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English breakfast
Reflections on Sir David Frost's interview with Farah Pahlavi

Cyrus Kadivar
December 14, 2004

"25 years after the Shah of Iran fell from power," Sir David Frost started his breakfast show on BBC1 TV this past Sunday, "I will be talking to his widow, Queen Farah about the events that caused her husband to flee, in fact the whole family, to flee Tehran in [January] 1979 and about the Shah's former allies who shunned them when the couple were forced into exile..."

A short film is run. Although it has been replayed many times before, the scene is unforgettably tragic. The Shah and Empress Farah are leaving Iran for the last time. From the palace to the airport there are emotional scenes: loyal officers (soon to be executed by revolutionary firing squads) and tearful members of a disintegrating court, bending down to kiss the emperor's hands and feet. The serene empress clad in a fur coat appears in control, smiling and shaking hands, before glancing at her husband, his face awash with tears.

The image of defeat provides a contrast to the next film showing a proud and confident Shah standing amidst the ruins of Persepolis, the majestic symbol of Iran's monarchical heritage. It is the 1970s and David Frost looks much younger with his loose clothes and long hair. The imperial Shah is immaculate in a striped suit and dark tie, his silver hair accentuated by the sunshine. They are speaking English.

The English journalist has just asked the serious-faced monarch what he considers to be the common bond uniting the Iranian people. "I think it is the crown, the king," the emperor replies in a soft, but firm voice. There is an awkward moment, as Frost ponders his next question, but only manages to say: "Which is you?"

The Shah looking uncomfortable takes a deep breath and with a sigh says: "At this moment yes, but this is an institution which is accepted and very deeply rooted in our people."

"That makes it quite a heavy burden," says Frost. "Sometimes yes," the Shah replies. "As I've said before, there was a certain [the Shah is feeling the heat of the desert as he raises his hand to wipe the sweat off his forehead] period in my life when it was really very, very heavy."

Monarch and journalist are walking along a carpet of green. It must be spring for even the mountains in the backdrop are covered in grass. The Shah's voice continues: "Now things have changed." The film ends with both men strolling among the ruins dwarfed by the carved stones representing what is left of the gates of nations and the tall Achaemenid columns.

"Within months the Shah was forced to flee Iran," say Frost, now an older and wiser figure. "I interviewed the Shah again in exile in Panama in January 1980 and then he died six months later in Egypt. At his side throughout the whole of the last 21 years of his life was his empress, Farah Pahlavi and she joins me now... "

Watching this program I am also reminded of the Panama interview. Frost who had known the Shah in his days of power (he made several documentaries on Iran in the 1970s) could not hide his own emotions faced with the broken emperor who still seemed unable to comprehend the forces that had driven him from power. Now, almost a quarter-of-a-century later, Sir David greets the Shah's widow with a polite: "Very good to have you here."

"Good Morning, thank you for inviting me." The voice is sweet and somewhat raspy. Her dark eyes are glistening with tears. The Shahbanou as the empress is known among her compatriots, is sitting on a yellow sofa. She is wearing a grey-blue suit with a purple shirt opening at the collar. Her auburn hair is tied elegantly back, held together by a black ribbon. She is wearing almost no jewellery: a pair of gold earrings and a delicate necklace with the scales of Libra. On her lapel is a tiny flag of Iran, a reminder of the land she left behind.

There is a brief evocation of happier days: falling in love with the Shah, marriage, and the birth of Crown Prince Reza. There is a film of the wedding of the Shah and the Shahbanou on December 21st 1959. Then a short piece of the October 1967 coronation with all the splendour of the Pahlavi court displayed at the Gholestan Palace. Other shorties including the salaam ceremonies in 1977 with the royal couple and their glittering court.

Empress Farah, now in her early sixties, appears dignified and relaxed. I have seen her excellent interviews on French television where she is more at home with the language and place. The BBC's role during the fall of Reza Shah in 1941 and Mohammed Reza Shah in 1979 is a shared belief among many Iranians. I wonder if the Empress feels the same?

One feels she has so much to say and yet how can one say it all in just fifteen minutes. She has recently published her memoirs: An Enduring Love: My life with the Shah, but not once does she or the interviewer mention it. It is already a bestseller and has been published in French, English (copies graced the flowery window display at Hatchard's bookshop on Picadilly for several weeks in March 2004), Persian and several other languages.

"I think looking back," Sir David's voice resonating on TV, "the Shah overestimated the power which the king had over the people and underestimated the power that the mullahs had?"

