Serving His Majesty
A former prime minister speaks of the Pahlavi era
By Habib Ladjevardi
January 31, 2000
From the preface to Memoirs of Jafar Sharif-Emami, Prime Minister
of Iran (1960-1961 & 1978), the seventh volume from the Harvard
Iranian Oral History Project Series edited by Habib Ladjevardi (Ibex Publishers , 1999). To read excerpts
from the book in Persian click
As cabinet minister, president of the Senate, president of the Pahlavi
Foundation, president of the Iran Chamber of Industries and Mines and twice
prime minister during the reign of Mohammad-Reza Shah, Jafar Sharif-Emami
was a key player in major events and decisions of the time. For some years,
he was also the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Iran, giving him additional
informal influence among Iran's political elite. Sharif-Emami was born
in Tehran on September 8, 1910. His father, Haj Mohammad-Hossein, with
the title of Nezam al-Eslam, was a cleric who worked in the offices of
Seyyed Mohammad Emami, the Imam Jomeh of Tehran. Sharif-Emami received
his primary education at the Sharaf School in Tehran. He then pursued his
high school education in the technical field, attending Tehran's German
Upon graduation from high school, the Ministry of Roads sent him with
thirty other young men to Germany. There, Sharif-Emami studied for eighteen
months and returned to Iran in 1930, where he was employed as an assistant
foreman in the installation department of the State Railroad Organization
Three and one-half years after joining the State Railroad Organization
(thanks to his own perseverance), the Ministry of Roads sent him to Sweden
for further technical studies. Upon returning to Iran in 1939, Sharif-Emami
resumed work with his former employer. He quickly moved up the organization,
and was already a department head in Tehran in August 1941 when British
and Soviet forces invaded Iran. During his years at the State Railroad
Organization, Sharif-Emami had a number of opportunities to meet and observe
Reza Shah. As a result he developed much respect for the founder of the
Pahlavi dynasty. In his view, during the reign of Reza Shah: responsibilities
were treated extremely seriously. Everyone had to be totally attentive
and very conscientious while carrying out their duties. His Majesty, himself,
personally monitored every thing. Nothing but one's own effort could lead
to promotion. There was no place for intervention or personal connection.
Sharif-Emami's memoirs give us a glimpse of the interplay between an
absolute ruler (in this case Reza Shah), who issues orders without consultation,
and the ruled, who must implement those orders regardless of their feasibly:
They would always place the train schedule before His Majesty so that he
could monitor whether the train left the station exactly on time and reached
the next station exactly on time. If the train deviated from the schedule,
[Reza Shah] would demand an explanation. Therefore, we had instructed the
locomotive driver to travel a little faster [en route] and to slow down
and pull the brakes and stop the train exactly on the minute as he reached
In the summer of 1943, the British and Soviet forces arrested Sharif-Emami
along with a number of political figures, military officers, journalists,
and employees of the Railroad Organization because of their alleged ties
to Germany. During his confinement, Sharif-Emami was able to establish
personal relations with many of his fellow prisoners. In the ensuing years,
these friendships were used for their mutual benefit.
After his release from detention, Sharif-Emami did not return to the
Railroad Organization. Instead, he was appointed director general of the
Irrigation Agency, a post that launched his political career. In his new
position, he came into official contact with top government officials,
including the monarch, Mohammad-Reza Shah.
Within four years Sharif-Emami was being considered for a cabinet post.
In June 1950, the new prime minister, General Haj-Ali Razmara, initially
appointed him acting minister and then minister of roads.
The assassination of Razmara in March of that year, changed the direction
of Sharif-Emami's career. The new prime minister, Hossein Ala, placed him
on the High Council of the newly created Plan Organization. In August 1953,
when the government of Mohammad Mossadegh was toppled, General Zahedi,
the new prime minister, promoted Sharif-Emami to managing director of the
Within three months, however, Sharif-Emami quit the Plan Organization
and decided to run for a seat in the Second Senate. According to election
laws of the time, candidates had to win elections in both phases of the
electoral process in order to become a senator. Phase one entailed election
of seventy-five candidates by the public. In phase two, fifteen senators
were selected from among the seventy-five candidates. Sharif-Emami, successful
through both phases, describes here the process established by the election
officials to ensure that the fifteen senators of their choice would come
out on top.
While in the Senate, Sharif-Emami took a leading role in opposing Prime
Minister Zahedi, bringing himself closer to the Shah who had become weary
of Zahedi's intentions. In April 1957, when Dr. Manouchehr Eghbal formed
a cabinet, he brought Sharif-Emami back to the executive branch by appointing
him minister of industries and mines. In this post, Sharif-Emami played
an important role in planting the seeds of Iran's private sector, giving
some legitimacy to his appointment later as president of the Iran Chamber
of Industries and Mines.
The years 1960 to 1963 were a prelude to the Revolution of 1979: the
economy had been mishandled, the United States was pressuring the Iranian
government to carry out reforms, the remnants of the National Front questioned
the legitimacy of the government, and students demonstrated. The Shah,
put on the defensive for the first time since 1953, responded by dismissing
the cabinet of Dr. Eghbal and replacing him with Jafar Sharif-Emami on
August 27, 1960. But Sharif-Emami, who lacked both domestic and foreign
support, was unable to deal with the looming economic and political crisis.
