Consider the facts
Prognosis for a return of kings
By Manoutchehr M. Eskandari-Qajar
Decembeer 28, 2001
The subject of my talk today* is the question of the possibility and
probability of a "return of kings" in parts of the Middle East
that used to be monarchies but are so no more. I particularly want to illustrate
the cases of Iran and Afghanistan in this context, because of the recent
focus on these two countries in the media.
However, the question of a return of kings could also be expanded to
include other Middle Eastern and North African countries that would both
fit the description of former monarchies, as well as that of being candidates
for a return of monarchy given the nature of their present regimes. Iraq,
Egypt and Libya particularly come to mind here, as does Turkey.
I defended the thesis of the viability of constitutional monarchies as
alternatives to the universal acceptance of Western style republics in an
earlier talk at this college in the Spring of 1999. My talk today is not
a repetition of that defense, but rather an application of the logic behind
The title of this talk, "A Return of Kings? Alternative Outcomes
for the Middle East", suggested itself from the title of an article
by Michael Rubin that appeared in The Telegraph of London, on October
11 of this year. Michael Rubin is now a visiting scholar at Washington Institute
for Near East Policy, and in his article he presented several arguments
for the return of monarchy to Afghanistan and Iran.
I found it welcome and apropos, especially in light of the fact that
he is defending this thesis in Washington to an audience that needs to hear
it from someone not obviously connected to the monarchist or Middle Eastern
point of view. Let me begin with a few questions that will set the tone
for our brief examination this afternoon. The first question is: Why Iran
and Afghanistan as special cases and why now?
The obvious answer is that Iran and Afghanistan were monarchies before
the advent of their current regimes, and that these two are countries that
are experiencing tremendous pressures for change, both from within and from
In the case of Afghanistan the pressure -- as everyone knows -- is military.
In the case of Iran, the pressures are ideological and political. Iran has
a full-fledged reform movement operating from within the system and a sizable,
vocal and well-organized opposition outside the country. Prominent in that
opposition has been the heir to the Pahlavi throne, Reza Pahlavi.
Less obvious than this first answer is the answer that the future of
both countries has been openly discussed in the media and other circles
in terms of a search for alternatives to which America, the West, the UN,
or a combination thereof, would give support and encouragement. And this
last fact is of tremendous importance here.
What distinguishes these two countries right now from the many others
that would qualify as former Middle Eastern monarchies, is that the "world"
seems to be ready to entertain a change of regime for both, possibly in
the direction of constitutional monarchy. A fact that was not true even
as recently as a year ago.
The next question is: Why constitutional monarchy? Why not republics
or some other form of government that might suit the people of these two
countries better than monarchy? After all monarchy was a form of government
they both experienced but rejected in 1973 in Afghanistan and 1979 in Iran?
Of course forming republics is always a possibility for any country that
transitions successfully from authoritarianism to democracy, and it certainly
seems to be the one alternative Westerners are most easily drawn to, given
their own preference and prejudice for that system over others.
But, is there room for a different outcome that might be just as suitable
to the people concerned and also acceptable in principle to a West that,
for better or worse, is an arbiter of the appropriateness of forms of government
the world over?
I think so, and there is more and more evidence that I may be right on
this, whether or not in the end, constitutional monarchy will in fact be
the regime that prevails, when all is said and done, in the transitions
under way both in Afghanistan and in Iran today.
Consider this fact: All the warring parties in Afghanistan united in
a coalition against the Taliban, and now assembled at the peace conference
near Bonn, Germany, have endorsed the exiled king Zahir Shah as the next
titular head of Afghanistan. Added to this is, from all reports, a sizable
support for the same from the people of Afghanistan, who liked their king,
but were forced to part with him by a palace coup masterminded by his brother-in-law
Mohammad Daud Khan that led them down the road to misery from 1973 until
Consider this fact as well: After 22 years of Islamic revolutionary rule
and a generation grown up with practically no memory of the previous regime,
recent demonstrations in Tehran and other major cities in Iran called for
Reza Pahlavi's return as a serious and positive alternative to the dead
end that the theocratic government of Iran is. This from a population that
is over 60% under the age of 25 and has, for the most part, access to world
news and events through satellite TVs and radios and the internet, and thus
is aware of alternatives and has not been shy in calling for them.
