless. (Alam [4], Entry dated 16 February 1971)

This belief was probably shattered when he discovered that he was terminally ill [9].

One possible interpretation of this perceived special link to God is that he was thus expressing his desperate need for protection by a heavenly parent where his father had failed him. Indeed it is not hard to see how the austere Reza Shah, despite his undeniable love for his son, by separating him from his mother (at the age of six when he sent him to a different palace, and then again at the age of twelve when he sent him to Switzerland), may have come to represent a threat for the psychic balance of the traumatized child.

As for the visions, enacting and enabling his direct connection to God, they may be interpreted as a symptom of a "borderline" personality disorder (see, for instance, Kohut [10]), although, within the mystically oriented Iranian society, they are usually considered much more benign, even desirable for a ruler (see for instance an exposition of the concept of King-Priest in my previous article entitled "The King-Priest").

Ambivalent Personality

At the age of six, Mohammad Reza was separated from his mother. Whether his father did this to punish Taj-ol-Moluk or to prepare his son for his future responsibilities by giving him a "manly education" [8] is irrelevant here. We can guess that in order to adjust to his new environment, Mohammad Reza had to set up an appropriate facade of virility, ruthlessness and courage. The resulting conflict between his primary innermost feminine identification and this new "persona" [11] would become the hallmark of his vacillating personality as an adult.

An insight into this tortured existence is provided by A. Alikhani (Introduction to Alam's Diaries [4]):

In the wilderness years of his youth, the Shah once asked friends at a party what profession each of them wished they could pursue. The replies where ribald and amusing until it came to the Shah's turn. Had he not been a king, he said, he would have liked to be public servant, earning enough money to indulge his passion for sports. He then went on to make a significant remark, one that runs true to form: he would prefer a job that spared him form the burden of decision-making.

Sullivan, the last US ambassador to Iran, recounts another poignant story. Soon after arriving in Iran, he was invited to view joint US-Iranian air force maneuvers in a remote air base. There, he joined the Shah in an air-conditioned trailer, waiting for the show to begin. Once inside the trailer, the Shah ...

... unhitched his tunic, relaxed, and talked in his usual easy, gracious way about a number of things. Eventually there was a knock on the door, and an adjutant indicated that the airplanes were approaching and the air show was ready to begin. With a sign, the Shah straightened his tunic, stood up, and performed a small act that embedded itself in my memory. From the gracious, easy, smiling host with whom I had been talking, he transformed himself suddenly to a steely, ramrod straight autocrat. This involved not only adjusting his uniform and donning dark glasses but also throwing out his chest, raising his chin, and fixing his lip in a grim line. When he had achieved this change to his own satisfaction, he thrust open the door of the trailer and stalked out across the few remaining steps to the reviewing stand. [12]

Fereydoun Hoveyda [7] also detected a "deeply split" character, more precisely...

... a certain rigidity in his decision-making, a separation from reality, and an insensitivity to human factors... More and more he gave the impression of living in a world of his own imagining. Schizophrenia? Delusions of grandeur? Creeping megalomania?

In view of establishing and affirming this "manly" persona, he liked to show his physical courage. In particular, he was fond of speeding -- in plane, car, and boat. But according to his second wife, Soraya, through flying and driving sports cars, he would "portray himself as more brave and reckless than actually was true." [13]


Grandiosity [14] is a common constituent of a narcissistic personality. There are numerous instances of the Shah's grandiosity:

Why make me the owner of some trifling plot of land? The whole nation is mine without me having to stake some petty private claim. Everything is at the disposal of a ruler of strength. (Alam [4], Entry of 10 July 1972: His Imperial Majesty about the property documents of the Kish island)

To be first in the Middle East is not enough. We must raise ourselves to the level of a great world power. (Alam [4], Entry of 22 March 1974)

The Shah had an obsessive desire to be ranked amongst the immortals of Iranian society; above every statesman or hero stretching back into the mists of time. Every achievement had to be credited to him alone... Sycophancy became the order of the day. (Alikhani, in his introduction to Alam [4]).