To placate the opposition and respond to U.S. pressure, the Shah appointed
Ali Amini as prime minister (1961-1962). Amini immediately launched a number
of initiatives including land reform and an anticorruption campaign. Sharif-Emami
was one of the targets of the campaign. Lacking the whole-hearted support
of the Shah and with waning U.S. support, Amini, too, could not govern
and was forced to resign.
At this stage the Shah appointed his trusted aide, Asadollah Alam, as
prime minister (1962-1964). Alam, fully supported by the Shah, used political
skill and military force to disarm the opposition. The single most serious
challenge he faced was the Fifteenth of Khordad uprising inspired by Ayatollah
Khomeini. He quelled the threat with the full power of the security forces
and as a result restored the supremacy of the Shah over other competing
elements, a feat similar to that of General Zahedi a decade earlier.
Once the status quo had been reestablished, Sharif-Emami was able to
reappear on the political stage. He was elected to the Fourth Senate as
member and chosen by the senators as president -- a positions he held for
the next fifteen years, until August 1978, when he was asked once again
to form a cabinet. Sharif-Emami's second opportunity as head of the executive
branch was even shorter than the first. He lasted only two months as the
revolutionary current became more forceful.
The monarchy fell on February 11, 1979. A few days before that, Sharif-Emami
left Iran, to take up exile in New York City. He lived there for nearly
twenty years and died there on June 16, 1998. He was buried in Kensico
Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
In his memoirs, Sharif-Emami discusses some of the reasons for the collapse
of the monarchy, one of which he believes was disregard for Iran's constitution.
Sharif-Emami holds that less attention was paid to the proper implementation
of the constitution during the later years of the reign of Mohammad-Reza
Shah than the earlier period. He asserts that the distribution of power
between the monarch and the three branches of government was gradually
changed in the Shah's favor.
Razmara as far as possible tried to discuss all issues in the council
of ministers because at that time  it was considered important for
the cabinet ministers to present their opinions and to offer advice before
signing government decrees. If they disagreed with the proposal, they were
to write "I disagree."
During Hoveida's era [1965-1977] many issues were not discussed in the
cabinet, each minister pursuing his own agenda [rather than acting collectively]
as the council. Decrees would be passed around and signed without discussion
or even a reading. However, in the earlier period, it was possible for
a decree to be discussed for two hours and either approved, rejected, or
revised. What I mean to say is that during the last years the situation
was such that the council of ministers was not involved in state affairs.
The issues of [the Ministry of] Post and Telegraph were the business
of its minister. The issues of the minister of finance were also his own.
They did not interfere very much in each other's affairs. This was a very
dangerous procedure and was against the constitution.
While in previous governments-both those that I led and those in which
I was a member-not only government bills, but also all cabinet decrees
had to be studied and it was possible that two or three ministers would
oppose it. Nevertheless, everyone had to sign the decrees. Those who were
opposed, would write, "I am opposed."
Sharif-Emami remembers Mohammad-Reza Shah as a patriotic leader deserving
of much respect. He does not, however, approve of the Shah's style of management.
Sharif-Emami says, "It was really too bad because he worked so hard
and strove so vigorously." However, to ensure his programs were implemented
his way, he did not give enough authority to his subordinates, nor did
he have sufficient confidence in them.
If he had granted greater authority to those in charge, he could have
questioned and dismissed them if they made mistakes. This is why over time
his control over the state diminished-was nearly lost. If one attends to
details, one loses a sense of the big picture. Unfortunately, His Majesty
made this mistake. Those who could occasionally advise him told him, "Your
Majesty, it is better if you do not meet with all the ministers. Do not
receive all of them. Do not attend to every detail. Spend your time on
major issues." To read excerpts from the book in Persian click
Notes on the Interview
Sharif-Emami's memoirs were recorded by me during three sessions lasting
a total of nine hours on May 13, 1982 and May 12 and 24, 1983 at his apartment
in New York City. Although I had met Mr. Sharif-Emami a number of times
before the Revolution, I had not seen him since then.
In April 1982, while in New York City, I obtained his telephone number
from a mutual acquaintance, called, and asked to see him. He invited me
to his home. He lived on the East Side in a modern building in which he
occupied an apartment on one of the top floors. At the initial meeting,
I told him about our project to collect the oral history of Iran and he
agreed to participate. He had certain conditions, however. He said, for
instance, "I'm not going to discuss personal matters relating to the
Shah or his sister." I said we wanted him to be comfortable with whatever
In early May 1982, I telephoned him again and arranged to go to his
apartment at 9:30 A.M., Thursday, May 13 to begin recording his memoirs.
