Reflections on Sir David Frost's interview
December 14, 2004
"25 years after the Shah of Iran fell from
Sir David Frost started his breakfast show on BBC1 TV this past
will be talking to his widow, Queen Farah about the events that
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
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
The image of defeat provides a contrast to the next
film showing a proud and confident Shah standing amidst the ruins
the majestic symbol of Iran's monarchical heritage. It
is the 1970s and David Frost looks much younger with his loose
and long hair. The imperial Shah is immaculate in a striped suit
and dark tie, his silver hair accentuated by the sunshine. They
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."
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.
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
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
Shahbanou as the empress is known among her compatriots,
is sitting on a yellow sofa. She is wearing a grey-blue suit with
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
the scales of Libra. On her lapel is a tiny flag of Iran,
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.
is a film of the wedding of the Shah and the Shahbanou on
December 21st 1959. Then a short piece of the October 1967
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.
Farah, now in her early sixties, appears dignified and relaxed.
I have seen her excellent interviews on French
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
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
An Enduring Love: My life with the Shah, but not once does
she or the interviewer mention it. It is already a bestseller
has been published in French, English (copies graced the
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 Empress is in a more reflective, even
resigned mood. She admits that in hindsight many errors were
made and that
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!"
is a matter of time before Sir David has brought up the two
demons often associated with the Shah's regime and most
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.
opinion everything has to be placed in its proper context
such as Iran's proximity to the Soviet Union during the Cold
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
"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
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."
find myself sharing those sentiments. History has no place
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
and future actions. But the memories are painful.
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
brought down the Shah: mobs shouting, soldiers opening fire,
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
[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
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]
of us no matter whom we are relative to our position."
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
from exile. Less than two weeks earlier the Shah and the
Shahbanou had flown away from this very same Mehrabad airport.
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
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.
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
today the same people who wrote or said about this supposedly
billions think about the corruption that exists today in
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
"This is the most undesirable thing to happen," says the
Empress, shaking her head in a warning gesture.
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
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,
conclude. "Thank you very much indeed for being with
us today. Many thanks."
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