Also, Iran's theocratic hard-liners, the actual power behind the scene,
have vehemently opposed the return of Zahir Shah as an alternative to Afghanistan,
on the grounds that the opening of such a possibility would imply that there
was a similar possibility of such an occurrence for Iran. In other words,
"people might get ideas".
Iran's ally among the "Northern Alliance" in Afghanistan is
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and he is poised to ensure that such an alternative
will not become reality , not so much for Afghanistan's sake but specifically
for Iran's sake. So, if Afghanistan is taking the return of kings' alternative
very seriously, shouldn't we?
Consider this, lastly. Both Zahir Shah and Reza Pahlavi have in recent
months managed to present their platforms to the world and have managed
to get a fair and supportive hearing from the country that matters most
in terms of Middle Eastern politics today, the United States. Zahir Shah
has been openly and strongly endorsed by the U.S. administration. Reza Pahlavi
has not yet received any open endorsement from this administration.
However, given the war on terrorism and the search for alternative outcomes
in the Middle East, Reza Pahlavi is the only force to constitute such an
alternative when America's search light will finally shine on Iran's hardliners
as chief culprits in the sponsorship of terrorism in the Middle East and
Given also that the Iranian people, almost with one voice, oppose the
continuation of the clerical regime in Iran, when the time comes, Reza Pahlavi's
alternative might in fact be the only viable alternative left in Iran's
empty political arena, emptied by the tireless and brutal efforts of the
Iranian hard-line mollas.
Now, what about the obvious objections: Why should people choose monarchy
when they could choose a republic instead? And why choose monarchy when
monarchy only has negative connotations everywhere we look?
Well, for one thing, both these points are wrong when it comes to Afghanistan.
The Afghanis are freely choosing a return of their monarch over the alternative
of a republic because that is part of their tradition and that tradition
has worked well for them in the past. Secondly, the experience of constitutional
monarchy they had under Zahir Shah was by all standards a positive and healthy
The institution of monarchy responded to Afghanistan's tradition of a
patriarchal system and that of the need for a paramount chief or elder over
the various tribes who could unite them and give them an Afghani identity
and loyalty beyond their immediate tribal and ethnic one. It also responded
to a need of the Afghani population to adopt the benefits of secularism
and modernity without simultaneously negating the deep-rooted values of
tradition and religion; values without which that country could not survive.
The religion of Islam is an indispensable ingredient of daily life in
the Middle East, but only constitutional monarchies have managed to keep
religion and religious values alive while also allowing modernity to take
root, side by side and in harmony. (I speak of modernity here both in social
and economic terms, but also in political terms. Politically, modernity,
of course, means democracy and democratic values.) Every other system in
the Middle East has failed in this balancing act and has created tensions
that have taken those countries often to the brink and to the breaking point.
Now with regard to Iran, why should people choose monarchy for Iran today
when they could choose a republic instead? For Iran that may indeed be a
plausible objection and the possibility may be a distinct one, that Iranians,
given the chance through a referendum of some sort, might indeed not choose
monarchy over republic.
However, I contend that if they do so, they might do so more out of reflex
than reflection, and that this, in great part, has to do with 1) the propaganda
of the last twenty years, and 2) the very real memory of a bad marriage
under the absolute monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah, the father of Reza Pahlavi.
And this point also addresses the second objection: "Why choose monarchy
when monarchy only has negative connotations," especially in Iran.
It is true, monarchy as an institution and a form of government has not
done a very good job at presenting itself to world in the best possible
light. Part of it, of course has to with the very real legacy of excess
that monarchy has to live with as part of its history, but part of it simply
has to do with the fact that monarchy has not presented itself well to the
world as a democratic form of government -- yes, democratic form of government
-- as constitutional monarchy.