All three recording sessions took place with the two of us alone in his
study. His study was furnished with a desk, a large sofa and a couple of
leather chairs. Facing the sofa was a bookcase filled with perhaps 100
to 150 books, mostly on Iran. Before we began recording his memoirs, he
told me that he had left nearly 11,000 books in his house in Tehran which,
along with the house, he had offered to give to the new government to be
designated as a public library. He had also offered certificates of deposits
in a Tehran bank, income from which was to be used to maintain the library.
He had sent this proposal to the Revolutionary Council through his wife
who was still in Tehran. The Council had accepted his gift and conditions,
according to Mr. Sharif-Emami, and the agreement had been implemented for
a few months before the books were transported to Qom and the house was
confiscated for other uses.
Mr. Sharif-Emami also spoke of having kept a diary for the preceding
thirty years, containing notes regarding various appointments in Iran and
meetings and discussions around the globe as president of the Senate and
prime minister. He was very dismayed that he had not brought these notes
out with him. He said, "I knew there was going to be a revolution,
but I didn't think the revolution was going to be so extensive as to affect
things such as my diary and memoirs-because I did have the chance to bring
them out but didn't think of it. And later when I wrote my daughter and
asked her to send these notes to me, she told me that during one of the
initial inspections of the house, the revolutionary guards had spotted
these notes because they were hand-written and had taken them." He
was wondering whether the notes were still available or whether they had
been thrown away or destroyed. This reminded me of similar regrets expressed
in his interview by Mr. Abolhassan Ebtehaj who had kept notes for decade-the
essence of his work and his meetings and his career which were no longer
available to him to use to write his memoirs.
Mr. Sharif-Emami told me that his daily routine consisted of going to
bed at midnight and waking up at 6 A.M. After reading the morning newspaper,
he would begin work in his study in the same serious way he had in Iran
prior to the revolution. Part of his day was spent learning Spanish. He
repeated what many other narrators had told me: the revolution had forced
him into retirement. Otherwise he would still be carrying on his long daily
Although I arrived at Mr. Sharif-Emami's apartment at 9:20 AM, we did
not begin recording his memoirs until a little after 10:00 AM, because
there was a lot he wished to say, some of which he subsequently repeated
on tape. Courtesy did not allow me to cut him short, although with body
language I attempted to steer us toward the beginning of the recording
session. At lunch he referred to this segment of the day as the "hors-d'oeuvre."
After we had recorded for about two hours, his son Ali, a graduate of
the Harvard Business School, arrived and the three of us went to an Italian
restaurant in the neighborhood for lunch. During lunch I asked Mr. Sharif-Emami
a number of questions which I hoped I could ask again on tape. These questions
included his role as the Grand Master of the Freemasons in Iran, his acquaintance
with Ayatollah Beheshti, his knowledge of the expulsion of Ayatollah Khomeini
from Iraq, the transfer of Pahlavi Foundation property in New York City
to the Islamic Republic, the Shah's financial ties to the Pahlavi Foundation,
and whether there had been a plan to assassinate Ayatollah Khomeini before
his return to Iran.
Mr. Sharif-Emami and I returned to his apartment after lunch. After
two more hours of tape had been recorded, I left the room for a few minutes.
When I returned to continue the interview, Mr. Sharif-Emami surprised me
by saying, "I think maybe we should end our meeting now. If you can
send me the transcripts as they are typed, I will go over them, add necessary
details and dates, and will elaborate wherever necessary and delete repetitions
to make it more coherent. I think I've been jumping from one topic to another
this afternoon." I tried to reassure him by telling him that moving
from one topic to another in an oral memoir is not a sign of disorganization.
It is the result of an interview process that brings forth material that
has long been forgotten. I told him a reading of other oral history transcripts
including those of American statesmen would show that it is common and
part of the nature of the process. Although I repeated this explanation
in several forms, it did not make the slightest impression on Mr. Sharif-Emami.
I have two hypotheses as to what happened. One is his own explanation,
that he felt uncomfortable with a tape that did not show him to be in control
of his narrative and that it was not as organized and sequential as he
wished. Therefore, he wanted perhaps to have an outline next time to help
him proceed chronologically and to stay within certain topics. A more plausible
reason could be that he felt he had gone too far in criticizing the former
regime during the last half hour of the interview. When he talked about
the active and responsible role of the Council of Ministers during Razmara's
tenure as prime minister (1950), I asked him to explain when and how the
role of the Council of Ministers had been diminished and why Iran's elder
statesmen had allowed the change to take place. In his response, Mr. Sharif-Emami
made some revealing statements about the Shah and his style of kingship.
He also said that the monarch's pride and ego had prevented him from consulting
the elder statesmen of Iran, such as himself.
As it turned out, I was unable to see Mr. Sharif-Emami again for a whole
year. Our second session took place on May 12, 1983, almost exactly a year
later. Our third and final session took place two weeks later on May 24,
1983. I was unable to schedule another appointment with Mr. Sharif-Emami
because he said he was busy writing his own memoirs. Consequently many
of my questions remained unanswered and detail of events beyond 1961 remained
with him. I have not seen his written autobiography, but I hope that he
has addressed many of the important questions in that manuscript. To
read excerpts from the book in Persian click