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Shah or president?
We should reject hereditary systems of government

March 14, 2001
The Iranian

Reading the articles and letters in favor or against the restoration of the monarchy in Iran, it seems many Iranians abroad are still flabbergasted by what happened in 1979. A quarter of a century after the ascent of Ayatollah Khomeini and his totalitarian theocracy, expatriates still air anti-shah rhetoric or feel nostalgia for a father-king. Yet recent history in Iran (and elsewhere) teaches us that there's more to a government than its appearance.

In January 1979 the all-powerful Shah left Iran with his family, dogs and riches, abandoning his country and leaving his loyal troops and closest aides in the hands of vengeful and backward mollas. Despite his lack of courage and the use of others as scapegoats, I bear no grudges against the Shah or the institution of the monarchy in general.

But as I think about the future of Iran, I find myself having no preference for a president or king, provided that neither are hereditary (recently North Korea and Syria have furnished examples of hereditary republics).

The history of Iranian monarchy (and for that matter other absolute monarchies) underlines the reign of some good and capable monarchs. But more often than not, their heirs proved incompetent and catastrophic. Reza Shah was certainly a great king, according to our domestic standards. But his son, after a period of good reforms, went haywire. Cyrus united Iranians and created a great and relatively tolerant empire. But Cambyse acted erratically. And so on .

We should, therefore, reject hereditary systems of government. But what about an elected king? Why not. Neither Cyrus nor Reza Shah were the sons of kings. If Reza Pahlavi possesses the ability of leading the country and believes in democracy, let him first get rid of sycophants and then seriously prepare to run for the position of Head of State through free elections.

True. No fallen Iranian dynasty has ever returned to the throne. But, to be sure, their members did not disappear from the scene. The Pahlavi administrations were studded with numerous Qajars. Even one of Reza Shah's wives was a Qajar princess. Many Sassanids ended up in the employ of Arab caliphs especially during the Abbassid reign. And according to legend, Imam Hossein married the daughter of Yazdegard.

Actually, even in a constitutional monarchy, the hereditary system often turns out to be noxious. Look at the the members of the British royal family. They are constantly surrounded by scandal. Nowadays, the only useful purpose of kings and queens and their siblings seems to boil down to furnishing fodder to tabloids, scandal sheets, and television gossip programs.

The real problem facing Iran is not choosing between monarchy or republic. The problem is how to reject theocracy and backwardness before it is too late. For 22 years I have been obsessed with this basic problem which I have tackled in articles and books. I have tried to preach unity among the opposition abroad.

I have tried to help monarchists, despite my personal feelings toward the late Shah -- because of the way he treated my brother. (*) I have encouraged them to start some kind of action. Indeed, contrary to what the mollas and leftist opponents of the Shah still believe, what happened in the past was not all bad. In fact a lot of good things were achieved.

I also tried to encourage Shah-era high-ranking civil servants to evaluate Iran's progress during the 1960s and 1970s and assess why things went wrong. I thought a critical look at the Shah's regime and ourselves would help the younger generation understand what went on and what mistakes were made.

But many have equated such an exercise to "spitting upward" (tof-e sarbaalaa). I have told them that "tof-e sarbaalaa" is in fact valuable self-criticism. To no avail! Many refuse to look at the past with a critical eye. Nevertheless, I have continued to write.

Meanwhile I have received some letters of encouragement. I have also received some insulting ones, calling me things like "traitor" and "American spy". Actually, some of the letters published in are intolerant, full of insults, even blood-thirsty. They remind me of the fanaticism of the mollas (read for instance what Ayatollah Montazeri recently revealed about his teacher's thirst for blood.). I wonder if we will ever learn civility.

In any case, I think we should go beyond discussions about the external form of a future government and concentrate instead on the necessity of building democratic institutions.

* Fereydoun Hoveyda's brother, former prime minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda, was imprisoned in the final months of the monarchy and executed after the revolution.


Fereydoun Hoveyda was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from 1971 to 1978. To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web site.

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