Now, it is true that Iran has indeed, in recent memory, had a bad encounter
with monarchy, when Mohammad Reza Shah became more and more absolutist in
his rule in the last two decades of his reign. His son would be the first
one to accept and acknowledge that. This said, however, let us look at the
facts of absolute monarchy under the late Shah and compare them to the absolute
rule under the revolutionary regime of the last twenty years!
We must engage in this comparison because those who oppose monarchy,
even of the constitutional kind, make reference to absolute monarchy of
the past and drag up its balance sheet and hold it up in admonition. Well,
in that comparison, Iran pre-1979 looks like paradise compared to the nightmare
Iran has become since.
Iran went from being one of the most modern countries in the Middle East,
socially and economically speaking, to being one of the most backward and
repressive in the Middle East, socially, economically and politically. It
would be impossible to make post-revolutionary Iran look better than pre-revolutionary
Iran to any one but the most die-hard supporters of the revolution.
However, pre-revolutionary Iran could have been better if it had remained
a constitutional monarchy, as it was under the Qajars early in the century,
and as it was for a brief period under the Pahlavis, from 1941 to 1953.
Today,the alternative of constitutional monarchy is offering that vision
for Iran again: A monarch who would symbolically lead, represent and unite
but not rule, and a people who would govern themselves through their elected
Would Iran be better off with a constitutional monarchy than with a republic
or a continuation of a theocratic regime? The answer is yes on both scores.
Better off than a republic because monarchy, as I said earlier, can provide
for Iran the right balance between secularism, tradition and religion that
republic cannot, and better off than theocracy because rule by priests is
an aberration within the Islamic tradition, and particularly the Iranian
Islamic tradition; an aberration that had to be invented by the theoretician
of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.
The consequences of that invention are obvious to observers everywhere
as they face the question: "Whither the Middle East" in the post-Taliban
era. But what could we say to win over the most reticent nay-sayers in this
crowd who might reply: "Well, what is the evidence of any monarchy
returning to power after a revolution and what is the evidence of any success
of a such return even if it were possible?"
To this we could answer that three monarchs have returned to power after
being removed from power by political events ranging from coups to revolutions,
two of them as constitutional monarchs and one of them as an elected prime-minister.
The cases I am referring to are Spain, Cambodia, and most recently, Bulgaria,
where King Simeon returned to Bulgaria as the elected head of government.
The case of Bulgaria is still too recent to evaluate, but that of Spain
and Cambodia is an unquestioned success.
Even in the most cynical circles admission has been made that in these
two cases monarchy has served their respective countries well. Now what
about the Middle East, do we have any such examples there. No, not yet.
We do not yet have any kings returning from exile, but we have had three
peaceful transitions from quasi autocratic rule to more constitutional rule
in the Middle East in the last two years, in Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco.
And so far all three with good balance sheets in terms of democratic progress
and maintenance of traditional values.
Lastly, there is one alternative we have not considered yet, but one
that was intimated with the mention of King Simeon's case in Bulgaria. This
alternative is that of a return of kings to Iran and Afghanistan, as former
kings only; as simple citizens or as officials of republican forms of government
in the manner of King Simeon's return, who now occupies the position of
elected prime minister of Bulgaria and leader of the majority faction in
There is a distinct possibility of that for both Iran and Afghanistan.
For Afghanistan, the possibility was reinforced in the preliminary declaration
worked out in Germany this week, giving Zahir Shah a ceremonial role until
the convening of the loya jirga or great assembly, which would decide the
matter of what form of government with finality.
For Iran the possibility exists, as I have already mentioned, that in
a referendum, the people might indeed not choose constitutional monarchy
for fear of resuscitating a Frankenstein. That is a possibility one has
to contend with. A case must be made for constitutional monarchy over republics,
there is no question about that. People might not choose constitutional
monarchies automatically, but they would do well if they did so, at least
that is my reasoned contention.
Given this assessment, what is the prognosis for a return of kings? I
think a very good one, and if I am right on this, I might yet have another
lecture here on this campus, on the topic of monarchy, informing you on
the progress of my favored form of government.
* A lecture titled "A Return of Kings? Alternative Outcomes for
the Middle East", delivered at Santa Barbara Community College, December