Now the Shah seems rather carried away by his own dreams. He lives in the "grand designs" which he projects onto reality... He even transforms the realities of the past for his grand design. [7]

Almost to the end, he never stopped proclaiming that he would transform Iran into one of the "five industrial powers" of the world by the end of the century [7]. " Within 10 years, Iran was to reach the level of Germany, and within 25 years she would exceed all European countries [15]. In 1975, he instituted the unique party system ("Rastakhiz", Renewal in Persian). As for those who did not join the "Great Civilization", "we will take them by the tail and throw them out like rats." In 1976 (50th anniversary of the Pahlavi dynasty), he modified the traditional Islamic calendar in order to base its origin on the reign of Cyrus the Great.

Women and love

His first wife, Princess Fawzia of Egypt was chosen for him by his father without ever consulting him. He divorced in 1948, the year of his personal consolidation (in which flying played a major role [16]). Since Fawzia did not give him a male child, the Shah was pressured by the court into remarrying. Her sister Shams found Soraya Bakhtiar in Germany. Soraya recounts in her memories how she was brought to the Queen Mother as soon as she arrived in Tehran. After a while, the Shah entered the room wearing "his favorite uniform of the Iranian Air Force" (even though the air force was quasi inexistent at the time). Later, he divorced Soraya to marry Farah Diba.

After his first divorce, the Shah started entertaining young women in private apartments in Tehran as witnessed by Alam [4] and, at one point in 1972, the so-called "Gilda" affair came close to causing a major embarrassment [6]. His conspicuous attraction to young women is said to have endured even in exile, despite his advanced cancer at the time [17]. The Shah preferred the European type with blond hair and blue eyes. It seems that the sexual act in itself did not interest him (he was a rather "timid lover" [21]) as much as the company. One of Madame Claude's girls, named "Ange", pleased him to such a degree that he kept her in Iran for 6 months. He struck her as an "extraordinarily sad man". Most girls found him to be a sad man. During their first encounter, Empress Farah herself was impressed by the Shah's "sad eyes" [18].

The Shah seems never to have established a loving relationship with any of the women in his life:

He's entitled to his privacy, though he soon gets bored of being on his own. Likewise, even when he finds a companion, however attractive she may be, he sooner or later tires of her; work alone commands his absolute devotion ... (Alam [4], Entry of 9 September 1973)

Alam [4] also states that although he was very fond of receiving "billets doux" [sweet notes] from his lovers, he never replied to any of them.

Lack of Emotions

People where usually struck by the Shah's formal, even rigid, attitude. It is argued here that he was generally void of emotions, empathy and love (in line with the hypothesized narcissistic personality):

Princess Shams described how, as a small girl, she had gone to her father, full of rage, declaring that she wished she were dead. The old man had tears in his eyes. 'Why should you want to die?' he asked her. 'I would much rather die myself than see you so upset.' HIM, who has inherited none of his father's emotionalism, was clearly put out by this story, but I came to his rescue by declaring that no modern leader can afford to be so easily moved. (Alam [4], Entry of 23 June 1973)

In April 7th 1976, Alam [4] worries about the Shah's lack of contact with his son [19], the Crown Prince:

In Kish, for example, they spent less than half an hour alone together during the entire twelve days... they might occasionally lunch or dine alone, so that the boy can benefit from his father's wisdom and experience. [20]

Even toward Alam, who was completely and blindly devoted to him, he rarely shows a sincere sign of affection:

Passed on several personal letters to HIM. He likes such things to be preserved as souvenirs... I told him that I entrust them all to Mr. X who looks after them at his home and who has my absolute confidence. He knows that if I die suddenly or am killed, he should destroy all the letters. 'No need for that', said HIM. 'He can simply return them to me.' I took note of his indifference to the thought of my death, but said nothing. (Alam [4], Entry of 16 June 1969)

Only with his mother and twin sister Ashraf, does he seem to have entertained emotionally charged love/hate relationships.

