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Consider the facts
Prognosis for a return of kings

By Manoutchehr M. Eskandari-Qajar
Decembeer 28, 2001
The Iranian

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 it.

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 without.

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 now.

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 beyond.

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 one.

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 representatives

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 its parliament.

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 6, 2001.

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