The Empress is in a more reflective, even resigned mood. She admits that in hindsight many errors were made and that perhaps looking back 25 years things could have been managed better. "It was a mistake from our part and the government and the mistakes of the people in the streets and many in opposition who thought that Khomeini who had promised them Paradise would have given them Paradise. Unfortunately he opened the door to Hell!"

It is a matter of time before Sir David has brought up the two demons often associated with the Shah's regime and most probably exaggerated by his opponents and Western critics: Savak (the secret police of the imperial regime) and corruption. There is also the question of the Shah's isolation in a country where people do not dare to tell the truth to an absolute monarch. "I suppose you were the only person who could tell the Shah the truth?" he says.

"It is possible that around every power there are people who want to give only the good news," the Shahbanou replies. In her opinion everything has to be placed in its proper context such as Iran's proximity to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the role of the religious fanatics (no mention of the communists). She acknowledges that she and the Shah's regime failed to see some of the dissatisfaction that brought about the ultimate downfall.

"But, having said that, when you look back into the last 25 years," she says determined to balance the picture, "I can not stop myself comparing what was the situation of Iran 25 years ago, what was the situation in the Middle East and what would have happened if the revolution didn't happen. And I think really that with all the shortcomings that we had, such as any other country or any other regime we didn't need such a horrible revolution."

I find myself sharing those sentiments. History has no place for "What if's" and yet the regret of watching Iran's lamentable image and destiny ruined by an irresponsible theocracy is a source of great regret. We can not turn back the clock and perhaps many lessons have been learnt. And yet, the past explains our present and future actions. But the memories are painful.

Frost has another question. It is one that may contain a moral lesson. "Did you feel betrayed in that last year, year-and-a-half, when you'd been ousted from Iran and the US and President Carter and the others didn't really give you the support that you'd thought you'd earned?"

The Empress sighs heavily. "Well, Sir David, it was a very difficult time. Sometimes unbearable." As she speaks there are some troubling images of the revolutionary violence that brought down the Shah: mobs shouting, soldiers opening fire, people running in different directions, some wounded men carried on the shoulders of other fellow demonstrators, etc.

"We had to survive," she says. "I had to survive for my husband, for my children and dignity. You know for foreign politics and powers they are after what they think is their national interest. [Scenes of rebels carrying pictures of Khomeini and a demonstrator holding a white banner reading: Shah Raft! Shah is Gone!]. After all a government had changed."

"At the same time we received a lot of supporting words from simple people that kept us going on [scenes of the royal couple arriving in Aswan where they are welcomed by President Sadat]. "I consider that life is a struggle [a scene of the Shah looking very ill in Panama with an anxious Empress Farah beside him] for all of us no matter whom we are relative to our position."

There is a footage of Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran in February 1979 surrounded by nervous members of the Iranian air force security team and the Air France pilot who flew him back from exile. Less than two weeks earlier the Shah and the Shahbanou had flown away from this very same Mehrabad airport. Soon a bloodbath would be unleashed upon Iran.

And what about the myth of the stolen billions? Sir David recalls how when he was interviewing the Shah in Contadora Island the Khomeini regime was accusing the Pahlavi family of having left Iran with $176billion. "I presume that was not true?" he says with a chuckle.

"Of course it was not true," Empress Farah says. She is almost laughing at such a ludicrous suggestion. "It is all the propaganda of the regime and also of the opposition. The King was a patriot, he loved his country above all and its people. I must assure you that people now realise that it was all propaganda. I hope that today the same people who wrote or said about this supposedly billions think about the corruption that exists today in Iran!"

The interview is drawing to an end. "Finally," asks Sir David, "would you like George Bush, President Bush, to do in Iran what he has done in Iraq, and go in and have a regime change?"
"This is the most undesirable thing to happen," says the Empress, shaking her head in a warning gesture.

Her words now carry a deep message to anyone who is listening. "Iranians, I think are really desperate for change, desperate for freedom and democracy. And I am sure that with the help of the Iranian people inside and outside of Iran, and with the help, moral help of the freedom loving people of the world, the Iranian people will reach democracy and freedom."

Sir David will probably have more to say to the Shahbanou after the program before she leaves the studio. For now, he must conclude. "Thank you very much indeed for being with us today. Many thanks."

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The Persian Sphinx
Amir-Abbas Hoveyda and the Riddle of the Iranian Revolution
by Abbas Milani
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