HIM complained to me how irrational his mother's requests have become, but I reminded him it's the duty of all of us to do what we can do for her. 'A mother', I said, 'is the most absolute ruler of all. She must be obeyed however illogical her orders.' 'Quite so', HIM replied, 'I wouldn't dream of disagreeing.' (Alam [4], Entry of 26 July 1975)

That twin sister of mine has been a lifelong thorn in the flesh. She is vain and she is greedy. (Alam [4], Entry of 28 December 1976)

Ashraf, Perron and Alam

In adulthood, the Shah developed and maintained strong bonds with three people: Perron, Ashraf, and Alam.

Perron, the son of the handyman of Le Rosey school in Switzerland, was the Shah's most mysterious intimate friend. According to de Villiers [21], he ...

... was small and skinny... many of the students razzed him, his small size encouraging their bullying instincts. One day, Mohammad saw a student kick over the wheelbarrow full of compost Perron was pushing. He gave the culprit a beating and within a few days, the handyman's son and the son of the Shah of Persia had become intimate friends.

Perron was probably the Shah's closest adviser during his stay at the court. There have been many rumors, powerfully relayed after the revolution, speculating on the nature of their relation. The friendship lasted for more than twenty years. Eventually, the Americans managed to convince the Shah that he was a source of rumors and should return to Switzerland. He left Iran in 1953. The Shah himself never mentions Perron in his books.

It appears unambiguously from the study of his life that the Shah was strongly bonded to his twin sister Ashraf. In Ashraf's words:

It was this twinship and this relationship with my brother that would nourish and sustain me throughout my childhood ... No matter how I would reach out in the years to come - sometimes even desperately - to find an identity and a purpose of my own, I would remain inextricably tied to my brother. [22]

In 1978, Ashraf had become a highly unpopular figure [23] and the Shah had to send her to the USA. He is very discreet in his memories about his feelings toward Ashraf.

Alam was a childhood friend of the Shah. He was emotionally attached to the Shah:

HMQ [Her Majesty the Queen] considers me, with reason, to be very close to HIM, which annoys her. (Alam [4], Entry of 6 October 1969)

These diaries come to an end. There is nothing left for me to write now that I'm cut from my meetings with HIM ... (Alam [4], Entry of 6 August 1977)

He was a stable and devoted source of strength for the Shah:

Of the same age and almost identical build, the Shah and Alam had much in common... Both possessed physical courage, but it was Alam's ability to assume responsibility at critical moments, added to his loyalty, that most impressed the Shah. (Alikhani, in his introduction to Alam [4])

Shortly after the 1963 riots, he became minister of court and remained close to the Shah until his departure (due to sickness) in 1977. He died of Leukemia on April 13, 1978.

The Shah's "psychic twins" were essential to his balance. Zonis [2] suggests that, consistent with the hypothesized borderline condition, he experienced "narcissistic transferences" [24] with them. As a matter of fact, it does not seem far-fetched to assume the existence of "idealizing transferences" [25] between the Shah and his psychic twins: He could maintain an internal sense of cohesion by drawing strength from them. In 1979 however, when he most needed them, he was alone.

To be continued: Part Three The People
Part One


[1] Manfred Kets de Vries (1989), "Prisoners of Leadership", John Wiley & Sons.

[2] Marvin Zonis (1991), "Majestic Failure", The University of Chicago Press.

[3] Oriana Fallaci (1973), "The Mystically Divine Shah of Iran" (interview), Chicago Tribune, December 30, 1973. It is remarkable that despite many potentially embarrassing statements, the Shah did not try to oppose the publication of this interview. Indeed, the journalists who have interviewed him concur on the fact that, unlike most dictators and even many democratic public figures (Kissinger would be a good example), the Shah, as a rule, did not require interviewers to submit their questions beforehand; nor did he demand after-the-fact modifications.

[4] Assadollah Alam (1991), "The Shah and I", St. Martin's Press.

[5] General Schwarzkopf who met the Shah in Rome found him in a state of "deep depression". He told the General: "Everything is finished. Your coming is a welcome expression of friendship but I have no illusions. I'm a beaten man."

[6] William Shawcross (1988): "The Shah's Last Ride", Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.

[7] Fereydoun Hoveyda (1979): "The Fall of the Shah", Wyndham Books.

[8] Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1961), "Mission for My Country", McGraw-Hill.

[9] Since his entourage always instructed the doctors not to pronounce the word "cancer" in front of the Shah, historians still debate on when exactly he became aware of the extent and the gravity of his illness. The Queen Farah herself [18] seems unable to shed definite light on the issue.

[10] Heinz Kohut (1989), "The Analysis of the Self", International Universities Press.

[11] The "persona" can be understood as the role that one assumes or displays in public or society; one's public image or personality, as distinguished from the inner self.

[12] William H. Sullivan (1981), "Mission to Iran", Norton.

[13] Soraya's diaries published in Persian.

[14] Grandiosity consists in an inflated appraisal of one's worth, power, knowledge, importance, or identity. When extreme (as in a "borderline" narcissistic disorder), grandiosity may be of delusional proportions.

[15] None of these predictions was based on sound analysis and planning. In fact, already in 1975, the whole infrastructure of the country was clogged; in the ports, food was rotting and equipment was rusting. On the roads, trucks were abandoned because of a lack of drivers.

[16] Kohut [10] believes that flying fantasies are an indication of the aspirations of the narcissist's grandiose self, the carrier and instigator of his ambitions. The attachment of the Shah to flying and the air force was extreme according to all accounts. For instance, for his return to Iran from Rome in 1953, he put on his air Marshall's uniform (he had it sent expressly from Tehran), and took the controls of his Beechcraft [21].

[17] According to Shawcross [6], during the Shah's residence in Panama, one night, General Noriega picked him up at his villa and they disappeared -- making his entourage sick worrying that he had been kidnapped to be sent back to Iran. Finally, in desperation, the American ambassador was contacted, who, in turn, called the president of Panama who assured him that the Shah was simply "having some fun". The General later said that the Shah had spent the night with "a girl of a good family" whom he had recommended.

[18] Farah Pahlavi (1998), "An Enduring Love", Anchor.

[19] The Crown Prince later declared that, according to his calculations, the father and son had not spent more than two months together in his entire life.

[20] Kish was Shah's private island in the Persian Gulf. Millions of dollars were spent to transform the island into a winter station for the jet set, an oriental Monte Carlo. Even Madame Claude was commissioned to send her call-girls via Concorde [6].

[21] Gerard de Villiers (1976), "The Imperial Shah: An Informal Biography", Little & Brown.

[22] Ashraf Pahlavi (1980), "Faces in a mirror: Memoirs from Exile", Prentice-Hall.

[23] According to Shawcross [6], a CIA report dated 1976 mentions her "legendary reputation of corruption and seductress of young men." The same report mentions instances of "illegal" activities. In particular, a 1976 armed attack of her car in Juan-Les-Pins (from which she escaped unharmed) helped fuel rumors of her connections to the Mafia and the traffic of drugs.

[24] In psycho-analysis, "transference" is the process in which the patient comes to treat another person (the "self-object") as a symbolic representative of someone important in the past.

[25] Among narcissistic patients, two specific types of transference [24] are most commonly observed. The "mirroring transference" will occur when the self-object provides a strong sense of validation to the narcissist. This compensates for the fact that the narcissistically injured child failed to receive validation for what he or she was. The child thus concluded that there is something wrong with his or her feelings, resulting in a severe damage to the child's self-esteem. By reflecting back to the narcissist his or her accomplishments and grandeur the narcissist's self esteem and internal cohesion are maintained. The "idealizing transference" on the other hand involves the borrowing of strength from the self-object to maintain an internal sense of cohesion. By idealizing the self-object to whom the narcissist feels connected, the narcissist by association also uplifts himself or herself. It is helpful to conceptualize the idealizing narcissist as an infant who draws strength from the omnipotence of the caregiver. Thus, in the idealizing transference the self-object symbolizes omnipotence and this in turn makes the narcissist feel secure.

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